Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bandai Creation Classic 12" Godzilla Figures

Fans of the Kaiju genre, particularly those that collect the terrific, albeit expensive, Bandai imports, have had a great couple of years thanks to Bandai Creation's prodigious vinyl toy monster output, and the company shows no signs of slowing down. With virtually no marketing support whatsoever this offering of expertly sculpted likenesses of the various incarnations of Godzilla and his foes has continued to impress and sometimes confound fans of the 50 year old film series. The toys are a mix of home runs and missteps, and a reason to celebrate with the release of each totally unexpected new wave of figures. Like all previous releases, Wave four came out of nowhere and has it's good points and bad, but ultimately its about children being able to enjoy cool vinyl Godzilla toys just like their Japanese counterparts, and without the need for having a sci-fi geek uncle with too much frivolous income. This wave of figures also happens to herald a new surprise for collectors; enter the latest product category, the Classic 12" Godzilla Figures collection comprised of Final Wars Godzilla and Mecha Godzilla.

Not since the failed play sets of the first wave has Bandai Creation attempted to deviate from the tried and true 7" line of figures, and this time I believe they got it right. Rather than a bunch of tiny figures and cheap accessories, what Kaiju loving kids are looking for at a higher price point is actually a larger version of the monsters, perhaps scaled up enough to be a true menace to a matchbox car or army men collection. This time the manufacturer was listening. These toys are finally trickling into stores at their famously uneven distribution rate, and I'm telling you they are worth the trouble.


The first thing you'll notice is their size when compared to regular ol' Bandai's larger 9" scale figures. They are more than just taller, they are bulkier, and sporting additional points of articulation. They look like they could eat the 9" figures from Japan. They are large enough to force a collector to consider the various properties of soft vinyl as they are practically collapsing under their own weight. When you take into account the incredibly low price point ($15 Toys 'R' Us) these things become positively mammoth. As a long time collector used to browsing online and in specialty shops, I find it almost ludicrous that I'm able to walk out of a major toy store chain with so much injection molded vinyl after years of supporting this otherwise expensive hobby. I think I cheered out loud when I scanned the bar code and saw how reasonably priced they are. I don't believe they were on any sort of clearance, since this is the first time I've seen them anywhere on the shelves, and I'm pretty sure that Godzilla collectors need to get a hold of these two before they disappear.

As for the sculpts, well, these are still Bandai Creation toys. Keeping in mind that I've been collecting domestic Japanese releases for years, it's easy to see the flaws in an otherwise awesome toy line. It's awesome because it's authentic Godzilla coolness finally made available on our shores, and does a lot towards helping us forget the clunky Trendmasters offerings from ten years ago. Even though Trendmasters gets credit for understanding how badly kids desire Godzilla toys, the execution wasn't quite enough to garner the support of adult collectors, which we all now understand to comprise nearly a third of the current toy buying public. Bandai Creation has cleared that hurdle by offering the closest thing to the truly cool, virtually indestructible toys its parent company has been selling in Japan for decades. That said, after five years of inspecting these toys I'm convinced that there is a conspiracy to deprive American collectors the same levels of perfection enjoyed in the Far East. There's always something a little wonky about certain figures, whether it's a clumsy paint scheme or a disproportion. With such expectations I don't think it's a big deal that the 12" Final Wars Godzilla only vaguely resembles the creature as it appears in the film. Looking at the previous waves accurate 7" representation makes me wonder why they couldn't get it right at this size, but it's not the end of the world. The monster sort of looks like Final Wars G, with a little Heisei G thrown into the mix, perhaps in an effort to broaden the appeal of the toy. I like the crouching pose and lashing tail as a nice change from the more uniform poses of the Japanese releases, although I don't feel compelled to remove it from the sturdy card backed tray packaging. The pose is definitely a better solution to the apparent problem of the "overreaching tails" than the current waves curved tails (which you can reshape with a heat gun) They should have all the 7" toy lines tails lashing since no one wants a static looking Godzilla toy.


Mecha Godzilla is a slightly different story. It's the Kiryu version of the monster, which is the right version to release at this scale, and also the first Kiryu to be released domestically. Similar to it's Japanese vinyl toy counterpart, Mecha G has less articulation. His legs don't move, and his tail has only one point of articulation compared to Final Wars G's three points, which is kind of a bummer, but again, not a deal breaker. Another flaw might be the shortened tail with a stubby end, very unlike the actual monster, however the entire wave of toys seems stuck on the idea that the monsters tails should not disrupt the delicate balance of available shelf space. The toy does benefit from a dynamic pose and slightly taller height than it's companion piece. It's legs are askance, and when placed head to head the two toys look as though they're about to clash. Of the two figures, this one is begging me to remove it from the packaging, but I think I'll pass it along to my nephew and let him do the honors. I don't think the lack of articulation makes too much difference in light of the cool pose, although I find it curious that they wouldn't try to tackle a shortcoming that has plagued every vinyl incarnation of the character.


That's my harsh criticism of an otherwise intelligent decision in moving this toy line forward. The epic 12" scaled figures should be enough to have Japanese collectors drooling, pining for a cool toy that is beyond their possession (unless they want to shell out $50 bucks to purchase and ship. Ha! See how they like it!) These two figures should have U.S. fans responding in much the same way. These are the first Bandai Creation toys, other than GMK Ghidorah, that I would highly recommend including in a collection of original Bandai vinyls. They won't look out of place at all, and will continue to tempt you to open them. When I present these to my six year old nephew, I truly believe he will flip out. Who knows when or if Bandai Creation will launch a fifth wave of figures, since you can't find anything official about any of these toys on the internet, which is bizarre. In any case it's probably still a few months off. If we do get another wave, I sincerely hope they'll continue the 12" line, maybe throwing in some other characters as they did with Kiryu Mecha G. I could go for a 60's Baragon or Kameba. Since there isn't any place to find out more, I'll just sit with my fingers crossed and look forward to whatever they have up their sleeve.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pittsburgh Steak Salad...Mmmmmmm!

Here's another great food variation from my homeland, the "Pittsburgh Steak Salad." It's awesome, and in keeping with the traditions of Pittsburgh cuisine, completely unhealthy. "But Steve, how can a salad be unhealthy?" you might ask. Read on, dear diner, and keep that defibrillator handy cuz yinz is in Stiller country!

The Pittsburgh Steak Salad is your basic entree sized salad, with the typical mix of veggies (btw, hardboiled eggs and shredded cheese are considered vegetables in these parts,) and is, of course, piled with strips of grilled sirloin. That's great for some regions, however, here in the 'Burgh we like to take it to another level by throwing a heap of deep fried starch into the equation. That's right, nothing says "salad" like a pile of French fries serving as a salty, greasy bed to the meat. Essentially, when you order this dish, you're ordering several extra value meals without the buns. It's the price you pay for "delicious."

So fix your salad greens, toss a bunch of fries on it, then the steak, and finally the shredded cheese, which should melt from the heat of the meat and potatoes. That's a Pittsburgh Steak Salad, and it's something you're not likely to be served anywhere else. If you're dining out in Pittsburgh, just ask for a steak salad, and you WILL get fries on it. Then try to do something healthy for the next few days. Bon Apatite!

Monday, April 7, 2008

R.I.P. The Teeth


The great Philly band The Teeth have officially disbanded, sending a minor shock wave around certain granola crunching, mildly androgynous, indie rock circles. To be sure, The Teeth were among the elite of the current crop of great bands hailing from the eastern part of the state, having the type of impact that most bands in the mid west can only dream of. Maybe they listened to too much Kinks and Bowie for some tastes, since these guys wore their influences on their sleeves, yet somehow they managed to provide a fresh listening experience time and again, be it live or with a new recording. Plus, The Teeth earned heaps of additional credibility for their grueling tour schedule and "electrifying stage presentation." That's exactly how I put it to Peter a couple of years ago outside of the Garfield Artworks, and it got me a big smile from the giant. Good times. As a humble tribute I was going to offer an account of my experiences as a promoter working with the band, but the more I wrote I began to realize that would just be more boring, self-aggrandizing internet tripe. The Teeth slept on my floor and I watched Peter eat an uncooked can of Spaghetti-o's in a Sheetz parking lot. Add to that a couple of shows, a trip to the Funhouse to see them explode on some townies, and finally, a discombobulated voyage around the foothills of the Rockies listening to "You're my Lover Now" and I have what I consider to be a sort of reckoning in light of the recent news. Instead of selling myself as a cool dude (which the band and their eventual "hip" crowd would probably argue,) I'll share some thoughts about the current state of the independent music scene.

First of all, I can't blame The teeth for cashing in their chips after several years of working with Chris Watson at Park The Van. After all, the guy is a slave driver, and I say that with all due respect. Even though the trend appears to be for his bands to burn out on the road, they do so willingly, such is the confidence the guy inspires. Chris possesses a certain charisma and a ton of hard earned music biz knowledge, as well as a keen ear and sense for which bands are doing things in a way he can harness for his cause. And that's not a whole lot of people. I can safely say that even if something I attempt musically shows up on his radar, there is no way in hell it will occur with people willing to work as hard as Park The Van bands do. Maybe not all of them, but it seems to me that if Chris sets his sights on your band, you will spend several months out of a year inside a van, cruising through the middle of nowhere, playing to a nil audience and sleeping on floors.

It occurs to me that The Teeth, operating within the sphere of Chris' influence, quite possibly blew up too fast in an era were even the most influential names in modern rock continue to work day jobs. If we're honest with ourselves we can see that it's next to impossible to maintain that type of aggressive touring routine they had while at the same time having a place to live that's all your own. Despite the best of intentions somethings gotta give. If I'm asking a question it has to be "what price for success?" Does one push so hard, for as long as he or she can, achieve (in relative terms) tremendous levels of success and then stop? Some bands seem to go on forever, and I have to wonder if maybe they aren't working so hard at all. Maybe those bands that seem to have it don't want it so bad. I'm not even sure which bands I'm referring to, and I don't mean to say that guys in The Teeth were delusional or misguided or in any way doing something wrong, I just wonder what happens to make a successful band, one seemingly poised for even greater success, decide to pick up and call it a day. It's not just the hard touring, for I agree that logging some serious mileage is the only way to get ahead of the thousands of bands vying for the some recognition.

I believe that the internet has diluted the business model necessary for making a living solely from performing original music. People have too many options and are permitted to navigate onto a musical island, thereby isolating themselves from any random influences that otherwise might open their minds to something different. This is evidenced by the numerous varying tribes of twenty somethings lurking all over the web. Modern rock and pop music seem to exist in a previously unknown vacuum of listeners attempts for self actualization, manifest through strict adherence to categorization, fueled by the glut of info on the web. By the end of the eighties most musicians would find the idea of labeling their music to be repugnant, but with the rise of the internet labeling seems to have approached epidemic proportions. Categorizing your band for the sake of a Myspace profile is a ridiculous effort in redundancy. Scrolling down a list of hundreds of options it's evident that at this point, none of them can properly be applied to your band. "Screamo?" Is that a for real musical term? It sounds like more sub categorized bullshit. Naturally, they don't even begin to approach the broad spectrum of classic rock, which makes me wonder who it is serving as arbitrator of the online musical dialog. Imagine what it takes to get your band attention in a climate like that. I have a friend who insists that the internet is actually making it more possible for bands to become known, and he offers plenty of valid points to back up his argument, none of which didn't exist in some form prior to the internet. Self promotion has always been essential to a bands success, only now apparently, you have to own a bunch of expensive computer equipment and be able to write code just to combat the over saturation of music attempting to make an impact by way of the web. It looks like the only way around that is the only way there ever was, bringing us back to the basics of touring your ass off. That's exactly what The Teeth did, that's what other bands on their label do. Unfortunately, when your potential audience is inundated with so many options that they don't respond to any, playing to half filled rooms in the great lakes region goes from fun and adventure to a being grind real fast.

Then again this is all purely opinion. There are any numbers of reasons awesome bands don't survive in the corporal world. Music, however, is something entirely different from the tangible, and has a way of finding a life of it's own long after the creators are gone. The Teeth have always impressed me with their talent and creativity, and as good people. The enthusiasm at the beginning of their national touring was truly inspiring and impossible to maintain. I enjoyed some cool exchanges with each respective band member at various times, and watched as their hard work slowly wore them down. Still, they never let up on the stage, were the energy needs to be dispensed, and have earned their spot in music history. They have transcended their humble beginnings. Frankly, the last couple of stops seemed to indicate that these guys were getting a little whacked out, at least by western PA standards, yet it's hard to say if it wasn't just life on the road, a blur of strange and familiar faces, and too much sleeping on hard surfaces. No matter, this band's legacy will remain through several fantastic recordings and so much great press, so however they went out will likely be disregarded. The Teeth climbed above the clutter and into our ears, and filled our heads and hearts with their love of great music, something I suspect their recordings will continue to do in their absence for years to come. Long may you run, Teeth recordings, and long live The Teeth.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer"

It's Friday night and I've been sick all week. I've got all the symptoms, the weather is bad, and the supply run has left me exhausted, all of which lends a blanket, hot tea, and my couch the appearance of a great weekend. By the time 8pm rolled around, I was wrapped up tight and on the "Night Time Formula," settled in and ready for my first viewing of the CBS prime time thriller, "Ghost Whisperer." Oooh, spooky!


"Ghost Whisperer" sounds interesting enough, even though I've never felt compelled to tune in before. I guess there's a lot of shows on Friday and Saturday nights that I've never seen, most of which have not made it to the third season. Watching TV on weekends is exactly the sort of thing I try to avoid, which is a smart move now that I'm stuck inside with the flu and bored out of my mind. Scanning the list of options, and being a fan of the supernatural, it was obvious what I'd be watching.

I'm not sure where I know Jennifer Love Hewitt from (I want to say "Scream") but I can't deny her marquee value on network television. Not sure what the general opinion of her is, but I find her to be rather easy on the eyes. Actually, after an hour she starts to look a little like a cartoon character, kind of goofy and awkward, not the typical bland starlet that fits whatever the mold of perceived beauty happens to be at the moment. I think it's great, and I bet there's a female audience that can really identify with that. Her character is said Ghost Whisperer, a title that I'm not sure is directly referenced anywhere in the show, who operates pretty much how you'd expect a Hollywood clairvoyant would, meaning the authorities have come to trust her help in solving crimes. Of course, that's pretty much her hobby, her real bread and butter comes from operating an antiques store, which I find to be a solid plot point in a show that is otherwise completely out there. I say that having been involved in collecting all my life, with experiences that would seem to indicate the human love of materialist things transcends mere life and death. I once saw a Hot Wheels car launch off my coffee table, without any explanation, in an apartment that creeped my girlfriend out, and I've heard other collectors make similar observations. Having a attractive psychic handling previously owned, beloved objects makes sense for the character. It didn't come into play in this particular episode, but I'll bet it has plenty of times before.

I didn't catch the title of the episode, but a brief synopsis will do. It centers around the teen aged son of one of Ghost Whisperer's associates, who is entering into his first relationship. Both teens are portrayed by twenty somethings. Weird stuff starts happening to the boy, like a door slamming and bloodying his nose. In fact, from what I can tell, most of the supernatural occurrences take the form of a door or window slamming. That's not exactly playing up the scares as far as most horror audiences are concerned, but then, this program is more of a mystery, so I'll take what I can get. Later, when the next door neighbor gets locked in the basement, the screen goes black, we hear a quick scream, then cut to some other scene. Zero tension in what would have been show stealer handled in a theatrical presentation helmed by someone like Wes Craven. Back in the day Wes would have made us all uncomfortable by showing her getting tormented by unknown forces while strange voices and mood lighting drove the point home. To the show's credit they create a reasonably ominous presence when depicting the actual spirits of the deceased, in this case, the girl's dad. Nothing major, just some quick glimpses leading up to GW quickly turning around and coming face to face with an actor in pancake makeup who wasn't there a second ago. You've seen that before and by now can get over any thrill the trick might yet provide. Anyhow, this ghost is causing trouble and it's up to GW to sort things out and provide closure so the spirit can "go to the light." That's an old favorite, ain't it? What if nothing happens when you die? What if you just start decomposing? I think I'd feel pretty gypped after decades of implied transcendental experience. By a half hour into the program it is revealed the ghost is really the girl's mom who died of cancer and is bald and kind of mannish looking (with the help of make up, of course.) The ghost mom is desperate to keep her children together as a family, so prior to death she drills her eldest in home economics and then sticks around on the mortal plain to oversee their safety. The strange happenings are then attributed to a ghost dad, while their mom is said to have a headache, be away on business, to have been kidnapped, etc. The kids bury her in the backyard and stick to their cover until GW shows up and figure's out what going on. The family drama is finally resolved by the return of the mom's big sister, the kid's aunt, who adopts them and frees the ghost. This happens because GW has lengthy conversations with the undead, and is a good listener.

I doubt very much that I'll be sick next weekend, or any of the following weekends for that matter, so I probably won't be watching "Ghost Whisperer" again soon. Although I found it enjoyable enough, I don't think a thirty something, single male is the target market. I think it's safe to say this show is for housewives and little girls, and maybe the occasional dude on extra-strength cold remedy. Since it's been around this long it would seem that it will be here for a few more seasons, so I won't feel bad if I miss it. Married guys with wives who like to hijack their TVs could be in worse shape. J Love, yo! Looking at the rest of the schedule reveals few options, just a lot of bimbos in a lot of reality shows. "Ghost Whisperer" gets my approval simply for being an honest, old fashioned attempt at a narrative that isn't about doctors, lawyers, or detectives.