12.31.2009

Looking back at 2009

2009 was an incredible year for me, filled with significant and miraculous (in my opinion) events! It's time to take a look at what my goals were for the year and see how I did. For the past few years, I've structured my New Years resolutions as general areas to improve, so here's what I focused on last year.

Healthy Life: My biggest accomplishment in 2009 was finally making this happen, after a few years of failure. I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time, and seeing its immense size suddenly made the challenges in my life seem very small. When I got home from that trip in May, I knew I could change my body. I lost 35 pounds and really shifted the way I eat and how I think about food. I have to keep at it every day (for the rest of my life), but now I know I can actually lose weight if I ever have to face this again (or to lose a few Christmas pounds!). I love using my Wii for fitness and taking long walks (often quite meditative), and my grocery list couldn't be simpler.

Frugal Life: I think I did a good job of adding to my savings and stopping to think twice about purchases, with the only exceptions being new acquisitions for my Toy Museum! I love using PaperBack Swap to avoid buying books when I can, I've done some DVD and game pruning, and I feel like I'm on top of my finances more then ever before.

Simple Life: My thought here was to create blocks of unstructured time, so I got rid of some activities and commitments that were wearing me down. I think I went a little far by cutting too many at once (I was left with a "what do I do now?" feeling), but things that I really enjoy (like Japanese) found their way back into my daily routine naturally. I'm so glad I made this goal though, because it made me examine what I really like but needed more time to do (like reading).

Creative Life: I guess I would say I failed at what I was thinking about for this goal (doing video projects, composing music), but I definitely succeeded to some extent. I've been blogging more regularly than ever before (which is therapeutic and fun for me, regardless of how the world feels about my drivel), and I met several learning goals by doing lessons in Final Cut Express, basic piano, and even iPhone development. Of course, I also kept playing with my bands and took part in a theater production as well.

Home Life: This goal actually means that I needed to buy some furniture, which I would put off forever if I didn't make it a requirement! I've finally replaced almost all my inexpensive furniture with new pieces that make me happy, and of course I've continued to declutter all year long.

2009 was also a year of wonderful experiences that I will never forget! No matter how silly it sounds, being able to meet Morning Musume was really emotional for me, not only because I admire their hard work, but because it was a real "dream come true" experience, since I truly thought it could never happen. I was able to enjoy some fantastic vacations in Arizona, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, as well as one of the most tip-top perfect Walt Disney World trips in history. I owe all of these memories to my family and friends, and I'm looking forward to more wonderful times in 2010!

12.30.2009

Enjoying iPhoto at last

For the past several months I've been moving my entire photo collection into iPhoto, and it's going really well. For a few years I avoided using iPhoto, since it used to have problems choking on as many photos as I take every year, but since it's a mature application now I decided to make the move, and it's doing fine with 20,000 images so far (though I have many more to add!). I really love the concepts of Events, Faces, and Places, and as I bring in old photos I'm taking the time to be sure every face is recognized (which is why I'm only doing a small batch every morning!). I'm also really enjoying the full screen mode, which helps me find the best image to post on Flickr from all my macro toy photos that I'm so obsessed with taking! I'm also learning a lot about the various enhancement features (thanks to reading David Pogue's Missing Manual that I borrowed from Dad), I finally understand what a histogram means and how to manipulate it to get my preferred "blown out" white background look. I even used iPhoto for this year's calendar gift that I always make for my parents (it was so easy to do the layout and ordering), and while I was in Oklahoma City recently I was able to do some quick image tweaking (straightening, removing dirty lens spots) before uploading my Christmas photos. I guess iPhoto has finally become indispensable software for me, and I can't wait to see what Apple does in the next version (hopefully in the near future)!

12.29.2009

Sherlock Holmes : 4 of 5

Whenever I'm in Oklahoma City, my parents and I try to see several movies in the incredible Warren Theater balcony, so we braved the somewhat icy roads to check out Sherlock Holmes the day after Christmas. Although I had only watched the trailer once, I knew this was going to be a cool film, re-inventing the classic super-sleuth with a Batman feel. Of course, the plot is still set in turn of the century London, but the movie-making style is 100% modern, using unusual editing methods (both slow and fast motion) and altered colors that make things appear as a kind of watercolor wash at times. The character of Holmes is really interesting, since he's kind of like a James Bond with attention deficit disorder. Without a problem to occupy his mind, his life falls apart, but when he's on a case, his thought processes are razor sharp, as shown through the film's unique "flash forward" technique that shows how Sherlock plans something (such as how to win a lightning fast fist fight) in the wink of an eye. There's also lots of flashbacks to show how small clues aided Holmes' famous deductive powers. All of the acting is really enjoyable (with fairly convincing, yet understandable, British accents), and Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law make a great team as Holmes and Watson. There are some serious action showpieces that really give this intellectual story a superhero flair - the slaughterhouse escape scene was especially exciting and intense! I was surprised that Professor Moriarty is only hinted at in this story, which makes this film kind of an introduction to the real saga that will hopefully begin with the first of many sequels. Seeing Sherlock Holmes was a fantastic way to finish off Christmas vacation with my parents, and I'm definitely looking forward to more adventures from the 221B Baker Street boys.

12.28.2009

Pucchi Best 10 / CD & DVD : 3 of 5

When I first became a fan of Morning Musume and Hello! Project, I was so excited to learn about the Pucchi Best (or Petit Best) releases, which give a great overview of all the major songs from the previous year. The CDs are a great way to hear from your favorite artists as well as discover new ones, and the DVDs are filled with music videos, which I love to watch even if I've already seen them. I thought the Pucchi Best series was so cool that I searched out and bought all the past editions, so of course I'm going to keep buying the new ones as they come out. This year's Pucchi Best 10 CD is kind of unique, because along with the previously release songs, there are also lots of new releases from the shuffle groups (introduced on the Chanpuru wedding album). 2009 was an eventful year for Hello! Project due to the mass graduation of some really big names, so it's nice to have the final H!P releases from Nacchi and Ayaya (I hadn't even seen the video for Nacchi's song, and it was really good), plus Yaguchi Mari's "comeback" song. I don't really care about the super-young groups yet, but the tracks from the major groups are all good ones (especially Rival from Berryz Koubou and My Boy from Buono). Of course, Morning Musume's incredible number one single Shouganai Yume Oibito is my favorite, and I never mind listening to it or watching the video one more time (or 100 more times). If you're looking to discover more Hello! Project music, or just like seeing a retrospective of the H!P year, I definitely recommend the Pucchi Best CDs and DVDs, including this 10th edition!

12.26.2009

Blizzard for Christmas

It's hard to believe it's already the day after Christmas! To continue with our adventures, we spent an evening driving around local neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, enjoyed Mom's delicious brownies made in a new pan (so every brownie has edges!), and played lots more Wii together (Mom has become a serious bowling competitor). The biggest news is that we had a totally white Christmas, since Oklahoma City was hit with an unexpected blizzard that left 14 inches of snow! None of us believed the weather forecast, but we ended up watching the snow fall and listening to the howling wind all day on Christmas eve. Dad and I did lots of shoveling and helping neighbors get their mail and get their garbage cans to the curb, and truthfully I had the best time stomping around in drifts that went up to my knees! Christmas day itself was wonderful, and I was amazed as usual by the huge haul of gifts that Santa brought (so many books and DVDs). After the unwrapping we watched the Disney Christmas Parade, and later enjoyed a wonderful meal (with lots of wine for me!). Today Dad and I have been doing more "snow work" and we're all going to see another movie in the luxurious Warren Theater later today. Hopefully my flight will get me back to Austin tomorrow, but I'm in no hurry to leave this magical Christmas wonderland!

View photos: Christmas 2009 (Part 3)

12.24.2009

Jam-packed Christmas

I can't believe how many fun activities my parents and I are cramming into this Christmas vacation, so here's another update on the fun! We went to Bricktown (part of Downtown Oklahoma City) to take a free holiday boat ride on the Oklahoma River and see some of the city Christmas decorations, then enjoyed seeing Avatar at the awesome Warren Theater (accompanied by great food and beer). To add to our casino repertoire, we drove to Tulsa to spend a few hours at the Hard Rock Casino, and it was cool to play some slot machines next to exciting memorabilia like the Jonas Brothers' pants and Britney Spears' miniskirt. Mom & Dad took the plunge and ordered their new kitchen countertop remodeling project, and then we drove to Pauls Valley to visit the truly amazing Toy & Action Figure Museum (which I had read about in Wired). The museum was even better than I thought it would be, and we loved seeing all the toys! During the evenings at home, we've all been opening presents (and I also received some great surprise gifts from my pals), playing bowling on the Wii (Mom is throwing strikes like crazy and can beat Dad now!), and eating Mom's wonderful meals like homemade chili and super nacho! I also got to setup Dad's new universal remote, and I'm really impressed with the results. Today is Christmas Eve and PJ Day, since the snow will be falling later today, so we're going to stay inside and try to play all the Wii games that Santa has been bringing (about ten of them!). The time has been flying by so quickly that we're not going to build the traditional jigsaw puzzle this year, but there's always next year! Merry Christmas, everyone!

View photos: Christmas 2009 (Part 2)
View photos: Toy & Action Figure Museum

12.22.2009

Avatar : 5 of 5

Even though I've been excited about seeing Avatar for a long time (mostly because I know one of the CG supervisors on the film), secretly I was extremely skeptical about James Cameron's monumental film. As much as I enjoy CG animation, I have to admit that I don't want motion capture to be the future of filmmaking - I will always lean toward real people, real sets, and even real miniatures and effects (strings and all). But after the first 30 minutes of Avatar, my opinions started to sway, and after the first conversation between Jake and Neytiri, I was absolutely amazed. Never before in the history of CG filmmaking have facial emotions been created with such realism and believability, and I'll say right now that as I was crying during the movie's finale I realized that I was completely wrapped up in these pixel-based characters. For me, that makes Avatar a complete success, since it was able to grab my heart in a way that Zemeckis couldn't do in a 100 years, and the reason for this is that Cameron still knows how to make movies. He came up with a brilliant story that felt like Pocahontas and Romeo and Juliet, he overcame the usual zombie issues with motion capture, and above all (for my taste), he cut the film using "traditional" editing and camera angles, rather than succumbing to the stupid video game floating camera style that has killed other CG films. All of the acting was fantastic - Sam Worthington was so convincing, and Sigourney Weaver was excellent (and added lots of fun Alien geek credibility). Avatar is overflowing with awesome details (I really enjoyed the console user interfaces and the menagerie of Pandora creatures), and even though this is a relatively long movie, I can easily see myself sitting through a much longer director's cut! Rather than adding comments that you can read in a million other reviews, the best thing I can say about Avatar is it made me realize that the kind of movie I don't want to be made can actually affect me emotionally in a way I never thought possible. If this has to be the future of filmmaking, at least I'm glad that James Cameron is leading the way.

12.20.2009

Christmas in full gear

Another Christmas season with my parents in Oklahoma City has begun, and we're filling every spare moment with fun! Of course we've been to Riverwind Casino, where we enjoyed the Star Trek slot machines (Dad reached the highest Starfleet rank, so he can order Mom and I around now), and we've been shopping for new kitchen countertops for Mom (my main Christmas gift this year is helping them out on the remodeling cost). I've been eating Mom's Christmas cookies every five minutes or so, along with a huge spaghetti dinner, but this year I'm also minimizing the weight damage by working out on their treadmill every morning. To earn my keep I've been busy as Dad's personal Geek Squad: I swapped out the cable modem, backed up his MacBook, setup a new soundbar for the TV, completely hooked up a neighbor's AV system, and threw in a few How-To lessons for Dad, too! Dad got a Nintendo Wii this year, and it took about three seconds for Mom and Dad to both get hooked on bowling, so we've been having matches every night (Dad came as close to a perfect game as I think I'll ever see). We've been opening other gifts too, such as matching Santa shirts (to go with our matching hats), and I got a Star Trek Tricorder with cool lights and sounds! I also had fun building a LEGO Christmas Toy Shop (probably a new yearly tradition), and we all enjoyed going out to a local dinner theater for a "Dean Martin" Christmas show. We have many more holiday adventures planned - this sure is a jam-packed Christmas!

View photos: Christmas 2009 (Part 1)

12.18.2009

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny / Vol 5 & Vol 6 : 3 of 5

Although I don't think this series has a chance of being as good as Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, these two DVDs do a great job at the attempt! Lots of storylines are going on at this point, crisscrossing each other and making it necessary to really pay attention (especially when many characters look so similar!). One plot involves Lacus Cline and her attempted assassination, while a fake Lacus is doing concerts to boost troop morale (and definitely being used to control people's loyalty!). There's a lot of focus on the Phantom Pain group, especially Stella, who is saved by Shinn when she almost drowns, causing her to form a bond with him (not knowing they are on opposite sides of the war, of course). Later they fight each other in their Mobile Suits while Stella tries to protect the place she was "born" - a diabolical laboratory where Naturals (humans) are "enhanced" with drugs and memory wipes to become perfect soldiers (which really casts an evil spin on the Earth forces). There are a couple of the usual recap episodes, but these are some of the best I've seen, since they are constructed as flashbacks for Shinn in order to reveal a much deeper level of his character (finally!). There's also a tense meeting between Kira and Athrun, who find they have lost each other's trust and seem to be on opposite sides of the conflict yet again. Of course, there are also some cool extended battle scenes featuring all sorts of Mobile Suits and other craft, plus there's a switch to a new opening theme song and beautiful title sequence. Whenever I finish watching one of these DVDs I always wish I had the next one ready to pop in the DVD player, so that's definitely a good sign!

12.16.2009

Crazy Christmas CDs

By this time in December, I'm listening to Christmas music non-stop, and my collection is full of the classics from my childhood (my parents got me hooked on the Ray Conniff Singers) and lots of contemporary stuff, too. But there are a few totally bizarre CDs that I love to listen to, even if they are a little out of character for me! Although I love Christmas with all my heart, for some reason I get the biggest kick out of irreverent, raunchy, dirty, hilarious Christmas parodies and spoofs! I've had Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics for a few years, and I love listening to the South Park characters totally destroy all the carols, especially the songs sung by Mr. Hankey himself. You have to be prepared for a unique experience when you listen to a CD with smiling turd on the cover! My newest CD is Have Yourself a Meaty Little Christmas featuring the characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and I have been crying with laughter over this one! I can't decide which track I like more: Master Shake singing the soulful I Sure Hope I Don't Have To Beat Your Ass This Christmas or Meatwad happily singing Santa Left A Booger In My Stocking (with lyrics like "Santa pulled his mitten off and shoved his finger up the booger trough and pulled a gift down his nose chimney")! Maybe I'm a little deranged - I'm sure I look funny singing these in my car with a huge laughing smile on my face!

Speaking of Christmas, the wait is finally over, and tomorrow I'll be flying to Christmas Town (which happens to be my parents' house in Oklahoma City). For the next 10 days I won't be writing many WEBmikey posts, but I can't curb my Twitter addiction, so you'll know what's going on (if you want)!

12.15.2009

Christmas Toys 1978

By the time Christmas of 1978 rolled around, Kenner was cranking out the Star Wars toys by the ton, and of course I had already been collecting Star Wars action figures all year long! My Santa parents took the holiday opportunity to deliver some of the larger Star Wars toys, including the massive Death Star playset, which had a unique design to represent a multi-level “slice” of the space station. I went nuts with this toy, since there was so much to do with it, and I’ll never forget the cool trash compactor (filled with bits of foam garbage). I also got a TIE Fighter (sized so a figure could pilot it), and I loved carefully putting on the decals and then pressing the secret buttons to pop off the wings to simulate battle damage! Aside from action figures, I got the human-sized Stormtrooper Rifle that had some pretty cool firing effects and was a blast to hold. It was definitely a Star Wars extravaganza!

But as usual, Santa brought even more amazing stuff, such as Electroman, which was a cool large action figure with a big light on his forehead and sensors to detect movement (he was the same size as the Six Million Dollar Man, so they went well together). I also got the Star Bird Avenger, one of the most innovative space ship toys I can remember, which changed its electronic engine sounds to match the angle of the ship, and it even had fantastic laser sounds and lights. I even got the Star Bird Command Base to go with it! I have no idea how all this stuff fit in my room.

After 1978, Dad stopped using the old home movie camera, so I can only dream about the spectacular toys I received in 1979 and beyond. I know that when I read nostalgic toy sites like Plaid Stallions I am constantly reminded of cool stuff that I had, all thanks to my incredible parents (and being a spoiled only child). Every Christmas brings joy and happy surprises, and it’s been fun remembering my childhood treasures!

12.14.2009

Pasta for Christmas

I feel extremely lucky to have so many wonderful friends in my life, so I decided it would be fun to get everyone together and buy them all dinner for Christmas! Since we're all growing up and there are several kiddies in the bunch now, we don't often get to all be in the same room together, so it was a really special night for me, and I think everyone had fun. We ate at Buca di Beppo, and there were 24 of us to completely fill the Velvet Room, which made for a nice semi-private atmosphere where we could be loud and crazy. The tables were overflowing with food and desserts, as well as six liters of Chianti! I got several surprise Christmas presents, but the real gift was just seeing everyone together having a good time!

View photos: Christmas Dinner Party

12.12.2009

Pure Drivel / Steve Martin : 3 of 5

Since I've enjoyed everything I've read by Steve Martin lately, I looked around on PaperBack Swap and found a few more short books to get. Pure Drivel is a collection of short essays, many of which appeared in The New Yorker magazine, and most of these are much more in line with Steve's usual off-the-wall humor, but with a definite literary flair. Some of the essays are only a couple pages, so this book reads very quickly, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Every now and then an essay will cross over from the comedy world and become a moving, beautiful piece, which is the case with Hissy Fit, by far my favorite of the collection. The way Steve writes so lovingly about the city of Los Angeles is incredible - he finds meaning in the simplest details and weaves it into poetry. I also really enjoyed Bad Dog, which is told from the dog's point of view as it struggles to resist the urge to bark at the FedEx man, and the lengthy description of how the bark begins to rise in the dog's throat is just amazing! Of course, there are several essays that are just sheer nonsense, but clever and funny at the same time. One of these is Schrodinger's Cat, which begins by explaining the famous quantum mechanics paradox, and then goes on with a bunch of hilarious "similar" situations with names like "Chef Boyardee's Bungee Cord"! While I would recommend Steve Martin's novels over this collection any day, Pure Drivel is still great for a quick, intelligent laugh.

12.11.2009

JLA / New World Order : 2 of 5

I probably wouldn't have picked up this book at a comic book shop, but I couldn't resist getting it from PaperBack Swap, especially since I've read so little of the recent adventures of the Justice League. This is a four-issue collection with a pretty standard alien invasion plot (although there's a nice twist involving the Martian Manhunter). I thought the first half was pretty lame, since I wasn't enjoying the overly-busy artwork, and even the dialogue was a little boring. Some of the drawing is really crazy, too - a few faces look particularly sloppy! But somehow the book really turned around for the second half, with a better pace and great one-liners from the heroes. Maybe I was just happy that Batman ends up solving the mystery, since he's the only plain ol' human in the bunch! I enjoyed how some portions of the book focus on a particular character, which was even more interesting to me since heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern are actually different guys than when I was growing up. For essentially free, this was a really fun book, but I'm definitely not on the search for more books in this series.

12.10.2009

Christmas Toys 1977

When I hear the year 1977 mentioned, I immediately think of Star Wars, so you would think that Santa’s sleigh would have been overflowing with Star Wars toys this year. Actually, the toy companies had no idea that Star Wars would be such a success, so when Christmas rolled around almost nothing was available! However, Santa did manage to get me the Escape from the Death Star board game, which I thought was the coolest piece of cardboard in the whole world (I’m sure I played it a million times with my friends).

Instead of Star Wars, 1977 turned out to be the Christmas of the Micronauts! I don’t even remember how I got into these toys, but suddenly they were all I wanted (just like my friends, cousins, and everyone else). Micronauts were a bit more expensive than your average toy, but my Santa parents got me all they could, including individual figures like Acroyear and cool vehicles like the Galactic Cruiser. But my favorites by far were Baron Karza (all black and Vader-esque) and his horse Andromeda, who had fantastic magnetic joints that gave them excellent posability as well as making them interchangeable (so you could turn the two into a centaur!). I was a Micronauts freak for years, and I really wish I had Baron Karza on my toy shelf today!

12.09.2009

Hello! Project 2009 Summer Kakumei Gannen / Hello! Chanpuru : 3 of 5

Since I really enjoyed the Chanpuru / Happy Marriage Song Collection CD, which shuffled all of the Hello! Project girls into different groups to cover famous pop songs often heard at weddings, I was really looking forward to this concert to see the mixed-up line-ups in action! This two-hour show is set in a smaller venue than usual, but that only makes the stage look more packed with energetic girls. Along with the songs from the CD, there are several other unexpected numbers (possibly older songs from the original shuffle groups), and of course, plenty of Morning Musume, Berryz Koubou, and C-ute hits (often performed by non-group members, which is always fun). A few performers definitely stood out for me in this show, starting with Lin Lin, who can seriously turn on the energy (unfortunately, she didn't perform her solo from the CD, which was so disappointing)! Saki from Berryz Koubou is one of the best dancers in Hello! Project, and I enjoyed watching her make every move perfectly. Risako (also Berryz) is so intense, and regardless of how you feel about her voice, she can definitely belt it, which really works for her! Reina's solo was nice (wonderfully clear, high notes), and Ai-chan's solo was just stunning (although cut way too short). Speaking of Ai-chan, she is literally an actress on stage, making the lyrics come from her heart! I was really excited to see Zoku Biyuuden since Sayumi is part of the group, and I loved their performance of Only You. The costumes were fun overall with High King's being the most stylish by far. Truthfully I was a little bored by Ice Creamusume and the other baby groups, but the finale was huge and cool. I guess overall I was hoping for a better concert, but I still really enjoyed this show and I'm sure I'll watch it again some time!

12.08.2009

The Princess and the Frog : 5 of 5

It's not often that something so anticipated meets every expectation, so I had my fingers crossed when I went to a sneak preview (thanks to Melinda, of course!) of Disney's new animated feature The Princess and the Frog. This movie is so important to the future of animation, and marks several "returns" for Disney - a return to hand-drawn animation, a return to fairy tales with a princess, a return to true musicals - so I've been hoping with all my might that this film could start a new renaissance just like The Little Mermaid did so long ago. I'm so happy to say that Disney has done it - The Princess and the Frog brings back the magic and spirit of all the classics that Disney fans love! From the moment the movie began I was tingling at seeing a true cartoon on the big screen again - there's just something about knowing human hands made this living artwork that's overwhelming to me. The animation was never disappointing, with fantastic, expressive character designs, detailed lip-sync on human characters, and hilarious variety of movement. Of course I could keep gushing about the animation (I love it that the incredible Mark Henn has another beautiful princess in his portfolio), but truthfully the most important element is the story (as any Disney fan would tell you), and directors Clements and Musker (who thankfully were willing to come back to Disney after the animation shakedown) have managed to craft an absolutely beautiful tale. Each character has a perfect fit in the plot, and everyone (not only Tiana) is allowed to grow in a wonderful way. The songs are wonderful, especially since they're influenced by New Orleans Jazz, and there are several giant music numbers that really bring the house down (think of the pizzazz of I Just Can't Wait to be King from The Lion King, then multiply it by three)! Tiana is a truly lovable and admirable character, Prince Naveen has some hilarious lines, Louis the gator is a reincarnation of Baloo from The Jungle Book (and that's a compliment!), and Dr. Facilier is a welcome addition to Disney's gallery of villains. But the character that shines with brilliance (pun intended) is Ray the Cajun firefly, who creates an emotional sob-fest that ranks right up there with Bambi's mom and Dumbo's tear (all I can say is, be prepared to cry). I absolutely cannot wait to see The Princess and the Frog again - I'm going opening day to "vote with my wallet" for the future of hand-drawn animation!

12.07.2009

Petting piglets, popping pies

My weekends usually include some kind of event or get-together with friends, but this Saturday was jam-packed with three big ones! I started the day by seeing a sneak preview of Disney's new animated feature The Princess and the Frog (completely gushing review coming soon) with my pal Melinda, then grabbed some lunch and a nap before heading to Emiliano's second birthday party! Chris & Eliza hired a petting zoo for their front yard, so there were all kinds of bunnies, goats, pigs, chickens, and even a baby cow, horse and burro! Everyone totally loved it (adults as well as kids), and had fun playing with all the cute, fluffy animals. Of course we sang Happy Birthday and Emiliano got to devour a birthday cupcake, while everyone else snacked on pizza and other delicious foods with coffee. After another quick break at home, it was time for the third event, Jonathan & Anne-Marie's annual Pie Party! Their newly remodeled kitchen was put to good use, since everyone filled it to overflowing with pies, including non-sweets like quiche and Frito pie. Jonathan was an amazing host, providing awesome booze and cigars, which we enjoyed by the outdoor fire. It was so much fun to talk with everyone and we even sang Christmas carols! Around 2:00 AM reality caught up with me (so to speak), but Sunday was a nice recovery day. I feel pretty lucky that my pals throw such unique and awesome parties for me to enjoy!

View photos: Emiliano's Birthday 2009
View photos: Pie Party 2009

12.04.2009

Manga Mentions 12.09

Honey and Clover Vol 1: When Shojo Beat magazine was still being published, I looked forward to reading Honey and Clover in each new issue, since it always had a relaxing effect on me. So even though I've enjoyed most of the manga piece-meal (as well as enjoyed the live action drama and movie), I decided to read it again! It's amazing how much I love this story, considering the bizarre artwork (not really my style), but the narrative is so well-written that it warms my heart every time! This first volume just gets things going with the art school students, and I'm looking forward to what happens next (even though I know already).

Nana Vol 3: Speaking of re-reading, I'm still having a good time with my second-favorite Shojo Beat series, so I picked up a couple more volumes on PaperBack Swap. In this volume Shoji starts cheating on Nana with Sachiko, but there's quite a bit of character development to demonstrate Shoji's internal conflict, making it a much more interesting situation. Also, Yasu moves to Tokyo to play drums with Nana's band, completing the line-up!

Nana Vol 4: Nana discovers that the other Nana had a relationship with Ren, so she starts scheming about getting her to see his band in concert. I love the scene where they see each other from the stage, and I was really moved by the line about crying because emotion fills the heart to overflowing (kind of a profound explanation).

Hikaru no Go Vol 17: It's becoming so easy to sum up Hikaru no Go lately: fantastic artwork, a bunch of Go games, and nothing much happens. I just have to keep reading since I'm come so far, and at least this volume includes a confrontation between Hikaru and Akira (who senses the presence of Sai), as well as a nice dream sequence with Sai himself (I hope he comes back soon).

Kaze Hikaru Vol 15: This volume has an interesting plot where a doctor friend of Sei's father comes to examine the troops (obviously a problem since Sei is a girl posing as a guy!). There's a little development in Okita's feelings for Sei, and the crisis resolves itself in a creative diagnosis that will support Sei's cause among the troops for quite a while. Now how about some action?

12.03.2009

Christmas Toys 1976

Although every Christmas I've written about so far was fantastic (and we haven't even got to Star Wars toys yet), I think if I had to pick one Christmas morning to live again it would have to be 1976. Every toy I received that year was simply spectacular, and I'm not the only one who thinks so, judging from all the fond memories other people have written on the web! I guess I'll begin with the biggest LEGO set I've ever owned (I remember it included lots of large green bases which were so useful), followed by the absolutely huge Earthquake Tower (a very strange toy when you think about it, but I liked it because it was almost as tall as me!). To add to my Star Trek collection, I got a cool Controlled Space Flight toy so I could fly the Enterprise (with a propeller!) around in circles, plus the magnificent Mission to Gamma VI playset for my Mego Star Trek action figures! It was such a beautiful set with a giant mouth (which reminded me of the episode The Apple), with a rubber band trap and a "living" plant monster (a green glove!). Next was practically a whole collection of Six Million Dollar Man toys in one shot, including the Steve Austin figure himself, the incredibly-named Bionic Transport and Repair Station (which was a big rocket), and the awesome Mission Control Center, with its cleverly designed inflatable dome structure! I had so much fun putting these together, applying decals and attaching tubes. But there's still more! This same year I also received the Space 1999 Eagle (definitely a Holy Grail for many collectors), which was so giant you had to fly it around with two hands. I was crazy about Space 1999 as a kid (I even drew my own comics of the show), so I really enjoyed this toy, and every time I'm in my parents' garage I am taunted by the original box (which is being used for storage)!

But even with all of these great gifts, the best was yet to come with my beloved Star Trek Tricorder. This was the one toy I wanted the most that year, and my parents decided to pull the same trick from A Christmas Story by hiding it until the very end of Christmas morning. I can remember pulling back the drapes and seeing Kirk and Spock on that box, and I can't express how much I loved that souped-up cassette recorder! Throughout the year I began to record my own pretend radio shows (with lots of help from Dad), and of course I had a lot of Star Trek adventures as well. I'm kind of overwhelmed just writing about all this fun. What a Christmas!

12.02.2009

Last of the Jedi Vol 9 / Jude Watson : 4 of 5

Usually a lot more time passes by before I read the next book in this series, but since I lucked into a copy from PaperBack Swap I could continue the story right away. This next-to-last volume was particularly great because it has lots of connection with classic Star Wars characters, including a toddler Princess Leia! Several kinds of plots are going on at once. Ferus (still undercover working for the Empire) is on Alderaan to throw off the Empire from researching Leia (who has shown Force-sensitivity by saving the life of a nanny), but he's also stupidly carrying around a Sith Holocron that the Emperor gave him! His internal dialogue is interesting, since he keeps hearing voices to tempt him to give in to his anger, but it seems a little crazy to me that he would even carry around something so dangerous. The next plot involves digging into Vader's past, and Ferus' friends discover the connection to Mustafar through some detective work, while at the same time Vader himself is still pushing Empire scientists to develop a selective memory wipe drug so he can stop his tormenting thoughts of Padme (how sad). There are some really cool conversations and details, such as Obi-Wan talking with Bail Organa (whom he last saw at the end of Episode III), and even some mentions of Captain Antilles and the Tantive IV, which every fan knows will set the scene for the beginning of Episode IV! The ending of this volume felt pretty rushed, and there's so much happening that it's hard to believe it can get wrapped up in the next volume, but I'm enjoying every chapter until then!

12.01.2009

Varan : 2 of 5

This movie was the third DVD included in the Toho Pack I recently purchased, and although this is a pretty weak kaiju film, I still enjoyed watching this 1958 black & white classic. Actually the first thing I noticed was the incredible Ikufube score, which features lots of drums and chorus vocals (and even some unexpected piano), and also includes a few themes that would later be re-used in Godzilla movies. The main characters are scientists (what else?) plus a cute reporter named Yuriko, but unfortunately there's almost no character development. Sine Varan was made only a few years after Godzilla, it's interesting to see how movies from the same genre can be so different (perhaps aggravated by the fact that Varan was originally planned as a TV release). The monster himself appears at about 25 minutes into the movie (with no mysterious build-up, unfortunately), and he's designed mostly as a traditional lizard (on all fours). At times the costume is so convincing that it looks like a real reptile, with detailed skin texture and cool spikes. Varan's unusual power is he can fly with arm/leg membranes like a flying squirrel, which is pretty creative, but he only does it once! There are some interesting attacks both in the sky with planes and even underwater with depth charges, but truthfully the battles are quite slow moving and drawn out. The final showdown occurs on a nice miniature Haneda airport set, where poor Varan is tricked into swallowing bombs (because he likes to eat flares)! The DVD includes a great Japanese commentary track with one of the special effects artists, who loves to talk about the various techniques he used, as well as a fascinating Japanese TV show where the same artist demonstrates how Varan's skin was created (an incredibly long process that really shows the devotion of the special effects crew!). Although this movie isn't high on my "watch again soon" list, I'm still enjoying experiencing these Toho classics for the first time!

11.30.2009

Christmas Toys 1975

I think the toys I remembering playing with the most throughout my childhood would be my Mego 8-inch action figures, which had incredible cloth clothing and plastic accessories. I had so many of these I can’t even begin to count, including almost all of the super heroes and villains, as well as characters from Star Trek and Planet of the Apes! In fact, I loved them so much, I’ve recently been collecting reproductions of these classic toys) In 1975, Santa brought not just one, but two gigantic Mego playsets to use with my figures, starting with the USS Enterprise. This representation of the bridge included control panels and the captain’s chair, changeable view screen images, and the totally creative Transporter effect (which let you spin a figure around quickly, then press a button to make them disappear!). Next was the Batcave, which was so much fun to play with since it provided an official garage for my Batmobile. Mego worked so many details into this set, such as the Batpole and Batsignal, and there was even a collapsing road sign on the secret entrance! Santa also brought a rare and interesting piece of Disney park memorabilia that year, since I got the Haunted Mansion Board Game that so many collectors are after today. I remember really enjoying this game, and the artwork was really cool (now if I only knew where it went!). Along with other smaller toys, I also got a simple little game called Bas-Ket which let you launch ping pong balls into nets (which I just discovered can still be bought today). I remember playing this one with Dad, but the main reason it deserves mentioning is because I think it’s been buried in my parents’ garage for years, so someday I may get to play it again!

11.28.2009

Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol 1 / The Fantastic : 3 of 5

Since I recently enjoyed reading Ultimate Spider-Man, I thought it would be fun to check-out this alternate, updated origin of the Fantastic Four, especially since I've heard this series is the best of Marvel's Ultimate line. Of course, I kept my eyes open on PaperBack Swap and got a copy in great condition, and although I'm not going to make this series a priority, I certainly was intrigued by both the artwork and the story! Starting with the birth of baby Reed Richards, there's a series of scenes that highlight the awkward childhood of brainy Reed (and how he's protected from bullies by Ben Grimm), and how he's eventually discovered at a science fair and asked to join a genius think tank at the Baxter Building (which looks spectacular), where he meets Susan and Johnny Storm (as well as the future Doctor Doom). The rocket launch and cosmic rays have been thrown out this time, and instead it's Reed's experiment in dimensional travel that backfires and causes their mutation, which is pretty intense since each one is teleported to a random spot in the process! As they discover their powers, the story does a nice job of making it an emotional experience (seeing poor Reed wake up as a pile of rubber was kind of sad). The artwork is wonderful, with particularly interesting angles (featuring lots of "crane shots" looking down into large scenes), great colors and crisp lines. The Mole Man is the villain of the story, but while he definitely looks disgusting, the final battle with his minions is a bit weak, especially since the rest of the book is so good. It's always fun to read re-imaginings of great characters, especially when they're as cool as Ultimate Fantastic Four!

11.27.2009

Thanksgiving 2009

Happy post-Thanksgiving everyone! I had a fantastic holiday, starting with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as usual. I really enjoyed the new Sailor Mickey balloon, as well as the cool Spider-Man balloon (excellent pose!) and Santa's new float! The rest of the day was spent with the King and Queen of Thanksgiving, Chris & Eliza (I guess that makes Emiliano the Prince of Thanksgiving), along with other good friends (it was nice that Matt & Kumiko could join the fun this year). As always, the food was delicious, and I did a good job health-wise by only eating one plate (however, there were no restrictions on champagne and wine!). It was a smaller crowd this year, but it was nice to see friends I hadn't seen in a while, including Tom, Kristin & Carlos, and Eliza's sister Laura. I had fun giving Chris & Eliza a little poster I made of some previous years' "basting shots" (I always take the same picture of Eliza basting the turkey in the oven), and it was great to play with the kids Emiliano, Sofia and Bella. I extended my holiday to Friday also, watching anime and building my LEGO Star Wars Tantive IV (a truly exquisite design from Episode IV, one of my favorite ships). It's been a great couple of days, and now the weekend is here!

View photos: Thanksgiving 2009

11.26.2009

Anime DVD Holiday Gift Guide

I always get in the holiday spirit a little early, but now that Thanksgiving is here, there no denying it's time to start getting your decorations up, listening to Christmas music, and of course, shopping! Just in case you need to shop for an anime fan or any geek who loves cool DVDs, I thought I'd look back on some of my favorite series and recommend them as great holiday gifts. All of these series are available in easy to order DVD sets, and are definitely the kind of shows that are fun to watch more than once. I have most of them in my collection already, and the ones I don't, I plan on buying someday!

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
Perfect for fans of futuristic, cyber-cool action, with excellent animation, intelligent storylines, and brilliant music, Shirow Masamune's net-infused saga is one of the best anime I've seen in a while. I just watched this series twice in the past few months, so it's definitely a favorite!

Appleseed: Ex Machina
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
Another Shirow Masamune masterpiece, brought to life with an amazing blend of traditional and computer animation, filled with action set against an incredible advanced cityscape.

Death Note
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
One of the best plotlines to come around in years, with elements of mystery, crime and fantasy that will please everyone from Sherlock Holmes fans to goth lovers! I never dreamed the anime could do justice to the original manga, but this series totally delivers.

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
Every geek needs to enjoy one of the many Gundam series (I think it's the law!), and there's no better place to start than Gundam SEED, which features fantastic characterization, an excellent Jpop soundtrack, and of course, bad-ass Mobile Suit battles!

Phoenix
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
For the anime fan with an appreciation for Japanese culture (as well as the brilliance of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and other incredible manga), this animated version of Tezuka's grand opus features stories set in ancient Japan as well as the sprawling cities of the future, weaved together with an intriguing spiritual theme. I can't wait to watch this one again!

Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
This is an older anime series, but I have to say it's one of my favorites because of the fantastic female characters (of varying temperaments) who don high-tech armor and fight against robots gone wild! I can't get enough of the futuristic scenery, full-force action, and strong personalities.

Azumanga Daioh
WEBmikey Review | Buy from Amazon
If you're buying for a geek with a soft spot, I guarantee their heart will be warmed by this group of high school girls, who simply grow up and experience life together with all its ups and downs (and cat bites). This series is totally hilarious, but also tear-jerking, which is a great combination!

11.25.2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox : 4 of 5

I was interested in this stop-motion animated movie from the moment I saw the trailer, and thanks to my pal Melinda I got to see it early at a sneak preview! I was already familiar with the story (I read the book several years ago when I was working my way through all of Roald Dahl's works), but when I started reading the incredibly positive reviews, I got really excited about the film! I'm happy to say that the reviewers were right, because Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wonderful, hilarious, charming and quirky movie that borders on genius. The plot is true to Dahl's story, but director Wes Anderson uses it as a jumping point to make another film in his unmistakable style (I was often reminded of The Royal Tenenbaums). Not only is the stop-motion beautiful and unique, with incredibly detailed characters and sets actually shot at 12 frames per second to increase the jerky, handmade feel, but the staging and camera angles are also fascinating, especially the use of extreme, in-your-face close-ups that switch back and forth between two characters in a conversation. I loved the subtlety of the jokes, helped by skillfully natural dialogue with excellent delivery by George Clooney and the rest of the cast (sometimes with a decidedly British comedy feel), with gags that often pay off later in the story, like the funny "Whack Bat" game that plays a part in the escape finale. There are a million simple details that had the audience roaring, from the idea of an animal real estate agent to the appearance of the skinny fox son brushing his teeth in his underwear (which caused immediate laughter!). Along with the humor, there's even some eloquent dialogue in Mr. Fox's toasts and messages about being true to yourself in his lines about being a "wild animal". The soundtrack is great as well, with unexpected montages set to Beach Boys tunes. As soon as the movie was over, I thought to myself that I could easily watch it again right away, just to enjoy the laughter and wonder of this stop-motion, toy-like world. Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best animated films of the year, simply because it doesn't try to be!

11.24.2009

Three Small Things 11.24.09

Last weekend I met my parents in Waco for our usual pre-Thanksgiving visit, and even though it was rainy and foggy, the weather cleared up just enough for Mom's trip to the family cemetery so she could put out new flowers. We had a nice pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my Great Aunt Bobbie and Cousin Clinton in Stephenville, along with early Christmas gifts, and also went out to eat a couple times with my Aunt Geneva. I definitely earned my keep in my role as family tech support, too - I hooked up my aunt's new printer and installed drivers on Windows Vista, showed my cousin how to use his new Blu-ray player (a beautiful LG model), and upgraded Dad's MacBook to Snow Leopard, which was a crazy experience that ended up successful! (The install kept hanging with two minutes remaining, but finally finished after the third try, which was a holiday miracle!)

View photos: Waco 2009

It's kind of a shame, but since I type all the time, my handwriting is worse than ever, and even my signature is terrible since I don't write checks! I've already got my Christmas cards ready to send, and I made the weird decision to scan my signature (which I repeated until it was legible) and print it on labels to stick inside the cards. I was already printing labels to share my online info (website, Twitter and Facebook), so it was easy to make a set with my signature (using Avery's amazing Design & Print Online, which is perfect for generating a set of identical labels). It looks pretty convincing, so maybe no one will notice!

I recently finished re-reading CS Lewis' classic Mere Christianity (I didn't own a copy, so PaperBack Swap came to my rescue as usual) since it was quoted often in the last series of talks at my church. Even though I had read it years ago, I really enjoyed it again, since Lewis' style of writing sounds like a conversation over a pipe and pint. I love his metaphors and explanations of various concepts, which are always fresh and creative, and I can easily see how they translate into his incredible Narnia stories!

11.23.2009

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex / Complete 1st Season Collection : 5 of 5

Even though I just watched all 26 episodes of this incredible anime series on Netflix Watch Instantly in September, I had to buy this DVD set to watch it again in the original Japanese (plus I was tempted since my dad let me know about a special price at Amazon.com!). I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the entire series again, and not only was it fascinating to discover new details in the story, but truthfully I understood the broad Laughing Man case much better this time. I'm still completely impressed with the format of this series as a futuristic, cyberized "cop show", and there are so many standalone episodes that really shine, sometimes for fantastic action sequences, but often for in-depth character development that is so hard to do in a 30 minute episode. My favorites are episodes that feature a particular character, such as Batou's undercover operation where he encounters his former boxing hero, or Aramaki's trip to England where he foils a mafia money laundering via wine investment scheme. And like many fans, I absolutely love the Tachikoma (it was great to hear their Japanese voice), both in the touching episode where the little girl looks for her dog, and of course in the climax of the series where they return to sacrifice themselves to protect Batou (which actually brought a tear to my eye). Speaking of Tachikoma, this DVD set includes the Tachikoma Days comedy segments with each episode (which were not available on Netflix), and some of these are hilarious! Each DVD also includes interviews (in Japanese) with voice actors, CG artists, script writers and directors that are short and to the point, but still really interesting to watch. I could go on and on about this series - while I was watching it I noted way too many cool details to mention in this short review! Obviously Ghost in the Shell has quickly become one of my favorite anime series, not only because it's action-packed and incredibly cool, but because the intelligent plots and deep characterization require a level of attention and thought that completely draw me into the story. I can't wait to see the second season of this show sometime soon!

11.20.2009

Netflix One-Liners 11.09

Beverly Hills Chihuahua: I only watched this because I thought the trailer was hilarious and because it's a Disney movie, and I actually laughed much more than I expected, but Disney animal flicks have definitely gone downhill since That Darn Cat!
Nerdcore Rising: This is a totally entertaining documentary about MC Frontalot, the performer who invented nerdcore (hip-hop rap with geeky subjects and references), and I enjoyed it so much I bought his CD as soon as the film ended!
Time After Time: I remember as a kid being a fan of this science-fiction thriller, about Jack the Ripper stealing HG Wells' time machine and traveling into the far-flung 70s, so it was fun and nostalgic to see this one again.
Man On Wire: I enjoyed this amazing documentary about the French acrobat who illegally strung a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across several times, especially since it's structured like an espionage plot (and it's almost unbelievable he actually did it).
Superman 2: Seems like I've been re-watching lots of Superman on Watch Instantly, so I figured I should check out the original sequel again, which is by far the best with both Kryptonian villains led by General Zod and Superman getting it on with Lois.
X-Men Origins / Wolverine: I never even got around to watching X-Men 2 and 3, but my pals and I felt like seeing an action-packed blockbuster, and it was cool to see Hollywood's take on Wolverine's origin story and some early X-Men (actually I rented this from iTunes on my Apple TV, but I'm including it here anyway!).
Monty Python Conquers America: Even though this is a really short film, it was interesting to learn about how Monty Python's Flying Circus eventually made it to America against all odds, becoming one of those late night PBS shows that kids watch hoping for two-seconds of nudity (wow, this is the third documentary in this bunch!).
And Now For Something Completely Different: After discovering this movie via the previous documentary, I thought it would be cool to watch the original Monty Python film (funded by Playboy as a way to get them into the states), and it's a nice collection of classic bits with higher budget sets and camera angles.
Everyone Says I Love You: Every time I watch this Woody Allen musical, I'm always amazed at how much I enjoy the plot, the characters, and the jazz standards that come out of nowhere, along with the huge cast (this is the only movie with Julia Roberts that I ever want to see).
Silent Movie: There's no one as ridiculous as Mel Brooks, and I love to watching his classics when I get the chance, so I decided to enjoy this totally silent (except for Marcel Marceau saying "No!") slapstick spoof, which has the distinction of being the movie that made my parents realize I needed glasses, since I was squinting so bad to read the dialogue!

11.19.2009

Last of the Jedi Vol 8 / Jude Watson : 4 of 5

I'm still enjoying these fantastic Star Wars children's books (with totally non-childish quality!), and while the plot of this volume wasn't exactly spectacular, there were still a few elements that made it stand out among the other books in this series. In true Lucas style, there are several simultaneous stories going on with quick transitions from one chapter to the next, which really gives things a Star Wars feel. Ferus is still undercover with the Empire, Trever is also undercover at the Imperial military academy, and the rest of the resistance is working behind the scenes. The narrative also switches the point of view very well, contrasting the conflict going on in Ferus' head with Vader's tormented memories of Padme. There are some great insights into Ferus' character as he is tempted by the dark side of the Force (even accepting lessons from the Emperor), and tears apart a room with Force powers as he rages over the death of his friend Roan (killed by Vader in the previous volume). It's also interesting that Vader is pushing forward with medical experiments to selectively erase memories as a way of forgetting his loss of Padme! The real action of the story heats up with the rescue of Lune (a Force-adept boy) that connects the Ferus and Trever storylines, which also involves an interesting defection by a teacher who doesn't want to work for the Empire. The end of the book finally has a glimpse of Obi-Wan (aging into Alec Guinness on Tatooine) who orders Ferus to check out a report involving a certain little girl on Alderaan! Sounds like a fantastic tie-in to me, and I'm ready to get into the next volume soon.

11.18.2009

The Mysterians : 3 of 5

It's time for another Toho science fiction gem, which came in the Toho Pack set that I bought when I decided I had to have Matango in my DVD collection. The Mysterians is much older than the other Toho films I've been watching lately, since it was made in 1957, not very long after the original Godzilla (in fact, it has practically the identical cast since the actors were all under contract, ready to go!). This is the first color Tohoscope (widescreen) film, and Tsuburaya takes every opportunity to show off his special effects skills in this new format. From convincing forest fire effects to devastating landslides, there are so many detailed miniatures to enjoy, although they certainly don't last long! All of these special effects leave little room for character development, but director Honda still manages to squeeze in his favorite theme of the world's nations joining together against a common foe. The plot involves aliens from the asteroids between Saturn and Jupiter, who build a huge domed base on Earth and make the simple demands of a little land and of course, women! In fact, one of the best scenes is when the Mysterians show the hero scientists a few snapshots of the girls they want! There are several other fun elements to the film, such as the robot kaiju called Mogera who breaks out of a mountain for the usual destruction, cool weapons and flying craft that take part in several lengthy battles against the dome (including awesome melting effects similar to the ones in Godzilla), and even a brief risque scene where Etsuko observes part of the battle from her window while taking a bath! Because of the global theme, there are several non-Japanese actors who alternate between bad-acting English and hilariously pronounced Japanese (with a British accent!). This DVD includes a nice commentary track (in Japanese, but subbed) with a couple older special effects gurus, and it's really cool listening to them reminisce and drool over the classic effects (often using technical terms that keep the moderator on his toes). The Mysterians wasn't as entertaining to me as later classics like Battle in Outer Space, but I enjoyed watching another iconic Toho film as usual!

11.17.2009

Christmas Toys 1974

Santa decided to go for quantity this year, so I got a huge variety of great toys, starting with lots of board games (which meant that Mom & Dad had to play with me a lot, being an only child). I loved the Rube Goldberg magic of Mouse Trap (one of the best games ever that's still sold today), and more often just built the contraption to see it work rather than follow the actual rules! I also got a fun memory matching game called Husker Du (Dad enjoys memory games, so we played that for years), and believe it or not, a board game inspired by the TV series Emergency. Moving on to bigger toys (the tree was dwarfed by the huge boxes my toys came in that year!), there was Skittle Bowling (a sequel to Skittle Pool that I got the previous year), a giant Texaco Service Station playset, a cute Snoopy and his doghouse toy, and the awesome Ricochet Racers, which were cars you could actually fire out of big rifle-like launchers! Finally, I got some practical/educational stuff, starting with a real typewriter (which I really wanted from the way I'm hugging it in the home movie!) that I used to type letters to my cousin Tom Bill in Ohio, plus one of those cool Science Explorer circuit sets that let you connect wires to make LEDs light up or create sounds. My musical encouragement continued with an almost full-size toy guitar, and a future toy addiction was born in 1974 because I got my first giant LEGO set that kept me busy for hours a day!

11.16.2009

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure : 3 of 5

Although I'll always be partial to the spunky, voiceless pixie from the original Peter Pan, I'm really happy that this series of CGI Tinker Bell movies has been surprisingly good! This latest adventure has a wonderful story that really focuses on Tink herself, wisely moving all the other fairies (except for her best friend Terence) into the background (but of course, they all still make appearances for continuity with the first film). The plot is pretty mystical and really creative, involving an Autumn festival where the right combination of moonlight and an ancient moonstone creates blue pixie dust, which is used to rejuvenate the "regular" pixie dust tree (which everyone in Pixie Hollow depends on!). Tink's own character flaws cause her to accidentally break the crystal, so she has to embark on a quest (complete with new costume) to find an enchanted mirror that has one wish left on it. This backstory is told in a cool theater setting with great animation, and I loved how they brought pirate lore (essential to Never Land) into the story! The animation is a little mixed, since Tink looks wonderful (especially her bobbing hair movements), but the lesser characters are a little stiff with quick bird-like actions (which could have been intentional). I really enjoyed discovering small details like all the items that Tink has used to construct assembly line machinery at the pixie dust tree (as well as the cool fireplace in her home made of a standing smoking pipe!), but my favorite moments were the homages to Peter Pan, such as Tink's face turning red with anger, or when she travels past Skull Rock (which was so cool I had to yell "Yeah!" when I saw it!). The adventure style of the story is really fun, and the way Tink seriously screws up at times deepens her character. The DVD includes some fake bloopers (pretty hilarious), but the other bonus features are a little weak. Even though I've been renting the movies in this series, I'm starting to think these are good enough to buy for my Disney collection!

11.14.2009

Three Small Things 11.14.09

I've never really figured out why I'm such a big fan of Planet of the Apes, but it seems I'm always discovering ape books or collectibles that I want to get my hands on! A few months ago I read about the Planet of the Apes Ultra Detail Figures by Japanese toy manufacturer Medicom that were released in 2000. This series is so amazing not only because they are incredibly accurate (they really do look like the actual actors), but because they span all of the movies! They are no longer in production, but some of the figures (such as the Apeonauts from Escape from the Planet of the Apes) are easy to find at online toy stores, so I ordered a few just for fun. Of course, as soon as I had them I decided to buy more, starting from the cheapest to the rarest, exhausting all the regular stores and eventually finishing up on eBay. Now the last few apes are on their way to my toy museum! All ape maniacs should definitely consider hunting down these fantastic toys!

View photos: Planet of the Apes toys

I've really been enjoying the latest update to my Apple TV, not only because the new interface is such a welcome change, but because I love checking out the huge variety of internet radio stations! Every morning I like to hear a little reading music, and there are so many classical stations available that I've been trying a new one every day for a few weeks now. I know there's a million ways to listen to streaming music, but I really like the convenience of using my remote to get the music flowing. I still think I may end up getting a Mac Mini sometime next year so I'll have complete flexibility to watch all forms of streaming and downloaded video, but I'm going to miss the consumer polish of the Apple TV, so I'm not in a hurry to switch.

My latest favorite way to fill a few spare minutes is to click Wikipedia's random article link and learn something new! On Wikipedia's site, this link appears in the left navigation column, and you can click it all day long and be amazed at the stuff that comes up! The other day I started reading about the Chinese Room argument (which I had never heard of) and got totally absorbed in the philosophy of computer AI!

11.13.2009

The Return of Superman : 3 of 5

I started reading the classic Death of Superman saga just about a year ago (finishing The Death of Superman and World Without a Superman pretty quickly), but when I received The Return of Superman and saw it was 480 pages long, it ended up on my shelf for a long time while I read shorter books! Once I started reading it, though, the time just flew by, and I really enjoyed working though this collection of 21 different issues (from several Superman titles and even an issue of Green Lantern). Most of this book covers four different "replacement" heroes who take up the mantle of Superman after his death, so there are several side stories about each one. There's Superboy, a young version of Clark who is a clone from Kryptonian DNA, and Steel (or the Man of Steel), who is an ordinary weapons expert who creates a supersuit to fight crime (and atone for the terrible weapons he has created). Next is the visored Superman, who is all about justice to the point of being cruel (actually he's the Eradicator from Krypton), and finally the Cyborg Superman, who turns out to be the big villain after all (along with Mongul, who wants to recreate Warworld). There are lots of sub-plots about public reaction (some cults spring up to claim allegiance to the "true" Superman) and even copyright battles as different news networks chose which Superman to back, but pretty much all Lois does is worry. The story gets a little out of hand at times, such as when the DC equivalent of Los Angeles, Coast City, is totally destroyed - I guess they figured a huge event like the death and return of Superman warranted a giant catastrophe! The artwork and writing styles vary drastically over these 21 issues (as you would expect), which is both good and bad, since it's fun to enjoy the differences, but a shame when a particular issue's artwork is less than stunning. Overall, there's no way this third story arc could be as amazing as the original death battle itself, but I still had a great time reading this massive saga, and I feel like my comic book cultural literacy score just jumped up a few points!

11.11.2009

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park / Jeff Kurtti : 5 of 5

Believe it or not, this book was actually part of last year's Christmas haul, so I figured I better get down to business and read it before the new onslaught of books arrives on Santa's sleigh! Right away I need to say that this is one of the most entertaining books on Disney Imagineering that I've read (and I have a lot on my bookshelf), mainly because of its unique way of focusing on the Imagineers themselves as real people with real lives, rather than only looking at their Disney career accomplishments. Each chapter looks at a set of Imagineers organized by artistic discipline (such as mechanical, musical, or even executive management), and each person is introduced with comments about their childhood, schools they attended, and other biographical notes. By reading about each person, you really get to know their particular strengths that made them succeed in such innovative work, as well as their personalities (even when they aren't so rosy, such as Marc Davis' semi-famous attitude toward Claude Coats, both of which made the Haunted Mansion the incredible attraction it is today). I loved reading about lesser known artists such as Bill Martin, who designed the complex layouts of so many Fantasyland dark rides, or Harriet Burns, the first female Imagineer who paved her own way in this emerging world (and now I'm extra happy that I have her autograph on one of my Disney prints!). With each chapter I was more amazed at how hard these people worked during their long careers, several right up until just a few weeks before they passed away, showing their dedication to Disney entertainment as a positive force in the world. This book is deceptively long, absolutely packed with fascinating, detailed text that kept me constantly mesmerized. I could easily start reading it again the moment I finished, and I'm sure I would find something new! Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends is definitely required reading for Disney theme park fans like me.

11.10.2009

Christmas Toys 1973

The next Christmas in this series should be 1972, but that remains a mystery year regarding toys from Santa! Dad had to go overseas with the Air Force during the holidays, so there are some home movies of family gifts (the usual underwear) that we opened early that year, but no footage of the toy haul. I bet I got some great stuff, too! It doesn't really matter, though, since I completely scored in 1973 with so many toys that I can barely mention them all!

The most cherished toy of the bunch was my Ready Ranger Backpack, which was a clunky orange and blue plastic box (worn on your back) that opened up to reveal all kinds of pretend equipment for high-tech wilderness adventure, fighting fires, spying, or something like that (I was never quite clear on the mission!). I completely loved all the doo-dads and the way they collapsed into the case, and I was so excited about it that this is the only toy I remember getting up in the middle of the night to play with by flashlight! (This is a good time to mention that I'm a huge fan of PlaidStallions.com, the absolute best site on the web for 70s toys memories!)

There were many other toys to enjoy in 1973, most of them huge, like the original Skittle Pool, the Big Jim Sports Camper and figures (I had lots of fun with these, but they look incredibly goofy now!), a semi-remote control spaceship called Solo Flight, a set of Tonka road construction vehicles, the Visible Man model (with removable intestines and liver and such), and finally a giant Mickey Mouse ventriloquist doll that probably could have paid off my mortgage if I still had it! What an incredible year for Christmas fun!

11.09.2009

La Boheme / Austin Lyric Opera : 5 of 5

Although I would have to choose Mozart's operas if I were forced to listen to only one composer, Puccini's creations simply define what makes opera great. Everyone in the world, regardless of music preference, should experience La Boheme at least once, and if they saw a performance like Austin Lyric Opera's season opener this weekend, new opera fans would be born across the globe! La Boheme simply has it all - romance, comedy, tragedy - set to some of the most incredible, soaring melodies that completely say "this is how opera should sound". This production had a spectacular global cast, with a Russian Mimi and a French Rodolfo (all singing in Italian, of course!), as well as a massive chorus of all ages that completely filled the stage during the hilarious scene at Cafe Momus. The sets were wonderful, using brilliant forced perspective, and I especially enjoyed the huge window in the artists' apartment with its soft views of Paris outside. Rodolfo's voice was fantastic, and his chemistry with Mimi was perfect (in spite of an age difference in the actors, which completely disappeared as they became their characters), making for an especially believable and heart-wrenching final scene. I was particularly impressed with the philosopher's farewell song to his beloved coat before he sells it, which was touching and deserving of applause, though the audience was a little too wrapped up in the story at that point. Because this was opening night for the new season, ALO provided free champagne to everyone during the first intermission, which was festive and generous! I think everyone in the crowd fell in love with opera all over again, and even though I've seen La Boheme many times before, Austin Lyric Opera succeeded in making it a unique and moving experience!

11.08.2009

Leave It to Beverly / DA! Theater Collective : 4 of 5

This is a somewhat biased review, since the playwright and director Kirk German is my pal and bandmate in the Greatest American Heroes, but I have to say that it was fantastic to see Kirk display his talents in yet another way via DA! Theater Collective's production of Leave It to Beverly! While on the surface this play is a hilarious spoof of classic TV sitcoms like Donna Reed and I Dream of Jeannie, it also carries several interesting messages about gender roles and the effort to live a unique and genuine life in general. Gags that begin as funny (like ubiquitous canned laughter) sometimes become suddenly creepy, and the tension between humor and uneasiness really draws the audience into the story! But without over analyzing things, Leave It to Beverly is definitely a comedy, and every element from the incredible cast (who dance as well as act!) to the fantastic sets (which include special effects like magical kitchen utensils and surprise portals for characters' heads to poke through) all add to the hilarity. There are so many fun references to TV and other entertainment mixed into the story, ranging from Six Million Dollar Man sound effects to a brilliant use of Mickey Mouse Club ears (which are said to render the wearer "virtually brainless", which I loved)! It's obvious that Kirk loves this source material and found a way to pay tribute to it while expressing himself as a wonderful playwright. I was lucky enough to see the play on cast party night, and it was fun to play with the Greatest American Heroes right there on stage with a group of folks who had a special affection for TV show themes. It was a fantastic evening, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next production featuring my pal Kirk!

11.06.2009

Life with Backpack & Satchel

Although there are positive and negative aspects to living my life by lists (can you say control freak?), I've found that I'm simply happier just giving in to my desire to micro-manage my time. I've used several applications in the past for this purpose, but I've never been happier that I am with 37signals' Backback on the web, combined with Satchel on my iPhone! I literally use this website more than any other (even more than Google!), and I'm sure that I tweak my lists and notes (or at least glance at them) several times an hour, every day of the week. Since everything is on the web (rather than trapped on my hard drive), I can mess with it at home, at the office, or anywhere at all via my iPhone. I just love the simple, clean look of Backback, and the brilliant user interface (which allows be to drag around list items) is just my style. Backpack actually has tons of features I don't even use, since I keep my calendar using iCal and MobileMe. The funny thing is that I'm still using the free version after nearly three years of constant use! (I really should pay them something since they are kind of ruling my life.) Here's a quick look at how I use Backpack and Satchel to organize myself, all in five simple pages.

To Do: Of course, my first page contains standard things to do, using Backpack's awesome lists, which let me quickly order items or even move them between different lists. I have lists for Today, Weekend, Do Soon, and Goals (which are longer projects that I'm committed to working on daily, like organizing photos). First thing in the morning, I uncheck the usual things from my Today list (like studying Japanese and exercising), just for the joy of checking them again when I get them done. On Friday I uncheck my Weekend items (like laundry) and do the same thing.

Projects: I use this page mostly for ideas, so I won't forget when I'm inspired by some concept for a video or anything I'd like to create someday, along with detailed notes when I flesh something out. I also use this page for blog post ideas (like the one you're reading now).

Shopping: This is a pretty specific page, which is mostly a list of cool things I want to buy someday that don't really work on my Amazon Wish List (like obscure T-shirts or toys). There are also lists of gifts (ideas for things to buy for friends and family, or for keeping track of Christmas gifts and such), plus specific lists of collections I'm working on (like Planet of the Apes figures!) so I can remember which ones to buy!

Remember: This page is a catch-all for all kinds of random notes, but also has some specific stuff like my auto maintenance log (so I can keep the Acura service shop honest!), investment funds to check out, and plans for future vacations and trips. Backpack was especially useful for planning my latest Walt Disney World trip!

Thoughts: My last page is filled with personal notes, such as my last few years of New Year's resolutions (so I can see how I did!), affirmations that have helped me out, and other random stuff in the philosophical category.

11.05.2009

Christmas Toys 1971

This year's Christmas was pretty unique, since my parents and I spent the holiday season with my Dad's family in Ohio and Kentucky. This meant that my Santa-parents had to covertly hide all of my presents in the back of the car for the drive, and I never suspected since I was a dedicated Santa-believer who was convinced Santa knew where I would be waking up on Christmas morning! Along with my huge stocking, I received several classic games this year, including Don't Break the Ice and Operation, plus some kind of interesting battle tops game. But the best gift of 1971 was my Fisher Price Family Play Farm set! This gift was wrapped and under the tree before Christmas, and I would actually sit in the rocking chair with the huge box in my lap and kind of sing songs about how great this present was going to be (how embarrassing!). I loved toys that had a million pieces, so I was thrilled with all the farm animals, the family, fence pieces, the silo, and of course the giant barn with the classic door that made a cow moo when it opened! Lots of people have fond memories of this fantastic toy, but it's not easy to find really good photos of the vintage version (Fisher-Price still makes a similar set, but the design has been updated). But I was still able to find this great page dedicated to the vintage set, as well as some nice images on Flickr!

11.04.2009

Final Cut Express 4 / Apple Pro Training Series : 4 of 5

I've done a lot of video editing (mostly fun projects for friends and family, but some of it pretty advanced) in the past (from way back in my iBook days!), all with Apple's iMovie, and although it can be a lot of work, I really enjoy the art and process of editing. So a couple years ago I decided I needed to make the switch to Final Cut Express (the less expensive version of Apple's Final Cut Pro, which is actually used on Hollywood films), just to experience how the "big boys" do it, but it took me a while to find the time. This year I finally took the plunge, and since I'm always more comfortable with a goal in front of me, I bought this excellent book, which I followed to the letter as a full-fledged course. I can see why this particular book is sanctioned by Apple, since it has a beautiful layout with loads of screen shots, and comes complete with a disc of all the files needed (video, music, and projects) to work with each lesson. The lessons are extremely detailed, and always demonstrate multiple ways to do the same thing (such as completing a command via menu, command key shortcut, or contextual menu). They are so thorough that the actual editing doesn't even begin until after the sixth lesson! Everything before that emphasizes project organization, which might have been a little heavy, but definitely useful (and so incredible compared to iMovie). As I followed each lesson I constantly found myself totally amazed at what Final Cut Express can do, and I could see how each technique would dramatically help an editor based on my previous experience. I was thankful for the coverage of the slip, roll and slide tools, as well as simple keyframe animation. There are also excellent advanced lessons (and I did them all) that expand on the physical book, but these are only provided as PDF files on the disc (actually, it was so convenient to open the PDF on my second monitor that I wish the entire book had been included in PDF format as well). I know when I start working on my first Final Cut Express project I will forget some of the techniques I have learned, but I will definitely remember "I've seen that done before" so I can refer to this book. I can't imagine a better way to discover the power of this excellent editing software!

11.03.2009

Disney's A Christmas Carol : 3 of 5

It's nice to start getting into a Christmas mood with holiday movies, and I was able to see this new version of the Dickens classic at a sneak preview, thanks to my pal Melinda who is always lucky with preview passes! My opinion of this movie is right down the middle - there are things I love about it, and things I hate, which puts my review solidly in the center of my rating scale. I guess I'll get the hate out of the way - I am really against motion capture CG animation and Robert Zemeckis' bizarre opinions about the future of filmmaking! Although the characters in this film look much better than they did in The Polar Express, they still constantly look cross-eyed, with no attention to eye lines (they always seem to be looking "through" things), and might as well have been marionettes in most cases. Scrooge himself looks fantastic - I think they spent all their time getting him right and just let the computer crank out everyone else with no refinement. I was also appalled at Zemeckis' showboating floating camera moves, which only please himself and drive the audience crazy like they are stuck in a video game. Besides the opening sequence (which includes goofy moves like flying through a wreath), there's one sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Past that goes nearly 15 minutes without a single cut. I don't care if he thinks it's cool - it can only be special if it's hard to do in real life, so doing it in CG is just annoying. But now for some good points! I was really pleased and surprised that they stuck to all the original Dickens dialogue (most of the time I knew the line before they even said it), which prevented Jim Carrey (whom I dislike terribly) from ad-libbing and cheapening the whole thing. As I mentioned before, Scrooge does look incredible, and his exaggerated character design is great. I also liked all of the spirits, especially the creepy way that the Ghost of Christmas Future was mostly shown as a living shadow. The final scenes of the movie when Scrooge is filled with glee on Christmas Day are really well done, with just enough happiness to kick off the Christmas spirit in anyone. Overall I enjoyed myself, but mostly because I love Christmas movies and this classic story, not because of any of the filmmaking techniques that were being paraded on the screen. I only hope that audiences will enjoy the Christmas message while realizing that films using this technique have simply got to go!