Saturday, July 16, 2016

Best Hockey Players to Play for Las Vegas

With the announcement that the NHL's thirty-first team, which will be added for the 17/18 season, is based in none other than Las Vegas, Nevada, I've decided to celebrate some of Sin City's hockey history with this list. From 1993 through 99, the now defunct IHL included the Las Vegas Thunder, a short-lived team to be sure, but one that had quite a lot of interesting players, including many NHL fans are familiar with. For six seasons the Thunder were a mixed bag but always entertaining. They were arguably the first team to prove that professional hockey in the desert could indeed work.

From the outspoken and frequent Off The Record guest, enforcer Lyndon Byers (31 games and 176 penalty minutes in 93/94) to high scoring minor league defenceman ace (and former Cape Breton Oiler) Greg Hawgood (a 20 goal, 85 point season in 95/96) to diminutive NHL scorer Daniel Briere (a single game during the team's 97/98 season), the Thunder boasted lots of noteworthy and interesting talent. Brent Gretzky represented Vegas at one time (96/97) and so did longtime Detroit Red Wings goalie Manny Legace, several years before reaching the NHL (97/98) and sharing the net with former Red Wings goalie, Tim Cheveldae. And how about Manon Rheaume? Remember her? The female goaltender who once played an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning? Well, she played two actual-for-serious regular season games for the Thunder in 1994.

But enough with the honourable mentions/shoutouts (and honestly, there could be more; for more on the team's history follow this link); let's get to the best.

5. Petr Nedved, LW (1997-99)/Curtis Joseph, G (95/96)
He doesn't want anyone to know he played there, I guess
In terms of sheer talent and career, Nedved would rank higher if he hadn't been limited to just 16 games spread over the 97/98 and 98/99 seasons. After leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins due to a contract dispute following the conclusion of the 96/97 NHL season, Nedved returned to his native Czech Republic to play for Sparta Praha. But he would return to North America towards the end of the season, still unhappy with his NHL contract but still technically Pittsburgh property, to join the Thunder for three games. He acquitted himself very well, scoring 3 goals and 6 points but he didn't suit up for their playoff series. All summer his contract status with the Penguins went unresolved so he began the next season in Las Vegas, racking up 18 points in 13 games before being traded from the Penguins to the New York Rangers for Alex Kovalev.

The second overall pick of the 1990 NHL draft and a veteran of 982 NHL games, Nedved is easily one of the higher profile players to play for the Thunder.

The same rules apply to Joseph - heck, he could even be number one on this list if he'd played more games but as he started just 15, I've decided to have him share this slot with Nedved. And just like Nedved, it was a contract dispute that landed Joseph, certainly an NHL star in his own right, in Las Vegas. He played like one too, going 12, 2 and 1 with a sparkling .929 save percentage and miniscule 1.99 goals against average before returning to the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. Cujo was definitely the most talented and accomplished man to ever guard the net in Las Vegas.

4. Sergei Zholtok, C (1995-97)
Zholtok is one of several one-time Las Vegas Thunder players to meet a premature and tragic end. During the NHL lockout year of 2004/05, he was playing in his native Latvia for Riga 2000 in the Latvian National  Hockey Championship and the Open Belarus Hockey Championship when he left a game with five minutes remaining, collapsing in the dressing room and dying. He had a pre-existing cardiac arrhythmia and ultimately died of heart failure. He was thirty-one years old.

But back when his professional career was in its early stages, the Boston Bruins draft pick (55th in 1992) would move from the AHL with Providence (the Bruins's AHL farm team) in the 94/95 season to the IHL to play for the Thunder. He played every game of the 95/96 season with them and established himself as a star in the league, scoring 51 goals and 101 points and adding 20 points in 15 playoff games.

He would begin the 96/97 season again in Las Vegas, scoring 13 goals and 27 points in 19 games before returning to the NHL (he'd played sparingly for the Bruins a few years before) as an Ottawa Senator. He would go on to be an NHL regular, also playing for the Canadiens, Oilers, Wild and Predators until his untimely death. He's probably the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Latvia besides Sandis Ozolinsh.

His 95/96 season in Las Vegas is one of the greatest offensive seasons in the team's history - only one other player had a 50 goal season for them and only two others managed 100 points in one, including his teammate Patrice Lefebvre.

3. Radek Bonk, C (1993-95)
In its day (1945-2001), the IHL was an interesting league. It coexisted alongside the AHL, providing the same function (farm system for NHL teams) and containing players of basically the same skill level. I'm not sure when the rule was implemented but at least during the period that the Las Vegas Thunder was in operation, players under eighteen years of age were eligible to play. Nowadays in the AHL, no underage players are permitted and even eighteen and nineteen year olds are extraordinarily rare due to the current rules. It's led to the awkward problem of North American players who have proven ridiculously dominant in the CHL (Canada's three major junior leagues) but may not be quite ready to play in the best professional league in the world (um, the NHL) having no choice but to return to junior even though it's unlikely to help their development.

Anyway, I mentioned all that because this entry, Radek Bonk (one of the best names in sports, right?), was one of the IHL's such players - a seventeen year old foreign import who was talented and physically mature enough to play pro, but, as the NHL draft is for eighteen year olds, couldn't yet play on the biggest stage. He signed with the Thunder for their inaugural season and was an instant sensation. He finished third on the team in scoring with 87 points, including 42 goals. He even wore the flashy #76 (worn by the likes of P.K. Subban in the NHL these days) for them; a far cry from his #14 with the Sens.

But the statistic I find most interesting about that year was his penalty minute total - 208 - that's in the range of an extremely physical player and in Bonk's case, a power forward who scores. That stat line is akin to players like Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts and Rick Tocchet. But here's the thing - if you knew Bonk from his days in the NHL, you'd remember him as a fairly mild mannered player. Even though he was 6'3 and around 215 pounds, in the NHL at least, he wasn't particularly physical at all and his PIM totals reflect that. His career high in the league is 66 - a very average amount.

Not having seen him play for the Thunder and since I can't really find much info on his season there, I can only theorize that Bonk's status as a hotshot seventeen year old who was also quite big caused his IHL opponents to take it upon themselves to challenge him physically. You don't put up over 200 penalty minutes without fighting. I can't recall him EVER fighting in the NHL but it must've happened at least a couple times.

So Bonk's awesome season led directly to him being drafted third overall by the Senators in the 94 draft. He likely would've jumped straight to the NHL the next year but a lockout delayed the 94/95 season and he played his first 37 games back in Vegas. We all know now that he never turned into the dominant star player he was envisioned to be but he was definitely one of Ottawa's most consistent and reliable players over the near decade that he played for them. He established himself as a good second line player with some scoring ability, topping out at 70 points in 01/02, but most years he was more in the range of 45 or so.

While he's most remembered as a solid if unspectacular player in the NHL, for the Las Vegas Thunder, he was one of their very best and brightest stars.

2. Pavol Demitra, LW (1996/97)
While most of his brief IHL career was spent with another franchise, the Grand Rapids Griffins (who shifted into the AHL when the IHL folded), Demitra's 22 game stint in Las Vegas in 96/97 can't be overlooked. Because...well, it's Pavol Demitra. As with Sergei Zholtok, Demitra is tragically no longer with us. One of the most talented and accomplished Slovakian players of all time, he was killed in September of 2011 along with the rest of his Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (KHL) teammates in a plane crash.

Like Bonk, Demitra was an Ottawa Senators draft pick, but he was at the other end of the spectrum, going 227th overall in 1993. He never really found his footing with the Sens but after playing in the IHL with the Thunder and Griffins, he joined the St. Louis Blues and soon developed into a star player. On the international stage, he was always one of Slovakia's best and most prominent players. This was punctuated nicely at the 2010 Olympics where he was named Best Forward after leading the tournament in points.

A brief teammate of his in Las Vegas was Belrussian defenceman, Ruslan Salei, who also carved out a very respectable NHL career. But unfortunately, that wasn't their only link. Salei was also a member of Yaraslav Lokomtiv  in 2011 and was killed in the crash as well. So that's three former Las Vegas Thunder players I'm aware of who died prematurely.

1. Alexei Yashin, C (94/95)
By now it's pretty clear that the Ottawa Senators are the NHL team with the strongest link to Las Vegas. That's all going to change in a year but the history will always be interesting. Like Bonk, Yashin was a top three pick at the NHL draft (1992 this time) for Ottawa but unlike Bonk, proved right away he was a genuine star at the NHL level. It's only because of the lockout in 1994 that a player of his calibre wound up playing for the Thunder. He and Bonk were actually teammates that year so right off the bat Bonk got to meet the guy who would keep him from being a number one centre in the NHL.

And while I could probably devote several lists to Yashin based on the kind of career he's had, mostly due to the reputation he would develop as an underachiever whose heart didn't match up to his talent, in Vegas he pretty much delivered. In the only 24 games he would ever spend at the minor league level, Yashin showcased his all-world skills, racking up 15 goals and 35 points. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the 94/95 NHL season did eventually start and their Russian star returned to the big league so they were without him down the stretch and for the playoffs.

With 781 points in 850 NHL games (an impressive total especially
considering he sat out the entire 99/00 NHL season with a contract dispute right smack in the middle of his most productive years), I think it's safe to say the enigmatic and sometimes frustrating Yashin was the greatest hockey talent to ever play in service of the city of Las Vegas. With the NHL about to put a team there I guess that won't be true for much longer. But you never know.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Looking Forward to E3 2016

I'd just like to start this list by saying I'm writing it because I don't want to break tradition, but this has to be the worst year for E3 speculation and anticipation in a long while. I initially started to get into the hype, as per usual, but that was short-lived. The big three companies - Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft - have been pretty good to quell any sort of backlash or anger by fans who might be anticipating games or news that won't be forthcoming at this year's expo. As a result, there is a definite lack of wild expectation surrounding the event, which in my opinion is half the fun!

The long and short of it is that Sony and Microsoft will probably announce new "slim" versions of their current consoles for a lower price point as well as more powerful versions, which will support virtual reality attachments. Hopefully they have some new game announcements, but for the most part it looks like they'll give updated information on games they've already announced. Nintendo is not showing their new console, codenamed NX, and is only showing a handful of games that we already knew about. It doesn't leave a lot to write about!

Here are a few games that I'm excited to hear news about at this year's expo. A lot of them were already announced and some were teased at the last E3, but will most likely feature prominently this year, as well.

5. ReCore

Keiji Inafune isn't very popular with gamers these days. After several delays surrounding his Mega Man-inspired Mighty No. 9 and a few suspect Kickstarter campaigns, most fans are speaking his name with much disdain at the moment.

That said, I think just about anyone who saw the teaser for ReCore at last year's E3 are still looking forward to the game. In development by Inafune's Comcept and Armature Studios - a company created by Retro Studios alumni - the game is being developed for Xbox One and looks very promising.

From last year's E3 teaser, the game appears to be a 3D puzzle platformer. The protagonist, a unnamed female character, uses weapons and a grappling hook to pull "cores" out of robot enemies, either destroying or de-powering them. She is accompanied by a robotic dog and, from what the teaser trailer suggests, you can pull the core out of the dog and place it in other robot bodies, which can then be controlled.

The graphics and style of the trailer, coupled with what appears to be interesting gameplay, make me excited to see more of ReCore at E3 this year. Really, all we've seen is a video and no real gameplay at this point.

Inafune is producing the game, while Armature - reponsible for games like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (as Retro Studios), and the upcoming Vita and Wii U ports of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night - will be developing the game. It looks like a refreshing title in a world of bland first person shooters and will hopefully garner lots of positive attention at this years show.

4. Final Fantasy VII Remake

There certainly hasn't been a real lack of news surrounding Square Enix's remake of what is considered their most popular game of all time, Final Fantasy VII. The game was initially teased at last year's E3 and since then there's been a trickling of news; some gameplay was shown at the 2015 Playstation Experience and the announcement that the game will be released episodically. That said, there still isn't that much information out there for the remake and E3 is a great time to remedy that.

This is a game that most gamers are absolutely clamouring for and it would be in Square Enix and Sony's best interests to show off - at the very least - some more gameplay and another trailer for the game. I think a release date of the first episode, a price point, and some idea of how much content these episodes will contain should be released at E3. That said, Square Enix is usually quite tight-lipped with details like this and they also take their sweet time with development, as evidenced by FFXV, which has been officially in development since 2006.

One can only hope that the episodic release schedule will result in a quick turnaround for the FFVII Remake, which officially went into development in 2014, and that there will be news that 2017 will be the release year for this hotly anticipated title.

3. Hideo Kojima's New Game

Kojima's had a rocky few months. Whatever went on behind the scenes is up to anyone's imagination, but something occurred in Konami that resulted in them unceremoniously firing Kojima at around the same time as the company was releasing his newest hit chapter in the Metal Gear series, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

As a result, Kojima briefly disbanded his development studio, Kojima Productions, and then reopened the company as an independent studio after the dust settled on the Konami situation.

Since then, Kojima has done little else but reveal the mascot for his new company, a character called Ludens, who appears to be some sort of space frontiersman. This is inline with Kojima Productions' new motto, "arming the new world with the latest technology and pioneering spirit".

Kojima was seen touring several different production and hardware studios with Mark Cerny, a consultant who is heavily embedded in the Sony PlayStation 4, and recently announced that he would be developing a new game exclusively for the console. Other than that, we know nothing.

Where Kojima has ramped up advertising his new company in the past few weeks I think that the hype for his new project is at an all-time high and E3 would be a great time to at least tease whatever Kojima Productions has in store. Described by Kojima as a game that fans of Uncharted would enjoy, it's sure to be a hit and a hotly anticipated title at next year's E3, as well.

2. Tokyo RPG Factory's Next Game

You might not be familiar with Tokyo RPG Factory. They only have one game to their credit, thus far, and it hasn't even been released in North America yet.

I Am Setsuna is the first title by Tokyo RPG Factory and it looks absolutely amazing. The company was created by Square Enix to produce games that have the old look and feel of SNES and PlayStation RPGs. I Am Setsuna was specifically modeled after Chrono Trigger and uses all the hallmarks of an RPG from that era; a top-down perspective, Active Time Battle System, and a playtime that matches games released on the SNES. It will be released in North America this July for the PS4 and PC and I can't wait to play it.

What I want to know at this year's E3 is what else Tokyo RPG Factory is up to! I Am Setsuna just released in February in Japan, but with the game fully localized and already garnering a lot of positive press, what else could be on their radar?

The idea of creating a studio that makes this style of games speaks to me. This is the stuff I want to play. Modern remakes of classic titles are cool and all, but I'm much happier playing new titles that act and play like the games I loved as a kid. If I Am Setsuna is the measuring stick of what Tokyo RPG Factory is going to develop then I'm in high hopes that they'll announce a new title at E3 and that it will hopefully use another great title from Square Enix's back catalogue - say Final Fantasy VI - as it's template.

1. The Legend of Zelda

As I previously mentioned, Nintendo has been very transparent with what they are going to show at this year's E3... which isn't much. In a statement released a few weeks ago, they made it clear that their newest console, codenamed Nintendo NX, would be released in March of 2017 and would not be shown at E3. They also announced that there would be no Nintendo Direct accompanying the event and that the crux of their show would be gameplay stations for the newest Legend of Zelda title, which will simultaneously release on the Wii U and the NX.

This news certainly ruffled some feathers with most gamers, but was probably a good call if Nintendo decided they weren't ready to show their newest console. I won't get into all that, but the one positive here is that they will finally be showing off gameplay for the next game in the LoZ series.

We've seen some live gameplay for the title already last year, but it was just Link riding a horse in a lush green environment. We still know little about the game, except for a few crumbs that the game's director, Eiji Aonuma, has dropped here and there.

The game will feature an open-world environment, which will be entirely new for the series. It was explored to some extent in A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS, but it's expected this game will take the idea to an all-new level. There is also speculation that Nintendo may allow players, for the first time, to choose between a male or female Link, but this is all rumour and conjecture as I'm writing this.

The game has had several delays so far, initially aiming for a 2015 release date, and some positive press along with actual gameplay is going to go a long way to help with Nintendo's press as of late.

All that business stuff aside, ever since I played Ocarina of Time back in '98 I've been a follower of this series and the videos that Nintendo has released thus far have left me highly anticipating any and all news surrounding the newest game in this storied franchise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Shane’s Favourite Movies of 2015

If you need an introduction, read the title again. Some spoilers ahead.

5. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Plot Rundown: A punk-ass street kid is recruited into a gentleman spy organization and must defeat a mastermind planning mass genocide.

Now here’s a movie that I did not expect would be on my top five list. I remember seeing the trailer for this film and thinking, dear god this is going to be stupid. I rolled my eyes so hard I think I tore something. But the truth is, the movie is stupid. But it’s also hella fun.

Seriously, this movie is more entertaining than I’d ever guess. It’s funnier, crazier, and much more violent than it has any right to be. It introduced me to something I never knew I wanted: Colin Firth kicking severe ass. One amazing sequence that takes place in a church is this year’s hidden action gem. It’s worth watching the movie for that alone.

Kingsman has a bunch of well known actors, it’s full of fun sequences that veer off from conventions, and it has constant energy. This is, without a doubt, my guilty pleasure of the year. I had a blast seeing it in the theatre and I pity anyone who watched Kingsman and dismissed it as silly. The movie knows it’s ridiculous, and it embraces that fully.

4. The Revenant
Plot Rundown: A trapper, named Hugh Glass, is wrecked by a bear and must survive countless other horrific things in order to seek revenge against the man who left him for dead.

The most striking thing about this movie are the amazing visuals. The cinematography in The Revenant is stunning, and the use of only natural lighting really makes the setting more vivid. It pulls you into the past. The opening raid on the hunters’ camp was wild and visceral, and extremely well shot. In fact, all the moments of action feel raw and brutal.

DiCaprio has very limited lines to say, Hardy’s character is often unintelligible, and huge portions of the film have no dialogue at all. Because of this the movie draws you in, and lets you focus on the characters’ actions moment to moment. You feel like you have an intimate view of Glass’ struggle to survive.

It’s a long ass movie but I was invested the whole time and desperate to know how Glass would find his way back and if he would have his revenge. The Revenant is awesome filmmaking and storytelling from start to finish.

3. Ex Machina
Plot Rundown: A programmer wins a contest to visit a private mountain retreat and be part of an experiment with a female A.I. robot built by a reclusive CEO.

I’ve seen people really gushing over this movie. A lot. I really enjoyed the movie, but c’mon now, this is not a ground breaking film. It’s a beautifully shot, well acted movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s also filled with things I’ve seen dozens of times before.

Even if the story is often predictable, the details are what make it interesting. There’s a particular dance scene that stands out; guaranteed to have you confused, laughing, or grinning from ear to ear. The weirdness keeps it compelling, no question.

Ex Machina is dark and seductive. It sticks the audience in a sterile, often claustrophobic setting, and slowly unravels a mystery where each character’s motivations become clear. The whole movie I was waiting for twists that I thought Ex Machina was leading me to, but it turned out the twist was … there isn’t one. You may not be blown away by the ending, but it felt right. Any fan of science fiction should give it a look. Just don’t walk in expecting a masterpiece.

2.  Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Plot Rundown: Thirty years after the fall of the Empire a new threat arises as The First Order, and key information about the location of Luke Skywalker is entrusted with a pilot’s droid who teams up with a renegade stormtrooper and a scavenger with a mysterious past.

Man, it’s so good to have a new Star Wars movie that I care about. It feels damn good.

The first time I watched the film was great, but I think a part of me was tense with the worry of walking into another Phantom Menace. But The Force Awakens proved that it had recaptured the spirit of Star Wars that I remembered growing up. With those concerns out of the way, my second time watching was pure joy. It’s such a fun movie.

The Force Awakens does so many things perfectly. The characters, creatures, weapons, vehicles, costumes, and set pieces all felt true to the Star Wars universe. They were built with love, often as practical effects, and that infused life into the movie. By comparison, the prequels gave us cold green screen settings inhabited by dead-eyed characters delivering wooden dialogue to CGI creatures who weren’t physically there. So it was a great relief to see Episode VII finally showing us interesting characters who could look at the world around them with awe and emotion. Rey, Finn, and Poe are engaging in the world of Star Wars with enthusiasm. Our heroes look like they give a shit! They’re likeable, and they share a sense of wonder with the audience. There’s even humour and charm! You know, the things that have been missing from the series since 1983.

A weird complaint I kept hearing again and again was that The Force Awakens was too similar to the original film. Are you jerks serious? The prequels stepped far away from the familiar and people hated it for not feeling like the Star Wars they knew. Now people are going to gripe about it being too similar? Make up your mind!

The new characters to the series are great, as I mentioned. Daisy Ridley is a standout performance for me, and Rey is a hero you can care about from the first moment. Plus, characters returning from the original trilogy haven’t just been sloppily written into the story. Their actions are meaningful and true to their characters. Han Solo’s story in particular is handled with care, and by the end of the movie the stakes have been raised in a way that fans old and new can appreciate.

I loved Kylo Ren as a villain. He’s powerful but undisciplined, making him all the more dangerous and unpredictable. The First Order may look like the Empire, but they are something quite different. They are desperate to be the Empire, but haven’t earned power by the same means. They are so blinded by the Empire’s legacy that they haven’t learned from their mistakes (eg. another Death Star!?). The First Order is just as reckless in their pursuit for dominance as Kylo himself.

The greatest thing about The Force Awakens is that it has reignited my love of Star Wars, and made me hopeful again for the future of the franchise. I’m already starving for Episode VIII and my head has been spinning with possibilities and theories. It feels like there are so many surprises and adventures ahead, and I can’t fucking wait.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Plot Rundown: A drifter named Max is captured and ends up joining forces with a rebel named Furiosa who is trying to liberate a group of female prisoners from a tyrant pursuing them through the post apocalyptic wasteland.

Star Wars is a tough one to beat, but Mad Max is another returning franchise that blew my socks clean off. I watched the trailers for Fury Road dozens of times and I could feel in my bones that something incredible was on the horizon. The hype was real, my expectations were through the roof, and it still exceeded those expectations. I walked out of this movie high on adrenaline and completely satisfied. If you haven’t seen it already, stop everything and watch it now. I mean it. Drop your baby, leave work early, jump out of that moving car and go.

I adored how this movie looked. The colour palette is rich and vibrant, and every explosion is a deep fiery red that that looks like hot magic blood. The design of all the characters and their insane vehicles was goddamn incredible. Every time I thought the movie had exhausted its creativity, another slew of freakish bad guys would come riding into action on all manner of motorized death machines. Spikes and blades and claws and guns and fire-shooting guitars. Everywhere you looked there were details of the scavenged pieces used to build these chariots from a desert hell.

The movie’s energy is incredible. The action starts almost immediately and doesn’t let up for the duration of the film. In the trailers you can see a giant sandstorm with lightning, explosions, and cars being thrown around. I had thought... well, that must be a scene from the climax of the film. Nope. It’s first act material in this fucking juggernaut.

So many characters are memorable, they feel almost iconic from the moment you meet them. Immortan Joe, for example, is a ghoulish motherfucker and a great villain. He leads the pursuit to retrieve “his property” and his presence is pure menace. The peril our heroes experience always feels real.

I’d like to address a dumb complaint I’ve heard about Fury Road: that Furiosa outshines Max as the main hero. Look, Max doesn’t have to be at the forefront of the film. He’s just a tough dude who roams the wasteland and gets caught up in other people’s shit. He’s a hero because he’ll fight injustice when he encounters it, but that doesn’t mean he has to be considered the main hero. That’s why he didn’t stick around at the Citadel when they triumph at the end. He’s going to keep moving on because it wasn’t his fight to begin with. Charlize Theron played the part of Furiosa perfectly and was a total badass. She was the hero, and that doesn’t take anything away from the film.

I will never forget the experience of seeing this film at the theatre. It completely knocked my dick in the dirt. I mean that in the best possible way. Fury Road is endlessly inventive and a one of a kind experience. It looks gorgeous, the action is frenetic and creative, and it moves at a pace that I’ve never seen before. It’s George Miller’s epic vision come to life, and he’s delivered a spectacular chase that will leave you breathless. See it.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Moon Knight's Most Badass Moments (so far)

For those of you who haven't been paying attention or just really suck at remembering stuff, my favourite comic book character (also: I'm the one who's into comic books) is Moon Knight. And for those of you who aren't me or like twelve other specific people, Moon Knight is a "superhero" in the Marvel Universe.

He looks like this:

While it's hardly a unique trait among comic book characters, particularly superhero types, one of the major things that makes Moony my main man is that he's a total badass. He's a maverick who plays by his own rules and when he's not being outright ignored by the superhero community at large, he's being actively shunned by them. Even Deadpool winds up doing more team-ups than him. This also makes him something of an underdog - he doesn't really have any powers and when he's in trouble he (usually) doesn't have the option of calling up Tony Stark or Nick Fury.

Now before I launch into an essay on all the stuff that makes Moon Knight my avenging spectre (ha) of choice let's return to the main point which is he's badass. With that said, here is a sampling of some of his most badass moments.

Spidey didn't like posing for this one
Honourable Mention: Ultimate Moon Knight crazies himself back to life (Ultimate Spider-Man #110)
Haven't done the honourable mention thing in a while because I don't want to somehow undermine the five choices I make, but I thought that since this isn't the regular 616 version of Moon Knight, I could get away with it.

Moon Knight only appears in a couple of arcs of Ultimate Spider-Man but writer Brian Michael Bendis definitely does him justice. I think that's partly because he's really not very different from his classic incarnation. He's still former mercenary Marc Spector, now wealthy and sometimes moonlighting (I had to) as a New York cabbie who also dresses in the aspect of Egyptian god Khonshu and fights crime. The costume is given a bit of a tweak (as you can see) but his methods, personality(ies) and genuine craziness are all pretty much intact, although the personalities are shuffled a bit.

Our moment occurs in the second arc containing Moon Knight, "Ultimate Knights", a nod to the Marvel Knights comics in 616. Moon Knight first met Spider-Man in the arc "Warriors". The two fought for awhile and Moony succeeded in totally freaking Spider-Man out. Here, Moon Knight teams up with him, Shang-Chi, Daredevil, Iron Fist and Dr. Strange in an effort to take down the Kingpin, who is pretty much EXACTLY the same as his 616 counterpart. Shang-Chi had previously attempted to infiltrate Fisk's organization via posing as a skilled assassin for hire (actually to replace Elektra who had been killed by...Moon Knight) but his cover was blown rather quickly and he barely escaped alive. The group decides this was still a good idea, and, as part of their larger plan, should be attempted again. Moon Knight volunteers to be the one to do it and everyone agrees at once since Fisk isn't that familiar with him (as he was with Shang Chi and is with DD and Spidey).

Ultimate Ronin
It goes quite well at first as Moon Knight creates the character of Ronin (a nice nod to something concurrently going on in New Avengers, also written by Bendis) and is quickly hired. Of course it still winds up a disaster as ruthless assassin Ronin eventually asserts its dominance over all of Moony's personalities and he goes from undercover agent to full on baddy. The situation in his head is actually visually illustrated for us as we see the personalities all meeting and discussing the situation together. But in addition to Steven Grant (who is now the cabbie - there is no Jake Lockley), Marc Spector (businessman) and Moon Knight, Ultimate Moony also has a nameless little girl personality. She's also eyeless. Because that's cool. Ronin murders Moon Knight, drives off the others and takes over. Spider-Man actually has to fight Ronin after the latter is ordered by Kingpin to apprehend him and is quickly defeated. But taking out the hero in his own book isn't Moony's badass moment here. No, that comes when he finally is discovered by Fisk (ok, actually Kingpin had known all along but the last thing this entry needs is more explanations) and is promptly executed by two mooks. Shot in the head and dumped in the outskirts to send a message to other costumed vigilantes in New York.

Except Moon Knight eventually gets back up. How did he pull this off? No healing factor, no illusion powers, nothing like that. Back in his messed up mind, we see the other personalities urging the seemingly dead Moon Knight persona to wake up. The little girl screams at him a bit to no avail. Then Ronin comes over and gives a try, grabbing his head and yelling "Get up!" It does the trick.  The personality revives and so does his physical self. He staggers to a police station, takes off his mask and has Fisk formally charged with attempted murder leading to his arrest (something none of Spidey and the others could achieve).

So there you have it: Moon Knight is actually too crazy to be killed. Badass.

5. Burning His Ties To The Avengers - Literally (Marc Spector: Moon Knight #50 Volume 3)
Yeah, screw those guys
While the Marc Spector: Moon Knight series was the longest running, it really wasn't one of the more memorable runs for the character. The creative team was always in flux, causing the tone and direction to fluctuate along with it. Sure, some cool and important stuff happened like Punisher killing Marc's insane brother Randall (something he thought he'd done himself years previously), visiting a couple of alternate universes and participating in Acts of Vengeance hijinks, but as a whole it was kinda weak.

Still, one of Moony's most badass moments does indeed happen in this series. I'm not entirely certain of the order of events but I'm reasonably sure that at the time of the series's opening, Moon Knight was a member of the West Coast Avengers. He (along with Tigra and Mockingbird) leaves the team in issue #41 but it's established at some point later on in Marc Spector Moon Knight that he's still considered a reserve member and thus has a membership card. So-called misuse of said card was one of the actions that led to Moon Knight's fiery resignation from Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

The Avengers, in disarray after the events of Operation Galactic Storm and Captain America's subsequent resignation as team leader, became increasingly concerned with Moon Knight's actions, particularly using his membership card to gain access to the Latverian consulate and attack Doctor Doom (an extremely badass act in itself), his ties to the Punisher as well as villain Tombstone and the revelation (captured on television no less) that he'd been housing some kind of demonic presence in his body - Demogoblin by way of Hobgoblin. Anyway, Moon Knight, busy with his own affairs, repeatedly ignores the team's calls insisting he come in for a meeting.

 Finally, he agrees to go after an altercation with Thor. They spend so much time debating the pros and cons of having him on the team as well as whether or not his actions require some sort of disciplinary measures on their part, that he up and leaves while they're babbling. They don't even notice until seeing the smoke from the flaming membership card he leaves behind.

4. The Raid, Superhero Style (Moon Knight #5, Volume 7)
I'm assuming the elevator wasn't working
This one doesn't require much setup. In the latest Moon Knight series, kicked off by writer Warren Ellis, standalone stories limited to single issues replaced the common practice of story arcs spanning multiple comics. After six great stories Ellis moved on but later writers mostly followed his example. In this particular issue, the second last written by Ellis, Moon Knight storms a dilapidated apartment complex to rescue a kidnapped young girl.

In what is a clear homage to awesome action movie The Raid, (director Gareth Evans's name can be seen spray painted on a wall in one of the panels), Moony makes his way from the ground floor to the sixth, cutting a brutal and bloody swath through all resistance.  His nasty fighting style has been showcased in many issues over the years but perhaps this is the single one that celebrates it the most. I'd point out some of the highlights except: 1. Pretty much every panel is a highlight 2. I really couldn't do them proper justice. So just seek out the comic for yourself, in print or digitally.

Moony with a sidekick?
3. The Final Moon Knight/Midnight Reunion (Moon Knight #12, Volume 4)
One thing Charlie Huston firmly re-established in the Moon Knight mythos is that for someone without any powers, the guy can take a hell of a lot of punishment. This is illustrated in spades in the two Huston story arcs "The Bottom" and "Midnight Sun". The next badass moment comes from the latter.

Way back in the very first Moon Knight series, our hero came up against a flamboyant art thief called The Midnight Man. Despite his initial seeming lack of a threat, he would quickly become something of a nemesis for Moony, culminating in his going insane after having his face disfigured from a fall in one of their encounters. He went from daring cat burglar with a thing for theatrics and mind games to another damaged opponent, bent on revenge. Then he died.

Years later, during the Marc Spector: Moon Knight run, Marc would be faced with a new chapter in the saga between himself and Anton Mogart (Midnight Man's real name): a young man named Jeff Wilde, who claimed to be Mogart's son. But this wasn't the old "son of a vanquished villain shows up for revenge" schtick; Jeff wanted to help Moon Knight. His reasons were never all that clear. He said something like he wanted to make up for all the trouble his father had caused Marc but by offering his services as costumed sidekick Midnight, he just caused trouble of his own.

Still, Moony reluctantly agreed to take him on, feeling somewhat responsible for what happened to the kid. But Jeff, while not entirely without guts and talent, wasn't very effective as a crimefighter and more often than not blatantly disregarded Moon Knight's advice and orders. Eventually his bumbling got him captured by the lunatics at the Secret Empire (an offshoot of Hydra considered too crazy even by their standards) and they did the logical thing: turned him into a superpowered, killer cyborg. Sometime later, he apparently died.

But years after that, Huston revealed in "Midnight Sun" that Midnight was still alive and had become completely unhinged and completely obsessed with having a showdown with his former mentor. To get his attention he went about murdering people and ripping their limbs off to use them as hands in clocks traced in blood. The hands pointed to midnight.
"I knew I could save you, Jeff."

Moon Knight tracked him to a makeshift lair in the sewers (much like one Mogart fashioned years before) and was promptly overwhelmed when attempting to ambush Wilde. With the aid of a female cyborg assistant, who apparently had nursing skills, Midnight (now dressed in his own Moon Knight costume) tortures the bound (to a giant clock face) Moon Knight by removing parts of his spine with a pair of pliers. Yup.

So this goes on for a few minutes until lady cyborg gets upset, clobbers Midnight and frees Moony, who is, you know, not in the best of shape. She whines to him for a bit about how she and Midnight are unable to die and how Midnight had assured her Moon Knight would be the one to "save them". She expresses her disappointment in him. Moon Knight, having somewhat regained his wits says "I can save you." He rips the minute hand off the clock and leaping off the platform, plunges it down Midnight's throat, ending the latter's torment. A pretty emphatic form of closure on the whole Midnight Man/Midnight saga.

(That was the badass moment but if you're wondering about loose ends, I'll just inform you Moon Knight also "saved" the woman by telling her walk out of the tunnel and gaze at the full moon for her salvation. In doing this, she is blown away by the heavy ordinance of Moony's helicopter.)

Moon Knight: Secret Avenger
2. Making Deadpool Say Uncle (Vengeance of the Moon Knight #8, Volume 5)
Charlie Huston's resurrection of Moon Knight in 2006 (his first ongoing series since the mid nineties) was what absolutely solidified his status as my all-time favourite not only superhero but comic book character, period. As with Ellis nearly a decade later, Huston kicked off the series but only stayed on for about a third of its run. He wrote two amazing arcs (named in the previous entry) then writing duties were taken over by others. While I enjoyed seeing an overmatched Moony take on the Thunderbolts after Norman Osborn (head of H.A.M.M.E.R. at that time) sicced them on him, the final arc of that series, "Down South", with a mostly out of costume Moon Knight fighting cartels in Mexico, was a big letdown for me.

This was immediately followed by a new series, Vengeance of the Moon Knight (Volume 5), that had a somewhat new direction: Moon Knight trying to be a bit more "heroic" (this being The Heroic Age of Marvel at the time) and erase some of the ill will he'd built up in the superhero community and public eye. So he's basically making a concerted effort to not, you know, kill or horribly maim his opponents or cause too much collateral damage. He does so well in this he impresses Steve Rogers enough to recruit him to a new Avengers team, albeit a secret one (um, Secret Avengers) that no one outside of it will be aware of. A pretty big turnaround after Rogers's "I don't like your style, mister," speech to Marc Spector back during Huston's run.

Anyway I'm mentioning all this to properly set up the next badass moment. Sure, Moon Knight has been playing by the rules and even playing well with others - things he's definitely not known for - all to very encouraging results. But he's still Moon Knight and operating this way was...kind of getting to him.

Enter The Merc With a Mouth, Deadpool.
You shouldn't have mentioned the healing factor, Wade

Deadpool was doing what he does - he was on the job to assassinate some crime boss for a woman whose life had been destroyed by said crime boss - when Moon Knight arrived and stopped him. Said crime boss was confined to a hospital bed at the time and of course, the new "good boy" Moon Knight couldn't allow him to be murdered while helpless. Deadpool of course taunts him for this as they fight (Moony didn't know who the heck it was and would later refer to him as "that welfare-looking Spider-Man) and asks: "Come on Casper, where's that killer instinct?" Moon Knight tells him he's about to see it but Deadpool is incredulous: "Sure. You're Lee fucking Marvin with me - who can't be killed."

Well. He shouldn't have said that. Moony draws a sword (OF COURSE he has a sword) and declares: "Game on." Deadpool answers with his own blade but now that Moony isn't holding back anymore, it's really no contest. He proceeds to slice and dice the annoying mercenary until there's not a whole lot left to cut. He dispatches one of the most badass characters in the Marvel U with ease. Deadpool concedes defeat with a: "*Kkkkkkkkk* Uncle*" and Moon Knight stalks off remarking how he really needed that. And so did we.

1. Another Faceoff With Bushman Ends In A Face...Off (Moon Knight #2 Volume 4)
Well, it really was a face only a mother could love
As this list has already demonstrated, acts of horrific violence are pretty routine for Moon Knight. And while I hope I've shown that he still has badass moments that don't directly involve them, you shouldn't be all that surprised that our number one entry is yet another. And this one tops them all.

Moon Knight #1 of the 2006 series ends with a broken and disheveled Marc Spector. We're shown he's been out of the hero game for quite awhile and that his life has subsequently fallen apart, lashing out and alienating the small handful of people in the world that actually care about him. We see him sporting a beard while sitting in a chair yelling at his Khonshu statue. It appears he doesn't even have his faith anymore. Not in his god and not in himself.

Moon Knight #2 gives us the flashback that shows how he arrived in such a state. Fittingly, it's a battle with his arch nemesis, the man who inadvertently created Moon Knight, the vicious Raoul Bushman. The two are slugging it out on a rooftop. Moony provides some great running commentary as they go at each other:

How many times before a guy figures it out? How many times do you beat a guy down? How many times do you take him out? Before he knows you're better than he is? He never got it. Guess that's why he's called a nemesis. So, how many times can you do the same thing? Before you get sloppy? Blame it on arrogance. Blame it on a bag of tricks grown tired. Blame it on the passing years. Blame it on him. Blame it on our hatred. The hatred born from slaughter. Slaughter born from friendship. Friendship born from recognition. Recognition of a kindred soul. Souls hating each other. Hating as you can hate only one thing. The reflection in the mirror.

Oh, this can't be good

You won't see Batman doing that
Eventually the fight goes over the side of the roof and Moon Knight is badly injured, hitting his legs off a fire escape on the way down. Lying sprawled and broken in the alley, he's nearly defenceless as Bushman, staggering through a barrage of crescent moon darts and collapsing at his side, manages to bite his enemy's face right through the mask with those terrible filed teeth. Moon Knight somehow manages one final punch then grips Bushman's face in one hand while retrieving one more crescent dart with the other.

Then he peels off the guy's face.

I think it's only too appropriate that Moon Knight's most badass moment ever is also the one which led directly to a downward spiral which nearly destroyed him physically, mentally and spiritually. After two years on the sidelines, wallowing in self pity and abusing pain killers, he managed to pick himself up once again (with a little help from his friends, of course). He's a character who has died and been resurrected several times in continuity, but it's this resurrection of his life, pulled off not by an ancient Egyptian god but by the man himself, that is his greatest comeback.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Essential K-Pop Songs of 2015

The time has come to share more music randomness from South Korea. This year was tougher than last to sort out the top five slots. There was so much variety and throwbacks to decades past that incorporated old and new genres that I love. Like last year I wanted to highlight a few songs and the artists that made an impression on me. I hope you find something here that entertains you.

Do not be afraid, my friends. The whole point of this list is to present something unfamiliar that you wouldn't have discovered otherwise. Let's go!

5)Wonder Girls - I Feel You

Album: Reboot
Back in 2007, Wonder Girls was perhaps the first k-pop group that I became familiar with and they dominated the airwaves in Korea with some catchy hits. Over the years some members changed, others worked on solo projects for a while, and the group went on hiatus in 2013. They reformed this year as a four member band with an 80's concept, playing instruments for the first time as part of their performance.

I was happy and surprised to find an upbeat number with a music video that captures the neon haze and ridiculous glam of the eighties so well. Even the production quality and mix feels very true to form for the retro sound. Plus, there's something very entertaining to me about a girl performing rigid dance steps in heels and one-piece swimwear while jamming on a keytar. If any of this rings your bell I highly recommend checking out their entire eighties themed album Reboot that features this song. It's a solid eighties concept album that does everything from Madonna-esque dance pop to darker synth-rock, and the whole thing sounds truly truly truly outrageous.

4)Lim Kim - Awoo

Album: Simple Mind
There's something so lovely about Lim Kim's voice. Her breathy singing is unique - often ethereal - and I've enjoyed every song she's put out. So I was thrilled to see her release a full album this year.

"Awoo" has a less than conventional sound with its up and down pitched melody, and simple bass line, but it's that voice that makes it so pleasant and pulls the whole thing together. So many of the tracks on the album are a dreamlike experience, with her quiet voice guiding you over heavy electro beats. I highly recommend listening to it as you drift off to sleep.

If you ask me what is supposed to be going on in the video, it's hard to say. There seems to be a teasing theme going on, and Lim Kim acting like a cat, but besides that I don't have a clue. It's very colourful, well produced, and suits the unusual sound of the song. Like a lot of Korean music, it's the quirkiness that draws you in, and Lim Kim is a talent to watch.

3)Hyukoh - Hooka

Album: 22
Hyukoh is a four member indie band that have been part of the underground music scene for a couple years, but really gained wider success this year with multiple hits. Oh Hyuk, the leader of the band, has been especially busy collaborating with other singers and producers throughout the year and he has lent his soulful vocals to several songs that I love.

While there were other songs for Hyukoh that peaked higher on the Korean music charts in 2015, "Hooka" was the one that I kept coming back to again and again for its chill intro that builds into a solid blues rock tune. The style and especially the chorus reminds me of The Doors, but I have no idea where the band draws their inspiration. I haven't gotten that specific vibe from any other tracks.

Many of their songs have both English and Korean lyrics, but the English is easy to miss because of pronunciation and unclear meaning. I don't consider it a downside, but just an element of their style. In "Hooka" the harsh pronunciation adds intensity as the song progresses.

All in all, Hyukoh is band I'm excited to see more from in the new year. I think you'll agree.

2)Brown Eyed Girls - Brave New World

Album: BASIC
In Korea, Brown Eyed Girls have been making an impression on the music scene for a decade now, and the song in question is from their sixth album, proving that these girls are still working hard to be innovative and to last in this competitive industry. You may even be vaguely familiar with them if you happened to watch Psy's follow up song to "Gangnam Style". In his music video for "Gentleman", the core dance choreography is lifted directly from BEG's hit song "Abracadabra". One member of the group, Gain, even appears in the video alongside Psy performing the dance she made famous.

When I first listened to "Brave New World" it caught me a little off guard. The song changes gears throughout and it felt jarring in the beginning. It was on repeat listens that the song took hold in my brain and I could appreciate the brilliant composition.

"Brave New World" opens strong with a throwback sound reminiscent of late 70's Michael Jackson, then quickly shifts into a more modern beat. The instrumentation driving the song is amazing and I love how the contemporary pop elements melds with an underlying orchestral arrangement that's sprinkled with funk and disco. The chorus hits hard with powerful vocals, and then I can't sit still. Later in the song listen at the rap breakdown (at the 3:17 mark) where the song filters down to something new, and then builds back up with strings as the beat returns. Every time I listen I keeping hearing new details.

The music video also fits the song well, with it's futuristic imagery and settings, and the ladies look stunning. Overall the song is excellent for its creative arrangement, the strong vocals, innovative transitions, blending of genres, and wrapping it all up in a stylish presentation. I can't get enough of this song, and I hope you give it a listen, or two.

1)Red Velvet - Dumb Dumb

Album: The Red
Okay you guys, this last one is crazy as fuck. The first viewing is an all out assault on the senses, and the song is wild and bombastic. Red Velvet debuted in 2014 with four members: Irene, Wendy, Seulgi, Joy, and most recently, Yeri joined in 2015. Fun Random Fact: Wendy grew up in Canada from an early age and auditioned here before joining the group.

The music video alone is worth checking out for the insane production value and screwy imagery. You have objects smashing apart in slow-motion, a rag doll robot dance, cloned girls marching down conveyor belts, giant mechanical claw arms, impossible boxes of flailing legs, and so on. Some people say the imagery in the video is depicting the manufactured idols of the Korean pop industry. That would explain the cartoonish factory producing and packaging identical looking girls. In that way Red Velvet could be making a statement about itself as a group and the nature of pop idols in Korea. Or it could just be more typical wacky k-pop stuff.

Despite being a rookie group Red Velvet is quickly gaining success with the release of their first full album The Red. It hit Number One on Billboard's World Albums Chart in September and this video was ranked #9 in Rolling Stone's 'Best Music Videos of 2015'. Honestly, I don't think I listened to another current album - K-pop or otherwise - more than "The Red" this year. It's just that much fun.

"Dumb Dumb" is brassy, experimental, and like the rest of the album, bursting with energy. These girls have real talent, and their vocals shine on every track. If you enjoyed this, then I recommend "Ice Cream Cake" their single from earlier in the year which I feel is easily as good as "Dumb Dumb", but I didn't want a group or artist appearing twice on the list.

It may seem like nothing but flashy nonsense to some, but Red Velvet delivered a crazy upbeat song with a memorable music video, in one of the best top-to-bottom pop albums I've heard in some time. Check it out.