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!


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!


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


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!

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!


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!


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!


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!


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!


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.


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!


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!


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!


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!


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!


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.


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!


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!


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!


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.


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!


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!


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!


Double gig Halloween 2009

Just like last year and the year before, my band The Greatest American Heroes (Austin's favorite TV theme song band, of course), rocked the Carousel Lounge at our special Halloween show this weekend! We wore our official uniforms from the show that inspired our name, and nearly everyone in the crowd was in costume, too! There were so many great outfits, and we were able to get lots of people "into the show" by asking them to participate during an appropriate song. The Blues Brothers showed up for our introduction to Good Times (which has a Blues Brothers feel), Gomez & Morticia Addams led the crowd in snaps for The Addams Family, a couple of Brokeback cowboys were there for Dukes of Hazzard, Wilma danced during The Flintstones, Wonder Woman was there for Wonder Woman (of course), and we even played a surprise version of Old Time Rock & Roll (which we learned on the spot) for our friend Grace who was dressed as Tom Cruise in his undies from Risky Business (the band claims no responsibility for heart attacks caused by this incident)! One of our former vocalists Dana was visiting in town from Washington DC, so she was there to sing several of her old tunes, wearing an awesome GAH-TV remote control costume (so clever). We gave the best costume prize to a guy who did a completely perfect Chris Farley impression, and the crowd was totally generous with tips (and they threw some Blow-Pops in the tip jar, too).

The next night, my jazz combo Casa del Swanko played at Satellite Bistro, which was totally relaxing and fun, especially since it had been quite a while since our last show. Since it was officially Halloween, Matt wore his Yuri Gagarin costume and did all of his banter in a hilarious Russian accent (thankfully, he sang with his usual smooth voice). Kumiko showed up in her Tricia Takanawa (from Family Guy) costume with some other friends who were dressed up as well. The band had a delicious free meal, a couple drinks, and a great time with our friends, which is the real reason we love to play!

View photos: Halloween 2009