Saturday, May 14, 2022

"Strange New Worlds" Evokes Classic Trek

It may be hard for a younger generation of Star Trek fans to understand, but there was a time in the pre-cable and pre-internet streaming days when the only episodes of Trek that you could see were syndicated reruns of the original 1966-69 series. I grew up watching those rebroadcasts of the show on New York's WPIX, and quickly became a fan of the show. The original series built a devoted following around the world via those reruns, and a legion of fans clamored for more Star Trek. An animated version of the show aired on NBC from 1973-75, and in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a big screen adventure reuniting the original cast, was released, leading to a string of follow-ups. Then in 1987, Trek returned to television with Star Trek: The Next Generation, a sequel set 100 years after the original show. The Next Generation was followed by a number of other new series, including the most recent addition to the Star Trek universe, Strange New Worlds, which currently airs on Paramount+.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is a prequel to the original Star Trek, featuring the adventures of Captain Christopher Pike and his crew. In Trek lore, Pike commanded the USS Enterprise just prior to Captain James T. Kirk. The character was first featured in "The Cage," the pilot for the original series, where he was played by Jeffery Hunter. When NBC passed on "The Cage," a second pilot. "Where No Man Has Gone Before," was produced, this time starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk, and, of course, the rest is history. Footage from "The Cage" was later incorporated into the two-part Star Trek episode entitled "The Menagerie." The character of Captain Pike, along with a younger version of Mr. Spock, recently appeared in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, a series that was initially set in the time just before the original series. The response to the new versions of these characters was extremely positive, so they were spun off into their own series.

Strange New Worlds features self-contained adventures in each episode, rather than the season long stories that have been the norm for recent spinoffs such as Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. There are arcs for the main characters, however, and it will be interesting to see them developed as the series goes on, especially Pike's knowledge of his ultimate fate, which he learned in a Discovery episode. Based on the two episodes of Strange New Worlds aired so far, the writers, directors and cast are making a concerted effort to capture the essence of Classic Trek. In the pilot episode, Captain Pike gets to make a speech that wouldn't have sounded out of place in an original series episode. The writers are deftly using science-fiction as a platform to explore themes that reflect current issues, just as Gene Roddenberry and his writers did on the original series, while also having a blast playing in the sandbox of the Classic Trek era. In a way, the writers (including series co-creator Akiva Goldsman) have to perform a difficult balancing act, paying homage to the show's history, while telling exciting and interesting stories that aren't fully shackled by many years of Star Trek continuity. The weight of such a vast canon can be a daunting prospect, but thus far the writers have done an excellent job capturing the essence of classic Trek, while also telling compelling new stories.

This is an enjoyably retro series with a terrific cast, including Anson Mount as Captain Pike, Ethan Peck as Spock and Rebecca Romjin as Number One. Mount is fantastic as Pike, capturing the essence of classic era captains like Kirk, while giving the character added nuance, and a welcome sense of humor. Peck and Romjin are also excellent in their roles, and Peck in patricular has a tough job, given the iconic nature of Mr. Spock. There are also new versions of other familiar characters, including a younger iteration of Uhura, portrayed by Celia Rose Gooding, in the role played by Nichelle Nichols on the original series. The show is filled with Easter eggs, call-backs and visual references for long-time fans. In the two episodes that have been aired so far, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has managed to capture the sense of fun, adventure and thoughtful drama that are the hallmarks of the best Trek stories. This could turn out to be the best Trek series since Deep Space Nine, one of my favorites. If you're a fan, it's absolutely worth checking out. Check out the trailer for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds by following this link:

Monday, May 2, 2022

Nick Piunti's Got a Lot of "Heart"

When I reviewed Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men’s 2020 release, Downtime, for the music blog CultureSonar, I indicated he just might be power pop’s best kept secret. I hope a whole new group of fans discovered Nick’s music after checking out that terrific album, because he and the band are back with a superb new record, Heart Inside Your Head. This fabulous disc is a must listen for fans of well-crafted, melodic rock and roll. Heart Inside Your Head is an outstanding collection of songs that will have strong appeal for fans of 1980s style pop, rock and roll and old school power pop. 

Do you dig The Outfield, Dwight Twilley, Tom Petty, or Bryan Adams? You’ll hear echoes of these artists in Piunti’s splendid songs, which are hook-filled confections that will absolutely get stuck in your head. From the propulsive opening track “My Mind (Plays Tricks On Me)" to the guitar-propelled “Trying Too Hard,” and “One of The Boyz,” the tunes on Heart Inside Your Head are perfect examples of first-class pop/rock songwriting. In addition to the more rocking selections, the album also features some introspective ballads, including the superlative “Nothing New” and “Gloves Come Off” as well as one of my favorites, the lovely “Keys To Your Heart."

Piunti’s terrific lead vocals and guitar and synth work are backed up by the supremely-talented Complicated Men: Jeff Hupp on bass, Kevin Darnall on keyboards, Jeff Daksiewicz on guitar and Ron Vensko on drums and percussion. Piunti and the band are all longtime veterans of the Detroit rock and roll scene, and their top notch musical chops shine through on every track. Heart Inside Your Head was produced by Geoff Michael, along with Nick Piunti and the band, and their fine work behind the boards provides the album with that classic 1980s pop/rock sound, while also imbuing with a modern sensibility.

Heart Inside Your Head, which will be officially released by JEM Records on May 20th, is an exceptional record that deserves the attention of rock and roll and power pop fans everywhere. It’s fully evident from the unbridled enthusiasm displayed by the band on this disc that Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men enjoy playing together, and that joy is truly infectious. This album has a lot of emotion embedded in its grooves, and its fully evident on these heartfelt songs.  Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this marvelous record. To find out more about Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men, please check out: or

Friday, April 22, 2022

Marc Platt's Insightful "That Midlife Thing"

Marc Platt is a California based singer, songwriter and producer. He’s been making memorable music since his days as a member of the power pop group The Real Impossibles. His latest release, That Midlife Thing, is an insightful and reflective collection of songs which views life and relationships from the perspective of middle age. Like his previous discs Beat on the Street, Colors of the Universe and Dis Time It’s Poisonal, the record is filled with excellent songs whose sound is imbued with a 1960s vibe. That Midlife Thing is a terrific album that will touch your heart, inspire your mind, and move your soul. It's an outstanding record whose songs will continue to resonate with you long after you've listened to them. Marc recently took some time out to talk with me about That Midlife Thing, and the experiences that inspired him to create this superb record. 

Q: That Midlife Thing is an emotionally driven collection of songs. Your music has always had a heartfelt aspect to it, which is evident on previous releases like Colors of the Universe and Dis Time It’s Poisonal, and going all the way back to your work with The Real Impossibles. It feels like you’ve taken things to the next level on That Midlife Thing. These songs come from a very personal place. Did you have a sense of that while you were working on the album?

A: I have so many friends and family members who have been through issues like divorces, family breakdowns, and have dealt with the loss of their parents and other members of their family. My own mother died when I was 12. I just decided to get it all out in one record.

Q: Tracks like "Daisy's Lies' and "Lie To Each Other' examine the darker side of relationships, but there are also songs with a hopeful and positive tone, such as “Love of My Life” and “More Than I Can Say.”  I think the songs on That Midlife Thing will really resonate with listeners. For example, most of us have been in relationships with someone which didn't end well, then later found a partner we were more compatible with. Do you find that writing about the positive aspects of romantic relationships is easier? Is it more difficult to reflect on negative experiences when you're writing songs?

A: It is necessary to examine all facets of my emotional IQ as I get older. 'Daisy's Lies' is a song about an old girlfriend who virtually became unrecognizable to me and I to her all these years later. The way we feel about lovers evolves with the passage of time. A song like "We Lie To Each Other" resonates to me, so I imagine other people have similar feelings about truth, on a level where it can be hard to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror. "Love of My Life" and "More Than I Can Say" are a more romanticized view of reality. It took me decades to find the right partner after a lot of heartache resulting from decisions I had made previously, because I was emotionally asleep at the wheel.

Q: Your music has a strong 1960s vibe, and features elements of rock, pop, folk, and even a bit of jazz. I hear echoes of the 1970s and 80s as well. Your work brilliantly combines your influences into songs that have a classic aesthetic, but also sound fresh and up to date. You clearly have a strong affinity for the music of the 1960s, which is really evident in the your production on the album. Is that your favorite era of rock and roll?

A: I was literally raised on The Beatles. For Christmas in 1965, I received Rubber Soul as a present, and I fell in love with all of the music of that era. My mom would quiz me when a song came on the radio. She would say “Who is that?” I’d answer “Dionne Warwick,” etc. I was like a savant at age 8. I loved it all, but The Beatles were and still are the North Star for me.

Q: Other than The Beatles, what bands and artists influenced you as a performer and songwriter?

A:  Neil Young, Miles Davis, Kenny Rankin, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Peter Case, Billy Joel, Karla Bonoff, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Dan Fogelberg and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Q: In addition to releasing your own your music, you host a Beatles radio show called We Love You Beatles, and work on promoting new artists and bands, as part of a project called Radio Candy. Can tell us a little about that?

A: My http://www.RadioCandy.Media company specializes in getting Indie Artists airplay all over the world. We also own the network of 4 stations that airs presenters from all over the world (United Kingdom, Japan, Dublin, USA). One other future project is called Click Rock Go, which is a phone app that will help connect artists to new fans and expose music fans to a growing community of artists. 

Q: You’re always writing songs and working on new music. Any other releases coming up in the future?

A: I have 30 more new songs written and recorded. I will decide what the next record will be like in the fall of this year. I am really digging my Bossa Nova vibe on several of these new songs. Maybe it will be a Bossa Nova record.

Many thanks to Marc for taking the time to talk with me about his latest release. That Midlife Thing is currently available at bandcamp. You can get more information about Marc, listen to the tracks, and order the album, by following this link:

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Moreno Escalates the Terror "Between Us"

In the best tales of horror and the supernatural, the most frightening demons are the ones that manifest inside ourselves. In Gus Moreno’s offbeat debut novel This Thing Between Us, the nightmare begins when Thiago and Vera, a married couple in Chicago, move into a new condo. They hear odd noises at night, which could be caused by their inconsiderate neighbors, but they also experience some other strange occurrences. Sometimes, the couple hears scratching in the walls. They believe they might have rats, but an exterminator doesn’t find anything. At first, these disturbances seem fairly innocuous. Then, their Alexa-like smart speaker, Itza,  starts talking  to someone who isn’t there, ordering things they never bought, and playing music at all hours of the night. When the couple looks into the history of their home, they discover that the previous tenant was a mysterious old woman, who might have performed occult rituals there.

Tragedy strikes when Vera dies after being knocked down some stairs by a thief fleeing a crime scene. A grief-stricken Thiago decides to leave Chicago and move into a remote cabin in Colorado. As you might imagine, this turns out to be a very bad decision. The supernatural forces that have taken hold of Thiago aren’t ready to let go, and his sanity begins to crack. His downward spiral continues, and the deep sense of loss he feels allows whatever entity is haunting him to gain a deeper hold on his psyche. As things escalate, and darker and bloodier events occur, Thiago wonders if something deep inside him is the real cause of all the tragedy he’s experienced. What is real, and what is imagined? Will he become a prisoner of the darkness inside his own mind and will the cost be his soul?

This Thing Between Us is an eerie and unsettling tale, told by Thiago as he relates the story of the harrowing events that befell Vera and himself. It’s a powerful portrait of a marriage shattered by tragedy, and how a loss can fracture our sense of self. Moreno also brings a cultural dimension to the story, as the criminal that causes Vera’s death is an illegal immigrant, and Thiago’s own family history has ties to the experience of being a stranger from across the border. The novel also raises the issue of just how intimately entwined we are with technology and social media these days, and how being so connected can be both a blessing and a curse. There are some truly terrifying sequences in the Colorado portion of the story, and fans of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey will notice some clever homages to their work. In fact, the terrors experienced by Thiago have a very Lovecraftian element. The darkest horrors he experiences may be contained within the multitudes inside himself.

Moreno’s fine writing deftly escalates the sense psychological unease and impending doom felt by Thiago. While he’s the most well drawn figure in the book, it’s interesting to note how he relates to (and views) the other characters, especially Vera, and his mother in law, who becomes important  in the second half of the story. Is what we experience of the other characters less trustworthy because we view them through Thiago’s eyes? You do feel a deep sense of sympathy for, and empathy with, Thiago. But could he be an unreliable narrator? Is the darkness calling to him, or was it within him all along? Once you finish this intense, disturbing and emotionally shattering novel, you’ll have to make up your own mind. One thing is for certain. Once you finish this chilling tale, you’ll never look at your Alexa the same way again.

Monday, April 4, 2022

A Cosmology of Monsters: A Haunted Family

Cover blurbs on novels are often a form of hyperbole. They're sourced from best-selling authors like Janet Evanovich or Stephen King, as a shortcut to getting readers to plunk down their hard earned dollars for a book by a new writer. In the case of Shaun Hamill's A Cosmology of Monsters, King is quoted on the cover as saying "If John Irving ever wrote a horror novel, it would be something like this. I loved it." That description turns out to be perfectly accurate. Hamill's novel is a masterful blend of Irving's quirky stories with the unsettling horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. It's a terrific novel that is an atmospheric, haunting and emotional tale which both embraces and subverts the genres of family drama and horror.

A Cosmology of Monsters is narrated by Noah Turner, the youngest of three siblings. He and his sisters Eunice and Sydney, along with their parents Harry and Margaret, run a Halloween haunted house attraction that is one of the central metaphors of the novel. Part of Harry's courtship with Margaret involved the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and she cast aside another suitor to marry the somewhat ramshackle Harry. Much to Margaret's chagrin, his compulsion to continually expand their haunted house experience, eventually christened The Wandering Dark, becomes an obsession, and a source of conflict in their marriage. The portrayal and characterization of Harry and Margaret and their three children is very John Irving-esque. The Turner family could easily fit right into Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, except for the fact that these quirky characters are dealing with emotions and experiences that will eventually become entwined with the supernatural.

Eunice is a budding writer, struggling with personal issues, whose "suicide notes" Noah relates to us throughout the novel. The other Turner sibling, Sydney, mysteriously disappears, and that event puts permanent cracks in the already shaky foundations of the family. Like his father Harry, who died when he was a toddler, Noah obsesses over making The Wandering Dark bigger and better, which brings him into conflict with his mother. He then quite literally meets a monster, who he discovers scratching at his window one night. The creature continues to visit, and the pair begin to take night-time jaunts around the neighborhood. The monster seems to be harmless, but there are sinister forces at work in the area. Other children are disappearing, just like Sydney. Noah begins to wonder if his shaggy friend may know more about the missing children, just as their relationship takes a surprising turn. 

A Cosmology of Monsters is a compelling, powerful story of the things that haunt the Turner family, literally and figuratively. The characters struggle with problems that are quite relatable to us as readers, including the loss of a parent or sibling, making the wrong choice in a romantic partner, and dealing with depression and mental health issues. In a way, we're all haunted, but the Turners are literally tormented by their personal demons, which become intertwined with a powerful supernatural threat inspired by the otherworldly horror of H.P. Lovecraft. The dark and eerie forces in the novel are able to manipulate the Turners for their own ends, essentially turning their own troubled psyches against them. Were the Turners chosen at random by these evil forces, or was it their family's fate to be cursed? Someone will need to break the cycle of darkness that has long haunted the family. Will it be Noah?

Horror fiction has flourished in recent years, with writers like Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones and Sara Gran, among others, doing excellent work in the genre, and you can add Hamill's name to the list of talented new voices in the genre. A Cosmology of Monsters is brilliant combination of styles, melding the offbeat characters of a John Irving drama with moments of unsettling Lovecraftian horror, along a dash of Stephen King-esque eerieness. This thoughtful, emotionally driven book which features evocative moments of family drama entwined with harrowing moments of terror, will remain with you long after you close the pages. I highly recommend A Cosmology of Monsters to fans of the horror genre, and to those looking to add something a bit different for their reading list.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Raised By Wolves: Thought-Provoking Sci-Fi

As a genre, science-fiction can astonish, entertain and enlighten us, with a diverse group of stories, including action-adventure epics, and cautionary tales, offering a mirror to our own world and time. One of the more fascinating and intriguing television series to come along in recent years is Raised By Wolves, which just finished airing its second season on HBO Max. The show, created by Aaron Guzikowski, who also wrote Prisoners (2013), is a thought-provoking story of a future Earth which has been devastated by a war between a religious sect called the Mithraic and a science-based group of atheists. After locating Kepler 22-B, a suitable planet to settle on, both groups launch ships into space to assure the future of humanity, but the atheists go one step further. They send two androids, along with some human embryos, to ensure the continuation of the human race. These androids, named Mother and Father, whose mission is to raise and protect these children. The two surrogate parents are tasked with teaching these children the scientific based tenets of the atheists, in order to help ensure the ultimate survival of the human race.

The series focuses on Mother and Father’s attempts to establish a colony on Kepler 22-B, while dealing with some dangerous creatures that inhabit the planet. Only one of the children Mother and Father cultivate, a boy named Campion, survives on the new world. A space ark, sent by the Mithraic order, arrives at Kepler 22-B, and Mother (who reveals herself to be a powerful type of android called a Neuromancer) battles the crew. The ship crash lands, and Mother kidnaps several of their children, intending to raise them with Campion. Meanwhile, a Mithraic man named Marcus, finds some mystical artifacts, believes he’s heard the voice of God, and declares himself a prophet. He assumes leadership of the crash survivors, and goes on a quest to rescue the children and establish a permanent Mithraic settlement on the planet. 


Raised By Wolves is thought-provoking, intense and absorbing. It’s a captivating series that uses elements of science-fiction, horror and even a touch of fantasy to tell a fascinating and story that definitely upends the conventions of the genre. In a time when so many movies and television series are remakes, reboots or sequels, it’s nice to see a science-fiction show that tells a truly offbeat story that combines a lot of the genre’s elements in a unique and original way. One of the executive producers of the series is Ridley Scott, of Alien and Blade Runner fame. He helmed the first two episodes, and brings his striking directorial style to the show, helping to establish the look, tone and visual language of this alien world. It’s easy to see what attracted Scott to the project. While it’s an original story, it feels like the series could be set in a world much like the universe established in the three films from the Alien series which he directed. 

The cast for Raised By Wolves is uniformly outstanding, with Amanda Collin giving a superb performance as Mother, the android who’s trying to balance being a caregiver for the children with her other directives, including being a weapon of war. Abubakar Slim is equally strong as Father, who wants to be a true father figure to the children. Both Mother and Father struggle with the fact that they’re androids who are feeling more human all the time, due to the roles they need to fulfill for the children. If you’re a fan of Vikings, Travis Fimmel (who was so good in that series) is terrific as Marcus, the leader of the Mithraic. The rest of the cast is also wonderful, including Niamh Algar as Marcus’ wife Sue, and a fine group of young actors as the children, including Winta McGrath as Campion.

Raised By Wolves is a sharply written, solidly directed and well-acted series. The show is captivating, gripping and often surprising. Just when you think you’ve figured out where the plot is going, the story goes off in an unexpected direction. For this review, I tried to give just a basic outline of the story, so I don't spoil some of the mind-blowing moments and startling plot developments featured in the show. This is a fantastic series that’s definitely worth checking out, and worth viewing without much prior knowledge about it beforehand. Raised By Wolves is highly recommended for fans of thoughtful, mind-blowing and thrilling science-fiction. The show is now streaming on HBO Max. Here’s a look at the trailer for Season 1:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

A Noir-Infused "Batman" from Matt Reeves

Zoe Kravitz and Robert Pattinson

There have been a lot of cinematic versions of the Caped Crusader, and since Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster Batman, most of them have leaned towards a darker interpretation of the character, largely inspired by Frank Miller's much-celebrated graphic novel, The Dark Knight ReturnsBut none of those previous films are as noir-ish as director Matt Reeves’ The Batman. This version of the character prowls the streets of an often rain-soaked, shadowy Gotham City that wouldn’t feel out of place in a vintage 1940s film noir or a classic crime novel. There’s also more than a hint of modern day thrillers like Seven in the script by Reeves and Peter Craig. The story is set in the second year of Batman’s career as a vigilante. The story is narrated by Batman, as he goes on his nightly quests for vengeance against criminals. That's an important distinction, as this iteration of the Dark Knight seeks vengeance, not necessarily justice, and even says in an early scene "I'm vengeance." instead of the often-quoted "I'm Batman," from previous films.

This Batman has a tenous relationship with the police, many of whom view him as a dangerous vigilante. He works with Lieutenant James Gordon, who sees the worth of having a connection with Batman, who can work outside the system to apprehend criminals. The two men are thrust into a mystery involving a serial killer who is targeting prominent Gotham politicians and public figures, leaving riddles in notes addressed to Batman at each crime scene. The villain is eventually revealed to be a twisted version of The Riddler, who claims he want to reveal the truth about Gotham's corrupt government. Batman uses his detective skills to try and to identify the killer, and figure out his ultimate goal. This brings him into conflict with a mysterious thief named Selina Kyle, and prominent members of Gotham's crime families, including mob boss Carmine Falcone and an ambitious (and shady) underground club owner named Oswald Cobblepot.

The unique visual aesthetic of The Batman (courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser) gives us a different version of the Dark Knight than has previously been portrayed on screen. Director Reeves has stated in interviews that he took inspiration from 1970's thrillers such as The French ConnectionChinatown and Taxi Driver, and that is reflected in the style of the film. This is a strikingly photographed, street-level version of the character, and while there are a couple of gadgets on display, it's a much less "comic-book" iteration of the Dark Knight. There's a car chase featured in the film that owes a lot more to Bullitt and The Seven-Ups than the day-glo antics of Batman ForeverThe Batman also embraces a much darker version of The Riddler, whose twisted quest for his own version of justice is a twisted mirror to what The Batman is trying to achieve in his own vigilante crusade. Once the hidden truths about Gotham which The Riddler are trying to bring to light are revealed, the Dark Knight may have to reflect on what he's been doing, and figure out what being The Batman really means to him, and to his city.

The cast is superb. Robert Pattinson does a fine job as the Dark Knight, portraying the character as a haunted man who's more comfortable wearing the mask and beating up criminals than in being Bruce Wayne. He doesn't know how to live a "normal" life, and that brings him into conflict with his mentor, Alfred, his late father's bodyguard. Andy Serkis acquits himself well in the role, but has limited screen time as the character. Zoe Kravitz is terrfic as Selina Kyle, the "cat" burglar who becomes an ally to Batman on his quest, who has a few secrets (and an agenda) of her own. Kravitz and Pattinson have great chemistry, and it would be interesting to see the relationship developed further in a sequel. Paul Dano (who was excellent as a young Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy) offers a strong performance as The Riddler, who's more of an obsessed, demented killer than the humorous interpretations we've seen in the past from actors like Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey. There's also great work from Jeffrey Wright as Lt. Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone and Colin Farrell, who's unrecognizable as Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin.

The Batman is a fascinating, noir-infused take on this classic character. Matt Reeves (who also directed two entries in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy) has given us a different perspective on the early years of the Dark Knight. The inspiration for the film comes from works such as Frank Miller's graphic novel Year One, the 1970's back to basics comic book stories from writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams, 1970's crime films, serial killer tales like David Fincher's Seven, and even a hint of Ridley Scott's rain-soaked cityscapes from Blade Runner. The film benefits greatly from a wonderful score by Michael Giacchino, which adds to the sense of menace and dread in the story, but is also epic and romantic. The movie is a bit overlong at three hours. The story could have ended after a powerful scene between Pattinson and Dano, but it goes on for almost another half hour with a sequence that feels a bit out of place in the film, but does serve to deepen an important realization for Bruce Wayne about his ongoing role as Batman. If you're a long-time fan of the character, I think you'll appreciate The Batman. Here's a look at the trailer for the film, which is currently in theaters: