30 September 2014

我寫,我跳舞,我吃面

Currently pushing: Starbase Orion and Star Realms. In a shocker, during our entire twenty-five or so hours of flight time, I never even put on a movie. Half of our time was spent sleeping but the other half was spent staring at our iPhones, playing the two aforementioned iOS games. Star Realms is a space themed Ascension, which I played a lot of last year, and it's pretty comparable. But the real time suck is Starbase Orion, which is rightly lauded as the best 4x game (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) on mobile. The hours just flew by as we lost ourselves in virtual battle.

Alright, here with Taiwan part two -- part one here -- even though we’ve been back for a few weeks already. We left Taipei in a rush, after packing in a ton of activities the last few days. Actually, who am I kidding. Basically once we discovered mango ice, my friend became obsessed and we ate it twice a day until we left. And then went straight to Tea Station when we got back to San Diego, for a C+ approximation. The great mango hunt basically took up our last few days. No joke.

While we can’t rightly call ourselves mango ice connoisseurs yet, we did hit up the famed Ice Monster, as well as its sister store, Smoothie House. Actually, “sister store” is a misnomer as Smoothie House was opened up after the husband and wife owners of Ice Monster had an acrimonious divorce. Mango drama! One morning we took the wrong train and ended up in Da-an District after being there the previous night.
SCENE: Yongkang Street, 9am
J: “What do you want to eat?”
F: “Should we just get mango ice for breakfast?”
J: “Yes."
This blog is not about food so I’ll leave that to the experts. But let me highlight this one beef noodle shop. It’s called, well, I have no idea. George and AMR had told me about this killer beef noodle spot by my mom’s apartment but none of them knew how to get there. By sheer serendipity, my friend and I happened to find it on Day 2 of our trip.

This dude was banging out beef noodle soups, Jiro-style, from this tiny storefront and after a moment’s hesitation to determine if it was too hot out for soup, we sat and downed our first bowl of the trip. I didn’t realize it would be the best place we would find, or that this was the exact place George and AMR had talked about. My mom grew up a few blocks away from the shop and she said that her mom had always loved it. Since I literally went back there four or five more times, I got friendly with the owner and he told me that he’s in his thirty-ninth year there. I hope to be there for the magic fortieth. [Update: A Taiwan-based friend found the spot, lucky you.]

Our last few nights, we got to explore a bit more of the city. Ximending for one, the Shibuya/Harajuku of Taipei. I got a few eyebrow raises when I relayed my excitement for the place, since apparently only young people go crawling through that area. I, of course, was intrigued to see what the youth of Taiwan looked like and off we went. As advertised, Ximending was full of people half my age and it was a bit much, like Times Square-lite. Still, I’ll be back to explore more since we were only there for an hour or so. Much of that time was spent trying to convince my friend to buy a pair of Chucks -- he only ever wears work shoes. Pro tip: Chucks go with everything! Another pro tip: The egg tarts at KFC are as great as advertised. Stunning right? In the end, my friend decided that he couldn’t do the shoes, much to my exasperation.

We spent our last night in Taiwan at a karaoke place. As it should be.

Okay, I’m gonna bang out some Taiwanese related media I’d been ingesting pre and post-trip. The Raw and Cooked is a German helmed movie about Taiwan’s culinary culture, with a focus on its growing environmental movement. The trip made me remember Daniel Zarazua’s (successfully funded) Kickstarter for Taiwan is My Home: Stories of the Black and Latino Diaspora, which should be dropping soon. And did I talk about how half of Lucy was set in Taiwan already? Director Luc Besson had visited Taiwan while promoting for The Fifth Element and he talks about the decision to start Lucy there, in this video.

I haven’t had a chance to see Au Revoir Taipei yet, but I really want to. The story is about a heartbroken boy who cooks noodles by day and learns French by night in order to chase after his ex-girlfriend in Paris. The "unfurls over the course of one night" structure is right up my alley. I've already been told the movie is no Before Sunrise, but that's okay, nothing ever really is.

Sidenote: I also noticed that Rajon Rondo was inexplicably popular in Taiwan. I saw more Rondo jerseys than anyone else’s, even Jeremy Lin’s. And this one newly opened coffee shop, Campus Cafe, featured a Michigan plaque, a Rondo jersey, and a Kevin Garnett Brooklyn jersey as main wall decorations. I thought maybe my fan doppelganger had been in Taiwan this entire time. Hello future friend, I'm already excited for us to watch sports together. What's your Line?

Also, I just finished watching High Tech, Low Life, a documentary about Chinese citizen journalists Zola and Zhang Shihe. My former roommate, who works at POV, recommended it and I’m glad she did. It’ll make an interesting supplement to all the Hong Kong stories you’re currently reading.

Lastly, my friend Weiko recently made a Chinese-language romantic comedy set in Taiwan, 100 Days (真愛100天), and while I keep missing U.S. screenings of it, you should try to catch it when you can! The title is in reference to a Buddhist belief that when a parent passes away before their son/daughter is married, that child has one hundred days to get hitched or else the parent’s soul will linger on. Talk about pressure. The script is partly based on Weiko’s own experiences, responding to his mother's death a few years ago. Here's the trailer.

18 September 2014

Step Up All In (2014)

Here we go, the much anticipated fifth Step Up, one that features the return of previous Step Up stars, albeit minus Channing Tatum. Would it really kill Magic Mike to come do a cameo for one of these? Bring along Jenna too! Anyway, this is my second mega-dance review this year, I’m on a roll!

Tagline: “Every step has led to this."

1. Plot (4)
Sean, from 2012’s Step Up Revolution, is now in Los Angeles along with the rest of his crew, The Mob. The money they won has long since evaporated -- it’s a miracle 50k lasted this long divided by at least a dozen people - and it’s a constant deflating series of commercial auditions and unpaid bills. When everyone else decides to return to Miami, Sean decides to stick it out. He soon convinces Moose to help him assemble another crew, the horrifically named LMNTRIX, to compete in The Vortex, which features a grand prize of a three year gig in Vegas. Sure, this movie hits all the same story beats as before, but I appreciated how this was the Step Up where everyone had to grow up. I mean, Moose has a regular job now, and we get a peek into how hard it is to make it as a dancer, even if you’re talented. They could have titled this Step Up: Reality Bites!

2. Can the lead characters dance (5)
During my Step Up Revolution review, I said: “as for Ryan Guzman, he's probably the best male lead dancer of the entire series.” I don’t know what I was thinking because in this one he’s horrible. Okay, that may be overstating it, but I had to check again to see if this was the same person. None of the leads exhibited great dancing actually. Step Up 2’s Briana Evigan is more serviceable than jaw dropping, and Moose’s solo is pretty bad too. I’ll just go ahead and give this category a low grade because Guzman, Evigan, and Adam Sevani were all pretty sub-par.

Sevani has improved over the series, but he's not good in this one. Technically, all three leads can dance, but you wouldn't know it from watching this installment. Bonus: Here is Moose with his film girlfriend, Alyson Stoner, in a tribute to "Thriller."

3. How’re the dance scenes? (3)
In fact, Step Up All In has the worst dance scenes from any of the previous installments. There wasn’t one "wow" segment to be had, excepting maybe the end routines. A new choreographer needs to be hired or something because the dance stuff is getting staid. Enough with the same moves over and over, with a breakdancer here or there. I wish the Step Ups would incorporate more types of dancing, especially house, which is something that is much more current and interesting.

The good thing is that director Trish Sie -- she did the music videos for OK Go -- kept her camera wide and the cuts minimal. Most of the time, dance movies cut so quickly and pull in so close that you can’t really see the dancing. Sie gives us nice clean looks at everything, it’s just unfortunate the routines are no good.

What the dance scenes do have is plenty of impressive sets. Each dance segment is backgrounded by ever more elaborate themes. From a boxing ring, to a mad scientist’s lab, to an impressive stage for the finale. The sets turned out to be the eye candy I focused on, because the dancing was so bad.

4. How’s the love story? (3)
Like you had to ask. Sean and Andie are fated to fall in love from scene one, but their chemistry is pretty non-existent. There’s a bit of Cutting Edge in there, as Sean pushes Andie to do a big move that she doesn’t feel confident in -- her injured knee holds her back -- but that’s not anything to get emotionally invested in. In Andie and Sean’s defense, they do have a cute scene at an amusement park, when they do a flirt duet to “Every Little Step.” Of course, Sean has to tell the audience, "Hey, it's Bobby Brown" since most people watching Step Up probably don't know that. Bonus point for the robot love between Madd Chadd and a popper girl.

5. Rate the sidekicks (6)
The crew is back! The Santiago Twins, Mari Koda with her fake accent, Twitch, Madd Chadd, etc. Alyson Stoner as Moose’s girlfriend also returns, and I was glad to see that they were still together (they still don't let her dance though). None of the other leads are still dating, right?

The newest addition to the cast, Michelle Pfeifer-lookalike Izabella Miko plays Alexxa Brava, the host of The Verge. She channels Effie from Hunger Games, and her outfits were outstanding/outrageous. But more on that later. Overall, it was nice to see familiar faces and to know that these hard working dancers are still getting some of that movie money.

6. Best line (4)
There was an obvious attempt to throw in some zingers. I appreciate that. My favorite was when Sean’s former BFF asks him if LMNTRIX is his new crew. Sean’s answer? “Well, it ain’t my book club!” Hahaha! Okay, not hilarious? Well, it got me. I also enjoyed it when Sean attempted to put down a rival by saying “Nice necklace, you get that at Claire’s?” I just like it when Claire’s is referenced in anything. Extra points.

7. Music (8)
Here we go, a dance movie that actually had some good songs. I’ve already talked about the “Every Little Step” usage, and there was also a bit of Gangsta’s Paradise -- perpetually overused but just a snippet here was welcome. More impressive was the use of Little Dragon (“Twice”), Diplo (“Revolution"), and various Steve Aoki. I even found myself Shazaming during the movie because I wanted to know what the Little Dragon track was for my own playlists.

8. Fashion (10)
Step Up 3 had a serious jones for sneakers, which earned it high marks, but All In tops those scores. Someone in wardrobe figured out that you can just clothe everyone in the latest fast fashion and it works. Let’s start with Moose -- Sevani has been working out, as he looks much buffer -- who still sports an arrays of hoodies but gets to wear Lacoste polos now, and added accessories like a wallet chain. Baby steps here. Maybe for the next film he’ll trim his curls...

Everyone else wore basic but believable outfits that worked well together. Professional dancers want to stay comfortable and that’s exactly how the fashion came across. I even liked all the outfits they competed in, which included simple stripes, tie, and suspenders combo and a varsity jackets look. Their steampunk inspired outfits at the end was fantastic too. The only misstep was that the character named “Hair” had absolutely the worst hair. We should also take some time out to talk about Briana Evigan’s midriff, which was on prominent display. Literally every piece she wore featured her exposed midriff. We get it, you have a nice tummy, put some more clothes on.

All of that gets you high grades, but not a ten. That extra push for perfection was accomplished by Alexxa Brava, who had all sorts of eye popping costumes. Among many things, she came out as a zebra, a Twenties vamp, and finally an Ursula-inspired blue dress that featured armored scales and tentacles. Just wonderful. I want more Alexxa in the Step Up franchise, please make it happen.

9. Cultural Impact (6)
Can you believe Step Up has been chugging along since 2006? I feared that Step Up Revolution signaled the last of the line, but now I’m thinking this just goes on and on forever. If we can have seven Fast and the Furious, why can’t we just keep churning out Step Ups? The domestic gross for All In is just 13.7 million so far -- on a budget that’s probably around thirty five million -- but the worldwide box office is at a healthy 67 million. While both numbers represent a steep drop from previous installments, the Step Up brand is clearly still profitable. While pop culture is oversaturated with dance shows and movies, I think it’s important that we make it to at least a decade of Step Ups. I think it’s time for a serious reboot however. Time to dump these “all stars,” and bring in some fresh blood. Or go Christopher Guest and make a mockumentary, perhaps starring Corky St. Clair?

10. Miscellaneous (2)
This interview with series producer Adam Shankman, "The Enduring Power Of Step Up, Where Every Problem Can Be Solved By A Dance Off," touches on why the Step Up leads have always been white, why there hasn't been any LGBT representation, and why he thinks the movies keep getting made. In answer to that last part: "I think it’s because, above everything else, these movies are a celebration of underdog triumph and dance. And as long as people keep wanting to see dance, we can keep generating these conversations in the world.” Bravo! Also he drops in a "Sturm und Drang” reference I had to look up. Take a look at this article too, "In Defense of the Step Up Movies." Join the movement.

FINAL VERDICT (53/100)
Step Up All In's dancing kind of sucked. The leads were bad, the dance stuff was boring, and well, what else is there? Intriguingly, All In answers that question by giving us superior sets, fashion, and music, to make up for the yawn worthy dance numbers. Overall, a score of 52 still put Step Up All In above my last three reviewed movies (Street Dance 2, Battle of the Year, Step Up Revolution).There’s an easy fix for future Step Ups: Get better choreographers who have some new ideas and then the franchise can rise again.

10 September 2014

My Whole Life Became Like Divided

We interrupt this non-regularly scheduled programming to bring you this important announcement: My So-Called Life turned twenty this year. And that deserves an entire post dedicated to the MSCL links and articles that have been going up, especially over at Vulture.

I clearly must read them all, and then carefully parse through this "MSCL: Ranking the Episodes" list. (Already "Self-Esteem" at #13 is criminal.) This could call for a special podcast episode actually. And I already know who I would tap as special guests. If there’s one thing that can make me insta-friends with someone, it’s a shared obsession with MSCL. So come along best friends, and let's leave the non-MSCL watchers behind!

My So-Called Life remains my favorite show to this day, even if I concede that better teen-centric shows have come out since then. For example Freaks & Geeks is objectively a better and more consistent show. Still, MSCL rules all. Angela forever! It feels weird that my favorite TV show will likely never change until the day I die. Like my TV watching peaked at sixteen. But really, what could top MSCL? Please just play that little "and danced by the light of the moon" outro during my funeral pyre. Thanks.
"And that’s where My So-Called Life had the secret ingredient every other show about teenage life was lacking: the agelessness of insecurity. What no one tells you when you’re younger is that that painful inner monologue never quiets down, and all that really changes between the time you leave high school and become an adult is that you have a job to work and bills to pay. You never stop doubting yourself. You never stop feeling those awkward cringes that make you want to collapse in on yourself like a camping chair."
My friend, while getting her MFA in musical theater, had Winnie Holzman as her advisor. That basically meant I was only one degree away the genius behind Angela. Not that I ever got to meet her but still, this semi-closeness to Holzman buoys me, especially when I'm dancing in the dark by myself.

Also, while we're here: "'Everybody Wants to Live': An Oral History of Party of Five’s First Season." Not a pantheon show but I watched a boatload of Party of Five too. Wednesday nights and Stucchi's ice cream. It was tradition.

08 September 2014

Ilha Formosa

Listening to: Khalil Fong, "I Want You Back." A Chinese pop star whose major influences include D’Angelo, Babyface, and Musiq Soulchild? Sign me up. A friend sent me "Lights Up" in late 2013 and I’ve been selling Fong as the Chinese Justin Timberlake, although that's not exactly accurate. Except for the appropriation part. Still, it’s rare to hear the R&B influences in Mandopop and I "愛愛愛" his stuff.

Yeah, it’s hot in Taiwan, low nineties with stifling humidity. But I don’t seem to mind it this time around. We landed at six in the morning and immediately set off, invigorated by a thirteen hour flight (sounds weird, I know). Even in the span of a few quick hours, I could tell that Taipei was different this time around. Or maybe I had changed in the interim. More likely the latter.

After a week here in 2002-ish, I was ready to go home. The last few days of our trip were spent laying around under mosquito netting and spamming Chinese television, just counting down the hours until our flight back to the States. This time, every sideways alley was an adventure, each boba shop glittered like an oasis, and cheap food called from every corner.

Priority one was getting a smartphone hooked up so I could look up directions and places to go. George and AMR were here three years ago and they told me how easy it was to hook up a Taiwan SIM card. After some searching -- most stores were closed early in the morning -- I got the hookup. It was about thirty dollars (850 NT) for ten days of unlimited data and a handful of texts and minutes. Armed with that lifeline, we were off and running.

My mom’s apartment is in-between two centrally located subway stations and the speed, efficiency, cleanliness, and orderliness of the Taiwan subway puts New York’s to shame. People queue up politely, there’s hardly any loud conversations on the train, and it’s super easy to navigate. Plus it’s dirt cheap.

Taipei is also a city that prides itself on being a 24/7 city and that’s proven pretty accurate, even without having the chance to explore the bigger night markets and nightlife options. We’ll get to those places later in the week, but so far it’s been easy to get food past midnight. And did I mention how safe it feels here? No poop or stuff on the sidewalks...it’s stellar!

Basically I’m starting to think I should move here for a bit. Cheap food, insomniac hours, easy transportation, and no harsh winters. That about covers all the qualifications I’m looking for in a city. Plus I speak the language (sort of). The only thing I can't understand so far is why nobody wears summer gear, as there are more pants and slacks worn here than rationally possible. Are the natives just immune to heat?

Since Yelp doesn’t exist out here -- in Asia it’s only in Singapore -- I downloaded the Taiwan version, iPeen. I can’t read anything but the photos are enough. Basically I just use Google translate to plug in stuff like “noodles, soy milk, breakfast” and out pops some nearby destinations. We won’t go directly to any one spot but I figure where there’s one food place, there’s always ten more nearby.

Strangely, Foursquare has been pretty good too, and it’s actually in English. But the two most useful things I've been using have been these blogs: A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei and Eat Pray Flying. Hungry Girl has been indispensable, as her reviews are lengthy, detailed, and include a ton of pictures. The organization and tagging on her posts deserve a special mention. Check out her sidebar labels, this is how Blogger should be used! And there’s an index. If I ever update Rough Guide to Blogging, hungryintaipei.blogspot.com is gonna get featured big time.

Eat Pray Flying’s Taiwan entries have been a nice supplement too, such as this post about Wu Fen Pu and Rao He Night Market. Like I said, having portable Internet has changed everything. Now off to explore more and then report back. Well, actually, we're headed to a pub to watch replays of opening weekend for the NFL. Because, you know, football.

28 August 2014

In Revolt

Currently pushing: Amos Barshad, “This Is Their Youth.” Someone should go watch this on Broadway and then report back to me. Starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and most importantly, Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson -- who was great in Enough Said. Kenneth Lonergan wrote the great You Can Count on Me, which single handedly made me love Laura Linney, so there’s a pretty good chance this will be good.

Since being back in San Diego, I’ve ripped through a ton of movies, thinking (erroneously) my MoviePass was about to expire: Hercules, TMNT, Sin City 2, Lucy, What If, CalvaryGuardians for a third time. What I gleaned from all that was basically that Taiwan is the new it place for films. Well, if representation in two movies is enough to qualify as “it.” Luc Besson shot the first part of Lucy in Taipei (although villains were Korean), and during the back half of What If, Zoe Kazan’s manic pixie dream girl character has a big job opportunity that would involve moving to Taiwan.

Coincidentally, I will be visiting Taiwan myself in a week or so. I haven’t been back in over a decade so this should be interesting. Last time I spent the back half of my trip in smoky Internet cafes, waiting for our trip to be over. This time I’ll be there for about the same amount of time, but I think I’ll enjoy it more. My mom showed me our birth certificate today. I was born at 2:46am, George two minutes later, at Taiwan Veterans General Hospital. She weighed 5 lbs 14 oz and I was six ounces smaller. The story we tell is that I was supposed to come out second, but right beforehand, I switched places. Thank goodness.

Here’s John Cho, Asian-American Hollywood hero, in the first episode of Selfie. His co-star is Karen Gillan, who plays blue-skinned Nebula, sister to Zoe Saldana’s green-skinned Gamora. I’m hoping Gillan returns for the Guardians sequel because I found her bitter cyborg to be quite compelling. ABC has two shows featuring Asian-American leads this season, with Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat debuting in October.

It’s fantasy football season and I’m mired deep in my drafts. This year I’m cutting back on all leagues, save my long time ten teamer, and my new-ish sixteen teamer. Oh and I’m counseling a friend for her league. Last year my friend piloted her team featuring LeSean McCoy, Calvin Johnson, and Matt Stafford to the top of the charts before sputtering in the Super Bowl. It was an impressive rookie run and her dedication was extraordinary. Heck, I wish she was in my leagues! “I think I woke up in the middle of the night once to check my lineup.” Direct quote.

This offseason, I was hoping to blow up my monster team featuring Adrian Peterson, McCoy, Larry Fitzgerald, Rob Gronkowski, and Andrew Luck but nobody wanted to trade me for A.P. so I’m just going to have to try to win a title with him. My team is massively impressive on paper but it never seems to do well at the end of the season. I blame All Day, even if he’s been the best fantasy running back for years.

Most of my attention this season going to be spent restocking my sixteen teamer, which has gone 5-8 in consecutive years. My first year, I traded away Drew Brees, which may have been a little hasty. In my efforts to rebuild a winner, I had to pull the trigger for Ray Rice, taking advantage of the good moral fiber of his ex-owner. Do I want a wife beater on my team? Not really, but you gotta leave your emotions off the (fantasy) field.

This season’s Hard Knocks features the Atlanta Falcons. They, like me, haven’t won anything in awhile, so I’m hoping we both have resurgent seasons. It’s been awesome to get some behind-the-scenes on my favorite team, and for the Falcons to actually get some national attention. Each episode features little segments about players on off days or at home, and my favorite so far is when Ra'Shede Hageman and teammates go to the Georgia Aquarium to take a dip with whale sharks. Also, the nuggets of wisdom that D-line coach Bryan Cox drops: "If you ain’t got a vice, something's wrong with you."