Austin Symphony / Judith Ingolfsson : 4 of 5

I had a wonderful evening at last night's Austin Symphony concert (although the Austin City Limits Festival crowds made traffic incredibly terrible), and once again I was introduced to some new works and thrilled to hear one of my favorites. The opening piece was Smetana's The High Castle (actually part of a much longer work), which began with a fantastic double harp introduction. Truthfully, I imagine this piece was selected for the program since the Berlioz work also requires two harps! The guest violinist was Judith Ingolfsson (of Iceland), who performed Schumann's Violin Concerto in D Minor, which I had never heard before. This is one of the last works Schumann completed before his attempted suicide, so it has a interesting past (his widow didn't want it performed), but unfortunately I didn't find it as interesting to hear. The solo violin seems reduced to just a counter melody for the orchestra, so it never gets to shine and assert itself. Of course, the playing looked extremely difficult and was performed flawlessly, but I just didn't care for such an uncharacteristic concerto (but as always, I was thankful to be exposed to it). The soloist chose to play a beautiful short solo work as an encore, which I enjoyed much more! But the real highlight of the evening was Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, which I have loved since discovering it in college. The music itself it incredible with its signature motif that appears in each of the five movements, representing the girl who is the object of the artist's love (and obsession) in this prime example of "program music". Being familiar with Berlioz' notes made it fun to image the story taking place, from the ballroom scene, to the terrible opium-induced vision of death by guillotine, to the spooky witches' sabbath (made much creepier by the cool bowing effects of the strings). Tons of percussion adedd to the excitement, and at one point there were even four musicians on tympani! Obviously the audience loved Symphonie Fantastique as I do, since the applause was enormous. It was so wonderful to hear one of my favorite works performed live, definitely making fighting the traffic worthwhile!


Manga Mentions 10.7

Hikaru no Go, Vol. 19 (Hikaru No Go (Graphic Novels))Hikaru no Go Vol 19: I always have mixed feelings about this series, since it reads so quickly with all the "action scenes" of Go games being played, but the artwork is so nice and there's always just enough story development to keep me wondering what will happen next. In this volume, Hikaru starts holding a fan like Sai (who is still nowhere to be seen), and there's a great side story about Hikaru's female classmate Akari.

Hikaru no Go Vol 20: I was interested enough to start the next volume right away, which is mostly filled with qualifying games for the Young Lions tournament, including a great cliffhanger match with a cool Korean player. I really enjoyed the scenes where Akira and Hikaru both have matches with their teachers, but at the same time I'm really ready to finish this series since it's so close to the end!

Nana Vol 10: Even though the story is jumping all over the place (since the two Nanas are no longer together), it's amazing to me how well the characters are being juggled, making this manga so much fun to read. Most of this volume is about media scandals concerning Ren and Nana (affecting both Trapnest and the Black Stones), but there's also a semi-cute scene with Takumi and Nana picking out baby shoes.

Honey & Clover Vol 5: The students' graduation projects (including Takemoto's crazy Tower of Youth) are finished in this volume, and Morita returns to Japan after winning a Hollywood award for special effects (which amazes everyone). Yamada makes a nice speech about unrequited love, so it's no surprise that I get more and into these characters with each volume I read!

Mahoromatic Vol 4: I never really intended on reading this whole series, but I guess I'm hooked, and this volume has a cool subplot that wasn't in the anime. Mahoro goes undercover and enrolls as a student at a different school so she can defuse hidden bombs, interspersed with tons of cute and racy scenes (including a crazy bout with a breast enlarger device).


Batman / Under the Red Hood : 4 of 5

Batman: Under the Red Hood (Single-Disc Edition)I'm really glad that Warner Bros. and producer Bruce Timm have been catering to adult comic book fans by creating these incredible DC Universe DVD releases of classic stories, including some of the most dramatic plots in the Batman saga. Under the Red Hood takes on the fate of Jason Todd, who was the second Robin after Dick Grayson left to become Nightwing, and this animated treatment doesn't pull any punches. This is definitely a Batman tale for mature fans, since it opens with an intense scene of the Joker brutally beating Robin with a crowbar! It's difficult to talk about the plot without revealing the twist of the story (which most fans already know from the comic book), but I can say that this DVD explores the second Robin through flashbacks (often portrayed as ghosts when Batman remembers something in a familiar setting) that establish the emotional foundation necessary for an incredible climactic confrontation that features some of the most insightful dialogue I've heard! The animation is pretty fantastic for a direct to DVD release, including beautifully designed, moody opening titles, fantastic fight choreography with wonderful sweeping camera moves, and even cool cockpit displays for the Batmobile and Batwing (which sees a lot of action, for some reason). A few scenes use a little too much CGI for my taste (it seems like no one bothers to hand-animate vehicles anymore), but I will say that the integration with hand-drawn animation is well done, especially in a nice fly-by of the CG Batwing with an animated Batman visible inside. The Joker is appropriately creepy and well-voiced, and I enjoyed his dialogue, which has a nice balance of camp and violence (although one of his zingers is repeated verbatim in two scenes, which makes me think there was some sloppy re-writing going on). Along with the Joker, the classic Batman villain Ra's al Ghul makes an appearance, along with the crime boss the Black Mask, and of course, the mysterious Red Hood, whose identity is revealed a little too soon, but thankfully the pacing of the story doesn't suffer for it. Under the Red Hood is one of the best DC Universe DVD releases so far, presenting a fascinating Batman story with all the psychological underpinnings that make the Dark Knight such an amazing character.


The Social Network : 5 of 5

Along with my love of cool technology, I admit that I'm fascinated with (and often idolize) the creators of devices and services that I use every day, so I knew I would enjoy seeing The Social Network (and was lucky to see it on opening day in a sold-out theater). Without getting into discussing what the movie says about Facebook and society in general, The Social Network is simply a fantastic film in nearly all aspects. The structure of the movie manages to juggle between multiple lawsuits and timeframes without totally confusing the viewer, and is shot beautifully with subdued lighting that implies the stoic, academic Harvard environment and intensifies the dark nature of the plot. The acting is terrific across the board, and even the special effects for the Winklevoss twins played by a single actor is pulled off incredibly well (I was also happy to see Brenda Song, a Disney-marketed talent, stretching out in a different kind of role). As a computer geek, I was absolutely thrilled to see the realistic portrayal of programming and hacking from a technical standpoint (certainly the best seen in any major film), and I found myself giggling with glee at the opening montage of the creation of Facemash, narrated by Zuckerberg's actual online diary word-for-word. Although the world of Harvard politics was definitely unfamiliar to me, it didn't really get in the way of the story, although for me it seemed to highlight how the somewhat rocky evolution of Facebook could easily happen (and makes its position today even more amazing). Actually, I was surprised at how little The Social Network focused on Facebook itself, but that makes sense because this is a story (definitely a mix of fact and fiction) about the creators, and not really about their creation. In my opinion, Mark Zuckerberg (with all of his faults) was painted as a sympathetic character, swayed by his own ambition (and obviously the creator of Napster) into solidifying his place as a geek, social outcast, and by the way, billionaire. Seeing talents put to brilliant use is inspiring to me, even though the overall tone of the film is somewhat sad (although I'm sure this has been intensified for the movie). Putting emotion and social commentary aside, the fact remains that The Social Network is an excellent film, and I wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over (which I will certainly do after the DVD release). This is definitely a modern day saga that has affected everyone in some way, so it's only natural to want to explore it on the big screen.


iTunes genre distribution

Almost every weekend I take a long walk around the Domain to get some exercise. My route is a little over 3.5 miles, which takes me close to an hour at my pace, giving me lots of time to listen to music on my iPhone along the way. Yesterday while I was enjoying the randomness of music (my favorite thing about the walk, actually), I got thinking about the distribution of my iTunes library, so I took a minute to get some genre totals to see what I have. Truthfully, my digital music is a little out of control, since I'm up to 19,234 songs now, which would take 51 days to listen to completely! Here's some of the more interesting (at least to me) genres.

Jpop (6,569 songs): I'm amazed at how fast my Japanese pop library has grown, since I feel like I've only been a real fan for the past few years! Of course, most of it is Hello! Project groups (probably everything recorded by Morning Musume) and AKB48, but there are lots of other cool artists in the mix as well. I thought I had lots of Korean pop in my collection also, but I actually have only 558 tracks.

Soundtracks (2,897 songs): When I really enjoy a movie, I love hearing the score, so I have a weird variety of tracks from Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, lots of Disney movies (of course), and tons of anime series as well!

Classical (1,393 songs): The cool fact about this genre is that I rarely buy new classical music now, so this huge number is almost completely from CDs I purchased during my college days when I was obsessed with growing my collection. I also have 249 opera tracks, which could be added to this total, but I like keeping them organized into their own genre.

Jazz (1,238 songs): I'm pretty proud of my jazz collection, too, which is mostly bebop and straight ahead jazz (very little modern stuff). Usually when someone mentions a jazz standard, I can find versions by a couple different artists in this set.

Theme Park (540 songs): Not a huge number, but I bet most people don't have as many tracks of Disney ride audio as I do. This genre doesn't count regular Disney music, but does include drunken pirates, ghost screams, and Mickey & Minnie saying hello during parades!

Holiday (487 songs): I keep these tracks deactivated until Thanksgiving, and then start listening to my Christmas music collection almost exclusively. I usually add a CD or two to this number each year!

Everything else in my iTunes library is fairly "normal", with lots of pop, rock, dance, and other fun stuff. Believe it or not, even with a library this large, I'm able to cycle through my collection and listen to everything fairly regularly, thanks to the way I sync my iPhone with smart playlists (which I should write about in another post sometime).


Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes Volume 1 / Walt Stanchfield : 5 of 5

Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes: Volume 1: The Walt Stanchfield LecturesAlthough I'm only a fan of animation and not an animator, I love reading about the techniques involved in creating the art itself. Disney animation has always set itself apart by continually providing its artists with learning opportunities to help them improve, one of these being a long series of evening "gesture drawing" classes by Walt Stanchfield (who worked on many of Disney's feature animation classes). For each of these classes, Walt would provide a handout to discuss everything from line and perspective to "life pep-talks", and this huge wealth of written information has been collected into this giant book, which is the first of a two volume series edited by Don Hahn (my favorite Disney producer). Walt was in his late 60s when he wrote these handouts, but his life was filled with energy and an incredible positive outlook, fueled by his love of art itself.Most of this book is about the activity of drawing, but the subject matter is so broad that many chapters read like incredibly inspiring philosophy lectures, encouraging students to adopt an attitude of enthusiasm (since "man is a human dynamo") and to embrace the artistic world in all forms. His writing is so convincing that I found myself taking notes and wanting to fill my life with more art experiences! Quite often Walt illustrates his point by showing students' drawings, and every now and then he mentions the artist, which is a cool peek into the early careers of people like Pete Docter (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up), for example. I loved imagining the actual class setting, since Walt's writing talks about difficult tasks such as using the pose of a live model but drawing a Disney character such as Ariel from the Little Mermaid in the same pose. The foundation of his teaching is to draw verbs, not nouns (to be able to capture story and action in every static sketch), and it's obvious how he believed in this method by spending every spare moment sketching. This first volume is a giant book (almost too large to read comfortably), but I was always raring to read another chapter to see what Walt would say next. I can't express how much Walt's life lessons impressed me (as a non-artist), and I can't wait to take on Volume 2, which should be under the Christmas tree in a few months!


Legend of the Guardians / The Owls of Ga'Hoole : 3 of 5

Warner Bros. is doing a nice job getting me to see movies that I would never have considered going to by including new Road Runner cartoons with the main feature! The cartoon was too short, but a little funnier than the one included with Cats & Dogs, and I liked the crazy flying gadget that the Coyote made from ACME products! I had no idea what to expect after the "That's All Folks!", but Legend of the Guardians turned out to be a surprisingly good movie, especially because it's the first animated feature directed by Zack Snyder. Zack's style is evident all over the place, and since the plot includes a lot of battles, he gets a chance to stage them with his "sudden slow-motion" technique that he used in 300 and Watchmen. When I first saw a trailer for this film, I couldn't imagine how they were going to convey emotion using the relatively static facial features of owls, but to my amazement they completely pulled it off. You wouldn't think those tiny beaks and huge eyes could do much, but somehow the character's faces easily register everything from happiness to fear, while still maintaining the basically photo-realistic look that requires a pretty strict adherence to owl anatomy! Without going into the plot (which borrows a few elements from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, among other movies), I really enjoyed the creative owl culture, which includes armor and weapons used in the many extended (and truly exciting) battle scenes. At one point the heroes are fighting bats, and even the bats have blades attached to their wings! The overall tone of the story is fairly serious (without many comedic moments), except for the inclusion of a pop-song montage that is completely out of place and totally made me cringe (I really hope that Zack was forced into it by some clueless executive!). Of course, the stage is set for a possible sequel (and I believe the story is based on a series of books anyway), but we'll have to see if such an unusual fantasy film makes enough at the box office to pay for another film. I'd definitely enjoying renting Legend of the Guardians when it's released on DVD just to check out the cool animation again!


Ballet Austin / Carmina Burana : 4 of 5

Although I used to go to the ballet often, for some reason I hadn't seen one in a quite a long time, but after reading about the huge orchestra and choir involved in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, I made a last minute decision to attend Ballet Austin's season opener! The program began with a short ballet called Kai featuring the music of John Cage, known for his modern prepared piano works. The music was strange but extremely rhythmic, which was mirrored in the intricate dance that featured modern moves like slides, backward leaps, and interesting duplications (where a motion would be "echoed" across several dancers). After the intermission, Carmina Burana began with the well-known O Fortuna, which sounded phenomenal as performed by the Conspirare choir and full Austin Symphony! I wasn't expecting any kind of sets or costumes for this ballet, but the stage included some interesting elements with an iron bar motif that well-represented the suppression/release of the monks' fantasy life, since Carmina Burana is based on a series of secret poems written by medieval monks dreaming about forbidden pleasures. The start of the ballet was definitely an introduction to this concept, as male dancers wearing thin "frocks" (with hoods and kind of skirts to represent robes) removed them and threw them to the ground, causing some interesting audience response! The rest of the hour-long piece was filled with many playful, Spring-like dances, as well as some beautifully sung solos (some without dance), which interjected quite a bit of light-hearted flirting and comedy that was a complete reversal of the opening. Of course, the ballet ended with a kind of "return to reality" as the monks resumed their stoic life. I was really impressed and amazed at the dancers and their complex movements, and grateful to experience new music accompanied by such wonderful visuals. I definitely plan on seeing more of Ballet Austin this season!


Nine years with The Greatest American Heroes

Last night The Greatest American Heroes played our 9th anniversary show at the Carousel Lounge! It was a really fun gig with some power-packed sets, plus a special "unplugged" set with 12-string guitar, fretless bass and bongos (and I have the bruises on my hands to prove it!), and the crowd seemed to really have a great time watching us do our thing. I'm sure none of us ever imagined we would be playing TV theme songs for the past nine years, so it was kind of a nostalgic night that made me think about the history of the band and some of the changes we've been through.

Music: When we first got together, we were actually a surf band, mainly because surf is pretty easy and fun to play! We still include some classic tunes like Walk Don't Run in our shows, just for fun. Along the way we learned a surf rendition of The Munsters theme song, and suddenly we thought, "What if we played a ton of TV theme songs?" The rest is history, as they say. Several of the band members also wrote their own theme songs for shows that don't exist, and we love to put together three-song medleys of tunes that make no sense together, such as A-Team/Eight is Enough/Green Acres, Speed Racer/Fat Albert/WKRP in Cincinnati, or even Spongebob Squarepants/Gilligan's Island/The Brady Bunch. I'm not even sure how many TV theme songs we know, but it's a lot!

Horns: Originally we had a horn section with Ernesto on saxophone and Jonathan on trumpet, and they created some fantastic arrangements together that really established a unique sound for the band. Later Ernesto moved to LA (and we miss him!), but Jonathan does a great job of holding it together with cool lines and creative solos!

Bass Players: Our founding bass player was Barron, but he needed more time with his family, so we found a guy named Doc who had a great style of playing, and he stayed with us quite a while. Eventually Francis took over, and he's been a fantastic edition since he can also play keyboard on a few numbers (essential for Cheers, for example) and does a great Kermit the Frog impression for Rainbow Connection!

Singers: We started out with our pal Conrad, who even came to see us last night and sang a few songs for old time's sake. Later Dana joined the band, adding a great female voice that made The Jeffersons a real crowd pleaser, but she eventually moved for a job in DC. Since the singer is so important to this band, we didn't know what to do, but soon we discovered that one of our biggest fans (always in the audience and always dancing) was a performer, and so Kirk became our singer, bringing a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm that definitely kept the band going!

Events: Being a TV theme show band is a little weird, because people either love it or could do without it. We've even been hired for parties and had someone ask us, "When are you going to play something besides TV theme songs?" The Carousel Lounge is one of the craziest dives in Austin, so we started playing there since we totally "fit", and we've been performing there the last Friday of the month for nine years! We've been lucky enough to play some cool gigs like South by Southwest Interactive, and even an amazing show in the Austin City Limits studio, and we've also done many charity gigs at various venues. We always have a blast at our Halloween show every year, since we dress in costume (along with the audience) and totally go nuts!

Above everything else, The Greatest American Heroes are a group of friends who love to play music. We certainly don't do it for the money (tips are scarce sometimes!), but it's the perfect excuse to get together, have some laughs, and enjoy the TV shows that we all watched growing up. We play loud and we play sloppy sometimes, but we always have fun, and when the crowd "gets it" and the TV nostalgia starts flowing, it's a fantastic feeling! Francis has recently re-created our website, so please check it out and enjoy the photos and videos. But most importantly, come check us out at the Carousel Lounge sometime!

Visit site: The Greatest American Heroes


Rent / Zach Scott Theater : 5 of 5

My parents and I have seen several Zach Scott Theater productions during their annual visits, so I was thrilled we were able to see the Broadway hit Rent there during opening weekend! I saw a touring company production many years ago, but my parents had never seen the show (although they were familiar with the songs and subject matter), so this was a first experience for them which they absolutely loved. The best aspect of this production is the immersive and intimate environment of Zach's Kleberg Stage, which has been transformed into a New York City setting (right down to the street noises before the show begins). The set includes multiple levels that even extend to the sides above the audience, which are often populated by performers (who also move through the aisles), literally surrounding the viewer in the action and sound. Most of the main set is filled by a large video display (kind of a pyramid of old TV tubes) with images that change to reflect the mood or even individual lyrics of a song, which is really cool and timed perfectly. The performers were all amazing, expressing their characters with powerful voices (which are even more incredible standing only a few feet in front of you!) and wonderful energy. The live band (which unfortunately is completely hidden, but there's nowhere else to put them!) did a flawless job, although the intensity of the music sometimes made it easy to miss a few lyrics (which are important since so many backstory details are included in the songs). My favorite number was the Tango Maureen, which was hilarious and danced so well, and my parents really enjoyed La Vie Boheme, mainly because the cafe scene was so full of life that Mom & Dad felt like they were right there at the table with the characters. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the entire production, and honestly it was so much better than the touring version I had seen before! Although Rent has almost become a pop culture cliche by now, this show still packs an emotionally uplifting punch with a wonderful message about life and love, and Zach Scott delivered that punch with full force!


The Town : 3 of 5

My parents and I really wanted to try out Gold Class Cinemas during their recent visit, but since Mom & Dad go to the movies all the time, this was the only film playing that they hadn't already seen! I probably wouldn't have seen this movie otherwise, but it turned out to be surprisingly good, mainly because the story is so interesting. The essential element of the plot is that a bank robber who takes a hostage during a crime later happens to meet her at the laundromat, and they eventually fall in love since she doesn't know his true identity (since the criminals wear creepy rubber masks). With that said, The Town definitely isn't a love story, since most of the movie is filled with gritty action scenes of semi-violent (but not too bloody) robberies and police chases, which are particularly exciting on those narrow and crowded Boston streets. I was pretty impressed that Ben Affleck wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, and I really couldn't find flaws in his work. There are many other supporting characters with good backstories as well, including the other members of the crime gang (one of whom is like a brother to Ben, but also the most bitter and violent) and the FBI agent who is on their trail. Part of the fun with anti-hero movies where you root for the "bad guys" is learning all the details of the crime, and it's amazing to see how something like the heist of Fenway Park after a crowded Major League game could take place. Of course, any movie would be enjoyable in the giant Gold Class Cinemas seats with a couple beers, but I'm glad my parents and I ended up seeing The Town and enjoying its well-crafted story.


Austin fun with Mom & Dad

Last weekend my parents came to Austin for their yearly visit, and we had a wonderful time filling the days with vacation fun. We did a little driving around and some shopping (I had to show them the new LEGO Store, and Mom needed to buy some shoes!) and spent the rest of the time eating and seeing entertainment. My parents always love The Oasis, so we enjoyed our meal there for as long as we could stand the heat, and they also like Carlos & Charlie's, so we had some great margaritas there while looking at the lake (which was nice since last year it was bone dry!). One night we went to Esther's Follies (which is always fresh and hilarious) and another night we saw Rent at the Zach Scott Theater, which was pretty spectacular! We also tried out the new ultra-swanky Gold Class Cinemas in the Domain, which was even cooler than I imagined (even though it's so expensive). The service in the lounge was great, the food was good, and reclining in those giant seats with blankets was luxurious! Of course Mom cooked a couple delicious breakfasts, and it was nice to relax at home, eating too many snacks and making Mom & Dad watch Japanese TV shows and Jpop videos. The four-day weekend really flew by (as usual), and I'm glad my parents and I had another nice Austin experience together!

View photos: Parents Visit 2010


Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro / Season Two : 5 of 5

Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro - The Complete Second SeasonAfter completely enjoying the first season of Disney's 1950s hit Zorro TV series, I had to immediately move on to this second season of high adventure in Spanish California! This is another huge six DVD set with nearly 40 episodes of the show as well as bonus material, so I had to do some marathon watching to finish it all. This season is a bit "softer" than the first, with a little more romance and comedy and plenty of guest stars (it seems every popular Latin actor was on the show), including Caesar Romero (the Joker himself) as Diego's scheming uncle and Ricardo Montalban as Diego's college rival from Spain. These episodes also feature Annette Funicello (Walt gave her the role as a birthday gift since she had a crush on Guy Williams!), and she's quite entertaining and cute (even if her accent is hilariously non-Spanish). The first several episodes take place in Monterrey rather than Los Angeles, and apparently Zorro didn't bring his black horse Tornado, so he uses a white one named Phantom (Tornado is back in action when they return to LA)! Zorro uses his whip quite a bit in this season (he even uses it to make his "Z", which is quite a feat!), and I was amazed at the number of scenes shot at Vasquez Rocks (a place I love to see for its Star Trek connection). The bonus material includes some additional hour-long episodes (which would have been part of the third season) and a nice short documentary on Guy Williams with lots of memories from his son. I really enjoyed watching Zorro and getting into the spirit of the show (I even learned some history about Spanish California), and I'm so glad I have this Walt Disney Treasures set in my collection!


Paris, Je T'aime : 4 of 5

Paris, Je T'Aime (Paris, I Love You)I became really interested in the Cities of Love series of movies after seeing New York, I Love You, so I immediately decided to rent the first film, Paris, Je T'aime. I really enjoy this type of movie, which combines lots of short stories (actually 18 of them, around 5-10 minutes each) featuring different directors, actors, moods and genres, all set in Paris. Each short is named for a particular place in the city, and while most of them are in French (obviously), there are a few in English since many famous directors (such as the Coen brothers) took part in the making of this film. There are also lots of well-known actors (Elijah Wood, Steve Buscemi, Natalie Portman, and more) that find a way to make their characters fascinating in such a short time frame! Many of the stories are romantic, some are comedic (like the tale of two mimes and how they meet), but several are sad, and there's even a campy (and bloody) vampire short to cover the horror genre. It's fun to notice different directorial techniques, such as the single continuous shot used in the scene with Nick Nolte, and of course the scenery is beautiful, enhanced by a nice soundtrack. I really appreciated the story about an older woman's solo vacation to Paris, with first-person narration about new experiences and falling in love with life itself. The film ends with a nice wrap up that somewhat connects several characters from the different shorts (though this is accomplished a little better in New York, I Love You), which left me with a wonderful feeling. It's impossible to get bored with a movie that completely changes every five minutes, so I think anyone would enjoy Paris, Je T'aime as an extremely accessible art film!


Austin Symphony / Andre Watts : 4 of 5

I always enjoy going to the first concert of the symphony season each year, but attending the opening of Austin Symphony's 100th season made it even more special! The featured soloist was the famous pianist Andre Watts, who showed off his years of experience with an impeccable rendition of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. It was wonderful to see this piece performed, since I recently heard it discussed in a documentary, and I was amazed at how many of the melodies in all three movements that I could hum along with, although I don't have it in my CD collection (yet!). I loved the interesting chord progressions and incredible extended trills (talk about carpal tunnel!) of the first movement, as well as the moody call and response of the second movement. I think Austin audiences are a little spoiled by guest performer encores, since no one would stop applauding for Andre Watts, but I'm sure he was exhausted from such a trying piece! The rest of the program was interesting since there was a short piece by Schuman (notice the single N) as well as a symphony by Schumann (notice the 2 Ns)! The New England Triptych included some fascinating tympani work, although the rest of the piece wasn't really my style. Schumann's Symphony No. 2 was marvelous, however, with some fantastic woodwind sections in the slow movement, and plenty of huge bombastic flourishes to end the first and fourth movements. As always, I enjoyed being exposed to new classic works and re-discovering familiar ones. I'm looking forward to seeing much more of this triumphant 100th season!


LEGO ahoy

This week I had a nice LEGO experience, since I got to build a vintage 1989 Caribbean Clipper set from the LEGO Pirates line! My co-worker Amanda found the set during a big decluttering project, and since she knew about my LEGO addiction, she brought it to work and surprised me with it! I was totally amazed, since it was in excellent shape and even in the original box, but without the instruction book. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of the incredible LEGO resources available on the web, thanks to all the adult LEGO fans like me that have worked so hard to build sites like Brickset and Peeron! It was easy to type in the set number (6274) and instantly have access to scans of the original instructions, as well as a detailed inventory list of the set. I used my iPad to view the instruction scans, and I was shocked how much more confusing LEGO instructions were in the 80s! Of course, they were still pretty good, but certainly much less detailed than today (and with fewer steps, making each one a challenge). The inventory list was really handy, since there were a few stray parts that didn't belong in the box, as well as some missing pieces. Thankfully, nothing was missing to keep me from building a sturdy ship, and I was able to keep the "cosmetically challenged" sections somewhat hidden (and I can even buy the individual missing pieces from the web if I want). It was really fun to build the Caribbean Clipper and to enjoy the LEGO time machine, and it looks spectacular next to Brickbeard's Bounty on my shelf!

View photos: Caribbean Clipper


Durarara : 4 of 5

I actually heard about this anime while watching an AKB48 TV show when Mayu (who is somewhat of an otaku) mentioned it. I was curious about the series, and it didn't take me long to discover it was available to watch online via Crunchyroll, and I was able to enjoy the entire thing (some episodes on my iPad, and some on my MacBook). Durarara is a really cool anime, although it's a little strange how the plot keeps shifting direction and focus. The main characters are three students (two guys and a girl) living their lives in Ikebukuro, which is filled with gang activity and weird goings-on, such as the Headless Rider! The rider's motorcycle sounds like a horse, she wears black with a cool yellow helmet (just resting on her neck, since she's headless) that has sculpted cat ears, and can summon a scythe out of black mist. Actually, she's one of the main characters, just a kind girl who simply wants to find her head! Although at first this seems like the main plot of the show, the main storyline is about rival gangs, and slowly the strange secrets and pasts of each of the three students are revealed! There are lots of other colorful characters (a crazy-strong fighting guy who throws vending machines, a black guy who works at a Russian Sushi restaurant and speaks Japanese with a hilarious accent, plus geeky side characters who make lots of funny anime/manga references), and I loved how each episode is somewhat narrated by a different character so you get a glimpse into each of their thoughts! The animation and character designs are really cool, and the opening and closing themes are fantastic, too. Durarara is definitely an above average anime, and it was a lot of fun to watch an entire series before it's available on DVD in the US (but it will be soon). Thanks for the recommendation, Mayu!


Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol 2 / Doom : 3 of 5

Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol. 2: DoomI enjoyed the first volume of this series enough to put a few more on my PaperBack Swap list, and somehow I was lucky enough to get this second collection pretty quickly. These issues mostly focus on Doctor Doom (who was also a genius student at the Baxter Building in this re-imagined story) and how he actually caused the accident that created the Fantastic Four, and I liked the look into Doom's childhood and his obsession with pleasing his oppressive father. But the best scenes involve Sue's medical assessments of everyone's bodies, discovering things like Reed's lack of internal organs (explaining how he can stretch them) or Ben's ability to overcome his huge mass to fill his lungs with air (there's even a scene where he's asked about using the bathroom!). The relationships among the Fantastic Four seem really genuine and have lots of funny moments, especially when everyone teases Reed about the name of the Fantasticar (a clever way to add a modern take on something that wasn't so silly in the original comic). I thought it was cool how Doom was able to create an army of small insect robots out of tiny discarded parts (like cell phone cameras and MP3 players), but the actual battle with Doom was a little quick (but I'm sure this is just a warm-up for something much bigger). With excellent artwork and great characterization, I'm certainly glad I decided to take a look at this series, and if I can't get any other volumes from PaperBack Swap, I'm definitely tempted to buy a few!


Mood music

Although I have a humungous number of songs in my iTunes library, I also love listening to streaming music from a variety of sources, usually to fit a certain mood or activity. There's almost nothing as bad as hearing a song that doesn't fit how I'm feeling, so I've learned where to go to for the right mood music if I'm at home or at work. When I first wake up I usually want to do some reading, and I like listening to classical music while I read. I use the internet radio stations built into my Apple TV, which are conveniently categorized so I can narrow it down to opera, Baroque, or whatever fits the particular book (my tastes are really specific!). I also use my Apple TV to listen to jazz or ambient (Groove Salad is one of my favorite sources, although I wouldn't really call it ambient myself) when I'm enjoying manga or doing chores. At work, if my brain is kind of overwhelmed, I love listening to the predefined ambient station on Pandora (they also have great classical music stations, including a nice one of only piano works). If I'm kind of pissed off or cranky, I can get a great stream of shoegazer tunes out of Pandora (just using My Bloody Valentine as the seed group), and if I'm on a coding roll I discovered that my BoA station also plays tones of Ghost in the Shell soundtrack tunes, which somehow gives me intellectual energy! Finally, if I'm totally having a blah day, the ultimate weapon is Stereomood, which has an all-melancholy playlist (with a huge variety of songs that I don't know) that will definitely fit how I feel. I guess I've discovered that often the only way out of a mood is to go deeper in, and music certainly helps me do that. Usually when I listen to mood music at some point it won't appeal to me anymore, and then I know the mood's over!


Apollo's Song / Osamu Tezuka : 5 of 5

Apollo's SongI'm absolutely stunned by the number of masterpieces I have yet to discover written by Osamu Tezuka, the greatest mangaka of all time! Many of these books are huge, such as the 540 page Apollo's Song, which I recently read and completely enjoyed. I have no idea how Tezuka produced so much art in his lifetime, especially when I think about the massive Phoenix saga, the Buddha series, and many others, yet he was still able to create deep and fascinating stand-alone stories like this one. Apollo's Song is about a boy named Shogo who has developed a hatred for love (due to his terrible childhood as the unwanted son of a prostitute) and suddenly meets a goddess who condemns him to an endless cycle in which he will fall in love, only to lose it again and again. Each chapter puts Shogo in different situations (often dreams or visions) ranging from Nazi Germany (where he is a soldier who falls in love with a Jewish girl) to an extreme future (where artificial beings have oppressed the human race, yet Shogo and the artificial queen fall into forbidden love). In the longest story (which is part of reality, rather than a dream) he falls in love with Hiromi, a doctor who attempts to treat his mental condition by training him to be a marathon runner, but of course this plot ends tragically as well. This manga has less humor than Tezuka's other works, but while the stories are overflowing with philosophical concepts and intense situations, they are never heavy-handed. The artwork contains many full-page spreads that are breathtaking with incredible details and beauty, and of course the characters are expressive in a way that only Tezuka can accomplish. I'm so excited that Tezuka's genius is recognized so these more obscure works are getting translated and published, and I only hope that I can experience them all someday (since there are so many more out there)!


Netflix One-Liners 8.31

Memories: This batch of Netflix streaming is half anime, starting with this really cool triple story film filled with incredible detail and awesome machinery and plots ranging from a garbage spaceship’s encounter with an opera singer’s final resting place to a society completely based around firing huge cannons at an unseen enemy.
The Place Promised in Our Early Days: I’ve wanted to see this movie for years, and I’m glad I finally took the time to enjoy this fascinating sentimental story set in a post-war divided Japan and told via beautiful artwork and character design.
Ghost in the Shell / Individual Eleven: I still have a Ghost in the Shell itch that needs scratching, so I enjoyed watching this movie that compresses the entire main storyline of the second season of the anime series with some creative editing (and of course I geeked out all over again!).
Le Portrait de Petite Cossette: I had never heard of this short three episode series, but this horror story about a girl’s spirit trapped in an antique glass seemed interesting as a Netflix suggestion, which unfortunately turned out to be a little too bizarre and bloody for my taste.
Robotech / The Macross Saga: I’ve always wanted to watch this 85-episode monster series (which was instrumental in starting the Anime boom in the US), so I’m glad Netflix has it available for streaming, since I love the old animation style, cheesy 80s dubbing, and of course the space battles!
In Search of Beethoven: I also checked out a few documentaries, such as this really long (but never boring) look at the life of Beethoven and his fascinating career that changed classic music forever, sprinkled with lots of interesting enthusiasm filled comments from musicians and historians.
The Buddha: This PBS documentary looks at the major events in the life of the Buddha (with a few basic teachings of Buddhism thrown in), told via interviews with modern poets and philosophers and sometimes beautiful animated scenes.
Surrogates: Though I'm technically not a Bruce Willis fan, I actually heard about this science fiction thriller in church, and I enjoyed this surprisingly good story (with plenty of social commentary) about a world where nearly everyone stays at home while their brains are plugged into artificial bodies that they control in the real world.
Swamp Thing: I watched this old light horror flick with the guys (since we all remembered enjoying Adrienne Barbeau's figure as kids), but this DC Comics monster was definitely given the 80s low budget TV treatment (although it's pretty fun to watch anyway!).
Zach Galifianakis / Live at the Purple Onion: I don't watch many comedy shows in general, but since Zach is funny on the Tim & Eric Awesome Show, I thought I would check out this older performance, which had a few great moments but overall needed a lot more refinement.


Godzilla Returns / Marc Cerasini : 3 of 5

Godzilla Returns (Godzilla Ya Novels , No 1)Since I've seen all the Godzilla movies multiple times and even enjoyed the old Marvel Comics series recently, I'm always on the lookout for new Godzilla material. I had heard about a series of novels (actually for young readers) that seemed kind of interesting, and luckily I was able to get one from PaperBack Swap even though they are completely out of print! I wasn't sure what it would be like to read a narrative kaiju "movie", but Godzilla Returns was surprisingly good and seemed to unfold and slowly build just like a great film. The plot chooses to reset the timeline (much like the Heisei era films) so only the first appearance by Godzilla in 1954 has happened. In fact, the original movie is referenced as a "documentary", and Stephen Martin (Raymond Burr's character) has even written a book about his dramatic experience! The story focuses on a few youthful characters (both Japanese and American) with the often seen mix of ambitious news reporters and disciplined military folk. When Godzilla appears in the 1990s to feed on a Russian nuclear sub, the political battles begin between the scientific community and the military as Godzilla slowly makes his way to Tokyo. The descriptions of action and destruction are really well written, and it was especially exciting to read about the young heroes driving through the streets of Tokyo as rubble (and Godzilla's feet) tumble down around them! The author obviously knows enough about Japan and Godzilla lore to tell a plausible kaiju story (I loved the reference to Cadmium missiles, which are sometimes used in the films as a deterrent to Godzilla's nuclear nature), although there are a few silly stereotyped moments (but of course, this happens all the time in the movies). Overall I enjoyed this Godzilla experience enough to order a few more books in the series, and I'm looking forward to new stories of the King of the Monsters!


It's easy

After a vacation it's usually difficult to get myself fully back in gear, so this week I've done a little more relaxing than I'm used to. I've actually really enjoyed taking time to escape in my favorite worlds of anime and manga, but I often have trouble with feeling guilty about too much luxury, which sometimes leads to eating ice cream or other things I try to avoid! But over the past year I've adopted an overly simplistic attitude that really helps, which is just to step back, look at what I'm trying to do, and tell myself "It's easy". Obviously this isn't the key to life, but this small adjustment really works for me if I remember to do it! When I'm tempted to order a pizza and the fight feels like I'm going to give in, if I stop and think "Wait a minute! It's easy to win this battle. It's easy to just not order a pizza!", then my new perspective reveals the ridiculousness of my little struggle so I can make the right decision. Sometimes perfectionism keeps me from writing this blog, since I have trouble getting started if I feel like I won't be able to produce something that meets my own standards. But then I think "Writing a blog post is easy. Just write and don't worry about it!" and I'm able to finally get into the habit of posting (which always gets easier day by day). I can even beat some procrastination challenges with this attitude, since usually the things I put off will be over with before I know it if I just actually do them. Telling myself "It's easy" helps me minimize my internal drama, which has a tendency to complain and make things much worse than they actually are. If I can just remember to adopt this attitude at the moment I need it, then I'm able to do things like write this blog post, which was easy!


Manga Mentions 8.25

Honey and Clover, Vol. 4 (v. 4)Honey & Clover Vol 4: This volume focuses mostly on Yamada and Mayama, who keeps trying to protect her from romantic advances even though he won't return her love himself. Their relationship is so beautifully tragic, and Yamada's personal narrative about the bent shiso plant (which needs to be broken off at the stem so new leaves can grow) is a really moving metaphor. I love all the emotional drama in this manga!

Nana Vol 9: The two Nanas sadly grow apart due to Hachi's pregnancy and marriage proposal from Takumi, exemplified by the touching scene where their beloved matching strawberry drinking glasses accidentally break! This volume is definitely thicker than normal with lots of insight into Reira's background, as well as a bonus story on how Trapnest was formed. It's so sad to see the Nanas living apart in separate places, though!

Black Jack Vol 7: As always, this volume is filled with more fantastic stories of my current Osamu Tezuka character obsession, including a fascinating look at Black Jack's dark past as he tries to get revenge for the death of his mother! There's also a touching appearance of the girl who was the "model" for Pinoko, which shows Tezuka's skill in conveying moving emotion with simple manga technique.

Nextworld Vol 2: On the other hand, some of Osamu Tezuka's early work from the 1940s can be incredibly boring, and Nextworld is a perfect example. I read the first volume of this manga back in 2005, and I never would have bought the second, but I couldn't pass it up for free on PaperBack Swap. The alien Noah's Ark story is kind of cool, but overall I was just glad to get through the book. I'm really glad that Tezuka moved past this style!

Sailor Scout Guide / Sailor Venus: Incredibly, I was able to get all five volumes of this out of print series from PaperBack Swap, and it was fun to read the last one about Sailor Venus! The content is just like the other books (tons of frame captures, episode summaries and crazy tidbits of information), and once again I enjoyed the sappy poetry selections at the end. I really want to watch Sailor Moon again now!


Disneyland & Los Angeles vacation

Last weekend I spent four fantastic days in Los Angeles with my pal Dae, and we completely filled every minute with fun (and food)! We started off with Disney's California Adventure, which I hadn't visited in several years, so it was nice to experience the cool attractions again along with the new ones, especially Toy Story Midway Mania, which has already been updated with Toy Story 3 characters! I noticed several more details on older rides like Monsters Inc: Mike & Sully to the Rescue (did you know you can smell ginger in the sushi restaurant scene?), and it was great to ride the scary Maliboomer, since it's closing forever soon. The big event was World of Color, the new beautiful fountain and light show, so we had a classy dinner at the Wine Country Trattoria to get special passes (which bypassed tons of crowds). Dinner was delicious (with lots of wine!) and the show was unbelievable (I loved the scenes with Pocahontas, Fantasia 2000, and Pixar characters)!

The next day we hit Disneyland, where we managed to ride everything in sight by getting there at 8:00 AM! The new effects on Snow White's Scary Adventures were great (especially the rain during the finale), and I had a blast finding the new additions to the Rivers of America from the Mark Twain. It was also really fun to watch Michael Jackson in Captain EO on the big screen, which is great no matter how cheesy it is! After dinner at the Blue Bayou (interrupted by a fire alarm episode!), we got to see the new dragon in Fantasmic (huge and awesome), and just made it in time to see Dumbo fly around the castle during the fireworks! I was so impressed with Dumbo, since his kicking legs and flapping ears were so cute!

The next two days were so full of sightseeing that I can barely mention it all here! I've now seen all of the Los Angeles shooting locations for Blade Runner, since we visited Union Station, the Million Dollar Theater (across the street from the Bradbury Building), and the Ennis-Brown House. Dae picked a fantastic Japanese restaurant for lunch, which had an incredible view of the city, and we just happened to arrive during their three year anniversary, so many items were only three dollars (we definitely took advantage of the three dollar nigori sake)! Still downtown, we also stopped in the Biltmore Hotel and rode the Angels Flight inclined railway, and then stumbled onto front row seats for a great Rufus Wainwright concert! The next day we finally hooked up with Ernesto for breakfast and hiking around Bronson Canyon, including the fabulous Batcave (the actual cave/tunnel the Batmobile drove out of on the 60s TV series). Next we saw a few Hollywood things like the Snow White Cafe and Ginger Rogers' gravesite, ate some ice cream at the Disney Soda Fountain, and finally had a great Mexican dinner. This was definitely a vacation for the record books!

View photos: 2010 California Adventure
View photos: 2010 Disneyland
View photos: 2010 Los Angeles


Gankutsuou / The Count of Monte Cristo : 5 of 5

Gankutsuou -The Count of Monte Cristo (Chapter 1)I first heard about this unusual anime series back when I used to read NewType USA, so when I noticed it was available on Netflix streaming I decided to give it a try. Of course I was hooked almost instantly, but when I was halfway through the series (watching it dubbed), Netflix dropped it. I thought I would have to rent the DVDs, but then I discovered I could watch the rest of the series on my iPad via the Crunchyroll app in Japanese! Although I haven't read the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, I was impressed at how this story was transplanted into the future, where pleasure trips to the moon are common and duels are fought in giant mecha that look like medieval armor. The visual style of this anime takes some getting used to, since everything (from clothing to hair texture to wallpaper) has been digitally filled with elegant and often garish textures, which makes everything look totally bizarre while still nodding to the historical Paris of the original story. The plot is a long revenge story that unfolds beautifully, and it's amazing how the young aristocratic characters (sons and daughters of the families being destroyed) are affected and grow from the Count's evil manipulations. The friendship of Albert and Franz is wonderful, and there are lots of subplots going on at once (which always kept me busy keeping everything straight!). The Count himself is an incredible character, whose story demands sympathy even though he's been overcome (actually taken over by a literal demonic force in this telling of the story) by his need for revenge. Everything about this series has a high-culture feel, including the haunting opening theme leading into the French prologue that begins each episode. Watching Gankutsuou every day for a month was an incredible experience, and I definitely recommend it!


My Neighbors the Yamadas : 3 of 5

My Neighbors the YamadasWhen Disney signed the deal to dub and release the classic Studio Ghibli movies from Japan a few years ago, I was surprised to see that this film was included, since it's probably the "least-Ghibli" movie the studio has ever made. I recently realized I should get the DVD just to complete my set (even though I had already seen it a long time ago), and I had fun enjoying this unusual (yet creative and interesting) movie filled with Japanese culture. The most striking aspect of My Neighbors the Yamadas is the visual style, which can only be described as comic strip sketching (quite Peanuts-like, in a way), completely different from the realistic fantasy worlds of the other Ghibli movies. Although the artwork is almost childlike, it's also amazing how it uses moving backgrounds and complex camera angles (at times), and I loved how the watercolor feel fades away at the edges of the frame. Similar to the artwork, the structure of the plot (if you can call it that) is also comic strip inspired, since the film is really just a long series of short gags, which seems like it would get old after an hour and forty minutes, but somehow manages to stay funny! The Yamadas are a typical (perhaps stereotyped) Japanese family with a dad, mom, son, daughter, and of course, the live-in mother-in-law, and their lives unfold in hilarious short stories, often punctuated by meaningful haiku verses. There's a fairly-long segment about accidentally leaving the daughter in a department store, a super-funny TV remote control battle (where the dad keeps blocking the mom's attempt to change the channel), and a beautiful dream-like sequence about the family as a whole that contains great cultural references like the story of Momotaro. The movie is mostly wrapped up in a musical number set to Que Sera Sera (pretty interesting in Japanese), and watching the whole thing is really relaxing and fun! Like all the Disney-Ghibli DVDs, there's a short bonus feature about the dubbing as well as a way to view the storyboards, which end up looking like the finished film in this case. My Neighbors the Yamadas is about as far from Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro as you can get, but it's still a fascinating and heartwarming look at family life from a Japanese point of view.


Toy Museum acquisitions

Since I don't really have anything left in my house to declutter, I've been spending some time "curating" my Toy Museum instead! I was starting to get a little worried about running out of LEGO space, which got me thinking about all the wasted vertical room on my shelves. Then I discovered these nice clear acrylic risers at the Container Store, and now I can't stop buying them! They come in several sizes, and although they are a little pricey when you need so many, they're a perfect solution for me. Now I can display my LEGO Y-wing on top of my X-wing (for example), and still enjoy both toys in half the space! Over the past few weekends I've been able to open up lots of room for more toys, which is great since I've added a few LEGO sets to my collection lately (which I just photographed today). At the opening of Austin's LEGO store, I bought the new General Grievous' Starfighter, which I've seen over and over recently while watching The Clone Wars. It has a really unique design, solid construction, a cool slide-open cockpit, and some great minifigs (including a new sculpted face General Grievous, of course!). I also had fun building the commemorative bat set that I got for free! Yesterday I put together the Exo-Force Stealth Hunter this weekend, which is so cool that I'm really bummed that the Exo-Force line (inspired by the Japanese mecha genre) was discontinued. I thought this would be a simple set, but it actually took quite a while since there were so many decals! I love the Gundam feel of the finished model, and it looks great on my shelf!

View photos: LEGO August 2010


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World : 4 of 5

Fresh after (in fact, the day after!) finishing the fantastic Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, it was pretty cool to be able to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on opening day! As a fan of the books, I was definitely skeptical about how this film would work, but although they made some mistakes, for the most part I can say that the movie was close to fantastic! Actually, my biggest complaint is about Michael Cera in the title role, since he just doesn't fit my image of the character from the books. Sure Scott is supposed to be geeky, but not wimpy (at least in my mind), so I feel like Michael Cera is only there to add a name to this risky movie gamble. But I don't want to waste this review griping about the main character, since the other characters are flat-out perfect! Ramona was absolutely too cool, Wallace practically stepped out of the graphic novel, and most of all, Knives Chau (Scott's jilted teenage Chinese girlfriend and my favorite character) is not only adorable, but the plot has been shifted around to give her a bigger role! I loved how they referenced the style of the books by including chapter titles, popups of character names with funny descriptions (taken word for word), and even a few animated flashbacks with the original character designs. The fighting scenes are really great, with tons of video game sound effects and graphic flourishes, all done really tastefully (when it would have been so easy to make them garish and ugly). The soundtrack is also cool, with lots of tunes that are great for action scenes (the Sex Bob-Omb tracks definitely make me want to buy the album)! Of course it's tough to squeeze a six book series into one film, and although they lost some of the nice character development in the graphic novels, they still managed to weave a pretty cohesive (although crazy) story out of it all. In fact, I think they improved the ending quite a bit! If they had just cast a cool unknown as Scott I would have been even happier, but Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is still a pretty awesome movie!


Scott Pilgrim Vol 6 : 3 of 5

Scott Pilgrim Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest HourIt seems like forever since I was enjoying Volume 5 of the Scott Pilgrim saga and wondering how long I could wait for the next release, never dreaming it would take over a year! I think some momentum was lost by such a long wait, and although I'm thrilled with the complete story as a whole, the final volume was a little lacking (truthfully, I kind of felt like it was rushed out to beat the release of the movie). Of course, I still really enjoyed reading it, and the artwork and cool characters were all as fantastic as ever! Scott finally faces Ramona's last evil boyfriend Gideon, and the battle takes the story into a surreal direction (inside Gideon's head!) that seemed a little too bizarre to me (but hey, what did I expect in a world where video games intersect with real life?). In fact, this volume seemed a little more gaming-centric than before, with lots of 8-bit text announcements, an extra-life for Scott, and even a funny scene where coins drop on spectators' heads! Thankfully, the final scenes in the story are really great from an emotional standpoint, which is important since these characters actually have feelings, after all. I loved Scott and Ramona's words to each other, as well as Knives' hilarious Clash at Demonhead line (she will always be my favorite character, and I wish she had her own series somehow!). I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the movie, which will be even more interesting now that I've read the whole story!


The LEGO Book : 5 of 5

The LEGO BookSince I'm definitely a full-fledged LEGO fan (according to my Brickset list, I'm up to 25 sets now!), I'm really interested in the history of the LEGO company and all the trivia I can find about these amazing bricks. The LEGO Book is a beautiful hardback (actually a two-volume set in a great slipcase) that I received for Christmas, and I recently got around to enjoying page after page of lovely photo layout and LEGO facts! The style of The LEGO Book is quite similar to the LEGO Star Wars Visual Dictionary, but begins with the Denmark company's early wooden toys in the 1930s, continuing in a massive timeline to the advanced sets of today. I learned so much that I've recently been boring my friends with LEGO facts (such as original bricks from the days of the 1958 patent will still snap together with bricks from today, and that the factory in Denmark is so precise that only 18 out of a million bricks are flawed!), and seeing all the original sets in the City, Castle, and Space themes, as well as photos from the cool catalogs that I used to drool over as a child, was really nostalgic. I was fascinated by the early Duplo, Mindstorms, and Bionicle product lines, since there were many items I had never seen, and surprised to see a few Mickey Mouse sets that I never knew existed! There are also chapters on the LEGOLand theme parks and huge models, such as a giant soccer stadium that literally holds 30,000 minifigs in the audience! Speaking of minifigs, the second bonus book is called Standing Tall, which focuses solely on the history of the LEGO minifigure, starting with the early jointed family (that I somehow remember building) and eventually today's licensed figures that have so much detail and custom parts. I completely enjoyed my time immersed in the colorful pages of The LEGO Book, and definitely recommend it to any LEGO fan who loves these incredible toys!


Two spectacular openings

This week was marked by a couple big events! On Thursday, there was an opening reception for an exhibit of my pal Matt's excellent photography, featuring his images of Japan! The show is displayed at the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic offices and studio, and it's really nice to see his wonderful photos all over the walls. Several people came to the opening and talked with Matt about his art, and we enjoyed some great refreshments and even played some music (Steve brought his keyboard, Jonathan had his horns, and I played an ultra-minimal drum kit). It was a really nice time, immediately followed by a big dinner together at New World Deli, eating giant sandwiches and burgers to sitar music.

Yesterday was super exciting since Austin's new official LEGO Store had its grand opening! I thought I was a little silly for wanting to be at Barton Creek Square right when they opened, but it turned out that every LEGO fan in town had the same idea! They had to make sure the crowd in the store didn't go over capacity, so everyone lined up (several hundred people, nearly the length of the mall) and waited to get in, which was kind of exciting! The store is really well designed and stuffed with merchandise, including all the exclusives that you can't get anywhere else, with some neat areas where you can buy loose bricks or custom minifigs. I was one of the first 300 purchases (I bought the new General Grievous Starfighter), so I got a special commemorative bat set! LEGO was also holding a "building event" to construct a huge Buzz Lightyear, and it was fun to watch kids build sections that were added to the huge model. I have a feeling I'm going to be visiting the LEGO Store semi-regularly!

View photos: Matt's Photo Exhibit
View photos: LEGO Store


Cats & Dogs / The Revenge of Kitty Galore : 2 of 5

The first time I saw this trailer, I told myself I would never see a dumb movie like this one! But then I heard about the new Road Runner cartoons that Warner Bros. is including with a few upcoming movies, so my pal Melinda and I ended up seeing it just to enjoy the Looney Tunes! The cartoon was pretty good, with some new creative ways for the Coyote to fail miserably, and I thought the computer generated style did a nice job of combining realistic textures with the classic feel of the original animation (although Road Runner's color was a little too iridescent for my taste). Unfortunately, it was much shorter than a real Warner Bros. cartoon (I was hoping for seven minutes, but it was only around three), and once it was over I had to make it through Cats & Dogs! I didn't see the original movie, but I'm sure this sequel is just more of the same goofy jokes that probably aren't funny even to kids. Of course, I had a few laughs (the Silence of the Lambs references were funny), and the action near the end of the movie was pretty good, but overall I was just amazed that movies like this still get made. Some of the characters were vaguely fun (I liked the fact that the dogs were commanded by a fastidious Beagle!) and the CG mouth movement on the live-action animals was well done. Some of the voice work was great (for some reason the insane pigeon was my favorite), but I think the human roles were almost humiliating to the actors (poor Kenneth from 30 Rock must have needed another paycheck badly). At least I stayed awake, and I'm really glad I got to see the new Road Runner short on the big screen!


Generic groceries

I've always avoided grocery store generic brands, but lately my frugal side has been interested in trying out a few of them, especially where the savings is pretty big (like a dollar or more). It's been interesting to compare the generic to the original, and even though some people swear they are the same, unfortunately I'm discovering that's not the case for a picky person like me!

Cheerios: You would think it would be hard to mess up this kind of simple cereal, and a huge box of generic is so much cheaper than the original. But I realized right away that the generic has almost no staying power and turns soggy the moment it gets wet! My situation may be unique since I eat cereal with juice (strawberry kiwi, to be exact) instead of milk, but I'm switching back to real Cheerios to get the crunch back!

Metamucil: I'm not ashamed to say I like drinking a glass of fiber to keep my pipes running smoothly, so I had to try out the grocery store brand since the savings is giant on this one. However, while name-brand Metamucil mixes up nicely almost like Tang, thie grocery store brand is more like gross sawdust floating in the glass. I'm definitely going back to the expensive stuff!

Kleenex: I can go either way on this one, but the generic brand definitely has some quality control issues on the perforations between each tissue. If you aren't careful, you can easily pull a whole bunch out of the box at once, which is so annoying! It's kind of pain to rip them apart like paper towels.

Floss: At last, I think we have a generic winner! I like Glide floss, which is kind of top-shelf expensive, while the generic equivalent is a couple dollars less. So far I haven't noticed a difference, and the generic even has a little more mint flavor to it, which is nice. This is one of the biggest price differences I've tried, so it's nice that I actually like this product!


Star Wars: The Clone Wars / Complete Season One : 5 of 5

Star Wars The Clone Wars: The Complete Season One (TV Series) [Blu-ray]I've always looked forward to watching Lucasfilm Animation's excellent series on Cartoon Network, so I had to add this Blu-ray set to my Christmas list last year. Now that I've watched every first season episode of The Clone Wars again, I'm even more impressed with this show! Seeing this series in its full aspect ratio with incredibly sharp detail (even skin textures look amazing) is incredible, and I was constantly blown away by the awesome Star Wars action and gloriously-designed vehicles and ships (many of which I have built in LEGO!). The stories themselves are also wonderful, with incredible insight into the characters and attention to their place in the saga (for example, they make sure that Anakin can never meet General Grievous, since their first meeting doesn't occur until Revenge of the Sith). I also love the individuality of the clones, made evident in the very first episode with Yoda's line "In the Force, very different each one of you are" and continuing with awesome clone-focused episodes featuring rookies on a remote outpost and clone commanders hunting down a clone spy. The multi-episode Malevolence and Ryloth sagas are brilliant, and all the cool Jedi Masters (such as Plo Koon, Kit Fisto and many more) introduced in this season are astounding. Every episode includes a short featurette (usually around seven minutes) discussing the development of the story (with lots of mention of George Lucas' involvement) and visual design (with fascinating facts about ships that bridge the two trilogies, such as the Y-Wing bomber), and several episodes claim to be Director's Cuts, although there's no mention of what new scenes are added (not enough to be obvious, anyway). Each of the three Blu-ray discs also has a Jedi Archives section, packed with traditional artwork as well as early CG animation and beautiful rotations of ships and characters. Even the case for this set is cool, since it includes a high-quality mini-book of concept art! The best thing about The Clone Wars is how much the crew really cares about Star Wars and creating an exciting and beautiful experience for the fans, which they have definitely accomplished with this show. I enjoyed every minute of this set, and I'm looking forward to getting the second season set from Santa this year!


Ghost in the Shell: The Lost Memory / Junichi Fujisaku : 4 of 5

Ghost In The Shell - Stand Alone Complex Volume 1: The Lost Memory (v. 1)Although there isn't much left that I haven't experienced in the Ghost in the Shell world, I was excited to discover this series of novels authored by someone who wrote several actual episodes of the Stand Alone Complex series, and I was even able to get this first novel from PaperBack Swap! I wasn't sure how Ghost in the Shell would feel in a non-manga fiction format, but thankfully this story feels exactly like the show, with the same amount of detail, subtle character interaction, and level of complexity that demands the full attention of the reader. You definitely can't take a break from reading for more than a few days, or you might forget some key plot points! The story involves the memory of a dead boy that is being transmitted via a recorded dream (which teenage kids experience for a thrill) and triggers them to commit terrorist acts, so there's a lot of action and mystery as Motoko unravels the plot. I really enjoyed the way some concepts were described in a way that isn't possible via anime, such as what it's like to use a cyberbrain on the net (like trying to remember something you never knew, since the net becomes an extension of the mind), as well as the stigma of being "cyberbrain maladaptive" in this modern society (in which ordinary people who aren't enhanced with technology are essentially disabled). Of course, there are some great action sequences with Motoko, Batou, and the rest of Section 9, but although they are well-written, I found myself really wanting to see what was going on either as animation or illustration, just because Ghost in the Shell is so closely tied to those formats. But overall, I think the author did a nice job of bringing out the elements of the story that were improved by narrative fiction, and I definitely want to continue this series by reading the other Ghost in the Shell novels. Most of all, I'm just happy to spend some time in this incredibly cool world again!