Monday, January 09, 2017

Movies: Awards Season Review-a-rama

As it does every year, last night's Golden Globe Awards began in earnest the jockeying, campaigning, and cajoling for the Academy Awards (nominations voting closes this Friday). Here are some movies I've seen this year that are sure to be in the running when the envelopes are opened February 26th...

Arrival - This mid-budget alien encounter movie is based on a 1998 short story from Ted Chiang, and it shows. While Amy Adams turns in a fine performance as a linguist trying to comprehend the inscrutable heptapods, there isn't much plot to fill the two-hour runtime, and the dramatic stakes never feel very high. One of two sci-fi movies this year to waste the talents of Forest Whitaker. Rating: 7/10

Captain Fantastic -



A Viggo Mortensen vehicle that follows an isolated hippie family as they attempt to attend the funeral of their mother. If you've seen "Little Miss Sunshine," you've seen all these dramedy beats, but in a much funnier, more cohesive way. Still, I did like the performances from the young ensemble cast. Rating: 6/10

Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson's escape from Hollywood Jail is a biopic about someone as blemish-less as can be: WWII hero Desmond Doss. You'll like the aw-shucks performance from Andrew Garfield and the sweet portrayal of Doss's marriage; you'll cringe at the over-the-top gore and violence of the battle scenes. It's not bad, but it's not "Saving Private Ryan" Rating: 7/10

Hell or High Water -



Chris Pine's big problem is that, despite having true Tinseltown bona fides (he worked as a Roger Corman production assistant, for heaven's sake), he's too good-looking to be taken seriously as an actor. He's trying hard, though, as shown by this gritty modern Western heist film set in the sleepy towns of West Texas. Pine and co-star Ben Foster have a fun sibling chemistry that you don't see very often in movies, and it gives the film's finale unexpected emotional heft. Rating: 8/10

La La Land -


The 800 pound gorilla of awards season, "La La Land" gleefully ticks off all the checkboxes to appeal to Academy voters. Story about making movies? Got it. Old Hollywood song and dance? In spades. Soulful performances by a couple we love to see onscreen? You know it. What's surprising is that it also brings back some of the tonal complexity that Hollywood has forgotten - more "Casablanca" than "The Notebook." The movie's occasionally brought down by the so-so vocal performances of the two leads (who, in fairness, never claimed to be great singers), but it still deserves front-runner status. Rating: 8/10

Moana -


It was a mild upset when "Zootopia" took home the Golden Globe for best animated picture last night, but it was guaranteed that one of the two Disney behemoths this year would win. Of the two, I think "Moana" is the better film. It's a small movie in some respects (there are only really two characters), but epic Polynesian mythology and an outsized vocal turn from the Rock give it a big heart. Rating: 8/10

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Music: 2016 Holiday Album-a-palooza

This was an unusually rich year in Christmas music, so let's look at some of the best albums to spin at your holiday get-together:

"Falling Snow," The Gothard Sisters

I had the pleasure of taking in a live performance by these talented sisters this year, and not surprisingly, "Falling Snow" is excellent - one of the best Celtic Christmas albums I've ever heard. If you want something to surprise your guests with, try the fiddle runs on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen":




"Christmas Party," She & Him

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have been playing music together for a solid decade now - so long that they've released a second Christmas album, "Christmas Party." Yeah, it's twee and tailor-made for a Starbucks near you, but darn it, you have to respect the straight-ahead versions of holiday classics like "Mele Kalikimaka" and "All I Want for Christmas is You":




"Wonderland," Sarah McLachlan

Sarah McLachlan also made another holiday album this year, and it's a heckuva lot more cheerful and commercial than her mournful 2006 release, "Wintersong." Whether that's good or bad depends on your mood - do you want sad music for abused pets, or something that you can sing along with? If it's the latter, go with "Wonderland":

Movies: "Rachael...We're home"

Fun Fact: Under federal law, Harrison Ford must star in a single sequel to every genre film he has ever made, even if it is decades after the original(s):

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Miscellany: Silverball Museum, Delray Beach

I largely missed the tail end of the pinball era, those glory days when skating rink lobbies and family fun centers still had a couple of pins alongside "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Street Fighter II." In fact, by the time I could frequent those places with my own money, the home consoles were starting to kill arcade videogames - the corpse of pinball was already cold.

If you care for a little necrophilia, though, you should probably visit the Silverball Museum, a collection of dozens of playable pinball machines, classic videogames, and other amusements in downtown Delray Beach.



This is a pinball fan's nirvana - for a nominal entrance fee (from $7.50 to $25, depending on how long you want to stay there) you get unlimited play on machines from as early as the '60s and '70s (back when scoring was done with electromechanical reels) all the way to Midway's final, great pinball machines of the '90s, like "The Twilight Zone" and "The Addams Family." You can also eat food and drink beer on both the first and second floor (it's basically a retro "barcade").

Here's a fun one I played - Williams' Gorgar (1979), the first commercially released talking pinball machine, complete with Boris Vallejo-y fantasy art:



All the machines have informational placards and high score trackers, for the true pinball buffs:



There are a few things I didn't like about the Silverball Museum. They pipe in classic rock through speakers, which appeals to the Baby Boomer target demographic, but makes the place unnecessarily loud. There are also usually several machines that are "under restoration" (i.e., down for repairs), which is a bummer considering the price of admission. Still, this is a fun stop for anyone in the area, and well worth a visit.

Miscellany: "It's a me, marketing!"

So just in time to coincide with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, I learn Nintendo is doing this:



Yup, you are soon going to be able to ride a Koopa Coaster and drink cold beverages from a souvenir Piranha Plant pipe. I am reminded of a quote from Tam: "We must've reached the fat part of our earning curves; pop culture nostalgia is catering to us now!"

Music: Dirt Road

Southern Culture on the Skids is often pigeonholed as a greasy-fried hillbilly party/parody band, but I think that's unfair. Sure, the trio of Rick Miller, Dave Hartman, and Mary Huff have been making scores of songs about backwoods food and sex (sometimes both at once) since 1987, but their most recent album, "The Electric Pinecones," showcases a lot of real musicianship and fun psychedelic rock influences (the record name comes from SCOTS' side project, "The Pinecones," which sometimes opened for the "real" band).

My favorite track is "Dirt Road," which the band describes as a "three-minute ode to séances, thunderstorms and good lovin’ long gone." It's just a genuinely good folk/rockabilly song, with a haunting vocal from Huff and a smokin' guitar solo from Miller in the bridge:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Food: Cubans on the Run

Fidel Castro leaves behind a decidedly mixed legacy, but one happy accident of his dictatorship was the spread of the Cuban sandwich: ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard between two toasted loaves of Cuban bread. You see, Castro's repressive regime prompted thousands of exiles to flee to Florida, making this wonderful concoction the semi-official sandwich of Miami.

What non-Floridians might not know, though, is that the Cuban sandwich is everywhere in this state. You can actually find some of the best sandwich shops in places like Tampa and Orlando - shops like Cubans on the Run, an unassuming diner off a highway in Casselberry.


The place is open breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and serves up mostly-authentic Cuban-American food at rock-bottom prices. You can get a standard Cuban, hot off the press, for five dollars, with fancier steak and chicken options available for a couple bucks extra. There are also other standard Cuban entrées available, including picadillo, palomilla steak, and ropa vieja.



Don't expect much in the way of ambiance - food is served in plastic baskets or takeout containers, and the inside is bereft of the faux-Havana accoutrements that you might find in a fancier Cuban restaurant further south. Still, I mostly grade restaurants on the food they serve, and Cubans on the Run gets a hearty...

3/4 stars

Viva Cuba Libre!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Guns: S&W 686 PC review (2.5" snubnose) - Plus Size Performance

Introduction


Smith & Wesson's Performance Center turns out some fascinating semi-custom guns of dubious utility, like the subject of today's review - the 686 Plus PC snub. It's designed as a high-end .357 magnum concealed carry option and comes equipped with all sorts of literal chrome, but is it worth the thousand-dollar asking price?

First Impressions

The 686 PC has a slab-sided 2.5" barrel that actually conceals pretty well. Unfortunately, the barrel is mated to a standard 686P frame and 7-shot cylinder, as well as long wood grips. The package positively dwarfs more reasonably-sized belt revolvers like the Model 60 Pro and the 642.  It also weighs 34 ounces, making it almost impossible to carry in anything other than an OWB belt holster.


In hand, the gun feels pretty good. The slim finger-grooved wood grips won't be to everyone's taste, but they are nicely stippled and don't add additional bulk to the backstrap. The sights are also excellent - the big bright red-orange front ramp is mated with an adjustable rear sight, which is perfect for a personal defense revolver that can fire everything from .38 wadcutters to full-tilt magnums.



The 686 PC has a chromed trigger (with overtravel stop), a chromed hammer, and an unfluted hammer cut for moonclips (actually carrying the moonclips as a reload is impractical, but they do ease the emptying of the first cylinder of fired shells in a fight). The Performance Center also performs an action job on the gun, giving it a very smooth and light trigger pull in both single and double action.

Cosmetically, I dock the 686 PC several style points because the front sight juts out of the dovetail on both sides, and because it sports a ridiculously large ".357 Mag 7x" billboard etched on the left side of the barrel.

Range Report

In my hands, the short barrel and sight radius somewhat hampered performance from the big snub, at least compared to a conventional 4" barrel 686. I managed to get okay accuracy at 15 yards out of my handloads (158 gr. Speer lead SWCHP over 3.2 gr. Bullseye), but other revolvers can certainly do better, even when yours truly is pulling shots everywhere:


Remington 125 gr. Golden Saber registered similar accuracy (ignore the leftmost shot). This is a pretty light load:


Next up was Magtech 158 grainers, which were all over the place. To be fair, the huge, blinding muzzle flash might have been a factor:


One good characteristic of this revolver is that because of the tuned action and the relatively large frame/grip size, you can still be quite accurate at range with a double-action pull. One bad characteristic of this revolver is that the lightened springs can lead to light primer strikes when the gun is dirty (I believe this is because some of the hammer's impact energy is wasted pushing the round forwards into the cylinder). Another problem is S&W's infamous key lock, which really doesn't belong in a defensive revolver.


Though this gun can certainly handle a steady diet of .357, and the recoil from such loads is not bad at all, I'd still probably carry it with .38 +Ps. Here are two cylinders' worth of Remington HTP 158 gr. +P lead hollowpoints (a/k/a the poor man's "FBI load") at 15 yards:


Conclusion

So would I recommend this gun? Probably not. Though the work done by the Performance Center is pretty good, the 686 PC doesn't exist in a vacuum. Compared with a standard 686 2.5" snub, you're paying about a $250 premium for (1) grips that you may or may not like, (2) a trigger stop that you don't really need, (3) a slab-sided barrel that doesn't seem to improve accuracy, and (4) a cylinder cut for moonclips that are finicky and hard to carry. For most people, I think the better option is to buy the standard snub and do the work you want to it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Books: The Paper Menagerie


Author Ken Liu and I have a few things in common, in that we're both Chinese-American attorneys with a background in computers. It's no great surprise, then, that I enjoyed "The Paper Menagerie," Liu's collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories. Some of the 15 works here are new, most are previously published, but the quality of the stories is uniformly high, and they all draw on Liu's background in some way or another.

There are technology-focused tales, like "The Perfect Match" (a man struggles with an overbearing Siri-like computer) and "Simulacrum" (a man creates a semi-conscious hologram of his daughter). These essentially read like episodes of "Black Mirror" - except they are way better than the actual episodes of "Black Mirror." There are also fantasy stories ("Good Hunting") which draw heavily from Chinese culture. They're fun, and very different from Western fantasy (if you like what's here, check out Liu's silkpunk novels, starting with "The Grace of Kings").

Occasionally, things get poignant for poignancy's sake. I thought some of the emotional beats in "The Regular" and title story "The Paper Menagerie" were forced, for instance, but they were undeniably dramatic. It's merely a small quibble with Liu's writing style; if you like science fiction or fantasy at all, you'll probably like the book.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day


Michael, Byron, and Mitch, thank you for your service, and happy Veterans Day!

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