Disneyland in July, Part 4

How about a few more Disneyland experiences? Tomorrowland is looking much better with it's new paint job (though I really hope they get rid of the big bronze rocks at the entrance), and Dae and I really enjoyed the two new ride experiences there! The newly-rebuilt Space Mountain is simply amazing! I wasn't sure what to expect, since I knew it was going to be the same track layout, but my gosh, this is a serious improvement! Roller coasters have come a long way since the original Space Mountain in 1977, and the ride is smoother than ever - it really makes you feel like you're flying rather than rolling. The new effects in the launch and re-entry tunnels are spectacular - my face was frozen in total shock at what I was seeing. The loading area is really cool, and the new soundtrack (which sounds awesome on the new ride vehicle speakers) by the composer for The Incredibles really adds to the show. Can you tell I liked the ride? We also rode the new Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, which is a near copy of the Florida version, but with some enhancements that really make it more fun. The guns are connected by cords rather than being attached to the vehicle, so you have a huge range of motion, and the targets give you a great indication of when you've made a hit. The final effect of Buzz blasting Zurg is really amazing, too - I don't know how they did it! They take your photo on the ride and let you email it, so here's Dae and I having fun (click the photo for the complete image). Of course, Dae beat me by just a little! Today's photos focus on Sleeping Beauty Castle and some of the 50th anniversary logos - and I still have one more set of photos for you soon!

View photos: Castle and 50th logos


Utada Hikaru / Exodus : 3 of 5

I first heard Utada Hikaru on a mix-MD that my pal Matt sent me years ago, and I was impressed by the "maturity" of her music compared to most J-pop (of course, I love immature J-pop, too!). I only recently discovered that she released an all-English album to try to break into the US music scene, and this is it - there's no Japanese anywhere on the CD, and her English speaking style is simply perfect. It's even more amazing that Utada wrote nearly every song, so her English ability is incredible! The first thing that struck me about this CD is that a lot of the songs have a "nasty" side to them, which is fine, but kind of a surprise! Tippy Toe is about an affair and Let Me Give You My Love is all about mixed-race lovin' (with lines like "Get naughtly multilingual" and "Let's turn this room into a melting pot"). I was also amazed at some of the bizzare self-references to being Japanese, like "I showed him how people in the Far East get down", and the bizarre "You're easy breezy and I'm Japaneesy", which is a ridiculous line in an otherwise awesome song. The music itself is great, with tons of cool beats with high production values, and Utada's voice is very versatile, jumping into her high range with ease. This is a CD that I really enjoy listening to, even if as a whole I don't think it's so spectacular, which is a weird thing to say, but I'm glad I have it for my collection anyway!


Disneyland in July, Part 3

Time for some more Disneyland details! I was really excited about seeing the changes and improvements that have been made to some of the classic attractions recently, and I definitely wasn't disappointed! The first one I saw was the new Madame Leota effect in the Haunted Mansion, and it was totally jaw-dropping. I knew that her crystal ball head was going to be floating above the table, but I didn't realize how far above the table - the range of motion was really incredible! The next improvement was in Pirates of the Caribbean, specifically to the battle between the fort and the Wicked Wench ship. Previously the canon ball splashes in the water were pretty wimpy, but now they've replaced them with powerful underwater air cannons that create a giant splash - sometimes it looked like about 15 feet tall! It's really impressive, and makes the scene much more exciting. Finally, I thought the changes to the Jungle Cruise were well done, too. I was looking forward to seeing the pirana attack, which was really good, but I was even more impressed by the apes ransacking the camp scene! Now those bad monkeys have dumped explosives into the river, and they shoot at the boat with guns! There's some great timing, too, with a big water explosion at the rear of the boat just as it passes by. It's wonderful to see changes that really enhance the experience while keeping the original feel of the attraction - I think Walt would approve. Today's photo set covers lots more of the park, and includes some of the Columbia that I mentioned earlier this week.

View photos: More Disneyland


The Last of the Jedi Vol 1 / Jude Watson : 3 of 5

The best news a Star Wars Scholastic book junkie like me could hear is that Jude Watson, author of the amazing Jedi Apprentice and Jedi Quest series, is starting a new set of stories! The Last of the Jedi series follows Obi-Wan during his early days on Tatooine, picking up just a few months after Revenge of the Sith. It's a fantastic idea for a series, and Jude Watson's definitely up to the challenge. We read about Obi-Wan making his little home, and sneaking out in the early evening to the Lars homestead to watch baby Luke crawl around with Aunt Beru in the pit. Obi-Wan is so dedicated, yet so sad, trying to be true to his mission to watch over Luke and not break down over his loss of Anakin. We also get a little Qui-Gon dialog, since Obi-Wan is supposed to receive training from his "Force spirit" as Yoda instructed. The plot of the story actually takes Obi-Wan away from Tatooine for a bit (he hires a ship at the Mos Eisley cantina, of course!), because it turns out that Anakin's rival Ferus (from the Jedi Quest books) is still alive, since he left the Jedi Order while still a Padawan. Ferus is starting his own little rebellion, and Obi-Wan helps him out of a tight spot - it's really cool to see a small master/apprentice relationship again as Ferus reconnects to the Force! This is a great start to the series, and I hope they can come up with enough ideas to keep it going a long time!


Disneyland in July, Part 2

Here's a couple of totally new things I got to see at Disneyland this time! Since I usually visit the park during the off-season, I never get to hear the Disney All American College Band. Each year Disney brings in some of the best musicians from college bands across the country, and they perform at the park during the summer. Dae and I got to hear them twice - once during a big band swing set at the Plaza Gardens, and again marching down Main Street. They were absolutely fantastic and full of energy, and their arrangements of Disney tunes were top-notch (their director was totally crazy, but tons of fun). While Dae and I were waiting in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, we timed it just right to see the Matterhorn climbers, including Mickey, who made it to the top of the mountain to plant a 50th anniversary flag! I've always loved old footage of the Matterhorn climbers, so it was really exciting to see them hanging from their ropes and making their way up. Mickey's performance was so cool and funny, especially with Minnie and Goofy nearby to cheer him on! There are a few shots of both of these cool experiences in today's photo set, which generally covers Main Street and Fantasyland! Stay tuned for more Disneyland details soon.

View photos: Main Street & Fantasyland


Best of YesJapan Vol 1 : 4 of 5

I'm a big fan of the shows that George Trombley produces for his Japanese leaning website, YesJapan (and I definitely need to write more about the site soon in case you haven't discovered it!). He regularly releases great videos that can be purchased - each is usually 30 minutes long, and introduces several language concepts and vocabulary by listening to natural conversation with key subtitles and on-screen notes. I've been downloading and saving the shows for several months now, but I would much rather watch them on TV than on my computer, and now I can! This DVD brings together lots of the best shows of the past, including four episodes of the George & Keiko Show (my favorite, and the staple of the site), two episodes of George & Chie, plus an episode of George in Japan. I think the shows were selected by visual interest, because they all look great, but aren't necessarily the shows full of the most material to learn. Still, it's awesome to see them in full digital video resolution, rather than the encoded versions, and each episode is funny and really interesting from a cultural standpoint. I had only seen one of these episodes before (since I've been watching the older ones first), so buying this DVD was a real bonus for me. I love the scenes of everyone singing karaoke or having lunch - you can learn so much just by listening to natural speech. The production quality is fantastic, from the excellent menus and chapter stops to the cool packaging. I hope the "Volume 1" in the title means that more DVDs are on the way - I'm definitely buying them all!


Disneyland in July, Part 1

Last weekend I took a quick two-day trip to visit my pal Dae, and we spent two spectacular days at Disneyland! It was a really fantastic trip, since I was extra excited to see the park all polished up for the 50th anniversary celebration. We also enjoyed an incredible meal at Napa Rose, Disney's Zagat-rated four-star restaurant in the Grand Californian Hotel, and saw the Angels beat the Yankees in an awesome baseball game! I went completely crazy with my new camera, and I took over 500 photos - Dae took a few hundred as well, so I have way too many pictures to share all at once! There's also lots of details I want to write about, so I'm going to cover everything over the next several days (probably every other day). To make Mom happy, I'm starting with all the photos that Dae and I took of each other!

One of my fun experiences was riding the Sailing Ship Columbia (a replica of the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, which took three years!). In all of my time at Disneyland, I had never taken a trip on the Columbia before, and I really enjoyed it. You can go below deck to see what the crew's quarters were like, and during the journey the crew fires one of the canons (which was loud and exciting!). I also thought the music was really nice to listen to while watching the flag waving in the sun. It made me think that this attraction is something that could never get built today - I can't imagine today's executives saying "What we really need in Disneyland is a replica of a 1787 sailing ship!" But back in Walt's day, if he decided he wanted it, he built it. That's why Disneyland is so special, and that's why it's important to keep these attractions around - there will never be another Walt, and no one could have built Disneyland in the same magical way.

View photos: Dae and Mikey
Watch video: Winnie the Pooh Attraction
Watch video: Royal Street Bachelors


Millennium Actress : 5 of 5

It's always amazing to me to see truly beautiful and realistic anime that easily could have been a live-action movie. Of course, I absolutely love the animation and applaud it, and it lends a certain sense of mystery to the story. The first movie I saw of this type was Perfect Blue, and by coincidence, Millennium Actress has the same director (as well as other artists)! The story is fantastic - it follows a famous Japanese actress named Chiyoko through her entire life. When she's young, she meets a painter who gives her the key to "the most important thing", and she continually tries to find him to return his key. The story is told via an interviewer and cameraman who visit the old Chiyoko in present day, but as she tells the story, it intermixes with her movie roles, covering 1,000 years of Japanese history (hence the movie's title). The interviewer and camera man appear in all of these settings, sometimes as onlookers only, but other times as characters! Everything from Samurai to monster movies to science fiction is covered, but through it all the devotion of Chiyoko to her dream is what truly shines. This original story is just incredible, and carries such a wonderful message of holding onto a dream in which the chasing is more important than the obtaining. The DVD includes an excellent making-of documentary (all in Japanese), which is a fascinating look at the development process. Millennium Actress is simply spectacular!


Kikaida Vol 3 : 3 of 5

Yes, I'm officially hooked - I know all the words to the opening theme song, and I can almost sing the closing theme song, too. Kikaida is so much fun! It somehow feels relaxing to watch a mindless action series from the 70s, and I like listening to all the Japanese (several characters speak pretty fast!). This volume was really good, because it kind of crosses seasons of the show. Jiro defeats all 13 of the original DARK Destructoids, and then Professor Gill resurrects all of them (but mainly so they can test a new, more powerful Destructoid, namely Silver Tortoise!). In one episode, a Destructoid poses as Taro, Mitsuko's brother (who was killed by DARK), and Kikaida really kicks some metal butt when the impostor is exposed! I just realized that a lot of the Destructoids are cats (Silver Cat and Pink Tiger are in these episodes) - what's up with that? The bonus material is fun this time, with a Kikaida quiz (I scored 9 out of 10) and an awesome theme song karaoke, which includes all the verses of the two themes (they both have around four verses!). I've just bought all the other DVDs (for cheap), so I'm all set for Kikaida watching for quite a while!


Slowly improving

Here's another Nihongo report! Last week Kazuki asked me to write a few sentences that we could go over and correct, so I wrote about my upcoming Disneyland trip. My phrases were mostly okay, but it was really helpful to see more natural ways to say the same thing. I can definitely see my more intense studying is starting to pay off, but of course, it will take a long time before these new language concepts seem natural to me. I'm just happy to be improving, even just a little! What else has been going on? This week I've been falling asleep on the couch too much - maybe it's from getting up so early to exercise. At least I'm not staying there all night, although one night I zonked out so early that when I woke up on the couch at midnight, I thought it was morning! By the way, I've posted to WEBmikey over 2,100 times now - unbelievable! I'll miss a couple of days this week while I'm at Disneyland, but don't worry, I'll tell you all about the trip when I get back.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou : 2 of 5

The funky trailer for this movie really made it look interesting, but I never got around to seeing it in the theater, so I ended up renting it from Netflix. There are a lot of good things to say about this movie, but unfortunately the first thing that comes to mind is how rambling and boring it was! Bill Murray (who is still funny, and an excellent actor) plays a has-been oceanographer who's always struggling for more money to film his documentaries. Along the way he runs into a son he's never met, plus a journalist who comes along for the adventure. There are plenty of other bizarre characters in his crew, too, and they are all after the elusive "jaguar shark". This is definitely a quirky movie, edited in a weird style and filled with short musical montages (and the style of music is all over the place!). All of the underwater effects are done with cheesy animation - on purpose, to be sure. Some of these scenes are brilliant, like when Steve takes us on a tour of his ship, but there are too many tangents. There's a long scene where pirates kidnap a banker, and the crew goes on a big rescue - it's wasn't that great, and just pushed a so-so movie over the two hour mark for no reason. There are tons of stars here in small roles, so everything definitely has a Hollywood feel, but it just didn't hold together enough for me to really enjoy it.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory : 4 of 5

This review is kind of tough to write, because I'm such a huge fan of the original movie. It's hard for me to see this new film objectively, since I have to remember that this isn't a remake, but instead it's just another movie that was inspired by the same book. With all that said, of course, I loved this film! It definitely follows the Roald Dahl book very closely, right down to using the original lyrics to the Oompa Loompa songs (all of which are amazingly arranged by Danny Elfman into several contemporary musical genres!). The only real addition to the plot is a backstory for Willy Wonka, involving his dentist father and giving him a reason for being a master chocolatier. The visuals are mostly magnificent, although some of the CG work is rather unpolished (though I'm sure this was on purpose to give things a surreal look). I think all of the kids are wonderful (especially Violet), except for Mike Teavee, who just comes across as a demon. Johnny Depp's interpretation of Willy Wonka is interesting, but ultimately the most troubling part of the film for me. I keep thinking of Gene Wilder, who was such a lovable Wonka (despite his weirdness), while this new Wonka is just so flat-out bizarre that he's unapproachable. But overall, this is an incredible adventure of a movie, and anyone will have a great time at the theater enjoying it (and maybe it will inspire you to read the book!).


Rufus Wainwright / Want One : 4 of 5

After becoming totally obsessed with listening to Rufus' album Poses, I knew I had to listen to more of his work. My pal Dana recommended that I get this CD next, and I'm glad I did - it's been playing in my car for several days now, and it's fantastic (but emotionally draining, of course)! I've read a lot about Rufus' songs, and most reviewers try to dig into the lyrics to find references to his relationship with his father (Loudon Wainwright III) and his former self-destructive lifestyle, but I like taking the details of his lyrics and finding moments where my emotions have been the same, and singing along with his haunting melodies is both heart-wrenching and healing. Once again, Rufus (or his producer) pulls out all the stops for a sonically-rich experience, full of orchestral depth and majesty, or just a simple guitar or piano where it works - it's Broadway pop, pure and simple! Starting with a comic lyric set to Ravel's Bolero, the CD hits tons of musical forms (from basic rock to waltz), and just as many extremes of human experience. My favorite track is 11:11, which really speaks to living each moment of life (and has an obvious September 11th reference), and I really like Vibrate (with it's silly lines sung in such serious tones). The closing track, Dinner at Eight, has some truly beautiful lines that can bring tears to your eyes. Almost every track is enjoyable, though the weird time signature of Vicious World is a little distracting. I have to say I enjoyed Poses more (just because there's more love songs), but Want One is a wonderful album that will keep me buying more Rufus CDs.


Happy Birthday, Disneyland!

Today is the official 50th birthday of Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth, and certainly my favorite place on earth! According to reports on all the websites I read, at 4:00 AM this morning there were already 20,000 guests lined up to get in! It definitely sounds crazy, but I would have loved to be right there in the crowd, just to feel the energy and joy of all those Disneyland citizens. Guess I'll have to settle for being there on Friday!

A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns / Naoko Chino : 4 of 5

How's that for a gripping title? Even though this is more of a reference book, I actually did read through it cover to cover over the course of several weeks, just going over a few pages at a time. When I was taking Japanese classes, we would always learn new types of sentence patterns in the same way this book presents them, so it was really interesting to see the "entire" language broken down into fifty different patterns. For example, the most simple pattern would be "N1 wa N2 desu", but also covers the ones I always forget like "N1 no hou ga N2 yori Adj desu" (and many, many more complexities, of course). There are several examples for each pattern, using both formal and informal forms, which are also useful for picking up some new vocabulary. And speaking of vocabulary, there are excellent appendices with tons of verbs fully conjugated (even into forms I didn't know existed!), plus lots of conjugated adjectives, too. The book is nicely-sized for quick reference, and everything is printed in kana and romaji, as it should be. Having read the whole book, I can safely say that I've completely forgotten 90% of it, but I think this book will really come in handy when I need to look up some pattern that I can only vaguely remember.



Next weekend I'm off to Disneyland for my first trip during the 50th anniversary celebration! I'm getting really excited as usual, and I'm ready to see my pal Dae, the beautiful park, some new Disneyland experiences, and of course, some massive crowds! I'm going to start planning our attraction itinerary soon. Part of getting ready is immersing myself is Disney-ness, so here's what I've been doing:

  • Friday morning I got up at 4:30 AM for the release of the next round of limited edition Disneyland merchandise! I bought a replica of the Tiki Room Barker Bird (who used to be outside the attraction inviting folks inside), a replica of an original Jungle Cruise boat, and a plaque of the Disneyland dedication speech (just like they have at the flagpole on Main Street). All of this stuff is super-detailed and amazing, so I can't wait till they get here!
  • Last night I watched a wonderful DVD of the new parades at Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure, the new fireworks, and even the new history exhibit. It was really well done, so I recommend buying one for yourself at Window to the Magic!
  • Today I sat in the sun and read the latest issue of The E-Ticket (which gave a complete history of the Matterhorn Bobsleds), while listening to A Musical History of Disneyland (including the 14-minute version of It's a Small World), which is the best collection of park sounds there will ever be (review coming when I finish all the CDs!).
  • This coming week I'll be wearing Disney T-shirts everyday and cranking Disney on my iPod non-stop. Disneyland, here I come!
  • Fantastic Four : 2 of 5

    I read a ton of Fantastic Four comic books when I was younger, and I always coveted the incredible copy of Fantastic Four #2 that my old pal Chad Bunch had, so needless to say I was looking forward to a nice movie rendition of these fun heroes. Well, I can't say it was a truly terrible movie, but I definitely can't really recommend it (unless you're just in the mood for a mindless movie). To start with the good things, the Human Torch is great, both as a special effects vehicle and as a character (making him an extreme sports junkie is genius!). The final battle in the film is pretty cool since all four use their powers together, and their teamwork was always spectacular in the comics. I also thought that the Thing's acting was well done, but that brings me to the bad points! I just didn't like the Thing's costume - I don't know how to improve it, but it was just goofy (orange rocks only look good on paper I guess). Jessica Alba may be nice to look at, but she can't act, especially as a scientist (she was much more believable as a bar room dancer in Sin City!). And now we come to the Doctor Doom issue - superhero movies always change something, but this is ridiculous. Doom isn't a metal-man, he just wears armor for power and to hide his scars! They also reduced him to a power-hungry Donald Trump, so there's simply no sympathy possible for this worthless character. Anyway, it was still fun to watch, just like any other big budget action flick, but it just wasn't very fantastic!


    Disneyland: Then, Now and Forever / Bruce Gordon & Tim O'Day : 5 of 5

    This is another one of the fantastic hardcover books produced for Disneyland's 50th anniversary (and only available at the parks), and after reading it, I can safely say it's now one of my favorite Disneyland books! The text is simple, and provides just enough detail about park history, rides and attractions that have come and gone, plus a little behind-the-scenes information. There are many other books that contain more facts about Disneyland, but very few books are filled with as many incredible photos - I was really shocked at how many pictures are here that I had never seen before (after reading so many Disneyland books, I tend to recognize all the typical images)! I especially liked the sections entitled "What was there before...", where the history of a particular spot is traced backwards, such as "What was there before Big Thunder?", then "What was there before Nature's Wonderland?", then "What was there before Rainbow Mountain?", all the way back to the pack mule trails! All of the Fantasyland attractions are shown before and after the 1982 new Fantasyland, too, which is a nice touch. There's also a spectacular photo of Skull Rock, my favorite long-lost attraction! There are about 10 pages devoted to Disney's California Adventure in the book, which I don't really think were needed, but since this book reminds me of a super-expanded traditional souvenir book, I guess they wanted to cover the whole resort. This is a perfect "first book" for new Disneyland historians, but also has enough never-before-seen material to make it a necessity for every Disneyland fan!


    Lots of benkou

    Last night was my third Japanese conversation practice with Kazuki. I think I'm doing a little better, and hopefully remembering some things - I used iFlash to study all of the vocabulary from our last session (33 new words and phrases), and now I have a bunch more to learn this time! Today I started thinking about all the studying I do, in one form or another, and I use quite a few methods:

  • Of course, I'm practicing conversation weekly with my new tutor Kazuki, which is a big challenge, but probably the most rewarding!
  • I usually do around two lessons of Rosetta Stone each week, which has been excellent for introducing me to new vocabulary (plus it's pretty fun!).
  • I've been working through the online lessons on YesJapan, a really fantastic site that I discovered several months ago (I plan on writing more about YesJapan soon!). They have excellent shows to download and watch, and I see at least one of those a week (I also write down vocabulary from the shows, too, but I've only started that recently).
  • I'm usually reading a book of some kind on Japanese language - I like to find ones with a fresh presentation, and I don't mind reading beginner's lessons, since there's always some detail I didn't know before.
  • I've been learning Japanese children's songs for fun, and of course, singing really makes words stick in my brain.
  • I expose myself to lots of listening practice by watching tons of anime and listening to lots of J-pop. I've actually gathered a lot from anime, since I look words up in my dictionary if I start to hear the same ones over and over.

    Wow, it sounds like I should be fluent by now! However, constantly taking so much in means that lots of it spills over the edge (of my memory, that is!). I think practicing conversation will help me to finally make some real progress. But most of all, I just have fun learning because I think it's all so cool!
  • 7.13.2005

    Star Trek / The Original Series / Season Two : 4 of 5

    At last I've finished all seven DVDs of Season Two of Star Trek! I've been wanting to finish this set so I can get to the really crazy episodes in Season Three (such as Spock's Brain), but I really enjoyed seeing all of these episodes again, several of which I had forgotten almost completely! This season has a great mix of fantastic, quality episodes that are absolutely essential, plus a few total duds that are fun for their total silliness. How could they start with Amok Time, one of the best episodes ever, and end with Assignment: Earth, which practically starts the teaser by saying, "This is a stupid time-travel episode - get ready!"? However, I like to focus on the good stuff, like Mirror, Mirror, which is completely creative and amazing, or The Doomsday Machine, which has always been one of my favorites (in spite of the fact they are fighting the "Carrot of Death"). Of course, I love The Trouble with Tribbles, and A Piece of the Action seemed to be a favorite at the Star Trek convention I attended many years ago. My favorite feature of these DVD sets is the text commentary, which unfortunately is only included for two episodes (I'd buy these sets again if they would include them for every episode)! The other bonus material is good, especially the featurette on Matt Jeffries, who talks about the crazy stuff they did to build sets with practically no budget at all. Watching all of these just confirms to me that I'm really a die-hard fan, and now I can't wait to buy Season Three and enjoy the insanity!


    Say cheese!

    I've been drooling over smaller digital cameras for a long time now, focusing on Canon products since I've been so happy with their equipment in the past. Recently I got an email from Dealnews (which I highly recommend!) with an offer that I couldn't pass up, so I ordered the incredible Canon PowerShot SD400 (for under $300!). I read some great reviews on the web first, so I knew I was going to love it, and I had already had my eye on that model after looking it over it at Best Buy. I had to wait a while for delivery (since I think lots of folks took advantage of the deal), but now I'm the proud owner of a super tiny 5-megapixel beauty! It's smaller than my iPod, so it's going to be a joy to carry around Disneyland and Japan! It uses SD media, which is the same cards my Palm uses, so I can swap them whenever I want. The startup time and the time between pictures is so fast I can't believe it! It doesn't have full manual control like my older Canon, but since I've used those features about .001% of the time, I don't think I'll miss them (but I'm keeping my older model in case I do). Finally, I have some serious macro capability - it will focus down to a few centimeters, which is a world of difference to my old camera. Best of all, it's just so super-cool - I'm really happy with my purchase!


    Yourself!Fitness / PS2 : 5 of 5

    I've been doing a lot more exercise lately, which usually means DDR for me, but I've also tried a few workout DVDs for some variety. The problem with a DVD is that even if it's a good one, it still gets boring after two or three viewings, because it's always the same thing. Yourself!Fitness is a PS2 "game" that is essentially an infinitely variable workout video, and I think it's absolutely fantastic! There's an animated instructor named Maya who creates a new workout every time, based on all kinds of factors - your focus for the day (such as cardio, upper/lower body, or flexibility), your physical condition (which is gathered by completing a physical evaluation and stored on your PS2 memory card), and even your mood (since Maya always asks how you're feeling, as well as how you did on a certain series of exercises). The workouts include a warm-up and stretching at the end, and she even tells you when to take a quick breather or grab a drink of water! I love the on-screen status display, too, because you can see what exercises are coming next and be prepared. Once you specify your commitment, Maya holds you to it (using the PS2's internal clock), so she can gripe at you if you miss a workout! You can also pick things like the type of music and setting for the workout, and some of these are only unlocked as you stick to your commitment. I've been really consistent so far, and it's so much more engaging than a DVD, since the variety is excellent (and my sore muscles are proof that Maya knows her stuff)!


    Nice catch, Barron!

    Yesterday my pal Barron and I went on a short road-trip to Houston see the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Houston Astros! Barron is a big Dodgers fan (being from LA), and I just like hanging out at a baseball game, so we decided to go and see the game. (I have several fun memories of seeing some pro baseball games when I was younger - I saw the San Francisco Giants play at Candlestick Park, and once I saw the Cincinnati Reds play and Johnny Bench hit a grand-slam home run!) The drive to Houston was easy (since Barron did the driving!), and we listened to stuff on my iPod and talked the whole way. Minute Maid Park was incredible - they had the roof closed, so we were in total air-conditioned comfort! Everything about the park was really top-notch, and we had great seats behind first base. We ate hot dogs, peanuts, Cracker Jack, nachos, and Barron also had a BBQ sandwich (plus two giant beers each, of course). The best part of the game was when Barron caught a foul ball! He had his glove with him, and he just stood up, leaned over one row of seats, and it went smack into his glove! (The game was televised and I TiVo-ed it, so when we got home we got to see him on national TV!) Unfortunately, the Dodgers lost, but we had such a great time anyway. Driving home I forced Barron to listen to lots of Disneyland attraction sounds, and now I'm getting psyched for my upcoming Disneyland trip!

    View photos: Baseball with Barron


    Kikaida Vol 2 : 3 of 5

    I had never even heard of Kikaida when Dae bought me the first DVD of this series for my birthday, but now I think I'm hooked! I was reluctant to start collecting the DVDs, since they were all so expensive on Amazon, but I found them for a super-cheap price on Overstock.com, so now I'm continuing with these rubber-suit adventures! In this volume, every episode is basically the same formula - a new DARK Destructoid shows up (and usually kills some people, which is definitely out of the norm for a kid's action show), Dr. Komyoji (who has amnesia) wanders around a bit, Mitsuko and Masaru get in trouble, and Jiro finds a way to block the sound of Professor Gill's flute so he can change into Kikaida and save the day. Yes, it's just a goofy as it sounds, and for further proof, the Destructoids in these episodes are named Black Horse, Bull Kong, Carmine Spider, Red Condor, and Scorpion Brown (and their costumes are awesome, especially when you can see the eye-holes for the dude inside)! I love singing the opening and closing theme songs, and I think it will be interesting to actually see how the series evolves and ends. I love living in the 70s again when a good double-chop was all you needed to make an evil android explode!


    War of the Worlds : 4 of 5

    I've been interested in seeing this movie for quite a while, since I saw lots of pictures from some of the sets on the web (some were built on the Universal lot in Hollywood and were visible from the tram tour!). I knew this would be a really well made movie, but I was concerned that a modern update would stray too far from the classic original film. Thankfully, Spielberg knows when to change things and when to leave them alone! Some images, like the snake-eye that looks for people in the house or the long gooey alien fingers coming out of the tripod, are exactly like the original, which I thought was great. The general storyline, following Tom Cruise and his children as they fight to survive, was pretty good, and all of the acting was well done (listing to Dakota Fanning sing Hushabye Mountain from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was chilling!). The special effects were awesome, and I especially enjoyed how most of the time there were only fleeting glimpses of the enemy, from the human's point of view. However, the ending scene with Tom's ex-wife's family was just way too Hallmark card - they looked like they had been relaxing and playing backgammon during the entire attack! I also have to point out (as many others have) that showing someone filming the aliens with a camcorder, just after all electronics have been knocked out, was a little silly. But overall, I really enjoyed the movie, and I don't think there could have been a better remake!

    Fourth time's the charm

    This week I had another Nihongo conversation with Kazuki, and I think I did a little better than last time (at least I wasn't so nervous). I had a notebook this time, so I wrote down tons of vocabulary and phrases, and he marked some of them for my "homework". I'm going to type up everything in hiragana and romaji just for a fun exercise! Yesterday I saw Revenge of the Sith for my fourth time, and this time my pals Chris, Eliza, Kristin & Carlos all went with me to the Galaxy Highland 10, Austin's only theater with a digital projector! I was really impressed with the picture - there's no "film" at all, just a true digital image. I thought it looked like a giant plasma screen! There was a storm during the movie, which made the power go out for a few minutes (the manager came in and said they would "reboot" the movie - cool!), and for a few seconds it came on again without sound. So, I started making lightsaber and R2-D2 noises, and I got a little applause from the audience! Today I had a nice lunch in the middle of a hectic work day - I did some sweatin' in the sun and finished the latest issue of Giant Robot. Tomorrow I'm going to a pro baseball game with my pal Barron - we're driving to Houston to see the Dodgers play the Astros! Of course, I'm a loyal Angels fan, but I'll be cheering for LA just because I'm a California lover. It's going to be a fun weekend!


    Tarzan II : 3 of 5

    Since DisneyToon Studios has been on a roll creating decent direct-to-video sequels, I decided to buy Tarzan II without renting it first (plus I had read some fairly good reviews online). The concept of a "midquel" is pretty interesting, since it's a sequel that takes place in the middle of the storyline of the first movie - in this case, Tarzan's boyhood (which is presented in the Son of Man montage in the original). The plot isn't too bad, and some of the scenes are pretty funny, though it's a little light on real adventure and excitement (since the only "enemy" is the Zugor, which turns out to be an old ape!). Most of the movie looks excellent, especially the backgrounds, which are vibrant and full of life. Unfortunately, some of the characters are played completely for comedy, such as the family of apes who live on the rocky mountain, which makes their character designs really look bizarre next to the more realistic apes of Tarzan's family (which all look nearly identical to the original film). There's also too many slow motion effects, which always look bad in animation to me (even the scenes in The Lion King were a stretch, and they worked years on them!). The new Phil Collins songs are pretty good, and definitely give this sequel the same feel, especially near the end where we get a re-creation of Tarzan's famous vine surfing! I noticed a new animated DisneyToon logo at the end, featuring good ol' Mickey with a paintbrush. It's nice to see Disney's "real" studio flying their flag high!


    Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith / Original Soundtrack : 4 of 5

    I'm a big fan of the Star Wars soundtracks, and I hear pieces of them all the time popping up on iTunes, but I haven't bought any of the prequel CDs until now (actually, I've had this CD for months, but I'm just now reviewing it!). The main reason I had to own this CD is that it comes with a bonus DVD (at no extra cost!) filled with clips from all the Star Wars movies set to various sections of all six soundtracks, kind of like music videos. The DVD is really wonderful - each segment is introduced by Ian McDiarmid, and moves through the whole saga from beginning to end. It was really cool to see several clips from Revenge of the Sith before it hit the theaters, too! The actual soundtrack CD is great - I love the opening action music after the main title. The huge set-piece, Battle of the Heroes, isn't quite as good as Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace, but it's still majestic, exciting, and full of that feeling of destiny. I love it when Williams brings back familiar themes from the other films, such as quoting Princess Leia's Theme during her birth, and of course the Imperial March at just the right moments. Some of the tracks are quite brooding, orchestrated by strings or deep organ and eerie choir sounds, which is quite a departure from the typical Williams sound, but it definitely works on pieces like Palpatine's Teachings and Padme's Ruminations. Overall, this is a great score to a fantastic film, and writing this makes me want to go see it again!


    July 4th holiday

    My pals Chris & Eliza proved once again how amazing they are by having a great July 4th swim and barbecue. It was a lot of fun swimming in the sun, drinking beer, and eating excellent food! Once again we were visited by Danger, a super-cool dog that I've met a few times before, who is just as cute as can be (Dolly is still cute, too, but I already have hundreds of pictures of her, so this time I took more pics of Danger!). Kristin was proud of her belly full 'o baby, and everyone had fun with some palm reading (I had the deepest love line, so it's been decided I will have many mistresses later in life - please send your applications!). I just love holidays!

    View photos: July 4th Swim


    Homecoming Destination Disneyland / Carlene Thie : 3 of 5

    This book is the fifth in a series of photography books presenting the work of Mell Kilpatrick, the author's grandfather, who took hundreds of photos of Disneyland construction, opening day, and other early park events. Much like the last book, this is a wide-format, hardcover volume, with most pages filled with a single rare, black and white photo. The photos themselves are definitely treasures (although there are a few repeats here from the other books), but what's really great about this book are the many short remembrances written by those who knew Walt or had a part in the creation of Disneyland, which were all collected to make this a special 50th anniversary book. Of course, there are anecdotes written by Disney legends such as Ollie Johnston and Fess Parker, but what I really enjoyed were the obscure ones, such the son whose mother sold their home and lot to Disney to make room for the construction, and a giant palm tree that used to be in their front yard (which is pictured) was moved to the Jungle Cruise, where it still stands today! Each section of the book, divided into the lands of Disneyland, is set off with a classy sketch on see-through paper that matches the photo beneath, helping to make this a quality book (though a little clunky in its simple layout and fonts). Carlene must be running out of pictures by now, but I hope not!


    Herbie / Fully Loaded : 3 of 5

    The best thing about this movie is they managed to transplant the feel of a traditional Herbie film into a modern setting, which means the story is full of corny jokes and goofy gags. This is what the Love Bug is all about - turning a car into a living cartoon character, which tends to make the actors seem like cartoons, too, and that's exactly how it should be! I don't know if modern audiences are willing to see this movie with childhood eyes of the 60s, but I definitely enjoyed it! Lindsay Lohan does a fine job as Herbie's new driver (in spite of all the stories about her partying her tail off during the shooting - I was actually looking for blood-shot eyes or something!), and Matt Dillon is a suitably silly NASCAR villain. I really liked the Herbie effects, especially since most of them were done mechanically, just like the old days - I had never noticed Herbie moving his sun visors like they were eyebrows before, and it really gives him emotion! (I think they might have overdone the smiling/frowning bumper, though.) I think the most creative and craziest shot has Herbie flipping up in the air to scoop-up Lindsay through his rag-top! Of course, there are a few NASCAR drivers playing themselves to give the race some credibility, and their few lines are just as bad as you would expect, but the race itself it a lot of fun. I think Fully Loaded is definitely as good as some of the other Herbie sequels (especially Herbie Goes Bananas), so check it out if you're a Love Bug lover!

    So relaxing

    Sunday is always a nice, relaxing day, but it's even more relaxing on a three-day weekend! For the past couple days I've been doing tons of reading, watching great DVDs, listening to podcasts and sweating in the hot Austin sun (I just love to sit and sweat). Sometimes it seems I could spend my whole life like this and never get bored! I also finished reading the 4th volume of Hikaru no Go, which is the manga that I've been totally hooked on lately (it makes the game of Go look so fascinating that I've been reading some websites to learn how to play). Now I have to wait until October for Volume 5 to come out - kanashii! Today I did some Japanese lessons, had a massage, and now I'm going to relax a little more before getting together with my pals for some additional Sunday night relaxing! Tomorrow I'll be eating and swimming at Chris & Eliza's party, so I'm looking forward to even more fun in the sun.


    In the Groove / PS2 : 4 of 5

    All of you know that I'm a DDR junky, since I play nearly everyday. There's nothing better than playing a fresh mix of tunes, since it's so much fun learning new steps and unlocking new songs, so I was really excited when I heard about In the Groove, a DDR "clone" financed by RedOctane (who makes the Afterburner platform that I love so much). On the surface, In the Groove is just like DDR, but essentially is designed by experts with experts in mind. So, there are lots of high-difficulty songs, and new inventions such as mines (steps you have to not make!) and hands (three steps at once, meaning you have to bend down and hit the arrow with your hand!). There are also tons and tons of arrow modifiers, which are all sorts of ways to make the arrows do tricks to confuse the player (such as spinning, accelerating, or waving and drifting around). I've never been a fan of modifiers in DDR, but they actually are pretty fun on In the Groove! The bad news is that this game has some of the slowest load times I've ever seen, and that can be a real pain. The solution is to play Marathon Mode, which includes a large selection of 4-6 song courses with smooth transitions (and also include random arrow modifiers). There are definitely some great songs in the mix, but overall, I think DDR is just more "fun", since it has a sense of humor - In the Groove seems to be a little too stoic, which sounds funny, but it's true. However, that's not going to keep me from playing it, and I hope they come out with more mixes in the future!


    A tableful of words

    I love to read books, and lately I've been reading more magazines, too (since I keep discovering new cool ones!). My coffee table is always full of my "read soon" stuff - I have other things waiting to be read upstairs, but the stuff on my table are things I see everyday that I really want to dig into when the free time is available! (I wonder how many of these I'll get into during this three-day weekend?) I think the mix of these different subjects is kind of fun and interesting! Here's a quick rundown of my current pile:

  • Books: A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns, Breakthrough Japanese, 40 Digital Photography Techniques (because I want to understand how my camera works), Disneyland: Then, Now and Forever (new 50th anniversary book), The Gospel According to Disney, The Last of the Jedi Vol 1 (Jude Watson's new Star Wars series)
  • Magazines: Wired July (I love it for the tech porn), Newtype July (anime magazine), Super7 Issue 9 (cool toy magazine I'm sampling), Shojo Beat July (new manga magazine focusing on "girls" anime), Walt Disney Comics July, Giant Robot Issue 37 (Asian pop culture magazine), The E-Ticket Spring (Disneyland history quarterly)
  • Manga: Hikaru no Go Vol 4 (I'm totally hooked on this series), Yotsuba&! Vol 1 (yes, that's spelled right), Nausicaa Vol 1 (I hear it's much more complex than the anime), TokyoPop Sneaks (freebee sampler)