Author: Thanh

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.

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!