Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)

The frenziedly cheerful Lego Movie has stomped on the domestic competition for three weeks in a row now, and with excellent reason. The script, voice acting, and effects come together in a wildly energetic story about character, creativity, and resilience. It's a spectacular movie for kids and adults who fondly remember being kids!

The Lego Movie follows Emmett (voice of Chris Pratt), a construction Lego so ordinary that even his coworkers can't really describe (or recall) him. By some twist of fate, Emmett becomes ensnared in a prophecy wherein "The Special" will save the world. With hyper-competent Master Builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the godlike Vitruvios (Morgan Freeman) by his side, Emmett travels across the various Lego Lands to gather the exiled Master Builders and end President Business' (Will Ferrell) reign of micromanaging terror.

The movie upends classic themes and tropes with gleeful enthusiasm. Conformity and complacency are mocked mercilessly with the side-splitting song, "Everything is Awesome." The concept of the fated hero is similarly delivered with barely concealed laughter by the voice actors. There's a surprising move away from the animated at one point, to illustrate the adult need for control, and it's extremely effective in adding more layers to the story.

Now...no more spoilers! Honestly, just watch it. It's AMAZING. I'm going to go again just so I can bellow along to "Everything is Awesome."

This post brought to you by Fragrant Husband, who will come with me to my second viewing!  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Movie Review: Knights of Badassdom (2014)

Yearning for some Peter Dinklage before the new Game of Thrones season starts? Missing Summer Glau because Firefly was cancelled? Interested in the learning to identify doom metal and power ballads? Then check out Knights of Badassdom, a low-budget cheeseball of a movie that affectionately pokes fun at LARPers (Live Acting Role Players, you know, the people who dress up like old-timey knights or fantasy creatures and go in-character for funsies)! Best to go in with no expectations and an open mind; this movie plays well only to a particular type of audience.

Knights of Badassdom covers the misadventures of a trio of best friends who go to a LARP event and accidentally summon an actual demon. Their nerd cred is firmly established by then. Viewers unfamiliar with the rules of LARPing get some of the basics through the other characters' teaching Joe (Ryan Kwanten), who is only there because he was drugged and brought along by his well-meaning friends. Speaking of drugs, Hung (Dinklage) does a lot.

The LARPers have foam weapons and gamely whap at each other with them, although one of the main characters, Eric (Steve Zahn), also has "non-regulation" actual steel weapons, which shockingly become important later on. Cousins Gwen (Glau) and Gunther (Tom Hopper) are minor supporting players, alas, even though they seem a lot more interesting than the three leads who are intent on running away from real life. Still, Glau kicks ass, as expected from the latest poster child of Waif Fu.

This movie is a horror-comedy, so expect blood splatters and whatnot. I did laugh at the transformed version of the demon, and I'm not sure if that was intended by the filmmakers.

Anyway, if you're a fan of any the actors in this film, or LARPing, you'll probably get a kick out Knights of Badassdom. Others need not apply.

This post brought to you by water. Water: used by Aiel when they're being especially solemn!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Game Review: Tales of Xillia (PS3)

True to all games in the Tales series, Tales of Xillia is light snack of an RPG that distinguishes itself with its ridiculously fun, over-the-top combat system; strong female lead; and mandatory plot twists, one of which is genuinely surprising.

Without further ado, here is the Fragrant Elephant review:

Story: 7 out of 10
The theme of human technology versus the natural world is the whoopee cushion that Tales of Xillia will repeatedly slap across players' faces. In this game, humans have "mana lobes" that allow them to summon spirits to cast artes (magic) such as lighting street lamps, building large structures, sailing ships, etc. Meanwhile, "spyrixes" are high-tech inventions that are typically made for offensive purposes (e.g. giant guns)...and they kill spirits to boot. Spyrixes are B-A-D.

The story gets plus points for feminism because Milla is the main driver of the plot (although, as she herself says, the concept of gender technically doesn't apply to her). Everything in Tales of Xillia centers upon Milla's mission of eliminating spyrixes to maintain the balance between humans and spirits. Because Shinto.

Jude tags along after their obligatory meet-cute moment, and along the way they gather a group of bland do-gooders. Together they go against a king who built a giant spyrix for war...and then things get confusing, especially if you play Milla's story first. Things eventually get explained, so never fear! Long story short: HUMAN TECHNOLOGY BAD, SPIRITS GOOD.

Characters: 7 out of 10
Milla has the best personality and dialogue, in my opinion. Her voice actor nails the flat, brusque, I-am-Lord-of-the-Spirits-get-out-of-my-way tone. Milla is blunt, no-nonsense, and completely mission-focused. She's calculating, too, and even admitted that she chose her extremely attractive human form because of its "effect on men--half the human population." (Milla, darling...only half? Tsk, tsk, heteronormative standards.) She can be a heartless bastard who would leave a child behind to complete her quest, which is why Jude is a good counterbalance. He's super earnest and if he were a food item, he'd be a Twinkie -- one bite, instant diabetes! Plus he has daddy issues blah blah blah. But Jude is inoffensive, and a kickass fighter, so he's okay.

Possibly the most interesting character is Alvin because of his constant inner conflict. He's shady but charming, and lies easily. Players can never be sure what he'll do next -- he tends to disappear for stretches of time, and has a glib answer for everything. Later on, he has the most realistic reactions to the situations the heroes find themselves in, especially at the end. His voice actor's good.

Cutest character award goes to Elize, the young girl with impossibly strong magic due to human experimentation. She has the most tragic backstory, but good gods, she levels up like a beast. In my second playthrough, all of my characters were leveled up in the mid-80s...and Elize was level 94. I have no idea how that happened. I think Teepo, her stuffed "doll," steals EXP? This kid is killer, yo.

The worst female character is Leia, Jude's childhood friend. Like Jude, she's great in combat and a healer to boot, but her only defining traits are her crush on Jude and her clumsiness. Some depth in her personality is revealed only though subquests, meaning the non-obsessive gamers will miss out on her motivation for pursuing nursing. Also, her headband is an eyesore:

Fortunately, I was able to cover up this atrocity with a ten-gallon hat on my second playthrough.

The worst male character is Rowen, who sucks at combat because he moves at a glacial pace. His only redeeming qualities are his fabulous manners and hilarious contributions to the mini-skits that flesh out the characters throughout the game.

All in all, a mix of cool and blah characters, headlined by a main character who's pretty unique.

Combat: 9 out of 10
This would get a 10 if only it were real-time combat. Instead, players run into enemies and a jagged "X" appears, then you go into the combat screen. Battles seem to be utter chaos, but the tutorials in the first playthrough will teach players all the awesome moves that each characters gets to do. Every character has his or her own set of basic moves and special skills.

The innovation in Tales of Xillia is linking, where two characters can pair up, perform combos, and provide support. For example, playing as Milla and linking with Jude will get you healer support. Playing as Leia and linking with Elize means an endless supply of TP, because Elize will use Teepo to steal TP from foes and transfer it to you. And so on. It's fun!

Kudos also for having the Golden Mage Knight, the toughest boss in the game. It's optional and only accessible in the second playthrough, but man what a challenge! Dude kicked my ass the first time. I had to resort to GameFAQs message boards to figure out the best strategy for victory.

My only beef with the combat system is the Lillium Orbs, which are thingies that you can enhance when you gain levels. From the main menu, you go into the Lillium Orb option and choose which stats to boost. But there's an auto-level option, so players have no incentive to know what exactly they're leveling up. Suggestion for improvement: have an option to auto-level automatically at every level increase. Because I'm too lazy to press three buttons, okay???

Item and Subquest Insanity: 9 out of 10
Tales of Xillia has a metric ton of items and subquests. Completist gamers will be pleased at the consideration given for their obsessive natures. The game has typical fare: food items that boost stats or increase EXP, weapons, armor, accessories, and assorted consumables. The difference here is that players have to level up the shops, usually by donating materials dropped by monsters, or money if you have enough cash. In typical RPGs, shops in new towns have better products. Not so here! You have to earn those upgrades! It's a neat feature, and makes grinding worth it.

As for subquests, there are the usual: bring someone a dish, defeat brigands or monsters, find a lost relative or animal, retrieve a rare item, etc. They're fun and add to the gameplay, but the way subquests are updated in the Events List is terrible. Because of the sheer number of events and subquests in the game, you will have to scroll down a loooong list of descriptions and hope you find one with the "Updated!" sign on it before the sign goes away because you'd accidentally zoomed past it. This is only an issue for players who care, and as it happens I care very much and also I wasn't paying attention to the dialogue so I have no idea what just happened. Mea culpa.

My favorite subquest is The Devil's Arms. That's where you have to fight six beasts with weapons growing out of their bodies, and you get the weapons when you win! They pimp out further after defeating the incredibly tough Golden Mage Knight, who apparently helped make them. Whatever, they have cool names. ("Tregatoria, the Bellowing Demon" -- possibly the true name of Fragrant Husband's cat, Oscar.)

Replayability Score: 9 out of 10
Players can choose between two playthroughs: that of Milla Maxwell, the tall, blonde, and busty Lord of Spirits; or Jude Mathis, the quick thinking medical student with, naturally, hand-to-hand combat training. I played both. There are differences in some of the FMVs of each main protagonist, and I think playing twice is worth it. Milla's is less character-driven because Milla = mission, mission, mission. She doesn't care about individual humans. By contrast, Jude's path has resolutions for all the other playable characters, and it makes his adoration for Milla even more blindingly obvious. The romance subtext pays off in the end, and not in a cheesy way.

The ending is the same for Milla's and Jude's playthroughs. But! -- if you wait after the credits roll, which you will because you want that New Game +, Milla has a separate ending and Jude gets his own. They're both bittersweet and I shall spoil them no further.

Final Score: 41 out of 50. Heck yeah! It's a rollicking good time with a strange diety and her human tag-alongs. Bring the popcorn; those cut scenes are long! And if anyone figures out why the game is called Tales of Xillia, let me know!

This post brought to you by an açaí bowl. Açaí bowl: instant crunchy, just add granola!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sheba: A Eulogy

Sheba was sunshine who spread love and happiness wherever she went. She was a gentle soul who was adored by every human she encountered. This post is a celebration of her wonderful existence.

Sheba was a tiny weirdo. She got her name by stalking like a queen of the jungle when she was first adopted. Then she returned to her default mode of clumsy kitty. She once hit her head trying to jump out from under the coffee table. Many's a time when she failed in her leap to the couch, scoring the leather in her frantic attempts to hold on to it and to her dignity.

Despite that, she was a surprisingly excellent hunter. She killed two mice living behind a fridge. One she left in her human's shoe, and the other she played with for a little while. Only fish were safe from her claws, although she did try to improve access to the ichthyoid by drinking out of its fishbowl.

She also preferred drinking out of human glasses. If a glass of water were left out, chances were she'd already slurped out of it.

Sheba charmed our pants off when she head-butted her cage door at the shelter, purring like a lawnmower. All it took to get her laryngeal and diaphragmatic muscles going was a look from one of her humans, or the merest touch. Nothing could compare to the joy she brought by settling on laps and purring. The purring only stopped when she slept, which was often.

She kept a tight schedule and expected everyone to follow. If her bedtime came around and the bed was lacking humans, she would come downstairs and lodge a complaint with the authorities. If it was breakfast time and the feeder was unconscious, a paw on the face would solve the problem.

She loved string. She eschewed expensive cat toys for old shoelaces or some kitchen twine. She would chase a piece of string around on the bed or even through the house.

Sheba had three teeth and was deaf as a post. She had a host of health problems but valiantly fought all attempts at medication. Still, she always lived up to her original shelter name -- Sweet Pea -- by never using her claws or, let's face it, her gums, against human hands.

She was Gandhi-like in her passive resistance to Oscar's hostility. Mostly because she couldn't hear him hissing at her. Her dominance was unquestioned. She would insert her face into his food bowl while he was eating, driving him away. She would occupy the human lap he currently sat on, forcing him to jump down. And she did it all ever so sweetly and endearingly.

She was an adoring kitty who liked to be as close to her human as possible, especially at night. A human pillow was her pillow, too, and if unavailable, a human shoulder or cheek would do. The sight of her tiny head poking out from under the covers first thing in the morning was the best way to start the day.

Sheba loved the sun. She went to sleep forever in the middle of a howling blizzard, but this is how she will always be remembered: as the softest, sweetest, most chocolate-y baby girl.

We love you, Sheba. You'll always be with us.

Sheba "Sweet Pea" Foreman del Castillo Boyd Santa Maria Mitton
2000 - 2014
Our baby girl

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Being "That Girl"

We all know That Girl. She walks in and we're all like, "Oh/Ugh, it's That Girl." That Girl comes in different varieties, depending on the setting. She is an object of delight, dismay, contempt, or murderous hatred. I know this because I have been That Girl. If you have ovaries, it's quite possible you have, too!

Here is a fond/cringing look back at the That Girl that I have seen and/or been:

1. At the Club

That Girl who takes her shirt off. In my defense, I was switching from a Luigi costume to a Mario costume. It was for art.

That Girl in an entire group of composed of That Girl: loud, sloshing with liquid courage, and out of control. Will get hit on throughout the night.

That Girl who swoops in like an eagle to rescue you from a dude who keeps following you around. Bonus if she is a Trini.

That Girl who you came in with, teleported around the dance floor all night, then barfed in your car when you gave her a ride home. Also known as Hot Mess.

That Girl who doesn't drink. Whuuuuuut?

2. In the Office

That Girl who apparently thinks her job is to deliver office gossip.

That Girl who informs you she is very smart, and yet cannot complete this sentence: "Hat is to head as glove is to ______." True story, my hand on your choice of ancient mythological literature.

That Girl who will not respond to any of your courtesies, such as "Good morning" or "Hi." Also known as Raging Bitch on Wheels.

That Girl who proudly displays pictures of her cat. Also known as Awesome.

That Girl who solves all your basic-level IT problems. You're welcome.

That Girl who has given up and is just watching videos or reading e-books on her computer all day.

That Girl who is an amazing cook/baker and brings goodies to the office. Also known as Yay!

That Girl who says she can't get along with other women because they're "too girly." Also known as Batshit Crazy

3. At the Restaurant

That Girl whose boyfriend disappears to the bathroom whenever the check comes out.

That Girl who tells you that waitressing is hard and then leaves a crappy tip. Also known as WTF.

That Girl who is allergic to pretty much everything on planet Earth.

That Girl who insists on going out to karaoke afterwards. And somehow...you do.

4. At Home

That Girl whose bedroom floor could probably be used to explore new topics in quantum mechanics.

That Girl who is in the bathroom for ungodly amounts of time.

That Girl with all the fancy hair and skin care products.

That Girl who's never home.

That Girl who's always home.


There are more flavors of That Girl, but you get the gist.

The point is, now that I'm a woman (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA), I can take the lessons learned from being/seeing That Girl to drive my husband crazy during strategic moments make good choices. And right now, I choose to continue playing Tales of Xillia.

This post brought to you by Aunt Jemima's pancakes. Pro tip: slip a piece of cheese in between two pancakes to create a delicious and unique sandwich!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

very polar such vortex wow

Hello. This is Fragrant Elephant reporting from the Northeast, where we got a lovely 10 inches of snow today. The storm started around the same time as the crushing of my hopes for a late office opening. No, we here in Boston are far too stoic to be stopped by piffling frozen condensation. And so we dress in layers, strap ourselves into our hats and boots, and trudge to our paychecks.

This latest storm was special in that the sidewalks hadn't seen a shovel by the time I hit them with my mom's fluffy and possibly witchcraft-enhanced waterproof winter boots. I could feel the burn in my calves as I slogged up the streets to the train station, and from my stop to the office.

This season, comfort may be found by wearing two winter coats: a windproof layer followed by your main coat of choice. I dress in red so that I stand out like a raw, open wound upon the frozen streets. This decreases my risk of getting run over by Boston drivers, who admittedly do slow down and act less (M)asshole-y when it snows this much.

Also key: sweater tights. They are a thing and they are glorious.

Fortunately, the city is less likely to suffer power outages during winter storms, although our TV at work does get the signal knocked out. So there's the silver lining!

Now if you'll excuse me, I must eat my feelings.

This post brought to you by Japanese curry.

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)