Saturday, November 28, 2015

Movies: Defying Dogma Docudrama Double Feature

I like superhero movies, action flicks, and schlocky comedies as much as the next guy, but there are definitely times when I'm in the mood for something a little less "furious" - a film with no explosions, car chases, or gunfights. 

Here are a couple of dramas I saw recently that fit the bill - both explore the theme of obedience to authority and "the system":


Every first year psychology course talks about the famous Milgram experiment - which tests whether a subject will follow orders to deliver a series of increasingly severe electric shocks to a stranger. The shocks are fake, but the susceptibility of a person to a pitiless authority figure is all too real. "Experimenter" looks at the man behind that experiment - Stanley Milgram:

This isn't your typical prestige biopic. The fact that Milgram's work was inspired by the Holocaust is mentioned, but you never get the feeling that he is a moral crusader. The film also doesn't have many characters aside from Milgram's wife, Alexandra - and his relationship with her is only sketched out in the broadest of strokes. Things never bog down because of the brisk running time, but it's a pretty dry film if you're looking for personal drama.

No, the real fascination here is in human behavior. The film lavishes attention on Milgram's research, and several different experiments are illustrated onscreen (Peter Sarsgaard even breaks the fourth wall to comment about them). If, as Milgram suggests, knowledge is the best way to avoid blind obedience, then this movie will leave you a little more inoculated against "just following orders."

Rating: 6/10


By now, the widespread sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy is so well known that people have made entire films about it, but it wasn't always so. "Spotlight" tells the story of the Boston Globe's eponymous investigative journalism team, as they unravel the systemic concealment and protection of pedophile priests in Massachusetts:

There's always a temptation to lionize the heroes and demonize the villains in a movie like this, but "Spotlight" does a good job of just telling the story and letting the drama emerge. With an exposé of this magnitude, there were already plenty of internal and external pressures facing the Spotlight team (played by a fine ensemble including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams). There was no need for director Thomas McCarthy to add more for the sake of drama.

Make no mistake, the film is not sympathetic to the Church, and it's clear who you should root for. Still, a final reveal toward the end of the movie throws a bucket of cold water on the rah-rah journalism message that you might have expected, and sends a very clear message: all evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Guns: Ruger LC380 review - The Big Baby


Firearms manufacturers are generally obsessed with pushing the envelope, either by ramping up cartridge power to ever-higher levels, or by stuffing the same round into ever-smaller guns. The Ruger LC380 is a break from that trend, however. Like other largish .380s (SIG's P250 or the Browning 1911-380), the LC380 mates the relatively docile .380 ACP with a 9mm-sized frame that you can get a full grip on. But is there any point to owning a pistol that is purposely underpowered?


In essence, the LC380 is the same as Ruger's LC9 single-stack 9mm handgun, except chambered in .380. Aside from the caliber switch, the guns are identical, to the point where they share the same instruction manual (note that Ruger doesn't even offer the regular LC9 any more, and has been replacing all those old models with the superior striker-fired LC9s):

The LC380 reminds us that timing is everything. If the gun had been released 15 years ago, it would've been one of the smallest and lightest .380 pistols in the world. Sizewise, the LC380 is comparable to a Walther PPK, but much lighter, and it fits almost anywhere except for a pocket.

Of course, nowadays the LC380 has to contend with stiff competition from much smaller polymer pocket .380s, including the mack daddy of the market segment, Ruger's own LCP:

Still, the LC380 is much more comfortable in hand than the little pocket guns, since the grip and magazines are all 9mm-sized. In order to accommodate the shorter overall length of the .380 cartridge, the LC380's magazines have a steel insert that prevents rounds from seating too far back:

Unfortunately, the LC380 is also saddled with the unnecessary "features" that come on the standard LC9, like an internal key lock, a magazine disconnect, and Ruger's comical "ski jump" loaded chamber indicator:


Like the LC9/LC9s, the LC380 wears a set of decent three-dot sights, with the front being fixed and the rear being drift adjustable. They're a bit small in absolute terms, but they're fine for this size of pistol, and quite precise.

The LC380 trigger is a heavy double-action affair that instantly reminds you why the company switched to a superlight GLOCK-style trigger in its newer LC9s series. The LC380's trigger is smooth enough, I guess, and good next to other small .380 pistols, but it's terrible compared to other single-stack nines like the Walther PPS.


It's really only at the firing line where the LC380's compromises start to make sense. The gun was very pleasant to shoot, with felt recoil more in line with a .22 than a 9mm. There's a hefty ballistic penalty, of course, but having an extra 150 foot pounds of energy is meaningless if you can't control it.

I found the LC380 to be more accurate, practically speaking, than all the pocket .380s. Here are some sixteen shot groups at ten yards, shot standing and offhand, with garden-variety FMJs:

The gun was also completely reliable over several hundred rounds. Again, this is an improvement over many tiny .380s.


Shootability is something that doesn't show up on a gunmaker's specifications page, but in a lot of ways, it's more important than having the most muzzle energy or the lightest gun. The LC380, for all of its flaws, is an inexpensive shootable piece that would make a great beginner's gun.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spooky Shangrila 2015 - Slasher Girls & Monster Boys

The season of fear is here, and all this month, I'll be putting up some spine-tingling Halloween-themed posts to set the stage for the 31st...

Happy Halloween everyone! If you're anything like me, you're spending the night handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, watching old slasher movies, and curling up with a spooky book. For those who want a faceful of young adult horror, look no further than "Slasher Girls & Monster Boys":

It's an anthology of horror short stories edited by April Genevieve Tucholke ("Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea").  The 14 tales mostly feature young female protagonists, and they're all explicitly inspired by other works. The story "In the Forest Dark and Deep," for example, is an unsettling take on Lewis Carroll's March Hare, while the dark exploration of the costs of fame in "Verse Chorus Verse" comes from a Nirvana song.

This is a pretty good collection - there really isn't a clunker in the bunch, and some of the best stories are impressively moody.  My personal favorite is probably "Hide-and-Seek" by Megan Shepherd, which crosses the Rube Goldberg personification of Death from "Final Destination" with the white-knuckle Appalachian survival mindset of "The Hunger Games."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Spooky Shangrila 2015 - The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You To Read

The season of fear is here, and all this month, I'll be putting up some spine-tingling Halloween-themed posts to set the stage for the 31st...

It's weird to think of in these days of gritty, Frank Miller-y superhero reboots, but there was a time when the comics industry was heavily self-censored. Gore, sex, and even words like "crime" or "horror" couldn't be used in comics, all thanks to a frenzy of public concern over pulpy stories ruining America's youth.

"The Horror! The Horror!" is a retrospective and collection of some of the '50s comics that people found so objectionable back in the day. In the book, writer Jim Trombetta cracks open his personal collection and reveals a treasure trove of striking covers and twisted stories:

These comics had to stand out in a crowded newsstand, so they all feature garish art and outsized titles. You'll see faces melted off, dastardly skeletons menacing damsels in distress, and terrors from beyond the grave (and the sea, and the stars).

There's a lesson here, though - if you try to control what people are allowed to say, you'll prevent them from saying anything meaningful, too, such as Maxwell Gaines's legendary story of racial prejudice, "Judgment Day."

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Spooky Shangrila 2015: Tips and Tricks for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios

The season of fear is here, and all this month, I'll be putting up some spine-tingling Halloween-themed posts to set the stage for the 31st...

On certain nights in October, Universal Studios Orlando turns into a macabre playground of haunted houses, "Scareactors," and dark delights...Halloween Horror Nights...

My friends and I have been hanging out at HHN for years, and we've learned quite a bit about how to make the night go smoothly. So, in celebration of HHN's 25th anniversary, here is our advice for newbies to the event:

1. Buy an Express Pass - Base HHN tickets are temptingly priced at around $50, with the Express Pass upgrade running an extra $100 or so. However, you need to buy the upgrade (unless you want to spend most of the night standing in line). The regular wait for a popular haunted house, like this year's "Freddy vs. Jason," can reach two hours; the Express Pass lines usually average 20-30 minutes. Pay the money and thank me later.

2. Eat before you enter - There are some decent places to chow down in the CityWalk area outside the park (my friends swear by The Cowfish), but once you're inside, you're relegated to the same overpriced fast-food they always serve at Universal.

3. Don't carry your gun in - For HHN, Universal sets up metal detectors at the entrance, and it's not somewhere you can tote your CCW. Unlike a lot of so-called "gun-free" zones, though, they do have armed police officers and security everywhere, so I can live with the restriction for a night.

4. Go back to front - If you're planning on doing HHN right when the gates open, you'll be best served by skipping the houses near the front of the park and marching to the back (the strip of land from "A Day in the Park with Barney" to "Men in Black"). There are usually a few houses in close proximity here, and if you're quick, you can easily knock out them out before the wait times get too crazy.

5. There's time to check out non-HHN stuff - Many of the park's normal rides are open during the night, with smaller crowds and shorter lines than a normal day. If you're not a regular visitor to Universal, it might be worth it to take 20 minutes and ride "Transformers," sample a Butterbeer in Diagon Alley, or simply enjoy the atmosphere in a walk around the park.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Spooky Shangrila 2015 - A V/H/S Vivisection

The season of fear is here, and all this month, I'll be putting up some spine-tingling Halloween-themed posts to set the stage for the 31st...

The "V/H/S" series merges two time-honored strains of horror cinema - the anthology movie, and the found footage genre. Like all anthologies, though, the quality of individual segments varies wildly. For those who are short on time, here's a "Mulliga edit" of the stories in each film, so you can skip to the good ones...


Frame Story (SKIP) - A group of thugs is hired to break into a house and steal a videotape - spooky stuff happens within. These segments, like the movie in general, run too long.

Amateur Night (SEE) - Three friends want to film their sexual exploits with a couple of women, but they get more than they bargained for. A fun mix of skin, gore, and nausea-inducing shaky-cam.

Second Honeymoon (SKIP) - A couple goes to the Grand Canyon for a second honeymoon. Honestly, I thought this one was pretty forgettable.

Tuesday the 17th (SKIP) - Campers are stalked in the woods by a mysterious killer. This short is really only notable because of the cool "VHS tracking error" visual effects.

The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger (SEE) - A girl's videochats with her boyfriend reveal a disturbing infection. This is sort of the precursor to modern "social media" films like "Unfriended" and "Open Windows." It's worth a watch.

10/31/98 (SKIP) - Friends stumble onto a haunted house on Halloween. Competently done, but lacks the intensity you might expect from a story like this.


Frame Story (SEE) - A private investigator looks into the disappearance of a college student. The moody lighting makes these interstitial segments worth viewing.

Phase I Clinical Trials (SEE) - An optic implant gives a man the ability to see beyond the grave. This short plays fast and loose with the rules of the "found" footage genre, but it has a pleasant pace and a good, unsettling climax.

A Ride in the Park (SKIP) - A first-person encounter with a zombie outbreak. I liked the birthday party bit, but otherwise, there aren't too many surprises here.

Safe Haven (MUST SEE) - A news crew investigates a cult in Indonesia. This is easily the best short in the entire "V/H/S" series - it obeys the conventions of the genre, it puts together a half-dozen indelible images, and the finale is about as nightmarish as anything you'll see on film.

Slumber Party Alien Abduction (SKIP) - Aliens invade a slumber party. Lots of random loud noises and flashing lights, but it never really goes anywhere.

V/H/S: Viral

Frame Story (SKIP) - Viral video of a high-speed pursuit threatens to overwhelm people's senses. This frame story sorta drags the whole movie down - I appreciate that it tried to go full Quatermass with the ending, but it made little sense.

Dante the Great (SEE) - A magician finds a mysterious cloak that grants incredible power...for a price. I like that they wove in real-life illusion tricks, so I thought this one was fun.

Parallel Monsters (SEE) - There's a universe parallel to ours, with some strange differences. This short is great the first time through because of the surprise factor, but it loses a lot on subsequent viewings.

Bonestorm (SKIP) - Skateboarders have a violent tangle with a Mexican cult. There are some fun action scenes, but this short is too long and doesn't develop its characters as well as something like "Safe Haven."

Gorgeous Vortex (SKIP - this short was cut from the theatrical release) - A beautiful woman tries to escape from a secret society. A little too abstract for my taste, and it deviates so far from the found footage formula that it was rightfully cut.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Dragon Con 2015 Recap - Celestial Objects

My friends and I spent Labor Day weekend at Dragon Con, the Southeast's largest multigenre fan convention. If you've never been, imagine 70,000 fantasy and sci-fi fans packed into about 7 square blocks of downtown Atlanta, many of them in costume, many of them sleep-deprived, all of them going from one place to another. Sound like fun? You bet it is!

This year, we opted to dress up as characters from the "Saint's Row" series of videogames. I commissioned a giant Professor Genki head, complete with a battery-powered ventilation system:

From left to right - Johnny Gat (Ziggyzeitgeist), Professor Genki (me), and Kinzie Kensington (Spookysquid):

Tessa was able to join in on the fun this year - hooray!

One of the highlights of the con was a two-hour live performance by the Georgia Philharmonic:

They recreated the famous Diva Dance scene from "The Fifth Element" (with soprano Julie Trammel cosplaying as Diva Plavalaguna):

Of course, music is all around the con. Geekapella was performing right outside the vendor hall:

Ziggyzeitgeist ran our annual 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons game. This year's tale centered on the last, lonely ride of the Agave Kid, and, as usual, it was the highlight of the con. We now have several regular friends who play with us every year, so I suppose it's not a "pick-up" game anymore, but whatever:

Lines, lines, lines - only at Dragon Con would a panel featuring the "Mass Effect" voice-actors attract this many fans:

People cosplay everywhere at the con, including the gaming room underneath the Hilton:

The Marriott Marquis hotel lobby becomes a writhing sea of foam-clad humanity at night:

The annual blood drive had cool Lugosi-as-Dracula-themed T-shirts this year, and it was as crowded as ever:

Officially, Dragon Con lasts four days, but there's not too much going on Thursday and Monday (Labor Day). It always seems to end too soon. Oh well - see you next year...

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Guns: A Gun Rag Gazetteer

I pick up my fair share of dead-tree shooting magazines, mostly for something to read when I'm tired of staring at a screen. They all have their charms (even the poorly-written ones are chock full of glossy pictures and advertisements), so here's a quick overview of some of my bathroom reading rack for this month...

Shooting Illustrated
This NRA publication is basically "American Rifleman" minus all the hunting and historical stuff. Instead, there's a focus on personal defense, competition shooting, and firearms esoterica (let's handload for your Mosin-Nagant!). Tam is a contributor, and it's cheap, too - only $20 a year for NRA members. 
Interesting Article: A feature on "The Mad Minute" by Ed Head
Featured Gun Review: Kimber Micro Carry .380 ACP
Iffy Content: An interview with author Brad Thor about gear used in his novel

Jerry Tsai's infamous anti-gun take on "sporting purposes" temporarily made this publication a pariah, but a quick switch in editors (and a gung-ho pro-2A change in tone) have allowed advertisers and shooters to embrace it for what it is: gussied-up ad-copy for the latest expensive Blastomatic.
Interesting Article: Training and fitness tips from Buck Doyle of Follow Through Consulting.
Featured Gun Review: DPMS Gen II .308 AR
Iffy Content: Agency Arms G34 "review" (note - not a knock on the company or its custom GLOCKs, which I'm sure are fine - I just thought the article was pure fluffery)

This quarterly bills itself as "The Premier Firearms & Survival Magazine" - not sure if that's the case, but it certainly is the premier magazine of Tactical-Life publications, which puts out a bunch of other "tactical" gun rags.
Interesting Article: A survey/Q&A with various firearms celebs (think Chris Cheng, Bill Wilson) about what gun they use for home defense.
Featured Gun Review: Rainier Arms PDW (it's a gun rag - of course they're going to feature a $2,000 NFA firearm)
Iffy Content: An article about surviving a malfunctioning elevator. Really?

American Shooting Journal
A monthly gun magazine that's about as cheap as it can be - $5 on the newsstand, 36 issue subscription for $50. Of course, most of the pages are absolutely stuffed with ads, so it all evens out. There are articles here you won't find anywhere else, and Oleg contributes photos.
Interesting Article: A bio on Gabrielle Pitre, an 18 year-old master-classified high-power shooter
Featured Gun Review: Big Horn Armory Model 1889 .500 S&W
Iffy Content: A lengthy feature on Battle Comp - treads a bit too close to infomercial territory

This is basically Guns & Ammo's take on the glitzy modern gun magazine, designed for a younger demographic than, say, Shotgun News. It's pretty expensive compared to the others ($9), though, and a bit light on content overall.
Interesting Article: Guns of "Terminator Genisys" (I normally hate these types of articles, but it's a cool look at Harry Lu and his movie armory)
Featured Gun Review: Grey Ghost Precision Specter Heavy .308
Iffy Content: A feature on Jeremy Stafford and his Krav Maga AK Operator and Foreign Weapons Course - again, not a hit on the training, but I've read plenty of better training AARs on webforums

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Books: Augie and the Green Knight

I've participated in plenty of Kickstarters, but few as whimsical as the one for  "Augie and the Green Knight", a children's book written by Zach Weinersmith (of SMBC) and French comic artist Boulet. If you like quirky stuff like the promo below, you're probably going to like the book:

The story's heroine is Augie, a young girl from our time who stumbles into an enchanted forest one chilly day. There, she finds the treant-like Green Knight, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. After Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in a playful beheading game (to no ill effect), Gawain learns that he must come to the Green Knight's castle in a year to be decapitated in turn. Can Augie help Gawain avoid this fate with the power of law and logic? Will the Green Knight ever learn that people don't like to be decapitated? Why is there a newt here?

The book is a charming, modern (but mostly faithful) take on the centuries-old tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Like all good children's books, there are some lessons to be learned (Augie is smart, but not wise, and eventually figures out that rules need reasons), but the lighthearted illustrations and tongue-in-cheek narrative make sure you don't take it too seriously. If you have a kid, this would be a great book to read aloud to them, a chapter at a time, until Sir Gawain's quest reaches its conclusion.

TV: Penn & Teller - Fool Us

I've long been a fan of the libertarian comedy-magic stylings of Penn & Teller, and their new show, "Fool Us," has the most intriguing premise in televised magic since "Breaking the Magician's Code":

Every episode, several professional magicians perform a routine live in front of Penn & Teller (as well as a packed auditorium at the Rio in Las Vegas). After the performance is finished, Penn & Teller try to figure out how the trick was done. If they can, they drop hints and references to the magician indicating as much; if they can't, the magician is invited to perform as Penn & Teller's opening act. Finally, at the end of each show, Penn & Teller perform one of their own tricks for the audience.

I think "Fool Us" is a hit because it isn't a reality show competition, like you might expect. Instead, Penn & Teller treat the show as an opportunity to showcase the art and craft of magic. All of the performers are professional magicians, some of them nearly as famous as Penn & Teller (Mac King did a routine, for instance), and by keeping the quality of the magic high, the show is more intriguing than if there were a bunch of amateurs onstage. You'll see some truly wondrous things, like this performance from FISM World Champion Shin Lim (easily one of the most astounding things I've seen on TV):

Site Meter