Spider-Man 3 / Two-Disc Special Edition : 4 of 5

I neglected to mention here that I finally bought Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 on DVD last year, mainly because I was excited about the release of Spider-Man 3. Of course, I had to complete the set, and without a doubt I needed to own the movie with my pal Jerry's screen credit! It's true that Spider-Man 3 was disappointing in some ways, mainly because they tried to tie together too many plots, making the film too long (not to mention including more musical numbers than any superhero movie should!), but that doesn't mean I'm not a fan of the movie! There are lots of incredible sequences that I could watch again and again, many of which are covered on the second disc of bonus material. I was more amazed than ever at the effortless (looking) 60-foot jump that Pater makes after his fight with Harry, and I appreciated the emotion during Harry's death scene a little more, too. The collection of mini-documentaries included are pretty good, especially the segments that explore the CG techniques behind the Sandman and Venom, but unfortunately many of them are wall-to-wall interviews with the producers, which definitely gets old after a while. I totally love trivia subtitle tracks, which were wonderful on the previous movie DVDs, but I was sad to see they weren't included this time. However, you can watch the commentary subtitles along with the movie soundtrack, which provides a similar effect (ironically, the producers' commentary is far more interesting than the director's commentary, since Sam tends to talk about broader topics rather than about the actual scene on the screen, which is what I prefer!). With so many bad superhero movies in the history of cinema, it's great to have a few gems that reveal the power and excitement of these characters, and the Spider-Man trilogy (even with its faults) certainly is a jewel!


Birthday bliss

Happy birthday to me! What do you know, I turned eight years old again! Actually, if I had to pick an age, I'd go with 27 - you're old enough to do anything you want, but young enough that everyone says "Man, you're so young!" For the past few years, I've been spending my birthday in total zero responsibility mode, so I took the day off work, and I've been relaxing at home watching Animaniacs cartoons and Jpop videos, reading manga and drinking coffee. I also recently discovered that I had an old Droid Developer Kit LEGO set from 1999 that I had never even opened, so I just finished building R2-D2! It even has a motor so it can roll around - as usual, I'm completely in awe of LEGO engineering. It definitely makes me want to build more and more Star Wars LEGO sets! Tonight I'm having a birthday dinner with my pal Melinda, and I've been getting some nice birthday emails today, too. As you know, Mom & Dad bought my iPhone super-early for my birthday gift, but they still sent me some surprise cash anyway (because they are such amazing parents)! As I get older, each year seems a little shorter, but I also feel a little more peaceful and content with my life each day, which makes every birthday a happy one!


The Last of the Jedi Vol 2 / Jude Watson : 3 of 5

It's been a long time since I've read one these Scholastic Star Wars books, but since I enjoyed both Jedi Apprentice and Jedi Quest so much (both by the same author), I decided I had to get into this latest series. I read the first volume ages ago, and now that I'm working on all of my unread books, this second volume finally made it into my hands. The Last of the Jedi series focuses on Obi-Wan's life on Tatooine after Episode III, silently watching over baby Luke from afar and communicating with Qui-Gon via the Force. This story quickly ends up off planet, however, thanks to the re-introduction of Anakin's old friend Ferus (a character from the Jedi Quest series), and soon there's tons of action as they outwit Boba Fett! The plot then splits as Ferus travels to Ilum (the place where lightsaber crystals come from) to find another still-living Jedi, and Obi-Wan visits Polis Massa, where Padme gave birth to the twins. Obi-Wan's side of the story is really fascinating, as the Empire starts reviewing medical records and discover certain materials missing from inventory that could be evidence about the secret births (a pretty complex plot for a young readers story!). Overall, this volume had a little too much action (which ultimately is a little boring when you're just reading descriptions of battles), but thankfully also included some nice character insight for Obi-Wan and his grief about Anakin's fall. I'm happy to be reading these books again, and I'm excited about the next volume!


Roy Lichtenstein / AMOA

Yesterday I kept up with my art-exposure resolution by seeing the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Austin Museum of Art downtown. I used to go to AMOA quite often, and was even a member for awhile, but for the past several years I've been missing out. But since I really enjoy Pop Art, and Lichtenstein in particular, I decided I would regret it if I missed this exhibit (which ends next weekend), and I'm glad I went! Everyone knows Lichtenstein from his reinterpretation of comic book panels (using primary colors and tons of Benday Dots), so of course this show has a few of those to enjoy, but I was even more impressed by other series that I hadn't seen before, including some as recent as the 90s (the artist died in 1997). I really enjoyed the Reflections series, which presents various subjects partially obscured by comic-style mirror reflections (including a great Wonder Woman work), and the Interiors series, including the furniture from the Blondie comic strip (with her leg walking out of the picture). This AMOA exhibit featured audio commentary that you could access via cellphone, which was incredibly cool (such a simple idea that I can't believe this is the first time I've experienced it)! I was able to dial a number on my iPhone right there and listen to art professors and even interviews with Lichtenstein himself while I looked at the art - it was fascinating!


Cars : 4 of 5

This DVD has been available for a long time, but I was holding out in the hopes that a special two-disc edition would be released. Since that's not going to happen, I made sure to put it on my Christmas list, and it was great to finally watch this movie again. Although I would put it in last place if I had to rank the Pixar features, it's still a fantastic film, and as usual, I love it so much more after enjoying it for a second time! I was immediately blown away by all the incredible Pixar touches and details that they include in all their films, such as the cars in the racetrack audience doing "the wave" with their headlights, the funny Japanese news broadcast, and even the "Jay Limo" show. Actually, all of the TV graphics spoofs are dead-on hilarious, completely capturing the excitement and ridiculous hype! From an animation standpoint, it's pretty amazing how they applied just enough flexibility to the cars to give them expression without making them seem implausible, and I love watching Lightning race by with the feel of surfing or skateboarding. I even appreciate the story more, and I have to say, Mater is pretty darn funny (even if you don't really like hick humor). Even though is this a single DVD with minimal bonus features, the short documentary is really nice, and definitely gives you an appreciation for what the movie means to John Lasseter. Of course, I wish the segment were about four times longer, but I'll take what I can get. I'm certainly more of a Cars fan than I was before I watched this DVD, and continue to be blown away by the magic of Pixar!


Wide open spaces

I'm happy to say I just finished Operation Loft! Today I built my new Elfa tables (which was pretty easy even though you have to use a drill), and then I unplugged all of my equipment to get ready for the swap. Next I took apart (demolished) my old computer table, and got it out of there along with the old broken filing cabinet, and then I set up all of my things again, doing my best to keep the cables fairly neat. Now I have a ton of wide open space, since I was able to put some items that I used to keep in my desk inside the extra drawers of the new filing cabinet! I also have room under the table for my new shredder - I kind of went a little overboard buying a new one (this thing will even chomp up a CD!), but at least I'm pretty sure it will last longer than the last one. Some day I'm going to replace my Power Mac with an iMac, not only because I want all my Macs to be Intel, but also because it will open up more floor space and reduce even more cable clutter. I'm really happy with today's accomplishment - this marks the end of a big series of tasks for my loft, and now it serves as my library (books, manga, DVDs) and workspace. Take a look!


One thing is all it takes

I'm addicted to list making, which can be a great thing (since I don't often forget to do things I need to do), but can also be a bad thing. For me, the dark side of list making shows itself when I try to cram too many tasks into a single day, and at the end of the day when I look at my half-finished list, I feel like I've failed. I've decided that self-induced guilt is generally terrible and a waste of time, so lately I've been trying a new "get one thing done" method. Each morning I look at my general big list of stuff and pick one thing that I will definitely do today, and when I get that finished, my day is a success! Usually I feel so great about it that I'll end up doing more things, all because I haven't made myself feel like I "must" do them. I know, it's just a Jedi mind trick, but it's been working for me! Here's some examples of recent "get one thing done" goals. Earlier this week I had to get my driver's license renewed - Texas has a new requirement where they need proof of your SSN and even fingerprints on file, so I had to wait two hours at the DMV to get my new license (next time I'll be able to renew online)! I did that in the morning, so the rest of the day I felt happy and free, and still got other things done. Yesterday my goal was to sell my latest batch of books and DVDs at Half Price Books. So, I hauled everything to the store, walked out with $45 bucks, and felt successful again. I usually have the most trouble on the weekends, since I feel like I should be able to do a million things, but I'm going to stick with one goal tomorrow, too - and I'll bet I get it done!


The Disney Mountains / Imagineering at Its Peak : 4 of 5

I've been a fan of Jason Surrell's amazing Disney books for a few years now, starting with his wonderful in-depth coverage of the Haunted Mansion, so I always put anything new he writes on my Christmas list (which is how I received this book!). His latest work is about the well-known Disney "mountain range" of attractions that combine awesome thrills with Disney quality and theming. Of course, every page is filled with wonderful artwork from every stage of attraction development, but while there's a lot of great information here, this is actually a pretty quick read (the text is in a much bigger font than his past books!). Of course, the Matterhorn is covered first, and I enjoyed the quotes from Imagineers like Harriet Burns and Bob Gurr. It definitely gave me an appreciation for the trail-blazing efforts of these original Imagineers - it seems impossible that these people from so many varied disciplines could actually create the first roller coaster of this kind, and I still ride it every year to this day! The coverage of Space Mountain is really nice, especially comparing the size and differences between the Walt Disney World and Disneyland versions, and the story of the development of Splash Mountain is also incredible (and I'm once again thankful for the talents of Tony Baxter and his creative ideas!). There is little coverage about Mount Prometheus in Tokyo DisneySea, but I would have loved to read more about the design of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was my favorite ride during my trip to Japan in 2003. The largest portion of the book is devoted to Expedition Everest, which certainly deserves praise, and definitely instills admiration for Joe Rhode, one of the most detail-oriented Imagineers working today. I loved reading about the queue theming (almost more than the ride itself!), since I had no idea that many of the structures were actually built by Tibetan craftsmen! The Disney Mountains definitely deserves to be in any theme park fan's library, so don't miss it!


Sweet shift

The other day I was typing up some vocabulary from my last Japanese lessons with Mikie and Kumiko, and I accidentally discovered something incredibly useful when typing in kana on the Mac! I'm sure everyone already knew this but me, but I was so excited about it that I just have to mention it just in case it makes someone else's life easier. Previously, I used to hate switching between hiragana and katakana - I would either use the menubar, or suffer through the weird keystroke Ctrl-Shift-K to get to katakana and then Ctrl-Shift-J to get back to hiragana. As I was making this bizarre stroke, I had the Shift key down and accidentally typed a few letters and realized they were coming out as katakana, even though I was in hiragana mode! Since Japanese has no upper and lower case distinction, the Shift key is totally open for this kind of shortcut, and it works beautifully. Now I can effortlessly switch when I need to type a katakana word, which will make typing Japanese so much better for me!


Death Note Vol 1 : 5 of 5

Since I completely enjoyed reading the entire series of Death Note manga, I've been watching the anime on Cartoon Network and marveling at how well the story has been adapted to animation. But of course, I have a big problem with the English dubbing (Light's voice isn't too bad, but L's voice is horrendous), so I decided to rent the series on DVD as well. As I expected, it's so much cooler watching the series in Japanese - everything just has the right feel and emotion that I don't think a dub can ever capture. The story itself is just as fascinating as I remember, and I'm really enjoying seeing it unfold even though I know everything that's going to happen. The anime is able to grab the viewer in ways the manga couldn't, especially in interesting scenes like Ryuk's journey from the Shinigami world to the human world, or via some masterful montages (my favorite is when Light really gets going on writing names in the Death Note, with huge arm gestures and quick cuts to the suffering criminals that flow perfectly with the dramatic music!). The artwork is completely on-model compared to the manga, and often uses interesting camera moves and lighting that I know must be a pain to draw! In this volume I thought the exciting bus-jacking scene (where Light manages to get the name of the FBI agent Raye Penber) was well done, as well as the explanation of Light's trick hiding place for the Death Note. Overall, the series has really captured the same tone as the manga (and the cool opening and closing themes don't hurt the mood either), so I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!


Revolution in the Valley / Andy Hertzfeld : 5 of 5

This book was actually a Christmas gift from last year that I never got around to reading (how embarrassing!), but since I'm on a quest to read more this year (and not buy any more books until I make a dent), I decided it was finally time. Little did I know this book would become an obsession and steal all my time for a few days - I simply could not stop reading it once I started! Andy Hertzfeld was part of the original Apple engineers who created the first Macintosh, so I have to thank him (and everyone else, including Steve Jobs) for nearly all the computer fun I've had in my life, including typing this very sentence. This book is a collection of anecdotes covering all phases of development, from circuit boards to software, from release day to revisions afterward. It's filled with amazing old photos, and even original notebook pages scribbled with diagrams and To Do lists (which are fantastic to see)! It was fascinating to learn about other members of the Mac team, especially Burrell Smith, who seems like such a character. Smith designed the logic board and other hardware, and his personality is full of interesting quirks (such as his unique way of playing Defender). Sometimes the writing actually gets into semi-serious code discussion, mentioning Toolbox routines that I can still remember from my Mac programming days years ago. Of course, the stories about Steve Jobs are wild - he's definitely the kind of person that you can love and hate at the same time, but there's no doubt that his team was loyal and worked like crazy for him (I imagine his personality could be similar to Walt Disney at times - brutal, but inspiring). I could go on and on about this book. There are certainly other Apple history books available, but hearing the tale from someone who was right in the middle of the action is a a wonderful experience!


Prerequisite decluttering

Yesterday was a great weekend day, because I finally got started on my last decluttering project for my loft, which is setting up a new computer work area! One thing I've learned about projects like this is that one task always has some sort of prerequisite task, so sometimes it's a puzzle to figure out how to begin. For example, I knew I wanted two simple Elfa tables (no need for a complicated desk for me) with one supported by a new filing cabinet (since my old filing cabinet is ugly, ancient, and broken!). So, first I had to declutter my old files (which I did last week, burning out my old cheap shredder in the process, so a new one is on the way!), and then figure out what to do with an old set of drawers that I used to store VHS tapes in (the tapes are all gone from last year's decluttering, but I was still using it as a table). Thankfully, my boss George can use the drawers, so I moved them downstairs for him to pick up next week. Next, I needed to empty out one of three DVD racks to make room for the new tables, so that meant it was DVD decluttering time! Actually, I had quite a few I could part with, mainly because Disney keeps re-releasing movies as Platinum Editions (which I buy, of course!), so there's no need for me to keep the old releases of the same movies. But I still had a way to go to free up that rack, so I decided to move a row or two of DVDs to my bookcases, which meant (you guessed it) decluttering my books again! I severely pruned my books last year, but it was surprisingly easy to do it again - there were still a few college books that I know I would never touch, as well as some novels that I can't imagine re-reading, so out they went. To top off the day, I did actually make it to The Container Store to buy my tables (which were part of the Elfa sale!) and filing cabinet, so soon I'll get to build them and actually enjoy the results of my labor. I intended to use this situation as an introduction to mentioning my use of "minimum space" to help control what I buy, but it took so long that I'll have to save it for another post!


The Water Horse / Legend of the Deep : 3 of 5

Even though I love movies about children and fantasy, I wasn't sure I was going to get to see this one, since the timing just wasn't good for me so soon after Christmas. But after my Mom & Dad saw it and enjoyed it (and told me I would definitely cry!), I saw it with my pal Melinda and I'm glad I made it! From the trailer I knew all about Agnus' discovery of the egg and how the creature eventually grows up to become the Loch Ness monster, but I had no idea the story was set against World War II, in particular a platoon of English troops who come to live at the children's home so they can guard the loch against German submarine attack. This provides some nice character interaction (and some nice pipe smoking scenes from the commander!) and even a small triangle between the children's mom, the commander, and the handyman who shares the secret of Crusoe (the name Agnus gives to the creature, after Robinson Crusoe). The special effects of the Water Horse itself are really well done, especially when it's a baby getting in trouble around the house. I thought the scenes of Crusoe being petted were incredible - the touching of the boy's hands seemed very real! Of course, soon Crusoe must live in the loch, where the legend is born (including a funny reenactment of the shooting of the famous Nessie photo), and eventually an unexpected story turn happens pitting poor Crusoe against the troops and their gigantic anti-submarine gun! I was certain the end was going to be unbearably sad, but thankfully the only tears I shed were from sentimental good-byes rather than tragedy! The Water Horse isn't going to win any awards, but I thought it was a nice touching story and I really enjoyed it.


The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya / Vol 4 : 4 of 5

This final DVD contains the last three episodes of this anime, which are by far the best of the entire series! Finally I can start to understand why this series started such a fan phenomenon, since these episodes have something to offer not only in humor and fun animation, but even show some inner feelings that have often been hidden for the rest of the story. The first plot on the DVD covers the school arts festival (which ties in with the very first episode's home video by the SOS Brigade), with all the expected elements (such as Mikuru in a maid cafe), but then shows Haruhi and Yuki filling in for a rock band with some absent members. The concert is fantastic - not only is the music great, but the animation both of the guitar playing and drumming is totally realistic (possibly rotoscoped!). This scene really shows Haruhi experiencing true joy, and it finally made me like her character! Next we have a fun video game duel with the computer club, which takes place mostly in the fantasy world of the game itself. There are hilarious Star Blazers references, and even a polka-dotted space ship for Mikuru, and this story reveals a nice side to Yuki as well. The final episode is really amazing, since after so many frenetic plots and situations, it completely slows down and covers a lazy winter day in a completely touching way. There are even moments where the camera will stay in a long shot for a full minute, just observing Yuki reading or Kyon napping. It was so minimalist that I completely loved it! There's also a cool bonus feature of Aya Hinano touring the Kyoto Animation studio, and seeing all the animators hard at work is pretty fascinating. Even though it took a while to grow on me, I enjoyed Haruhi enough to hope for another season, and at least I now understand what all the buzz has been about!


The Muppet Show / Season Two : 4 of 5

Since I really enjoyed watching the Season One DVD set last year, I was glad to finally see Season Two available, so it went on my Christmas list right away! I've been enjoying watching every episode for the past week or so, and it's fun to see the show evolve with new regular sketches like Pigs in Space, and also to see bigger name guest stars (even though some of them really seem to bomb their performances, such as Rich Little, who does impressions of Kermit and Fozzie that my pal Francis could top in his sleep!). It was fun to see Steve Martin back in his stand-up days (even though his talent seems wasted in a weird auditions episode), and moments like Rudolph Nureyev singing Baby, It's Cold Outside with Miss Piggy as she chases him around in a steam room are just priceless! My favorite episode was truly bizarre, where the pigs kidnap Kermit and take over the whole show, which includes pig versions of tons of characters such as a pig-Fozzie and even a pig-Swedish Chef! My biggest complaint with this set is the lack of bonus material, especially the loss of the trivia subtitles that I totally loved on Season One. Instead, there's just a music video, a Valentine's Day special (which is interesting, but weird), and some brand new interview segments with the Muppets, which have some funny lines, but unfortunately make it really obvious that these are not the original performers we know and love (Gonzo's voice is especially terrible, and even small details like mannerisms are just all wrong). But overall, having these great shows available is the important thing, and I really enjoyed laughing at the best variety show ever!


Less really is more

Lately I've been more and more convinced that decluttering, in all shapes and forms, is a good thing for me, and finding ways to simplify my life continues to be one of the areas I want to focus on this year. I did a great job last year, and during that time did a lot of reading about the idea that "external" clutter definitely has an effect on "internal" clutter, meaning that too much stuff in my world does the same thing to my mind. It's true that removing things I don't need gives me a huge sense of relief, which makes my thoughts clearer, which helps me enjoy life more. Lately I've been struggling with trying to do too much, which only makes me disappointed when I don't meet all my expectations, so I've been thinking a lot about decluttering again, which includes simplifying what I do with my time. For example, since I'm kind of a media addict, I've been trying to keep up with way too many websites, RSS feeds, podcasts, and even shows on TiVo, so today I just decided to cut way back, and now I won't be concerned about all of it piling up. I even did a little tidying up at my office today, which seemed to help me think straight, too. Anyway, I'm mentioning all of this because I'm going to try to change how I write on WEBmikey to make blogging more fun and less of a chore. I still want to keep writing reviews, but since I'll never be a true critic, I'm going to write more personally and just enjoy sharing my thoughts about something. I'm also hoping to let myself write shorter posts off the top of my head, just to have fun! I think by doing less, I'm actually going to end up doing more, because I'm going to be doing things less out of self-imposed obligation, and more out of simple joy.

Austin Symphony / Benedetto Lupo : 4 of 5

One of my goals for 2008 is to experience more art, so I made sure to see the Austin Symphony's first concert of the season. I've always enjoyed the symphony, since it's just amazing to me that so many musicians can perform together so precisely, and while I'm listening to the music I almost always have interesting thoughts or come up with new ideas. This concert was at Riverbend Center, so even though I had to deal with the uncomfortable pews, it was nice to have an easy drive without heading downtown (although it took me forever to find my car after the concert!). It looks like every performance this season includes works by Beethoven, so this concert began with the King Stephen Overture (which I had never heard, but it was simple and enjoyable), and ended with the Symphony No. 5 (yes, it's the one you're thinking of!). Truthfully, I wasn't too excited about hearing the Fifth Symphony, but actually I had forgotten what the other movements were like besides the first (that everyone in the world can hum), and the 4th movement was incredible! The featured performer was the pianist Benedetto Lupo, who played Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 (another first hearing for me), which was full of dark emotion that was well-explained by the program notes. Lupo was fantastic, though I wish I could have seen his hands on the keys (my seat was great otherwise!). It was a really nice evening, and I felt really peaceful just enjoying the music, people watching, and marveling at some new classical works that I'd like in my library!


Fun with cedar

The joyous Austin cedar allergy season is definitely here, and on Sunday it hit me like a ton of bricks! My nose was running like a faucet, so I practically had all my trash cans filled with Kleenex by noon! Thanks to my trusty Benedryl (Claritin does nothing for me), I got some relief in the afternoon, just in time for a quick visit from Matt & Kumiko and their friends Yosuke & Aya, visiting from Japan. Yosuke is a big Disney fan (they visit Tokyo Disneyland about five times a year and have even been to Hong Kong Disneyland!), so Kumiko wanted to be sure they saw my home full of Disney collectibles. I had fun showing them around, and I loved Yosuke's true fan reactions to my stuff (I heard lots of Kore hoshii, or "I want this")! After they left, the Benedryl knocked me out for four hours, after which I just curled up with a box of Kleenex and watched episode after episode of The Muppet Show, which was fun even though my nose was raw. Miraculously, today I feel just fine and I've barely even had the sniffles today!


Pixar Short Films Collection / Vol 1 : 4 of 5

This DVD is a collection of all of Pixar's short films, which is wonderful for animation fans, since while watching them you're able to see CGI techniques evolve right before your eyes. Although most of these shorts are available as bonus features on other Pixar DVDs, there were a few I had never seen, and the commentary included here is really fantastic (except for Mike's New Car, where they decided to let the filmmakers' kids talk, which is cute but not very enlightening!). It was great to watch favorites like Knick Knack and Geri's Game again (which are incredibly far apart because of the feature length films made in the interim), and this was my first time to see Mater and the Ghostlight, and I was amazed by the chase sequence - it's absolutely incredible to compare something like that to Tin Toy! My favorite part of this DVD is the excellent documentary that provides a brief history of Pixar, since I had nearly forgotten they used to be a hardware/software company, who happened to hire John Lasseter to produce demonstration films for graphics conferences! It's wonderful how they transitioned into a full time animation studio - certainly a unique beginning for such a groundbreaking company. I'm really fascinated with the early days of any art form, so listening to Lasseter talk about sleeping in his office and meticulously animating the way the cord ripples in Luxo Jr. is incredibly inspiring to me. Seeing this history unfold makes me so glad that Pixar is part of Disney, and that someone like Lasseter is at the animation helm!


Productive distraction

Sometimes I have to deal with a big internal conflict involving my free time, which is balancing the things I've planned to do with what I actually want to do at the moment. It's really silly, since everything amounts to stuff that I actually desire to accomplish, but at times I get obsessed with something, which throws out all of of my carefully time-distributed plans! I love having the discipline to say I'll do a set of tasks each day (such as Japanese study, writing WEBmikey, and so on), leaving the rest of my time for other things I like to do. But sometimes (like recently!) something I get started on takes over, and I have to admit it's fun being obsessed, since I like the energy! The other day I got started reading Revolution in the Valley (which I'll review soon), and I absolutely could not stop reading it - I've been stealing every free moment in the morning, during lunch, and evenings, too. Tonight I decided I had to get it out of my system, so I just read for four hours straight (something I almost never do!) and finished it! I'm also getting a new burst of decluttering energy, since I spent some time recently to go through my filing cabinet to get rid of old documents. While I was doing it I got thinking about even more decluttering, such as going through my books and clothes again, and now I have more projects flying around in my head! So, you could say I've been undisciplined in my usual schedule lately, but I don't really mind, since my time is still getting filled with worthwhile efforts.


Letters from a Skeptic / Greg Boyd : 3 of 5

This is an interesting book that I heard about at church (they often mention recommended reading material at Gateway), so I decided to check it out since I haven't read anything theological in a long time (besides the Bible). Greg Boyd is a professor of theology who decided to start a correspondence with his elderly dad to try to answer all his questions about faith, and they ended up trading letters over three years, covering some really tough questions that everyone thinks about at one time or another. Most of the arguments are really convincing, covering things like literary criteria for the authority of the Gospels, but ranging to much deeper spiritual thoughts on free will and suffering. Every now and then the tone gets a little too preachy for my taste, but in general the arguments are extremely intelligent (and deciphering their meaning reminded me of my philosophy class!), and include many quotes from sources like CS Lewis and Pascal. My main complaint with the book is a minor one - since this is a back and forth correspondence, they chose to set the father's letters in normal type, while Greg's letters are entirely in italics. Since his letters are much longer, it's really annoying to read several full pages in all italic type! Overall, Letters from a Skeptic is a fascinating book, presenting many ideas that I hadn't considered before, and written from a refreshingly open-minded point of view.


Sweeney Todd / The Demon Barber of Fleet Street : 3 of 5

News flash! Fake blood shortage in Hollywood! That's what I figured the headlines would say after seeing Sweeney Todd, which is the bloodiest film I've seen in a long time! I've seen this Stephen Sondheim musical on stage two or three times, and I've always enjoyed the amazing music and dark comedy. Of course, the plot is gruesome, but it's handled with a light touch when performed live. This is definitely not the case with Tim Burton's film - this version shows all the terror and gruesomeness in great detail, so when the movie's over, I really felt drained from the spectacle! However, this is still a fantastic film, and does an incredible job of highlighting both the actor's talents and Sondheim's music. Johnny Depp does a great job of truly acting while singing, and Helena Bonham Carter is also wonderful showing her totally twisted love for Sweeney. Tim Burton goes all out with his favorite grey palette, so much that when the screen brightens up with color for flashback and dream sequences, it's like flipping on a light in a dark room. Seeing this familiar musical in this new interpretation really makes me appreciate the genre, since while there is certainly more singing than talking, it felt exactly like watching a masterful horror film (though of course the heightened emotions in the music add to the tension). I missed the opening theme song, but I can see why it was removed to tell the story Burton wanted to get across. If you enjoy the original musical, or happen to be a fan of blood baths, I definitely recommend Sweeney Todd (but you might want to watch a few cartoons before you go to bed like I did!).


Looney Tunes / Golden Collection Vol 5 : 5 of 5

For the past few years I've been keeping the post-Christmas tradition of watching the latest Warner Bros. cartoon DVDs first out of my pile of booty, and this year was no different! This collection was fascinating to me, because after five years of restoring and releasing these shorts, they seem to have gotten to some more obscure cartoons that I don't remember seeing as a child (or at least haven't seen 100 times before!). The first disc is filled with Bugs & Daffy, including A Pest in the House, which is one of my favorites (where Daffy won't let the guy get any sleep in the hotel)! On the other hand, it also includes Transylvania 6-5000, which is simply terrible - if you need to appreciate the incredible music of Carl Stalling, just listen to the horrible soundtrack of this cartoon (which Stalling did not do, of course!). The second disc contains all fairy tales, which means lots of Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk gags, but also has interesting shorts like Tom Thumb in Trouble, created by Chuck Jones doing his best to capture the Disney style of animation (and it looks great!). The third disc is all Bob Clampett hilarity, including another favorite of mine, Buckaroo Bugs (who could ever forget Red Hot Ryder?). It was also nice to see Beaky Buzzard again! The final disc is all older black & white cartoons, some with incredible live action (photograph) backgrounds, which I had never seen before! Eating Off the Cuff and Wholly Smoke were both incredible on this disc. Once again, the bonus material is fantastic, and the commentaries are priceless (as always, I enjoy hearing John Kricfalusi declare his undying love for Clampett). There's also a nice semi-recent (from 2000) Chuck Jones documentary, a few short Behind the Tunes features, plus three old TV specials (which are actually pretty lame). I think the restoration process was a little lacking this time around (my eyes kept finding hairs and scratches that I know could have been removed), but in general everything looks spectacular, and once again, I can't recommend these Golden Collection DVD sets enough for any animation fan!


Walk Hard / The Dewey Cox Story : 3 of 5

Good parodies don't come along very often, because it's tough to come up with the right portions of story, farce, and downright silliness, but Walk Hard manages to combine all of the recent musician biography movies (such as Walk the Line and Ray) into a hilarious mix! John C. Reilly does a great job as Dewey, and I think it's amazing how he can play Will Ferrell style comedy and still have the range for drama. The plot begins with Dewey's childhood, when he accidentally chops his brother in half, and the trauma makes him lose his sense of smell, causing him to learn to play the blues (does any of that sound like a spoof to you?). The movies covers his entire career, while he tries all kinds of musical moods (including a funny take on Brian Wilson in his later days), and there are tons of cameos from other comedians playing other famous musicians (who always address themselves with their full name to make things obvious!). There are several songs in the movie, all of which are really well-written and unbelievably funny (especially the lyrics of Let's Duet), and there are so many great lines that you'll wish you could remember them all when you leave the theater. Walk Hard is probably a little better if you know a little popular music history, but it's easily as funny as every other comedy I've seen in the past few months!


MAD About Star Wars / Thirty Years of Classic Parodies : 4 of 5

My second Christmas book was this amazing collection of Star Wars parodies from MAD Magazine, which has been on my Wish List from the moment I heard it was being published! I used to love reading MAD (and Cracked, too), so it was a blast to re-read lots of great stuff that I remember from the 70s. The original Episode IV parody is a riot, and I love the old references to things like the Hollywood Squares, as well as the tunes used in the funny Star Wars musical! All of the great covers are reproduced as well, along with the cool Fold-Ins from the back cover (each one is conveniently revealed in its folded state on the next page so you don't have to mess up the book). All of MAD's parodies of the prequels were new to me, since I haven't read any recent issues in several years, so it was great to see what they did with Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd's terrible acting (it received exactly the treatment it deserved!). This book even includes current parodies like new versions of the recent Star Wars postage stamps (I loved the stamp of Luke's severed hand!). Along with all the hilarity, the margins of every page feature some great trivia about Star Wars and MAD Magazine in general, and there are also a few pages of letters that George Lucas wrote to the magazine. I'm so glad Lucas was a huge MAD fan and even called-off his lawyers when they tried to attack without his knowledge! I would definitely recommend this great collection to Star Wars and MAD fans alike!


Resolution report

Happy New Year, everyone! For the past few years I've really been into thinking hard about New Year's resolutions, and I took some time over the weekend to look back on 2007 and look forward to 2008. Since I keep my thoughts written down, I really enjoy reading what I was thinking on this day last year and seeing how I did. Last year my main goal was decluttering, and I have to give myself an A+ on that one! Getting rid of all kinds of stuff and organizing everything has brought me tons of enjoyment and peace of mind, and really changed the way I think about buying new things. My next goal was to get new furniture, which I only half-finished - I bought things to help with my decluttering, but not important items like a new couch! My next goal was my biggest failure - I made almost no progress on health and fitness in 2007. I was really happy with myself in 2005, but it's been downhill since then, so that resolution really tanked! But I did much better on my next goal, which was to go to church regularly again. I had a time of church burn-out in 2006, but now I really look forward to going to Gateway each week and I've been much more spiritually-minded, and I feel great about it! Finally, my last goal was to experience more art and culture, but after a great start last year, I kind of fizzled out. Overall, I had a great year, and I'm proud of my successful goals, and not too discouraged by the ones I missed!

Of course, I have another list of goals for 2008, but I'll write about those next year. Actually, they are quite similar to last year (maybe a little more defined), and I'm filled with confidence that I can make them happen! While I'm on the topic of the New Year, my pal Kumiko gave me a special set of Disney New Year postcards from Japan. This is the Year of the Rat on the Chinese Zodiac, so Mickey Mouse is the perfect symbol for 2008!