Sunday, July 28, 2013

Music: Love Me Leave Me

I don't generally endorse Kickstarters or other similar fundraising efforts here at Shangrila Towers (it's hard to tell people to give money to third parties for something that doesn't exist yet). I'll make an exception, though, for Lovespirals' frontwoman Anji Bee's effort to release a debut solo album, "Love Me Leave Me."  She's always been one of my favorite electronica vocalists, and her podcast, "The Chillcast with Anji Bee," has provided hours of carefully curated music to the Internet at large, so she's earned the benefit of the doubt, I'd say.

Check out the title track below - if you dig it, buy one of the singles at Anji Bee's Bandcamp page.

Tech: The Last of Us review

During the time I was playing "The Last of Us," a PS3 game developed by Naughty Dog, I kept thinking back to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

Both works present post-apocalyptic lone wolf and cub stories, in the same sort of spare style. Both involve unflinching brutality, despair, and cannibalism. Comparing the two is natural. And you might think that the comparison flatters "The Last of Us," since Cormac McCarthy's book won a Pulitzer Prize and widespread critical acclaim.

You'd be wrong, though..."The Last of Us" is actually the better story:

In the game, a mutant strain of Cordyceps has wiped out the majority of the world's population. Those infected with the fungus invariably turn into feral, zombie-like killers. Society collapses, with survivors living in quarantine zones under martial law, scavenging in the wilderness, or worse. Decades after the initial chaos, a grizzled smuggler named Joel and a fourteen year old girl named Ellie embark on a journey across a ruined U.S. in search of a cure for the infection.

Despite the action-centric marketing, TLOU is really about the relationship between Joel and Ellie. For much of the game, there won't be any enemies at all - you'll just follow Joel and Ellie as they walk around abandoned buildings or deserted neighborhoods. It's in these quiet moments that Joel and Ellie get to talk to each other and the game really shines.

Of course, there are many dangers in the world, in the form of human bandits and infected monsters, but it's suicide to take these threats head on. That's because TLOU presents the player with drastically limited resources, at least in the early going: in a warehouse with ten enemies, you might only have three rounds of 9mm, a makeshift shiv (created via the game's crafting system), and half your health left. To survive, you'll need to use stealth, improvised distractions, and up-close-and-personal melee kills.

This brings me to my one complaint about TLOU, though it's a major one: after about six or seven hours in, the stealthy combat begins to become repetitive. You can only sneak around so many dark hallways and overturned store shelves before they all start to blur together, which is exacerbated by the limited selection of weapons, craftable items, and enemies. Combat never gets boring, per se, but you'll likely find yourself plowing through enemies just to get to the next part of the story.

TLOU is developer Naughty Dog's fourth and final PS3 game, and, at least from a technical standpoint, it employs everything they learned from making their popular Uncharted series. Environments are sumptuously detailed and often spectacularly lit. The sounds of footsteps and gunshots are jarring. Heck, they even went all-out for the soundtrack - the game was scored by Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. All in all, it's obvious that a lot of people sacrificed a lot of time to make TLOU, and an unforgettable video game journey was the result.

Rating: 91/100

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Movies: Knuckleball!

If you're at all familiar with modern major league baseball, you know that the role of "pitcher" has been endlessly divided and subdivided - an ace starter who might throw a complete game, a "long reliever" who only comes in during garbage time, a closer who tosses only 20 pitches in the final inning.

The most unique of them all might be the knuckleballer, a pitcher who relies primarily on the knuckleball. Unlike every other pitch, the knuckleball is thrown with the fingertips and little to no spin, leading to an erratic flight pattern that can be maddeningly difficult to hit regardless of how slow the ball comes in. The chaos has a price, though; pitchers who use the knuckleball are always walking a tightrope - something as simple as a split nail or a stiff breeze can make it impossible for them to strike out batters.

Somewhat poetically, the careers of knuckleballers are as unpredictable as the pitches they throw, as the feature-length documentary "Knuckleball!" shows by following the ups and downs of Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey (the only active MLB knuckleballer):

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg directed the well-regarded Darfur war documentary "The Devil Came on Horseback," and they bring huge amounts of craft to what could have been a dry set of baseball stories. If you have any interest in baseball or sports at all, you'll probably like "Knuckleball!"

Rating: 8/10

Guns: Jacksonville Skeet & Trap Club review

In terms of firearms facilities, the biggest problem with living in Palm Beach County is the lack of clay shooting. There are plenty of indoor pistol ranges here, and even an outdoor rifle range that's open once a month, but there's no way to play a round of skeet, trap, five-stand, or sporting clays. There's certainly nothing like Jacksonville Skeet & Trap Club, a first-rate skeet and trap facility that's only about fifteen minutes from the heart of downtown Jacksonville, Florida:

My friends and I visited the place on an idyllic day. Despite the azure skies and cotton clouds, the range wasn't crowded.

We sat down for a first-timer's instructional video (shown inside the rather nice clubhouse) and filled out some mild paperwork (like every public range, you have to sign a waiver). For non-members, $8.50 buys you one round of skeet or trap (we were allowed to shoot our own ammo). The throwers are coin-operated, which left us in a blissful, clay-busting solitude:

If you're ever on New Berlin Road northeast of Jacksonville, and the sky is an amazing shade of blue, load up and stop by Jacksonville Skeet & Trap Club. You'll be glad you did.´╗┐