TV Review: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland failed for several reasons back in 2013, one of which being that ABC did not stick with their original plan to air the series during the parent series’ winter hiatus. Here are the reasons why I believe so few people went “down the rabbit hole”.

Wrong Cast
The casting of Once was perfect (even in guest roles), so it’s hard to understand how they got it so wrong with Wonderland. The leading players were unknown to most viewers, but more critical was the fact that the acting felt too much like that. There was a lack of naturalness somehow. I failed to connect and thus care for them [as characters] for some time. Eventually I was “okay” with the cast, but this was more so a forced acceptance. The standout performance was Michael Socha as The Knave/Will Scarlet; he seemed to genuinely have fun with the character and this was probably why he was the only actor (thus far) brought over to the parent series.

The Once villains are probably the most compelling characters, but Wonderland‘s antagonists felt false and over-the-top. While I loved Naveen Andrews as Sayid in Lost, he was too “intentional” as Jafar; something was off and he just seemed stiff and ridiculous in most scenes. Emma Rigby‘s perpetual “duck lips” were distracting and made the Red Queen a joke; I eventually warmed up to her, especially after the revelation of her backstory as Cinderalla’s stepsister, Anastasia… But those lips!

Poor Production
Being a network television production and not a multimillion Hollywood picture, no one expects spectacular special effects, but Wonderland really fell short in making a credible world like Once was able to make the “Enchanted Forrest” look and feel “real”. It is possible that this was an impossible task because “Wonderland” is too fantastical, but the special effects were sometimes embarrassing. Consequently this detracted from the story and made it harder for the viewer to be completely immersed in the fantasy (and want to keep coming back). It was just too much unbearable green screen.

Viewer Fatigue
Thursday’s at 8:00 PM has been a “death slot” for ABC for many years (until Grey’s Anatomy in 2014), so perhaps Wonderland didn’t stand a chance with too many competition. More so, I think the novelty of Once wore off and some would-be viewers probably didn’t want to commit to another weekly series. While Once‘s ratings have been relatively stable, it has definitely corroded since the glory days of its debut. Had Wonderland just aired as a limited series in Once‘s hiatus, I think it may have done decently as the pre-existing Once fans would probably have watched while waiting for the parent series to return.

Slow Script
While Once is no speedy rabbit, Wonderland took much longer to “hook”. While there were certainly many elements of intrigue (I love the idea of Alice being admitted to a psychiatric hospital because of her “crazy stories” – so creative!), the first few episodes were kind of boring (despite them trying to have a lot of action scenes) and the special effects were such a turn-off.

Overall, Wonderland paled in comparison to Once, but in some ways it was more enjoyable than season 3A. The series found its footing after episode 5 and it was actually very good until the end. In fact, it was sometimes more dark/violent than Once (i.e. murders). Once I got over the bad special effects and my distaste for the cast, I found myself caring for the characters and intrigued by all of the mystery. The action definitely picks up in the second half for an exhilarating last few episodes. The ending is an absolutely brilliant twist and ties the series together so well. I also really love the relationship between The Knave & Red Queen (I’m praying that Once will bring Red Queen/Anastasia over!).

Once fans who missed out on Wonderland during its run should definitely watch it. Wonderland combines Alice in Wonderland with The Arabian Nights/Aladdin in wonderful twists. Non-Once fans who enjoy fantasy may want to give it a try (until at least episode 5). It is really not a bad series and I truly wish it could have done better, but I’m glad ABC aired it in its entirety; the writers definitely kept their words about it being a single-season, stand-alone series (too bad the potential for future seasons will never materialize).

Movie Review: Big Hero 6

Title: Big Hero 6
Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Cast: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T. J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., Génesis Rodríguez, Maya Rudolph
Genre: Animation
Running Time: 102 minutes
Accolade: Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature

Plot
Based on a comic book by the same name, on the exterior, this movie is an action-packed adventure/comedy about how an unlikely group of 5 “kids” and an oversized robot came together to “fight evil”, but at its core, it is a beautiful story about overcoming grief.

He Said
I was skeptical about this movie due to the unappealing title that makes it sound like a sequel and lackluster “teaser trailer”, but the fact that it was from someone who worked on Frozen made me curious. Additionally, as a healthcare professional, I also thought the concept of Baymax, a personal healthcare robot, was hilarious. Therefore I watched Big Hero 6 with little knowledge of the plot/premise and relatively low expectations… and what a splendid surprise! The beginning is admittedly slow, but once Baymax comes to life and attends to the needs of the depressed Hiro, it is golden. There is so much humor and joy to be had from the scene-stealing Baymax! The action and animation are so well done, but what impresses me the most is the brilliant and mature script that so effectively portrays tragedy, grief, and healing. The emotional ending earns all of my heartfelt tears.

She Said
If the virtue of a movie resides in its ability to induce cathartic tears, then this movie ranks very, very high on my list. In short, I balled. Like Thanh, I brushed off the movie after seeing its unimpressive (and slow paced) preview. The movie, however, drew me in the moment Hiro explored the robotics lab at his brother’s university. The innovations! What started as an intellectual adventure quickly escalated to an emotional catharsis. I recommend this animation unequivocally and can’t wait to (re-)watch it with my niece and nephew!

We Say
Big Hero 6 is an amazing and brilliant movie that has tremendous emotional resonance. Disney continues to prove it is in a new “Golden Age” with Big Hero 6 deservedly earning the studio its second consecutive Oscar for “Best Animated Feature” (after 2014’s epic Frozen). This is a must-watch movie for all of its action, comedy, and heart – it is all-around fun for all ages (although “younger kids” will probably not appreciate it as much) with a wonderful message about dealing with losses.

Broadway Review: Wicked

Title: Wicked
Directors: James M. Nederlander & James L. Nederlander
Cast: Kara Lindsay, Lilli Cooper, Kathy Fitzgerald, Tom McGowan, Matt Shingledecker, Catherine Charlebois, Robin De Jesus, Timothy Britten Parker
Genre: Musical
Running Time: 2.5 hours (with 15 min intermission)

Plot
Wicked is one of Broadway’s biggest and most acclaimed hits, which reframes the classic story of The Wizard of Oz and thereby spins it into a refreshing, creative retelling with new layers (based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West).

He Said
While The Wizard of Oz movie has some good songs and the costumes/cinematography is indeed iconic, I must admit that I wasn’t a fan of the movie. The slow pace and illogical storytelling felt too campy. Truthfully I also don’t love musicals as a genre. I can endure and even enjoy songs interspersed (such as in some of Disney’s classics), but I much prefer dialogue and speedy plotting. Therefore I’m not sure why I wanted to see Wicked for so many years. Perhaps it was just all of the hype (same reason I watched The Wizard of Oz). Perhaps this curiosity was renewed after watching Once Upon A Time‘s spin on Oz/The Wicked Witch of the West during season 3. In any case, I did at last see Wicked. Similar to my reaction to The Wizard of Oz movie, I was underwhelmed and felt like it was too long, but overall the storyline felt more mature and better developed with nice twists all-the-while being truthful to the source material. The costumes and staging were impressive. I didn’t love any of the songs and actually couldn’t make out the lyrics sometimes. We unfortunately also didn’t get to see the “real” star of Elphaba but instead saw her understudy, who felt like a miscast.

She Said
While the plot was excellent with many twists and connections to The Wizard of Oz, I couldn’t help but tune into the orchestra. I honestly hoped to either be seeing a play or a symphony. However, the storytelling was not lacking, with great humor interspersed. Glinda stole the show for me – in acting, comedic timing, and singing. Perhaps this is because Elphaba was portrayed by an understudy, a fact we weren’t informed of until we sat down and read the Playbill… Another complaint: the main love story was inappropriately sexual. There were kids in the audience and I had hoped the show to be more G-rated. Overall, it was nice to see what the buzz is all about, but it definitely felt long. I was ready to leave after Act I…

We Say
Our Wicked viewing exemplifies how much productions (be it TV, movies, or musicals) depend on star power and the right casting. When the lead role suffers, the rest suffers too. While Wicked wasn’t terrible by any means and honestly musicals aren’t our cup of tea, we think we would have enjoyed it more if the character of Elphaba was played by someone else. Wicked is definitely a must-see for fans of The Wizard of Oz and for people who love Broadway/musicals. For everyone else, you can see it for the hype and to experience Broadway (great production values), but it’s not worth going out of the way or to pay lots of money for if you’re not a true fan (which is what we did).

Movie Review: Despicable Me (1 & 2)

Title: Despicable Me
Directors: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Will Arnett, Benjamin Bratt
Genre: Animation
Running Time: 95 minutes; 98 minutes

Plot
The Despicable Me franchise follows the adventures of Gru, a “super-villain”, his Minions, and the family he acquires in his quest to enact his “evil plots”. There are currently two movies, with more coming out in the near future.

He Said
I saw the trailer for Despicable Me in 2010 when I was watching Toy Story 3 in theaters. It seemed funny, but I never had any desire to watch animated kids movies (not made by Disney/PIXAR). Curious about the ubiquitous Minions and hearing that the niece/nephews enjoyed the movie, I decided to watch it after so many years. Similar to Tangled, I wanted to quit after 20 minutes. The movie seemed like superfluous, forced comedy without any storyline. Despicable Me picks up instantly after Gru decides to adopt three orphans to fulfill his villainous plan. From there, it becomes a rather entertaining and fun story about how a “villain” becomes a “hero” (in the vein of Wreck it Ralph – albeit not as touching). Despicable Me 2 picks up where the first movie left off, making Gru return to his “former ways” to catch a true “super-villain”. Unlike its predecessor, the sequel is all over the place, with no true plot. While it retained the humor and it was nice to see the charming characters from the first movie again, the sequel was not memorable as it lacked that emotional pull.

She Said
One of my challenges/resolutions for this year is to write a children’s book. Thus I asked my niece and nephews about their favorite books/films for inspiration. This gave rise to a weekend marathoning animated features. Like Thanh, I wanted to quit Despicable Me, but faith in my little ones’ taste kept me going. In the end, the charming film introduced one of the cutest animated characters – Agnes. The sequel, however, disappointed on all fronts, overdosing viewers with unnecessary humor, characters, and side plots.

We Say
Despicable Me is a charming and funny movie with a positive message (despite a slow start). While Despicable Me 2 does a decent job with continuing the storyline and providing some further character development, it lacks the clear theme/purpose that the predecessor has and is therefore not as good. If you watch the original 2010 movie, you will probably end up liking the characters and thus want to continue to watch the rest of the franchise. Here’s to hoping that they don’t milk the cow too dry!

Valentine’s Gift Guide

Shop Valentine’s gifts designed by Thanh!

We write the following gift guides with great hesitation. First, because we feel gifts to your significant other should come in the form of handmade love or an unforgettable experience. Second, we don’t want to contribute to the Valentine’s industry. But we understand that material gifts can come with love. And sometimes, a relationship needs a holiday as an excuse to exchange these tokens of love. So here are our gift guides. But keep in mind that anything that comes from the heart will be appreciated!

For Her

Kate Spade ‘It’s Written in the Stars’ Notebook
Dogeared Infinity Necklace
Ban.Do iPhone Portable Charger
JCrew Fireburst Earrings
LOFT Star Charm Bracelet
Knot Ring
Ann Taylor Fiore Stretch Bracelet
LOFT Snowflake Scarf
‘I Heart You’ Pillow
‘I Love You’ Wine Glass

For Him

Kiehls Men’s Refueling Kit
Portable Bluetooth Speaker
Kodiak Portable Charger
Burberry Silk Tie
Valentino ‘Uomo’ Fragrance
Ray-Ban Sunglasses
iPhone Wallet Case
Burberry Belt
Emporio Armani Watch
Fossil Messenger Bag

Shop Valentine’s gifts designed by Thanh!

How to Ace Graduate School Interviews

So you’ve decided to commit the next 5-7 years to graduate studies. (You’re sure? :P). You took the GRE. You wrote a phenomenal personal statement. You secured glowing letters of recommendation. And one day, your prayers were answered – you received an interview invite! Congratulations! In this post, I will tell you exactly how to ace the interviews so you can encounter the world’s greatest problem: decide which graduate school to attend!

The interviewing process for graduate students is very different from a job interview. We don’t just show up for an hour, present our best self, and leave. Our interview is an entire weekend long. Typically, applicants arrive on Thursday afternoon and join a students-only dinner/social event. Unless you have an extremely valid excuse, do not miss out on the social events! This is where you get to observe graduate students interact in a more laid back atmosphere and gauge how you might fit into the “social life” of existing graduate students. Mingle, mingle, mingle. Nothing is more concerning than an applicant in a corner all by himself/herself. If you’re socially awkward, make it charming. (If Sheldon Cooper can be approachable, you can too!) If alcoholic drinks are offered, either politely decline or drink lightly. While the atmosphere is casual, still be your best self. First impressions are lasting. You’re there because you have good credentials. Now we want to see you as a person – are you considerate, confident, and overall fun to hang out with? If you’re overbearing or overconfident, it’s a huge red flag for us. We need to be able to hang out with you on a daily basis. So make us like you! Students have a say in the admission decision. A huge say, actually. Faculty understands that admitting someone means giving us new colleagues, so they want to make sure we like the incoming cohort.

Applicants commonly have the choice of being hosted by a current student. Choose this option. You will get to see how and where they live. Thus you can infer what their stipend can afford. Also, it’s a nice gesture to bring a small gift (i.e. chocolate) for your host. This is not bribing! Hosts spend a lot of efforts to ensure that you enjoy your stay, so it’s the least you can do. And leave them with a handwritten thank you card.

Friday is an all-day interview marathon. You typically meet faculty and students back to back, either for 30 minutes or an hour. You will have a scheduled break. Take this break to jot down as many notes as you can. You will need these notes when writing thank you letters and when you’re trying to decide which program to attend.

Be prepared to answer the following questions:

- Why do you want to be an XYZ/researcher?
– What qualifications do you have that will make you a successful XYZ/researcher?
– Tell me about yourself.
– Tell me about your research interests.
– Without thinking of any constraints, what would your dissertation be?
– What attracts you to our program? What do you look for in a program?
– What do you bring to the program? What are your special attributes?
– Where else have you applied or interviewed?
– Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?
– What do you see as your strengths and weaknesses?
– How do you work under stress or pressure?
– How do you handle criticism?
– Tell me something that isn’t on your application.

What interviewers ultimately want to know:

- How well you fit with the program
– How you can contribute to the program (skills, knowledge, and experience)

- What kind of person are you? (Reliable and personable? Can we trust you with our research 
projects?)
– What distinguishes you from 20 other people who can do the same tasks?

Interviewers evaluate:

- Social skills 

– Emotional stability 

– Professional maturity 

– Focus 

– Goals 

– Development of pursuits

Your Interview Attitude:
Be honest. Be yourself. Be in the moment. Don’t worry. Don’t overthink. 
You are qualified to be there. Have confidence. Show enthusiasm, appreciation, and curiosity. Leave an impression. Be positive. But don’t be 
caffeinated/overly bubbly. 
Listen more than you talk. Don’t heed attention to the competition. Focus on learning as much as you can about each school, finding out from students and professors what types of work they’re doing, asking questions about what it’s like to live in the area, etc. Always be respectful, curious, eager, and passionate. 


Above all, be prepared to discuss the faculty’s research! When reading their publications, pay careful attention to their proposed future work. Chances are, they are pursuing this very line of research. Probe intelligent questions and propose future directions whenever possible. Keep in mind faculty wants someone who can advance their research, not someone who merely follows directions and do as told.

Questions You Should Ask:

To faculty:
– Address most of your questions about the faculty’s research. Then, ask these:
– Do most students support themselves through RAs, TAs or special assignments?
– Are RAs available for all students?
– Where do students typically get internships? Jobs?
– When does the program expect to have its applicants selected?

Overall, make sure your questions are well thought-out and that you have done your homework. Don’t ask questions that can be answered on the program’s or lab’s website.

To students:
– How would you describe student/faculty relations in your program?
– How does your advisor work with students? Faculty? Personal style?
– What is the cost of living?
– What is life like here?
– What do graduate students do for fun here?

After the Interview:
Write a thank you email to everyone you interviewed with. This is not because you want a last shot at impressing them, but because you are genuinely grateful they took time to meet and get to know you. Most schools make their admission decisions Friday evening, so your thank you notes have little to no influence upon your chances of acceptance. Write it because you’re courteous.

Remember you always have a choice. Even with only one admission offer, you still have the choice to accept or reject. 5-7 years would be a long time commitment even for something you love, much less something you settled for. So if you have enough reasons to dislike the program or potential advisor, do consider re-applying next year. Take the year off to make yourself more competitive. It all boils down to whether the program offers an environment in which you can thrive. I know of top institutions where many would dream of attending, but I’ve decided not to apply there because I knew (and have witnessed first hand) the competitive, back stabbing, gossipy atmosphere would break me. I’ve also interviewed at a school where I thought its extreme laid back attitude would crumble me – I thrive best in a cooperative environment that continues to value excellence and progress. When making your final decision, keep these factors in mind.

Want Additional Help?
You can always email me should you want one-on-one advice regarding graduate schools. We can also do a mock interview and I’ll provide you the same feedback I would to my advisor as if I was evaluating a prospective candidate.

Enjoy this process. It’s actually really fun to meet so many people with the same interests and passion as you. Have fun and good luck!

Travels: Orange County (Anaheim, CA)

Unlike many, we are not fans of the west coast. Every time we need to travel there, some obstacles lie ahead. The first time, our luggage got lost. We were attending a wedding and Nhi almost had to purchase a new dress for the occasion. (The luggage arrived 6am on the wedding day.) The second and most recent time, our flight was delayed five hours because there was a dent in the aircraft’s wing. (They claimed a bird must have hit the plane. Poor birdie!!!) On our return flight, United Airlines was unable to confirm the checked-in luggage weight, causing a one-hour delay and consequently made us miss our connection flight. In total, we spent 32 hours at the airport + flying for the round trip. United Airlines neither apologized nor offered compensation for all of our troubles. Moral of the story? Never fly United Airlines.

Traveling issues aside, our recent trip to Anaheim was productive. Thanh attended his Mid-Year Pharmacy conference. Nhi met up with friends. And we both went on a food adventure. Nom nom nom!

Quán Hỷ

This was the first Vietnamese restaurant we dined in when we went to Anaheim for the first time together back in 2011. Since then, we’ve long yearned to eat here again and sometimes reminisce about the amazing flavors. Quán Hỷ specializes in central Vietnamese dishes – the delicacies of the ancient Imperial City of Hue. Their must-get dish is the appetizer “bánh bèo” (Vietnamese steamed rice cakes with shrimp).

Ốc & Lẩu

Hands down the best restaurant in Orange County. Although Thanh isn’t an adventurous diner, he had no problem savoring the yummy tastes of escargots. We had their house specialties of razor clams in magic sauce (seriously, so heavenly delicious) and the escargot hot pot. Be forewarned that although the service is fast, the wait time just to get in the door will be long. If you get there at 5pm, you’ll probably wait 45 minutes. If you get there around 6-7pm, the wait will most likely be 2 hours. So write down your name and run some errands before getting seated. :) We promise the food is absolutely worth it!

Lynda Sandwich

A cozy shop owned by Vietnamese pop singers (and married couple) Lynda Trang Đài and Tommy Ngo. The decor is centered around the theme of stars (aka celebrities). Many autographed photos adorned the wall nearest to the entrance. Towards the back, there is a mural of famous signatures. The entire space looks very modern and clean. They serve sandwiches as well as noodle soups. While Lynda is very proud of her secret sauce, which she personally makes, it leaves the sandwich a tad too sweet. The bread itself is very good. The filling consists of abundant vegetables and proteins. Very comparable to Lee’s Sandwiches. We also were lucky to have spotted Lynda herself. She was taking a party order and Nhi totally did the I’m-pretending-to-use-my-phone-but-actually-secretly-taking-photos-of-you… Thanh actually said hi and she nicely said hi back. :)

Uyên Thy Bistro

Uyên Thy not only owns the restaurant but also runs a cooking show on SBTN (Bếp Nhà Ta Nấu). Thanh is a huge fan of the show and credits his good cooking to her “tutelage”. The restaurant was a bit empty. The service was slow. But overall, we had a very homey experience. It felt like dining at a relative’s house. The foods have a very home-cooked vibe. We recommend this bistro if you’re missing your mom’s cooking. :)

Corner View Bakery

This bakery is also owned by Uyen Thy. It breaks Thanh’s heart to admit how terrible the bakery is. We ordered bánh bao (steamed stuffed buns), green tea cake, pandan cream puffs, and flan. The buns were dry and had very little filling. The cake was overly sweet. We couldn’t even finish what we ordered. We just want to forget the experience and pretend this bakery doesn’t exist.

Tren

Located two doors down from Ky Duyen House, Tren is a restaurant and bar owned by Vietnamese pop singer Minh Tuyết. The decor was terrible, if not nonexistent. The food was salty and consisted of mostly carbs (very little proteins were provided). The service was slow and inattentive. Our overall impression is that Minh Tuyết didn’t even try. Do your stomach a favor and dine elsewhere.

Hương Quán

This restaurant is owned by Vietnamese comedians Việt Hương and Hoài Tâm. Unlike Tren, customers can clearly detect the owners’ efforts in running their restaurant. We love their clever logo and the seasonal decorations that adorned their restaurant. The food was good, though not amazing. We thought their appetizers and desserts truly hit the mark. But their specialty entree of bún mắm fell short of expectations.

Loving Hut

We met up with a vegan friend who chose this eatery. It is a fitting name as the place is rather tiny. The walls are adorned with photos of famous vegan celebrities. Next to the cash register is a mini library containing spiritual books. So unique! We also love the foods and strongly recommend Hainam Grilled Rice.

Tebo Tebo

We always have a soft spot for tea shops (ex: Tea Garden & Tea Time). Tebo is larger than most. While it mostly serves tea, you can also order foods here. We felt their fruity drinks leaned more toward desserts than actual tea. The place was indeed busy, but service was slow and inattentive. The drinks were just average (not worth the wait), but Nhi did love their blossom tea.

Phước Lộc Thọ

You can’t mention Little Saigon without mentioning Phước Lộc Thọ (Asian Garden Mall). There is a nice food court in the center on the first floor. We personally wouldn’t do any shopping here, but it’s a nice gathering of small stores where you can find Vietnamese clothing and products. Side note: we did replace watch batteries for really cheap.

Laguna Beach

California has a full coastline of beaches, with Laguna being one of its most famous. It is indeed beautiful and offers a nice stroll to enjoy the California sunshine, but the best beach to us remains Siesta Keys in Florida with its smooth, white sand.

Downtown Disney

Walking by foot and trying to follow road signs, it is somewhat confusing to find. It was rather small and underwhelming. (Florida boasts a much more impressive Downtown Disney.) We went during the daytime, so perhaps there was nothing going on. However, as expected, Frozen was on full display. We saw Elsa everywhere!

Uber
It seems like everything is very spaced out on the west coast. Orange County lacks an easy-to-use subway/metro system. It seems the best way to get around is to have a native be your chauffeur (you can rent a car, but be warned that California drivers are crazy). Of course, such a luxury is not easy to come by. Uber made getting around a cinch with its mobile app. With the tracking GPS system and built-in payments (no money exchange occurs between you and the driver), you just need a few simple clicks to get here and there. We don’t know how Uber’s fare compares to taxi, but the convenience definitely is a big plus. You can always check the estimated fee before agreeing to each ride. We find the estimated fee has always been accurate. After each ride, Uber asks you to rate your experience and provide feedback (optional). Their manager replied to our minor negative feedback within minutes. Should you like to try Uber, let us know! We have a code for a free ride and we’d love to share it with you.

We Say
While the “Golden Coast” seems to “curse” us with headaches and troubles before we get there and after we leave, we can’t complain too much when we are there with the sunny weather and delicious, authentic, and inexpensive Vietnamese food in Orange County. We certainly wouldn’t want to live in California, but a trip now and then to visit friends and whet our appetites makes the frustration worthwhile.