Sunday, January 26, 2020

Books: My top books 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...

The Last Policeman - This was one of several speculative fiction books I picked up from my visit to Powell's in Portland, Oregon. Author Ben Winters's premise is killer - an asteroid will obliterate the Earth in six months, prompting the semi-breakdown of society as people quit their jobs and go "bucket list," join apocalyptic cults, or fall into despair. Amidst this chaos, a rookie homicide detective investigates a hanging that everyone else assumes is a suicide. Of course, the case has more than meets the eye, but does that matter, when everyone will be gone soon anyway? If you like existentialist sci-fi dread mixed in with your crime fiction, this is a good read.

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems - This is the third nonfiction title from xkcd creator Randall Munroe, and it functions as the inverse of his first book, "What If?" - rather than present a ridiculous situation and try to explain the consequences with real-world physics (e.g., what would happen if you had a mole of moles), "How To" presents a common situation and applies a roundabout, Rube Goldberg-esque solution that would "solve" the problem under physical laws, but which would be insane in practice (e.g., skiing by hooking up snow machines to blow snow in front of you).

Frozen Hell - This is an expanded version of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s classic novella, "Who Goes There?," working in several opening chapters unearthed from draft manuscripts that Campbell had sent to Harvard. I think the expanded version is actually worse than the original (Campbell wisely excised the opening for pacing reasons), but it's still well-written, and I liked seeing how one of the greatest sci-fi editors of all time ruthlessly revised his own work.

Concealed Carry Class: The ABCs of Self-Defense Tools and Tactics - I really got a lot out of my pistol class with Tom Givens, and this book repeats and condenses a lot of the material Tom teaches in the class and previously wrote about in his book "Fighting Smarter," except this time with high-quality photography and more professional editing. It's not perfect (some of the statistics Tom mentions are a bit suspect), but the core of the book is excellent and grounded in his decades of experience as a law enforcement officer and trainer.

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