Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)

Blackfish is a masterpiece. It boasts excellent writing, tight editing, and deeply moving music.

Blackfish is a documentary about Tilikum, a male orca who in 2010 killed Dawn Brancheau, a senior trainer at SeaWorld. Using old and recent footage, interviews, and possibly some undercover filming, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite maintains a sympathetic focus on Tilikum while exposing unethical SeaWorld practices and the cost of keeping killer whales in captivity.

There are three main threads to the story: Tilikum’s capture, at age 2, and subsequent misery in his artificial environments; the disillusionment of four former SeaWorld trainers, who knew the killer whales best; and the contrast between the incredibly close social bonds of wild orcas and their sad, short lives in the marine parks.

When the orca craze hit in the seventies, the traumatic separation of young whales from their family was captured on film. One of the men involved remembered the other whales in the pod staying close as the little ones were taken, all of them calling out to each other in distress. Tilikum’s capture was the same. Then he spent years basically in a bathtub at SeaLand in Canada, before the death of a young part-time worker caused the park to shut down. Two eyewitnesses confirmed that Tilikum had pulled the woman into the water – “You could tell by his floppy fin.” At the time, they were never asked about what they saw.

With SeaLand closed, SeaWorld Orlando eagerly took in Tilikum as a breeder. And here is where the testimonies of the former trainers come in. They loved him. He seemed easy to work with, eager to please. But again, this was not his home, his pod. The female whales at SeaWorld savaged him regularly, to the point where his trainers were disheartened to see him covered in cuts from their teeth. In 1999, a corpse was discovered draped across Tilikum’s back – a young man who had apparently hidden in the park after closing. SeaWorld claimed no witnesses, no video footage – odd for a place with cameras everywhere. The former trainers started questioning the party line, which they themselves spouted at performances. Did the orcas really perform because they wanted to? Did keeping them in captivity improve their lives?

SeaWorld distorts truths to serve its ends, masquerading as a pillar for conservation when it’s primarily a profit-driven entertainment enterprise. Cowperthwaite shows footage of SeaWorld tour guides lying, saying that killer whales in the wild live up to 30 years. Marine science puts that number closer to 50-80 years on average. One SeaWorld employee also says 30% of males have the floppy dorsal fin that Tilikum has. “Less than 1% of male orcas in the wild have the floppy dorsal fin,” counters a former trainer. In the wild, orcas have large family units that stay together their whole lives and essentially speak their own dialect. At SeaWorld, when a calf becomes disruptive or possibly a bigger profit elsewhere, it’s separated from its mother, who wails inconsolably afterwards.

After Dawn’s death – which SeaWorld said was her fault – Tilikum was only brought on for brief times during shows. At most other times, he was alone in his tank.

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Blackfish had a tremendous effect after its cable run started, and shares of SeaWorld have tumbled since. The company has also changed its expansion plans – no giant tank for San Diego, for example – but, ominously, might be preparing for a move to Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.

Here’s hoping for more successful documentaries to remind humans that we’re sharing this planet, and that good sharing, as we teach our kids in the sandbox, leads to happier experiences for all.

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TL;DR: A passionate and well-crafted film. Highly, highly recommended. 

This post brought to you by Jeff Beal’s original soundtrack, which is perfection. Here’s the main Blackfish theme on YouTube.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Goodbye, Baller Life

Last week we moved to a new place. And in doing so, we said goodbye to the building where Junior spent his entire life, not to mention the many luxuries it afforded:

1) The View

We had floor-to-ceiling windows facing south that offered magnificent glimpses of the South End all the way to the Blue Hills, sunrises, sunsets, and, crucially, traffic jams on I-93. Whenever I saw angry traffic lights lined up on the highway, I would text Hubby a warning so he could take an alternate route home from work.

Bonus: we were in sight of the Tufts Medical Center helipad, and Junior was very excited to see helicopters landing and taking off practically every other day.

2) The Pool

While only open in the summer, the roof deck pool was awesome. Here is where I got my exercise while Junior lived rent-free in my uterus, and here is where he learned to enjoy "jumping" into the water with his new life vest. I put that in quotation marks because Junior is (thankfully) cautious around water and his idea of jumping is falling over into my arms from a sitting position on the side of the pool. Safety first!

3) The Gym 


The gym had all the requisite equipment -- treadmills, bikes, weights, rowing machines, etc. -- but Junior and I spent most of our time in the yoga room tucked in the back. It had padded floors so Junior could fall on his face all he wanted; a bar; exercise balls; mats; blocks; resistance bands; Bosu; basically, everything you could possibly need in your pursuit of your sexiest self.

Of course, kids under 18 aren't supposed to be in the gym, but I drew a distinction between the gym proper and the yoga room, where absolutely no one was grunting and slamming down weights on the floors. We also never went in if someone else was already in the yoga room, opting instead to play corn holes on the roof deck.

4) The Freebies

In the above picture, management randomly decided to set up an ice cream bar one night as a Resident Appreciation gesture. This is in addition to our monthly all-building social events with free food and drinks, various workout/retail offers, and charity projects.

And did I mention that there are bowls of fruit at the front desk so you can grab something healthy on your way out the door? #yesplease

SOUNDS AWESOME! WHY MOVE?

An excellent question. You see, while the building is fabulous and the staff super excellent, the neighborhood is dirty, smelly, and loud. Nary a day goes by without at least one wailing ambulance, angry honking, drunken yelling, street corner drug deal, and all the less awesome offerings of the vibrant city.

The sidewalks smell like dog pee, because some dog owners are too lazy to walk their pooch ONE BLOCK to the Boston Common.

Plus, a new resident who moved across from us kept smoking pot in his unit, so much so that we could smell it in ours. Management had to step in many times.

YOUR LIFE WAS SO HARD. HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH IT?

With the stoicism for which I am famed, dear reader. Also, a keen awareness of global events such as earthquakes, bombings, floodings, shootings, and other terribleness helped me keep things in perspective.

SO WHERE DO YOU LIVE NOW?

In the Batcave.

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TL;DR: We moved.

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This post brought to you by JRPG soundtracks!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Transit Cop and I Had a Chat This Morning

My commute is easy. From Chinatown, I bike about three miles through the Back Bay, South End, and part of the Emerald Necklace on Fenway Street, below:


The worst part of my ride comes early on: the four-way intersection at Charles Street and Stuart Street. This is because Stuart, which is my fastest path to the Back Bay, becomes a one-way street, plus a lot of cars run the red light at that junction. So after I dodge the inevitable rushing driver(s), I get up onto the sidewalk for two blocks down so I don't go against traffic. After that, it's a straight -- and legit -- shot towards work down Columbus Avenue.

This morning, after completing my usual initial maneuvers and waiting at the light on Columbus and Berkeley, a transit officer rode up beside me.

"Were we supposed to go down that sidewalk back there?" he asked me. "On that one way street?"

I stared blankly at him.

"I was right behind you," he revealed.

And then a bulb lit up on top of my head. I HAD PREPARED FOR THIS MOMENT!

"Yes!" I said brightly. "According to Massachusetts State Law, Ch. 58, Sec. 11B," and here he craned his neck to hear me over traffic, "I can ride on the sidewalk! But I have to give way to pedestrians," I finished triumphantly.

"Not in Boston," he informed me. "Boston has a city ordinance that trumps that."

"Oh, okay," I said, sadly. The light turned green.

"Now you know," he said, beginning to ride off. "Be good! Be safe!" he called over his shoulder.

"Thank you!" I shouted back.

So now you know, dear readers. Now we all know.

TL;DR: NO RIDING ON THE SIDEWALKS IN BOSTON!

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This post brought to you by these two unbearably cool people:


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond is entertaining and predictable. Co-written by the excellent Simon Pegg, it grapples with heavy themes but is mostly memorable because of its clever dialogue. The acting is fine, with the cast members (RIP Anton Yelchin) demonstrating their excellent rapport; the soundtrack is appropriately epic and, later, hilariously well applied; and the visuals and makeup are terrific. Overall, this latest movie in the rebooted series is well worth a trip to the theater.

Plot summary: Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise encounter Krall, who believes that the Federation itself is “an act of war.”

When the movie begins, the Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission in deep space. The captain is restless and wonders at the futility of exploring something as endless as the universe. During a stop at Starbase Yorktown, Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) contemplate alternate paths. But along comes a scientist in distress, pleading for someone to rescue her team on their crash-landed ship. The Enterprise goes forth.

I won’t go into too much (more) spoiler-y detail, but I will point out three standout elements in Star Trek Beyond. First, the movie’s progression is thematically linked, with main themes being: 1) Who You Are, 2) the Unknown is Really Just Temporarily Hidden, and 3) Diversity and Unity is Strength. Each theme is introduced via voiceover or dialogue, sledgehammered repeatedly into our skulls, and then resolved by the ending credits.

Second, to the experienced moviegoer, this Star Trek is practically a paint-by-numbers story. Chekhov’s Guns abound. For example, when a certain type of vehicle appears, the audience knows it’s going to be used. When a piece of jewelry is mentioned, it will clearly be important later on. Et cetera. This predictability detracts only a little from the sheer spectacle of the Enterprise’s first meeting with Krall’s forces, and the tense adventures that follow.

Finally, the characters make the journey worth it. This is now the third outing for the actors playing the main crew members of the Enterprise, and in the film, they know each other so well that they can communicate solely through their eyebrows. This time around, the bromance angle is on the incorrigibly logical Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the perpetually gloomy Bones (√Čomer of Rohan), with a side order of mentor-student relationship for engineer Scottie (Pegg) and series newcomer Jayla (Sofia Boutella). Please note that Boutella played the utterly terrifying villainess in Kingsman, so she does fine work here as a very sympathetic young alien.

In this golden age of superhero movies, Star Trek Beyond’s finale can’t be considered flashy or emotionally gripping, but it contains the requisite green screen and bodies plummeting through space, so I’ll allow it.

Honestly, I think it might be time for a new Star Trek TV series, because then we would have time to get to know these reimagined characters, instead of seeing them every couple of years. But then I suppose it would never match the boldness of the original, which functioned as social commentary and often pushed the envelope, from what I understand from my darling husband’s fierce love of the series.

Anyway, this is a fairly family-friendly movie, in that the only blood ever seen is splotched attractively on Kirk’s face. Its non-human characters look great and aren’t annoying, and the banter is amusing to young and old alike. It’s like what X-Men Apocalypse could have been if Fox had hired Simon Pegg to co-write. Yes, I’m still bitter about that disaster. (sulks)

Bonus opinion: Shohreh Aghdashloo is the woman equivalent of Morgan Freeman and should henceforth narrate all movie trailers, audio books, and documentaries.

Bonus opinion 2: Zoe Saldana is very good at shouting! As we say in Tagalog, bigay na bigay! (She gives it her all!)

TL;DR: A solid entry in the franchise and a summer spectacle.

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This post brought to you by Skinny Pop! Skinny Pop: strap on the feeding trough and munch away!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Game Review: Assassin's Creed Rogue (PS3)

Assassin's Creed Rogue (AC Rogue) focuses on Shay Cormac, an Irish Assassin in the 18th century. This 2014 entry into the AC series boasts improved gameplay and controls, the primary reward being the ease and rewards of remaining undetected while completing missions. These improvements balance the weakness of the main character and the modern Templar antagonist. Overall, AC Rogue's technical achievements outweigh its writing deficiencies.

To the numbers!

Gameplay: 10/10
Glorious. Every familiar element has been refined: climbing is a joy, sailing is breathtaking, and earning money is a breeze. Combat controls, which have been my constant complaint about the series, are now responsive. The developers even removed the ability to holster four pistols at once, like in AC Black Flag, which I thought was fair since the four shots made things a bit too easy. All these elements combine to make Shay's journey challenging in the right ways (as opposed to because of glitches or shoddy controls). 

Shay operates in three areas: traversing the North Atlantic and River Valley requires his ship, the Morrigan, while New York is entirely land-based. Players who favor exploring over advancing the story earn the Fast Travel option to places visited, which becomes convenient later on. In all these places, there are treasures to loot, Viking swords to dig up, Templar artifacts to discover, hunting challenges to complete, and all sorts of other entertaining distractions. 

To earn additional money, Shay can collect Prosperity gems, renovate buildings, and conquer gang headquarters scattered throughout the map. Forts, taken initially by sea and then later on by infiltration, are economic zones that contribute to Shay's income. Cash is used to buy weapons, ammunition, and, if one wishes to abstain from personally killing animals, to purchase their skins to craft equipment or outfits.

Meanwhile, ship upgrades require materials such as metal, stone, wood, and cloth. These can be acquired by destroying or boarding enemy ships, looting warehouses, or stealing from supply camps. The naval campaign is also present in AC Rogue, just like in AC Black Flag, but this iteration is much more streamlined: campaigning just means going down the list (until you run into stronger ships, or the game tells you to stop and get back to the main mission). 

Since this is an AC game, a tiny part of play time is devoted to the current time period, where the player is a research analyst at Abstergo Entertainment, diving into Sample 17's genetic memories to recreate key points in Shay Cormac's life. The side quests here are simple and diverting, involving repairing computers via puzzle-solving, and finding company tablets lying around. Each discovery offers glimpses of Abstergo's/the Templars' more recent history and goals. 

Know thy enemy, et cetera. 

Sound: 9/10
The sailing sounds are top-notch, especially the waves when an iceberg gets destroyed. The effects team also did a terrific job with even the most mundane noises, like Shay's footsteps in different types of terrain or guns being reloaded.

A highlight of the game's sounds is the UTTERLY CREEPY stalker effects. In New York especially, the enemy has hidden agents waiting to kill Shay. Usually they're perched on a roof, hidden in haystacks or in sheds, or leaning nonchalantly against a building. When one is nearby, the screen goes blurry, and menacing whispers fill the speakers. At first I was so freaked out that I just ran the hell away, but then I girded my loins, reminded myself that I played Resident Evil (well, watched my brother play Resident Evil), and assassinated my stalkers before they could shank me.

The only thing keeping sound from getting a perfect score is...

Voice Acting: UGH
...Shay's voice. He sounds like he's gargling when he talks. And that's unfortunate, because he's the biggest talker, being the main character and all. His first mate, Christopher Gist, sounds like a self-important balloon. The modern Templar villain, Otto Berg, has a raspy Nazi thing going.

Fortunately, the Assassins sound good, especially younger Achilles, Liam, and Faith. My theory is that the modern Assassins infiltrated Abstergo Entertainment and cast excellent voice actors in the role of Assassins, so players will have aural confirmation of their goodness.

;)

Story/Characters: 6/10
The game tries valiantly to present Shay as a sympathetic rebel with compelling reasons for betraying the Assassins, but Shay's main motivation for his defection appears to be his personal dislike for a couple of Assassins. That, coupled with his severe deficiency in diplomacy, leads to essentially a bloodbath that goes poorly for his erstwhile comrades. The Assassins are presented as bad guys to match Shay's view of them, e.g. those in New York are gang members, but it's just not as convincing as Connor and Haytham's father-son heart-to-hearts. And this is because both Connor and Haytham are charismatic, convinced, and convincing. Shay, however, is a dork.

And in the end, [SPOILER!] the research analyst unspooling Shay's life is presented with a choice: join the Templars or refuse, and this latter choice is presented with a gun. It just highlights the Templar's unwillingness to trust individuals to make their own decisions; they believe they must impose order to save everyone. Ergo: they're still the bad guys, and Shay is still a dork.

Visuals: 10/10
No weaknesses noted.

Bonus Category: Glitch Count: 1
I once materialized inside a wall after taking over a fort. Had to reset the game. A micro-annoyance.

TL;DR: An enjoyable entry, thanks to excellent gameplay and controls, despite unsympathetic protagonist.

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This post brought to you by Earth Overshoot Day! We're all DOOMED!!!

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)