Sunday, January 12, 2020

Movies: My top movies of 2019

As Shangrila Towers passes into the futuristic year 2020, I'm recapping my top picks from 2019. Note that these titles weren't necessarily released in the past year, but they're what I happened to enjoy in 2019 - you might like them too...

1917 - We've seen "long take" films before, but never on the scale of Sam Mendes's "1917," a nightmarish odyssey through the Great War. The premise is almost elemental: two British soldiers race through no man's land to stop a regiment from walking into a fatal trap. While the simple plot and thinly drawn characters sometimes make the movie feel like a series of quick time events and cutscenes in a WWI video game, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins do a fantastic job of depicting the bucolic French countryside and the butchery of the trenches.  Rating: 8/10

The Irishman - Martin Scorsese has correctly called superhero flicks formulaic, but then again, so are most movies. Case in point: Scorsese's "The Irishman" feels like a greatest hits of every wiseguy gangster movie he and stars De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino have ever done. That's not a bad thing! If you liked "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas," you'll like this, though it lacks the former's subtlety and the latter's sprightliness. Turns out that even with digital de-aging technology, you can't disguise the wrinkles in someone's craft. Rating: 9/10

Rocketman - Taron Egerton was destined for bigger and better things after his star-making turn in "Kingsman," and he is being rightfully recognized for his work in this Elton John biopic. Unlike other recent similar films ("Bohemian Rhapsody," "Judy"), "Rocketman" unfolds as a straight-up musical, jettisoning realism in favor of big song-and-dance numbers set to Sir Elton's biggest hits.  The fantasy sequences help leaven what would otherwise be a by-the-numbers musician biography.  Rating: 8/10

Alita: Battle Angel - Blessed with an Oscar-worthy cast and crew (Christoph Waltz! Jennifer Connelly! Mahershala Ali! James Cameron!), this adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's classic cyborg manga was only met with mixed reviews and so-so box office. That's a shame, because it's a lot better than it had any right to be, and is easily one of Robert Rodriguez's best movies.  I doubt we'll ever get a big screen sequel, but an "Alita" follow-up would be a killer series for a streaming service.  Rating: 8/10

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Music: My top albums of 2019

As Shangrila Towers passes into the futuristic year 2020, I'm recapping my top picks from 2019. Note that these titles weren't necessarily released in the past year, but they're what I happened to enjoy in 2019 - you might like them too...

All Mirrors, Angel Olsen - My musical tastes sometimes veer from the mainstream, but even I couldn't ignore "All Mirrors," widely recognized as one of the best albums of the year by pretty much everyone.  Angel Olsen took her brand of raw, introspective indie-folk and amped it up to 11, using synths and a 14-piece orchestra to augment her Orbison-esque delivery. The result is a dark piece of cinematic pop anchored by the one-two punch of epic opener "Lark" and the title track, embedded above.

Timeless, Moya Brennan and Cormac De Barra - Moya Brennan's dreamy "Two Horizons" is one of my favorite Celtic/New Age albums, so this latest collaboration between Brennan and her longtime harpist Cormac De Barra was a must-listen for me. As you might expect, the Irish harp anchors most of the tracks on "Timeless," such as the gentle "Slan Go Foill" and wistful "Tar Liom Siar" (live performance embedded above). This is not something you'd put on to dance at a party, mind you, but it's great for pining for a lost love on the Cliffs of Moher.

I Shouldn't be Telling You This, Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra - I'm lukewarm on his overly-twee Disney+ documentary series, "The World According to Jeff Goldblum," but this playful collection of jazz songs more than makes up for it. Goldblum, a veteran pianist, is joined by his band and several very high-profile collaborators, including Sharon Van Etten and Fiona Apple. With talent like that willing to join the fray, you know this isn't some terrible celebrity vanity album, and it makes for a very enjoyable listen.

Kiwanuka, Michael Kiwanuka - British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka blew up when the HBO series "Big Little Lies" adopted "Cold Little Heart" as its opening credits theme, but his 2019 self-titled release, "Kiwanuka," received strangely little press here in the States. That's disappointing, because I really liked the album's retro-cinematic rock-soul vibe (it was produced by Danger Mouse and Inflo, after all). Check out "Hero," which is the not-so-subtle sonic descendant of Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower."

Tech: My top games of 2019

As Shangrila Towers passes into the futuristic year 2020, I'm recapping my top picks from 2019. Note that these titles weren't necessarily released in the past year, but they're what I happened to enjoy in 2019 - you might like them too...

Dungeon of the Endless - Amplitude Studios is best known for their big 4X titles ("Endless Space," "Endless Legend"), but they also made this neat roguelike tower defense game. In "Dungeon of the Endless," your characters are marooned on a strange planet after their prison spaceship crashes. Your objective is to tote your ship's power crystal through a dungeon teeming with enemies, using automated turrets, traps, and other defensive structures to stave them off. The more you explore the dungeon, the more enemies spawn, culminating in absolutely hectic races for the exit. Rating: 85/100

Ironcast - Like "Puzzle Quest," this crowdfunded game combines the tile matching mechanics of "Bejeweled" with light RPG elements. But instead of ogres and swords, "Ironcast" has steampunk mechs and cannons, with you stringing together nodes on a grid to power your mech's systems, repair damage, and attack the enemy in a turn-based shootout a la "FTL." The strategy comes in balancing all these competing needs - it's addictive at first, but does eventually become a grind due to a lack of depth. Rating: 80/100

Fire Emblem: Three Houses - Speaking of grinding, the latest "Fire Emblem" game raises the series's signature permadeath stakes even higher by charging you with the tutelage of an entire class of students in the arts of war. Each student has his or her own backstory, fully-voiced dialogue, and relationships with other students, and they all grow as soldiers along lines you specify. Want to make that mousy, introverted waifu into a hardened killing machine on the battlefield? With enough random fights and stat boosting, you can. Rating: 90/100

Vagante - This is basically a fantasy hack-and-slash RPG version of Spelunky, though the controls aren't quite as tight and there's a little more RNG-screw (your character's survivability depends greatly on the equipment you find in the dungeon). On the plus side, there are several playable classes to choose from, each with unique skills and abilities that ease the tedium inherent in replaying a roguelike. Rating: 85/100

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Nintendo Switch remake) - I never finished Link's Awakening back in the day, mostly due to an inscrutable interface quirk involving the statute in the middle of Mabe Village (hint - when you have the strength, press up on it instead of trying to lift it like you do with every other object in the game). Twenty years later, I got stuck in the exact same portion of this beautiful 3D remake. It's an artfully crafted, engrossing version of a classic game, but one that shares all the faults of its source.  Rating: 88/100

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas

Christmas is always a little awkward when it falls in the middle of the week. My office (and most workplaces) can't give everyone more than a couple days off, so the holiday ends up creating two 2-day rumps, with the same thing happening the next week at New Year's. There is work to do and it does get done, but perhaps at a slower and more reflective pace than otherwise.

Anyway, if you're a working stiff getting your Bob Cratchit on, I wish you a very merry Christmas - here's a chilled-out video from chilled-out pop duo Pomplamoose to pass the time:

Friday, December 06, 2019

Miscellany: Stop the Bleed class notes

I took a free hour-long Stop the Bleed "Bleeding Control (B-CON) Basic" class at Osceola Regional Medical Center, taught by Michelle Rud, RN. The curriculum was developed after Sandy Hook by the American College of Surgeons and government agencies, but the bleeding control techniques we learned are much more likely to be used in an everyday accident than a mass murder.


Is the scene safe? Don't be another patient by putting yourself at risk. You may also need to move the victim to safety or wear protective gear like gloves.

Call 911. And point to someone else and tell them to call 911. Better to have a half-dozen people call for the same incident than having no one get through.

Signs of life-threatening bleeding: Is blood spurting, pooling, or soaking through clothes? Is the patient confused or unconscious? Has the patient lost all or part of a hand, arm, or leg?

If it looks bad, stop the bleeding: Get patient on the ground, and apply direct pressure with clean clothing / use a tourniquet / pack the wound with gauze or clothing. Note that AEDs often have a trauma kit inside.


Once you apply, you cannot lift off the wound. Direct pressure is exhausting and ties up your hands - you may need to switch off with another person to keep holding pressure. Another option is to put your knee on the wound. Generally, direct pressure is more available and more reliable than a pressure dressing, but pressure dressings allow you to move the patient.

When pressing or packing, don't use denim jeans and don't use comforters. A T-shirt is usually okay. It doesn't have to be clean - the hospital will shoot them full of antibiotics if they make it.


Don't put it over a joint. It should be tight enough to stop the bleeding. The limb will likely feel tingly and start to become purple.


Don't ever take the packing material out. QuikClot is nice, but regular gauze works. Form a ball of material to protect your finger from sharp broken bones, and push in deep, keeping pressure while working in the material. Once you have a good wad built over top, press on that until help arrives.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Miscellany: ShivWorks Clinch Pick review

Someday I'll get around to debriefing the ECQC class I took with Craig Douglas, but suffice it to say that one of my main takeaways was the importance of having an accessible self-defense weapon on both sides of the body. I noticed there were plenty of times in wrestling for control of a GLOCK 17T (i.e.,  mimicking a situation justifying deadly force) when I managed to free my left hand, but had nothing I could do with it besides ineffectually striking or grappling.

Mr. Douglas must have noticed the same thing a long time ago, since ShivWorks sells a knife called the Clinch Pick designed for just that situation:

The Clinch Pick is a small fixed blade with a few unique characteristics. First, it has a reverse edge (similar to the Spyderco P'Kal, another ShivWorks design), making it ideal for close-in ripping motions (think Dr. Grant's monologue in the beginning of Jurassic Park). Second, it has a short egg-shaped grip, which seats the knife into the palm regardless of how the knife is oriented when it's drawn.

I wear the Clinch Pick like Craig recommends - on the belt at about the 11 o'clock position, with the handle angled diagonally downward and inward in line with the inguinal crease:

Worn in this fashion, the knife can be concealed with a T-shirt, and drawn with either hand when standing, sitting or prone. And it's infinitely faster and more reliable to deploy than any folding knife.

Downsides? Well, the Clinch Pick is a dedicated weapon - you aren't going to be cutting any apples with it, and it might not even be legal to carry a fixed blade in your jurisdiction. Strictly considered as a weapon, the knife is a bit small, so if you're anticipating a lot of protracted knifefights, you might want something bigger...or you might want to move to another country.

Still, if you're looking for a knife for fighting in a phone booth, the Clinch Pick is one of the best choices out there.

Movies: Parasite

"Parasite," a social satire from director Bong Joon-ho, trades the wacky post-apocalyptic dystopia of Bong's "Snowpiercer" for something a little closer to home:

The movie follows two families - the desperately poor Kim family, living in a dingy apartment and getting by with odd jobs, and the fabulously wealthy Parks, living in an house designed by a famous architect and flush with cash thanks to patriarch Park Dong-ik's job as a high-powered CEO. The two families would ordinarily have nothing to do with one another, but when the Kims' son gets an opportunity to tutor the Parks' daughter under false pretenses, all hell soon breaks loose.

To say more would be to spoil what was an interesting story and an unexpectedly subtle commentary on the relationship between the haves and the have-nots. While Bong has a fondness for obvious physical metaphors (the Kims' underground semi-basement apartment is a dead ringer, social status-wise, for the back of the train in "Snowpiercer"), the characters in "Parasite" don't follow the standard tropes.  That means the overall message is more mature, less incendiary, and uncomfortably close to the truth, which is what I imagine the director was aiming for.

Rating: 8/10

TV: The Dragon Prince (Netflix)

As an animated series ostensibly made for children, "The Dragon Prince" on Netflix has sneakily become one of the best epic fantasy shows out there:

The conflict in "The Dragon Prince" seems simple at first: humans are on one side of the continent of Xadia, exiled for their use of dark magic, and the dragons and elves are on the other side. But no one is really "good" or "evil" here. There are competing factions and shades of grey everywhere; even the archetypal villain characters have believable motivations and people they care about.

The main characters of "The Dragon Prince" are Callum and his younger half-brother Ezran, two princes from the human kingdom of Katolis who are joined by mysterious elven assassin named Rayla. The three become unlikely travelling partners in a quest to save the titular Dragon Prince and prevent Xadia from being consumed by all-out war. My favorite character though is General Amaya, Callum and Ezran's sword-wielding badass aunt who just happens to be deaf.

Books: Moonwalking with Einstein

If you liked the movie "Memento" or Oliver Sacks's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat," you'll probably like Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein." It's an enjoyable nonfiction exploration of pretty much every facet of human memory, interweaving extracts of the latest neuroscience research, historical anecdotes about memory techniques, and Foer's own experiences interviewing amnesiacs and savants and training to compete in the 2006 USA Memory Championship.

I find Josh Foer's writing is underrated compared to the stuff from his often-insufferable older brother. In "Moonwalking with Einstein," Foer comes off as a relatable Average Joe when it comes to forgetfulness, despite his upper-crust upbringing and Yale education. The final chapters, which track the final rounds of the Memory Championship, are sports-movie tense in a way that's surprising for such a cerebral subject.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Miscellany: A fun fact for today...

Tom Cruise is as old as Jon Voight was when the first "Mission Impossible" film was released.


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