28 October 2014

Awake, Always

Currently pushing: Celtics “We Are Young and Smart” T-shirt. There’s a lot of stuff I want to recommend but since tonight is the start of the NBA season, there’s no way I can’t highlight the future of the Boston Celtics: first round picks Marcus Smart and James Young. Sure, that may signal that Rajon Rondo is on his way out (please no, please no), and while I was stunned on draft day about the pickup of another point guard, I’ve come around to the idea that Smart’s defense and competitive spirit is exactly what Boston needs. Oh and yes, you can bet I drafted Smart in my fantasy league. While it may be another losing season ahead for the Celts, I’m excited for the new blood to jumpstart the rebuilding. Here's Smart and Young, wearing Smart and Young.
A few weeks ago I jaunted to New York for a wedding and the tail end of summer. Actually, summer was all the way over and fall jackets were on full display. It’s been awhile since I only spent a few days in New York so I tried to cram everything in. The second night, I sat around watching Got Soul practice for the wedding dance. Post-college, some of my friends still wanted to dance and so they started Got Soul for a few years. Now they re-rented their old practice room, and even I could feel the electric reunion energy. There probably aren’t a whole lot of wedding dances left in our futures, so this felt like one of the final rides.

Friday, before the wedding, I cruised up to The Whitney to take in the Jeff Koons exhibit. Basically I needed to go to hate-see it. I have strong anti feelings towards Koons work, but since it’s best to take something in before you totally reject it, I went. Verdict? Just like the Slate Cultural Gabfest said, I was impressed by the workmanship, if not necessarily Koons' vision. Some of the pieces, mostly made of aluminum, looked so much like other materials that it was almost impossible not to sneak a touch. I walked right by the inflatable Incredible Hulk organ before doubling back and realizing it was not plastic. My favorite piece of his ended up being this nude woman in a tub with the top half of her head chopped off. In person, the effect was jarring, and I couldn’t stop the mental disconnect and looking for the missing half. Overall, I was more excited about the Edward Hopper stuff tucked away upstairs. There weren’t many actual Hopper paintings but it was still a nice surprise.

The one thing I had to do in New York was watch Kenneth Lonergan’s play, This Is Our Youth. It stars Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson. Cera may bring in the crowds but I was there to see Tavi. She was quietly brilliant in Enough Said last year and I thought she was just as great in her Broadway debut. There was a lot of young Michelle Williams in her performance, but without all the annoying Williams-ness. The Cort Theatre is small enough that almost any seat has a nice view, so go to the cheap seats and watch this thing. And then maybe queue up Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, which back in 2000 vaulted Laura Linney high up on my "actors/actresses to must-see" list.

I also got the chance to swing by my friend's about-to-open restaurant in Williamsburg. Wait, actually, it's open now. Pam and Jose used to do a pop-up in the same space, but now they've completely remodeled and it's called Semilla (Spanish for "seed"). The food is vegetable forward and as you can see from this link, absolutely stunning. I was going to miss their opening but wanted to see how much the space had transformed, since they'd been working on it for months. Needless to say, the makeover was amazing, and the tiled bathroom has a fun window that lets you peer out into the kitchen.

After my quick visit, I got on a trusty Citibike for one last ride, across the bridge to the Lower East Side, to meet Pam's identical twin -- and equally obsessed food person. She had just returned from a long bike ride and was parked at El Rey Coffee, ordering everything on and off menu, saying hello to friends and strangers alike. For a few hours, it was New York summer again.

The rest of the weekend was filled with some dancing, some puking (not by me), some singing, friend-family dinners, plenty of hanging out, and late night hotel lobby time. It stirred a bit of revival in my heart for New York after my quick exit in July. Still, I couldn't stay since Taiwan Part 2 beckoned and I had a fifteen hour flight to catch. Bye U.S., I'll be back!

07 October 2014

What's Real?

I'm a millionaire!...On the Hollywood Stock Exchange. I’d forgotten that I used to be on this quite a bit back when it started. The name sprung up while I was reading an article about whether or not this company called Fantex will be able to get movie stars to IPO -- similar to last year’s sports people IPOs. Curious, I logged onto hsx.com and took a look at my account. It's amazing this site is still around. I mean, what other services do I even use from 1999-2000? AOL Instant Messenger is about the only other one. Yes, I'm still on AIM, don't laugh.

Anyway, here’s my top ten of people I had major stock in: Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Gosling, Jessica Alba, Keira Knightley, Audrey Tautou, Claire Danes, Steve Buscemi, Hilary Swank, Natalie Portman, and Katie Holmes. Number eleven is Bryce Dallas Howard, whom I was sure was headed for stardom after Lady in the Water and The Village. I guess getting hitched to the M.Night Shyamalan supernova wasn't the best career move. Plus, Jessica Chastain came along and took BDH's looks lane.

"There can only be one!” That’s part of the theory as covered in July’s Grantland podcast about Rom-Com should-have-beens. One of Simmons/Morris/Litman's examples was Elisabeth Shue, who should have at least one classic rom-com to her name right? Sidenote: I just watched Cocktail for the first time a month ago and Elizabeth Shue, Elizabeth Shue!!! Also they said that Robin Wright could've been a rom-com champion, but she didn't want it.
By the way, after we watched What If a few weeks ago, I decided that I need to write a straight up rom-com. Not an indie one, or a mumbly one, or one with a supreme premise, although those are still on my to-do list. But a straight up Hollywood style rom-com with a happy ending and everything. Should be cake right? I was born for this.

Back to HSX. The five people I paid the most for were Sam Mendes ($168.81), Russell Crowe ($136.06), Bryan Singer ($120.95), The Rock ($117.08), and Natalie Portman ($114.72). I don't know what I was thinking. And the movie stars that have lost me the most money over the years? Keira Knightley, Monica Bellucci, Portman, Jennifer Connelly, and Johnny Depp. That’s basically a who’s who of my all-time celebrity Top Ten. I guess I should never invest in real stocks since I'm easily blinded by emotion and can't keep my feelings separate from my money. That and I'm not an actual millionaire.

There’s certainly room for a film-related fantasy game in my life -- I’m on Box Office Mojo way more than any non-industry person ought to be. But so far I can’t find a good one. I gave Summer Movie League a go this past summer, as well as a few other sites that use box office numbers for points, but either the website interfaces were lacking or the game rules were boring. The search continues...

Speaking of fantasy, my friend and I have been doing a bit of FanDuel's weekly football leagues. The fact that it’s real money is a bit scary, but we have hopes that one of our entries will actually come up big. With his King Midas-like gambling touch and my football knowledge, we'll soon be top of the charts. That's the theory anyway. It's been more fun than real fantasy football, that's for sure. This is what happens when you have Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice on your teams. Your fantasy season is over by the second week of September.

A lot of people are (rightfully) quitting football these days. And if it weren't for my long running leagues, I would probably do it too. The NFL represents just about everything I dislike about American culture. And really, fantasy MTV and GoT have brought me so much more joy recently. But who would I be without fantasy football? Would people even recognize me anymore? Would I even recognize myself? These are my existential questions. What are yours?

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.