Wednesday, December 24, 2014

TV: Thoughts from the holiday television season...

UNICEF is asking for 15 bucks a month to feed hungry Third World kids, the ASPCA is asking for 18 bucks a month to feed hungry American dogs. Just sayin'...

Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge is like Project Runway crossed with "The Dark Crystal" - a gaggle of very talented puppetmakers create mechanized aliens and monsters, all for a shot at working for the Jim Henson Company. Syfy needs more of this and less WWE.

When I was a kid, I didn't notice the sheer number of coincidences necessary to make the plots in the "Home Alone" movies even remotely plausible. Just in the first movie, there's a lost plane ticket, a case of mistaken identity, and a multi-day phone outage.

I know the Midnight Mass with the Pope is an annual tradition, but it's honestly not all that thrilling to watch. St. Peter's Basilica looks absolutely enormous on TV though.

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gifts, Part 3 - PC and Video Games

(It's Christmas Eve, of course, but thanks to the magic of on-demand downloads, there's still time to give the gamer in your life a great title from 2014)

Bravely Default, Square Enix, Nintendo 3DS - The last few Final Fantasy games have deviated pretty severely from the formula that won so many fans in the 1990s and early 2000s - put together a ragtag group of colorful characters and save the world - but "Bravely Default" is a welcome return to form. If you're hankering for the classic "jobs" system, big honking nonlinear areas to explore, and sidequests galore, you'll find them in this game.

WHO IS IT FOR? Any JRPG fan who felt burned when they started releasing MMO games under the FF brand.

Luftrausers, Vlambeer, PS3/Vita and PC - Some games are hard to explain, but Luftrausers is not one of them. This is basically a Germanic Geometry Wars, done up in a pixelated retro style that recalls the Atari era. Much like the classic game "Time Pilot," you fly an airplane around an infinitely scrolling battlefield, blowing up as many enemy planes, boats, and dirigibles as possible before you die. The controls remind me a lot of the NES game Solar Jetman; you rotate your ship with the analog stick, and your direction matters when using your weapons and your throttle.

WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone who's ever entered their initials with pride on an arcade machine.

South Park: The Stick of Truth, Obsidian Entertainment, PS3/Xbox 360 and Windows - "Stick of Truth" is one of those mascot-based RPGs - sort of a raunchier version of something like Super Mario RPG. Like its kin, how much you'll enjoy it depends on your affinity for the source material. In this case, the game looks, sounds, and feels exactly like a South Park episode (no mean feat), so much so that a casual observer wouldn't even notice it's a game. The actual role-playing portion of the game is pretty standard (your party size is limited to two, and there aren't a ton of items or skills to worry about) but it's just engrossing enough to provide a good framework for South Park zaniness.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who find fart noises funny.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gifts, Part 2 - Gear Ho' (Ho Ho)

(h/t  to Tam for the post title)

Quark Tactical QT2A, Foursevens - I've previously reviewed the single AA version of the Quark Tactical, and the double-cell version isn't too different. It does make a better gift, I think, because the QT2s are more suited for your car, home, or campsite, rather than carrying on your person. Surprisingly few people EDC a flashlight (when I whip one out in a darkened theater, people look at me like I've just discovered fire).

WHO IS IT FOR? People who need to rig up a reliable weaponlight for their long gun without breaking the bank.

Endura Wave, Spyderco - The Delica and Endura lines are basically the GLOCKs of the knife world; they work great for all of the things someone would realistically use a three or four inch folding knife for. For uses that are basically unrealistic (i.e., Kim Jong Un will dance on Broadway before I ever have to use a knife in self-defense), you can step up to the Waved versions. They're officially licensed by Emerson, they come out wicked fast out of a pocket, and they have a handsome grey handle color, too.

WHO IS IT FOR? That LEO buddy of yours. The hands-on, DIY type. A loved one stuck in a place where s/he can't carry a gun legally, but who needs a lethal force option.

Falcon-II, Maxpedition - I usually use a Pygmy Falcon-II for dayhikes, but the plain old Falcon-II has more features overall. There's a spot for a water bladder, sternum and waist straps, and lots of compression snaps (you can cinch this sucker down flat if you're not carrying much). This is, I think, the better bag for travelling on an airplane, as you can use the outer compartments for snacks, books, and toiletries, while reserving two big inner compartments for laptops and clothes.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who want to constantly get mistaken for soldiers.

Spec Plus Gen II SP-43, Ontario Knife Company - It's astonishing to me what passes for a "bush" knife these days; most of the stuff in the big box aisles wouldn't survive a season of hard use. The Spec Plus Gen II series is way more practical - tough fully coated spring steel, big no-nonsense Kraton handle, nylon sheath with a good button snap. The SP43 in particular is right at that sweet spot of being large enough to baton wood for your firepit, but still small enough to keep in your garage or car, rather than at the bottom of a closet.

WHO IS IT FOR? The guy/gal who wants an old-school Army-style KA-BAR (which are indeed good knives), but really probably needs this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gift Ideas, Part 1 - Books and Music

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe - If you're a fan of the webcomic xkcd, you're probably familiar with its weekly feature "What If?", which rigorously and scientifically describes the consequences of a ludicrous, often-apocalyptic situation (examples include "What if everything was antimatter, EXCEPT Earth?,"If I shot an infinitely strong laser beam into the sky at a random point, how much damage would it do?," and "How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?"). This nice, hardcover book collects revised versions of the best "What If" articles, and adds quite a bit of new content to boot.

WHO IS IT FOR? Any middle-schooler interested in science or physics.

1989, Taylor Swift - The media saturation for this album (and all things Taylor Swift in general) were at a fever pitch a few weeks ago, what with a passel of glowing reviews, record-breaking sales, and Swift's split with streaming service Spotify. All hype aside, though, "1989" is easily Taylor Swift's most coherent and enjoyable work to date. If you skip the shallow "Welcome to New York," the front half is loaded with some of her strongest songs ("Blank Space," which plays with her media image as a boy-obsessed maneater; "Style," a "Miami Vice" groove made for cruising around in a convertible; "Out of the Woods," a Swift-ian tale of a fragile romance).

WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone who liked watching the Backstreet Boys on TRL in the '90s (Max Martin produced most of the songs on "1989").

5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Wizards of the Coast - I reviewed the Starter Set a few months ago, but the full D&D 5e books - Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide - have now been released, and they're all excellent. Each one is chock full of gorgeous artwork, easy-to-understand rules, and (gasp) usable formatting and indices(!). If you were put off by the MMO stylings of 4th Edition, or the clunkiness of 3/3.5e, you'll like this version of the game.

WHO IS IT FOR? The gamer in your life.

The Avenues, Lera Lynn - Mainstream country is a bit of a mess right now (endless songs about trucks, girls in tight jeans, and drinking beer), so if you want to hear pedal steel guitars, you're probably going to have to go indie. Lera Lynn's second album, "The Avenues," is an atmospheric antidote to all the party anthems on the airwaves. Lynn weaves notes of pop and jazz in melancholy melodies that seem to fill up whatever space you're in.

WHO IS IT FOR? Country fans who don't mind listening to songs that are genuinely somber.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson - This is the first book in a trilogy of fantasy novels set in "The Final Empire," a dark, ash-stained world that survived a major cataclysm. In the series, people called "Allomancers" have special powers gained from ingesting metals, such as super strength, influence over the emotions of others, and magnokinesis (think Magneto). The most powerful Allomancer is the despotic, immortal, nearly omnipotent Lord Ruler...and the characters in the book are trying to overthrow him.

WHO IS IT FOR? Fantasy fans who also love superhero comics. And superhero fans who like epic fantasy.

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn - The debut album of husband-and-wife banjo duo Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn is, in a word, outstanding. The contrast of banjo styles (Fleck is one of the world's greatest pickers, while Washburn is an excellent clawhammer player), the musicality brought by the pair to the songs (both have played in multiple other bands before cutting this record)...this is bluegrass at its best.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who play banjo. People who want to learn how to play banjo. And people in general.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Movies: Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has done plenty of serious, socially-aware dramas before, but in "Birdman," he tries his hand at black comedy - and the results are laugh-out-loud hilarious:

The movie features Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up Hollywood actor famous for playing the titular character in a series of superhero flicks decades ago. With the last of his fortune, Riggan attempts to make a comeback by writing and starring in his own play at the St. James Theatre, an adaptation of  Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

The joke here, of course, is that Keaton himself gained worldwide fame as Tim Burton's Batman (actually, two other main cast members - Edward Norton and Emma Stone - have also starred in big-budget comic book movies). However, while Iñárritu lightly criticizes both the pandering of blockbusters and the pretentiousness of Broadway, he's fundamentally in love with show business of all types, and the only audience that goes home unhappy in "Birdman" is the one that doesn't get to see Riggan's play all the way through.

In terms of style, "Birdman" is a complete 180 from the complex, nonlinear narratives of "21 Grams" and "Babel." The film is shot in simulated long takes; the camera follows various characters as they weave in and out of the St. James Theatre. It's bravura cinematography, to be sure, but perhaps even better is the music, a frenzied mess of (sometimes diegetic) percussion. The soundtrack does a lot to sell Riggan's escalating tension, despite the fact that the plot's stakes are inherently low (no one will die if Riggan's play fails...maybe).

Michael Keaton gives an excellent performance here, one that should handily earn him an Academy Award nod. He's always been able to portray manic obsession convincingly ("You wanna get nuts?"), and Riggan certainly experiences his fair share of that, but Keaton also does good work in the quieter moments of the film. He carefully nurtures Riggan's bond with his daughter (Emma Stone), and his portrayal ensures that the ending of "Birdman" is an emotional catharsis, not a cheat.

Rating: 8/10