Friday, November 29, 2013

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

If movies had their own Hunger Games, then Catching Fire would pincushion the first movie with arrows, set tracker jackers on its twitching corpse, and then set it aflame.

I re-watched the first Hunger Games before going to see Catching Fire and was like, "What is this, a political docu-drama? What is with the gritty-ass cinematography?" Full disclosure: I reviewed it favorably back in 2012, mostly because of my delight at the casting choices. Now, having seen what author Suzanne Collins' work could truly be, I poo-poo my younger self.

Now--(she trilled in her Effie voice)--let's move on!

This time around, the odds are stacked more cruelly against surly archer protagonist Katniss Everdeen (JLaw). Viewed by the oppressed districts as a symbol of rebellion, she becomes a personal target of President Snow (a magnificently evil Donald Sutherland). With the head Gamemaker gone, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) steps in. As Katniss struggles to avoid further antagonizing the menacing leader of the Capitol, everyone else seems intent on pushing the role of hero upon her unwilling shoulders. Heavensbee has a solution: eliminate her by having her fight other Hunger Games victors during the Quarter Quell, or the 25-year window in the Games where the rules get to change.

The first half of the film solidly establishes the stakes, develops supporting characters, and shows off some seriously pimp Capitol costumes. As the flighty yet earnest Effie, Elizabeth Banks wears the hell out of her dresses, which I imagine took a team of civil engineers to assemble for every take. Catching Fire's visual strengths extend to Katniss and Peeta's trademark flaming ensembles, Katniss' wedding gown-slash-mockingjay dress, the training room, and the shiny new arena where the latest and most lethal crop of Tributes must fight to to the death.

The books are told from Katniss' perspective, so she has no idea what's really happening until the very end -- and the same is true for the movie. Who are her allies and enemies? Who is she really fighting for? What happens to the victor of the Quarter Quell games? And how is it humanly possible for Stanley Tucci to top his ridiculously entertaining performance from last year's movie?

Thanks to the much improved cinematography and the atmospheric soundtrack, this next chapter of Katniss Everdeen's adventure unfolds beautifully. As always, the casting is inspired. Women were getting their panties in a bunch for Gale (Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor), and I have heard mum from Team Peeta so far. Not surprising, since he had to be rescued again. "Now Katniss must choose between her boyfriend and her girlfriend," announced Crispy. 'Tis ever so.

In conclusion: I'm watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire again. May the odds be ever in my favor...so I may defeat the hordes of teenagers and young adults at the cinemas.

This post brought to you by water. Water: two hydrogen, one oxygen, one hundred times better than soda. Also a core ingredient of beer! Truly, the stuff of life.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is probably the most intelligent sci-fi I’ve ever read. Back in 1985, Card created compelling characters, wrote tense situations, and explored profound moralities. In Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, the author underlined the themes of things lost in war, survival and strategy, talent and responsibility, friendship and solitude, and a host of other concepts that require re-reading to capture.

I initially refused to watch the movie because Card lost his marbles at some point, but this abridged script persuaded me to watch. Bottom line: worth it. Ender’s Game is a visually stunning film. It’s not Gravity, but it comes close. The futuristic cars, tablets, gear, etc. were believable. The “simulation room” at the Command School base was spectacular. Before that, the design crew’s interpretation of the zero-gravity training room was effective, and it was a delight to see the formations that the “armies” came up with as they floated and blasted their way to victory.

Speaking of children, critics thought that Asa Butterfield was too old to play Ender, who is six in the book when he’s sent off to train in space for his strategic ass-kicking abilities. Movie-Ender is a teenager, complete with lanky body and voice on the verge of squeaking. Let’s take a minute to think back to another iconic movie—Jake Lloyd, anyone? NO CHILDREN PLEASE. Butterfield is fantastic as Ender, and that is that.

The movie is faithful to the book, except at the end. The conclusion of the movie felt rushed. It would have been nice to get something as emotionally intense as the climactic final battle. As it is, Butterfield got to stare tearfully at a teacup poodle on top of someone’s head, or whatever they do on the green screen these days, as the music whined whinily in the background. Denouement fail.

In conclusion: Read the book, thank the author for his contribution to literature, and hurry away to see director Gavin Hood’s take. He wrote the screenplay as well, by the way. Well done to you, sir.

This post brought to you by the Patriots’ stupendous win over the Broncos last night. In Brady we trust.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Movie Review: Argo (2012)

Argo is a suspenseful film that chronicles the covert rescue of six US Embassy workers who hid in the Canadian Embassy after the Iranian Revolution erupted. The movie boasts a stellar cast, snappy dialogue, and superb cinematography that ramps up the tension once the action shifts to Iran. Ben Affleck pulls double duty as director and star, and is effective as both.

I thought I had Argo’s Oscar success figured out in the first half hour. When CIA agent “Kevin” (Affleck) devises an extraction strategy involving a fake sci-fi movie, he goes to Hollywood—and snark ensues. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play a Hollywood makeup artist and famous director, respectively, and both hilariously deliver sly in-jokes about the movie industry and its particular culture. To create credibility for their front, they select a script entitled Argo.

This act stands out through a series of overlapping shots and voice overs during a crucial moment in solidifying Argo’s cred as an actual movie. As prominent actors do a publicized script reading of cheesy heroics, a representative of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran is also shown reading from a document denouncing the US for its crimes. The parallelism is delivered boldly, but isn’t bludgeoned at audiences.

Afterwards, Affleck’s character flies out to Iran. This is when things got really tense. There were several times during this section of the film that I could feel my heart pounding. The script and camerawork do an excellent job of laying out the stakes. To understate: Iran in 1980 was not a good time to be American in the new Islamic Republic.

I’ll end here to avoid spoilers. But I will say that it’s one heck of a ride, with a satisfying little twist at the end, and a thoughtful resolution to a minor character’s arc. It’s very interesting what Affleck chooses to do with the real-life operative he plays—maybe the guy really was that controlled and low-key? If so, no wonder he succeeded.

In conclusion: check out Argo if you haven’t seen it yet!

This post brought to you by Lay’s Kettle Cooked Mesquite BBQ Chips. Lay’s chips: low in vitamins, high in sodium! Just like mommy’s cooking! (lol j/k Mama)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Game Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (iOS)


I purchased a little app on my iPhone that I hoped would slake my thirst for more Tomb Raider goodness. It kind of worked.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a platform game that is not connected to the Tomb Raider brand. Sigh. The plot, such as it is, goes like this: somewhere in South America, mercenaries uncover the Mirror of Shadows, which releases the evil Xolotl. Together with Totec, a Mayan warrior also released by the find, Lara must defeat Xolotl before dawn. Let the jumping and shooting begin!

Pros:
  • Easy
  • Offers variety of levels, puzzle-based challenges, weapons, and rewards/bonuses 
  • Soundtrack clearly homage to Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films 
  • Authentic creature and undead monster sounds! *RARRRR crk crk crk* 

Cons:
  • Lara jumps even worse that Mario in the NES Mario Bros. game 
  • Controls unfriendly to oily/cracked fingers 
  • Camera angles make it difficult to see elements of an entire area 
  • Auto-aim feature frequently targets farthest enemy instead of the one eating Lara’s face 

All in all, ‘twas a light, entertaining diversion – one time, I was on the train and got into a boss fight and almost missed my stop. It's also fun to complete optional challenges, like figuring out how to use a giant ball to hit a switch guarded by spikes, or shooting down snipers while a giant catfish-like abomination nips at Lara's heels.

Next step: multi-player mode! I shall report back when finished. (edit: scratch that. Multiplayer requires waiting for another human to connect.)

This post brought to you by a strangely balmy November day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yay Movember, Nay Beard

Here in the land of the free, there are many movements to raise health awareness. The most prominent example in recent years has been the profusion of pink during October, meant to remind us of the scourge that is breast cancer, killer of hundreds of thousands of women a year in the US alone.

The menfolk have their own cause: Movember, celebrated in November, when beards are grown to encourage screenings for common conditions: prostate cancer and the like.

I applaud Movember. It's important for people, especially men, to overcome the stigma of medical visits and own up to the fact that maybe that isn't heartburn, it just might be CVD, our species' number one killer disease. And if so, a trip to the doctor is in order!

However. I am not a fan of beards. My thought on beards: "Ew." Puzzlingly, other men see beards and swoon in admiration. Just this morning, Fragrant Husband spoke enthusiastically about the utilikilt worn by a man who I mistook for a woman.

"Why did you think he was a woman?" he asked.

"Well," said I, "he had boobs and long silky hair, and he was wearing a skirt."

"But didn't you see his beard?" said he. In his head, a beard made everything okay. Now, The Oatmeal has feelings about utilikilts, which I don't share because I think that the gender with sensitive dangling bits ought to wear such garments, unless they plan to climb up ladders or ride a horse bareback. The issue here is the beard. It's icky.

Science agrees with me -- as far back as 1967, microbiologists concluded that "beards retained microorganisms and toxin despite washing." See? Yuck. No wonder beards smell bad. They're prickly, too.

I do know why some guys grow beards: to cover up acne, or to hide a lack of chin or a round face. Fair enough. My gender uses makeup or a pushup bra to deflect attention away from perceived physical flaws.

I understand why beards must exist. I just don't get why they're supposedly attractive. Maybe it's because I grew up in a region where men have lots of hair from the eyelashes upwards, and barely anything below.

In conclusion: The only cool beard is of the ancient kung-fu master variety, which smells of centaur sweat and righteousness.

This post brought to you by the weekend.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World 3D (2013)

Chris Hemsworth’s enormous sculpted body is back in all its Asgardian glory, but gone is the brash-then-humbled Odinson from the 2011 movie. In his place is a confident and responsible god of thunder, pining for Oscar winner Natalie Portman, because let’s face it, who doesn’t?

After the events of The Avengers movie, Thor has his hands full with peacekeeping duties in other realms, plus he’d broken the Bifrost/Rainbow Bridge back in the first movie while stopping Loki’s attempt to destroy Yodenheim (remember that? neither did I), meaning he hasn’t really kept up his correspondence with Jane Foster, PhD (Portman). Back on Earth, Jane is determined to get her some more of that godly goodness, so off she goes with trusty sidekick Darcy (Kat Jennings, once again a reliable comic relief character) to investigate a paranormal phenomenon…

Quiz time! Pick the correct cliché!

a) …and becomes host to an ancient evil bent on ending the universe.
b) …only to be trapped in a struggle between two opposing forces.
c) …and reunites with her one true love.
d) All of the above.

The entire cast from the first movie is back, with the exception of Josh Dallas, who was replaced by Zachary Levi as Fandral. He’s the foppish god who got stabbed with icicles 20 minutes into the first movie. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of SHIELD is not around either, because he has a TV show now, dammit, and he’s supposed to be dead anyway.

When everything inevitably goes to pot, Thor seeks out the help of his treacherous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, aka Hiddles to his legions of female fans), who knows the secret ways out of Asgard.

Quiz time again! Can Loki be trusted?

a) No.
b) Hell, no.
c) HALE NO.
d) All of the above.

Thor: The Dark World is really a summer blockbuster movie. It’s brain candy. It’s not even as beautiful as Gravity. And, while I found the affection between Hemsworth and Portman to be believable, the script didn’t invest as much in their relationship as it did with the theme of the brutality of rulership. Also, the villain was poorly developed.

Bellyachin’ aside, I did enjoy Stellan Skarsgard’s performance. He’s played an important minor character in three Marvel movies so far, and I hope we see more. Meanwhile, Hiddles is as on-target as ever as the petulant, malicious god of mischief. The story makes room for lighthearted moments. And the villains’ costume and space ship designs are wonderful.

So, in conclusion: meh. I’d rather re-watch the first Thor (which I did). At least then the lead gets an actual character arc. Or better yet, I could watch Gravity again.

This post brought to you by almonds. Almonds: if you feed your hamster the bitter kind, it will die from the cyanide compound! Remember: sweet almonds only for the little furry ones!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

TV Series Review: Babylon 5 (1994)

Except for the graphics.

This post is about Seasons 1-4, because Claudia Christian was not on Season 5 and I call shenanigans. I said good day!

Moving on.

I acquiesced to watching this nineties sci-fi series after what I can only describe as a sustained nerd campaign by my husband. For months he would turn to me, eyes shining, and declare how much I would love Babylon 5. He would leave tantalizing hints about the Minbari and their mysteriousness. He would mention the series in casual conversation having nothing whatsoever to do with science fiction or television. His efforts received an unexpected boost when my friend Cheap Date vetted the show. I finally succumbed when he marched out his DVD collection of Seasons 1 through 4, placed them prominently on the entertainment shelf, and gave me puppy dog eyes. Dammit.

So I popped in Season 1 and was immediately treated to Ambassador Londo Mollari’s bombast. His race of big-haired aliens was at odds with reptilian ones, and only human intervention was keeping them from killing each other. Incredibly cheesy humans, prone to grandiose speeches. And then the absolutely shitty graphics kicked in, and I was entranced. It was like a train wreck…in space.

Happily, it turned out to be the opposite. Thanks to incredibly thoughtful writing, a powerful and coherent vision of the fictional universe, and some spectacular acting, Babylon 5 is an enjoyable story. It starts off slow with Season 1, which is only natural because that’s the introductory phase. Season 2 gets things going, Season 3 is jaw-dropping, and Season 4 wraps it all up in a bow.

To summarize: Babylon 5 is a neutral space station in the 23rd century headed by humans and strongly backed by the Minbari, aliens recently at war with Earth. A decade before the show starts, the Minbari surrendered on the eve of victory over Earth’s inferior technology. Why? It’s a question that has an answer, and which leads to more questions. And then there are the other aliens: the fading Centauri Republic and the angry Narns, as well as a slew of secondary races, or the Non-Aligned Worlds. Together on Babylon 5, all this diversity tries to get along as best it can. But ancient forces are awakening, and prophecies abound…

The best actors are the ones who play the alien ambassadors: Peter Jurasik, the late Andreas Kastulas, and Mira Furlan are at the top of their game, despite all the prosthetics and makeup. Their role is to project everything about the aliens dreamed up by show creator J. Michael Straczynski, and boy are they effective. Jurasik’s Mollari is so sympathetic that viewers root for him despite all the crap he pulls, while Kastulas’ G’Kar constantly simmers with barely repressed rage. As Delenn, Furlan is often doe-eyed and restrained, but when she gets an idea in her head, she’s unstoppable. Many of the Crowning Moments of Awesome in this series involve soft-spoken Delenn plowing through the poor fools who think their way is better than hers.

Of the human protagonists, only the late Richard Biggs shows range and charisma. The rest of the main command staff—Bruce Boxleitner, Michael O’Hare, Jerry Doyle, and Claudia Christian—are wooden or cheesy. This is especially true for Boxleitner, who plays the Captain of Babylon 5. He basically just coasts on his generic good looks. Meanwhile, Doyle is saved by having an interesting character in Security Chief Garibaldi. O’Hare is so cheesy he should be slathered on a pizza, at least on Season 1.

I do suspect that Commander Ivanova’s perpetual stick-up-the-ass expression may have just been Christian playing true to character as an ambitious career officer with too much emotional baggage, a suspicion bolstered by her wrenching performance in the second to last episode in Season 4. Girlfriend dropped the mic right there.

Now the human antagonists--Walter Koenig of Star Trek just killed it as the Psi-Cop Bester. He was a villain's villain. But everyone else was cartoonishly evil. Meh.

All in all, Babylon 5 did a great job with casting. The supporting characters are brilliant. Minority actors are everywhere, which I guess is the point, since Babylon 5 is about holding all sentient life sacred and not letting differences get in the way of moral and technological progress. The script often presents two opposing ideas, each one plausible, but in the end, victory always veers toward those who hear the higher ethical calling. Well, eventually, anyway. Part of the reason the series is so great is that the characters have to go through so much, so it's a YAY! moment when they're vindicated.

Morality and technology are big themes here, as are the horrors of war, and decisions and consequences. There are a ton more, which I won’t cover because this post is already too long. I’ll just end by saying that sustained nerd campaigns can break down even the most stubborn resistance, so learn and live, my fellow nerds.

This post is brought to you by National Men Make Dinner Day! National Men Make Dinner Day: because holidays made up for retail purposes are fun! Just ask Jesus! 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How to Spot a Filipina

Advisory: This post contains sweeping generalizations.

A co-worker stopped me today and said, “Are you a model? Because you walk like one,” to which I immediately responded: “I’m a model of good behavior.”

That’s a flashing FILIPINA sign right there, dear readers. We're well behaved, like prancing fawn on a paradise island.

...What?

Anyway, please adjust your posture as I share my hard-won wisdom about how to identify humans born within the same political boundaries as me, or those whose ancestry matches mine. If you are of another tribe, this list will save you from eagerly asking folks from Cambodia/Indonesia/Malaysia/Vietnam if they’re from the Philippines. May I present…

A Fragrant Guide to Spotting Filipinas 
  1. The Nose: Look for nostrils that fan out sideways, much like the branches of a chestnut tree. Exceptions: chinitas, who have East Asian features, and mestizas, who look white. 
  2. The Eyes: Brown, unless wearing contacts. 
  3. The Lips: Will be quick to flash a smile or laugh. 
  4. The Accent: Listen for “f” sounds becoming “p,” rolling r’s, hard k’s, and a knack for emphasizing the wrong syllable when spokening the English. 
  5. The Appetite: Can usually be found around areas where food was last seen. 
  6. The Violence: Will hit if provoked. 
  7. The Singing: Needs no excuse to launch into song. Has genetically inherited knowledge of full lyrics to all cheesy songs ever written. 
  8. The Work Ethic: Often the movers and shakers of households per matricentric society (see this piece by UP’s Dean Michael Tan if you’re unfamiliar with the term). 
  9. The Resilience: Can bounce back quickly from tragedy, probably due to fact that home islands regularly subjected to natural disasters and political ineptitude/corruption. 
  10. The Best!: According to the latest Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, the Philippines is the top country in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of gender equality. We’re number five in the world! Woo woo woo woo woo! 
Reader, you are now better equipped to identify a specific group outside of its natural environment. Perhaps someone will take the next step of listing Filipina characteristics by subgroup, like Ilokanas and their love of deep frying and salt. Because the world can never have enough sweeping generalizations.

Remember: everyone is different except me.

This post brought to you by Peet’s coffee. Peet’s coffee: when you need a literal kick in the mouth to wake up.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Game Review: Tomb Raider (PS3)

Lara Croft and I have been adventuring together since 1996. At the time, I was in high school and her boobs were large triangles, thanks to cutting-edge PlayStation technology. The game’s mix of action and puzzle-solving was engaging and entertaining, and I liked having two guns to shoot things with, especially wild animals who wanted to eat my archaeologist in short shorts. At least they had taste, amirite?

The developers of the latest, PS3 origin story have done a spectacular job of creating a nearly perfect action/adventure game. 2013’s Tomb Raider has a sympathetic protagonist, solid supporting characters, a creepy, creepy villain, great graphics, terrific gameplay, a fun combat system, and effective music. It seems no Tomb Raider game can go without a sci-fi/fantasy component, so this time, 21-year-old Lara is marooned on Yamatai, the Japanese version of Atlantis. Weaponless and injured, she must reunite with the crew of the ship Endurance, and find out how to leave the deadly island.

The game seamlessly integrates cut scenes with the action. After a grim opening scene where Lara has to burn her way out of restraints, players find themselves exploring the island, learning Lara’s trademark skills along the way: leaping, rock climbing, and generally exerting an exceptional amount of upper body strength. She later picks up weapons that players can modify with salvage items. For example, the basic wood-and-string bow later becomes a shiny harbinger of silent death. It’s also Lara’s signature weapon in the game, and proves so versatile that I used no other weapon unless absolutely necessary. Interestingly, the double handguns were the first Tomb Raider’s trademark weapons, and they were the ones I liked best, too. I guess I’m just a sucker for the default option.

The graphics are fantastic – forests, mountaintops, and caves are well rendered, as are vistas of faraway objects (like statues and shipwrecks). Dark caves, once lit, are richly detailed with mad scribbles and bloody trails. Character design is equally superb: each character has a distinctive look, from Lara down to the lowliest bad guy.

The gameplay is likewise impressive: it’s an intuitive game that blends every element into the larger story, with campsites for Lara to rest at and secret challenges that can be unlocked by players who take note of everything that seems out of place in the environment. There’s a mode that lets Lara see key locations or items, which improves the chances of uncovering a collectible, finding a way out, or spotting gunmen before they see Lara.

The combat system rewards patient and canny players, and I enjoyed adjusting my fighting style from reckless rushing to careful aiming and sneaking around. It’s necessary, because the cultists on the island are armed with pistols and assault rifles, and all Lara gets (in the beginning, at least) is a bow and arrow. Players can gain experience points and choose to upgrade Lara’s fighting ability, which is an excellent investment for the later parts of the game, when the enemies get bigger and tougher.

Like every other aspect of the game, the music is well done. It’s fairly low-key, until players need to be alerted to imminent danger. Then it shifts into high gear. The main theme thrums with tension and grandness, and incorporates keening notes of sorrow and mystery. Hauling Lara to a place with a particularly epic view will cue soaring notes.

Lara Croft herself anchors the game. This Tomb Raider presents her before she becomes the cool badass of the first game, ably assisted by English actress Camilla Luddington, who provided the voice and her movements through motion capture. (There’s a bonus video about Luddington’s work in the main menu for players who unlock the feature.) Through Luddington and the developers, players control a Lara who’s scared and outgunned, but has so much grit and determination that it’s a pleasure to navigate her through her painful journey. And boy, is it painful. This young woman gets impaled, falls great distances, gets shot at and pelted with debris, and experiences all other manner of grievous bodily harm. "She should not be alive,” said Fragrant Husband after seeing a falling cut scene.

Yes, she should! And may she live forever! And if developers continue to craft fine games centering on the brave, intelligent, and lovely Ms. Croft, she just might.

This post brought to you by Nestle Pure Life Splash. Nestle Pure Life Splash: for thirsty people who weren't paying attention when they grabbed a bottle, and now bitterly regret the decision.

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)