Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Yikes, Mondo Kim's Closed

One of the iconic stores of the East Village, Mondo Kim's, closed about a week ago.

If you live anywhere near the village, then you know this store as much for its snarky employees as its amazingly eclectic video and music collection. I should know; I was one of those sultans of snark. In fact, for a brief few months, I was manager of the entire Kim's Video chain. (True!) So it's sad for me to see the crown jewel of the empire come crashing down.

Shortly after graduating college, I applied for a job at one of Mr. Kim's stores. He liked me so much that he made me manager of all of them. I wasn't ready. In fact, I have no idea what he saw in me at the time. I was completely green, and worse, I was emotionally wrecked from both the pressures of NYU and a really horrendous roommate situation. All I was looking for was a low-pressure job until I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up fucking up that job completely, of course, not to mention Mr. Kim's van, which I was supposed to drive around to all the stores collecting money. One day, I sideswiped the wall on the way back in to Mr. Kim's parking garage, ripping apart the entire left side of the van.

When I quit, Mr. Kim was really disappointed. I have to say I liked the guy. Everybody in New York has heard of Kim's Video but not many people know anything about the guy behind it. (A lot of people still think it's a woman named Kim.) Mr. Kim just loved film, like I did, and he wanted to be a part of the industry in any way he could. He was pretty young too - about my age now when I worked there. And he was not a mean boss, like some of his workers say. He didn't make me pay for the van. His general manager wanted him to, but he didn't.

I liked working there. I met some great people in the stores, to the point that I wished I could have just worked in one of them rather than spending my days running around to each one repeatedly collecting money and making sure everything was categorized correctly. That was basically my job. But I was a bad manager, I wanted everybody to be friends with me. Sometimes I would just hang out for like 45 minutes talking to people. What the hell, I was young. Today I wouldn't care, I'd rather see a video filed correctly than anything else.

Mr. Kim still has at least one store, ironically a new one on 1st Avenue between 7th and 8th, which is literally about a block over from where his first store was on Avenue A. But his empire is clearly crumbling. He no longer rents videos at all. And his flagship is gone.

Funnily enough, his entire rental collection has been sold to a town in Sicily.

Blame the internet.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I bought a new iPod

One of my first-ever posts here was about my original iPod (and all my troubles getting it to work right).

Well, four years on it kinda died a little bit, at least to the point that I had to finagle some stuff every time I wanted to charge or sync it. So I bought a new one. It's an iPod "Classic" - love that name, as if it's an antique - which they only produce in 120GB capacity and black or silver. Obviously not Apple's favorite iPod model right now, but it's the only model I'd consider. Mine's black - it looks kind of silver in the photo above, but that's just a trick of the light bouncing off the Griffin iClear case I bought for it.

I'm highly enjoying watching video on it, even though the screen's sort of tiny and sometimes I have to squint to read subtitles (catching up on my Nana and Cowboy Bebop!). But I wanted the Classic over the wide-screen Touch (or the iPhone) because I need storage space and I hate hate HATE touch screens. I'll never buy a touch screen. You hear me, Apple? This will be my last iPod if you go exclusively touch-screen (or exclusively flash memory).

I'm a little annoyed at one change they've made to the interface since my 4G iPod, which is that the screen switches to a clock after 20 seconds or so while playing music. I use shuffle mode a lot and honestly, I don't know half the songs in my collection (or I can't identify them immediately) so I've gotten in the habit of just glancing down at the iPod to see what I'm hearing. I still instinctively do that and it is highly annoying to see that clock staring back at me instead of the song title. On the plus side, I always seem to know what time it is.

Well, whatever. The pros outweigh the cons, and that's all that matters.

Before anyone asks, no, I did not want a Zune or a Zen or whatever else. I actually like the iPod and iTunes - my problems of four years ago were temporary. Everything's got pluses and minuses, but at least the iPod doesn't brick itself on random days.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Japanese Movies: Nana

One of the caveats of being married to a Japanese woman is that I'm coerced into watching Japanese chick flicks every once in a while. But the weird thing is I usually end up liking them better than my wife does. I don't know what that means.

This weekend, we finally watched "Nana", the 2005 film adaptation of the massively popular shoujo manga. My wife is a HUGE fan of the manga, and she was really excited about the film adaptation when it first hit theaters. Living in the US, she never got to see it, so she was excited again when it was finally released on DVD here about six months ago. We finally Netflixed it, though it took about a month of convincing before I actually sat down and watched it with her. But after my Dark Knight and Hancock and Iron Man, I kinda felt obligated. I think she's regretting all that effort now.

This is a story about two girls that are both named Nana who meet by chance on a train to Tokyo. They are opposites - one is a jaded, aspiring rock chick and the other is a cute, somewhat dim-witted but otherwise typical suburbanite. By chance again, they end up roommates, then friends. Each ends up helping the other through some difficult times. Yep, your standard chick buddy flick. It's actually pretty much the same plot as "Kamikaze Girls", which I've mentioned here before, just with a different backstory.

The trailer (press the "HQ" button!):

Probably unlike the manga, the main plot of the film actually revolves around Nana Osaki, the rock chick, who's easily the more interesting and three-dimensional of the two anyway. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that she was involved with Ren, the bassist from her old rock band, who left to join another, more mainstream band named Trapnest that just happens to be Nana Komatsu's favorite. (In the process, he switches to lead guitar.) Just as Nana O is putting her life and her own band back together, Nana K wins two front row tickets to see Trapnest in concert, inviting Nana O to go with her. Well, you can guess the rest. Meanwhile, both girls basically fall in love with each other, though not in a romantic way, but in that weird almost romantic kind of way that girls sometimes do and that guys can't ever really get their heads around. We're talking overtones.

Nana K's own story ends up being basically an out of place subplot in the film - her jerk of a boyfriend is cheating on her, blah blah blah. Sad. (There was way more to it in the manga, but it's been cut down in the film.) Nana K's story serves mostly to advance the relationship between the two girls, whereas that relationship then advances Nana O's story with Ren.

The whole thing is heavy on the schmaltz and there's lots of crying. But you know what? Japanese filmmakers are really, really good at this kind of thing. The art of melodrama is lost in this country - we've turned it into such a formula that all the real emotion just gets sucked right out of it. Japanese melodramas - at least the best ones - pour it on just as thick as American melodramas but somehow manage to suck you in anyway. They're so well-calculated that even though you're completely aware of being manipulated, you still get caught up in it. There are scenes in this film that I know I should want to laugh at for excessive corniness, but instead find myself actually getting a little choked up.

Authenticity is the key, especially with Nana O. Mika Nakashima was an inspired bit of casting in that role - she was already one of Japan's top singers, so there's nothing about her that doesn't feel real. She is real. And she looks and acts the part, down to the Vivienne Westwood clothing and accessories, though she's not quite as matronly as the manga and anime version of the same character. (I think I like the film version better; a little more realistic for a 20 year old.) Ai Yazawa, who wrote the original story, must have had some experience in a band. All the details are right, including just how normal most of the time you spend with your band is (one of Nana's bandmates seems to be a big melon cream soda fan). American films never manage that - there's too much stereotyping and glamorizing. And that makes the emotions feel fake too.

It helps that the most emotional scene of the film is set at a rock concert. The film has two of these leading up to the finale (one of Nana O's band, one of her ex-beau Ren's Trapnest), and both of them feel totally real even though they clearly aren't - the music is pre-recorded. I suspect they were, in fact, filmed in such a way as to maximize sell-through of soundtrack CD's. They still look and sound convincing, though, and the atmosphere is exactly right. Everybody's playing the right notes and strumming on rhythm and whatnot; it doesn't feel faked. And this is a setting that, in real life, really can bring out all sorts of raw emotions.

My wife disliked the film. It actually made her depressed for the rest of the evening.

For her, it just cut too much out of the manga. That might be true; it only has three out of five stars on Amazon Japan (vs. four and a half on Amazon USA). She also called Nana K "annoying" and said the plot was "unrealistic". I'll give her that Aoi Miyazaki, playing Nana K, was a bit much - and it's a little ironic that she's the one that got more popular off this movie. (As my wife said, "Japanese guys like innocent girls.") I was obviously a lot more taken with Nana O (and not just because she looks and acts exactly like a former roommate of mine!) I guess this movie actually appeals more to American tastes than Japanese.

But I think it appealed to me not just for the reasons listed above but also because it actually made me nostalgic - a big part of the film is actually about the ups and downs of being a performing musician. The thrill of being on stage, yeah, but also the depressing, down periods when you're not. Performing live is like an addictive drug; once you've experienced it, all you want to do is experience it again, over and over. That's how bands can go on grueling, year-long tours again and again throughout their careers. And when you're not on stage, it's just a dark, lonely existence. Yeah, you can tell I miss it. I am Nana O!

It is just a sweet film too.

Of course, a lot of the feminist stuff is a bit lost on me, and that was the main point of the manga (and anime). It's intended to be a story of two girls learning to live lives that are independent of men, relying on each other instead. I think the film is honestly missing some of that anyway, or at least it doesn't beat you over the head with it like the manga and anime do. Maybe that's one reason why its rating in Japan is lower than here; the message is a bit lost. It's a message that probably feels really important in Japan right now, where women and girls are searching for empowerment in a country that's years behind us in feminist terms.

The film was a lot like the manga in at least one way:

It's very close, visually.

There's a sequel (imaginatively called "Nana 2") that again stars Mika Nakashima as Nana O but replaces Aoi Miyazaki as Nana K (she declined to appear - got too popular, had better things to do). The sequel is good too, but it's very sad throughout and pretty bleak at the end. Unlike the first film, it feels in need of another sequel to tie up loose ends, and there probably won't be one coming. It's also got some obviously-cheaper production values - at least 50% of it takes place at the girls' apartment. On the plus side, I think the casting of the second film is actually a net gain. Many of the actors have changed, but most for the better - including Ren and Nana Komatsu, now played by Yui Ichikawa. She's a lot less annoying than Aoi Miyazaki, and no less cute.

And of course, there's an anime, with a theme song by Anna Tsuchiya. I'm watching through this now and it is much more faithful to the manga - in ways both good and bad. So far, the film is better - I'm not a huge fan of unnecessary exposition. The film really boils it down, separates the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, there is no US distribution for the anime yet, but search around and you can find it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it)

Not many amateur videos actually make me laugh out loud. This one did.

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

This Happened

So a plane crashed a couple blocks from my office today...

(Not my photo; MSNBC's photo.) Amazingly, no deaths. As you can imagine, it was quite pandemonious here for a little while. But it was a great job by the pilots to ditch in one piece.

Now you know to listen to the flight attendants when they talk about the unlikely event of a water landing! Despite what you might think, this is not the first successful ditching by a longshot. Click that link. That list is not even complete - it doesn't, for example, include this accident:

All survived that one too. And the plane flew again!

The freaky thing is this is the fourth major plane crash in eight years that I've either watched live or experienced the direct aftermath of first-hand. Most people never see one plane crash, either as it happens or afterward. It's just one of the things you learn to deal with in New York City - something most people never think to talk about. But this city is cursed - in addition to this, 9/11, and American Airlines flight 587, there's also Avianca flight 52, TWA flight 800, Delta flight 554, and a previous US Air crash, flight 5050. That's only going back about 15 years too - there's more before that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cute little Dakota Fanning is going through a phase

When did this happen??

I don't follow a lot of child actors, but the first time I saw her in "I Am Sam" (only eight years ago!) I knew she'd be around for a long while. The last time I saw her was 2005's "War of the Worlds" and it seemed like she was stuck in time as a little toddler forever. Now she's suddenly a Doc Marten-wearing pink-haired rebellious teenager.

I know, it's just a character in "Push", which is being marketed pretty heavily now - first major film I've seen from her in a while. I was actually starting to wonder what the hell had happened to her. Guess she was just at that awkward in-between age. Seems like she's on the other side now.

I actually remember watching Jodie Foster grow up, and I'm having deja vu right now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Freaky Aviation Illusions

This is a topic that's come up in a forum I read sometimes, and it's an effect I'd honestly never seen before (none of these photos are mine):

That's a camera illusion. It looks like some weird Photoshop job, but it isn't. This below is actually one of the stranger photos I've seen, because of how normal it seems until you look closely:


Even the shadows:

The iPhone seems to have lots of trouble, there are many examples like this:

I honestly don't know why this happens. I studied film and I know about shutter effects on various things, but this seems to be unique to cheap digital cameras. I've had it explained to me but it still doesn't make any sense - these cameras supposedly scan their subjects line by line rather than all at once, so that a subject can move during the exposure but still be in sharp focus. This could make it look like they're "bent". But that explanation really doesn't hold up if you think about how propellers actually move and then compare that to these photos.

In fact, you can see this in motion too, which is quite interesting:

Another one, but the blades are bending outward:

A couple of bonus illusions for good measure - check out this powerless hovering helicopter:

Same principle here, this is a little easier to understand than the oddly bent propellers:

Still pretty wild, though.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Linn Restaurant - great Japanese food in Astoria, Queens

You may be under the impression that all the great New York restaurants are in Manhattan. Wrong! Some of the best ethnic food exists outside of Manhattan, in tiny little restaurants run by immigrants. One of the best outer borough neighborhoods for this kind of food has always been Astoria, Queens, which is traditionally a Greek neighborhood but also has a great selection of Italian and other Mediterranean food. There are probably more restaurants per capita in Astoria than anywhere in Manhattan. I've actually lived in Astoria twice, and it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. Great food, great people, and while a lot of Manhattan has been on a gentrification spree, Astoria has always maintained a balance between tradition and trendiness.

One thing the neighborhood never had before was a really authentic and really good Japanese restaurant. Well, that's changed.

Linn Restaurant
29-13 Broadway
Astoria, NY 11106

There are two kinds of Japanese restaurants in New York City. There's "New York style" Japanese (some high-end places like Megu and Nobu fit that definition) and then there are restaurants that are really like walking into Tokyo. They may be trendy or rustic, expensive or cheap, but they have in common the fact that you might expect to find a restaurant exactly like that while strolling through Akasaka or Shibuya or Ebisu or wherever your favorite Tokyo neighborhood happens to be. Linn is in that latter category, though it is on the trendier side. (Tokyo's a pretty trendy city too.)

Linn actually used to be a different Japanese restaurant, called Shima. I ate there once, and that was enough. This is not Shima, which closed some time ago. Linn is 100% new and different, just occupying the same address.

My wife and I ate there last weekend because she knows the owner and head chef. So, call this a biased review if you want. But if I didn't have a good experience, I just wouldn't write anything. So the fact that you're seeing this here at all means something.

Photo shamelessly lifted from the restaurant's web site (as are several others here):

This photo was actually taken from the seat where my wife sat. I would have been just to the right.

The chef's name is Tanaka Shigenori, and before opening this place, he was a chef at Morimoto and Masa, two of New York's most famous Japanese restaurants. He was part of the reason for their success. He told us a story - and I can't vouch for the accuracy but I have no reason to disbelieve him - of how he had a run-in with one of the managers at Morimoto and quit. Well, Masuharu Morimoto himself fired the manager and re-hired Tanaka. Assuming that's true, it should tell you a little bit about this guy's skills.

We sat at the sushi counter, where we could talk to him and watch him work. Obviously my wife did most of the talking as I ate, translating for me when needed. (He does speak English, but obviously not to a native Japanese speaker.) We ordered beer to start and then on Tanaka's recommendation I settled on the beef teriyaki while my wife ordered up the chirashi - a dish she gets almost every time we have Japanese (not to mention when she actually lived there), so she's got a good basis for comparison. If you've never had it, chirashi is basically just a big bowl of sushi - the rice is at the bottom of the bowl, with various kinds of fish and other sushi varieties on top.

The counter area:

We ordered Sapporo, as we noticed it was available on draft, and I was shocked by how different it was from literally every other Japanese restaurant that serves Sapporo in this city. It tasted as good as the stuff we got fresh from the brewery in Tokyo. Even the texture was different from every other restaurant, with tiny Champagne-like bubbles. You may remember that Japanese beer in the US has been a sore spot with me for a while - even high-end restaurants in New York just serve a terrible glass (or bottle) of Sapporo.

I told Tanaka this and he explained that for Sapporo beer, maintenance is very important. He cleans the entire draft system every night. He knew exactly what I was talking about when I said the Sapporo I'd gotten at other restaurants - including four-star places like Megu - tasted skunky and nasty, even on draft. He said it's because they don't clean the tap and kegs. He even told us that Sapporo themselves have to go around inspecting restaurants these days because they get complaints from Japanese customers about this. He has never failed an inspection.

My beef teriyaki was honestly the best I have ever had. Most Japanese restaurants will use poor-quality beef and attempt to cover it up with the sauce. Not at Linn. I've had Kobe beef, and this was actually more tender than that (admittedly, I've only had the California variety of "Kobe beef"). I could literally cut it with my chopsticks. And I could taste it; it wasn't just doused in an overwhelming teriyaki sauce. It was served pretty rustically on a heavy and still-searing cast iron pan, which gets extra points from me.

Apologies for the poor quality cell phone pic, which I know does not do his food justice, especially in color:

Here's a better picture of some of his food, just to show you something a little more artful (not my photo):

My wife similarly said it had been a long, long time since she's had chirashi as good as what she had at Linn - and as I said, she gets it almost every time we eat Japanese. I asked Tanaka where he gets his fish, and he replied "Tsukiji".

That's a pretty significant fact. Tsukiji is the main fish market in Tokyo, not New York. He actually has someone buy his fish for him there and ship it fresh to New York. It really doesn't get any more authentic than this - most Japanese restaurants in New York (including at least a few of the famous ones) get their fish from the Fulton Fish Market. You're eating a Japanese dish with American fish. Not the case at Linn. This is 100% Japanese sushi, both in the raw materials and the preparation.

I was somewhat disappointed that they were out of the black sesame ice cream I had ordered for dessert. This is something I've found in only one other restaurant in New York - Sakagura (as part of their unbelievable black sesame creme brulee) - and I don't get to eat it very often. I settled on the fried ice cream instead, which is something I've never actually had before but always associated with cheap Chinese restaurants. But it was amazing, with a really crispy/soft pastry shell, lots of fresh berries and two sauces (chocolate and I believe raspberry). Again, my cell phone really makes kind of a travesty out of the photo:

This is probably the most "western" dessert they offer, actually - if there's one thing I still have a hard time with in Japanese cuisine, it's the desserts. Lots of tofu and red bean and whatnot. And that's most of the dessert menu here.

We were there on a Saturday night and it was packed by the time we left, with a line waiting to be seated. This is a new restaurant, but it looks like Tanaka's already making a name for himself. He explained that he was originally closed for lunch and on Mondays, but that now he's open 7 days and all day long to meet demand.

The prices are reasonable. Our total for two, including drinks, entrees and dessert, was around $70.

One more dessert shot to leave you with:

I'd love to know where he gets those berries. I never found anywhere in Astoria that sold anything that fresh.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I feel a mid-life crisis coming on.

As I barrel into what I'm now forced to call my late 30's, I've noticed my style has gone into the shitter just like it eventually does with all old people. When I was younger, I always had some sort of theme to the stuff I wore and I pulled off my chosen style with authenticity and earnestness. But lately I've noticed myself wearing a lot of random looking brown stuff and old man sweaters and jeans in a style that is looking increasingly dated. And I don't like it! I need a new look.

My biggest problem is that I just don't buy clothes for myself anymore. I buy about one pair of shoes every five years, and ditto for jeans. Most of my shirts I get for free one way or another.

It's time to put an end to this situation. My first purchase:

Strangely enough, my first-ever pair of Doc Martens! Had a bit of a row with my wife about them - she's automatically against anything that isn't black. She's like an American goth chick. (She has a pair of black DM's herself.) She's been here too long, doesn't even see the need for accent colors anymore. But the point is I already have a pair of black Skechers boots, in fact I just got them. My five year boots. I'll get a pair of black Dr. Martens at some point, but I don't need them now.

Next up: new jeans and t-shirts.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Grape flavored Kit Kat

As soon as I saw this, I knew I had to try it:

As soon as I tasted it, I regretted the whole thing:

It looks a bit like white chocolate there but it isn't. It seems more green in real life. It really is grape flavored, or something. It actually tastes a little like white wine. In any case, it's wrong.

I had to take a second bite just because my brain was having a hard time understanding this taste. But no more. I'm done with this vile concoction. Even my wife, who should be in the target market, had to spit hers out.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Shiina Ringo is pretty cool

Jesus, where the hell have I been for the last 10 years?

I said earlier that my wife bought me Shiina Ringo's album "Shouso Strip" for Christmas. Now I'm obsessed with it. The problem is, it was released in 2000. This always happens to me; I discover artists like this too late. (Especially Japanese ones, who often have a really short shelf life.) This album was wild and raw, as I've heard all her early stuff was, but it's hard to keep up that sort of thing forever. You start out as a counterculture outsider, then you become established, and eventually you become an institution. And suddenly one day your music doesn't sound wild and raw anymore.

Well, I'm sure there are some people out there that still haven't heard of her at all. So this post's for you.

This is a great video, and one of her most famous, both for the song and other obvious reasons:

This album, at least, has all sorts of different styles on it, from punk to techno to jazz. As far as I know, she writes all of it, unlike most female Japanese singers. In fact, she apparently refused to sign her first record contract because the label asked for changes. All of it is very noisy and kinda nasty sounding. Very rough. Some of the comments on her YouTube videos are really weird - a lot of people say stuff like "this song is so beautiful!" Her voice always sounds right on the verge of blowing up whatever room she's singing in, which I love, but I would not call it "beautiful". She is not some sort of Kumi Koda-like technical pop singer.

This is one of the punkier songs - love the blood-curdling scream near the beginning:

Her videos are often ironic in at least some way, though serious in others.

This is about the closest thing on the album to a traditional pop ballad:

Even that song's got an edge to its sound, though. It's like every instrument, including her vocals, is being overdriven a little bit in the mix, on purpose.

Well, now I'll eventually have to get everything she's done, including her stuff with Tokyo Jihen, her band of the last few years. She followed the reverse path of most artists, starting off her career solo and then later forming a band. But she's now back solo again and I've heard her very newest stuff is more like the old albums. I hope so, but I know that it's hard to recapture that early spark.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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