Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Movie Review: Red 2 (2013)

Grab the popcorn and suspend your disbelief -- the retirees are back, and they're just as outrageous this time around. The first film was a blast and so is this one. Red 2 is a tongue-in-cheek action fest that uses the predictable plot as a frame for over-the-top shootings, chases, and stunts. The only jarring part was the comic-style scene/location transitions, which I found terrifying in the sequel because of the way the humans looked. Red just had postcards. It goes to show: don't change the formula!

Bruce Willis, Dame Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich are back as the Retired, Extremely Dangerous folks who regularly beat up anyone foolish enough to take them on. Mary-Louise Parker is still around as Frank's (Willis) girlfriend Sarah, and she does a great job of being girlishly enthusiastic without being annoying. A running gag in the film is how everyone -- from Malkovich's unhinged Marvin to a corpse-dissolving Victoria (Mirren) to Frank's old nemesis played by Byung-hun Lee (you will have wiped him from your memory as Storm Shadow from GI Joe) -- gives even-keeled Frank unsolicited advice about how to manage his relationship with the high-spirited Sarah. Frank tries to be a good sport about it while fending off the latest threat to their lives.

The story this time has to do with a rumored nuclear weapon hidden in a major city that Frank and Marvin supposedly know something about. The US government gamely sends another team to go after Frank, Sarah, and Marvin, and it is dispatched before the trio flee. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up to complicate matters, and also to ensure the film meets its quota of two actresses with hyphenated names. As a bonus, the world's best-known cannibal makes an appearance, and he is key to finding the weapon and proving the stateside RED group's innocence.

Savvy viewers will see all the twists coming, but Red 2 keeps it all light and refreshing so we look past that. This movie is not trying to explore the vagaries of the human condition -- it aims to entertain, and that's what it does. My favorite scene is the car chase sequence with Mirren and Lee, where she goes, "Show me something," and he jerks the wheel and it's all slo-mo and she shoots and...excuse me while I wipe the drool off my chin. Here, watch this clip to see what I'm talking about.

Conclusion: Heck yeah go watch it!

This post brought to you by tap water. Tap water: instant classy, just add lemon!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review: Band of Brothers (1992)

I picked up this paper (!) book after Fragrant Husband's earnest recommendations. "You should see the HBO mini-series," he added. After reading the late Stephen E. Ambrose's very person-driven history of Easy Company in World War II, I will definitely check out more of the TV show (I've seen episode 1 so far, and it's good).

Easy (or E) Company, of the 101st Airborne Division, was born in 1942 and existed for three years. In those three years, the young men who volunteered (often motivated by the bonus pay and the perception that the Airborne was composed of the best) underwent absolutely grueling ordeals. Their initial training alone was brutal, under the strict and almost tyrannical Captain Sobel (played by David Schwimmer on the show). But Ambrose, here exploiting the privilege of the historian, emphasizes the results of Sobel's otherwise hated methods: the men of Easy Company were in superb physical condition, bonded tightly together in their shared dislike for their leader, and learned the discipline that would carry them through times of near-unendurable stress.

Their first jump, on D-Day over Normandy, was a nerve-wracking affair, but they assembled and disabled four German machine gun batteries. They were then dropped in the Netherlands to support the British. During this time, Richard Winters (Damian Lewis on TV) rose to be an outstanding leader of the Company, having earned the respect of all the men with his courage and personal leadership. The company's reputation grew after they successfully rescued over a hundred British troops in Arnhem. Then came the Battle of the Bulge, where Easy Company, now reduced, fought in France during the winter. They were inadequately clothed and fed, but managed to hold the line. Afterwards, they were off to Germany and Hitler's base in the mountains. Lootin' time!

Ambrose supplies minute details during the campaigns -- seemingly small things, like a soldier who had a Luger in his pocket that he accidentally fired, which ended up killing him. Ambrose also mentions an officer who wanted merit points and led a patrol without telling anyone, which got him shot by his own people. The narrative is peppered with senseless deaths like that, or tragic ones like the two soldiers who invited another comrade to share their foxhole. The man refused and dove into his, only to find out later that the other foxhole had taken a direct hit. Death is everywhere, and there is the requisite explanation of what it does to men. Ambrose underlines their different backgrounds: there are Ivy Leaguers mixed in with hunters from the mountains of Virginia, farmers, and the fabulously rich. The Army is not spared; the author describes how the men hated the bureaucracy and the favoring of West Pointers.

What I found interesting was the process of diminishing supplies: apparently, goods meant for the soldiers on the front lines were raided at every step of the way, from the railroad to the supply trucks to the quartermaster. By the time the soldiers got their packages, they only contained the crappiest cigarettes, no chocolate bars or beer, and K rations. Incidentally, it looks like the daily recommended nicotine intake for soldiers was 12 sticks. Oh, tobacco industry.

Another noteworthy detail was how the soldiers perceived the various European civilians they encountered. Easy Company adored the Dutch, liked the Belgians, and disliked the French. As expected, the Germans were polarizing.

Anyway, the book ends on an absolutely perfect line, which I won't spoil, but I will confess that it made me tear up a little.

Ambrose describes his methodology at the end of the book. The men of Easy Company kept in touch, and Ambrose interviewed many of them, some multiple times. Winters, who was promoted to major during WWII, helped to make the accounts as accurate as possible, which of course is difficult because memories fade or change, and the Army couldn't keep perfect track of the constant rotation of soldiers in the front lines. In any case, I think Ambrose and the vets' labor of love is a spectacular work of history: it respects its subject matters, illustrates the nuances of wartime, and educates readers about a type of human bond. Band of Brothers neither glorifies nor sensationalizes; it tells a story as simply and clearly as possible. Readers might get lost with all the names and personalities, but that helps ground us in the level that the author likely intended: that of the individual's point of view.

Bottom line: Recommended read, and then after you can watch the HBO mini-series! Or do it the other way around, whatever floats your canoe.

This post brought to you by 17-degree Fahrenheit (minus 8 Celsius) weather with terrible winds and my complete unwillingness to step foot outside.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: Alias Grace (1996)

There's a lot to love in Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood's take on a historical figure in 1800s Canada. In 1843, Grace Marks and James McDermott were tried and sentenced for the murders of their employer and his housekeeper. James got the noose; pretty 16-year-old Grace got life in the asylum.

The author develops Grace through Grace's own vivid accounts, letters about Grace sent by other characters, and third-person narratives used for Dr. Simon Jordan, who seeks to unlock her memory. Grace claims amnesia when it comes to the actual killings. 

Atwood excels at descriptions, and the sheer detail and clearness of Grace's story as she tells it to Dr. Jordan is at odds with her lack of memory during the crucial moments that led to her imprisonment. Atwood also doesn't use quotation marks whenever Grace holds the perspective, so it's unclear whether she's thinking or speaking. In other words, Grace is a superbly unreliable narrator. 

The novel unfolds masterfully. It begins with Grace mulling over her situation, 15 years after the murders. Then comes Dr. Jordan, and Grace's eventful life is revealed, bit by bit. Dr. Jordan, an American, shows readers the complications of upper-class life, as he is hounded by his ailing mother to settle down, and must perform the social dances required of his position and by the fact that he needs some patronage. As Grace's story reaches its climax, so too do the complications in the doctor's life build to an unbearable point. 

Themes abound in Alias Grace. There's memory and identity, religion, society and inequality, gender roles and biases, marriage and freedom, brain science, rival schools of "scientific" thought, continental Europe and North America, superstition, innocence, and more! 

My only quibble is that the Reveal -- which, yes, is connected to the title -- was meh. I think I got my hopes up after an unexpected plot twist. Also, the events immediately following the climax seemed to drag. 

But everything up to that point was awesome! Atwood provides wonderful descriptions of a certain period in Canada, and unpacks her myriad themes elegantly. Color me impressed. 

Bottom line: recommended, especially for history buffs! I shall seek out more Atwood.

This post brought to you by Zombieland

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Game Review: Ys: Memories of Celceta (PS Vita)

According to Hardcore Gaming 101's intimidatingly detailed descriptions, Ys: Memories of Celceta is actually a remake of a 1993 PC game. Both contain similar story elements and characters, but obviously, the Vita version is much prettier to look at and has pimp sound.

As with all Ys games, the lead is Adol Christin, whose red hair is so unusual that pink-haired and blue-haired people remark upon it. Adol also happens to be a very talented swordsman, so even though the events of Memories of Celceta occur when he's a mere stripling of 18, players will have no problem dispatching various malformed creatures that drop gold and valuable materials when they die. As a bonus, sometimes their defeated corpses remain on the ground for you to pummel further for MOAR STUFF. Because RPG.

The game has an interesting introduction: Adol is seen wandering tiredly in a town before he passes out. It turns out he's lost his memories, and the last thing he did before becoming an amnesiac was go into the Great Forest. "No one has ever come out of there alive," solemnly intone many an NPC (non-playable character). Or maybe Duren said that. Duren is a handsome, burly man who appears out of nowhere claiming to be Adol's acquaintance. He also happens to have a sword with him, which he gives to Adol when monsters appear in the nearby mines (because RPG).

The refreshingly competent Governor General Griselda, seeing all the heroics and correctly identifying herself as a plot contributor, urges Adol to map the Great Forest. Adol thinks it will help him get his memory back, and Duren just wants to spend time with Adol. Other characters join, too, and Adol discovers more than he imagined! DUN DUN DUNNNNNNN.

Now here's a graded review of the game based on its components:

Gameplay: 9 out 10. Controls are simple and intuitive and all the basic RPG elements are present.

Sound: 9 out of 10. Falcom Sound Team jdk delivers once again. There are exuberant drums, frenetic electric guitar, and mad keyboards for energetic moments such as running through a field of monsters. Quieter moments get lovely piano pieces. Whatever the music is, it's sympatico with the events on the screen.

Combat: 9.5 out of 10. Give me real-time combat any day. It eliminates the loading time of turn-based encounters, plus the chaos is much closer to actual battle situations. Ys: Memories of Celceta also features Flash Move, which means evading at exactly the right time. Doing it successfully means the enemy slows down, so players who practice their hand-eye coordination are rewarded. Extremely useful during boss battles. Finally, tapping an enemy on the Vita screen reveals its stats, and saves it in your records for later perusing.

Graphics: 9 out of 10. My only quibble is the player's inability to control the camera angles, but this is probably because the development team wants you to experience the majestic vistas in the background in a more organic way. Despite being pre-rendered, the vision of a distant lakeside village while you scramble up a mountain, or the tantalizingly close ruins of a temple as you try to escape a swamp, are wonderful and enhance the fantasy elements.

Creature design: 7.5 out of 10. A lot of the monsters have different versions of essentially the same design, which is damn lazy. Three types of rock-throwing apes? Really? Meanwhile, the villains are drawn with so little imagination that they practically have their role stamped on their foreheads.

Character design: 9 out of 10. The heroes look great! The outfits are colorful and not terribly outrageous. There's gender equality in the representation of belly buttons and bare skin, the equal number of male and female playable characters, and in the fact that the highest military officer in the game is a woman. Plus, kudos to the designers for making Adol a realistically scrawny teenager, and to the writers for having any number of NPCs essentially tell him, "You are tiny!" He is.

Voice acting: 2.5 out of 10. The battle cries and little phrases whenever you switch characters ("My turn!") are fine. But the women sound awful, unless the squeaking of hamsters is music to your ears. Let us cease speaking of this travesty.

Story: 6.5 out of 10. Memories of Celceta starts out with an intriguing premise: the protagonist has already been in an adventure, and your job is to help him piece it all back together. The structure seemed promising: it starts at the end, and you must find the beginning and the middle, and then move forward to create a new ending. Alas, all players will find is a checked-off list of standard RPG tropes, such as:

  • Person with hidden agenda
  • Distrustful villagers
  • Villagers needing rescue
  • Cleavage villainess
  • Damsel in distress, preferably blonde
  • White-haired evil guy
  • Giant robots
  • Ancient kingdom that mysteriously vanished
  • Human agency versus destiny
  • Someone with wings
  • A sentient tree
  • Bodyguard crush, sort of

It's disappointing, especially given the superior storyline of its predecessor, Ys Seven. I think the difference is that Seven kept it simple, with only one major and well done twist, whereas Memories of Celceta threw in an extra "twist" and failed to adequately develop both.

[SPOILER AREA]
Seriously, pick one! It's either you'e fighting the benevolent god of causality who experiences doubts and becomes tragically corrupted, or the spiteful leader of a group of exiled magic users who seek revenge.
[END SPOILER AREA]

Anyway, the game's final score is 77.5%. If you turn down the voice FX, it's fast, fun, and has good replay value. Recommended for JRPG fans!

***

For other gamers, here is my Ys: Memories of Celceta FAQ/Walkthrough on GameFAQs! I had originally written just a subquest guide, but GameFAQs rejected it because it was "unreasonably small." Le sigh. Since I am used to rejection thanks to my current job and my previous writing contest entries, I batted one eyelash and produced a full guide. So there!

This post brought to you by calamansi juice. Calamansi juice: apparently it's used as a poison antidote in Malaysia!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Being a DINK

DINKs – Dual Income, No Kids – are targets for luxury items!

Why, yes, I have been perusing the Williams-Sonoma catalog and mulling the purchase of a $300 oven mitt with my initials monogrammed in nanotube-coated spider silk that monitors my pulse while I bake. Look, it’s only $400 to have my entire name on it! I shall get full value by including all of my progenitors’ last names since 1901. I may have to customize my order into oven shoulder mitts…for…let’s see…$699.99! What a steal!

Meanwhile, Fragrant Husband is creating a budget for his future purchase of a chocolate brown (must be exact same shade as Sheba’s fur) Tesla Model S with built-in Hot Air Popper and Scarlett Johansson-approved SodaStream so he can eat healthy popcorn and drink fruity carbonated beverages while suavely zipping through red lights to make it on time to his next client meeting.

Alas, for this purchase I fear we may both have to make sacrifices, such as not having dinner every day at Davio’s or the Four Seasons.

As doge would say, Wow! So luxury! Very decadence!

Check out my awesome lifestyle at www.dinklife.com!

Just kidding. Don’t. Just be aware that “DINK” is apparently a thing now in the US and I was told about it by a DEWK (Dually Employed With Kids).

Wow. Just wow.

This post brought to you by sunlight in January! omg!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Venus in Fur


Last night a bunch of us went to watch Venus in Fur written by David Ives, who in the program is posing like his hands are a waffle cone and his face is a scoop of ice cream. He adapted the play from the "notorious" 1870 tract, Venus im Pelz, created by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Von Sacher-Masoch's name is the origin of the term "masochism," so no, the book is not about unicorns and puppies. It's about a man who wants to be dominated and the woman who does so.

The play is a riot. It's often hilarious and at times uncomfortable. Venus in Fur only has two characters: Thomas (Chris Kipiniak) the playwright and director, and Vanda (Andrea Syglowski) the actress. Despite taking a play-within-a-play structure, the premise is straightforward: Thomas has adapted the play Venus in Fur and has just finished auditioning for the main female role of Vanda. He is displeased with the low quality of the actresses who came in. He is about to storm off when a woman named Vanda rushes in and begs to be considered. She is so frenetic and enthusiastic about the role, and clearly trying so hard to butter him up, that Thomas eventually relents.

Vanda gets into costume and disappears into a doorway singing something inane. She emerges as the play's Vanda, a beautiful, wealthy, self-possessed aristocrat who engages the male lead Severin (as read by Thomas) in sparkling conversation with sexual undertones. Both Thomas and the audience are struck by the transformation, which Syglowski does beautifully by initially playing Vanda as a space cadet. She then breaks character hilariously ("That's the end of page three"), the first of many charming tonal shifts that both thespians engage in.

The "audition" continues well past the point initially agreed, sometimes interrupted by Vanda's questioning or editorializing, and Thomas' fiery defense of his art. She compares the story to pornography, accuses it of being sexist, points out that her character doesn't actually have agency, and scoffs at the play's final act. Meanwhile, Thomas is furious about his work being misunderstood. Vanda later reveals a detailed knowledge of Thomas' personal life, and, once he's shaken, persuades him to reverse roles -- he will play Vanda, and she will be Severin.

I shan't spoil the ending, but here's a picture from the Huntington Theater Company:


Woohoo! Art! That searing exploration of the depths and heights of human nature! That which allows us to underline the beautiful and the absurd whilst wearing shiny thigh-high stripper boots!

In conclusion: As with any piece of art/adaptation of literature, consumers are free to interpret based on their own contexts. I saw it as Ives' satire about the playwright who lacks self-awareness. Fear the muse, could also be considered a main theme, especially given Vanda's improvisation of a bubbly Venus/Aphrodite with a Russian accent. That's just me. But I enjoyed the hell out of it, which I'm pretty sure is the point.

This post brought to you by Cat on Lap Protocol (Home Law § "If a cat is on the lap of a home resident or guest, said home resident or guest is exempt from all movement required for retrieving essential items such as beer, food, or electronic devices.")

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"That's Disgusting:" A True Train Tale

The following occurred on the first Friday of 2014, on the Orange Line T (one of Boston's subway lines).

Station of Origin

Got on train and stood beside row of seats. Man on seat closest to me is holding on to an orange suitcase. The woman across from him is holding a suitcase, too.

Suddenly, man gets up, walks over to the woman, spits in her eye, and sits back down.

"Really?" the woman asks furiously as she wipes her eye. "Really?"

I assume that they know each other and are fighting.

"I have never been spit on before in my life," the woman continues. "And by a stranger!"

Scratch that, they do not know each other, this man is disturbed and continuing the fine Boston tradition of spitting on people in public transportation. Fortunately, it is cold so I have my turtleneck covering half my face, thus reducing the surface area for targeting if he decides to spit some more.

"What's wrong with you?" the woman asks. He grips his suitcase and twitches, mumbling.

"You have issues," she says. "You clearly have issues."

Next Stop

Another woman comes up to the man, leans down, and says firmly, "That's disgusting." As she walks out the doors, she passes the spit-upon woman and says, "I'm sorry."

The train doors close. We start moving again. People who have seen the spitting incident stand around awkwardly.

"You should get off this train," the woman says to the man, becoming more visibly upset.

"You should get off this train," he responds.

"I will," she counters. "My stop is coming up."

Then she glances over a few rows down and has a conversation with a tall dude who seems to say, "Do you want me to punch him in the face?"

Stop Three

We roll to a stop. A burly T worker comes down the aisle. "There's been an assault?" he rumbles.

The woman puts up her hand. "I was spit on!" she says.

"Is he still here?" the worker, who is likely the train driver, asks.

I am still standing beside the spitter, so I point frantically at him. The T driver begins to lumber in his direction.

The man stands up with his suitcase and punches the woman in the face as he runs out the door.

Other passengers start yelling that she needs medical attention. Her nose is bleeding, but she keeps assuring people she's okay. Everyone with a tissue pack is crowding around her and offering their nosebleed solution. "I've never been punched before," she reveals. At one point, she even apologizes for the train being delayed.

"Don't apologize," a fellow rider says immediately. "This is not your fault."

Some people are asking the driver to chase the man, who had booked it down the platform. "I can't touch him," the driver responds. He turns to the woman and gives her a choice: keep the train at the station so we could all wait for the police to arrive and hunt down the escaped crazy person, or disembark and give her statement.

She chose to disembark. The guy she had been speaking to earlier, the one who I thought volunteered to punch the offender in the face, turns out be a victim as well -- he had also been punched in the face, apparently prior to the spitting. Someone must have hit the emergency call button after the first punch, or the high-velocity, close-range sputum.

Both punchees follow the T worker out of the train.

Moments later, the doors close and the T continues on its merry way. "We apologize for the delay," says the loudspeaker.

We all stand there. "What is wrong with people?" asks a woman nearby.

I have no answer for her.

###

I haven't seen this covered in the news, so I guess it must have slipped under the radar. The polar vortex that has killed 17 people in the midwest so far overshadows all.

At this point, only doge can express my feels:


On the plus side, it was heartening to see people rush to help when they finally understood what was happening.

So...Happy New Year?

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)