8.31.2009

Death Note / Re-Light Vol 1 : 3 of 5

Although I’ve read the entire Death Note manga, watched the complete anime series, plus the live action movies, it seems they’ve figured out a way to squeeze a few more hours of attention out of me. Death Note: Re-Light is an interesting idea, which is to retell the story from a different point of view, which happens to be none other than Ryuk the Shinigami in this case! Unfortunately, this movie is just the first half of the anime re-edited and crammed into a two-hour time frame, with only a few new scenes added to keep things interesting. However, since I enjoyed the series so much, I didn’t really mind watching this compressed version, and I was impressed with the editing (especially the re-voicing of a few scenes to help explain the plot). Truthfully, the only moments from Ryuk’s point of view happen in the opening and closing framing scenes, which take place in the Shinigami realm as Ryuk tells his story to another Shinigami, and looks almost longingly at Light’s name in his Death Note (which he wrote to kill Light at the end of the series). The other new scenes include a new meeting between Light and L (not nearly as effective as the original), plus an extended moment at L’s funeral where Light goes mad with his victory (which provides a chilling look into the Light’s character). Most of my favorite scenes from the anime are all included in the movie, and they even kept in Misa’s creepy song, though that seems like something that would have been easy to cut. I think claiming this movie is a new version of the story goes a little far – at least they should have let Ryuk do some narration to make it seem more like he was telling the story! The DVD includes some nice Japanese interviews with the director and voice actors, but they are pretty short. I still had a good time watching Death Note: Re-Light (and I know I’m going to watch the next volume, which will compress the second half of the series), but I can’t really recommend it to new viewers (since it’s more difficult to follow than the extended series), so only dedicated fans should check it out!

8.30.2009

Music Moments 8.09

Morning Musume / Shouganai Yume Oibito & Nanchatte Renai: The recent singles from Morning Musume (their 39th and 40th releases) are some of their absolute best in my opinion, since the group is leaning toward a new mature sound that lines up with my preference for bittersweet lyrics (though of course I love the cute stuff, too!). Both tracks feature out of the ordinary piano and strings with truly dramatic lyrics (I was amazed when I heard "Tears fall on my hand as I iron your clothes"). Shouganai Yume Oibito hit a weekly #1 spot, and Nanchatte Renai hit a daily #1 (on my dad's birthday!), so both of these songs are really signaling a new popularity for Morning Musume!

Keane / Under the Iron Sea: After listening to Keane's Hopes and Fears album about a hundred times, I decided I should move on to Under the Iron Sea, which is somewhat of a departure from their original piano pop sound. This time they use distortion pedals on piano to create almost electric guitar sounds, which are still fantastic (yet sometimes creepy). Their lyrics are beautiful and introspective as always, and I really should devote some time to truly listening and enjoying this album.

The Best Of Godzilla 1984-1995 / Original Film Soundtracks: I wasn't planning on getting this CD, which is a follow-up to the 1954-1975 soundtracks album, but after completing my Godzilla movie watching quest I couldn't resist having some of these cheesy themes in my collection. There are plenty of awesome Ikufube tracks to round out the ridiculous guitar solo from Godzilla vs Biollante, and I actually like the over-dramatic fanfare from Godzilla vs Space Godzilla!

Cake / B Sides & Rarities: I've been a Cake fan since I lived in Tulsa, and when my pal Jonathan and I saw them in concert here in Austin recently, they mentioned this album that I wasn't aware of, which I promptly bought from their website! It has a totally funky version of the Muppets classic Mahna, Mahna, as well as great covers of Strangers in the Night, but I mostly love the goofy country tracks, such as Buck Owens' Excuse Me, I Think I've Got a Heartache!

Morning Musume / Platinum 9 Disc: It's embarrassing that I'm only now mentioning this CD, since I've had it for ages and even had it autographed! Morning Musume's 9th full-length album is a fantastic collection of five previously released singles, along with some incredible new songs. There are several unexpected solo tracks from Sayumi (cute and sexy, of course), Eri, and Aika (surprisingly bright and sweet), as well as awesome ballads and dance tunes. Of course, I've played this CD thousands of times in my car by now!

8.28.2009

Ponyo : 5 of 5

It’s been way too long since anything from Studio Ghibli has seen a US release, so I’m really happy that Disney decided to release Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo in Japanese) in theaters (thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s good friendship with Disney’s John Lasseter)! With the exception of Pixar’s masterpieces, lately I’ve been getting a little tired of too much CG (even in live-action films), so I’ve been feeling nostalgic to see some classic, old-school creativity. Ponyo completely fulfilled my wish, since Miyazaki’s goal was to stay away from CG completely, so the movie was created entirely with watercolors and pastels. The effect is stunning, since you can see the “humanity” in every frame – being able to observe brushstrokes and crayon-ish lines makes Ponyo feel like true living artwork from start to finish! Miyazaki was inspired to make this movie after seeing Disney’s The Little Mermaid, but of course the fairy tale was only the seed for Miyazaki’s brilliant imagination, which always offers a menagerie of bizarre creatures (both real and mythical) that made me gasp many times. Ponyo herself is amazingly cute – her far-apart bug-eyes when she is a fish really did remind me of funny goldfish I’ve seen at the pet store, and she’s hilarious as a rambunctious girl jumping around and discovering a new life on land. I enjoyed Sosuke’s character, but I think I was more impressed with Sosuke’s mom, who displayed such a wide range of emotion (love for her son and the seniors contrasting with a tough attitude) and was great looking to boot. But speaking of beauty, Gran Mamare (the “sea mother”) was absolutely breathtaking, with some of the most subtle facial animation I’ve seen in a long time! There are so many moments I could mention that I enjoyed, both funny and touching, such as Sosuke communicating with his dad across the ocean via signal light, or Ponyo using her powers to make Sosuke’s toy boat big enough to carry them. I can’t wait to watch Ponyo again on DVD, not only to take in the visuals again, but also to hear the original Japanese dialogue (Disney does a fine job of voice direction, but a dub can never compare to the original in my opinion!). Ponyo is simply required viewing for any fan of animation, and a wonderful, magical movie for anyone else to enjoy!

8.27.2009

Star Wars / Darth Maul : 3 of 5

Even though I’ve pretty much ignored the huge amount of Star Wars comics that have been published in recent years, I couldn’t resist getting this graphic novel (which collects an original four-issue series) when I noticed it was available on PaperBack Swap! I’ve always thought Darth Maul was pretty cool, even though he’s far more menacing than most characters I get into, and like other fans I’ve always wanted more than his few awesome fights (and sparse lines) in The Phantom Menace. This story takes place just before Episode I while Darth Sidious is preparing to start the blockade that opens the movie, but first Darth Maul needs to take out a mafia-style crime organization called Black Sun, just in case they get in Sidious’ way. I enjoyed the moment when Sidious gives Maul the Sith Interceptor (I’ve always liked that ship), along with his speeder bike and probe droids that we’ve seen him use. Most of the book is filled with extended fight scenes, with all the hands and heads (as well as bodies being cut in half) that you would expect from Darth Maul! The artwork is exceptional (Maul really looks like Ray Park, who played him in the film), and I was impressed with the use of so many cool Star Wars species (I spotted lots of cantina aliens and even an Ugnaught). Unfortunately, this story reads rather quickly, and by the time it’s over I hadn’t learned anything new about Darth Maul. More insight into his character (vile as it may be!) would have been nice, and I recommend the interesting Star Wars Journals: Darth Maul as an example. But putting that complaint aside, this was still a fun way to get into some recent Star Wars comics, and I really enjoyed all the Sith action!

8.26.2009

Gold's Gym Cardio Workout / Nintendo Wii : 4 of 5

The only video games I really get into are ones that help me get some exercise, so I'm always on the lookout for something as fun and sweat-inducing as Dance Dance Revolution. I don't think I'll ever find anything as perfect as DDR, but Gold's Gym Cardio Workout is definitely an addictive and active game! I actually bought it ages ago after watching a video review (plus it was a steal at only $20 bucks), but unfortunately it remained unopened for a long time. But since I've been doing a lot of walking and losing weight, I decided to break it out to add variety to my fitness routine, and I enjoyed it from the moment I started playing it. The basic workout is called Shape Boxing (somewhat like Tai Bo from years ago), so you use a Wiimote in each hand to punch as your trainer directs. In many ways it's like "DDR for your fists", since everything is set to music and the punch icons move up the screen in a similar fashion. There are different kinds of punches (jabs, hooks, uppercuts) as well as ducking and weaving, so the combinations can get complex (the game also encourages weight-shifting footwork, which adds to the energy)! One important tip to anyone playing this game: the defensive dodging really wants you to hold the Wiimotes in an upright position, which took me a while to figure out. Like most fitness games, there is a calendar to track your progress (which keeps a punch count for each day), as well as gold awards that you can use to buy stuff in the shop (such as new clothes for your character or your trainer). In addition to Shape Boxing, there are other exercise games included (a few use the Wii Balance Board), plus a series of Boxing Examinations that you can take when you feel ready (I've passed Levels E, D, and C so far). If you like, your trainer will prepare a set of activities based on your progress, or your can select your own workouts, most of which are a solid 15 or more minutes of punching, so the sweat really starts to pour. I'm really enjoying Gold's Gym Cardio Workout so far - I like playing a fitness game that feels like the real thing!

8.25.2009

Matango : 4 of 5

After reading about Eiji Tsuburaya and all the interesting movies he made with Ishiro Honda, I really wanted to see some of these Toho masterpieces! Thankfully there are a few available on DVD (and more finally being released), so I started with the bizarre sounding Matango from 1963 (released in the US with the ridiculous title Attack of the Mushroom People), mainly because it stars my favorite Toho beauty, Kumi Mizuno. This is an incredible movie, because even though it features creatures to some extent (though certainly not kaiju), it's primarily a well-crafted, suspense/horror film that had me on the edge of my seat! The story has often been compared to Lord of the Flies since it depicts how people break down to their selfish desires when forced to survive on a deserted island. In this case, there are seven well-off passengers and crew who suffer through a sudden storm at sea, and soon after they wash ashore, they find a derelict shipwreck covered in mold (one of the most detailed full-size sets I've seen in a Toho film) and strange clues about a species of mushroom called matango. There is excellent acting from everyone (most of whom are in various other Godzilla movies), especially when comparing flashbacks of their former Tokyo nightlife to their base existence on the island, desperately digging for potatoes and turtle eggs, then actually stooping to sell them to each other at high prices. Of course, there is even sexual tension and fighting over the two girls (and Kumi Mizuno's racy character loves the attention), eventually leading to violence. This is definitely not the kind of study of humanity you find in a typical "monster movie"! The DVD includes a full commentary track in Japanese with subtitles (which strays far from talking about the actual film, but is always interesting), plus a great 30-minute interview with the assistant special effects director, who describes front screen projection and optical printing techniques with wonderful nostalgia. Matango feels like an excellent 90-minute episode of The Outer Limits with an incredible story filled with social commentary. If anyone doubts that serious drama can co-exist with Toho-style horror, this is the movie to change your mind!

8.24.2009

The Disney Villain / Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston : 3 of 5

This is one of those giant hardback books that I've owned for years, but never actually got around to reading until now! Frank & Ollie were two of Disney's top animators (known as the Nine Old Men) who wrote The Illusion of Life (the best book on Disney animation ever), but in this book the focus is less on animation itself and more on the motivations and philosophy of a true villain. At times Frank & Ollie even try to make a distinction between malicious intent and simple nature (is the rampaging bear in The Fox and the Hound really a villain, since it's only acting from natural impulses?). The book begins with extremely early villains like Peg Leg Pete and then methodically looks at every animated feature, accompanied by huge pages of movie stills and illustrations (the sketches are beautiful, but there's nothing new or earth-shattering to see). I was most interested in their honest discussion of the Disney "dark years" when animation was truly floundering, and they frankly discuss the total failure of The Black Cauldron (without insulting the animators who worked so hard on it). There's lots of Katzenburg quotes that make me cringe, but I can't complain since he did help bring masterpieces like Beauty and the Beast to the big screen! I also enjoyed the comments from great modern animators such as Glen Keane and Andreas Deja (especially his design comparison of Jafar to Malificent!). The Disney Villain is a beautiful book (with a great hologram of the Queen from Snow White on the cover), but definitely not essential to anyone's animation library. But I still really enjoyed reading the thoughts of Frank & Ollie, some of the best animators who ever lived!

8.23.2009

Wicked : 5 of 5

Although I really didn't know much about Wicked, my parents and I always enjoy Broadway shows, so we went to see it (at the newly remodeled Bass Concert Hall) during their recent visit. Of course, we all knew the plot was about the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (still one of my favorite movies), but I had no idea how amazing the story would be, which skillfully weaves a background thread in and out of the classic tale, in a clever re-imagining style that's become so popular in recent years. Elphaba, the green-skinned girl who eventually is known as the Wicked Witch, is portrayed as a sympathetic character (even when she gets mean it seems justified to the audience), while Glinda the Good Witch is mostly a stereotypical blonde with a hilarious voice. Just about every Wizard of Oz event and character is somehow explained during the story in clever and surprising ways, and I completely enjoyed figuring everything out like a puzzle! Along with the great plot is some wonderful music, and the performances were incredible. From the moment Elphaba began her first solo, it was obvious she was absolutely fantastic (and actually played the role on Broadway before she began the tour), and the other performers were wonderful as well (even Glinda proved she could drop the silly voice and sing seriously during her touching duet with Elphaba in the second act). The sets were really nice, incorporating lots of detailed lighting and partitions that could be changed instantly, and I was impressed by the huge stone dragon above the stage that moved during moments evil was afoot! The flying monkeys were also cool, especially the initial transformation scene when wings sprout from the creature's back (the monkey performers all did a great job of energetically hopping around, too!). I guess you can say I was spellbound by Wicked, mostly because of the well-crafted extension of The Wizard of Oz, but also because the production was wonderful in every way!

8.21.2009

Parents visit and birthday fun

Last weekend my parents made their yearly trip to Austin to visit me, and we had a wonderful four days together! When I was planning our time I thought we might be a little bored, but the hours flew by and we always had something to do. One night we saw Esther's Follies, which was as hilarious as ever, and another night we saw the Broadway touring production of Wicked, which was incredible. We also drove to Lake Travis for lunch at Carlos & Charlie's (Mom and I really like their margaritas), and we were stunned by how dried up everything is because of the lack of rain (tons of formerly floating docks sitting on dry land). We also did lots of shopping, Wii playing (now Dad wants one!), and some successful MacBook and iPhone maintenance. Since Dad's birthday fell on the same weekend, I took them to Fleming's for a nice steak dinner. I had never been to Fleming's before, but it turned out to be fantastic - Dad enjoyed it so much! The Chocolate Lava Cake dessert was totally amazing! As usual, I was a little bummed when these goof-off and good-eating days were over, but I think I'm adjusted now.

Just before my parents' visit, a few of my pals got together to celebrate Kumiko's birthday, which was a lot of fun! Kumiko got lots of nice gifts (I had a good time making a Godzilla birthday card in Japanese) and the food at the original Kerbey Lane was great!

View photos: Kumiko's Birthday 2009

8.14.2009

Iron Man / Ultimate 2-Disc Edition : 5 of 5

Since I enjoyed the Iron Man movie so much in the theater, I’ve had my eyes on the DVD for quite a while, so I was glad to stumble upon an inexpensive used copy of the essential two-disc version recently! Watching the film again was a total blast, but of course when it comes to DVDs I’m mostly excited about the bonus material, and this set includes one of the best discs of extra material I’ve seen in a while (I wish that all of my favorite movies had coverage as extensive as this!). First up is a two-hour documentary called I Am Iron Man that covers the making of the movie almost from start to finish. I learned so much from this feature – I didn’t really know that the movie was entirely financed by Marvel, which let them include actual comic book writers and editors in the process (which is why the film is so great!). I had no idea they actually built physical Iron Man suits (I assumed it was all CG), some of which had 450 parts! It was fun watching director Jon Favreau in special effects meetings and sound mixing sessions, making comments about small details that easily created days of extra work for the various artists. I was also kind of shocked when I realized that Peter Billingsley (who I watch every year as Ralphie in A Christmas Story) played one of the scientists! The next bonus feature is an excellent 45-minute look at the history of Iron Man in the comics, including tons of interviews with Stan Lee and famous writers and artists (I really want to check out some of the amazing Iron Man graphic novels now!). Finally, there’s also an additional 30-minute documentary just covering special effects, which shows great stuff like ILM’s initial test footage, as well as some discussion about the cool heads-up display interface seen in the movie. There are a few interesting deleted scenes (some of which definitely didn't belong in the film!), but I was a little surprised that the movie doesn’t include a commentary track (with all the goodies on the bonus disc I have no room to complain!). This is a fantastic presentation of one of the best superhero movies ever, and I’m glad I finally added it to my collection!

8.13.2009

Morning Musume Concert Tour 2009 Haru / Platinum 9 Disco : 4 of 5

Morning Musume's latest concert CD is completely fantastic, yet leaves me with a few conflicting observations. It's obvious that the current members have grown together into one of the most cohesive line-ups ever (they are so much more at ease with each other, and their singing and dancing is much more precise than a year or so ago), but it's also apparent (at least to this fan) that the transition to a more "serious, mature" Morning Musume hasn't totally gelled for the concert stage. Even though I love emotional, moving songs much more than goofy ones, they seem a little heavy when performed live, but they probably just need to be split-up with a few more happy classics. But that's enough analysis for now, because I had an incredible time watching this awesome two-hour show! I loved the introduction video (using the same cute photos from the Anime Expo concert), and the stage was especially cool with the light-up staircase (which could even flash letters like S-E-X-Y during Sexy Boy!). Technically, the lighting was unique and the camera work was nice (some of the sharpest close-ups ever), and I even enjoyed all of the costumes with a couple exceptions. The Guruguru Jump outfits were horrendous, and there was far too much "giant headgear" for my taste, but on the other hand, the Take Off Is Now costumes were stylish and beautiful! Ai-chan never ceases to amaze me with her solos, but Lin Lin completely blew me away with the "spiritual" arrangement of Aozora ga Itsumademo Tsuzuku You na Mirai de (that girl can really sing!). I was waiting with anticipation for Sayumi's performance of her solo It's You, and it certainly wasn't a disappointment - she definitely cranked up the sexiness, and the silhouette lighting was genius! Risa's Yowamushi (one of my favorite B-sides) was nice, although she didn't seem too comfortable on stage by herself, and Reina totally pulled off Ayaya's song with ease. Watching a concert like this is such a fun experience for me, since I love seeing Morning Musume grow and evolve!

8.12.2009

Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs / Fake Steve Jobs : 3 of 5

In addition to being a fan of Apple in general, I also really admire Steve Jobs for the amazing things he's accomplished and how he's lived his life. Of course, his somewhat legendary persona is always ripe for parody, so it's no wonder that the mysterious blog The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs has been popular for so many years! For a long time the author (identified only as "Fake Steve Jobs") was completely unknown, and then later revealed to be Daniel Lyons, but I think Steve fans still like to think of the unreserved rants and hilarious anecdotes as coming from the real Steve (it's totally a kind of flattery, really!). Since I only read the blog occasionally, I wanted to read this book for quite a while, so I was happy to find the hardback edition on PaperBack Swap (which arrived in great condition, essentially free!). Options is a collection of some of the best blog posts which have been woven into a cohesive narrative about the famous Apple backdated stock options scandal. The first-person style was a lot like a Douglas Coupland novel, while the detailed descriptions of Steve's various possessions reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis. I can't count the number of times I laughed out loud! The book is full of great stories about hanging out with Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Bono (with some awesome accented dialogue), thoughts about MacWorld worshippers, meditations over the iPhone's circuit board, being vegetarian, and of course firing people for almost no reason. There's even scenes with Hilary Clinton and Yoko Ono that are incredibly funny, but I really enjoyed the reflective moments when Steve actually feels kind of bad for mean things that he "must" do in order to fulfill his purpose of creating incredible products. The stock options plot is pretty interesting, although the end of the story gets a little crazy and seemed like an easy way out (even though it's pretty creative). Options might not be so interesting to a non-Apple fan, but I had a great time reading it, and now I want to check out the blog more often!

8.11.2009

Disney Think Fast / Nintendo Wii : 3 of 5

When this game first came out, I figured it would be way too easy for a Disney mega-fan like me, but I still wanted to try it out. I got the chance to play it with my pal Melinda, and even though there are definitely some super-easy questions, I was still attracted to the cool graphics and presentation, as well as some of the more obscure character challenges! I found a copy for only twenty bucks, so I figured it would be cool to sit around and play every now and then, at least until I unlocked everything (unfortunately, I discovered there are only three things to unlock, which I did after the first couple games!). Disney Think Fast has a game show format with the Genie from Aladdin as the host, and you can play as one of several popular Disney characters. You also get to choose your environment (like Ariel's undersea kingdom, or Stitch's Hawaii), which determines the guest character that will show up to ask some questions about that particular movie. Some of the rounds have general knowledge questions that are definitely geared to kids, but of course most of the game is Disney trivia. As I suspected, lots of the questions are a breeze, but there are also plenty of unexpectedly difficult ones (I always forget things like the characters from Robin Hood!). By far the most challenging round is called Observation, which shows a clip and then asks really obscure questions like "How many bells were on the string Dopey was playing?" I actually have a pretty good time trying to get a super-high score. Since some rounds are time-based and some have wrong answer penalties, it can be a challenge to squeak out a few more points to beat my last score. The overall game is a pretty cool Disney experience, and for $20 bucks it's a great diversion to keep my Disney skills sharp!

8.10.2009

Hello! Project 2009 Winter Kettei! Halo Pro Award 2009 / Elder Club Sotsugyou Kinen Special : 4 of 5

Although I had already seen this concert, I just had to buy it on DVD since it's such an important event in the history of Hello! Project. There's never been (and probably will won't be again) a mass graduation like this one! The concert is nearly three hours long and was held in the giant Yokohama arena, and I totally enjoyed the whole thing (maybe even more than the 2009 Winter concert). The show opens on an emotional note with everyone singing Ame no Furanai Hoshi de wa Aisenai Darou, and Nacchi starts crying almost right away! I could do without the silly fake award show format, but Makoto and Yaguchi are fine MCs as always. This concert is just full of amazing moments and "last time ever" appearances that make it so special, showcasing everyone from Ongaku Gatas to Tanpopo (it's so touching to see Mari and Kaori crying to be wearing those plaid outfits again). There are some great solo performances from Ayaya (who really shows how incredibly comfortable and confident she is) and Yuko Nakazawa, who is so moved by the applause that she yanks out her ear monitors to soak up the experience (probably the last time she will sing for a crowd that huge). I really enjoyed the 1st generation trio singing Morning Coffee (they can still get the harmonies just right), and it was so cool to see Saukura Gumi and Otome Gumi do their songs in their classic costumes also! Finally the graduation ceremony itself is held, which is short but really meaningful (the symbolism of Yuko hugging Ai-chan to "pass the torch" is totally moving), and I enjoyed the girls' tearful statements that they read (especially from Saki and Ai). Of course, throughout the show there are a few numbers by the current Morning Musume, Berryz Koubou and C-ute, but this event is all about the graduating members, and I'm glad they gave them such an awesome send off! The DVD also includes over an hour of bonus backstage material which is pretty fun, but mostly I'm just glad to have the concert itself in my collection, since the efforts of these performers paved the way for the current members that I enjoy so much today.

8.09.2009

Three Small Things 8.09.09

I've been getting behind lately taking photos of my new PEZ, LEGO sets, and other toys, mainly because I'm lazy! I decided that part of my procrastination has to do with getting out the USB cable and transferring my photos to my iMac, so I thought I would take that out of the equation by getting an Eye-Fi card for my camera. I've been interested in these SD cards with built-in wi-fi for a long time (I was pretty amazed by the idea when they first came out), and now they are so cheap. It didn't take long at all to configure everything, and now while I'm shooting my toys the photos are magically being transferred to my iMac simultaneously. It's a pretty simple concept, but I'm totally into convenience, so maybe I can keep up with my ever-growing toy collection now!

Since I've been eating the same kinds of simple meals for quite a while now, I've been trying things to keep them interesting. Lately I've been putting salsa on just about anything, since salsa is incredibly low-calorie. I don't think I had ever had salsa on scrambled eggs before, but now I love it! Salsa is also my only topping for a baked potato, too - no butter, no salt, just salsa. I also put it in black beans for some extra flavor. I haven't been trying any exotic brands, but I think I'm going to branch out since I'm using it so much.

I haven't written about Japanese in a long time, so here's a quick update on my language studies (yes, I haven't stopped!). I'm still a big fan of Smart.fm, and I'm really close to completely finishing my fourth course. I discovered a truly awesome site called Read the Kanji that may be the easiest, most fun way to study kanji ever invented, and I can't believe how nice it is to crank through a few hundred words every now and then (it's really reinforcing my vocabulary, too)! Since the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is getting re-leveled next year, I'm pretty sure I want to take the N3 test (which is between the old Level 3 that I have already passed and the incredibly difficult old Level 2), so I may completely switch into studying mode next year. Until then, I'm having fun studying via the web and "practicing" by watching Jpop shows!

8.07.2009

Drumming for Epidemic of Fear

I finally have something to write about instead of another review! Since last week I’ve been performing in another theater production (similar to my past experiences in Le Petomane and Comedy of Errors) called Epidemic of Fear: The Influenzical (although the name sounds ominous, the play is a music comedy)! The playwright and director John Cecil is a good friend of my pal Jonathan (in fact, they played together in one of their first bands that later evolved into the famous Merchants of Venus), so he asked Jonathan to recommend some musicians, since the show is a musical with lots of songs. Jonathan is playing horns and keyboards, Chris is playing bass, I’m playing drums, and the director John is playing guitar. We actually play behind a curtain for the whole show, so we have to listen carefully for cues, but it’s kind of fun because we can be so relaxed back there! The music was fun to learn and the show is really funny (it’s kind of a spoof of the bird flu panic from the past, which seems pretty appropriate during today’s swine flu worries), and we had a great opening weekend. The show got some press on the news, and there was a professional sounding interview on Austin’s KUT radio as well! We get to perform the show two more times (tonight and tomorrow) at Salvage Vanguard Theater, so if you happen to read this in time, you might want to check it out!

8.06.2009

Netflix One-Liners 8.09

Superman 3: Since I've seen Superman and Superman 2 so many times, I thought it was only fair to check out the terrible (but hilariously bad) sequels that followed, starting with this bizarre Richard Pryor comedy that inspired the money siphoning virus in Office Space.
Superman 4: I guess I was looking for more torture, because even though Superman 4 tries to return to the serious superhero genre (Gene Hackman is back along with a new solar-powered super villain), it still falls totally flat (but it's great for some laughs!).
The IT Crowd Season 1: This British sitcom about an office IT department has been recommended all over the web since it's full of geek culture references, and even though it wasn't as funny as I had hoped, I still became a fan of Moss and Roy right away!
The IT Crowd Season 2: The second season of this series is at least twice as hilarious as the first (and the Netflix quality is much better, too!), since there are lots of situations that occur outside of the office itself, like the unbelievable episode where Roy pretends he's been the victim of wheelchair theft!
Pearl Harbor: I only watched this to see if it could be as bad as everyone says, and aside from some great special effects and action (which goes on too long, of course), I have to say that everyone is right about Michael Bay's completely obvious and boring style.
Lifeforce: This is an awesome example of bad science fiction/horror that for some reason I always want to see - naked space vampires and Patrick Stewart making a paycheck in what could be his most embarrassing role!
Planet Terror: Although I absolutely hated the Tarantino half of Grindhouse, I really enjoyed this Robert Rodriguez zombie flick (complete with a machine gun legged heroine and plenty of gooey blood), which thankfully is available as a stand-alone selection on Netflix!
Krull: I watched this 80's fantasy adventure with my pals, and even though all of us had seen this movie as kids, we spent the whole evening remembering things we had forgotten ("Oh yeah! The cyclops guy! Oh now I remember the big spider web!").
Sleeper: Some of Woody Allen's earlier films are too goofy for me, but I've always been a fan of Sleeper, since it's a great mix of science fiction (including cool minimalist design, hover cars and robot servants) with some fantastic one-liners and sight gags (I always crack up when he steals the giant fruits and vegetables!).
Mighty Aphrodite: Although the ending of this film wraps up far too quickly, this is still one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, which has some truly touching scenes combined with the most hilarious Greek Chorus parody ever!

8.05.2009

Star Trek / Alien Spotlight Vol 1 : 3 of 5

I've really been getting into Star Trek comics lately, focusing mainly on the Original Series characters. Thankfully, there seems to have been a lot of great graphic novels produced recently that fit the bill (possibly anticipating the success of the Star Trek movie), and there are so many that I want to buy and read! I decided to check out Alien Spotlight mainly because it was from the same publisher as the excellent Star Trek Year Four books, and even though it includes stories from all over the Star Trek timeline (all the way back to Captain Pike and forward to Picard and Janeway), I really enjoyed each of the six stories that focus on a different alien race and culture. The best one by far is about the Romulans, which is actually an insightful prequel to Balance of Terror (the best Original Series episode), providing an amazing look into life on Romulus, the unveiling of the first Bird of Prey with a cloaking device, and even revealing Klingon involvement in the Romulan/Federation war! As a bonus, this story is illustrated by the incredible John Byrne, who was one of my favorite artists back when I was a serious comic collector. The story on Vulcans is wonderful as well, since it's about Spock's early days on the Enterprise under Captain Pike, and shows the various conflicts among the crew when dealing with an emotionless officer. The other stories are all interesting (but definitely not as good as the Romulan and Vulcan tales), and I enjoyed the various styles of artwork and use of color. The chapter on the Gorn was fun since they try to assist after a shuttlecraft accident (in reverence to Kirk's sparring the Gorn's life in Arena), but of course things don't go exactly as planned. The Borg story is well-executed, but I'm not really a Borg fan, and the complex time-travel plot was more confusing than interesting. The final chapters covering Andorians and Orions (green girls!) were both fun, especially since they are set in interesting places, such as Babel from the Original Series. Overall this is a really cool series that I'm glad I picked up, and I'm looking forward to Volume 2. Until then, I'm going to scratch my Star Trek itch with the other graphic novels available!

8.04.2009

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Vol 9 & Vol 10 : 4 of 5

The last two volumes of this awesome anime series contain the final 10 episodes (which brings the total episode count to 50), but the time absolutely flew by while watching them since I was glued to the TV! The plot completes the move from Earth back to space, which means lots of zero gravity tears and blood (as well as cool character floating that I enjoyed in the early episodes). The war is fought between three sides at this point: the Earth forces (the Naturals), ZAFT (the Coordinators), and the rebels, now lead by Lacus Cline who has transformed into an incredibly strong person, inspiring her soldiers to fight for true peace. Athrun decides he has to talk to his father (who happens to lead the ZAFT army) about his new understanding of the war (not a pleasant conversation), and at the same time Mu La Flaga discovers some devastating news about his relationship to Le Creuset, who totally becomes the ultimate villain with the one goal of wiping out humanity (he even uses poor Flay to deliver data that causes the war to escalate to horrific lengths)! These episodes are jam-packed with huge battles between giant fleets, thousands of mobile suits (including the reckless Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider), as well as monster-sized weapons, but the series still manages to keep the intimate emotions of the main characters in the forefront. Unfortunately, there's quite a bit of animation recycling going on in these battles - normally this doesn't bother me, but there was one particular sequence of a mobile suit pilot that kept showing up over and over! But that's only a minor complaint - Mobile Suit Gundam SEED is so much more than animation alone. It tells an incredible tale of how love can survive in the midst of war, eventually making a way for peace to reign. This anime was so cool that as soon as the last episode was over I had to order my first Gundam model kit (a new level of geekdom for me), and I can't wait to move on to the next Gundam series!

8.03.2009

2001: A Space Odyssey / Two-Disc Special Edition : 5 of 5

I think I've always been a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey (I even remembering listening to the soundtrack and acting out scenes with elementary school friends!), but after watching it recently on Netflix Watch Instantly my interest in this science fiction masterpiece was totally renewed. I had been planning to buy the DVD for years, but since the Watch Instantly version was only pan & scan, I just had to get it right away! It was so wonderful to experience the full widescreen image, and I love that the DVD includes the overture and intermission music. The commentary track by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood (who played the two Discovery astronauts) is really enjoyable since both actors are full of intelligent things to say, including anecdotes about working with Kubrick as well as their thoughts on the meaning of the final scenes of the film. The bonus disc begins with a great 45-minute documentary packed with interviews of the cast, special effects artists, and even scientific advisers (I loved that NASA worked to help design nearly everything in the movie, right down to the food that the Discovery astronauts eat!), but unfortunately this documentary is scored with the absolute worst synthesizer music imaginable. The disc also includes several short 20-minute segments, including a great look at the special effects with Douglas Trumbull - I was fascinated that they had to guess at what the complete Earth would look like from space, since the movie was filmed before the Apollo moon landing. I'm also always impressed by all of HAL's monitor screens, since they are actually 16MM rear-screen projectors (to give them a flat, un-flickering appearance). There's also a 1960s TV show about the filming of the movie, which was interesting because of all the Hollywood buzz at the time about Stanley Kubrick making such a big budget science fiction film. But more important than all the bonus material is the incredible film itself, which I can now enjoy in widescreen beauty whenever I want. I love the slow, silent pace of 2001 that goes beyond Arthur C. Clarke's story to become almost a therapeutic experience for me!

8.01.2009

Three Small Things 8.01.09

It's been much too long since my last Three Small Things post, so here we go! I've been doing lots of walking for exercise recently, usually taking two walks a day in the hot sun during work breaks. I've been using RunKeeper on my iPhone to track my progress, and I totally love it (even though I am only using the free version). Unlike a pedometer, RunKeeper actually uses the iPhone's GPS to figure out how far I've walked, and even shows me exactly where (here's the stats for a typical walk). It even sends a tweet for me, so I can tell the world I'm exercising!

I'm always looking for different healthy snacks to try (carrots can get pretty boring!), and my latest discovery is frozen grapes! I just buy a bunch of fresh grapes, wash and pick them off the stem, then put them in a Ziplock and pop them in the freezer. No matter how long you leave them in the cold, they don't turn into total ice cubes - they keep the consistency of delicious mini popsicles! I love to snack on them this way, so the hardest part is savoring the flavor and making them last.

After a few years of having the most boring About page in blogging history, I've finally done something with it! I always had trouble because so many people list favorites on their About pages, and my favorites are always changing, so I just tried to mention all the cool things I love (with tons of links back into relevant WEBmikey pages). Check it out and maybe you'll discover something (but I doubt it - you know me well enough already)!