6.30.2010

Favorite faces

One thing that's really nice about having all of my photos in iPhoto (including every digital photo I’ve ever shot, as well as all of the family photos that I've scanned) is being able to browse through them and mark the ones I really like. I’ve been spending a few minutes each day looking through a few, then using iPhoto's ratings so I can easily gather the best ones into a Smart Album. I've been syncing this album to all my devices (iPhone, iPad and Apple TV) so I always have these great images with me on the go, on my TV, or just generally in my face! Speaking of faces, since I took the time to tag everyone’s face in my whole photo collection, I love the way my iPhone and iPad allow me to browse through my pictures by face, so I can instantly see my favorite photos of my Mom or Dad, for example. Photos are so much fun, and I love being able to experience them all the time!

6.29.2010

Ponyo : 5 of 5

Ponyo (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)Since I have almost all of the Hayao Miyazaki films that Disney has released in the US on DVD, I definitely had to add Ponyo (on Blu-ray) to my collection! It doesn't seem like it was nearly a year ago that I was enjoying this Studio Ghibli masterpiece in the theater, but it was a joy to see it again and take the time to relish all the artistic touches at home. The opening sequence featuring what seems like millions of sea creatures is such a breathtaking Fantasia moment, which nicely transitions into the simple life of Sosuke and his mom Lisa, living in their quaint port town. Sosuke's character is full of amazing innocence that comes out in the purity of his imagination when he plainly announces to people, "This is Ponyo! She likes ham and can do magic!" I love finally hearing these lines in the original Japanese and noticing a few subtle changes in the translation for US audiences (Ponyo even says "boobs" rather than "milk" when talking to the baby's mother!). Lisa's character is wonderful also, remaining strong while her husband is away, yet still getting mad sometimes and downing a quick beer! The moment when Ponyo and Sosuke declare they love each other (even though she's still a goldfish) is a great example of the many "sudden tears" scenes throughout the movie. Although Ponyo isn't a film that totally makes me cry, it brings me to the verge over and over again! The quality of animation is sheer perfection, of course, full of amazing details like car headlights in the rain and the ocean becoming a "sea" of giant fish, but the Blu-ray is so incredibly sharp that the film actually loses a bit of its painterly feel. The bonus material is more extensive than I expected, including lots of screen time with Miyazaki himself, although Disney once again breaks every topic up into separate three minute segments with no easy way to watch them all in succession. I really enjoyed seeing the actual location in Japan that inspired the port town in the movie, and it's wonderful to hear John Lasseter and Miyazaki compliment each other on their hard work in the field of animation (their mutual admiration is really heart-warming). There's an option to view the film along with Miyazaki's original storyboards, but unfortunately the picture-in-picture is too small to really appreciate his hand-drawn work (it's still a nice feature, though). Ponyo is the kind of movie I can watch again and again, so it's great to have this Blu-ray on my shelf ready for the next viewing!

6.28.2010

Japanese study routine evolution

Since I'm planning on taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level N3 this year, I've been trying to stay serious about my daily studies. The tools and resources that I use often evolve (which keeps things fresh for me), and it's funny how I automatically start new things and stop others without even thinking about it. My current daily routine combines several tasks (some serious, others more for fun) which I try to stay consistent with, especially while my tutor Kumiko is gone for the summer!

Right now I think the most difficult thing I'm studying is grammar, since by the time you get to N3 the concepts get a little obscure. I can generally understand most sentences I read, but when it comes to choosing exact conjugation and syntax, that's a different story! I'm using the lessons in Nihongo So-matome, which is pretty well designed, although I think some of the test questions are too difficult (or I'm just way behind!). To supplement my grammar, I'm also reading through Tae Kim's Japanese Grammar Guide (a section a day), since I always find new info in its concise descriptions each time I go over it.

I've switched my kanji study back to Kanji Box, mainly because it's the best app with a full iPad version, and I really love burning through a ton of questions every day and then checking out my statistics, which is so helpful. Surprisingly, kanji is really rubbing off on me more than ever before!

Even though it's not specifically JLPT related, I'm still enjoying Smart.fm as well, especially since I'm almost finished with the Japanese Core 2000 series. Although the vocabulary jumps all over the place (some words are new to me, others I've known for years), it's always a great review and fun to study. And speaking of fun, my last daily task is to practice singing a few Morning Musume songs (I have the Japanese lyrics included in iTunes so I can read them on my iPad), then taking the time to look up several words I don't recognize using Kotoba (which is still the most amazing dictionary, even though I'm desperate for a nice iPad version). Some days I don't make it through all of these study methods, but I do my best to hit as many as I can!

6.27.2010

Planet of the Apes : 3 of 5

Planet of the Apes (Special Edition)Even though I saw Tim Burton's re-imagined movie in the theater years ago, I decided to watch it on DVD after reading the plot synopsis in Timeline of the Planet of the Apes, but unfortunately my so-so opinion remains about the same. The new story definitely has some good points (I like how the ape evolution is still essentially caused by humans, and the Calimar legend from "Caution Live Animals" is cool), but once you take Earth out of the equation, the plot just falls flat for me. I did gain a new appreciation for some aspects of the film, especially Paul Giamatti's fantastic acting as the human-trading orangutan. It was fun to re-notice references to the classic movie, such as the "damn dirty human" species reversal and Charlton Heston as a dying ape giving his "Damn them all to hell" line. Visually, there's no doubt that some of the make up is fantastic, although I think the chimpanzee nostrils are a little too weird looking (especially on Helena Bonham Carter's character, who ends up looking like Michael Jackson somehow), but the gorillas are certainly spectacular. As far as humans go, Mark Wahlberg is just campy to the point of being ridiculous (and I don't even think he is trying to be campy), the blond female lead is too slutty to be interesting, and Kris Kristofferson is so out of place that I laughed as soon as he shows up in the hunt scene (which is otherwise excellent). The DVD includes a cool enhanced viewing mode with short documentaries, interviews, and special effects secrets (I was extremely impressed that they used miniatures!) that pop-up in content with the movie, but there's no way to view this material separately, which would have been nice. I guess overall I can think of as many good aspects of the film as bad ones, but that simply balances out to a mediocre movie. As a serious Planet of the Apes fan, I definitely wanted more, and now I remember why I haven't re-watched this version in the past nine years!

6.26.2010

Words with Friends (and family)

My number one iOS game that I've been playing lately is Words With Friends, which is essentially Scrabble that has been cleverly designed as a kind of "correspondence" game. While you play, your opponent doesn't have to be online (each move is just stored on a server), so it's incredibly convenient to check in on a game every now and then and casually make your next play. The game is available for iPhone (which is nice to play waiting in line somewhere) as well as for iPad (with a beautiful full-screen board), and I use both versions to keep up with my nemeses! Dad and I have become completely hooked on the game, continually playing one match after another, and it's amazing how evenly matched we are, since most of our scores end up just a few points apart. Dad has won the most games, but I've been on a roll lately, which is interesting since in real life I've always been a lousy Scrabble player! Dad comes up with some incredible words (and holds our record for the largest single score play), and it's funny how one of us always manages to get the word "qi" (Chinese life energy) on the board! I've also had some close matches with my pal Melinda (who introduced me to the game), and it's been so much fun to play and use another form of online communication, since there's a chat feature built into the game also (which Dad uses all the time to give me updates on Mom's casino winnings and other important news!).

While I'm talking about iOS, I should officially mention that I'm a lucky owner of the new iPhone 4! I somehow got my pre-order placed on the first day just before the cutoff (after attempting over and over from 4:00 AM until after 8:00 PM!), and my package was in the batch delivered the day prior to official launch day, so I didn't have to deal with any swamped activation problems. It's been an incredible pleasure to use, primarily because the battery lasts more than the five minutes I was suffering with on my old 3G. I love the speed, folder organization, multitasking (though I keep forgetting to take advantage of it), the awesome camera, the super-sharp display, and the size and feel is wonderful. I'll admit I'm a little spooked by using an all glass phone, so I might have to try some cases even though I've always been an advocate of going naked, since Apple makes such beautiful devices!

6.23.2010

Rebel Force Vol 1: Target / Alex Wheeler : 3 of 5

Target [SW REBEL FORCE #01 TARGET]Although I seriously doubt anything could take the place of Jude Watson's various Jedi books, I thought I would try out Rebel Force, a new Scholastic kiddie series featuring the classic original trilogy Star Wars characters. The story begins right after Episode 4 ends, with the Rebel Alliance still based on Yavin 4 just after destroying the Death Star. It's fun to get reacquainted with Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and the droids again, although I think I am more sensitive to awkward dialogue since I feel like I know these characters so well. Thankfully the author takes the time to get into their thoughts, which is often fascinating, especially when we find out about the Emperor's shock and anger at the Empire's failure. There's also insight into Leia's sadness about Alderaan and Luke's worries about learning how to use his lightsaber without Obi-Wan. The plot involves a Rebel mission to Muunilinst (the Banking Clan planet) to retrieve some Rebellion funds, and of course all of our heroes conveniently go together. Since the Emperor doesn't know the pilot who blew up the Death Star, a super spy called X-7 (I can't think of a more stupid name) is assigned to infiltrate the group, and he begins to befriend everyone by becoming just the personality they want in a companion. Strangely enough, the story concludes with Luke participating in a podrace (C-3PO begins to mention another human, meaning Anakin, who is listed in historical records), which is kind of exciting, but essentially this volume is just an introduction to a larger story. Although I definitely enjoyed spending some time with my Star Wars pals again, I think I can wait for the other volumes to become available on PaperBack Swap (unless I get really hooked for some reason).

6.22.2010

Music Moments 6.22

Planet Of The Apes: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Also Featuring Music From Escape From The Planet Of The ApesPlanet of the Apes / Original Soundtracks: After recently re-watching my beloved Apes movies again on Blu-ray, I decided I should have all five soundtracks in my iTunes library, and I've really enjoyed hearing them as part of my usual shuffle! I love the breakthrough use of kitchen bowls as percussion, the creepy hymn that the mutants sing to the Alpha Omega Bomb, and the syncopation of the opening of Escape from the Planet of the Apes is fantastic. Each soundtrack includes several dialogue and sound effect segments as well, which makes each listening a regular Ape adventure!

mc chris / mc chris Goes to Hell: I was excited to hear about this new release by my favorite nerdcore rapper mc chris, but it was a little disappointing to discover that 90% of the album is simply new versions of the material on his last release, Part Six. There are a few new tracks that are pretty cool, and at least it's interesting to compare the new versions of his older songs, which often contain new choruses or instrumentation. Some of these changes make the song even better (like Japanese Maid), but others tend to weaken the impact of the original (Potato Cakes totally lost its emotion with the addition of a silly refrain and the loss of a cool bridge).

Buono / We Are Buono: Since I loved Buono's performance during the last Hello! Project concert, I decided to check out their latest CD, which is full of great punkish tunes that really set them apart. I'm definitely impressed with their singing, which is amazingly strong and consistent! I don't really like Momoko (though I have to admit she is always on key), but Airi and Miyabi are both awesome, and the feel of their material is super fun. There are a few ballads on the album that just don't fit the Buono style (in my opinion), but in general this collection of tunes is fantastic, especially the title track (I love it when they say their names!).

AKB48 / Team A 2nd Stage & Team K 3rd Stage: I've watched so many concerts by the various teams of AKB48 (performed in their Akihabara theater) that I really wanted to listen to some of the songs that I'd heard (and can pretty much hum along with), so I thought I would check out these older albums. Both of them are really cool, including a few hits that were released as singles (like Aitakatta), along with tons of "concert only" songs. It's great to be able to hear the cool Team K stuff like Kimi wa Pegasus, and even though I used to hate Hone Hone Waltz, I have to admit it's growing on me!

Morning Musume / Seishun Collection: Last but never least, I've been enjoying Morning Musume's 43 single, which I've heard at least a hundred times in my car by now! It's a great peppy melody with cool strings and piano, which really adds to the depth of the tune, and the lyrics about enjoying youth are nice and uplifting. The second track Tomo is just OK, but it's worth listening to since all of the girls get a least one solid solo line to sing. The Seishun Collection music video is totally cute (what else could it be?), even though it's another low budget production (at least it has some dynamic color and a few artistic shots thrown in), but that hasn't stopped me from watching it practically every day!

6.21.2010

Earth : 4 of 5

Disney Nature EarthI'm really enjoying the new films being released by Disneynature, and since I loved seeing Earth at the theater, I was thrilled to get this DVD as a Christmas gift from my cousin Clinton! It was wonderful to watch the film again, and I was really impressed with the sharp picture even though this isn't a Blu-ray disc, which really showcased the beautiful photography. Most of my thoughts during the movie were the same as when I originally saw it (appreciating the mind-blowing images and the non-preachy yet subtle environmental message), but I also tried to focus on certain segments that were stunning, such as the lynx slowly walking though the snowy landscape. I also liked the shot of the solitary giraffe in the flooded grassland, and of course the tense moment where the lions and elephants share the same water hole, declaring a fragile truce simply because they both need to survive. I really enjoyed the musical score as well, and noticed how majestic it was compared to the often light-hearted tone of the original True Life Adventures. The DVD includes an amazing 45-minute documentary about the making of the film, and I was shocked at some of the trials the photographers went through to get each perfect shot over the course of five years. The "plot" of the movie was actually storyboarded so each photography team knew what they were hoping to get, but then they had to wait forever for the perfect moment! It took a full month of waiting to film the polar bears emerging from their den, and over three weeks to get a shot of the cheetah chasing a gazelle! There's also some great discussion of the camera technology used, such as 360-degree motion cameras that were mounted on the bottom of helicopters and the super high-speed camera with a thousand-frame buffer. Both the film itself and the filmmakers' dedication are absolutely incredible, making Earth a beautiful movie that's great to experience again on DVD!

6.20.2010

My first Gundam model

Last week I earned a new geek merit badge by building my first Gundam model! After watching Mobile Suit Gundam SEED last year, I decided to buy a beginner's 1/144 scale HG (high grade) kit of the Freedom Gundam piloted by Kira Yamato in the series, but it took me forever to start since I was a little intimidated and wanted to do a good job. Building Gundam models (or Gunpla, short for Gundam plastic models) is a huge hobby in Japan, with entire stores, websites, and wallets devoted to the construction of the hundreds of types available with incredible skill and precision. I did some research into the basic techniques, and decided to just go for it and do my best as an "educated amateur". The process was incredibly fun and I'm so happy with the results!

After cutting each part from the tree (or sprue), I sanded down the nubs using fine modeling sandpaper, which was a little difficult since I didn't want to scratch up the model. Next I painted sections to match the excellent photos on the instruction sheet (in Japanese, of course) using special Gundam Markers. These are paint pens that come in official colors to match the anime, and they are pretty easy to use, although I made several mistakes since I had to learn how to control the tip and the flow of paint. Even though the pieces are molded in a few basic colors, additional painting really makes it come to life! After that I attempted sumi ire, which is a Gundam modeling term that means to ink all of the little panel lines to give the Gundam a super detailed feel. There are special markers for this purpose also, and I really enjoyed this technique! After all of that, I could snap together whatever section I was working on (no glue required), along with the cool rubber joints (called polycaps) that make the finished model posable. Finally, there were a few incredibly tiny foil decals to apply, and I can't believe I was able to stick them on fairly accurately without tweezers!

The whole build took many hours (spread over a few days), and I was amazed with the Freedom Gundam design and how it can transform into different fighting modes! The process was really satisfying, even though I had to quickly learn to let go of my perfectionism, and I was excited by the fact that I had so much fun with a $15 model, which is amazing since a LEGO set that would take the equivalent build time would easily cost $100 bucks! As soon as I finished I started shopping on Gundam Store and More and now I have a couple more kits on the way. I'm looking forward to improving my technique and displaying my work in my Toy Museum!

View photos: Freedom Gundam

6.19.2010

Toy Story 3 : 5 of 5

Like every other Disney and Pixar fan, I couldn't wait to see Toy Story 3, and opening day couldn't get here fast enough. With such a fantastic line-up of characters so well established in the original films, it would have been difficult for Pixar to make a bad Toy Story movie, but of course they completely knocked it out of the park by creating another animation masterpiece that succeeds on every level! As a testiment of Pixar's dedication to making good films with excellent stories above all other concerns, rather than churn out a simple Woody and Buzz adventure without taking risks, they chose to focus on the difficult story of a boy growing up and parting with his beloved childhood toys. Naturally, along the way this becomes a hilarious journey through the perilous Sunnyside Daycare and its crazed, snot-nosed kiddos (as well as the deceptively sinister Lots-O-Huggin Bear), but the story is well bookended by sincere emotions that stir up nostalgia in the entire audience. Because the plot is so wonderful, there's almost no need to mention the quality of the animation, which is perfect as you would expect (and the 3D presentation is completely unnecessary, although done well). You would think the introduction of so many new characters (tons of supporting role toys, including the hilarious Ken doll who lives for fashion) could drive the story out of control, but Pixar allows these new additions to be funny while the main plot stays on course. Of course there are hundreds of laughs to be enjoyed (Buzz dancing in "Spanish mode" and wooing Jessie comes to mind!), but I'm more impressed with the sheer emotion found in scenes like the garbage dump, where our hero toys silently grasp each other's hands to say good bye as they face certain doom - simply brilliant animated acting. The final scenes of the film were practically designed to bring buckets of tears to a toy lover like me, but ultimately leave the viewer supremely happy and entertained. As usual when it comes to Pixar, I could go on forever about what I liked in Toy Story 3 (and truthfully it's difficult to think of anything I would change!), but I'll save that for my review of the eventual Blu-ray release, which I wish I was watching at this very moment!

6.18.2010

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

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny V10Now that I'm determined to finish this series, I'm totally getting into Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny and really enjoying it! These two volumes went by so fast, and thankfully there were several moments that got back to some of the great characterization that I loved in the previous series (hence my higher than usual rating!). Volume 9 picks up after Shinn nearly wipes out the Strike Freedom (and Kira with it), which makes Athrun angry with Shinn. Athrun's conflicted feelings come to the conclusion that he has to get away from Zaft (taking Meyrin with him in a daring escape), only to be shot down by Shinn! Shinn seems to be fully brainwashed by Zaft at this point, so he's nothing but a war machine that doesn't get my sympathy anymore. Volume 10 is awesome because of the character reunions, since Athrun and Cagali get to see each other and forgive their pasts, Kira gets to talk with Athrun again, and Kira and Lacus have a quick romantic moment. Even the inevitable clip rehash episode is great, since it's narrated by Athrun and Kira with excellent commentary on the nature of war (I love it when anime gets philosophical). The last episode includes the start of an epic battle with Kira seriously kicking butt in the Strike Freedom (now repaired) using its detached weapon system, and once again the crews of the Archangel and the Minerva face each other! Gundam-wise, these volumes introduce the Legend, Destiny, and the Akatsuki (Cagali's gleaming gold Gundam), and musically introduce some of the worst themes ever. I have no idea why they chose a stupid Chemistry song for the new opening theme, but it's so silly to hear heartthrob harmony set to mecha battles! Regardless of the theme songs, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny is really getting good as the series draws to its conclusion. I can't wait to watch the last two volumes!

6.17.2010

Star Trek: The Key Collection / Vol 5 : 3 of 5

Star Trek: The Key Collection, Vol. 5I'm always impressed with how these vintage Gold Key comics capture the feel of the Star Trek Original Series, no matter how silly the storylines get! This volume collects eight more issues that were published from 1975-1977, and by now the artwork is fairly consistent in character design (although Scotty's shirt keeps changing color). Almost no time is spent aboard the Enterprise (which means bridge crew like Uhura are totally absent) so the plots can focus on crazy planets, including Earth! One of the stories features a sight-seeing tour that includes "futuristic" things like Mount Rushmore crowded in with buildings and the Statue of Liberty no longer on an island since the harbor has been filled in by land. Dr. McCoy's daughter Barbara appears in two stories, working as a xenozoologist and helping out the Enterprise crew (of course, Captain Kirk takes the opportunity to flirt with her!). There's actually some pretty interesting interaction between Barbara and her dad, since she's bitter that he chose a Federation medical career on the Enterprise over staying home to raise her. One of the stand-out stories (and supposedly sought after by comic book collectors) is World Against Time, in which adults age backwards and turn into babies, including Spock and Scotty, who end up as kids in oversize uniforms talking baby-talk! There's also a typical time travel plot where the bad guy hides a bomb in another time period, causing Scotty to travel to the Old West (actually, Scotty gets to to do a lot in this volume!) and Kirk to be a part of a Hollywood movie crew! I'm looking forward to the next volume of this series, so I hope the publisher works through their delay problems soon.

6.16.2010

Three Small Things 6.16.10

Last week I reached a kind of "decluttering Nirvana" by actually donating unused storage containers to Goodwill! A couple years ago, the early stages of my decluttering efforts were mostly about organization, which involved making lots of trips to the Container Store and buying cool plastic containers of all shapes and sizes whenever I saw the need. I love buying those kind of things, so it was a lot of fun getting them and loading them up back in those days. But this year's decluttering theme has been reduction, which means I've gotten rid of so many things that I ended up completely emptying tons of containers, which have just been sitting in my garage unused. Now that I'm pretty sure I will never let my clutter grow to the point that I would ever need them, it was time to give them away (I kept just a few of my favorite style container just in case, mainly because I had a lots of shelf room). I think the Goodwill guys were a little surprised to see someone bring in just containers!

I solved a little mystery the other day about some color fading on my bath towel that had been occurring periodically for a long time. I used to think I was doing something wrong in the wash, like using the wrong temperature (since I don't really pay attention to that) or putting my towel in the same load with colors that were rubbing off, but no matter how I adjusted things, the fading would keep appearing. I finally realized the discoloration was happening where I wiped my mouth after brushing my teeth! Practically every toothpaste on the market these days includes "whitening", meaning there's a little peroxide mixed in. I was being lazy with how I was rinsing my mouth, so I was essentially wiping peroxide on my towel, which acted like bleach. Thankfully I pretty much use the same towel and just keep washing it, so I only have one really ugly "bleached" towel, and now I know I need to thoroughly rinse my mouth in the sink!

After suffering along with millions of other frustrated customers, I'm happy to say that I was actually able to place a successful pre-order for the new iPhone 4! I'm sure my saga was no different than tons of other folks: I got up at 4:00 AM to start trying, realized the Apple Store and AT&T servers were totally dying, and just kept attempting to get through all day in every spare moment, thinking the situation had to clear up eventually. I really can't believe how bad it was (pretty ridiculous), but I'm glad that I finally lucked out and actually completed my order in the evening, and apparently only moments before Apple sold out of the release date units!

6.14.2010

Hello! Project 2010 Winter Kacho Fugetsu / Mobekimasu! : 3 of 5

Along with the special Shuffle Date concert, Hello! Project also held a standard winter concert so all of the groups could perform their latest releases. The event title comes from the first katakana character of each group (Morning Musume, Berryz Koubou, C-ute, Mano Erina, and S/mileage), and although I like the unique energy of the shuffle units, it's much more fun to see the girls singing and dancing in their usual configurations, since they are all more comfortable and having fun together! The concert opens with all of the Hello! Project members (along with the Eggs) performing a few songs together, wearing cool gold and red outfits (the lack of group differentiation makes it hard to pick out your favorites, though!), and it's fun to see everyone doing dance moves from a song that may not be their own. After the opening, everyone sits on the bleachers and watches each group perform, starting with S/mileage, who does a great job (I'm usually not into the super-young units, but they are pretty polished for their age!). C-ute is up next, and just as I was hoping they would sing Tokaikko Junjou (by far my favorite C-ute song), they performed it, and it sounds great with C-ute's five member line-up. I really enjoyed Berryz Koubou's Happy! Stand Up, which is better live than on their CD, and of course Morning Musume was awesome, sporting their Onna ga Medatte Naze Ikenai outfits. Gaki-san reminded me once again that she is probably the best stage performer with her incredible energy (Sayumi needed to let herself go a little more, since she seemed somewhat reserved), and it was great to hear them sing Ambitious! Yashinteki de Ii jan, since that song came out soon after my Morning Musume obsession began. All of the groups come together again for what can only be called a rapid-fire medley (with very little transition between song choruses), and eventually the concert ends with a nice finale. Although there were no real stand-out moments that make me want to watch this show again right away, overall this was a fun, high energy concert that I had a great time experiencing!

6.13.2010

Max Fleischer's Superman : 4 of 5

Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942It's well known that the original Superman animated shorts from the early 1940s are some of the most spectacular animation ever produced (rivaling Disney's work at the time), but I have held off on buying a DVD set of them since so many cheap, inferior discs have been produced (since the works are in the public domain now). Thankfully Warner Bros. has released a semi-official DVD set of these historic gems (which I got for Christmas), using a high-quality transfer that makes the cartoons look sharp and vibrant. However, this is not a true restoration, since there are obviously visible defects and film scratches, but nothing can take away from the brilliance of these 17 Superman adventures! The Max Fleischer studio (who also produced Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons) really went all out on these "big budget" theatrical shorts, combining incredible animation with character designs actually inspired by the comic book, great art deco design with science fiction flourishes (such as lanky robots and ingenious devices), wonderful special effects (lightning, lava, and water are rendered beautifully), and even amazing orchestral scoring! In each ten-minute episode, Clark Kent usually speaks the traditional line "This looks like a job for Superman!" before doing battle with mad scientists, natural disasters, terrible creatures, or even World War II Axis villains (being produced in 1941-42, the depictions of Japanese and German foes are as stereotypical as you can imagine). Although I've seen all of these cartoons before, there were several I didn't fully remember, and as always I was astounded at the way the animators were able to depict Superman's efforts with realistic struggling (especially difficult to do when your hero is flying). This two-disc set includes a couple of short documentaries about the mythological origins of Superman, as well as comments from today's superhero animators (such as Bruce Timm) about the genius that went into these cartoons. I don't think an animation collection could be complete without these Superman shorts, so I'm glad to finally have a good edition of them in my library!

6.11.2010

Miserly habits

I don't know if it's a sign of getting older or just a side-effect of my decluttering efforts, but part of my quest to live a simple life has involved becoming more and more frugal. Over the past year I've developed lots of little habits that seem really funny even to me, and when I look at myself I start to think of Ebenezer Scrooge yelling at Bob Cratchit about burning an extra piece of coal to stay warm! But in a weird way I'm kind of proud of living this way, since I know it somehow saves me a little money and maybe even reduces my environmental footprint!

To start with, I've become almost militant about using every last drop of products like toothpaste, shampoo, and face wash! I've found that I can squeeze a toothpaste tube so much that it lasts almost a month past the point where it looks like it should be thrown away, and if I store my shampoo bottle upside down it seems like I can get an almost never-ending supply out of it (of course, I have very little hair to wash!).

Since I eat simple meals, I can pretty much survive by using the same bowl over and over (yes, I rinse it out thoroughly), along with just a few other utensils, a glass, and a coffee mug. I'll use this minimal set of dishes all week long, then switch to a second set, and then use my dishwasher once every two weeks to start the cycle over again. Needless to say, it takes me forever to go through a box of detergent! Similarly, I only do one load of laundry each week (by reusing my towel and wearing my pants multiple times), which saves me so much time.

My weirdest miserly habit began when I started to get in shape and actually enjoy sweating a little bit. Since most of my trips in the car are pretty short (15-20 minutes), I almost never use the air conditioner anymore! Seriously, I don't think I've turned on my car A/C in over a year (unless I have a passenger)! Actually, everywhere I have to be (like my office, shopping malls, or movie theaters) seems extremely over air conditioned to me, so when I get into my warm car it feels absolutely great! I always roll down my window and my sunroof to get a good breeze going, and if I sweat a little bit, I just figure it keeps my body healthy! I've even kept up this habit through Austin's hot summers - it just doesn't bother me anymore. I think this habit has also contributed to the long running life of my 1998 car, too!

6.10.2010

Manga Mentions 6.10

The Ghost in the Shell Volume 1Ghost in the Shell Vol 1: Now that I've watched all of the Ghost in the Shell movies and anime series, it's time to move on to the original manga that started it all! I was lucky enough to find the uncensored version (now published with short racy scenes removed), presented as a high-quality, thick paperback with both color and B&W artwork (which is detailed and beautiful as expected, and Motoko looks fantastic). It's been so much fun to recognize scenes that inspired the animation, including the basic plots of the first two films. The dialogue has a little more humor, but the plot is still wonderfully complex (Masamune even explains certain details in notes at the end of the volume). This volume was so incredible that I can't wait to continue with the next Ghost in the Shell manga!

Appleseed ID: Although I've finished all four volumes of Masamune's other masterpiece manga, I snagged this supplemental volume on PaperBack Swap. In this case, "ID" stands for Illustration and Data, so this book is mostly filled with full page drawings (many in color) of Deunan and Briareos in stylish poses, along with pages of detailed information about the history and political climate of the Appleseed world. There's also a nice bonus manga short story, which truthfully is more interesting than the data sections, but this volume is still a worthwhile read for any Appleseed fan.

Nana Vol 8: This part of the story is getting into what was covered in the Nana live action sequel, but it's much more interesting and in-depth in manga form! The main plot point is Hachiko's pregnancy with Takumi's baby (this is such a soap opera!) and deciding what direction her life with take. Although Hachiko is usually the narrator, the other Nana takes over for a few chapters, so we get to read about her feelings of love and friendship as well.

Honey & Clover Vol 3: Lots of time passes in this volume, so we get to see the gang sell Christmas cakes and view cherry blossoms, while Hagu is confused over her feelings for Morita (who secretly carves her a broach which she grows to cherish). As always, the best part of Honey & Clover is Takemoto's narration, which always makes me sigh with melancholy goodness.

Mahoromatic Vol 2: As long as I can keep up with this series via PaperBack Swap, I suppose I'll continue with it, even though my taste in manga has strayed away from this style a little. I still laughed a lot as at all the racy scenes though, especially at the malfunctioning robot crab at the beach who thinks its mission is to remove bikinis!

6.09.2010

Netflix One-Liners 6.09

Tokyo!: I really enjoyed two of the three short, quirky films in this collection by different directors, all set in the title city, especially the story of the brave hikikomori stepping out to make contact with a cute pizza delivery girl.
MacHEADS: I was really excited to see this new documentary available for streaming, but it was a little disappointing because of its focus on hippies and lack of cool Macintosh history, interspersed with horrible animation.
RoboCop: My boys night pals and I watched this 1987 sci-fi classic (which I could barely remember) on iTunes (but I’m including it in this Netflix list anyway), and I totally loved the awesome directing style and hilarious future commercials!
Star Trek III / The Search for Spock: Netflix recently added lots of Star Trek films to their streaming selection, so I re-watched several, starting with this not-so-great story of Spock’s resurrection, featuring the goofiest computer displays you’ve ever seen and Doc Brown as a Klingon.
Star Trek IV / The Voyage Home: The Star Trek “even/odd” pattern is certainly true, since this next film is wonderful in spite of the incredibly cheesy plot, which sends the Enterprise back in time to capture some humpback whales to save the Earth!
Star Trek / First Contact: Although the Next Generation films aren’t that cool in general, I like this one because of the Zephram Cochrane (who invents the first warp engine) storyline and creepy Borg queen.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex / The Laughing Man: Although I’ve watched the entire anime more than once, I thought it would be fun to watch the whole story re-edited into a long movie, but the re-dubbing (for no apparent reason) really bothered me (the editing choices were kind of cool, though).
Godzilla vs Destoroyah: Netflix added a few class kaiju films to their streaming selection, and sometimes I’m just in the mood where nothing but Godzilla will do, so I enjoyed seeing one of the better Heisei era movies again!
Beavis & Butt-Head / The Mike Judge Collection: Netflix has recently added a few cartoon series that are great to watch when I have a few moments to spare, and it's fun to see these original MTV cartoon shorts no matter how crazy they are (poor Mr. Anderson!).
Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends / Season 1: Lately I've been into watching a couple episodes of Rocky & Bullwinkle before I go to bed, and I had almost forgotten how funny they are, the charming style of the cheap animation, and of course the awesome voice work, featuring Paul Frees!

6.08.2010

Planet of the Apes / 40-Year Evolution : 5 of 5

Planet of the Apes 40th Anniversary Collection (Planet of the Apes / Beneath the Planet of the Apes / Escape From / Conquest of / Battle for) [Blu-ray]Although I'm not making a real effort to replace my DVDs with Blu-ray releases, I had to make an exception for this spectacular five-disc set, mainly because my old Planet of the Apes DVDs were terrible non-anamorphic versions, but also because of an incredible discount price during an Amazon special! My Apes fandom can never be quenched, so I completely enjoyed the hours and hours of time it took to absorb all of this material, beginning with the beautiful hardcover book that's integrated into the product packaging. This 200-page masterpiece is filled with amazing photos (many of which I had never scene before, such as the huge scaffold used to shoot the downward view for the classic discovery of the Statue of LIberty), stylish layout, and even detailed views of original props used in the films. The movies themselves look great on Blu-ray (although you have to remember the sound was recorded in the 60s and 70s), and each disc is bursting with bonus features made possible by Blu-ray technology. The original film includes two audio commentaries (which are a little too sparse, but interesting) and a fascinating text commentary, as well as an interactive science feature that displays relevant facts (about space travel or evolution, for example) via picture-in-picture. Of course, I had to watch the movie about four times in a row to enjoy all of these materials! The wonderful two-hour documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes is included (shot when Roddy McDowall was still alive), and it also has some nice interactive viewing features. The typical still galleries can be found on all of the discs, but these galleries include some great capabilities that let you examine and read small articles (such as newspaper clippings), which is usually impossible. There's even an interesting "board game" with difficult science trivia that can be played as an overlay while you watch the movie! Each of the sequels features a short documentary (usually around 20 minutes) that gives some great background on Paul Dehn's screenwriting process as well as interesting trivia (especially concerning different cuts of Conquest and Battle). I'm really happy to own this definitive set, since I quite often get the urge to watch one of the Planet of the Apes films again (believe it or not), and now I can simply reach for these perfect Blu-ray editions!

6.07.2010

Star Wars in Concert : 5 of 5

From the moment that Star Wars in Concert was announced last year, I've been hoping for a chance to see it, and last night the show finally came to Austin so I could go with my pals Matt & Kumiko! By coincidence, this turned out to be the 100th performance of this traveling spectacular, which was an evening of sheer joy for this Star Wars fan. We arrived early to check out the excellent display of original costumes and props, which made the time pass quickly before the show. As soon as the lights dimmed, the Erwin Center was filled with the sound of the THX promo, followed by the orchestra playing a flawless version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare! Of course, the Star Wars Main Title music was next, set to a brilliant montage of clips from all six films on the huge movie screen. The stage constantly made use of lighting changes in various colors, huge panels that "extended" the screen with star fields and other images, and even lasers that shot complex green light in perfect time with the music! Anthony Daniels (who played C-3PO in all six films) provided fantastic narration between music segments, totally hamming it up with an exciting retelling of the major themes of the Star Wars saga. When the screen wasn't showing movie clips, it displayed perfect views of Anthony Daniels and the musicians themselves, thanks to some amazing high quality cameras (including one on a remote control arm that could sweep across the orchestra). Although the narration roughly covered the story in order, the video segments were a bit more general, combining things like droids, aliens, or even asteroid chase scenes from all of the movies. Everything was expertly edited, with just a few choice lines of dialogue and sound effects left in to keep the audience excited (it was great to hear lots of people reciting the lines along with me!). The music itself was absolutely perfect, right down to the use of steel drum in Cantina Band, and the orchestra even included a choir for the vocal sections on pieces like Duel of the Fates. The entire performance was simply amazing, so the audience's applause demanded an encore, which was provided with a final rendition of the Imperial March. Star Wars in Concert is a one of kind experience that every Star Wars fan should see, celebrating both George Lucas' saga that we all love, as well as the terrific John Williams music that we hum every day!

View photos: Star Wars in Concert

6.06.2010

Star Trek VI / The Undiscovered Country : 4 of 5

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered CountryAfter enjoying the fantastic comic book series that tied-in so well with this movie, I decided it had been too long since I'd seen this final Original Series Star Trek film. Since I've watched some of the older Star Trek movies recently, it was great to compare them to Star Trek VI, since this film is worlds ahead in special effects and story as well! The plot involves the imminent death of the Klingon race due to the explosion of their moon Praxis, which begins an effort for peace between the Klingons and the Federation (leading up to how things are in Star Trek: The Next Generation). Prejudice is a major theme, carried out to murderous effect by everyone in a devious plot involving humans, Klingons, Romulans, and even Vulcans (with the disgusting Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall as the Vulcan saboteur!), with the Enterprise and her crew caught in the middle of the mystery. There are some wonderful special effects (including some zero-G blood that was truly an advanced use of CGI for the time), beautiful ship models (I love seeing the classic Klingon ship design in addition to the updated "green" design), and fantastic sets (including the first time we see a starship's galley), many of which were borrowed and redressed from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was in TV production at the same time. This is also the first Star Trek movie with computer displays that don't look like Atari games! Although most of the Enterprise crew has grown a little pudgy, the acting is really excellent (I thought McCoy was especially great) and it's touching to see the complete cast together for the last time. The Klingons are well characterized also (there's even a cameo by Worf's grandfather), and I enjoyed all the Shakespeare references by the evil Chang (although they really get annoying during the final battle). The DVD includes a great text commentary by Michael Okuda, who always comes through with fascinating details that are simply a geek's dream to read and absorb. Watching this movie again was a wonderful experience, and I was touched that the last Original Series film turned out to be such a Star Trek milestone!

6.04.2010

Morning Musume new single excitement

It's really fun to be a Morning Musume fan when the girls release a new single, because it seems like the tension and excitement are really orchestrated (by Hello! Project and the fans themselves) to keep building until the big release day! Since Momusu's 43rd single Seishun Collection is coming out in just a few days, I thought I'd run down how the suspense usually works for me.
  • Several months in advance, the release date for the single is announced. Usually the song title is unknown at this point, but often there's a placeholder product on CDJapan so I can already start thinking about ordering.
  • Soon the song title is announced, and fans start speculating if it sounds like a peppy song or a ballad. Usually they also announce how many limited editions will be released. Part of the fun of Morning Musume singles is they typically come in four versions: one regular and three limited. The limited editions all come with different DVDs (each containing a special version of the music video), plus each has a different cover. Because I'm a crazy fan and like to support Morning Musume's sales numbers, I usually buy two different limited editions! Anyway, this is when I get my pre-order in, since the limited editions sometimes sell out.
  • For each new single release, Morning Musume will start wearing a new "official outfit" that's featured in the upcoming music video, and their official site photos get updated with the new clothes. It's always fun to see what they will wear next, and since they will always have it on during their various TV appearances, you better get used to it!
  • Next someone will discover a 30-second preview of the song (usually a radio commercial), and it pops up all over YouTube. I usually don't listen to the preview, because soon after that the full song will start being featured on the girls' own radio shows. I listen to Sayumi's and Ai-chan's radio shows every week, and it's pretty exciting to get to hear the song for the first time (and again and again every week after that).
  • At some point images of the CD covers hit the web, which is super exciting for me, since they are usually high-quality, awesome photos with great poses. I immediately download the covers and decide which to use for my iPhone and iPad wallpaper!
  • Just before release time, the full music video will become available (someone will yank it from a TV broadcast, or an official Hello! Project streaming version will appear), and I'll end up watching it over and over and reading all the fan comments (some who love to complain, and some who are happy fans like me). By this time I've heard the new song hundreds of times, and the single hasn't even shipped yet!
  • Finally, the actual CD single is released! My copies start their slow journey from Japan, and until then I check the Oricon charts to see if the girls are selling well (it's so great when they hit the Top 3, and so sad when they don't). When my copy of the single finally arrives, it's almost sad that all of the excitement is over, but of course I love popping it into my car and hearing it as I drive for the next few weeks!

6.03.2010

Timeline of the Planet of the Apes / Rich Handley : 3 of 5

Timeline Of The Planet Of The Apes: The Definitive Chronology (Volume 1)Once you start getting into the Planet of the Apes, you soon discover the amazing amount of media that has been created about this science fiction saga. In addition to the five classic films and the modern Tim Burton movie, there's the live action TV series, the animated series, tons of comic books and novels by different publishers, and even video games! Since the Apes story involves both the distant future and goes all the way back to the 1970s (and includes a classic time paradox), lots of people have tried to construct a timeline of all the events, but often end up throwing things out because they don't really match up with each other. Rich Handley has decided to just make everything work no matter what, even including scraps of unpublished stories (obtained from the authors) into the biggest timeline yet, spanning from the 1850s all the way into the year 5040 and beyond! It's extremely difficult to make the Tim Burton film (not to mention the animated series) work in the context of the original films, but the author takes the time to explain various assumptions and resolve discrepancies via detailed notes after many entries. Even the births of characters are included in the timeline, computed by using the actor's age at the time of filming (when not explicitly stated in a script or other work). I actually read through the entire book, which was fascinating for the most part, mainly when it involved media I had experienced myself. There are long sections with comic book synopses that were a little boring to me since I hadn't read those stories, but of course they have to be included for completeness in this ultimate timeline! I really enjoyed the cover gallery with images of all of the books, comics, and even various DVD releases, although it's a shame these photos are in black & white only. Timeline of the Planet of the Apes is an amazing fan undertaking, and was a lot of fun to read (especially since I'm in the middle of watching the films on Blu-ray now), but it's definitely a book that only a hardcore Apes fan would enjoy!

6.02.2010

Three-day weekend of fun

The long Memorial Day weekend was totally fantastic for me, since it was full of fun events with my wonderful friends! After enjoying The Red Balloon on Saturday, Sunday's highlight was Matt & Kumiko's Japanese kids lunch of cute and yummy foods that little ones enjoy in Japan. Last year Kumiko created a similar lunch just because I thought it would be cool, and this year the honoree was her student Stephanie (who just graduated high school and is moving away to college soon). The food was beautiful and delicious, topped off with Matt's huge parfait dessert! On Sunday the guys came over for TV and dinner as usual, and we stayed up a little later and drank all of the booze that Matt brought.

Monday was a very special day, because Baby Sicilia La Cava was born! Chris & Eliza's second child (making me a double fake uncle) decided she couldn't wait to come out into the world, so she arrived a few days ahead of schedule. The timing was great so I could get to the hospital just a few hours after the birth, and it was incredible to hold her (she's now only the second baby in the world I have ever held!). Of course she's cute and I'm looking forward to watching her grow up and terrorize Emiliano. Congratulations to Chris & Eliza!

On Monday evening, Barron & Mariko had a Memorial Day dinner at their house with awesome drinks (mohitos) and food, including the best Jamaican jerk pork I've ever tasted (and I ate a lot of it)! As always it was fun to play with Bay and Koa and watch them ride their skateboard, show off their LEGO sets, discuss the details of Harry Potter, and create cool original artwork. It was a great way to end a wonderful holiday weekend!

View photos: Japanese Kid's Lunch 2010
View photos: Baby Sicilia
View photos: Memorial Day Dinner 2010

6.01.2010

Shrek Forever After : 3 of 5

Although each Shrek sequel has been a little worse than the previous one, I still wanted to see Shrek Forever After just to have a good laugh with my pal Melinda. While my overall opinion generally isn't that different from the original way back in 2001, at least I can say that this 4th movie is better than the 3rd (breaking the downward trend), and the new characters (as well as the new spins on old ones) are lots of fun! The story involves a deal with Rumpelstiltskin (who is voiced extremely well) so Shrek can feel what it's like to be a "real ogre" again. I loved the setup sequences where Shrek's daily life is presented as a quick-cut montage, but once the plot gets started those moments start to fade into eventually sappy stuff. Actually, the end is way too mushy for a Shrek movie if you ask me, but I guess they wanted the series to end on a super-happy note. It really liked the introduction of the Pied Piper (floating in on the backs of rats), and watching the ogres dance to his crazy flute was great! But for me, the best characters are Puss in Boots (who is tubby and hilarious, even with the same tired big eyes gag) and the Gingerbread Man (who gets to be a bad-ass for a second before meeting an unexpected and shocking end!). The animation is certainly well done, but I can't say there were any magnificent moments that really grabbed me, but I did think it was cool to see Shrek riding a witches broom while being chased by other witches! Of course, the pop music is all over the place (but that's pretty much expected now), even more than the previous films. I guess they wanted to sell one more big soundtrack CD since this is the last one! The 3D effects were well done (nothing overused), but I still found it totally unnecessary to enjoy the film (I'll be glad when the 3D fad wears off). Shrek Forever After is a fun movie that does a fine job of ending the Shrek saga, and it was nice to laugh out loud and enjoy a cool animated comedy!