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.

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!