Movie Review: Everything Before Us

Title: Everything Before Us
Directors: Philip Wang and Wesley Chan (Wong Fu Productions)
Cast: Aaron Yoo, Brittany Ishibashi, Brandon Soo Hoo, Victoria Park, Randall Park, Joanna Sotomura, Chris Riedell, Ki Hong Lee
Genre: Indie, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 100 minutes
Stream ($4.99) | Download ($14.99) | Bundle packages

Plot
What if everyone had an emotional integrity score akin to a credit score? Would that aid in people’s quest for love and happiness? Everything Before Us attempts to answer these questions through two contrasting yet parallel relationships.

He Said
Wong Fu was one of the pioneers who truly showed that content on YouTube could be as entertaining, if not even more creative and endearing than anything on TV/movies. Asian casting aside, for the Asian viewer in the US, their productions often have relatable and genuine themes that are not addressed by mainstream media. While I am not a regular viewer/follower, I do recognize their tremendous growth in production values throughout the years. Everything Before Us is their first full-length motion picture effort. Similar to a lot of their shorts, the movie’s main focus is on love and relationships (which is probably Wong Fu’s specialty) in a post-modern world in which the government tries to protect against hurtful/bad relationships. The cinematography was beautiful, but the storyline was rather predictable. Perhaps they were not accustomed to such a long running time — I felt like it was a bit drawn out. While there were some good scenes, as a whole it didn’t draw me in like some of their shorts (such as “The Last“) and there wasn’t that usual resonance.

She Said
This is an incredibly difficult movie review for me to write. I have supported Wong Fu’s works for years. I did not hesitate to make monetary contributions to their movie campaign. They provided a very intriguing premise and detailed a thorough budget plan. [They make very convincing grant writers, if I may say. :P] Along the filming process, I was given updates and the anticipation greatly built. I believed in their visions. Due to all that, my thoughts may be biased. More importantly, I approached this movie with high expectations. Did it deliver? Yes and no. As expected, the film was artistic and thought-provoking. The problem is that the premise (introduced months before the film was made) already provoked all these thoughts and conversations. The film, in my opinion, did not further illuminate the premise. It did not deliver an emotional punch. But overall, it was a beautiful attempt — they might want to fasten the pace a bit and dial down on the cheesiness a bit for their next feature film. :) In the end, I am still proud of what Wong Fu achieved and will still be their supporter.

We Say
This was a movie made for fans and with the support of fans. Its success through crowdsourcing paved a way for independent filmmakers looking for a nontraditional route to produce art. Cheers to new media!

Our favorite scene from the movie:

9 Books to Read this Summer

Food for Thought
Animal Farm
Atlas Shrugged
Brave New World

Nonfictional works that read like extraordinary fiction
The Age of Wonder
The Lost Boy
The Moral Judgment of the Child
Night
The Rape of Nanking (warning: very disturbing)
Steve Jobs

Do you have book recommendations for us? We love to curl up to a good book!

In-Door Grilling

Summer (aka grilling season) is just around the corner! The smokey, charred taste of scrumptious meats and vegetables is just irresistible. Cooking outside also helps to keep your house cooler (which saves on electricity). While the weather doesn’t stop some people from using their outdoor grill all-year-round, most people reserve grilling for spring/summer/early fall. I’ve always loved grilled foods, but found myself unable to cook them well until recently. To preface, no in-door grill will truly be able to provide that amazing “grill” taste – this you can only get from cooking over an open flame. However, there is definitely variability in the taste of various in-door grilling cookware/methods and I have experimented with several of them. Here are my experiences.

Oven broiler
I think of the broiler like an inverted grill. Instead of the heat source being directly underneath the foods, it is above it. I would only recommend the broiler if you have a gas stove (where there is a flame); I did not care for the taste of foods cooked with an electric stove broiler. In order to use your oven broiler, you need to position the rack about 4 inches away from the heat source (usually the first slot in the sides of the oven). For best results, I like to preheat the broiler for at least 10-20 minutes to get it nice and hot. The big drawback to using the broiler is that it is hard to control the heat and the house gets very hot.

George Foreman-type
These are the electric grills with a folding top that has grill plates to cook both sides of the food at the same time. The George Foreman grill is almost a quintessential tool of the college/single lifestyle. I remember being extremely excited with my first Foreman. Alas, like most things that are hyped, I was quite disappointed. My foods barely had any “grill marks” and I didn’t like the texture of the meats. I find that the closed structure causes foods to become “steamed” rather than “grilled”. I’ve purchased two separate models over the years and honestly have only used the Foreman no more than a handful of times. The disappointing tastes and the even more troublesome clean-up made it a less-than-desirable means of cooking.

Grill pan
A grill pan is basically a heavy cast-iron skillet with raised interior rows. It maintains heat really well and the design allows fat to drip down and also gives the meats those desirable “grill marks”. Similar to the Foreman, the clean-up is quite troublesome because you need to be careful to preserve the “seasoned” pan. As far as taste, I find it not much different than pan-searing.

Open-type
An open-face grill is almost like a Foreman without its counterpart “close” top. You have to cook foods one side at a time. The only brand I’ve tried (and love) is Presto. It maintains heat very well, it is “smoke-less”, and so extremely easy to clean. This grill gives my foods those nice “grill marks” and/or charred edges every time I’ve used it. The meats/vegetables I’ve grilled on the Presto have all tasted delicious.

We Say
Until I found Presto, I pretty much gave up on the prospect of “grilling” inside. I was just never pleased with the way the foods tasted (especially with the George Foreman) and the clean-up just seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I am in love with my Presto grill and unlike most other kitchen appliances, it is not collecting dust on the shelf/stored in a box. In fact, it has been used many times since I’ve got it. While I will always prefer the taste of my outdoor grill, Presto will more than whet my appetite for grilled foods. In-door grilling is an easy, fast, and healthy way to cook, but you have to have the right tool to succeed. I highly recommend investing in a Presto grill!

TV Review: Once Upon a Time (Season 4)

Ever since season 3, Once Upon a Time has adapted a “split season” approach in order to allow a more “gap-free” airing of episodes. While this idea seemed quite good when ABC was selling it since the “momentum” of the series was sometimes broken due to random stretches without new episodes. However, 2 years of this format has shown that it does not work very well. It leaves the series feeling rather fractured and quite honestly, 11 episodes is not “long” enough to fully flesh out meaty storylines (especially with the extensive characters in the Once universe). The writers have good concepts/ideas, but all of the half-seasons have felt rather disappointing and half-baked. Season 3A (Neverland/Peter Pan) was extremely slow-paced and season 3B (Oz/Wicked Witch) was more hype than substance. What about season 4A and 4B?


Season 4A: Frozen
I adored Frozen, so I was quite ecstatic at the glimpse of Elsa during season 3B’s ending and looked forward to seeing how the Frozen characters/world would be incorporated. Overall I thought Once did a fantastic job translating the animated movie into the “real” world. Elizabeth Lail was spot-on as cute/funny Anna and she honestly had the best lines; I was less impressed with Georgina Haig as Elsa, but grew to like her. The highlight casting though was Elizabeth Mitchell as the Snow Queen; she was an absolute scene-stealer with her gripping performance. I was quite sad to see Mitchell go.

Story-line wise, season 4A was the most coherent, balanced, and well-written arc of all the half-seasons. While certain aspects of the story were rather forced/unexplained, as a whole it had plenty of surprise, fun, and excitement. It brought new life to the show and actually made it feel rather fresh again. I really liked Emma’s friendship with Elsa and it helped to develop Emma’s character into accepting her magic. The blending of the original Snow Queen fairytale with Frozen was quite creative.

The main complaint that I have is that the Frozen characters dominated too much of the screen time and I got rather tired that most flashbacks were based in Arendelle or involved Anna/Elsa. What I loved about the Once flashbacks from other seasons (as I did with LOST) was that each episode would focus on a different character/story that would tie in with “current” events, which kept things fresh.


Season 4B: Queens of Darkness/Heroes & Villains
Similar to season 3B’s Wicked promotional tactic, season 4B was full of hype for the incorporation of Maleficent, Ursula, and Cruella de Vil into the Once world. Consequently, the “Queens of Darkness” was more superfluous than anything else. I still do not understand how they originally banded together in the Enchanted Forest and they did not live up to their “threatening” name. Worse, they were all under-developed (with the exception of perhaps Ursula who at least got a “complete” story, but her end was too abrupt) and did not meet any potential. The most enjoyable “Queen” was Cruella, who had delicious zingers and Victoria Smurfit gave her great sass; her lone flashback was arguably Once‘s darkest and most chilling episode. I really hope we have not seen the last of Kristin Bauer van Straten because Maleficent’s story remains so incomplete. I was under the impression that we would see more of Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, but we only got one scene. For all of her talk, Maleficent seemed rather powerless and was always so easy to defeat that it was laughable. I also did not like her “upgraded” costume (which seemed to borrow from Angelina Jolie‘s costume from Maleficent).

I was always under the impression that the “Author” storyline was a ruse for the characters (namely Regina) to realize that there is no “magical being” that grants happy endings and life is all about choices and consequences. I thought the quest to find such an “Author” was a futile one. How disappointed I was to learn that there truly was an Author who does have the power to “change” things. Fortunately, in the end, the message of the “Author” storyline was indeed that the characters write their own stories and that the “evil Author” who had such “powers” to change fate had gone astray in his duties.

Season 4B is probably Once‘s worst writing thus far. There were too many inconsistencies, too many incredulous plot/character devices to invoke twists/shocks, lack of character development, and just felt terribly disjointed. It seemed to be an array of action rather than trying to tell a coherent story. Here are my main complaints:

– The constant “hero” and “villain” labels/speeches felt very forced and contrived. I hated it. While I understand that this has always been the underlying theme, but having it repeated over and over again was overkill. If there’s one thing the Once writers need to improve on, it’s that they need to show and not just tell.
– I did not think the “twist” with Charming and Snow carrying a deep, dark secret was needed or credible. They had interesting gray layers already! How could they reach Glinda if their hearts were not “pure” in season 3B?
– The immense “fear” that Emma would turn dark was ridiculous. Again the characters seem to act according to the plot rather than maintain their characterizations.
– There are so many phenomenal existing characters and so many unfinished/untold stories that I really don’t understand why the writers forsake them for the inclusion of even more characters. It is like they are too greedy for a large cast and end up underutilizing most of them (or they just disappear).
– Belle is the worst treated “main” character. She was so good in season 1 with her strength and she is supposed to be intelligent and “book smart”, but the writers continuously make her brainless and spineless. It is so frustrating to watch her and Emilie de Ravin‘s acting is going downhill. Also, Will & Belle were a waste of time; the fact that they were dating came out of nowhere. Are we supposed to believe Belle moved on in 6 weeks? They also had no chemistry. I am praying that season 5’s Belle will be better (and she should be with Rumple having to overcome life without any power/darkness). I really do like Belle & Rumple, but she is just so badly written as of late.
– The “villain” Hook is far more interesting than the love interest/background he has become.

While 4B was weak, the two-hour finale offered some hope.  The “alternate” world was rather fun and reminded me of LOST‘s season 6 parallel timeline.  The “Author” storyline came to a satisfying conclusion and I really liked how Snow summarized what a “villain” makes (someone who forsakes others for their own happiness). The tremendous sacrifice that Emma made to fulfill her promise to Regina of giving her a “happy ending” was so touching. The growth and strength that Regina displayed when she stopped believing in a cursed “fate” and instead faces things highlights her multi-season journey – she is the best written, most layered, and most consistent character of the show. Lana Parrilla is also the best actress on Once with her nuanced and multi-faceted performace (just see the finale where Ginnifer Goodwin seemed rather fake/stiff as Evil Snow while Parrilla was convincing as a tragic bandit). The seeds are definitely planted for some interesting storylines next season.

Overall Thoughts
Something needs to change with Once… and soon. Either they need to get rid of the half-seasons or they need to have an “end-date”. At this point, I am not sure where the series is going. While I continue to love it because of the great “core” characters and for those genuinely magical moments, the creative spark and excitement from season 1 seems to have fizzled. It has so much potential and so many seeds they can sow that I find it frustrating they pursue lesser plots. I am cautiously hopeful that season 5 can improve and am curious to see what will become of Emma being the new “Dark One” and with the new quest to find Merlin.

Book Review: The Age of Innocence

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 305 pages

Plot
Set during the end of the 19th century, The Age of Innocence examines the societal battles of morality and ideals between “old” New York and “new” New York in the backdrop of a forbidden love affair.

He Said
I’m always drawn to historical fiction that is able to bring back to life days gone by. When done well, they can be intriguing and sometimes even offer insight into modern times. Written in the 1920’s, Wharton effectively preserves the attitudes and times of the 1870’s for readers of many generations to come to be able to visit. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is a young man who possesses modern ideas of romance and freedom and wants to fight against tradition, the dying “old” New York. The grandeur, societal nuances, and “scandals” are intriguing and keeps the plot turning. Ultimately this novel is not so much a love story as it is a tragic reminder that sometimes a lone fight against social norms is futile.

She Said
I approach historical fictions with a desire to learn more about a great era in days of yore. But almost always, I get pulled into the characterizations and ultimately got bothered with either their stagnant development or selfishness. Such was the case with Sister Carrie and The Great Gatsby. Perhaps I just do not like the late 1800s or early 1900s. Wharton’s Age of Innocence indeed painted a society I did not want to live in. It was so hard for me to empathize its characters, who were either spineless or too self-assured. The realistic ending, however, was a great redeeming factor. As a whole, Archer’s love affair was the more acceptable version to Anna Karenina. Archer was a tragic character who achieved wisdom and self-awareness. Karenina was a tragic character who wrote her own demise without ever redeeming herself.

We Say
The Age of Innocence paints for the reader a vivid picture of high-class New York society in the 1870’s which makes it enriching and interesting. However it falters from uneven pacing and excessive, mostly flat, characters that can be hard to keep track of. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable read.

Mother’s Day Gift Guide

May 10 is Mother’s Day! When we were young, our teachers guided us through drawings, cards, and small crafts to make Mom smile. Don’t forget to express that love as we grow older! This is the perfect occasion to pamper her. A perfect gift can be anything from a good book/musical album, to a spa experience, or a flight to her favorite travel destination. Or take a page from Thanh’s experience and gift Mom a painting you did! Below are a few more ideas to help you select that perfect gift for the most important woman in your life:

Bibelot Bakeware
Scarf-Print Sweaterknit Cardi
‘Mom’s’ Copper Mug
Tory Burch Eau de Parfum Set
Ocean Explorer Tea Set

Travels: Washington, D.C.

The capital of the United States is a city frequented by tourists for its many iconic landmarks and museums and populated by some of the most powerful people in the world (including the fictional characters on Scandal and House of Cards). It is probably one of the cities that are a “must-visit” in the US.

National Cherry Blossom Festival

Occurring usually in mid/late March to early/mid April, this festival celebrates the blossoming cherry blossom trees that populate the heart of DC, in particular the Tidal Basin. Thousands of visitors seek the elusive florals during the “peak bloom” before the petals all fall. The festival includes many events around the city which celebrate Japanese culture, including an annual National Cherry Blossom Parade (free) that runs along Constitution Avenue and a street festival (tickets required) with performances and people in traditional Japanese costumes, but honestly it is more like a place for vendors to sell over-priced merchandise and food. The DC Cherry Blossoms which were gifted from Japan are indeed beautiful. However, the blooms in DC lacks variety and abundance. The huge crowd is another drawback. Unless you happen to be in the area around the time they are blooming, we do not recommend going out of your way to see them.

Memorials

DC’s memorials honor the thousands of lives for which we all owe our freedom. Two stood out most to Nhi. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin has always captured a solemnity that makes one reflect. Some memorials have boastful/flamboyant displays that distract visitors from the true meaning of a memorial. Lin employed simplicity to perfection, which always encourage us to have a minute of silence as we approach the many names that fought and died for freedom. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial also stood in an ideal location where the Washington monument can be reflected on its granite. However, the National Mall is under construction and there are plans to relocate the memorial. Hopefully its new home will be equally ideal.

Another memorial that greatly impressed Nhi was Lincoln Memorial (perhaps in part because Nhi and Lincoln share the same birthday). The exterior of the memorial echoed Greek architecture. Climbing up the steps, one cannot help but look back at the Reflecting Pool and Washington monument in the background. It is truly an iconic, picturesque view and a historic landmark where Dr. Martin Luther King once made his “I Have A Dream” speech. It also reminds one of a scene from Forrest Gump – a beautiful film that captured decades of America’s history within mere hours. Heading inside the memorial, an enormous and prominent statue of Lincoln awaits. On the walls are inscriptions of his famous speeches – The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. In A.P. Writing, Nhi once had to dissect Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and it was that year in High School that she learned of pathos and the brilliance of Lincoln’s writings.

White House

Home to the President of the United States, this is the most famous “family house” in the US. We are particularly excited that its glass ceiling may be shattered in the upcoming 2016 elections. It’s time.

Smithsonian Museums

The Smithsonian has several museums that you can visit in DC, all for free. There are so many different exhibits that it is probably a good idea to dedicate a day just for museums (especially if you have young children). Having heard repeatedly about the famous Giant Squid (and its axon) in her neuroscience courses, Nhi was mega excited to see the squid on display. It was indeed gigantic! The National Museum of Natural History also housed many interesting exhibits, one of which allowed you to create early human versions of yourself (think broad forehead and huge nose). The National Air and Space Museum is another great hit for children (but be forewarned it isn’t as special as Kennedy’s Space Center).

Smithsonian’s Enid A. Haupt Garden

The impressive cast iron Renwick Gates open their door to a charming garden. The Smithsonian Garden may be small, but it is no less captivating. Needless to say, it is only worth visiting when there are flowering plants. We found that this garden provided a more vibrant landscape of cherry blossoms (and Mulan magnolias) than the Tidal Basin. (Additionally, there is less of a huge crowd here.) The castle also offers a gorgeous backdrop.

National Arboretum

While most DC attractions can be easily accessed through public transportation of the clean and efficient Metro, the National Arboretum is not one of those. Not only is it difficult to get there by public transportation, when you are actually there, it is a hike to see the various gardens, which are inconveniently spread out. You really do need a car to enjoy the Arboretum. Consequently, we did not get to see much of the Arboretum. And most unfortunately, the parts we saw were quite bare/under construction.

National Zoo

This is probably a must-visit if you have young children. Again, it is free. The vast zoo spans 163 acres and provides ample space for its animals. It also has abundant photo-ops. We got there around closing time and therefore did not see many exhibits. The famous giant pandas were also not on display (due to cold weather). On the bright side, this offers us the perfect excuse to visit DC again (when we have kids of our own)!

Paint Nite

The newest social craze is drinking & painting. You’ve probably seen it somewhere on social media. There are several different companies that offer this service; Paint Nite is one of those. It’s an artist-led “class” where you can have fun and go home with a painting. It is not truly a class, though, as there is very little instruction provided. More than anything, it’s a 2-hour social event with art supplies provided. Of course, there is probably variability depending on your instructor/crowd. Nevertheless, it is a unique and fun activity. We would recommend it and wouldn’t mind doing it again!

We Say
As with any big city, be prepared for big crowds, bad traffic, and to walk around for many miles. It is best to use public transportation to get around as parking can be difficult and/or expensive. The DC Metro is actually quite clean and much easier to navigate than NYC’s. Do take advantage of all the free attractions! And while a visit to the Nation’s capital is a must, do consider taking a stroll along historic Georgetown. Not far from the heart of DC, this quaint neighborhood features European architect, unique boutiques, and fine dining.