Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Review: The Croods (2013)

The Croods is the most beautiful animated film of 2013. As a bonus, strong writing backs its eye-popping color palettes, hysterical creature designs, and fun human shapes. The soundtrack doesn’t stand out much, though.

Plot: a family of cave-dwellers must learn to survive with the help of a stranger as the world literally falls apart around them.

Character development follows formula. The narrator, Eep (voiced by the smoky Emma Stone), is a young woman who rebels against her stern father Grug’s (a creepy/manic-as-usual Nicolas Cage) rule: “Never not be afraid.” Mom Ugga (Catherine Keener) is peacekeeper, brother Thunk (Clark Duke) is a lunkhead, and Gran (Cloris Leach) disapproves of everything her son-in-law does. Oh, and there’s a feral baby.

As you can imagine, Eep makes a discovery that propels the plot, Grug learns to change eventually, and the others also learn lessons, blah blah blah. Adults know how this goes.

The newcomer into their life of tightly huddled formations is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who has the obligatory funny animal sidekick in Belt, a sloth usually wrapped around his waist. As the odd one out, he initially takes a lot of comical abuse before being fully embraced as a member of the clan. Again, this should not come as a surprise.

Some of the best jokes include the Croods' initial reaction to fire, Grug's sustained desire to off his mom-in-law, and the times they use puppets to lure animals into traps.

The most fun in this movie is taking in all the gorgeous panoramas and outrageous animals that inhabit the Croods’ world. Where before only a giant cat/owl was their primary predator, they soon come upon much scarier monstrosities, such as a saber-tooth tiger colored like a parrot, a land whale, a carnivorous fat blue ostrich, and a swarm of pink flying…piranha? It’s hard to tell, sometimes. But it’s always amazeballs.

The themes of family, safety, creativity, and hope are strongly presented, with comedy being the preferred vehicle rather than cheesiness. The cave paintings are a clever narrative device for this, and so is Guy’s speech about the meaning of tomorrow, which the characters return to in increasingly touching ways.

Finally, the climax—where everyone must make it across a lava-filled chasm—is terrific. The ending is cute, and I shall say no more, except GO WATCH IT GUYS IT’S ACTUALLY REALLY GOOD.

This post brought to you by subzero temperatures. Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 30, 2013


This Christmas, Fragrant Husband and I went down to the Fragrant In-Laws' abode in Florida, or, as a Zora Neale Hurston character would call it, Floridy. Here is a map for the geographically-curious:

Original image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida

Prior to my visit, all I knew about Florida was (1) it's shaped like a [CENSORED], (2) it was home to Rudy Eugene, aka the Miami zombie, and (3) it has a reputation for other awful things, like Treyvon Martin's killing and sinkholes that eat houses, boats, and swimming pools.

I'm happy to report that our vacation was relaxing, nay, rejuvenating, with nary to report except fine weather, wondrous sinkhole-free swimming, and food. Too much food, as per tradition. Not quite at Noche Buena levels, but it was pretty close.

We also mini-golfed (the menfolk got real golf out of the way early in the trip) and drove to "the Riviera of Florida," an island on Palm Beach where the affluent wander Worth Avenue, their very own Rodeo Drive, in crisp servant-pressed salmon shorts and starched white button-downs. It smelled of credit cards and bay swamp relocation.

As a result of our lovely trip, we have been vegetarian for two days straight. Tomorrow we break that, because the new year is about putting all the food in your face.

In 2014, I resolve to add more infographics to this blog.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review: The Color Purple (1982)

The Color Purple is a beautiful book anchored by a powerful voice. The main character, Celie, narrates her life as a black woman in the south. She grows up a broken girl -- enduring rape, sexism, ignorance, and violence -- and only becomes truly alive much later in life. Along the way, she meets other people carrying their own burdens, who choose to live in different ways. Celie's and the supporting characters' (Sofia, Shug, Harpo, et al) journey is one of oppression and overcoming, whose telling won author Alice Walker the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.

My darling Philippines has a different take on race relations, in that we actively stereotype the most common non-Pinoys (e.g., the Chinese are stingy but work hard, the Indians are also stingy and charge high interest rates, and Americans are friendly and rich) -- but in a non-violent, non-oppressive way, or so I would like to believe. Please feel free to update me about any horrific, systematic injustices you have detected or personally experienced.

My point is, it's taken me about a decade of living in the US to understand just how frequently a story like Celie's occurs, and it's a crushing of spirit that is related to the unfortunate circumstances of her birth: she's 1) a woman, 2) black, and 3) poor. The title is all the more moving because of what it signifies: an awakening of hope and a commitment to living.

But words cannot adequately convey the emotional ups and downs I went through because of this book.  I was unashamedly weeping on the train, it was that bad. Let me portray my feelings via chart:

This post brought to you by Fragrant Husband's chicken parmesan and Argentina's Malbec! Wooo!!!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement over the first film. It adds a new character and story elements that occurred outside of The Hobbit novel and embellishes some sequences a fair bit, but overall it’s a solid movie. I recommend seeing it in 3D.

In this installment, our intrepid band of wizard, hobbit, and dwarves must complete the final leg of their journey to the Lonely Mountain. Alas, Gandalf makes like a tree and leaves, so the little people face giant spiders, hostile but beautiful elves, despairing humans, and of, course, Smaug – on their own.

This movie has three things going for it. First, the graphics are impeccable. Everything looks gorgeous, creepy, and/or appropriately fantastic. The fight sequences seamlessly blend human actors/stuntmen and women with CGI.

Which leads to the second positive: the fight sequences. Thankfully, no mind-blowingly huge armies are shown marching or fighting. It’s just a bunch of dudes (plus Evangeline Lilly!) duking it out in various locations. The choreographers get really creative with Legolas again. The elf prince, whose achievements include walking on top of snow (LotR I), using a shield like a skateboard (LotR II) and killing a mûmakil by himself (LotR III), shows that wild waters cannot detract from elegance. His crush, a made-up character and 600+ year old Captain of the Guard Thauriel (Lilly), is much less flamboyant but no less effective. Meanwhile, the dwarves and Bilbo prove themselves to be scrappy, resilient fighters time and again.

Finally, the added non-book elements make the story in the movie richer and more cohesive. Audiences have more opportunities to sympathize with the populist barge/bowman Bard (Luke Evans), to despise the haughty sylvan elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) for his unfair cheekbones and flawless skin, to snicker delightedly at the surprise casting of the lord of Lake Town, and to bathe in the glory that is Smaug, voiced by nerd-heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch.

Smaug is the undisputed star of this film, not surprising given the title. He’s the best dragon you will see on screen. Ever. He is legit evil and super fabulous. Only my iron self-control kept me from yelling “DO NOT WANT!” whenever he shoved his face menacingly into the camera. This circles us back to film strength #1: the excellent graphics. Probably 99% of the graphics budget went into Smaug, and it shows. While Fragrant Husband and I had some disagreements about dragon physics and physiology after the film, we both agreed that there should be more Smaug.

I propose a Christmas movie starring this wonderful dragon. We shall call it Smaug Actually. The film will track Smaug as he tries his luck with various femme dragons – one will be more into gold than he is, another is secretly the mother of a brood of dragonlets with different fathers, one is torn between him and her commitment to her job (eating all the livestock), and the last has been his best friend since they were eggs. They will all be strong female dragon characters and the script will pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.

In conclusion: If I were younger and less bitter, I would love the crap out of this movie. Strongly back-lit elven character chanting a healing spell? Gimme gimme. A wise old wizard taking on a fortress of evil all by his lonesome? Heck yeah. Armored folks fighting just because? Sure!

As it is, I deem this movie…acceptable. Even good.

Now go forth, and imagine the script for Smaug Actually!

This post brought to you by ponytails!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Stop Taking Multivitamins!

I stopped taking multivitamins around the time I transitioned to Whole Paycheck Foods for my grocery shopping. Previously, I was a religious pill-popper, taking my handy compacted supplements every day at breakfast time. Then, one day, as I was fussily oscillating between a $25 bottle versus a $14 one of Whole Food Women's One Daily Multivitamin, something inside me threw up its hands and said: MEH.

From that day forth, I got my vitamins and minerals from actual foods. I transferred my adoration to Michelle Obama and went to myplate.gov to see what I should put in my face. After a thorough, two-second review of the entire site, I created my very own daily plate usually consisting of the following :

...You get the idea. And yes, I drink beer daily, doncherknow it's a requirement for Boston residents?

Anyhooters, science has finally vindicated my bold lifestyle move of completely replacing daily supplements with a tasty combination of water, yeast, malt, and hops! This article describes three new studies that have experts abuzz with tsk-tsk sounds for multivitamin believers. Since 'tis the season for giving, I shall handily summarize the studies for you:

Study 1:
n = 6,000 males over age 65
t = 12 years
Method: Battery of tests every few years to check memory function
Findings: No difference between control group and focus group
Caveat: 9% decreased risk of cataracts, 8% reduced risk of cancer compared to placebo group

Study 2:
n = 1,700 heart attack survivors
t = 55 months
Method: Daily regimen of high doses of vitamins and minerals or placebo pills
Findings: Pill fatigue; no difference in deaths, second heart attacks, strokes, or serious chest pain

Study 3:
n = 27 studies on vitamin and mineral supplements with over 450,000 people
t = Probably a long time, like the attention span of a Baby Boomer
Method: Research review by U.S. Preventive Services Task Force
Findings: No evidence that supplements offer benefits for heart disease or can delay death from any cause; minimal benefit for cancer risk

AHA! AHA! I win because science!!!!

"But Fragrant Elephant," you protest, "the study populations have statistically significant health baselines from a vibrant young pachyderm such as yourself!"

To which I respond--First of all, you just made up the term "health baselines," because you have no idea what that means.

Second, why am I talking to myself? The snow swirling outside my window must be responsible for my extra helpings of silliness.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Movie Review: 13 Assassins (2011)

Director Takashi Miike, who delivered the disturbing Audition, comes back with a refreshingly straightforward story about a bunch of guys getting together to kill one dude…who’s surrounded by a bigger bunch of guys. Enter: the 13 Assassins/Juusan no shikaku.

This movie has it all: non-graphic yet still icky harakiri in the first two minutes! Plots! Intrigue! Nobility! Samurai! Swords! Spears! Sake! Gambling! Awesome hats! The obligatory crazy forest person! A limbless tongueless starvation victim! Angry men! Angry men flying through the air! Women with the sads! Bows and arrows! Sexism! Feminism! Explosions! Traps! Bridges! Palanquins! Bamboo! And more! Alas, no ninjas.

In a nutshell: Naritsugu Matsudaira of the Akashi clan is such a sadistic monster that the shogun’s chief adviser secretly brings in the samurai Shinzaemon Shimada to assassinate him on his way back home from the capital, Edo.

What this movie does well:

1. Establishes main characters’ personalities and backstories
  • Theme: Sympathetic protagonist = battle half won – Shimada is played by Koji Yakusho, the adorably shy and awkward guy on Shall We Dansu. Here, as leader of the 13, he’s upright and efficient. 
  • Theme: Interesting villain = interesting story – Seriously. Naritsugu goes beyond cartoonishly villainous and swings right back to just plain psychotic. Either way, everyone roots for his death almost as soon as he appears on screen. 
2. Creates tension between two opposing forces: Shimada and Naritsugu’s chief samurai, Hanbei Kito
  • Theme: Contrasting interpretations of the purpose of the samurai – Obey your master, or serve the people? Shimada and Kito spit initially just tell each other their separate beliefs, and then later use sharp pointy things to get their…point…across. 
  • Theme: Honor versus duty versus ambition – Kito is also motivated by a desire to surpass Shimada. Dun dun DUNNNNN 
3. Introduces good supporting characters, e.g. the ronin Hirayama and Shimada’s nephew, Shinrokuro
  • Theme: Telegraphed character deaths – Basically, if the viewers don’t even remember your name, you are toast. Or, since this is Japan, you are miso shiro
4. Excellent breaks in tension through gently comedic moments
  • Theme: The Japanese are weird – And how. 
5. The payoff
  • Theme: Justice is a dish best served bloody – And how
What this movie missed:
  1. What was up with the deranged forest dude at the end? Is he youkai (a spirit/monster)? 
Apart from that one tiny little quibble, I thought this movie rocked really hard. Like Shimada, it understands why it exists, and it delivers the goods. Everything is built up towards the assassination attempt, which manages to be grim and flamboyant at the same time. The cinematography is faultless, the writing terrific, and the stunts are impressive. Watchitwatchit.

This post brought to you by sunlight! Sunlight: for the vitamin D that you may or may not need desperately, based on what studies you read!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller (1988)

Before he hit the big three-oh, little Neal Stephenson got a quirky novel published. It bore many of the signatures that would define his later masterworks: a flawed, cuttingly intelligent protagonist; strong feminist overtones; a conflict of epic proportions; oodles of location research; and buckets of science and technology. The recipe for a delicious nerd brownie!

Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller follows Sangamon Taylor, or ST, a Boston-based eco-activist with the Group of Environmental Extremists (GEE). ST is a scruffy chemist whose modus operandi consists of methodically gathering evidence against corporate toxic polluters, plugging up the offending pipes, and then dramatically announcing his findings on the news. His work takes him through raw sewage, an island made of garbage, and the mean streets of Boston’s less savory neighborhoods. A chance encounter with hooligans on a routine investigation winds up pitting ST and his friends against smart and ruthless business types, and the big-shot politician in their pocket.

The list of things I love about Zodiac include, but are not limited to:
  • Descriptions of ST’s manic bicycle riding through Brighton to get to Cambridge
  • Esmeralda, prescient librarian
  • ST explaining covalent bonds using six-packs of beer
  • The Pearl, an eco-activist’s choice of Vietnamese cuisine
  • Jim Grandfather, the wry Native American who owes ST a favor
  • Charcoal enemas—the best way to detoxify!
  • ST going into a drunken rage without being drunk
  • Darth Vader scuba suits
  • Bart, the irrepressible roommate
  • How ST and Bart got out of Roxbury safely
  • …and more!

I already knew that Boston waters were gross before the EPA got sued and had to do a cleanup back before I was born. In Zodiac, Stephenson underlines this fact through pointed descriptions of what goes on in the pipes, sewers, rivers, and the harbor after ordinary people flush their toilets, and when factories decide to dump some chemical byproducts. Yes, chemistry happens! And boy does it stink!

If you’re a Stephenson fan, this is a must-read. Bonus points if you live in Boston and know what he’s writing about. Zodiac is smaller than his other books, but it’s just as dense. Yay!

This post brought to you by Sparkling Orange Spring (Mandarin Orange Essence). Sparkling Orange Spring (Mandarin Orange Essence): chances are, someone screwed up at the vending machine, and that’s why you got it for free!

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)