Sunday, December 25, 2011

Stories from "A Christmas Story" - Red Ryder BB Gun

I've been doing Christmas-related posts here at Shangrila Towers for years now, and for this holiday season, I'd like to try something different. From now till Noël, I'll put up special posts about stuff from one of my favorite Christmas movies, "A Christmas Story."

Ralphie's quest to obtain the Red Ryder BB Gun comes to a climax on Christmas Morning. Despite never telling his father about what he wanted (watch the movie again; the Old Man is always out of the room when Ralphie talks about the gun), Ralphie's dad somehow knows.

The actual Red Ryder air gun has been in production for over 70 years. It's not accurate, powerful, or even particularly well-constructed (they're now manufactured in China), but it still haunts a specific corner of my mind. I never got one for Christmas, and I wonder how much of my current shooting hobby is merely making up for lost time...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Movies: Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

The newest "Mission: Impossible" flick wasn't on my radar until I learned that it was being directed by Brad Bird (who helmed "The Iron Giant, "The Incredibles," and "Ratatouille"):

Like Bird's animated films, "Ghost Protocol" is a slick, well-paced movie with some nifty action setpieces - the much-heralded free climbing sequence on the Burj Khalifa doesn't disappoint, especially if you see it on a big IMAX screen. I also got a kick out of all the spy gadgetry on display (there's a particularly fun scene featuring a portable active camouflage screen).

Thanks to Bird, "Ghost Protocol" doesn't take itself too seriously, and the film isn't above poking fun at famously self-destructing messages or having Tom Cruise shout something corny while he's saving the world. The last two installments of the "Mission: Impossible" series were too grim for their own good; the lighthearted tone works better considering the inherently campy nature of the premise (a covert agency named "The Impossible Mission Force"? Really?).

Plot-wise, the movie is a pretty standard piece of chase-the-MacGuffin storytelling, and the main villain is ridiculously generic, with none of the effortless menace of Philip Seyour Hoffman from MI:III. Still, if you don't have much to do this Christmas weekend, it might be worth checking out "Ghost Protocol."

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Stories from "A Christmas Story": Ovaltine

I've been doing Christmas-related posts here at Shangrila Towers for years now, and for this holiday season, I'd like to try something different. From now till Noël, I'll put up special posts about stuff from one of my favorite Christmas movies, "A Christmas Story."

Part of the fun of watching a period movie like "A Christmas Story" is seeing the things that haven't changed. Even now, some 70-odd years after Ralphie fell prey to a "crummy commercial," Ovaltine is still popular worldwide.

Ovaltine was always the go-to drink when I was growing up. You see, I was a big fan of chocolate malted milkshakes; when I learned you could get the same taste from a simple powder that you could mix with your milk, a lightbulb went off. Needless to say, Ovaltine became a staple around the house (probably explains my current love for stouts and porters).

Nowadays I find it a little too sweet (Nestle changed the flavor profile when they acquired the rights to its production here in the States), but there's still nothing that takes me back quite like the not-really-good-for-you sugary chocolate malt taste of Ovaltine.

Guns: Personal Defense TV

In an alternate universe, Guns & Ammo's "Personal Defense TV" would be the biggest thing on television. I know I'd rather watch shooting and self-defense than Snookie and the Situation:

PDTV is really two shows. For the first four seasons, host Tom Gresham looked at popular self-defense topics - running an AR carbine, shooting in low light, etc. - with goofy, lighthearted aplomb. Tom is careful not to reveal how good a shooter he is (he's been a shooting and outdoor writer for years), and it helps make things less intimidating to any newbies:

Season V kicks things into high gear with new host George Wehby - a Marine, Air Marshal, and MMA fighter. While the show retains the popular "Skills Drill" and "Action Plan" segments (with Clint Smith and Massad Ayoob, respectively), the tone is much more serious and better-suited to gun and self-defense nuts (basically anyone reading this blog, I guess):

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Stories from "A Christmas Story": Jingle Bells

I've been doing Christmas-related posts here at Shangrila Towers for years now, and for this holiday season, I'd like to try something different. From now till Noël, I'll put up special posts about stuff from one of my favorite Christmas movies, "A Christmas Story."

Every Christmas movie needs music, and "A Christmas Story" features both a bombastic orchestral score and diegetic period pieces - there's carolers singing "Go Tell It On the Mountain" and bands playing "Good King Wencesclas" in the opening scenes, for instance.

My favorite "source music" cuts are the ones that come in through Ralphie's radio, like this spirited version of "Jingle Bells" by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters:

There's just something bouncy and fun about the Andrews Sisters' harmony during the chorus. The song even got a modern update from Michael Bublé and the Puppini Sisters:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Food: Institutionalized in Atlanta

Plenty of restaurants become popular, but very few become institutions - eateries so prominent that they're ensconced into the collective consciousness of an area. I recently ate at two such institutions in Atlanta, Georgia:

The Vortex Bar & Grill

You wouldn't think that people would frequent a restaurant with all the idiosyncrasies that the Vortex has: no one under 18 is allowed inside (in order to avoid Atlanta's anti-smoking laws), there's all sorts of junk on the walls, and the place is near the Bohemian neighborhood of Little Five Points, home of head shops and hearses. Despite all this, the place can get absolutely packed, so we came on a weekday for lunch in order to avoid the rush.

Boiled down to the essentials, the Vortex is a short-order cafe that specializes in burgers. Their most famous concoction is the Triple Coronary Bypass burger, a trademarked menu item that is described thusly:

Made with two half-pound Vortex sirloin patties stacked inside three grilled cheese sandwiches, topped with two fried eggs, eight slices of American cheese, ten slices of bacon and plenty of mayo on the side. With this burger we choose your side for you, and it’s a big bowl of fries and tots covered in our cheesy-cheese goo. This super-stack is a heart attack waiting to happen. Enjoy! (No lettuce, tomato or onion) 26.95

I opted for a plain old hamburger...topped with fried banana, cheddar cheese, and bacon. It was greasy, expensive, and unhealthy....but it was good, too.

2/4 stars

Fox Brothers BBQ

Fox Bros. serves Texas-style BBQ, with dry-rub ribs and beef brisket being the main attractions. It's a family-type place, started by two brothers, Jonathan and Justin, who put on elaborate barbecue parties for their friends. After awhile, the Fox brothers started doing BBQ full time, and now it's one of the most popular joints in Atlanta.

Pulling up to Fox Bros. is sort of puzzling; the place is right next to a neighborhood, and completely isolated from any other restaurant or shopping center. There's rarely enough parking for all the customers the place draws, so we parked in the nearby neighborhood and walked over.

I still prefer Fat Matt's, but Fox Brothers served up fairly competent Texas BBQ. The only really poor dish was the pulled pork; the ribs, brisket, and sides were all good or very good. Worth a try if you're in the area.

2/4 stars

Stories from "A Christmas Story": Radio Flyer

I've been doing Christmas-related posts here at Shangrila Towers for years now, and for this holiday season, I'd like to try something different. From now till Noël, I'll put up special posts about stuff from one of my favorite Christmas movies, "A Christmas Story."

When you watch a movie as often as I've watched "A Christmas Story," you start to notice little details. Case in point: the Radio Flyer red wagons in the window of Higbee's at the beginning of the film. The wagons are just one part of a very busy display of "mechanized electronic joy," and aren't at all important to the story (Ralphie's fixated on the Red Ryder Range Model Air Rifle, of course).

Regardless, the Radio Flyer red wagon hearkens back to a simpler time, back when parents ferried kids along sidewalks, garden paths, and backwoods trails. I most associate it with Calvin and Hobbes, who used the wagon to careen down hills during philosophical discussions. They even traveled to Mars with it:

The Radio Flyer wagon was also the inspiration behind "Radio Flyer," a box office bomb that pitted two young brothers against an abusive stepfather:

Like a lot of toys, Radio Flyer's classic steel wagons are now made in China; I don't have any experience with the new models, since our Radio Flyer is more than a decade old and still going strong. Of course, it's a bit disappointing that such an iconic piece of Americana got outsourced, but it beats not being able to buy Radio Flyer wagons at all.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Guns: Remora IWB holster review

I don't recommend the practice of "Mexican carry" - slipping a handgun into your waistband without a holster - because it has obvious problems. Even if you're lucky enough not to have your gun slip down your pant leg, you still have a gun that's sitting too low to get a full firing grip, and one that shifts around all over the place to boot. You can understand, then, my skepticism about the Remora holster, a clipless IWB holster that uses friction to hold itself in place:

Does it work? Well, yes and no. When the Remora was new, and cinched with a good gun belt, it didn't move at all, and held my Kahr CM9 in a good position for a draw:

After a few days of carry, though, the material loses much of its grip, and you can have cases where the gun starts to move around or even dip into your waistband. The material also tended to rub my right side raw, which quickly made me wish for a conventional leather or Kydex IWB rig. Finally, the closed muzzle design, while effective for making sure the gun didn't fall down your pants, had the tendency to collect lint and gunk.

If you can live with washing the holster every few days, the Remora is the slimmest, most minimal IWB out there. I'm not that attentive, though, so for me, the Remora is merely an interesting curiosity.

P.S. - As a pocket holster, the Remora works fine. The material is grippier than an Uncle Mike's, avoiding embarrassing incidents where you draw a pocket gun with its holster still hanging on the gun.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Books: The Adventures of Tintin

A long road trip is a great time to bust out a comic book. For Thanksgiving 2011, I picked "The Adventures of Tintin"...

Tintin is the star of a series of comics created by Belgian artist Hergé. He's a young journalist who often gets into impressively perilous situations, whether it's escaping from an opium cartel, being held captive by Incas, or running from the OGPU.

In the U.S., Tintin never caught fire like it did around the world, so my first encounter with Hergé's classic comic hero was actually the television adaptation of "The Adventures of Tintin" that aired on Nickelodeon back in the '90s:

The very first Tintin story, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets," is suprisingly violent and political. It was intended as an anti-Marxist and anti-Socialist propaganda piece for children by Hergé's editor; Hergé was later embarrassed by it, due to its crude and inaccurate portrayal of Bolshevik Russia.

Like several Tintin stories, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" is oddly prophetic - the exaggerated and inaccurate Bolshevist practices portrayed in the strip (secret detentions, Potemkin Villages, etc.) would become staples of Soviet Russia.

I also read "Tintin and the Seven Crystals," a classic Tintin story that's more of a straight-up mystery than the globetrotting adventure Tintin is known for. Despite the departure, this book is representative of the golden era of Tintin: crisp art, tight plotting, and just the right amount of comic relief in-between chases, escapes, and fights.

I'm not sure where I read it, but I once heard that Belgium has three exports - beer, chocolate, and Tintin. The series is deservedly famous, and I hope the upcoming Steven Spielberg Tintin adaptation does it justice.

Movies: Belated Turkey Day Double Feature

Sorry for the late posts...hard to get things out in a Turkey Day coma...

There isn't much to do on Thanksgiving. You could watch football, you could watch the Macy's parade, you could watch your waistband expand from too much stuffing. My family? We usually watch some movies.

The Descendants

Like most studios, Fox releases its Oscar-bait films during the holiday season. In this case, it's an adaptation of a book written by Kaui Hart Hemmings:

George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian real-estate lawyer. King's ancestors were Hawaiian royalty, and he's the sole trustee of thousands of acres of prime Hawaiian land. When his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident, King's life gets turned upside-down as he struggles to take care of his two headstrong daughters.

"The Descendants" doesn't really give Clooney much to do (I mean, he's played lawyers before), but I really enjoyed the performances of the two young actresses playing his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. As my sister remarked, it's nice to know Woodley can do more than play a pregnant teenager.

Rating: 7/10

The Muppets

Pretty much everything Jim Henson's workshops touched turned to gold ("Fraggle Rock," "Sesame Street," "Labyrinth," "Dinosaurs"...), so it's a little hard to believe there hasn't been a full-fledged Muppets feature film since 1999. Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin have "rebooted" the franchise with "The Muppets":

The plot's pretty basic: it's been years since "The Muppet Show," and the cast - Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and all the rest - have been scattered to the four winds. When an evil oil baron plans to raze the Muppet theatre to drill, though, the gang gets back together to put on a show to save the place.

At times, "The Muppets" lays on the nostalgia a little thick - there are constant flashbacks to "The Muppet Show," plenty of in-jokes, and even coyly placed Muppets memorabilia. People also might be turned off by the woe-is-me attitude of the movie (we get that the Muppets aren't hip in the age of Kim Kardashian and "American Idol," can you quit reminding us?). Overall, though, I'd take any chance to see the Green One in action, so "The Muppets" gets...

Rating: 7/10