Author: Michael Cook

A theatre kid dabbling in the art of reviewing the things he reads, watches, listens to, and sees.

REVIEW: “Dart” by Dale Renton

dartI will always enjoy a well-written sci-fi adventure. There is just something that will always be really enjoyable about that genre for me. Maybe it’s the mixture of the bigger thematic ideas often found in science fiction with some of the sillier elements of an adventure story, but there’s just something about sci-fi adventures that I really enjoy. Dale Renton’s Dart fits perfectly in with any number of sci-fi adventures. It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be stylistically while still packing in some surprises and a fair amount of enjoyment. It’s a well-written and enjoyable read. (Thanks to the author for providing me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Dart by Dale Renton
From the plasteel towers of New Hope to the mist-shrouded jungle of the Core, from the dizzy heights of Mons Drop to the horror infested depths of the deadfalls, Darthanil ‘Dart’ Black faces enemies at every turn. He has to find a way to end the three hundred years war between Formers and Sylth – and prevent a group of super intelligent machines from taking over the planet while he’s at it. Not too tough an assignment for the undefeated First Blade of Sylas’s World – but there are complications…

His old worst enemy has kidnapped the woman Dart loves. His new best friend is a symbiotic plant. Time is running out for the settlers frozen in the Mother Ship’s cryobanks. Ultimate power and the lives of thousands are at stake. Somebody has to do something. Dart could be just the man for the job – if it wasn’t for the poison.

Keep your friends close, your enemies closer–and the ones you’re not too sure about closer still.

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REVIEW: “Cryptofauna” by Patrick Canning

cryptofauna

While lots of great science fiction takes lots of effort to tell stories that take a magnifying glass to the worse parts of humanity, sometimes it’s just really nice to take a break from that and luxuriate in a really fun science fiction story. After all, who doesn’t love a good semi-comedic, super entertaining sci-fi romp? The correct answer is: no-one. All of the other reviews suggesting this book is a hybrid of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are right on the money. Patrick Canning’s Cryptofauna proves to be a book that’s every bit as interesting as its cryptic title – and the cryptic game of the same name played by the novel’s characters. (Thanks to the author for providing a copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.)

Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning
Working as a janitor at an insane asylum in rural Idaho has Jim in the dumps. One night, his attempted suicide is rudely interrupted by one of the residents, and he’s recruited to play a game called Cryptofauna. The bizarre contest of worldwide mischief and meddling might actually help the blue custodian discover a reason to life, if he can survive the deadly trials that await…

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REVIEW – “Black Friday”: A New Musical from Team Starkid (Spoiler Free)

black fridayOver the past ten years, Team Starkid has produced twelve full-length musicals (including their newest, Black Friday), eventually going on to post those shows on their YouTube page and making good, original theatre far more accessible than most theatre-lovers are used to. It’s been a delight to see how Starkid has grown from a group of plucky college kids making silly Harry Potter musical parodies into a full-fledged company that’s gone on multiple nationwide tours and written musicals that could legitimately give more “professional”/Broadway shows a run for their money. Like any group that’s been around for such a length of time, the quality of their work has ebbed and flowed; after all, not every show can be a masterpiece. But their most recent show, The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, seemed to reignite a fire within the group and their fanbase, leading to unprecedented success in their Kickstarter campaign for their 10th anniversary season – a reunion concert featuring every Starkid performer willing to return and a brand new musical, Black Friday. With Black Friday having opened last week and the digital ticket being released earlier this week, it seemed like an apt opportunity to take a look at Starkid’s newest musical and see just what’s happening in Hatchetfield this time around. The biggest question: how is the show? In short, it’s really good. In fact, it might be one of my favorite shows from Starkid.

(This review is based on the Digital Ticket released earlier this week. As such, none of the technical elements of the show – aside from its set and basic lighting design – will be discussed as it seems unfair to judge them based on a single camera angle. Also, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible.)

Black Friday (music and lyrics by Jeff Blim; book by Matt and Nick Lang; directed by Nick Lang)
Somewhere in the American Midwest, at the crossroads of nightmare and imagination, there is a tiny town where the veil of reality wears thin and eldritch forces threaten to unravel the fabric of the universe… Black Friday is a new horror-comedy musical about the shopping day from hell. When the holiday season’s hottest new toy, the Tickle-Me Wiggly, hits the shelves, the city of Hatchetfield goes mad for it, literally. That’s when Tom Houston, Lex Foster, Becky Barnes and a few familiar faces, must fight through a sea of murderous mall-goers to save humanity from an inter dimensional being with a taste for chaos. When Wiggly comes to town, will the world survive Black Friday?

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REVIEW: “Zombieland: Double Tap”

zombieland 2To say the first Zombieland film was a pretty solid horror-comedy feels like an understatement, but that’s what it was. At the time of its release, it felt groundbreaking as hell. Sure, it wasn’t the first comedic horror film (or even the first comedic zombie film), but it was one of the first films of its ilk to be as scary as it was funny. Audiences hadn’t really seen such a well-executed horror/meta-comedy since the days of the first Scream film and it hit pop culture with a splash before fading into obscurity. A sequel has long been requested, with the writers and director all saying they were working on one but didn’t want to make it until they felt they’d cracked the story. Well, it’s a full ten years after the release of the first film, and I guess they’ve cracked the story as Zombieland: Double Tap releases in theaters today. The two questions on everyone’s mind are: “is it good?” and “how does it compare to the first film?” Unfortunately, the answers to those questions aren’t too positive. (This review will be as spoiler-free as possible, but any elements that have been shown in trailers may be discussed.)

Zombieland: Double Tap (written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham; directed by Ruben Fleischer) 
A decade after Zombieland became a hit film and a cult classic, the lead cast (Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and Emma Stone) have reunited with director Ruben Fleischer (Venom) and the original writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (Deadpool) for Zombieland: Double Tap. In the sequel, written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and Dave Callaham, through comic mayhem that stretches from the White House and through the heartland, these four slayers must face off against the many new kinds of zombies that have evolved since the first movie, as well as some new human survivors. But most of all, they have to face the growing pains of their own snarky, makeshift family.

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REVIEW – The Good Place (Season 4)

The Good Place - Season 4I am on the record, repeatedly, as being a huge fan of NBC’s The Good Place. It’s not only my favorite comedy currently airing on TV but one of my favorite TV shows in general. While I felt that the middle of season three was a bit of a misstep, the show had fully pulled me back into the fold by the end of that season. So, with the news that this fourth season of The Good Place will also be its final one, these first few episodes of the show had a lot to prove. They needed to continue to be stellar episodes of television while also laying the groundwork for what will ultimately become the show’s endgame. Do they pull this off? Absolutely. (NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the first two episodes of the season, A Girl From Arizona, Parts 1 and 2, but will remain as spoiler-free as possible for the unaired episodes that NBC has granted critics access to – episodes 3 and 4: Chillaxing and Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy.)

From creator Michael Schur comes a unique comedy about what makes a good person. The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife, and thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place (which is definitely where she belongs). While hiding in plain sight from Good Place Architect Michael (Ted Danson), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and earn her spot.

Over the course of season three, Michael and the team decided to try to fix the outdated points system after discovering that nobody has entered the Good Place for over 500 years. They convinced the Judge (guest star Maya Rudolph) on the idea of setting up a new neighborhood in the Medium place to see, once and for all, if humans can improve themselves. The plan is set in motion and four new test subjects, chosen by Shawn (guest star Marc Evan Jackson) and the demons, populate the area with Michael and the group overseeing the experiment. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she is forced to assume the role as Architect, following Michael’s sudden breakdown, and must also deal with the repercussions following Chidi’s (William Jackson Harper) decision to make the ultimate sacrifice and have his memory erased.

Also seeking redemption is elegant Pakistani-British socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and dance-obsessed Floridian Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). They are aided by Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a human-esque repository for all the knowledge in the universe.

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REVIEW: “Joker” (2019) (Spoilers!)

mv5bzwfinzbkyjetmmy4my00mdfjltg2ntutmzi2odzlzjbjyzc3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtkxnjuynq4040._v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_As if enough things haven’t been written about this movie, here comes another one. Ever since the announcement of this movie, I’ve been skeptical. The Joker is a character who has, historically, never had a definitive origin story – nor has he ever needed one. The entire point (and fun) of the character is that he has no origin. Various stories have hinted at one (The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight) but all have shied away from suggesting any of those origins is the definitive one. So, this movie being entirely about how the Joker became the Joker worried me a bit, though that worry was squashed a bit when they made it clear this movie wouldn’t tie into the larger DCEU and would be the cinematic equivalent of one of DC’s Elseworlds stories. With that context, it was a bit easier to get on board with a film like this. Then came all of the controversy surrounding the film – the articles about how it was irresponsible, the security concerns, etc – and the whole thing began to get a little messy. It was difficult to know what the film was actually saying versus what people were accusing the film of saying. The big question, now that opening weekend has come and gone without much incident, is whether Joker is a good movie that gets across all that it is trying to say. The answer? Yes, mostly. (NOTE: This review will contain some light spoilers for the movie, but this is one of those films where you pretty much already know how it ends; it’s not filled with surprises, but the enjoyment comes from the journey it takes you on.)

Joker (written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips; directed by Todd Phillips)
“Joker” centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.

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Review – “Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples” (Illustrated by Colleen Doran)

918fkn2oh0lWe all know how much I love a good Neil Gaiman story. He’s one of my favorite authors currently writing and I’ve yet to encounter one of his stories that I haven’t enjoyed in some way or another. Some of my favorite Gaiman things are the comic adaptations of his prose work. I always find it really intriguing seeing how comic artists adapt the work of Gaiman (an author who got, perhaps, one of his earliest and biggest breaks within the world of comics) into this more visual medium. This is where Snow, Glass, Apples comes into play. It’s the latest in a fairly-lengthy line of comic adaptations of Gaiman’s work to be published by Dark Horse Comics; ignoring their ongoing American Gods adaptation, it’s the second such graphic novel adapting some of Gaiman’s short stories. What intrigued me the most about this adaptation were the excerpts that featured some of Collen Doran’s illustrations. Her style promised a really interesting, unique, and gorgeous take on the original short story and I was very excited to give it a read. How did it turn out? Just as good as I’d hoped it would be, if not better!

Snow, Glass, Apples (written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Colleen Doran)
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.

From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Times bestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

The short story this comic is based on is, perhaps, one of Gaiman’s best-known shorts. A retelling of the Snow White fairy tale from the point of view of the Step-Mother. What if Snow White were some kind of vampire-esque monster and the “Evil Queen” was only trying to save her kingdom from this threat? This is the question at the heart of the short story, itself a haunting and suspenseful tale that, as you’d expect, ends in tragedy. It’s a really solid short story, originally collected in Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors collection. I’m a sucker for a good twist on an old fairy tale and this one proves to be more than just “what if the villain was misunderstood”, pivoting hard into more of a “what if the ‘hero’ was actually the monster?” and I really dig that. Gaiman handles the subject with care, walking a fine line between sympathy for all the characters and depicting monstrous things with a monstrous touch. It’s a really solid, entertaining, haunting, and spooky story and it’s one of my favorites of Gaiman’s short fiction.

What makes this particular adaptation unique, though, are the illustrations from Colleen Doran. Doran’s art style throughout this comic adaptation is more reminiscent of religious stained glass artwork than that found in a traditional graphic novel. This stylistic choice really works well for the material, though, as it gives the whole story an elevated visual identity. Doran’s artwork is beautiful and she manages to maintain a superb balance between the beauty of the images and the practicality needed from them to usher the actual story of the graphic novel along. Each of her images, while being gorgeous works of art, exist to serve the story being told. They’re beautifully detailed but never too indulgent. It’s a perfect balance between beauty and practicality.

All in all, this is a must-read for Gaiman fans. It’s a short read – clocking in at around 60 pages – but it’s a beautiful new take on a Gaiman classic that will delight you, frighten you, and make you want to read it again and again. The story is haunting and well-executed, Doran’s artwork is beautiful and perfectly matches the tone of the story, and the whole affair just serves as a wonderful retelling of a great short story. It’s perfect for the spooky season, too, so give it a read.

Five out of five wands

REVIEW – Scooby-Doo: Return to Zombie Island

zombie islandScooby-Doo holds a special place in my heart. I was of the generation that primarily grew up on the direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movies instead of any long-running show. As such, some of my earliest exposures to the Scooby-Doo universe were films like Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost, and Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase. With that in mind, the idea of a sequel to Zombie Island – my favorite of the animated Scooby-Doo films of the 1990s and 2000s – was both an appealing one and one that caused some trepidation. Zombie Island was one of the rare Scooby-Doo movies where the monsters turned out to actually be real and some of the more recent Scooby-Doo entries have placed an increased focus on ensuring that people don’t think the monsters are real. On the other hand, the trailer looked kind of fun and it could very easily be a very enjoyable experience to return to this movie I loved as a kid. So, I tried to go into this movie with an open mind; I didn’t expect anything as wonderful as the original Zombie Island, but I was hoping for something that was still enjoyable. In the end, Return to Zombie Island isn’t a very good sequel to Zombie Island but it is a pretty solid Scooby-Doo movie – at least for the first half. (Spoilers ahead!)

Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island (written by Jeremy Adams, directed by Cecilia Aranovich & Hamilton Ethan Spaulding)
Join Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the Mystery Inc. gang as they win a vacation of a lifetime and attempt to put their mystery solving days behind them. As soon as they arrive to the tropical island, Velma, Daphne and Fred can’t help but notice how strangely familiar this island is, to a terrifying trip they once took decades ago. They soon find out paradise comes with a price when they encounter an army of zombies! Hop on board and travel with Scooby-Doo and the gang, as they unearth the mystery of Zombie Island in an original movie adventure!

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REVIEW: “It Chapter Two”

it chapter twoIt is a really tricky beast to adapt. It’s a massive novel that constantly jumps between time periods in such a way that to adapt it exactly as written would prove impossible for any kind of Hollywood film as it would require such an extensive runtime – or such an outrageous amount of cuts to the source material – that it just wouldn’t work. So, on the surface, it might seem like a really good idea to separate the two timelines in the novel into two movies – the first exploring the Losers Club’s childhood battle with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) while the second movie deals with their second battle with him, as adults. The 1990 miniseries mostly took this approach – though certain elements of the adult storyline were mixed with that of the children storyline, the two were mostly kept separate. The 2017 remake of It took it a step farther by presenting audiences with a film that focused entirely on the younger incarnation of these characters. With the wild success of that first movie, its inevitable sequel, It Chapter Two, was left to adapt the adult storyline and wrap the whole story up. Does it accomplish this and is it as good as the first film was? Yes and no. This movie isn’t a great horror film, nor is it a particularly good sequel – but it is a solid and deeply enjoyable movie. (Mild spoilers for It Chapter Two and all other versions of the story follow.)

It Chapter Two (Written by Gary Dauberman, directed by Andy Muschietti)
Evil resurfaces in Derry as director Andy Muschietti reunites the Losers Club in a return to where it all began with “IT Chapter Two,” the conclusion to the highest-grossing horror film of all time. Twenty-seven years after the Losers Club defeated Pennywise, he has returned to terrorize the town of Derry once more. Now adults, the Losers have long since gone their separate ways. However, kids are disappearing again, so Mike, the only one of the group to remain in their hometown, calls the others home. Damaged by the experiences of their past, they must each conquer their deepest fears to destroy Pennywise once and for all…putting them directly in the path of the clown that has become deadlier than ever.

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REVIEW: “Doctor Who – The 13th Doctor, Volume 2”

13th doc vol 2With Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the 13th Doctor delayed until 2020, fans of Doctor Who are left to turn to other mediums to get their fix of new Doctor Who stories. Thankfully, Titan Comics continues to put out new 13th Doctor comics each and every month. And they’re really good, too, with each arc comprising a single storyline that feels like a complete episode of the series!

Doctor Who – The 13th Doctor, Volume 2 by Jody Houser, illustrated by Rachael Stott and Roberta Ingranata
A mysterious podcast leads the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan throughout history as they work out how they’re involved in its creation and just who’s behind “Hidden Human History”.

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