Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Feeling sick tonight...

...so no new blog post. Instead, here's every anime opening ever made:

Well done, Derek Lieu.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving ROAD TRIP!

I'm visiting family up in Atlanta (a 10 hour drive), so Shangrila Towers will be on hiatus through the Thanksgiving weekend. Have a safe and happy Turkey Day, everyone...safer than these guys, at least:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Movies: Musical Prodigy Double Feature

Movies about youngsters with musical talent are a dime a dozen. Whether it's the von Trapps discovering that their father's whistling system has given them perfect pitch, or Ralph Macchio playing in a guitar duel to save his soul from the Devil, countless films have shown that the power of music is amplified by the idyll of youth. Here are two movies based around that theme, with the added spice of the parent-child relationship and the wiles of the big city thrown in:

August Rush

Striking the right balance between whimsy and realism is tough for a lot of feel-good flicks. After all, the point of a fairytale is that it can't happen in real life...but it's tough to relate to a movie that has no basis in reality. "August Rush," a film directed by Kirsten Sheridan, tries to walk that tightrope, but ultimately fails.

In the film, a boy named Evan (played by Freddie Highmore) runs away from the orphanage in search of his parents. While in the urban jungle of Manhattan, Evan discovers he has a preternatural talent for music. A series of "Oliver Twist"-ish events ensues, and, if you can't guess that there's eventually a happy ending, you haven't been watching enough movies.

Which brings us to the main problem with "August Rush" - it's boring. The plot is so disconnected from reality, with so many coincidences and unlikely events (Evan learns how to read and compose orchestral music in a day? Really?), that it sucks all the drama out of the production. It's unfortunate, because there's a stellar cast (including Robin Williams and Terrence Howard in fairly substantial supporting roles), but I guess sometimes you can make your musical prodigy a little too prodigious.

Rating: 5/10


The bond between father and son is strong in all cultures, and it's particularly important in rural China. "Together," a film by Chen Kaige ("The Emperor and the Assassin"), explores what happens to that bond when a poor widower takes his violin-virtuoso son to Beijing:

The violin performance scenes look great in this one because the son is played by Tang Yun, a real-life violinist. Of course, Yun's not as convincing as a real actor would be, but the rest of the cast picks up the slack nicely. And, if the kid can do this, who cares if he can act?

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Music: Speak Now review

To a country traditionalist raised on Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard, Taylor Swift is a dilemma. In a lot of ways, she represents the worst in today's country-pop - middling vocals married to slick, glitzy "good girl" self-promotion. On the other hand, Swift is a credible guitar player, writes her own songs (a rarity in the post-"Idol" pop music world), and has paid her dues to the Nashville establishment by opening for some of the biggest names in the business, including Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn, and George Strait.

Despite that accumulated goodwill, Swift's new album, "Speak Now," won't win back any country stalwarts who disliked 2009's bestselling "Fearless" for its pop trappings. In fact, "Speak Now" goes in the opposite direction; the album contains only one straight country track, "Mean" (and even there the bouncy bluegrass accompaniment exists mostly as a self-aware stab at Swift's critics). Don't be fooled by the iTunes tag - this is one of the least country albums you'll ever hear.

In place of banjos and fiddles, Swift throws in feelers to other musical genres. "Better Than Revenge" is a pop-punk number that sounds a lot like Paramore's "Misery Business" (understandable, as Hayley Williams is a good friend of Swift). "Haunted" is an arena-rock song that readily draws comparisons to Evanescence. Even the album's title track, "Speak Now," is more Feist than LeAnn Rimes.

Of course, there's a healthy smattering of Swift's trademark power-pop ballads ("Mine," "Sparks Fly," "Enchanted," "Long Live"), and, when viewed as a pop album, "Speak Now" compares favorably to what's out there. Swift makes up for her limited singing voice by writing catchy hooks and some of the best singsong lyrics in the business. No matter what your opinion of her music, it's impressive that she can write original material that's more popular than the likes of Dr. Luke and Kara DioGuardi .

Many of the songs in "Speak Now" have famous subjects. "Dear John" is a nearly seven minute evisceration of John Mayer, who had a brief but infamous relationship with Swift (you can almost hear the shattering of John Mayer CDs in the bedrooms of teenage girls across the nation). "Better Than Revenge" is a diss aimed at Camilla Belle, who "stole" Joe Jonas away from Swift. I suppose it's a tribute to Swift's songwriting skill that these songs are catchy despite the Disney Channel tween-tabloid subtext, but she still comes across as vindicative and petty on these tracks.

The intensely personal subject matter works a lot better when Swift strikes a softer tone. The lush chorus of "Innocent," a forgiveness song directed at Kanye West, would likely be a top 40 hit in anyone's hands, but it comes off as genuine and heartfelt if you're familiar with Kanye's VMA outburst (and who isn't?). The best track of the album, "Back to December," references Swift's failed romance with Taylor Lautner. It's vintage Swift, evoking universal sentiment out of autobiographical material:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day

More than 9 million soldiers died in the Great War. Scaled up to today's population, that would be more than 30 million soldiers today.

"The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men's lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists."

- Written by Haig in June 1916 before the Battle of the Somme began

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Music: Your Ghost

Ever hear a great song for the first time, assume that it's a new release, and then realize that the song's actually been around for years?

In some ways, it can be an unsettling experience - after all, if there's one great song that you missed on your journey through life, how many more are out there? And not just songs, either; through dumb luck, have you missed running into your favorite books, movies, games...perhaps even people?

I prefer to look at it in a glass-half-full kind of way: it's comforting to know that however many great songs you listen to, there's plenty more to be discovered. Today, for instance, I first heard "Your Ghost" by Kristin Hersh (featuring backing vocals from R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe):

In the years since the album version, Hersh and her voice have aged, giving her live performances a haunting, weatherbeaten quality. Check out the difference:

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Links: Davidson's Gallery of Guns

In the good old days, you could buy a brand new firearm through mail-order and have it shipped directly to your home. No 4473s, no waiting period, no background check.

It's a little disappointing that we can't do the same in 2010, especially when the Web puts the rest of the world at your fingertips. Davidson's Gallery of Guns is a site that comes awfully close, though. Run by Arizona-based firearms distributor Davidson's, GoG allows you to search through their vast inventory for the gun you want, get several price quotes from neighboring dealers, and have the gun delivered right to the selected FFL without the need for any phone calls or separate order forms.

It's superfast (it's not unusual to order a gun on Monday morning and pick it up on Tuesday afternoon), though the prices tend to be slightly higher than average once you figure in the shipping. Davidson's gives you a nice lifetime replacement warranty for every gun you purchase from them, though, and their site is also very convenient. You can get in-stock notifications by e-mail, and they have little video features that showcase interesting guns. Finally, there are some exclusive items that are only sold through Davidson's - a S&W 642 with wooden grips, for instance. All in all, they're a stand-up outfit and a very convenient way to get a gun that might not be in your local gun stores or gun shows.