Arizona vacation, or A Week Without Pants

On Saturday, 17 May 2014, Janice and I flew from Boston’s Logan Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor for a week in Arizona. She attended a Society for Technical Communication conference, and I tagged along for sightseeing.

New Southwest
Downtown Phoenix

After checking into the Hyatt Regency, we had a very good Southwestern dinner at Canyon Café. We then took in the Cirque de la Symphonie, a performance of classical music by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra accompanied by impressive acrobats.

On Sunday, May 18, Janice and I had breakfast at the Hyatt’s Terrace Café and then went to the Heard Museum, which had excellent exhibits of Native American art. We had lunch at the museum and dinner at Boka Pizza at Arizona Center.

From Monday through Wednesday, Janice attended convention sessions, and I logged into work from our hotel room. We’d typically start each day with a workout in the Hyatt’s exercise room, shower and dress, grab breakfast at Einstein Bros Bagels, and then meet again for lunch and dinner. The cost of real estate and meals was less than in comparable cities back east. Despite the ongoing drought, it was easy to see the appeal of living in the Southwest.

On Monday, we had decent pub grub at the Tilted Kilt, a theme eatery similar to Hooters, with scantily clad waitresses and at least one kilt-wearing busboy. That evening, we returned to the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix for a simple dinner at the Corner Bakery Café, which I’d compare to Panera.

With high temperatures in the low 100s Fahrenheit early that week — not that I minded the dry heat and hence the shorts — we didn’t want to walk too far. On Tuesday, I had a selection of cheeses at the Arrogant Butcher and had a more down-to-earth dinner at Steve’s Greenhouse Grill across the street from our hotel.

On Wednesday, Janice attended the STC’s closing session, so I went to Potbelly Sandwich Shop for lunch. We then joined some of her colleagues via the Metro light rail to the Phoenix Art Museum, which had exhibits of international art, Southwestern modern art, and Hollywood costumes.

As a pasta fan, I was pleased to have dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory near the museum. I hope that restaurant chain makes it into the Northeast. In my next blog post, I’ll cover more of our vacation in Arizona!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 review

On Sunday, 4 May 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Bruce K. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in downtown Waltham, Mass., for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We enjoyed lunch at The Grill on Pine St. and the latest superhero sequel.

Amazing Spider-Man 2
Spidey swings back into action

Plot: Amazing Spider-Man 2 takes place shortly after the events of 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, which rebooted Sony’s franchise of the 2000s. Our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has successfully defeated Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard but at the cost of the life of NYPD Capt. Stacy, the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen.

Haunted by tragedy, Spidey isn’t able to rest for long, when a Russian gang member, a onetime fan and industrial accident victim, and an old friend challenge his vow to protect his fellow New Yorkers, especially Gwen.

Peter also learns more about the mystery surrounding his parents’ disappearance years before. I didn’t think it was necessary to tie Spider-Man’s origin so tightly to his parents or to the creation of various villains, but superhero movies tend to do that.

Acting: Since Amazing Spider Man 2 focuses on Peter more than his costumed alter ego, it’s good that Brit Andrew Garfield is a strong anchor to the film. Despite his lanky frame, he conveys both Peter’s world weariness and Spidey’s joy in swinging through Manhattan’s steel canyons.

Garfield is again ably supported by winsome Emma Stone (his real-life girlfriend) as Gwen Stacy and Sally Field as hard-working Aunt May. Jamie Foxx gets the most screen time of the villains as dweeby Max Dillon, who becomes Electro, but Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan provides more emotional resonance as Peter’s wealthy childhood pal Harry Osborn.

I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” beyond what you may have seen in posters and previews, but any Spidey fan knows what happens to troubled Harry. Of course, creator Stan Lee has a brief cameo. Paul Giamatti’s appearances as Aleksei Stytsevich/the Rhino are almost as brief and clearly setup for the inevitable “Sinister Six” sequels.

Direction and cinematography: Marc Webb, who directed this film’s predecessor, clearly understands the characters, and he wisely focuses on Peter’s relationship with Gwen, his Aunt May, his absent parents, and Harry. Amazing Spider Man 2 starts out a little slow, with a few set-piece battles, and it gradually picks up speed.

The web-slinging and fight scenes are very good, but not ground-breaking. I’m glad to see Spidey’s classic costume restored. As much as I appreciate the occasional slow-motion scene, showcasing poses from the original Marvel Comics pages, audiences have become a bit jaded by plentiful computer-generated visual effects and pyrotechnics.

As a native New Yorker, it was nice to see an upbeat portrayal of my hometown despite all the destruction, as well as the celebration of everyday heroism provided by police, firefighters, and brave civilians. While Disney/Marvel has little to fear, it’s the one area where Spidey complements and competes with the four-color Avengers.

Soundtrack: The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s musical score is good, with optimistic themes that Man of Steel could have used. It’s not quite as stirring as for the earlier Spider-Man flicks, but I noticed it more than for several other recent films. Peter’s cell phone ring tone also harkens back to the 1960s cartoons.

Rating: Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which has gotten mixed reviews. Yes, like most superhero sequels, there are too many villains and leaps of logic, but the acting and dialogue make up for obligatory fisticuffs.

I’d give The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B or B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. I liked the first Spider-Man 2 and Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier slightly more, but this is a solid entry for Spider-Man fans and certainly better than Spider-Man 3.

I’m looking forward to the latest incarnation of Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past (which got a non-sequitur of a teaser during Spidey’s end credits), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I recently saw and liked Rise of Planet of the Apes), and Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Lego Movie review

On Saturday, 2 February 2014, Janice and I met Sara F. & Josh C. and Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the AMC Burlington 10 for an early matinee of The Lego Movie. We all enjoyed the computer-animated comedic adventure.

Lego Movie
Fun animated film

Plot: The Lego Movie follows Emmet Brickowski, a cheerful but unimaginative construction worker who learns that he is “the Special,” prophesied by the wizard Vitruvius to save their world. After meeting a woman named Wyldstyle, Emmet is thrust into various adventures and must defeat Lord Business. He also learns the truth about creativity, individuality, and the nature of his world.

Script: The overall storyline will be familiar to viewers of other family films, such as Toy Story or Wreck-It Ralph, but I was impressed at the amount of adult humor and satire. The Lego Movie makes sly comments about mass media, consumerism, freedom vs. conformity, and adulthood vs. childhood but still entertains.

Cast: Like many animated features, The Lego Movie has an all-star cast. Chris Pratt is lighthearted as Emmet, and Will Ferrell is the domineering Lord Business. Elizabeth Banks is spunky but vulnerable as Wyldstyle, and Will Arnett is hilarious as her boyfriend Batman.

Other DC Comics superheroes make appearances, including Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as a goofy Green Lantern, and Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman. (Two out of the three would do well in live-action versions.)

Other comedians lending their voice talents include Alison Brie as the cutesy but temperamental Uni-Kitty, Nick Offerman as cyborg pirate Metal Beard, and Charlie Day as a 1980s space guy. Morgan Freeman riffs on earlier roles as wise Vitruvius, as does Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop, Lord Business’ dour henchman.

There were several other Lego cameos, including Shaquille O’Neal as himself, Billy Dee Williams as smooth Lando Calrissian, and Anthony Daniels as C-3P0. The numerous crossovers should come as no surprise, since licensed properties have helped the toy maker’s financial success.

Direction: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously worked on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, do a good job of keeping The Lego Movie‘s story progressing within the 100-minute runtime. They also manage to balance Lego’s many licenses with original characters and imagination. While there have been many CG movies lately, relatively few have retained a sense of wonder and cleverness.

Cinematography: As a longtime Lego fan, I was pleased to see several classic themes represented, including medieval, city, the Old West, and space. The kinetic action and multicolored bricks were difficult to discern at first, but the Lego-style settings, characters, and vehicles were all cleverly rendered, as were the opening and closing titles.

Soundtrack: The main theme, “Everything Is Awesome!” is very catchy even as it teases us with its seeming banality, and there are allusions to the live-action Batman movies, as well as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and more.

Rating: I’d give The Lego Movie, which is rated PG for cartoon violence, an 8 to 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. I recommend it not only to adult fans or those with children who play with Lego, but also to anyone who is young at heart. A sequel is already in the works.

While I had already seen previews for Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, and Amazing Spider-Man 2, we were intrigued by the first trailer for The Boxtrolls. They all look like fun. We then went to Slowbones, a new barbecue joint, for lunch.

Other movies we caught up on around the holidays included Red 2, Elysium, and Turbo. If you like seeing spoofy reunions of aging action stars, like in The Expendables, you’ll like Red 2. While Elysium wasn’t as insightful social science fiction as District 9 was, it was decent, and Turbo was surprisingly sentimental, despite its similarity to Cars.

We’ve also recently screened 47 Ronin, which wasn’t particularly faithful to Japanese history but still a good “fantasy gamer flick.” It was the sort of film that would be fine for a video night, which my local groups have been discussing. Janice instead went to Disney’s animated Frozen, which she liked.

Here’s a list of recent and upcoming movies (with U.S. release dates):

2014 movies — to see in theaters:

  • Mr. Peabody & Emerson (animated comedy, March 7)
  • Veronica Mars (neo-noir, March 14)
  • Muppets Most Wanted (comedy, March 21)
  • Captain America: the Winter Soldier (superhero sequel, April 4)
  • Amazing Spider-Man 2 (superhero sequel, May 2)
  • Godzilla (kaiju reboot, May 16)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (superhero sequel, May 23)
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2 (animated fantasy, June 13)
  • The Boxtrolls (animated fantasy, Sept. 24)
  • The Hobbit [Pt. 3 of 3]: There and Back Again (fantasy, Dec. 17)

Maybe eventually on cable or DVD:

  • Hercules: the Legend Begins (sword and sandals, Jan. 10)
  • Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (espionage/action, Jan. 17)
  • The Monuments Men (war/caper, Feb. 7)
  • RoboCop (cyberpunk remake, Feb. 12)
  • Pompeii (sword and sandals, Feb. 21)
  • 300: Rise of an Empire (sword and sandals, March 7)
  • Only Lovers Left Alive (vampires, April 11)
  • Transcendence (cyberpunk, April 18)
  • Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (animated fantasy, May 9)
  • Maleficent (fantasy, May 30)
  • Edge of Tomorrow (time travel/SF action, June 6)
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (apocalyptic, July 11)
  • Jupiter Ascending (space opera, July 18)
  • Hercules (sword and sandals; with the Rock, July 25)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (space opera superheroes, Aug. 1)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (comic book reboot, Aug. 8)
  • The Expendables 3 (action, Aug. 15)
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (noir action, Aug. 22)
  • Dracula Untold (vampire, Oct. 17)
  • Big Hero 6 (animated superhero, Nov. 7)
  • Interstellar (science fiction, Nov. 7)
  • Paddington (animated fantasy, Dec. 12)
  • Into the Woods (fantasy musical, Dec. 25)

What are you looking forward to?

Genre TV for summer and fall of 2013

This past summer was much better for genre television than for movies. Thanks in part to counterprogramming by cable channels, there was a wider range of decent content on the small screen. The fall TV season is equally promising. (Note: Some of the articles linked to below contain “spoilers.”)

Top picks

My favorite TV shows of the past several months include the History Channel’s bloody Vikings, SyFy’s time-travel/dystopian Continuum, and BBC America’s clone thriller Orphan Black, which I’m not alone in considering as the best genre show of the year. They’ve been enough to keep my DVR filled and to keep me from wanting Netflix.

BBC America's Orphan Black
I know I’ve said it before, but this is the best new SFTV show of 2013 so far.

Janice and I have been getting our Doctor Who fix with Doctor Who Confidential, and the transition from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi was one of the bigger genre news items of the past few months. We’ll see if Arrow can follow up a surprisingly strong first season (learning from Smallville‘s mistakes) with its introduction of the Flash.

B-listers

Shows that got bumped to my “B” list include the postapocalyptic Defiance and Revolution and bodice-ripping potboilers such as Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons and The White Queen (and the upcoming Reign and Shakespearean Hollow Crown). While all these shows have decent casts, strong production values, and arc-driven storylines, the quality of the writing still varies significantly.

I haven’t been watching various Doctor Who alumni on BBC America’s Broadchurch, but PBS’s Silk has been OK, We’ll see whether Starz’s pirate swashbuckler Black Sails or BBC’s Atlantis (from the creators of Merlin) can match Spartacus or Magic City for period drama.

More mysteries

Janice and I have also been watching PBS’s Masterpiece. Of the mysteries, I still prefer the original Inspector Morse and sequel/spinoff Inspector Lewis to the prequel Endeavor. After the darkly riveting Bletchley Circle and reruns of the superlative Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Holmes, we’re waiting on the return of Foyle’s War, Sherlock, and Elementary.

I’m looking forward to the return of Castle and White Collar (despite their dips toward soap) and the prescient Person of Interest, as well as the bittersweet series finales of the fun Psych and Warehouse 13. I’m afraid the new Ironside will run into the same difficulties as the recent attempted remake of Kojak.

Paranormal prodedurals

Speaking of paranormal activities, there’s also the Buffyesque Grimm, which I prefer to other fairytale-themed shows (including Dracula and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland). Da Vinci’s Demons has had a frothy mix of history and pre-steampunk conspiracies.

I don’t know where Sleepy Hollow will fit in this subgenre. New procedurals include Joss Whedon’s return to TV with Marvel’s Agents of Shield and robot/cop partners on Almost Human.

In other new shows, Believe could be good, and it has some of the X-Files/Fringe vibe. Tomorrow People and Star Crossed are more responses to the rise of metahuman melodramas, but whether they will be more like Heroes, which started strong but ended badly, or the underrated Alphas is yet to be seen.

Food, glorious food!

For reality shows, we’ve watched “food porn” such as Phantom Gourmet and TV Diner, as well as occasional shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel. We’ve also watched Top Shot All-Stars, American Ninja Warrior, and some documentaries. However, I’ve avoided the current wave of shows exploiting geekdom.

Animation nation

I’m still pleased with the Seinfeld-style antics on The Looney Tunes Show, franchise continuations Dragons: Riders of Berk and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, and atmospheric newcomer Beware the Batman. Disney/Marvel may dominate live-action, but its Avengers Assemble and Hulk and the Agents of SMASH aren’t animation I’d recommend.

This fall, I’m looking forward to Avatar: the Legend of Korra and more DC Nation shorts. Younger audiences might appreciate Kung-Fu Panda: Lgends of Awesomeness, Monsters vs. Aliens, Teen Titans Go, SheZow, and Rabbids Invasion. Note that most of these are now computer-based rather than 2-D cell animation.

Coming soon: Game transitions and more movie musings….

Summer’s end, 2013 edition

Scattered thundershowers may have put a damper on some Labor Day plans, but Janice and I enjoyed the last weekend of a busy summer. We’ve traveled out of state at least once per month all year, and we’ve had house guests during at least one weekend for each of the past few months.

Gene in Seattle
Looking out from Seattle

I’m of course glad to see friends and family, but it’s also nice to have a few relatively quiet weekends. The previous Friday, Janice and I went to the Fiddle Master’s Concert put on by the Suzuki School at Lassell College. We enjoyed the mix of Celtic, Scandinavian, bluegrass, and even some big band music.

On Saturday, 31 August 2013, we visited our usual bookshops in Harvard Square, Cambridge. We did have to contend with some traffic, since I had forgotten that students were moving into Boston’s many colleges.

In addition to grocery shopping this past weekend, we tried out Greek Corner, a nice family restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. I’ve had lunches with co-workers recently at Bison County, City Streets, and Elephant Walk in Waltham, Mass.

Although my gaming groups have had some difficulty getting quorum over the past few weeks, I did meet Beruk A. and Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at Thomas’ place in Lexington, Mass., on Labor Day. We had Buffalo wings from Wings Express, as well as cheese fondue, homemade pea and fava bean soup, brisket, and fruit.

Thomas shared some recent anime series with us, and we talked about recent and upcoming genre TV shows and movies. I’ll try to blog more about these soon. In the meantime, enjoy autumn’s approach!