Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

This one goes out to my friends in New Orleans, America's spookiest city:



There's a rocking chair by the window down the hall
I hear something there in the shadow down the hall
O you were a vampire and now I am nothing at all
O you were a vampire and now I am nothing at all

I got the ways and means to New Orleans
I'm going down by the river where it's warm and green
I'm gonna have a drink, and walk around
I got a lot to think about oh yeah oh yeah

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shangrila Shock-Tober 2011 - Cheezy Horror Trailers

All Hallows' Eve draws near, and, as usual, Shangrila Towers will be running a series of themed posts covering all sorts of scares, spooks, and shocks. This time, we look at collection of vintage horror trailers.

Cheezy Flicks specializes in the kind of old B-movies that end up on "Mystery Science Theatre 3000." You know the type - bad dialogue, low budgets, iffy editing. Stuff like "Inn of the Damned" and "The Cyclops."

It can be hard to actually sit through one of these movies, so Cheezy Flicks conveniently packaged a bunch of their trailers for easy consumption. Most of the previewed movies are pretty bad, but there are some cult classics here, too, like "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" and the original "My Bloody Valentine." Most importantly, the collections are free to view on YouTube, and make for great background viewing at your Halloween party:

(skip to 2:05 for the trailers)


(skip to 2:05 for the trailers)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Guns: Jerry Miculek Practical Rifle DVD review

Some people claim that practical shooting competitions aren't useful preparation for real-world gunfights. Those people should probably avoid invading the home of Jerry Miculek, a living legend in the world of competitive shooting:



"Jerry Miculek Practical Rifle" is a three DVD instructional course from Brownells that covers the use of the AR-15 in practical rifle matches. Obviously, you can't watch Mr. Miculek and expect to shoot like him, any more than you could watch Michael Jordan and expect to slam dunk from the foul line - but it can't hurt to see the best in the business doing his stuff, either.

In the first disc, Miculek covers the fundamentals of shooting and explains the set-up of a competition AR (including what he uses on his own rifle). The next two discs are all about practical shooting competition, including techniques for various positions, strategies for handling multiple targets, and tips on how to interact with common obstacles and props:



The content is pretty solid, but I think the DVDs would have benefited from better editing; there are frequent title card sequences, slow-motion takes, and repeats of segments from different angles, all of which hurt the watchability of the video. Unlike Magpul's "The Art of the..." series, you can't really roll through the video from front to back without it getting a little boring. Still, in small doses, there are a lot of good tips here, making "Jerry Miculek Practical Rifle" a worthy addition to your shooting library.

Shangrila Shock-Tober 2011 - Shock Festival

All Hallows' Eve draws near, and, as usual, Shangrila Towers will be running a series of themed posts covering all sorts of scares, spooks, and shocks. Today's post features the ultimate coffee table book for grindhouse cinema afficionados...


"Shock Festival" brings Jorge Luis Borges to the world of schlocky B-movies. Written, illustrated, and designed by Stephen Romano and a team of artists and publishers (including Mike Broom, Tim Bradstreet, and Thomas Jane), the book is a glorious, grue-soaked "alternate history" of movies that never were, a mockumentary that both celebrates and makes fun of the excesses of low-budget cinema. Take a look at the trailer for the book's companion DVD to see what I mean:



If it were just words, "Shock Festival" might have been a tedious or self-indulgent exercise. Thankfully, the book plasters fake movie posters on every page (here's a gallery) - posters good enough to let you picture each fictional movie in your mind's eye (granted, a title like "Lone Star Living Dead Axe Maniac Showdown" doesn't leave much to the imagination). After awhile, Romano achieves the satirist's greatest goal: you'll swear you've seen "Universe of Bloody Zombies" and "Space Robot Massacre" in some grimy theater somewhere.

Music: All Hours review


Ivy, my favorite indie pop band, disappeared for awhile after the release of "In The Clear" in 2005. Though that album featured some great pop songs, it was getting obvious that Ivy had taken their signature sound (breathy mantra-like Parisian vocals, layers of jangly guitar lines) about as far as it could go. What was intended as a brief hiatus became an extended departure as the band struggled to cobble together something fresh.

Six years later, Ivy has finally returned with "All Hours," a CD of 11 new tracks, including the leadoff single "Distant Lights":



There's nary a guitar in earshot on "Distant Lights." Instead, you'll find a club-ready bassline and catchy keyboard hooks, with the nocturnal feel continuing through the rest of the album. I particularly enjoyed the cheesy '80s synth vibe of cuts like "Fascinated" and "How's Never;" as Ivy frontwoman Dominique Durand notes, listening to this part of "All Hours" is like being inside a Greek discothèque.

I found the latter half of the album to be a bit too mellow; songs like "I Still Want You" and "The Conversation" sometimes step over the line from hypnotic to somnambulent. In the aggregate, though, this is a seductive collection of songs that bring to mind 4 A.M. cab rides, conversations shouted over the din of a throbbing dance floor, and chance meetings that lead to "Eight more hours in your chair/Dirty clothes and dirty hair."

Shangrila Shock-tober 2011 - American Horror Story

All Hallows' Eve draws near, and, as usual, Shangrila Towers will be running a series of themed posts covering all sorts of scares, spooks, and shocks. Today's post looks at a new horror series on FX Network...


The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre, but it's proven difficult to adapt the concept to a weekly episodic TV series. If you were the resident of such a place, would you stick around for weeks on end while spooky stuff kept happening to you?

"American Horror Story," a series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (the guys behind "Nip/Tuck" and "Glee"), takes a different tack. Rather than try to keep things logical, it deluges the viewer with bizarre occurrences and psychosexual drama:



In the show, the Harmon family moves to California looking for a fresh start after Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) suffers a miscarriage and catches her husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) having an affair with a younger woman. Unfortunately, the Harmons decide to move into a house with a history of murders and violent incidents; in short order, they encounter an old housekeeper, a mysterious scarred man, and a strange neighbor, all of whom may or may not be ghosts.

If the first two episodes are any indication, AHS plans to pay homage to (or steal, depending on your point of view) elements from dozens of different horror films, including "The Shining," "The Sixth Sense," and "Psycho." The references are too random at times, since practically everything in the house is a hook for horror, from the strange fetish suit in the attic to the grotesque mural underneath the wallpaper.

Thankfully, the cast is strong enough to make the show watchable despite its scattershot plotting. There's a lot of acting firepower here, especially from veterans Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy (their characters participate in a matronly battle of wills that simmers on the screen). If your interests are more prurient, the series isn't afraid to show lots of skin in the form of sexy mom Vivien, a seductive maid played by Alex Breckenridge, and plenty of Dylan McDer-Butt.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Guns: Kahr CM9 review - Plebian Pocket Pistol


Introduction - The Pocket Nine Battlefield, Circa 2011

Kahr's slim PM9 pistol used to be the only choice if you wanted to pocket carry a 9mm. Times have changed, though, and the Kel-Tec PF9 and the Ruger LC9 have carved huge chunks out of Kahr's market share (both guns retail for hundreds less than the relatively pricey PM9).

Kahr's solution: Nix a lot of the bells and whistles on the PM9 in order to get a cheaper gun out the door. The end result is the CM9, a pistol that supposedly retains all of the PM9's functionality at a much lower asking price (about $200 lower, actually). Kahr makes no secret of which corners it has cut on the CM9:


First Impressions

Kahr's CM9 is very similar to the ubiquitous S&W J-Frame revolvers in both size and weight; the revolvers are about an ounce lighter, thicker than the Kahr around the cylinder and grip areas, and thinner than the Kahr everywhere else. Like my trusty S&W 642, the CM9 is fairly easy to carry in a medium-size front or side pocket (dress slacks, khakis, most shorts) but probably won't work in anything smaller (rear pockets, most denim jean pockets):


The only practical difference between the CM9 and the PM9 is that the CM9 comes with one magzine instead of two (Kahr's offering a limited time extra mag promo, so if you grab a CM9 soon, even that difference is erased). The guns are the same weight, the same size, and are about equal in terms of accuracy and reliability.

Quirks and Quibbles

Since the CM9 is so similar to the rest of the Kahr line, it shares some of the same problems. For starters, in my gun, the 6-round mags do not fall free when empty; you need to physically pull the mag out of the gun to reload. I imagine it'd be pretty hard to do under stress.

The long Kahr trigger also takes some getting used to. In many ways, it resembles a revolver's trigger, but it lacks the strong return of a true double action. Resetting the CM9 trigger fully takes more concentration than it does in a J-Frame snubnose, which threw off my shooting at first.

Shooting Performance, Round 1

The CM9 turned in a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance at the range. It malfunctioned repeatedly in the first box of ammo (PMC Bronze 115 gr FMJ), and experienced a wide variety of failures - sometimes the slide didn't pick up a round off the mag, sometimes the incoming round would nosedive on the feed ramp, sometimes the mag failed to lock back when empty, etc.

As Kahr states in the manual, the CM9 requires a break-in period, so I pressed on. Sure enough, the gun's recoil spring assembly loosened up after the first fifty shots, and five hundred more rounds' worth of miscellaneous 9mm ammo (the usual suspects - Winchester White Box, Remington, Sellier & Bellot, etc.) produced only one stoppage near round # 350 - a cartridge that hung up on the inside of the magazine. For a gun this size, that's pretty decent reliability.

Though I wasn't really shooting for groups, I noted that the CM9's practical accuracy was okay, but not excellent. The first couple of mags produced an embarrassing 2" cluster of shots at 7 yards offhand. As I got used to the trigger, I managed to get around 2"-3" 12 shot groups offhand at 10 yards with a variety of range ammunition.

Some Kahr Trouble

After the range testing, I noticed a pair of issues with the gun. First, the rear of the magazine had started to split:


I know magazines are wear items. After only half a case's worth of ammo through a new gun, though, I didn't expect a defect like this to appear. On the bright side, the split magazine didn't seem to have any effect on the gun's functioning, aside from being a little harder to insert; I shot another 20 rounds before calling it quits, and they all fed and ejected fine.

After the magazine split, I took the gun home for its first cleaning. That's when I noticed the rear right edge of the barrel hood looked like it was being peened from impact with the slide:



A Little Kahr Maintenance

After the peening continued to progress, I sent the gun back to Kahr via my friendly local gunshop and got it back exactly two weeks later. Kahr replaced the magazine, but not the barrel; instead, they cut into the back of the barrel hood and polished it, presumably to give the hood more clearance during cycling. I was a little suspicious of this "fix," but decided to give Kahr the benefit of the doubt...

Shooting Performance, Round 2

I tested the repaired Kahr, sending another 400 rounds downrange in the course of a few afternoons (ammo used was mostly cheapo Federal 115 grainers, but I also ran a box of Hornady's swanky "Critical Defense" rounds). There were no stoppages with the new mag, and, after close examination, the back of the barrel hood seemed fine.

Conclusion

Like all pocket autos, I think the CM9 loses out to the snubnose revolver in terms of reliability and durability. I also find that drawing a Smith J-Frame just feels better than a pocket pistol - your hand position is more natural, and the overall draw is smoother.

That said, Kahr's CM9 has a better trigger and better sights than a .38 snub. It also shoots a cheaper, more powerful round, and carries two more of them. Despite my undying love for the pocket snubbie, I do admit that I find myself carrying the Kahr CM9 more and more often - that's about the highest recommendation you can give any handgun, I think.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Shangrila Shock-tober 2011 - Halloween Horror Nights XXI

All Hallows' Eve draws near, and, as usual, Shangrila Towers will be running a series of themed posts covering all sorts of scares, spooks, and shocks. Today's adventure: a journey to Universal Studios Orlando for Halloween Horror Nights XXI - Nobody Beats the House...



It was a dark and stormy night when we visited HHN XXI, and dreary weather changes the tone of the event. The temperature drops, the crowds thin, and the performers desert the outdoor scare zones (Universal policy). The focus immediately shifts to the core of the Halloween Horror Nights experience, the haunted houses:

Highlights



Nevermore: The Madness of Poe - This house is inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. You'll see references to "The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," among others. I particularly liked the segment based on "The Masque of the Red Death;" costumed revellers dance around and scare guests.

The In-Between - This year's 3D house. Wearing the 3D glasses fits in nicely with the house's premise - a pulp horror comic story about a kid being sucked into an alternate dimension. The 3D effects work really well here, with strange glyphs and symbols popping off the walls like nobody's business.

Saws n' Steam: Into the Machine - Overall, this house was our favorite. It's basically a live-action "BioShock" - steampunk stuff everywhere, a dystopia planned by a madman, and weird extraction machinery (here it's flesh being harvested instead of Adam). There's even a giant faux Big Daddy waiting for you at the end behind a waterfall.

The Thing - This one's a tie-in with the upcoming prequel, and was obviously allotted the highest budget of any of the houses. You explore the Thule Antarctic station, where the survivors of the Norwegian research team battle with various horrific creatures. It follows the movie pretty closely (there's even a performer playing Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character), and I think fans of "The Thing" will dig it.

Lowlights

H.R. Bloodengutz Holidays of Horror - A comedy horror house with gory parodies of non-Halloween holidays. There are some good bits, and they try pretty hard, but it's just plain impossible to make a scary Fourth of July or Presidents Day.

Bil & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure - Bill & Ted is never that great of a show, but this year's edition was pretty bad. Some of that is 2011's fault (Charlie Sheen and Mr. Chow feature pretty heavily in the show), but it really boils down to the writing, which wasn't funny at all.

Monday, October 03, 2011

News: Brains! We need braaaains!

Zombie makeup at the 2011 Dragon*Con Zombie Prom? Appropriate:


Zombie makeup at what is supposed to be a serious protest? Not so much:

Everyone come dressed as a corporate zombie! This means jacket and tie if possible, white face, fake blood, eating monopoly money, and doing a slow march, so when people come to work on Monday in this neighborhood they see us reflecting the metaphor of their actions. Tell your friends, Facebook it, Twitter it, and it can be MJ Thriller-style too! Create a different image than police brutality!

The more I see of the Occupy Wall Street "movement", the more I suspect the whole thing is a prank by an intern at Goldman Sachs.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Tech: Dead Island review (PC version)

"Dead Island" first broke into the gamer consciousness with this video, one of the most memorable game trailers in recent years:



Developed by Techland and published by Deep Silver, the game is a first-person zombie adventure set on a fictional tropical island near Papua New Guinea; you play as one of four survivors attempting to escape the undead-infested island with brains and limbs intact. Along the way, you'll explore a lush beachfront resort, a city being ravaged by zombies, and many miles of uncharted jungle.


What separates DI from other popular zombie games is its emphasis on melee combat. Guns and ammo are relatively rare (you won't find any at all in the first third of the game), and it's surprising how tense it is to battle the undead when you have to do it with a baseball bat instead of an AK-47. The melee is fully "fleshed" out, too: there's locational damage (slice a zombie's knees and it crumbles to the ground), physics (sledgehammers can send foes flying), and a stamina system (each attack costs stamina - if you get winded, you do less damage and get knocked off your feet easier).

DI also has one of the most rewarding crafting systems I've ever used - you combine random junk you find scattered through the gameworld with base items to form cool new modified weapons. Jury-rigging a bunch of batteries and wire to your machete, for instance, gives you a chance to electrocute enemies with each hit. The mods aren't essential to playing the game, but I wager most players will enjoy experimenting with them.

Unfortunately, as much as I liked the actual gameplay of "Dead Island," I disliked the (numerous and severe) bugs in the game. Actually, the variety of technical and glitches in "Dead Island" is one of the most noteworthy parts of the game; in a single session, you might

- crash to desktop

- lose the use of your keyboard

- randomly disconnect from a multiplayer game

- get killed by a malevolent beachball:



- attain omnipresence:



- be forced into a parallel dimension where other players can see your chats and follow along in your quests, but you cannot see them.

- get teleported into a bottomless black pit where your health slowly drains till you die:



It's a shame, because without the bugs, "Dead Island" would easily be one of the best games of 2011. It has engrossing melee combat, plenty of interesting content, and it's a whole boatload of fun to play with your friends. As it stands, though, you might be better off waiting a month or two for the game to be patched before planning your post-apocalyptic tropical island getaway...

Rating: 80/100 (90/100 if it ever gets fixed by the devs)

Links: Weekend Blogrolling

For me, Saturdays and Sundays in the fall are some of the most relaxing times to blog. Without the hustle of the workweek, you're free to enjoy crisp air and arbitrary groups of strangers hitting each other. Here are some additions to the Shangrila Towers blogroll for a lazy fall weekend...actual content coming soon, I promise!

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: Zach Weiner's SMBC is one of those webcomics that took awhile to hit its stride. In the beginning, the comic consisted entirely of simple one-panel jokes - "The Far Side" for the Internet age:


Newer SMBC cartoons are much more complex, and much funnier. The best ones take an absurd situation - say, nanobots preventing any more men from being born - and track it to an even more absurd result. I also like the conversational multipanel strips that explore aspects of philosophy and science with heavy doses of poster-grade snark:

pistol-training.com: The weekend means I get to shoot, and everytime I go, I try to incorporate drills from this great website, authored by experienced firearms instructor Todd Green. The marquis drill is Green's F.A.S.T. (Fundamentals, Accuracy, & Speed Test) (at 7 yards, draw, fire 2 shots to a 3"x5" target, reload, then fire four more shots to an 8" target with no misses; a pro shooter can do it in under four seconds). Here's somebody practicing a modified version of the F.A.S.T.:

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