Thursday, August 23, 2018

Game Review: Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)

Persona 4 Golden (P4G) is a remarkable departure from traditional JRPGs. Many beats will be familiar to JRPG fans – for example, the theme of fwendship, the turn-based combat system – but P4G stands apart for its core mechanic of daily micro-decisions that ultimately shape each player’s experience of the game. Overall, it’s a terrific game that makes me eager to get my paws on Persona 5.

In P4G, players take on the role of a silent protagonist high schooler who arrives in the small rural town of Inaba as a transfer student for the year. He’s staying with his Uncle Ryoutaro, a police detective, and Nanako, his 6-year-old cousin. But soon a series of murders and kidnappings engulfs the town, and it’s up to [HERO] and his friends to find the truth!

My first kudos goes to the graphics. The 3D sprites are reasonably proportioned (!), in that everyone looks like a typical Japanese person. The character postures and motions are also very smooth. The developers even captured the teenage boy slouch! While P4G is far from Uncharted: Golden Abyss in terms of beautifully rendered environs, its Inaba is an accurate representation of a small town in Japan. The overworld map, which lets players select a destination within the town, resembles a Google maps satellite image. In other words, everything looks realistic.

The breaks with reality occur within the confines of mundane, everyday activities, which is the game’s greatest strength. In P4G, players can enter another dimension swarming with “Shadows,” which can only be fought off with “Personas.” Personas are basically Summons, and they can be won in dungeons or created through fusion. Typical JRPGs have elemental strengths/weaknesses as a function of power, and this is present in P4G as well, but tarot categories (called “arcana”) play a larger role here. For example, your first Persona is Izanagi, of the Fool arcana, and he’s strong in lightning and weak to wind. Certain NPCs in the real world represent specific arcanas, so establishing “Social Links” with them increases the power of Personas you can create. So basically you’re as strong as your friendship level! It’s all a bit of a learning curve for newcomers to the Persona series, but it's bomb once mastered!

The P4G development team also threw in the mandatory sidequests—which are mostly fetch quests—as well as fishing, planting and harvesting, and model building (?!). In addition, your character can do part-time work after school, and/or join after school activities. And, certain actions will increase your stats (for instance, eating a suspicious item in the fridge raises Courage), which can unlock further actions (e.g. enough Courage lets you enter the shrine at night and talk to a ghost!). A lot of factors are day-dependent, such as soccer practice being on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays, or working at the daycare center being an option on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

What all this means is that every decision you make—who to have lunch with, how to spend the afternoon and evening (e.g. drama club? Basketball practice? Reading? Working? Eating ramen with someone?)—determines your strength and bonus abilities in battle, the other characters’ development, and the interactions near end game. The game makes it challenging to get 100% because one decision cancels out all others, so for example, if I chose to work as a dishwasher at the pub that evening, I would miss my chance to get closer to a classmate who wants to hang out. And players make these choices every single day.

The best part is that the game rewards players, not just through maxing out a Social Link and getting special interactions and skills, but also through the sense that the protagonist has a personality, based on the other characters’ reactions to your dialogue choices.

The combat system in PG4 is a joy. It's so entertaining to find or fuse Personas and then choose one who has the requisite skills to dish out the most damage. A few rules spice up battles: first, hitting a combatant with a weakness gives the attacker an extra turn--this is true for players and Shadows! Second, a hilarious group attack can be performed if all enemies are knocked down. Third, if you have high enough Social Links with your friends, they provide welcome assistance, such as canceling status ailments, removing one enemy from the field entirely, or boosting stats. Fighting is fun in P4G!

P4G has several themes, the quest for truth being the overarching one. A related theme is the role of television/media, which in the game is both a danger and a means to save trapped souls. Does the screen show the truth, or is it all illusion? Friendship and making connections are other major themes in the game, underlined by their centrality to the gameplay. P4G also invites players to think about what makes a family (blood? Love? Shared experience?). Finally, the game highlights the fleeting time that is youth, and how fun and painful and awkward it can be.

The excellent localization really brings these themes and messages across. Certain original Japanese terms are left as-is, conversations flow well, and the voice acting is outstanding. Not a single voiced character was annoying! Plus, in the thousands of lines of text, I only caught a single error (made by Yosuke during a high-level Social Link interaction, btw). So, well done, Atlus localization team and voice actors!

Lastly, P4G’s music is spectacular. There are plenty of J-pop numbers, jazzy tracks for running around town or being in class, a soulful aria for the Velvet Room (basically the Persona support center), and fun dungeon themes. My favorite track is “Signs of Love,” which is catchy and repetitive!

P4G is such a great game that I’m now intrigued by the series and will pick up Persona 5. Until then, I’ll be on my Switch playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The gaming never ends, my friends. Especially not when one's husband has correctly deduced that buying wifey console games = hubby free time for PC games!

TL; DR: A strong JRPG and a solid intro to the Persona series!

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This post brought to you by there honestly isn't enough coffee to compensate for two kids not sleeping well. -_-

Monday, August 20, 2018

Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a wonderful escape into a world dripping with luxury and over-the-top personalities. The movie flaunts its unabashed Chinese-ness, with a soundtrack featuring Mandarin and Cantonese covers of highly recognizable US pop songs, as well as a pivotal scene where mahjong is key. Overall, it's an enjoyable journey that will hopefully lead to more stories like it!

Crazy Rich Asian's lead is NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, or should I say, Woooo!), whose boyfriend Nick Young (HE'S MINE, HANDS OFF) invites her to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. Multiple surprises await Rachel along the way, many delightful (street food! Designer clothes!), and some downright terrifying (disapproving potential mother-in-law!).

The latter is played to icy perfection by the outstanding Michelle Yeoh, whose character Eleanor verbalizes the conflicts running throughout the film: sacrifice and tradition versus passion and independence, family versus outsiders, old money versus scrappy immigrants, and more. Although Eleanor places herself between Rachel and Nick, the movie has no true villain -- just fundamentally differing backgrounds, perspectives, and attitudes that, naturally, eventually swing in favor of our heroine, since this is after all a romantic comedy.

Apart from the strong writing, the supporting characters are fabulous. First place goes to Awkwafina, fresh off her triumphant debut in Ocean's Eight, whose portrayal of Peik Lin is so iconic that I honestly couldn't catch everything she said because the audience roared with laughter just about every time she came onscreen. A close second is Nico Santos (he's Pinoy!) who plays the resourceful cousin Oliver. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Gemma Chan, whose Astrid is tragic and kind and beautiful and tall and slim and I'm not jealous. That's just your imagination. Sonoya Mizuno is also in this movie, and I did not recognize her at all because I last saw her in Ex Machina, which you should also watch!

Apropos of nothing, the loving shots and scenes dedicated to food made me go, "This movie gets me." This movie is my husband.

Finally, the soundtrack is spectacular in that the music matches all the visual opulence. In particular, the opening song "Waiting For Your Return," "Wo Yao Ni De Ai," and "Money (That’s What I Want)" are very upbeat tracks that encapsulate the spirit of the film. And the song sung live (of course!) at the wedding is swoon-worthy. Love and money -- what a glorious fantasy!

TL;DR: MORE PLEASE!

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This post brought to you by boba tea!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Movie Review: Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man and The Wasp has a lot of heart. It's a fun little adventure that scales back the stakes, but not the action or the laughs. Overall, it's a great antidote to the grimness of Avengers: Infinity War.

The cast is easily the best part of the film. The gang from Ant-Man is back, and everyone shines: Paul Rudd is earnest and goofy as Scott Lang; Evangeline Lilly remains hyper-competent as Hope van Dyne; Michael Douglas' Hank Pym is brilliant and driven; and Michael Peña is a scene-stealer as the chatty Luis. Any interaction involving Scott's daughter Cassie (Abby Rider) is adorable. There are several new high-profile additions in the sequel, and every one of them is *Italian chef kiss*

The plot is equally enjoyable. There are a number of intertwined threads, but for the most part it's a straightforward proposition: our heroes want to enter the quantum realm and retrieve [SPOILER]. Appropriately enough for its micro-protagonists, this movie dodges the thematic weight of, say, the last two Captain America films. This is very much a family movie, as in the overriding theme is family: the one you're born into, and the one you create through shared experiences and goals.

Watching Ant-Man and The Wasp overcome obstacles is exceedingly entertaining. The CGI during fight scenes is very well done, with slo-mo being used sparingly but to hilarious effect. The soundtrack is high octane from the get-go. And the villains are interesting! Ant-Man and The Wasp face off against two sets of antagonists who want the same thing. One pair has surprising depth, while the other group, despite not being terribly formidable, is certainly persistent.

Also: The Wasp has her hair in a ponytail when she's fighting! This alone almost makes up for the movie not passing the Bechdel test. Soon, Marvel, soon you will be less sausage-y and more...y'know, I'm just going to leave this at: Black Widow movie, woo-hoo!!!

In closing, since this is a Marvel movie, there are two end credit scenes: one after the principal cast list, and another at the very end. Stay and watch, and marvel at Marvel's ability to link its movies!

TL;DR: Fun, brisk, and moving. 

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This post brought to you by summer showers!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Summer Book Recommendations

I went on a reading binge after Juniorette was born--what else to do during all those night wake-ups in the first six weeks? Below are the four best books of the bunch, in my opinion:

1. Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats (Maryn McKenna, 2017)
McKenna traces the rise of chicken as the main protein in the United States, a rise inextricably linked to heavy antibiotic use. She describes how chickens lost their diversity and essentially became standardized blocks of tofu with feathers, legs, and beaks. She examines industrial practices as well as the alternative movements that have sprung up in response to rising consumer awareness of the health costs of so-called "superbugs." Her documentation of the bacterial threat is chilling. However, Big Chicken does end on a positive note, unlike, say, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Incidentally, I haven't bought chicken since reading this book.

2. Molly's Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World (Molly Bloom, 2014)
Molly's Game is a memoir about how former Olympic skiier Molly Bloom ended up running an invite-only, high-stakes poker game for the moneyed dudes of LA and New York. She includes observations about the mindset of poker players, presents the drastic lifestyle changes her new role afforded, and describes her evolving strategy for staying on top of the game. Gotta respect the hustle! Now a movie starring Jessica Chastain.

3. The Secret Life of Fat: the Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means For You (Sylvia Tara, PhD, 2016)
The author, a biochemist, makes a compelling case for loving your fat by understanding it as an organ critical to your body's performance. She uses examples of fat-related diseases to emphasize that having too little or too much can cause havoc on our health. For those hoping for some tips on how to lose weight, alas, it's the same old (yet effective!) advice: diet and exercise. Still, this book made me appreciate the role that fat plays in my health, and I'm now less judge-y of myself and others who have muffin tops. Just means there's more to love!

4. Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life As an Animal Surgeon (Dr. Nick Trout, 2008)
Dr. Trout is a British animal surgeon who has plenty of experience under his belt. He's passionate about his patients, and his empathy extends to their human companions. He structures the book around one day to showcase both the clinical issues he has to deal with--starting in the wee hours of the morning!--as well as the other challenges of the profession, such as cost considerations for owners, how to communicate with patients who can't talk, teaching and mentorship, etc. I would bring my pet to Dr. Trout based on this book, because his love for animals shines through. I mean, if I had a pet.

TL;DR: All four books are great summer reads to expand your mind!

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This post brought to you by swimming!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Junior's First (and Last?) Casting Call

I received an email the other day about a last-minute casting call for families: "We would love to cast real families but understand we may need to create them through individual talent. The concepts center around stylish professionals raising a growing family in the city." They're looking for stylish, urban, chic! The very opposite of my family! I hit "Accept."

The call sheet said "Time: 10:00 AM-4:00 PM" and I assumed that meant the process would take the whole six hours. Fortunately, Junior's agent sent a follow-up email to clarify that we could arrive anytime between the hours posted. He also said to dress casually, and to be patient, as "there are quite a few people going for this."

So there was a chance that my offspring would be cast individually. I prepped Junior by explaining that we would be going to an audition, where they would take pictures of him and maybe ask him questions, like what his name is, how old he is, does he have siblings, etc. I also promised him a treat afterwards. He was in. Let the adventure begin!

*

On the day of, I picked up Junior early from daycare. Ominously, he woke up grumpy, as opposed to his usual jack-in-the-box style of "Bangon na tayo!" ("Let's get up!") I had to carry him partway out of there, until I remembered to show him the Blaze monster truck I'd packed. That woke him up.

The studio, in a nearby town, had a fun, funky vibe. The friendly receptionist directed us to the waiting area, which was the kitchen at the end of the hall. There was a table set up for signing in, with one sheet already full. I took the next sheet and signed in Junior, then scoped out the room. There were about 20 people waiting their turn, including three or four whole families. We settled into a table to wait.

The studio was full of vintage items like old cameras, arcade games, and a jukebox. I found a small model truck on a ledge and handed it to Junior, reminding him that it wasn't ours and that we would return it when we were done. While he was busy, I texted my buddy C about what we were doing.

"Who's your competition?" C asked.

It hadn't occurred to me to view everyone there as such, but that's what they were! I texted back: "So far: a Korean family of four with one boy and one girl. Other parents brought only daughters."

I also noted that there were some ZADDIES! I counted eight men who came alone, all drop-dead gorgeous. I texted Hubby this tidbit. His response: "No trade ins!"

About half an hour into our wait, I overheard one woman tell another, "We've been here since noon." She appeared to be part of a group of singles. A couple of families had been called ahead of them since Junior and I arrived, so I figured the casting team prioritized parents with kids. I added my name to Junior's on our sign-in sheet, hoping that would bump us up.

Another half an hour later, the folks who were there since noon got called in. Good luck to them!!!

Junior and I were busily constructing a combination towing apparatus/friendship bracelet when we got called in. We stood in a hallway while a little girl was being photographed in the audition room. I struck up a conversation with her mom, who was out waiting with us. "She's four," she confided. "She just did a commercial in there last month, for candy." Apparently, her kid loves modeling and acting so much that they were going to fly her out to LA to "see what happens..."

"Can we go in yet?" Junior asked. "Soon," I assured him. They called us in a few minutes later.

The casting director, a pleasant woman, wrote our names and agency on a whiteboard and handed it to me. She told us to stand at a particular spot, in front of a very tired looking photographer. She explained that they'll take photos of us together interacting, as well as apart. Then she backed away. "Smile!" she said...

...and Junior essentially switched between these two expressions:

©Bill Watterson
He also put his truck over his face. *facepalm emoji*

"Is he a little boy?" chuckled the casting director. At that point, I was just happy he hadn't melted down yet, and so tried to tickle him (at the director's prompting) to see if we could get a proper smile. It worked, a little.

He did manage to flash a photogenic grin when she asked him if he gets called Spider-Man because of his Spider-Man shoes. "I'm Spider-Man!" he beamed, and the photographer quickly took a shot. As for me, I was just smiling indulgently the whole time.

The actual audition took about five minutes. Junior immediately asked for his treat as we headed out the door. I gave him two pieces of chocolate. On the ride home, I gently told him that he did a great job, and next time perhaps he could give a normal smile? "I'll do a SUPER smile," he promised, widening his eyes solemnly.

*

Later that evening, when I asked him if he'd like to do an audition again, he shook his head. Well, at least we tried it once! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

*

In conclusion, there's no chance we got cast, but the important thing is that we got through it without incident, and I learned that although my son will readily chat up, and even sing to, strangers on the street, the chances of his offering a winning smile on command are 50/50 or lower. So perhaps, indeed, this was his first and last casting call.

TL;DR: Junior had his first audition! It was an okay experience!

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This post brought to you by California Pizza Kitchen!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Movie Review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

Incredibles 2 lives up to its title. It boasts spectacular action sequences, perfect voice acting, grounded themes, AND is preceded by Bao, a lovely short by Domee Shi that had me in tears. Overall, it's a sequel worth the 14-year wait.

Plot: Elastigirl is recruited as the centerpiece of a high-tech PR effort to make Supers legal again. Meanwhile, Mr. Incredible must stay home and parent their three Super kids by himself. But a mysterious villain wants Supers to remain illegal...forever!

First off the bat: Incredibles 2 tends to be exposition-heavy, because it deals with real-world themes such as parenting, power and responsibility, trust and friendship, fear and discrimination, and legal versus right. In particular, Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible's decision to have her leave the kids so they can one day have the choice that she and her husband don't have--to use their powers for good without fear of legal action--strikes a chord with working parents, who keep at their jobs to provide the best possible everything to their offspring. The contradiction inherent in Elastigirl's illegal actions in the pursuit of legal status is repeated by multiple characters, underlining the IRL fact that the law and justice are two different things. There are also conversations between Elastigirl and Evelyn (one of the two who recruit Elastigirl) that Hubby argues pass the Bechdel test, but I disagree. Will have to rewatch.

Anyway! Interspersed throughout the sparkling dialogue are breathtaking action scenes: Incredibles vs. the Underminer, Jack-Jack vs. raccoon, Elastigirl vs. runaway train, etc. They're, well, incredible! And the accompanying music is on point, sometimes tense, other times wistful, and always entertaining.

Another highlight, naturally, darling, is Edna. As with the first movie, she's a scene-stealer. Director Brad Bird does outstanding voice work as the diminutive genius fashion designer. Edna's lines are the ones that Hubby and I quote to each other on the drive back from the movie theater. I would watch a movie about Edna!

All the actors who give voice to our beloved Supers are terrific! They provide depth to already complex characters. It's great that character actors were selected for both films, instead of using big names to sell seats. (An exception is Bradley Cooper as Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy, because Cooper sounds nothing like his handsome self when voicing the space raccoon.)

My only negative note about Incredibles 2 is that I think the villain in The Incredibles is better. Syndrome is a nasty piece of work: willing to sacrifice his own lieutenant, murder children, and aware enough to catch himself monologuing. The Incredibles 2 big bad: different! See for yourself.

In summary, Incredibles 2 (and Bao!) is a top-notch animated film, and definitely worth the trip to the theater.

TL;DR: Highly recommended for kids and grownups!

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This post brought to you by Peet's coffee!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is bleak and disturbing. Its horror and shocks are rooted in its proximity to reality. It's a lovingly crafted film that's worlds apart from the typical "Boo!" movies of the genre. Overall, it has a strong message, highlighted by phenomenal acting and grotesque imagery.

Toni Collette dominates Hereditary with her powerful performance as Annie, a woman whose secretive mother just died. The first part of the movie shows Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and two teenage children, Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro) all grappling with the loss. The film becomes steadily more grim from there, and everything falls apart in the third act.

The strongest elements in the film are the acting, the soundtrack, the set design, and the cinematography. As noted, Collette delivers a bravura performance as the loving, increasingly strained Annie. She's matched by Shapiro, who manages to be weird, helpless, and menacing at the same time. And Wolff offers a deft portrayal of a struggling teenager who really needs things to be stable at home. Meanwhile, Byrne's character is in over his head, but he still tries his best to keep the peace.

Most of the action takes place in the family house, which was built on a sound stage for the movie. The soundtrack creates a sense of dread to even the most mundane shots and, combined with the set design and cinematography, the home shifts from big, warm, and welcoming to close and dark, full of unseen terrors in the shadows. It's the perfect allegory for mental illness, the big theme in Hereditary. In sunlight everything looks right, but once darkness falls, things unravel and unsettle.

The writing is strong, for the most part. It builds tension to almost unbearable levels, and underlines its message of children suffering because of something out of their control. Annie's job--as an artist who creates miniatures that reflect her life--is used to good effect, revealing her past and present, and serving as a catalyst for further turmoil. (Here's a great article, with photos, about the miniatures.) Her sharing with a grief support group provides crucial plot details. Another expository/exploratory tool is the Greek tragedy discussed in Peter's class; the teacher asks if it's more tragic to have a choice, or to be a pawn (i.e. a form of "nature or nurture?"). 

In the end, Steve [SPOILERS], Annie [SPOILERS], Peter [SPOILERS], and Charlie turns out to be [SPOILERS]. Despite having pre-read about the big reveal in the film (accidentally, I swear!), I was surprised and repulsed at the turn of events. And the ending is actually the weakest part of the script!

Now, a full day later, I appreciate how much passion went into this movie. Writer and director Ari Aster told a truly chilling tale of loss, secrets, and betrayal. And perhaps by next week I can walk down my own hallway at night again.

TL; DR: More sad and disturbing than scary.

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This post brought you by ramen!