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.

Travels: New York City, Revisited

Ever since relocating to Pennsylvania (for grad school), Thanh and I have made New York City our travel destination countless times. Our latest trip was this past Valentine’s weekend, where we decided to explore the “high brow” culture of New York City.

New York Public Library

Stepping foot inside NYPL felt like we were visiting a museum. The grandeur! I kept thinking if I had daily access to this library, I would be inspired to finish all my in-progress novels and crunch out my dissertation in no time! Unluckily for us, the Rose Main Reading Room was under construction so we weren’t able to experience NYPL in all its glory. We also felt some regret that this reference library wasn’t built with loaning books in mind. I’d love to be able to get a library card and check out books!

Broadway

Truthfully, neither of us is a fan of musicals. However, the allure of Broadway and its blockbuster Wicked was too great to deny. Indeed, we feel Broadway is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be checked off. However, the production value must be combined with a great cast to deem the experience worthy of your bucks. For this reason, we may hit up Broadway in May/June to see An Act of God starring Jim Parsons. Parsons brought the brilliant Sheldon from Big Bang Theory to life and I have great expectations for his upcoming role as the Creator.

Museum of Modern Art

One can’t mention the high brow culture of NYC without mentioning MoMA. Admittedly, the main attraction for us was Van Gogh’s Starry Night. When I visit museums, I like not only to appreciate the artworks, but also the overall atmosphere. I expect a certain level of solemnity when one appreciates masterpieces. My expectations were met at the Louvre. Despite the complaints of how small the Mona Lisa was, breaths were visibly drawn and taken away. Likewise, there was an air of excitement throughout the Art Institute of Chicago. At MoMA, on the other hand, I felt a tang of disappointment. There was no great sign for Starry Night. The painting wasn’t on display in its own room or encased in glass. It felt almost like a trifle — it was just there, neither boastful nor bold. I thought that to the very least, Van Gogh deserved his own exhibition room/hall. Aside from that, my main impression of MoMA is one of eccentricity. I was prepared for weird art, but their video clips were in a separate league of absurdity and inappropriateness.

The Water Club

We felt very lucky to have gotten off the waitlist and secured our Valentine’s reservations at The Water Club. The food, while beautifully presented, fell short of delighting our tastebuds. We have tasted better in Minnesota and Europe. Frankly, we felt like we paid the big bucks for the majestic riverfront view and live music.

Cafe Duke
On our way to Broadway, we spotted Cafe Duke and decided to grab lunch. Cafe Duke is the kind of cafeteria that anyone would love to have at their work/school! We were thoroughly impressed with the vast selections from Asian to Vegan. Everything looked fresh and were quickly served to order if not already prepared for you to grab & go. The portions were quite generous and the prices were reasonable for NYC. While the taste was nothing spectacular, it was quite good and made for a quick and filling lunch.

We Say
No matter how many times we visit the “Big Apple” we can never seem to cross off all that we want to do. This time, we concentrated our activities to Uptown areas. It was certainly cleaner (and more pricey) than our usual NYC trips that include a trip or two Downtown to Chinatown. We felt rather restricted in schedule due to being confined around our Broadway show and Valentine’s Dinner reservation. To enjoy a city like NYC, spontaneity without time constraints seems more enjoyable and exciting. We’re excited to explore again!

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.