Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)

Once upon a time, in a land of computer graphics, lived a human-sized fairy with an impressive wingspan. She was Maleficent. One day, she persuaded some baby Ents to release a human boy caught trespassing into their land and stealing. The boy, Stefan, confessed that he lived in a barn and had no parents. Then they went to shake hands, but his iron ring hurt the fairy, so he threw it away. This is an important plot point.

Maleficent was touched, and she and Stefan remained friends over the years. But alas, the eeeeevil king who ruled the non-fairies decided to attack the moors, at which point Maleficent, the baby Ents, and other woodland creatures from Guillermo del Toro Lite Studios (TM) squished the heck out of his army. Defeated but still dickish, the king promised his kingdom and daughter to whoever slew Maleficent.

Lesson 1: Monarchical systems of government are only good if you're the monarch.

Stefan went into the Moors and roofied Maleficent. Instead of killing her, he cut off her epic wings. And that was the end of his character development.

Fail 1: An awesome antihero needs an equally compelling true villain.

Maleficent went to a dark place after Stefan's betrayal. Through sheer cheekbones, she established her own fairy dictatorship, turned a crow into a shapeshifter so he can act as her spy, and swanned into Stefan's daughter's christening in glorious leather to reenact the "death at 16" cursing scene from the 1959 animated film.

"I have a gift for your child! That is why I am so happy."

Lesson 2: Angelina Jolie is the best thing about this movie.

King Stefan sent his daughter to be raised by her three fairy godmothers, who were supposed to bring her back the day after her 16th birthday. They turned out to be ditzes, so Maleficent stepped in to make sure little Aurora actually survived childhood. Her crow, not-hot Orlando Bloom, also pitched in. Little Aurora grew up to be slightly less adorable Drew Barrymore, aka Elle Fanning, whose incredible sweet nature reminded Maleficent of herself before Stefan pulled his date rape allegory.

Lesson 3: Only magic can make you beautiful and good-natured.

Maleficent and Aurora became close, and Aurora decided she would live with her "fairy godmother" in the Moors when she turned 16. Maleficent was all, "You could live here now, girlfriend!" and Aurora ran off to tell the three women who "raised" her, but of course they told her about the curse and so Aurora did a 180 and ran back to Maleficent, who confirmed that she did, indeed, curse her as a baby, so Aurora got on a horse that magically appeared using her riding skills that also magically appeared, because magic. She headed for daddy's castle.

Fail 2: Seriously, where did she get the horse?

During all this time, King Stefan had lost his wife and his mind, but he still remembered that iron is a fairy's weakness, so he'd been prepping for Maleficent's inevitable return. When Aurora was escorted to him, he went, "You look just like your mother," and the audience was like, "Maybe he will stop being a creepster!" But no. He ordered her locked in her room, where she discovered the secret passageway just like in the 1959 film, and wandered down to the castle basement to get her finger pricked on an intact spindle, per curse/contract.

Lesson 4: You have to nuke it from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

Maleficent gallops in with the unconscious boy who met Aurora once in the woods, hoping he can give her "true love's kiss" and break the curse. She and her crow plop him right outside the door where Aurora is in her deathlike sleep, guarded by her three fairy godmothers. When they open the door (he's awake by this point) and realize he's a prince, they're all, "Excellent! Someone of equivalent socioeconomic status!" and pull him in. Then they're all, "Girlfriend needs a kiss!" while the prince is like, "But, um, she's passed out..." and the fairies are all, "Forget consent! Save her life!"

Fail 3: Gross.

And then [SPOILERS REDACTED], and Maleficent and Aurora try to leave the castle and return to the moors. But King Stefan and his iron-clad soldiers spring their trap! They cast Iron Net! Maleficent fights unconsciousness and casts Turn Crow Into Dragon! She tells Aurora to run! Aurora runs! The dragon frees Maleficent from the net and roasts the room! But King Stefan casts Ring of Soldiers with Iron Riot Police Shields! Then he gets in the center and whips Maleficent with chains! Meanwhile, the dragon's snout has been chained shut! They are about to be overwhelmed!

But wait! Aurora discovers [SPOILERS REDACTED]! Maleficent levels up to Beast Mode and sheds her dress for a leather bodysuit! She is unstoppable and pwns King Stefan! The true evil is vanquished! Love conquers all!

Cut to: fairy land, now free from Maleficent's darkness, as evidenced by her new headgear: delicate golden links instead of leather. Then they have a Star Wars crowning ceremony. I don't know what happens to the prince. The end.

TL; DR: Awfully dark for a kid's film, but perfect for a moody adolescent or teenager. Jolie crushes it.

This post brought to you by Boston's first insanely hot week.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 starts out gorgeous and rapidly upgrades to magical. It's a testament to the skill and vision of DreamWorks, whose teams crafted a story that's pleasing to the eyes, ears, and heartstrings. In this movie, they created truly impressive visuals that look like the lovechild of Studio Ghibli, Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has become a respected young man who's being tapped to replace his father, Stoick the Vast (Gerald Butler), as leader of their village. Conflicted, Hiccup takes to the skies with Toothless, where he and Astrid (America Ferrera) discover dragon hunters who think they're working with the mysterious Dragon Rider. The hunters are helping to build a dragon army for the vicious Drago (Djimon Hounsou), and Hiccup goes after him, determined to keep the peace.

Naturally, he meets the Dragon Rider, who is initially like Mononoke-hime but without the biting. This is where the animation truly shines -- the Dragon Rider moves with balletic, animal grace, in stark contrast to Hiccup's awkward mannerisms. There's one particular scene where the Dragon Rider dances from dragon to dragon as they fly. There's no dialogue, only music, but that sequence effectively shows two characters sharing a profound love for dragons, the sky, freedom, and seeing what others can't see.

The action and flight sequences are equally eye-popping. Everyone gets their share of the glory, including the secondary characters who are excellent as comic relief. Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) is especially hilarious as the unimpressed gal being fought over by two dudes who ends up falling for the rippling biceps of the dragon hunters' leader, Eret son of Eret (Kit Harrington).

Hiccup's inventions are also fun--apart from his steering mechanisms for Toothless from the end of the first movie, he's made himself a couple of high-tech gadgets that work in a convincing manner. But what's coolest is Toothless, in a reveal that I'm convinced is a shout-out to Godzilla. Just like in the last movie, Toothless acts kind of as the Draco Ex Machina, but it's inspired by his loyalty and love for Hiccup.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a lot more grown-up than the first movie, and deals with themes like identity, responsibility, abandonment, commitment, control, and coexistence. Hiccup is the solid emotional core, particularly when he makes a discovery that sheds light on his distinctly non-Stoick characteristics.

TL;DR: This movie is in a class of its own in terms of animated movies of 2014. Watch in 3D.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Oscar: A Eulogy

Oscar was a very handsome cat who lived to be 20 years old, due to his mixed ancestry of Norwegian Forest cat, gray wolf, jaguar, and crankiness. This post is a celebration of his very full life and the joy and terror he brought whenever he came into sight.

Oscar was a large kitty. The picture above shows the contrast between Sheba with room to spare in a bed, and Oscar spilling out of the same bed. In his prime, Oscar weighed 20 pounds. Being the same size as a small dog, he was utterly fearless and once claimed victory over a chocolate Labrador.

Another doglike quality Oscar had was his love of water. Or perhaps his jaguar ancestry sang in his veins. Whatever the reason, it was not unusual to find him actively trying to join a preferred human in the shower, or just hanging out in the tub, possibly plotting the demise of the unwashed and unwary.

Oscar's favorite water fountain was the sink. Legend speaks of his curling up in the guest bathroom sink during a party and remaining asleep as various humans used the faucet. That must've been some catnip his owner slipped him beforehand.

Another tale, this one verified and evidenced by the photo above, is about that time Oscar managed to get himself entangled in a bra. He was just sitting at the edge of the bed one morning, sporting feminine lingerie on his distinctly masculine frame. The how remains a mystery to this day.

What is known, however, is that Oscar was very adventurous. His human claims that he could easily jump from the ground to the top of the fridge when he was young and spry, despite packing on the pounds from the generous amounts of kibble he got fed every day.

Oscar was very clear about what he liked and did not like. He liked his human and rewarded him with exactly 10 minutes of lap time on a daily basis, longer if he happened to pass out. He also liked cheese and Doritos.

Oscar did not like: other humans, other animals, the vet, and receiving more than 1.5 minutes of petting. He expressed his displeasure through vomiting or biting. For example, he barfed on a guest's suitcase because reasons. He also bit through the leather glove of a vet tech, then peed on her for good measure.

But, like all cats, Oscar was absolutely adorable when he was unconscious. Bathed in the warm glow of sunshine, curled up like a furry crescent moon, he was positively angelic.

Oscar was a fighter, a jumper, a biter, a vomiter, a water-lover, a cheese-eater, a ball-chaser, and a constant friend to his human for nearly as long as it took for the Wheel of Time series to be completed. For the uninitiated, that is a very long time. We honor him for his strength, his tenacity, and his uniquely grouchy lovingness.

We love you, too, little buddy.

Oscar Mitton
Our little buddy

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow, based off Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 novel All You Need is Kill (available now on Kindle for only $6.99!), is a sci-fi military time loop adventure that succeeds because of its internal consistency, terrific graphics and soundtrack, and the charisma of its two leads. It also combines moments of levity with a grim look at what repeatedly reliving war does to someone.

Plot: Five years into an invasion by silicon-based aliens called Mimics, smarmy US officer Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is sent to the front lines wearing the latest technology credited with allowing soldiers with minimal training to defeat the enemy. The poster child for the suits--called "Jackets" in the novel--is Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt), a veteran called "The Angel of Verdun," aka The Full Metal Bitch. Cage manages to kill one of the enemy during the fighting, and dies in the process. Then he wakes up yesterday, before his deployment, and has to relive that day and the battle over and over again. Eventually, he learns that Rita knows what happened to him, and she wants his help in ending the alien threat.

The strong writing propels the story along at a brisk pace. And someone with Cruise's charisma needed to be cast in this role, because Cage starts out as an unlikeable coward. He becomes less comically incompetent as he relives each day, and with Rita's training he becomes a better soldier and even a better human. Tropes abound, of course--the hardass Master Sergeant, the squad of misfits--but they're kept to a minimum, since the movie is laser-focused on Cage. Alas, this also means that it fails the Bechdel test.

Although the entire premise of the film requires all disbelief to be placed in a bottle and checked at the door, the decisions made by the lead character are believable and fuel his growth. There's one particular turning point that really demonstrated how much he's learned: when he realizes that he needs to go it alone to get the job done. And then...dun dun DUNNN...TWIST! ...Not to be revealed in this post.

TL;DR: Highly recommended, watch it in 3D if you prefer.

This post brought to you by pastillas.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

San Francisco!

View from rooftop of a startup--see the Golden Gate Bridge?

Fragrant Husband and I went to awesome San Francisco last week to take a little time off from Massholes and psychotic spring weather. We went there for the express purpose of celebrating a dear friend's 30th birthday ("I'm turning into an adult!" she declared. Millenials can be so cute.).

Despite having only one thing on the agenda, our days and nights quickly filled up, mostly because we have friends who are wise and live there. Here are some fun, non-touristy things to do in the City of Fog and Weed, or whatever San Francisco calls itself:

1. Go to a drag show
Specifically, go to AsiaSF, where the drag queens are my people (Pinays) and are built like Greek goddesses, the bastards. You get a delicious three-course meal and several ladies lip-syncing and dancing on the bar in between your appetizer, entree, and dessert. The emcee encouraged everyone to drink up: "Remember, the drunker you are, the prettier we'll look!" ...But seriously, one of them (Amber, I think) was legit gorgeous. They call themselves "the miracles of science" and are damn entertaining. For those who've read Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata, this is what Pol does for a living.

2. Walk through the Tenderloin
This is especially recommended when you are towing a waddling woman wearing bling and freely swinging her little purse while chattering nonstop at you. For the uninitiated, the Tenderloin is the city's highest-crime area. We saw drug deals taking place in the open, we were followed for a block, and some chick wandered off from her druggy boyfriend before turning tail and running right back to him when an even shadier dude started catcalling her from the corner. So exciting!

3. Go Shopping
Shoes are always a great investment, since you should be energetically walking around and getting a contact high just from breathing the outside air. Alas, I did not get to buy a fanny pack at the Tibetan gift shop in the Haight-Ashbury area, but the waiting shall make my eventual ownership that much sweeter.

4. Put Food in Your Face
For a hearty breakfast, look no further than Dottie's, which had a line at 8 in the morning on a weekday, it's that good. I polished off an entire omelette (the daily special, with blue cheese and bacon) and a half order of French toast. Thus did I finally earn my husband's awe.

For lunch, Dojima Ann is full of Japanese customers so you know it's solid fare. Good donburi! Also, I ordered in Japanese and our very cheerful waitress complimented my fluency ("Jozu desu ne! Sara sara sara sara..." and I was all, "Fu fu fu fu, iie, iie."). Thus did Dojima Ann win my heart.

5. Use the Bart and MUNI
Small as it is, San Francisco is still bigger than Boston, and walking from Union Square to Sunset will wear a hole in your shoe. Why are you only wearing one shoe?

6. Do Something Fancy
For us, this meant graciously accepting an invitation to the Wingtip Club, which is like the Harvard Club but with competent management, great facilities, and cool furniture. Bonus: their wine pours are ridiculously generous. I ended up donating half of mine to Fragrant Husband, who heroically put it away despite all the other alcohol in his system. Hey, our friends were footing the bill, live it up! We'll pay it forward the next time they come over.

7. Party Like a Rockstar Cat Lady
Like I said, we flew across the country for a birthday celebration. The theme was "Crazy Cat Lady" and everyone showed up prepared. Fragrant Husband wore a dark kitty hat in memory of Sheba and I was his owner. We all got stickers with "Hello My Name is _____" and he called himself Chairman Meow. I was "Cat-atonic Cat-aracts" but in hindsight I should have been "Cat-herine the Great" or something cheesy like that, darnit. 

The party committee went all the way. There was an art contest (color the kitties!--my husband won!), a costume walk-off, games like Truth or Dare Cat Jenga and Pin the Tail on the Cat, a kitty litter cake (not actual kitty litter), kitten videos, and pictures of cats everywhere. 

It was such a gathering of oddballs and I loved every dorky moment of it. 


And then it was time to go. But before I finish this post, may I recommend one tourist-y activity: ride the Big Bus Tour, or whichever one offers you a discount. Get up top and just sit there for the whole trip. Then you'll get to see and hear the highlights of this great city!


In conclusion, here is a little table with pros and cons of living in San Francisco:

Pros Cons
Great food
Great sights
Good economy
Diverse population
Smells like weed and pee
Hella expensive

This post brought to you by Seafood City Supermarket, where standing in line will make you feel tall. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Game Review: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (PS3)

Renaissance Assassin Ezio Auditore picks up right where he left off from Assassin's Creed II: older, wiser, deadlier, and with the mysterious Apple of Eden in his possession. Alas, all good things must end. A new villain soon appears to get the plot moving, and players are plunged into a world of assassinations and near-death experiences via newfangled inventions such as cannons, wall guns (muskets), and whatever Leonardo da Vinci has been cooking up.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is aptly titled because the group that helped Ezio in his previous outing is now more organized and crucial to the story. Granted, the story is basically an extended find-and-retrieve mission, which is probably why developers piled on a metric ton of extras. Foremost among these is the ability to recruit and train ordinary citizens and send them on missions to raise them to the level of Assassin. This fulfills two functions: it earns Ezio money, and lets you kill guards without getting your hands dirty--either by calling your flunkies to swoop in and go stabby-stabby, which you can do three times in succession, or you can use up all three slots in one go with an "arrow storm," which kills every enemy within sight. So that's the other reason the game title makes sense.

Other, familiar sidequests show up to distract players from the thin plot: thief challenges (usually in the form of rooftop races or killing members of a rival thief gang), courtesan challenges (replacing the "beat up my worthless, cheating husband" missions, only this time you beat the targets with sharp objects), and assassinations. As with other Assassin's Creed games, treasures abound, marked on the map if you spy them with your Eagle Vision or if you buy a map of the area. There are feathers to collect, too, but not as many as in the last game. Collect 'em all and win the Auditore Cape!

The game takes place mainly in Rome, which is enormous and has lots of structures in disrepair--just waiting for some savvy entrepreneur to buy and renovate for profit! Its aqueducts need to be fixed, too, if only for the knowledge of your noble contribution to history. Just kidding. I think it's mostly for raising water levels in certain areas of the city so Ezio can access hidden treasures.

There are new additions, too: the Borgia banners (the Borgia family is Ezio's sworn enemy)--collect the full set of 100+ to get the Borgia Cape (meh). There are tightly guarded areas to penetrate so Ezio can burn Borgia Towers, which diminishes their influence in Roma and allows Ezio to renovate city essentials like blacksmiths, stables, doctors, painters, tailors, and banks. Midway through the game, old pal Leonardo shows up and begs Ezio to destroy his new war machines, which takes players outside Rome to test out a working prototype hang glider, tank, and speedboat cannon (?). Pretty cool. Finally, having lost the Armor of Altaïr early in the game, Ezio has the option of going into Lairs of Romulus to gather the keys leading to the Romulus Armor.

I was impressed with how the developers took everything fun about AC II and served them up almost immediately. Crucially, players can start earning money early on by reopening banks and going on sidequests, and you can get the crossbow within a couple of hours. The crossbow is the weapon of choice for the hardworking Assassin, because those guards on the roofs aren't going to fall to their deaths on their own, you know.

I was gleefully tearing through the game when the plot harshed my buzz with its full lameness. Having taken a break from obsessively completing sidequests, I inadvertently retrieved the Apple of Eden--and had to actually use the bloody thing exclusively, which defeated the purpose of the entire Assassin thing. Worse, some glitch kicked in where the enemies I turned into cowering wrecks via Apple were ignored by my Assassin posse, and I couldn't kill them myself because all I could do was hold the Apple aloft and let its work its annoying magic. I had to wait for arrow storm! #firstworldproblems

Helpless, I could only watch (and play) as the action shifted back to the present, to Ezio's descendant Desmond and his team of two nerds plus one trained Assassin who want to find the Apple of Eden, to save the world, obviously. From the sun, I believe it was. Anyway, conveniently, the advanced race that created the Apple and left clues behind were really into acrobatics, so Desmond, having absorbed all of Ezio's monkey- and goat-like leaping/climbing abilities, is perfectly suited to reaching the inedible, glowing golden ball that will lead to yet another fucked-up ending, pardon my French.

So there you have it: the middle game in the trilogy has a weak plot, fun sidequests, and an ending calculated to make players purchase the next game immediately if not sooner. Well played, Ubisoft, well played. I shall take up Ezio's ridiculously distinctive uniform one last time.

This post brought to you by VACATION TIME WOOOHOOOOO!!!

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)