4.30.2010

Mego 8" Super-Heroes / World's Greatest Toys : 4 of 5

Mego 8" Super-Heroes: World's Greatest Toys!Just like millions of other kids my age, some of my favorite toys when I was growing up were Mego's classic 8-inch action figures, and I was completely hooked on three of their major lines: Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and of course, the DC and Marvel characters! This incredible book (another Christmas gift from Santa) covers the World's Greatest Super-Heroes line of toys in amazing detail with close-up photos of every figure, accessory, and even packaging variation that kept me mesmerized in a nostalgic stupor for days. Most of the information is aimed at the obsessive Mego collector who wants to own each figure in every possible box and card, but even though the in-depth checklists aren't something I care about, the information was amazing (such as the fact that a Green Goblin figure on a rare packaging card can go for $10,000!). I was fascinated by the brief history of the Mego toy company and their frugal practice of re-using molds (Spider-Man's foe The Lizard used the same head as Star Trek's Gorn) and other pieces (The Falcon's hands were sometimes actually Planet of the Apes hairy hands!), right up to the sad end of the company, primarily because they didn't get the license to make Star Wars toys that catapulted Kenner to the top of the business. I loved seeing the many old Christmas catalog photos of the Mego playsets like the Batcave or vehicles like the cool Jokermobile (which for some reason I remember playing with, but not owning), as well as the evolution of Mego's design process that went from Batman's silly "oven mitt" gloves to Iron Man's cool molded plastic gloves. I also learned that the Teen Titans (that I really loved to play with) were pretty much the end of the line and a total flop in sales! If you're a Mego collector, there's no doubt that this beautiful hardcover volume is absolutely essential, but even if you're just a nostalgic toy lover like me, you'll completely enjoy this book!

4.29.2010

Hansel & Gretel / Austin Lyric Opera : 4 of 5

It's always fun to experience an opera that I've never seen before, so I had a great time at Austin Lyric Opera's final production of the season, Engelbert Humperdinck's (the composer, not the Tom Jones-ish guy!) Hansel & Gretel. Although the fairy tale remains the same, the setting has been moved to New York City (similar to what they did with last year's Cinderella), so the forest the children get lost in becomes Central Park! Visually this production was incredibly creative and striking, taking a "living storybook" approach that combined fascinating sets with beautiful scrim and lighting effects. At times the stage was reduced to a limited shape (such as a rectangle or a circle) that made it seem even more like a framed illustration, and by using projections they were able to create images of wandering through the city, falling snow, and even ghost-like apparitions rising into a dreamland! The music was really interesting to me, since it seemed quite traditional but definitely skirted the edge of modern harmonies and dissonant melodies at times. My favorite piece was the children's' prayer about 14 angels watching over them while they sleep, but I also loved their father's flamboyant tunes. I should also mention the witch, who had a wonderful cackle and looked particularly gruesome stirring her pot while wearing a bloody apron! Although this opera is in German, ALO decided to go with an English translation, which really bothered me, especially since it was filled with cliches and modern phrasing (I cringed when Gretel sang that Hansel was "so cool"). Since the Hansel & Gretel story is pretty short, the opera only had a single intermission, and truthfully much of the performance time is somewhat padded by long dream sequences that don't have much to do with the plot (although they allow for more beautiful music and incredible stage effects). As always, I'm looking forward to Austin Lyric Opera's next production once the new season rolls around!

4.28.2010

Lachrimae listening

It's amazing how music can stir up memories and emotions, especially when a tune that's over 300 years older than me can be an important part of my past and still meaningful to me today! When I was studying classical music in college, I learned about John Downland (a composer from Shakespeare's time) and soon ended up buying a few CDs of his works. The piece I fell in love with is his Lachrimae (specifically the Lachrimae Antiquae Novae), written in 1604, and I found myself listening to it over and over again during introspective times. I still have this recording in my iTunes library today, and every now and then it will come up in a shuffle and instantly transport me to those moments in the past. I remember playing it at midnight on New Year's Eve more than once, writing in my journal by candlelight and thinking about the year to come. I remember listening to it by my fireplace in Tulsa, both when I needed to calm down and also when I was perfectly content with life. Even today when I need a moment to completely relax my mind and contemplate life, this is the music I want to hear. Something about its melody and simple orchestration (lute and violins) sounds both melancholy and yet hopeful! John Dowland's Lachrimae has definitely had a profound effect on me over the years, and I'm sure I'll listen to it countless times more.

4.27.2010

Netflix One-Liners 4.10

Whatever Works: Since I've missed the last several Woody Allen films at the theater, I was happy to see this movie with Larry David (playing the Woody-ish character) available for streaming, and I really enjoyed this crazy story of a bitter eccentric who meets a hillbilly runaway and falls in love.
Deconstructing Harry: I had totally forgotten what a great movie this is, since I saw it so long ago in a little cramped theater in Washington DC (and my friend didn't like the movie), but I felt like watching more Woody Allen and laughed all night at this awesome writer's fantasy world (which includes a Star Wars bar mitzvah scene)!
Defending Your Life: I actually saw a clip from this movie in church (and added it to my Netflix queue right there from my iPhone), which is a wonderful, funny, and interesting take on the afterlife starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep who fall in love in Judgement City.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: Created on a tiny budget for internet distribution, this musical dark comedy is unbelievably fantastic, starring Neil Patrick Harris singing some incredibly catchy pop tunes that made me wish this production was longer (or had a sequel!).
Moon: Since this is my favorite science fiction film recently, I had to watch it again the moment it became available on Netflix, and I enjoyed it just as much as when I saw it in the theater (I even appreciated the effects and soundtrack more, I think).
Outland: Continuing with science fiction, I decided to watch this Sean Connery movie again since I hadn't seen it in so long, and I had forgotten just how much of a Western it is (complete with swinging saloon doors) even though it takes place on one of Jupiter's moons!
Maid Droid: Netflix keeps recommending these low-budget, semi-racy Japanese short films, so I only watched this one since it was streamable, and it was just as bad as I expected, so I wouldn't recommend it even if you have a maid fetish!
Watchmen / Under the Hood: Since my Watchmen Director's Cut Blu-ray didn't have a couple of features that are only available on the Ultimate Cut, it was great to be able to check this out on Netflix, although this particular fake TV interview show with Nite Owl turned out to be a little boring.
Watchmen / Tales of the Black Freighter: It was really cool to be able to see this fully animated segment, taken from the "comic within a comic" of Watchmen, which had some pretty decent animation and great voice work, although it's pretty gory!
Thirtysomething / Season One : I'm slowing working my way through this series, because I was so totally hooked on it when it was on the air, and it's been pretty nostalgic watching Michael and Hope deal with all their problems again.

4.26.2010

The Princess and the Frog : 5 of 5

The Princess and the Frog (Single Disc Blu-ray)As soon as I saw Disney's The Princess and the Frog in the theater, I couldn't wait to add it to my DVD collection and check out the cool bonus materials on Blu-ray! I absolutely loved watching the film again, taking note of all the little gags I missed, enjoying the plot construction that moves so fast in places yet doesn't feel rushed, and marveling over the rich characterization (especially for Ray the firefly!). But of course, I had to dive into the bonus materials first, and while I'm always left wanting more when it comes to behind the scenes animation details, I'm pretty happy with the segments found on this disc. The best part about these materials is their reverence for animation, and they try very hard to communicate what a miracle it is that movies like The Princess and the Frog exist. They make the point that to the young generation of viewers, this could be their first exposure to this unique art form! There's a nice 22-minute documentary with some comments from John Lasseter about getting Clements & Musker back at Disney as well as some nice discussions with animator Mark Henn (who isn't seen very often in these segments, so that was a treat). There are also many other short (under three minutes) features that are OK, but really should have been edited together. The usual deleted scenes are pretty good, and it was interesting to see some of the live action reference footage also. One of the nice Blu-ray features is the ability to view the "work in progress" print (mostly pencil drawings) inset with the finished feature, but unfortunately you can't listen to the commentary track at the same time, which would of been perfect. Speaking of the commentary, Clements & Musker talk absolutely non-stop, praising their animators and revealing hundreds of cool facts about the film (from a story construction and technical standpoint) and Disney animation in general. I enjoyed hearing about Tiana's left-handedness, the Mardi Gras floats that represent other Disney movies, the re-use of birds from The Lion King, and most of all about Winston Hibler's grandson who secretly stored some of the animation desks he was ordered to sell, which definitely came in handy when it was decided to return to hand-drawn animation! The Princess and the Frog is such an important movie in the history of Disney animation, and this Blu-ray release is a fantastic way to enjoy it at a deeper level!

4.25.2010

Remembering Frances

Last week Frances Farmer, one of my Waco-area family members, passed away. Frances was my Mom's cousin (so she was my first cousin once removed) and I only saw her around Thanksgiving time, but I know she was a wonderful person who spent every day of her life with a positive attitude, trying to make the world a better place. She was 84 years old, but her mind was incredibly sharp. She could always talk up a storm, and one of her hobbies was writing little poems, which she could recite by memory! I have no idea how many poems she wrote (maybe hundreds), but it was amazing how she could make everyone laugh with them. During last Thanksgiving I was playing with the Voice Memo app on my iPhone and recorded Frances reciting three short poems. These aren't necessarily her best, but I'm so happy that I captured even these three examples of her humor, and I'm happy to share them with the web so her voice can live on. When I'm 84 years old, I'll feel incredibly lucky if I'm as energetic and witty and Frances was, and I'm proud to have such special people in my family.

Play She Thought She Could Fly
Play Carpal Tunnel
Play 911

4.24.2010

Disney on Ice / Worlds of Fantasy : 3 of 5

Even though Disney on Ice is never quite as polished as a performance at the Disney parks, I can never resist seeing the latest show when it comes to Austin, so my pal Melinda and I had to check out Worlds of Fantasy, which includes scenes from Cars, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and the direct-to-DVD Tinker Bell movie. The event was held at the fairly new Cedar Park Center, which is super convenient for location and parking, but the smaller size of the arena (and the somewhat under-powered sound system) made me miss the good old Erwin Center a little. The show started with Mickey and Minnie, of course, but Mickey's voice was a little off, so this could be the first time I've heard a non-Wayne Allwine voice. The Cars segment was much cooler than I expected, since I wasn't sure what it would be like, but the sheer size of 5-6 vehicles driving around on the ice was impressive! The Little Mermaid was a nice condensed version of the story, and Ariel had a really expressive face. Under the Sea was the best song of the night with tons of sea creatures, bubbles from the ceiling, and a giant sea horse puppet! The Lion King was really well-done, with interesting make-up that looked quite a bit like Cats. I was surprised that they reenacted the wildebeest stampede, but the use of unique costumes that represented three animals per performer really created an interesting effect! The second half of the show was devoted to Tinker Bell, and I really enjoyed it! They used a track system and rigging to fly a few characters (including Tinker Bell herself during the finale), and even had cute inflatable flowers bursting from the edges of the ice rink as the fairies brought the season of Spring to the world. There were a few skating slips, but nothing too distracting, and of course the tons of kids in the audience seemed to enjoy the whole thing. It's nice to see a great Disney show right here in town, but it really makes me want to visit a Disney park again soon!

4.23.2010

The Inevitability of AKB48

Like any good Morning Musume and Hello! Project fan, when my obsession really kicked in a few years ago I started downloading every TV appearance I could get my hands on (using the amazing Hello!Online tracker). I watched every episode of Hello! Morning, Haromoni@, Utaban, and anything else that popped up, and soon there was a day when there was nothing new to see! I had noticed lots of AKB48 shows and had vaguely heard of them, so I figured I would download a show as a filler. In a little while I was watching a whole new bunch of cute Jpop girls, laughing my head off as they played a crazy game where the loser gets pushed into a vat of flour! That show was my first step into the alternate world of AKB48, and although I remain a true Morning Musume addict, I have to come clean and admit that I'm a closet AKB48 fan, too.

The history of AKB48 is pretty interesting, but I only want to mention how they stole some of my fandom, which I think boils down to exposure and budget. Right now there's only one official Hello! Project TV show (the new Bijo Houdan), but AKB48 manages to crank out two hilarious variety series (AKBingo and Shukan AKB) every week, and sometimes a third show (Nemosu TV) as well! Each episode is filled with funny games and challenges, ranging from cooking competitions to fashion shows, sometimes including racy moments that are harmlessly surprising, along with a little performance and song promotion. With so many opportunities to see the girls (and there are actually over 100 of them if you combine all teams of AKB48 and their sister group SKE48), it's amazing how quickly you start to form favorites. Before I knew it, I was learning their names and even nicknames! I have no idea if these shows are popular in Japan, but they really drew me in and made me wish that Morning Musume had a show like these on the air!

The reason there's so much AKB48 exposure is because somehow they have a huge budget and are willing to spend it! It's obvious they pour cash into everything they do, from all of their TV shows to their music videos (practically mini dramas and shot on location), and even their arena concert videos are incredibly professional. It's sad to contrast them with Hello! Project videos, most of which are shot in a studio with no storyline. I would give anything to see an AKB48-style Morning Musume music video! AKB48 even spent the dough to shoot Majisuka Gakuen, an entire drama series which was a little goofy but still serious entertainment, which completely blows away Hanbun Esper, Hello! Project's silly little series that almost made me cringe.

While there are lots of aspects of AKB48 that I wish Morning Musume had, the emotional investment is entirely different. AKB48 may have more girls, more money, more exposure, even more popularity right now (with two huge number one singles recently), but I never find myself thinking about who the girls are. I don't have an explanation, but Morning Musume somehow makes me care about them as people - I want to know what they like and what they think, and even worry about them working too hard, but I never have those thoughts about AKB48. It's almost like Disney and Dreamworks to me, to use a bizarre animation analogy. Disney produces the animation that really involves me emotionally, but since I'm an animation fan, of course I'm going to watch all the Dreamworks animation that comes out while I'm waiting for the next Disney film. Dreamworks may be willing to spend the money to crank out lots of material, but my heart still remains with Disney.

I'm sure both Morning Musume and AKB48 will succeed for years to come, and I'm looking forward to enjoying it all! Maybe someday Hello! Project will spend some cash to produce a truly awesome music video, or perhaps start a new series that really shows off the girls' personalities, but until then I'll take anything I can get and fill in the gaps with AKB48, and now that I've confessed, I don't have to feel guilty about it!

4.22.2010

Three Small Things 4.22.10

Today I have three "finishes" to share, starting with last night's 100% completion of Walk It Out on my Wii! This has been one of the most addictive (and physically demanding) games I've ever played, and I really enjoyed every moment. Now I've unlocked every route, building, song, zodiac constellation, and Magical Clock hour in existence (nearly 4,000 items), and I'm going to miss it. I'm hoping that Konami has a sequel coming out soon (and they should, based on the amazing response and activity on Facebook and Amazon discussion boards). Here are my final impressive totals: I played Walk It Out for 67 hours and made 546,551 steps! Based on my height/weight data, that is supposed to equate to 164 miles of walking, which burned 16,319 calories. Next week I'm jumping back into EA Sports Active after a couple days of Wii rest!

Next, I recently finished my photo scanning project, emptying every bulky album in my house and getting every last image into iPhoto! I took my empty albums to Goodwill, and all my physical photos (which are still precious, of course) are safely stored in a single box. I still have plenty of organization to do in iPhoto, but that's a lot of fun since I get to discover old images that I haven't seen in years, such as my shopping mall Santa Claus visits, or even the very first photos I ever took myself, shot with a small black and white Polaroid when I was nine years old! As I organize things, I'll periodically upload a few things to Flickr for posterity (and additional backup, although everything is safe with Time Machine and Mozy).

View photos: Visiting Santa
View photos: First Photos 1976-78

Finally, I knocked out another kanji course on Smart.fm that I've been picking away at since November, focusing on the Heisig Remembering the Kanji method. In general this style of learning really helps me, although I wish there was an easy reference for his memory words for each radical, but I think I get a little more from just plowing through Read The Kanji, since I'm able to study vocabulary and learn kanji combinations at the same time. No matter what I choose, I definitely need to pick up the pace this summer since the JLPT in December is going to get here sooner than I think!

4.21.2010

Family Guy / Something Something Something Dark Side : 3 of 5

Family Guy Presents: Something Something Something Dark SideI've been a Family Guy fan for years now (I've watched and re-watched every episode several times), and I really enjoyed their special Blue Harvest spoof of the original Star Wars film. This time around they take on The Empire Strikes Back in an hour long special, which seems to only be available on DVD (I was waiting to catch it on Adult Swim, but I guess that's not going to happen). The best part about this parody is the true love of Star Wars that shines through every detail, since there are hundreds of shot-for-shot recreations with precise camera angles, musical cues, and authentic sounds, all of which are a blast to watch (even the DVD menus are nearly an exact duplicate of the trilogy DVD releases!). It's fun to see which Family Guy characters play each Star Wars character - Meg as the space slug was hilarious, and using the giant chicken as Boba Fett is ingenious! I think my favorite gag was the Empire recruiting video (just because I like that genre of spoof comedy), and I also enjoyed the Cookie Monster Wampa and Luke calling OnStar after crashing his Snowspeeder. There are some good inside jokes for Family Guy fans, like the AT-AT holding its hurt knee just like Peter's famous scene. The DVD includes a way to watch the show with "Fact Ups" which display semi-interesting trivia (the best fact is that creator Seth MacFarlane does 25 different character voices!), plus a commentary track which degrades to the creators drinking tequila and only commenting on the presentation every now and then. There's also a full table-read included, which is interesting since it's fun to watch the voice actors do their characters, but the single camera angle is too far away to enjoy it. Even though the bonus features are kind of worthless, I still loved watching Something Something Something Dark Side and laughed through the whole thing, so I'm definitely looking forward to their upcoming version of Return of the Jedi!

4.20.2010

Pipe smoking update

Although it might seem a little out of character for me (unless you knew me when I was a brooding, poetry-obsessed college student), I still enjoy smoking a pipe every now and then. About ten years ago I wrote a little post called My pipes, so I thought I would update that info with my more recent pipe news. In the past year or so I'd say my frequency of smoking has increased (it's just so nice to have a pipe while I watch a DVD), but I really do make an effort to limit myself, usually to four bowls or less per week. When the weather is nice I keep my windows open and even run the ceiling fan to help blow the smoke out of the house (even though I like to watch the smoke form patterns in the air), and when I finish smoking I run a little air purifier, which really does make a difference. Obviously I know there's nothing healthy about pipe smoking, but at least I try to keep it reasonable!

I'm still using two of the pipes I mentioned in 2000, but I retired my New Orleans straight stem (it kept clogging due to my sloppy maintenance). The pipe from Mom is still fun to smoke, although the stem has really deteriorated to something gross, but my favorite is definitely the Savinelli because I love the dry smoke from the balsa filter. Unfortunately, my carelessness has caused a few burn marks on the pipe, but it's still really comfortable. Whenever I decide to get my next pipe (which could be soon), most likely I'm going to try another Savinelli! Of course, I'm still using my Dad's old tamping tool, which is priceless to me.

I kind of got tired of pipe shop tobacco over the years, so after reading some reviews of Mac Baren's offerings (from Denmark), I've been ordering them online for quite a while. I started with their staple Virginia No. 1, but I really love their elite (and somewhat silly) limited editions like Cube and No. 8 (both of which come in elegant boxes that probably cost more than the tobacco itself!). Cube is pretty easy to find, but No. 8 seems to be discontinued, which is a shame since it's probably the best "first bowl" of a blend I've ever had! Recently I tried out Original Choice, which is nice to smoke, but for some reason the ash it leaves behind is super stinky, so I think I'm done with it. I just ordered some vanilla flavored tobacco to try, so we'll see how that goes!

4.19.2010

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 : 4 of 5

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 [Blu-ray]Since I seem to be a full-fledged Ghost in the Shell fan now, I decided I needed to have the original anime film (based on the Masamume manga that started it all) in my collection. Ghost in the Shell was a mind-blowing movie for 1995 and is certainly still revered by animation experts today, but in 2008 the original film was updated with CG segments and other changes, generating a lot of controversy among anime purists. It was tough deciding what DVD edition to buy, but Amazon's anime sale helped me choose this Blu-ray disc, once I discovered that it includes not only the modern version, but also the original untouched movie that I know and love (in a somewhat lower quality format, but still entirely enjoyable). It was really interesting to experience the 2.0 version, and I have mixed emotions about the changes. I'm definitely in favor of the enhanced quality and even the new color palette choices, because they really look amazing and beautiful (especially on Blu-ray) and give the film a certain sophisticated look that wasn't there before. However, the segments that have been entirely replaced with CG animation, including Motoko's iconic first appearance and graceful fall against the sprawling city, are entirely pointless. Not only are they really jarring when the movie switches back to 2D animation, but they simply don't look as good as the original hand-drawn work! But since I have both versions of the film that I can enjoy at any time, I'm not complaining too much. This is still a fantastic Blu-ray release with great sound and some of the most readable subtitles I've ever seen. A half-hour making of feature is also include, although it was obviously shot in the 90s (watch out for really cheesy PowerPoint backgrounds!) and takes great pains to explain CG compositing techniques that everyone takes for granted today. Since there's not really a "perfect" release of Ghost in the Shell available, I'm happy with what this Blu-ray offers, and I know I'll enjoy experiencing it again from time to time.

4.18.2010

Camelot 3000 / Deluxe Edition : 4 of 5

Camelot 3000, Deluxe EditionBack in the early 80s when I was buying comics like crazy, I remember discovering Camelot 3000 and getting excited about the idea of combining King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with science fiction action, so I looked forward to every issue. One day I was reading it in my high school English class, and my teacher was so intrigued by the concept (because of the King Arthur legend) that she gave me extra credit to loan her my comics and discuss them! I hadn't really thought about this series for years, but one of my Christmas presents was this beautiful hardback edition of all 12 issues, and I had a wonderful nostalgic time reading it again. The plot is really amazing, hinging on the legend that King Arthur will return at the time of England's greatest need, which just happens to be during an alien invasion! After traveling to Stonehenge to get Merlin, the next task is to awaken the major knights from their reincarnated state, which has some interesting twists, the most famous of which is that Sir Tristan has been reincarnated as a woman! This gets into some steamy scenes with Isolde (which were really controversial for a comic book in the 80s), but provides some great internal conflict and character struggles. Everything else you can imagine from the King Arthur mythos takes place: Guinevere cheats with Lancelot, Morgan Le Fay and Mordred play the part of the forces of evil, and there's even a quest for the Holy Grail (which seems way too easy, but some of the plotlines come across as condensed to fit into the limited number of issues). The artwork is incredibly detailed and beautiful in a kind of a Prince Valiant style, although the Arthurian characters look much cooler than anything futuristic (modern vehicles and especially costumes have some ridiculous designs). Camelot 3000 is a wonderfully creative and exciting comic book experience (I'm kind of amazed it hasn't been made into a movie yet), and I'm so glad that classics like this are available in book editions that I can collect and enjoy again and again!

4.16.2010

Manga Mentions 4.10

Nana, Vol. 7 (v. 7)Nana Vol 7: Way back when I first discovered Nana in Shojo Beat magazine, they decided to stop carrying the series at this point because the plot gets a little racy, so it's nice to finally surpass what I already remembered about the story! After Hachi breaks up with Takumi (or so she thinks), she immediately jumps into Nobu's arms, but most of this volume is just couples smoking in bed, talking about relationships (but still interesting to me!).

Honey & Clover Vol 2: The volume contains the obligatory hot springs trip that occurs in every manga series, where everyone gets drunk and reveals their true feelings, but in Honey & Clover this cliche introduces the classic scene where Mayama gives a touching piggyback ride to the drunk Yamada, who cries on his shoulder about her love for him that he can never return. There's also further character development for Takemoto (with his stepdad) and Hagu, plus a crazy birthday party.

Black Jack Vol 4: Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack is so damn cool that sometimes I think I should drop everything else I'm reading and just plow through it! This volume has some good Pinoko stories (writing love letters to Black Jack, working as his assistant, and even a hilarious episode where she is filled with gas that has to come out somehow!), an appearance by Tezuka's Mustachio character as a famous pickpocket, plus a wild story about a skin transplant from a Yakuza (tattooed, of course) for a young boy.

Black Jack Vol 5: This volume has a lot less Pinoko, but makes up for it with a few stories about Black Jack's nemesis Kiriko (who specializes in euthanasia). Black Jack travels around quite a bit this time, performing lots of super gross operations that Tezuka loves to illustrate in gut-wrenching detail. There are so many more volumes of Black Jack to go - I've got to keep reading!

Sailor Moon Scout Guide / Sailor Mars: I'm not actively searching for these out of print Scout Guides, but I'm glad this Sailor Mars volume showed up at my door thanks to PaperBack Swap! I really enjoyed all the stills from the anime, and got a kick out of the inconsistent translation that keeps switching between the Japanese character names and their English equivalents, as well as the goofy poetry that loves to praise Mars' red high heels!

4.15.2010

If you don't need it, don't fix it

My favorite character in Disney's Mary Poppins (one of my favorite movies of all time) is George Banks, the fastidious father of the children, Jane and Michael. I've always identified with his feelings and his plight, always wanting things to be completely precise, on-time, and simply as they should be (I love singing The Life I Lead with him!). Of course, when Mary Poppins (almost representing the unpredictability of life) enters the picture, George realizes that he needs to chill out and fly a kite every now and then, but until then he only finds joy in perfection. In one scene, he happens to hit a sour piano key and exclaims, "When I sit down at an instrument, I expect it to be in tune!" To which Mrs. Banks replies, "But George, you don't even play."

Over the past year or so, a few things have broken down that I've decided not to worry about. In the past, just like George Banks, I would have immediately had them fixed (I'm definitely not a do-it-yourself guy), but the older, wiser, and perhaps lazier me decided to be frugal and "think twice" (the number one law of frugality, in my opinion). When I realized that I never really use these broken things, I virtually decluttered by just mentally discarding them. This change in my character is kind of surprising to my friends and family, but I like it as an extension of what I think is important now. There's no way I'm going to "have a piano tuned" if I never play it! For the record, here are my broken items that are remaining broken.
  • My car radio antenna is stuck in the up position. I've had it replaced in the past, but I'm not going to mess with it again. I only listen to the radio about two days a year!
  • My car hatchback supports won't hold the hatch open anymore, but I only open my hatch to load and unload my drum kit for gigs (roughly a couple times a month). I just keep a broom in the car that perfectly props open the hatch!
  • One of my toilets no longer fills, but I'm one person living in a three bathroom condo. I've barely touched that bathroom, so there's just no need for that toilet. If I have a houseguest coming that needs it, I will gladly get it fixed, but until then, forget it!
  • Finally, my ice maker started spitting water all over the inside of my freezer, but I only use about four cubes a week for a couple drinks. I just turned off the water, and I'm going back to the Stone Age by using ice trays. That fridge is over 11 years old, and it works just fine to keep six eggs, a bag of lettuce, and a few beers cold enough for me!

4.14.2010

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex / Solid State Society : 4 of 5

Ghost In The Shell - Solid State SocietyAlthough I watched this movie recently on Netflix (in English), I couldn't resist buying this DVD during Amazon's anime sale, since I really wanted to see it again in Japanese, plus I'm just a huge a fan of Ghost in the Shell! The plot, which takes place at the end of the Ghost in the Shell timeline, is too complex to go into in this review, but suffice it to say it's a fascinating story with some great twists (especially the identity of the Puppeteer!). The animation is fantastic, with even more attention to detail and design than the series, so all of the characters, city environments, and cars look stunning. Of course, Motoko herself is incredible, especially during her signature "falling" move and her first meeting with Batou. There are some awesome scenes that combine excitement with technology, such as the satellite-assisted sniping segment, or when the Section 9 network detects a virus and everyone goes crazy trying to stop it (eventually chopping the power cables with an axe!). I noticed a cool detail that I missed the first time around - Togusa mentions to his wife that she should send him a photo of his little girl sleeping, and in a later scene he's using as the wallpaper on his cell phone. I also was really excited to see the Tachikoma back in action again (after their demise at the end of the first season of the series), since their "ghosts" apparently were still in the net (where they could be recovered by Motoko) so they could be put in fresh mechanical bodies! The DVD has a short behind the scenes segment in English, a fairly cool storyboard feature, plus a wonderful comedy short about the Uchikoman (not so great replacement for the Tachikoma). I'm totally looking forward to getting into the second season of the series, as well as the first movie sometime soon, and I even have the manga to read. Ghost in the Shell is going to keep me entertained for quite some time!

4.13.2010

Majisuka Gakuen : 3 of 5

It's been several months since I watched a Japanese drama series, but there was no way I could pass this one up, because who wouldn't want to watch the cute girls of AKB48 wail on each other? The whole concept of Majisuka Gakuen is to take all of the popular AKB48 members, cast them as bad-ass Yankii (Japanese term for delinquent) characters (most using their actual names), stick them in a twisted high-school from Hell, and build a story around "bonding by fighting" or something like that. Truthfully, the plot is pretty silly, but as usual with Japanese drama, they still managed to get some emotional impact in there that had me tearing up during a couple episodes. Atsuko Maeda plays the main character, a former delinquent who just wants to be left alone so she can study, but unfortunately all of the school gangs start gunning for her, so she has to kick their butts. When someone mentions the word "serious", she takes off her glasses (Gokusen style) and the fists start flying (this show definitely doesn't shy away from bloody make-up, that's for sure). Half the fun of the series is seeing all the crazy gangs, and noticing how they tend to match the girls' real life idol personalities in AKB48. There's a Lolita gang, the Kabuki Sisters, a girl who pretends to be a guy, and of course there's the school's top gang, Rappapa, lead by Yuko Oshima and her "four queens". These gals mean business, especially Gekikara, who is nothing short of a blood-thirsty maniac, but I also loved Torigoya (played by my favorite Haruna Kojima), who actually has special powers activated by her fear of chickens! Of course the show has some great opening and closing songs by AKB48, including Sakura no Shiori (so beautiful), so there's no doubt this series is just a huge promotion to drive otaku wild. But Majisuka Gakuen is still a really fun show (all 12 episodes are available fan-subbed from multiple sources), and it makes me wish that Hello! Project would do something cool like this, but truthfully I can't even begin to imagine watching Morning Musume beat each other up!

4.12.2010

The Gum Thief / Douglas Coupland : 4 of 5

The Gum Thief: A NovelMy reading habits have changed a lot in recent years, so I find my nose in manga and graphic novels a lot more than actual fiction novels these days, but it only took about ten seconds to get hooked on Douglas Coupland's latest book (which was a gift from my pal Dae). Coupland is definitely my favorite author of contemporary fiction, and I've read nearly every book he's written since his original Generation X (which coined the term that we all take for granted), and his writing never ceases to entertain, amaze, and make me think about life. The Gum Thief is unique since it's told entirely through first-person written communication (letters, journal entries), so the reader is constantly in the heads of the main characters. Roger and Brittany are quite different people (Roger is a divorced, drinking novelist and Brittany is a goth girl), but they both suffer together through their job at Staples (there are tons of hilarious details and anecdotes about the office superstore and its typical employees). Eventually they begin writing to each other in Roger's notebook, and Roger starts to share some of his new novel called Glove Pond, which is a pretty fascinating "story within the story" itself, especially as events of real life start to spill over and appear in the Glove Pond story. Other characters write letters as well, such as Roger's ex-wife and Brittany's mom (who begins to develop a relationship with Roger), and it's amazing to read Coupland becoming all of these characters. Actually, The Gum Thief has some literary acrobatics when you think about it, since Coupland is writing as Roger who is writing Glove Pond, and so on! With all of Coupland's fiction, there are fantastic contemporary metaphors and witty descriptions, well-balanced by a veiled message about life. Coupland is never preachy, but since this time his characters are truly corresponding with each other, he can come right out and say (as Roger), "Life is short, and yet it's long. Being here is such a gift." It was really fun to read a "big boy book" again, and I'm looking forward to Coupland's next novel!

4.10.2010

Super simple

You're looking at the new WEBmikey, and the switch from Blogger's FTP publishing (which is going away in a few weeks) to their dynamic hosting (using my custom domain) was almost totally painless! Although there was a lot of talk about their migration tool, I decided to just follow their advanced setup instructions and do it on my own, and I'm amazed at how it worked out (thanks to their ingenious "missing files" feature that kept my images from breaking). The only thing that wasn't instant was setting up my DNS information, since my hosting provider had to handle that for me, but their technical support was pretty quick and suddenly it was done.

WEBmikey has been around since at least 1999 (maybe earlier, I don't know the exact date) and has had many designs, starting out first as static pages that I built with Dreamweaver, before I even knew what the term "blog" meant! After I signed up with Blogger, I converted it into a series of interconnected blogs (since I wanted something like tags/labels that Blogger didn't support at the time), and later merged it all together into one big blog like it is today. So essentially there have been three major designs, starting out crazy and getting simpler each time. When I was building my own HTML, I couldn't use a ton of cool features that Blogger rolled out over the years, but now that I'm fully-converted I can.

For WEBmikey 4.0, I've decided that I want to use Blogger's widgets and templates as much as possible, and stay the heck out of the HTML and CSS (I have to mess with that junk all day at work anyway!). I can use their Template Designer to churn out a nice, uncluttered design, along with widgets for things like Twitter and Flickr (rather than pasting in code snippets). I have the freedom now to tweak things here and there and see instant changes (without the hassle of re-publishing), so maybe I'll wiggle things around every now and then. The only element that I know I would like to change often is the header image. This first header (which I spent about five seconds on) features a cute Tachikoma, since I've been re-obsessed with Ghost in the Shell lately. Anyway, I think I'll be happy with this new super simple look.

4.09.2010

Hardware Wars : 2 of 5

Back in 1978, it was simply amazing to us young Star Wars fans that someone actually made a spoof of our favorite movie, and I remember we all thought Hardware Wars was hilarious! I don't remember how we actually saw it (they probably ran it at the theater before Star Wars, so I would have seen it on one of my many, many viewings with my childhood pals), but this little gem wouldn't get much further than YouTube today. I happened to notice there was a DVD of it available on Netflix, and I had a nostalgic time watching this 13-minute fake trailer with adult eyes. I still enjoyed the flying irons and toasters, the drill and flashlight weapons, the Cookie Monster Chewbacca, and even the super-cheesy acting. I was shocked to recognize the famous Paul Frees (incredible voice actor who narrated many Disneyland attractions, including the Haunted Mansion) doing the goofy voice-over, and I haven't a clue how this no-budget project got him to do it! Unfortunately, it's tough to fill a DVD with a 13-minute film, so there are lots of of supposed "extras" that all turned out to be total junk. Most of them are just the same film with a different audio track, like a "foreign version" that has a bunch of people pretending to speak Russian or something. Even the director's commentary, which could have been interesting if it was taken seriously, is just one big joke that bored me to tears (it's amazing how long 13-minutes can seem when you can't wait for something to be over!). Hardware Wars is still a fun spoof (especially if you have hazy memories of seeing it as a kid), but just watch it online and don't rent (or heaven forbid, buy) this DVD!

4.08.2010

Three Small Things 4.08.10

Where's my iPad? Although I currently have four Apple CPUs (iMac, Mac Book, Apple TV, and iPhone) constantly churning at all times, I'm still going to buy one in the near future. The frugal side of me knows that I truthfully don't need one, since there's hardly a moment when my iPhone or Mac Book isn't in my hands, but the fanboy side of me has to get one just because it's cool (and since Dad got one on release day, I'm too jealous)! My compromise is to wait until the iPad is available on Amazon, since I can save the tax and earn triple points on my Visa (which is kind of like a $15 buck bonus), so now I keep checking every day to see if they have gone on sale. Until then, I've been thinking up justifications for my purchase! I definitely want to read comic books on the iPad, and I think it will be much better for quick browsing and email checking while I'm watching TV (but then I wonder if my Mac Book will feel neglected). I also think it will be great as my Japanese dictionary (I'm sure a cool iPad version of Kotoba has got to be on the way), which means my iPhone will be used a little less around the house (which is fine since my battery is pretty weak after two years of use). Dear Amazon, please hurry up and take my money!

Welcome to WEBmikey, Sayumi fans from Finland! I recently noticed that my site was getting a lot of search hits from Google's Finland site, all looking for Sayumi Michishige's blog. I have no idea why, but my recent post about her seems to be drawing a lot of traffic from that country. I certainly don't mind pointing my fellow fans towards the cutest member of Morning Musume!

Speaking of WEBmikey, this is a warning that there's going to be some big changes soon that may or may not affect your reading experience. WEBmikey has been powered by Blogger since around 2001 (and now has over 3,500 posts!), using their FTP support to transfer the site files to my own host provider. Blogger is finally killing FTP support at the beginning of May, so I have to bite the bullet and switch over to Blogger's dynamic hosting (which is actually Google). All of this is free, and hopefully URLs and feeds will stay the same, but it's still going to be a change (not my favorite thing!). In the worst case, I may have a bunch of broken images (which I will correct one by one since I'm a perfectionist), but on the plus side, WEBmikey will finally get a visual redesign that I've been too lazy to do (actually, thanks to Blogger's new Template Designer, I will be able to refresh it anytime I want). It's going to take me forever to decide how I want things to look and so on, but at least it will be easier to tweak on Blogger's hosting platform, and I'll have many new features available to me that I haven't been able to use before. I may take the plunge this weekend, so watch out!

4.07.2010

Watchmen / Director's Cut : 5 of 5

Although I'm totally crazy about the Watchmen graphic novel, somehow I missed seeing the movie at the theater, so I rented the theatrical release from iTunes to watch with my pals. Regardless of the changes made to the plot and various editing choices, I really enjoyed the film, and I think it's one of the most incredible and visually stunning superhero movies ever made. I knew I had to see Watchmen on Blu-ray, so I opted for the Director's Cut rather than the Ultimate Cut (since I knew I could watch the animated Tales of the Black Freighter on Netflix), primarily because of the amazing Maximum Movie Mode that I had heard about. I can't think of a better, more immersive way for a fan to completely get into viewing Watchmen, and I was absolutely stunned by this Blu-ray feature! Maximum Movie Mode is like a "hyper-commentary" that combines all of the typical behind-the-scenes features into the movie itself, so they can be experienced completely in context. While the movie plays, director Zack Snyder often walks on to discuss various scenes (even freeze-framing when he wants to point out some detail). Picture-in-picture video is used to show on-set filming while the scene itself plays, still image galleries are highlighted during the appropriate segment, and there are even comic book frames from the graphic novel displayed to show similar cinematography. I can't praise this feature enough, since it's brilliant to be able to dig deeper into something at the exact moment you're thinking of an aspect of the film, which is so much more exciting than viewing hours of bonus material after the movie is over! I learned a lot about the movie using this mode - I enjoyed Dr. Manhattan's LED suit (for lighting effects), the huge backlot sets, the nice use of the secondary color palette to match the graphic novel, and even Synder's rationale for the changed ending (which truthfully, I have no problem with). It also goes without saying that this longer cut of the film (now around three hours in length) is fantastic and really adds depth to the story. However, after experiencing the spectacular first disc of this set, I was shocked at the lame second disc, which only contains three 30-minute documentaries that hardly focus on the film at all. The history of the Watchmen graphic novel is interesting, and I enjoyed the physics professor explaining some of the technology in the story, but they don't even begin to compete with Maximum Movie Mode. If you're a fan of Watchmen at all, or just enjoy some of the cool experiences that only Blu-ray can provide, I definitely recommend the Director's Cut!

4.06.2010

Single-task scanning

A few weeks ago I finally completed one of my big organization projects, and now every single digital photo I've taken (almost 30,000 of them) lives in iPhoto, completely using the Faces and Places features (so I can quickly see all the pictures of my parents, or every photo taken in Los Angeles, for example). It was a big task, but I worked on it a little everyday and now it's done! Since my photos are probably the most important files I have, I decided I should have an off-site backup (in addition to my full Time Machine backup), so I got a Mozy account and backed up everything with their service (of course, it took over a week to transfer over 30 GBs, but now it keeps up incrementally), so I feel pretty safe!

My photo album scanning project is really moving along (and definitely adding to my iPhoto library), and I've completed eight full albums so far. The experience of seeing all these photos again has been almost surreal, since sometimes it doesn't even feel like I lived the events! I love the fact that all of the photos from these albums can be nicely rubber-banded and stored in a single box, taking up only a fraction of the space those bulky albums required. I've put some of my other projects on hold so I can "single-task" and finish up the scanning. I often think that single-tasking is the most efficient way to get something done, yet I still try to switch gears too much (maybe to appease my attention span). Decluttering always helps me discover things about myself and life in general, as long as I'm focused and attentive. I can't wait to make another Goodwill run with all of these empty photo albums when I'm finished!

4.05.2010

Clash of the Titans: 3 of 5

The original Clash of the Titans with its nostalgic Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects is high on my list of magical childhood movies, so I knew I had to see this remake regardless of the terrible reviews. While it’s no surprise that it doesn’t hold a candle to the original, at least I can say it could have been much worse, and I actually thought some of the story changes they made were interesting. For starters, Hades is now the main villain who wants to unleash the Kraken (rather than the jealous Thetis), and Perseus really only wants to defeat the beast as a way of getting to Hades so he can avenge his foster family. Perseus himself couldn’t care less about being a demigod, and he constantly refuses Zeus’ help and says he wants to complete his quest “as a man”. This is a pretty interesting plot point, but I think Perseus caved-in a little quickly by using his divine sword to defeat Calibos. And speaking of Calibos, he’s been completely changed as well, with no connection to the Princess Andromeda, and now he’s actually Perseus’ stepfather (in a roundabout way)! Andromeda herself has been split into two characters, and the romance that Perseus had in the original film is now directed towards Io, who goes along on the journey to get Medusa’s head. Thankfully, many of the events of the quest are essentially the same, just updated with billions of CGI pixels, so we get to see the Stygian Witches, Charon on the River Styx, the fight with Medusa (who looks surprisingly true to her old Harryhausen design, which was a great decision!), and even a ride on Pegasus (who is a black horse this time around). There’s not a lot of comedy or even geeky throwbacks to the original movie, aside from a brief moment with Bubo the mechanical owl that’s pretty funny. My pals and I had a great time enjoying the action, but this new Clash of the Titans doesn’t have any of the mythical epic feel of the original. The scorpions may be bigger, but there’s no grandeur or classical hero spirit that made the first film so special (at least to boys my age!). Overall I’d much rather watch the 1981 classic again, but it was still fun comparing it to this modern version.

4.04.2010

How to Train Your Dragon : 4 of 5

Although I've always had a good time seeing Dreamworks animated features, I can't really say I'm a fan of the studio, since all of their movies ultimately are unmemorable in my opinion, with the exception of Kung Fu Panda. But of course I still try to experience them all, so my pal Melinda and I went to see How to Train Your Dragon recently, and I was completely surprised! At last this is a Dreamworks film completely without trendy jokes and references, unnecessary pop songs, and without fart jokes! How to Train Your Dragon is a "true" movie with an excellent story and beautiful animation, and I think it's now my favorite movie from the studio, mostly due to the involvement of the talented director Chris Sanders, best known for creating Lilo & Stitch for Disney (and in fact, Toothless the dragon has many of the same characteristics that makes Stitch so lovable). The story takes place in a Viking village where everyone is focused on fighting the many dragons that constantly attack, and a young Viking boy named Hiccup wounds a dragon that becomes his friend and kind of pet while he secretly nurses it back to health. Hiccup is kind of an inventor, and builds a device that allows Toothless to fly again as long as Hiccup rides him to control a prosthetic tail in a brilliant symbiotic relationship, and of course the story eventually leads to a reconciliation between the Vikings and the dragons. Along the way there's some great character development between Hiccup and his uber-Viking father, as well as a cool tough girl named Astrid, which progresses nicely during the somewhat slow pace of the plot. But the movie certainly doesn't drag, since there are plenty of great action scenes along with beautiful and thrilling moments of flying through the clouds (which I've heard are fantastic in 3D, although I chose to see the 2D version as a mild protest against the current onslaught of 3D tyranny, which I'm kind of sick of!). The end of the story makes a really bold choice in plot direction (which I'm sure caused tons of heated debate in development meetings), and I certainly applaud everyone involved for bringing it to the big screen! I really enjoyed the voice work (although at times Hiccup's voice seemed a little too wise-cracking for his visual design) and the marvelous animation, especially of Toothless, who is cute and vicious at the same time. When the movie was over, I definitely had a new opinion about Dreamworks as a studio (even though the trailers showed they still plan on releasing more drivel), and I'd love to watch How to Train Your Dragon again when it's released on DVD!

4.01.2010

Drumming for Insomnia

Since last weekend I've been performing in the band for Crank Collective's show Insomnia, which is playing at the Hideout Theater for the next two weeks. I had a great time drumming with the band in Epidemic of Fear last year, so I was excited to be asked to work on this musical as well. The story is a about a drug that keeps you awake all the time so you can be more productive and get more out of life, which makes for a really funny story as people using the drug start to go crazy! The rehearsals were a little insane until we got everything in the songs ironed out, but last Saturday's show was perfect and lots of fun (and the great audience seemed to think so, too)! The band plays backstage so the audience can't see us (and we can't even see the play, so it's more like a radio drama to us!), but if you come see the show just remember we're back there making the music happen!