Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After “borrowing” a size-changing suit to help an on-the-run Captain America, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former thief/divorced dad who dabbles in heroics as Ant-Man, is confined to house arrest. He is whisked away from under the noses of the FBI by the suit’s inventor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Pym’s daughter/Scott’s ex-girlfriend, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They believe that Hope’s presumed-dead mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) may still be alive, and they aim to construct a machine to retrieve her from the quantum realm. This plan requires them to deal with unscrupulous black market technology dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and it also puts them in the crosshairs of Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a molecularly unstable masked assassin who keeps phasing in and out of tangibility. Running low on options, Pym is forced to turn to an old friend-turned-rival (Laurence Fishburne) who may still harbor a grudge.

Positioned as a light-hearted breather after the hype, grandeur, and gravitas of Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp has “minor film” written all over it. After all, it’s a (mostly) earthbound tale devoid of megalomaniacal threats to the cosmos, and its lead characters, while likable, don’t rate a ton of name recognition. Given these relatively low expectations, Ant-Man and the Wasp is better than it needs to be even if it never fully escapes its “minor” status.

As with the first Ant-Man film, there is an emphasis on fun. Returning director Peyton Reed has crafted a fluid film full of both visual humor (Pym’s case of Hot Wheels cars becomes a portable garage thanks to his size-changing technology) and competently choreographed action. The script (courtesy of Rudd, Chris McKenna, and others) is high on humor, mocking Lang’s loser status and leaving plenty of room for banter. One running joke sees Lang’s ex-con pals argue with Burch’s syringe-wielding associate over whether the contents of said syringe constitute a truth serum.

As with the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp boasts both winning performances and paper-thin characterization. Rudd continues to project affability as a devoted father and quasi-inept hero, and Douglas’s Pym remains prickly. Michael Pena is back too as Lang’s motor-mouthed business partner Luis, a character that walks a thin line between hilarious scene-stealer and annoying and insensitive caricature. Among the new additions, Kamen is a definite upgrade from the previous film’s derivative Yellowjacket. Ghost is a more complex character with more sympathetic motivations. Fishburne and the underrated Pfeiffer are welcome presences, but their roles barely transcend cameos.

Despite being given more prominent billing and more screen time, however, Lilly’s character is arguably mishandled. We get to see more of the Wasp in action (where her breathless combat competence contrasts, rather heavy-handedly, with Lang’s bumbling), but outside of the suit, Hope misses her mother, is vaguely miffed at Scott, and…that’s about it. Rather than actually develop a female superhero, this film seems content to simply give the appearance of having done so.

Though it does offer a few hints as to Marvel’s post-Infinity Wars plans, Ant-Man and the Wasp is best viewed as a self-contained experience. Through that lens, it is a perfect summer popcorn flick: humorous, heartfelt, and forgivably lightweight.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Black Ginger

Located at 435 Dolley Madison Road in Greensboro, Black Ginger offers Asian fusion cuisine for lunch and dinner seven days per week. There is a sushi bar, and private dining is available.

I was surprised and disappointed when Chinese Kitchen abruptly closed as it was one of Greensboro’s better Chinese takeout spots. Black Ginger opened quickly in its stead late last month and while the concept is different, it is a worthy inheritor of this location.

For the unfamiliar, Black Ginger isn’t visible from Dolley Madison Road proper. It instead may be accessed via Tomahawk, Mapleleaf, or Milner Drives. For those who know the spot from its Chinese Kitchen days, the interior has been pleasantly refreshed. New booths and better lighting make for a clean, bright, and contemporary space.

Black Ginger’s menu skews Japanese. Bento boxes, miso, and an impressively large sushi menu (including deep fried rolls) are among the offerings. However, there are also Thai curries and a few Chinese standards (Kung Pao and orange chickens and Mongolian beef). Vegetarians won’t be put out trying to eat here, either.

For our first visit, my wife and I went with a chicken bento box and a steak house fried rice respectively and split a tornado roll. The tornado roll, a fried sushi concoction featuring spicy tuna, cream cheese, pineapples, jalapenos, and a wasabi cream sauce, was easily the highlight of the meal. It was crispy, the flavors balanced nicely (my wife, who hates wasabi, found no complaint with the sauce), and there was plenty of it to go around. Sushi definitely seems to be Black Ginger’s strength, and their other rolls merit future investigation.

The rest of the food was more uneven. The bento box included a nice salad with a ginger dressing that featured hints of citrus. Accompanying gyoza (fried unless you request otherwise) and cucumber roll were fine, but the chicken was a bit rubbery. The steak fried rice offered a welcome medley of vegetables (corn, peas, carrots, and onions) and made for perfectly satisfying comfort food though I would hesitate to call it exemplary.

What is exemplary is Black Ginger’s service. My wife and I were greeted warmly upon entry, our server capably answered questions and brought food out with a smile, and staff checked on us throughout our meal to ensure that we were enjoying everything.

For the quality and quantity offered, Black Ginger’s pricing represents a good value. Bento boxes (protein, vegetables, sushi, gyoza, salad, and rice) range from $9 to $12 depending on the protein, and many entrees are priced about the same. A lot of the fried and specialty sushi rolls go for around $12, including the tornado.

Given how recently the restaurant opened, Black Ginger is off to a good start. Some dishes are stronger than others, but stellar service and a bountiful sushi menu make it worth trying. Now if only they’ll add cold sesame noodles.

8.25/10 if you stick to sushi

7.5/10 otherwise

Friday, June 1, 2018

Hillbilly Elegy

In this memoir, Marine veteran and Yale Law graduate J.D. Vance describes growing up in a dysfunctional family in the Rust Belt of Ohio and the influence of the rural Appalachian values instilled by his Kentucky-bred grandparents.

Admittedly, I approached this book with skepticism. Theories of social rot/moral decay rank up there with the purported impact of violent video games in terms of eye-rolling and dead-horse tropes. Nevertheless, I am glad that I gave it a chance. Vance has a powerful tale to tell, and it’s one worth hearing no matter who you are or where you come from.

With commendable candor, Vance describes the difficult circumstances faced not only by him and his family but by the economically depressed communities they inhabited as well. Raised by a drug-addicted mother and her string of short-lived husbands and boyfriends, the overweight J.D. is propped up by his fierce gun-toting grandmother and encouraged to make something of himself. He eventually does, but not without considerable difficulty, first as a Marine disdainful of authority and later as a conservative white man from a poor background at Yale.

The portrait that Vance paints of working-class white America is not a flattering one: he shows hillbilly culture to be insular, distrustful to the point of paranoid, and prone to addiction and violence. Though some have attacked him on this point – and he arguably does paint with too broad a brush — the book is not a hatchet job. Vance also talks about the loyalty shown by family and the positive influence of his grandmother, traits that served him well later in life.

If this were the extent of Hillbilly Elegy, it would be a fine example of a contemporary memoir. Unfortunately, Vance also dips his toe in the pool of sociology and political science, and these aspects of the book are far less convincing. To Vance’s credit, he creates distance between himself and the conspiracist vitriol embraced by white hillbillies. His contention that certain bureaucracies (i.e. Social Services) are ill-equipped to meet their needs is also not without merit. And yet Hillbilly Elegy is very light on solutions. Perhaps unfairly, this book was hyped as something that could explain the rise of Trumpism. By that measure, it’s a failure.

If you ignore the faltering attempts at achieving broader relevance and focus on the personal story told within, Hillbilly Elegy is an engaging, inspiring read, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying, but never insipid or canned.


Property: Stories Between Two Novellas

In this collection of ten stories sandwiched between two novellas, Shriver explores what it means to own and not own everything from belongings to housing to even one’s self. In “The Standing Chandelier,” an artist’s quarter-century close friendship with a former lover irks his insecure fiancĂ©e. In “Domestic Terrorism,” a thirty-something son steadfastly refuses to get a job and leave his parents’ home. In “Kilifi Creek,” a carefree young woman abuses her hosts’ hospitality while vacationing until a close call forces her to reconsider her perspective. And in “The Subletter,” a pair of American expat writers in Belfast feud over who has more right to live in and write about the city while uncomfortably sharing a flat.

Far too often, short story collections are marred by both maddening inconsistencies from one story to the next as well as an annoying tendency for stories to peter out toward the end. In Property, Shriver deftly avoids both of these pitfalls. While some pieces stand out more than others, there is a unity of theme and purpose here. Her endings are also resolute and often appropriately flavored with a cruelly ironic twist.

This is not to say that the collection grows repetitive. The stories vary considerably in setting, transporting readers everywhere from London to New York to North Carolina and Kenya, all with a reasonable degree of verisimilitude. Similarly, Shriver deploys narrators both young and old, male and female. What unites them all is a sense of being dispossessed: of the comforts of home, of parental authority, of common courtesy, and more. Shriver uses her savage wit to lampoon lazy and self-involved millennials, the permissive generation that preceded them, pretentious would-be artists, and all other manner of rootless wanderers through life. Her blunt critiques come across as excessively mean-spirited at times and the absence of likable characters can prove exhausting in large doses, but on balance, there is enough dark humor and insight to render Property a worthwhile read.


Monday, May 28, 2018

BBQ Nation Indian Grill

Located at 3928 Sedgebrook Street in High Point, BBQ Nation serves Indian cuisine for lunch and dinner seven days per week. There is a lunch buffet, and food specials change regularly. Online ordering and catering are available.

When BBQ Nation opened a few months ago, High Point went from having not a single Indian restaurant to joining the conversation for best Indian cuisine in the Triad. This is in many ways a departure from a typical Indian restaurant though, and there are a few quirks to eating here. However, the good definitely outweighs the bad.

Housed in a former KFC, BBQ Nation is bright and clean though not as well-appointed as the likes of Saffron or Taaza Bistro. It’s a somewhat compact space, but it’s laid out (via pushed-together tables in the front and middle) to handle large groups, and the buffet is logically placed in the back.

The menu here is impressive in its breadth and ability to accommodate various diets. The offerings are 100% Halal and includes the expected apps, breads, and chicken dishes. To that, BBQ Nation adds an array of biryanis, vegetarian dishes, Indo-Chinese dishes (think fried rice and hakka noodles), and South Indian dishes (crepe-like dosas and thicker pancake-like uthappams). And then there are the grilled offerings that give the restaurant its name. Each table has a well in the middle into which a grill that holds four skewers may be inserted, a feature unseen in other local Indian establishments.

I got my first taste of BBQ Nation during a Yelp event, which offered a chance to sample multiple dishes via the buffet. The Golbi Manchurian (Indo Chinese spiced fried cauliflower) and Chicken 555 (sauced fried chicken with cashews) were standouts, and I was impressed enough to take a small group back a few days later. The Chicken 555 was a re-order, and our party also split the Saag Paneer (Indian creamed spinach), Malabar vegetable curry (carrots, potatoes, and peas in a coconut/green curry/mint sauce), and a vegetarian BBQ with paneer (cheese), potato, pineapple, and watermelon (!!).

Between the two visits, there was not a single dish that I did not enjoy. Everything was seasoned well and spiced to the desired medium, the cheese was firm without being rubbery, the chicken was not too dry, the curry had just the right amount of mint, and the grilled watermelon was a perfect combination of sweet and smoky. Portions were also rather generous, and the pricing represents a good value relative to other Indian restaurants. The two vegetarian entrees ran $12 apiece, and the buffet is $10 during weekdays.

The BBQ Nation staff that I interacted with were friendly, patient, helpful, and accommodating. That said, service can be a bit chaotic. We dealt with several staff members throughout the meal rather than one primary server, and dishes arrived at different times, giving the experience a haphazard quality. Another caveat: you might find yourself pressed for table space, especially if you order any grilled items.

If these issues are not deal-breakers for you, then BBQ Nation has much to offer. An abundance of well-prepared tasty food and a unique take on familiar cuisine make BBQ Nation well worth a visit.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

A young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) finally escapes the service of gang leader Lady Proxima (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) on the backwater planet of Corellia, but his lover Q’ira (Emilia Clarke) is left behind. After being kicked out of the Imperial Flight Academy and deserting from the Imperial Army, Han meets his future partner, the Wookie Chewbacca, and joins up with a group of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Beckett is in debt to the Crimson Dawn syndicate, and its ruthless leader, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) will kill them all unless they complete a daring and difficult heist of the valuable and volatile fuel coaxium. To oversee the mission, Vos sends along Q’ira, who has entered his service. But first, they will need a ship, which leads the group to try to obtain one from veteran smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

Depending on whom you ask, this movie’s cardinal sin ranges from not featuring a digitally de-aged Harrison Ford to deposing original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) to even existing. Replacement director Ron Howard inherited a project brimming with both baggage and backlash, and though Solo is no one’s idea of an instant classic, it could have turned out far worse.

Despite the eyebrows raised by his casting, Ehrenreich does a fairly decent job as young Han (one that, in fact, comes Harrison Ford approved). He has the moral flexibility, the overconfident swagger, and the banter with Chewie down though this version is a good deal more idealistic than audiences are accustomed to. Presumably, that trait will be lost in the years between Solo and A New Hope.

The supporting cast is competent though characterization is somewhat limited (a curious blunder by successful Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan). When Han is reintroduced to Q’ira, she is presented as a changed woman with a murky past, and though the film does not explore said past, Clarke’s performance gives her a conflicted quality. Phoebe Waller-Bridge does standout voicework as L3, Lando’s stubborn, irreverent droid co-pilot, and she gets some of the film’s funniest lines. Lando himself, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Glover has exactly the right screen presence, but the screenplay never treats the character as anything more than a joke. Meanwhile, Harrelson makes for a cynical, opportunistic mentor, but given the losses he suffers, one would expect more emotional range.

Solo’s plotting and presentation are similarly uneven. Howard is a competent director though not a particularly imaginative one, and this is a film that doesn’t stray terribly far from formula. An early attempted train heist plays like something that has done before, and if you predicted a certain character wasn’t going to make it past a certain point, you were probably right. That said, the stakes do get raised in the latter half as does the visual oomph. Watching the Millennium Falcon zip across dangerous skyscape with even more dangerous cargo is legitimately thrilling. Despite the absence of any Jedi, the film also foreshadows parts of A New Hope and establishes ties to the more familiar Star Wars mythos though your mileage may vary on how well this film integrates into the larger canon.

All told, Solo is an enjoyably exciting albeit shallow and not terribly memorable flick, lesser not only than a proper Star Wars film but also fellow spinoff Rogue One.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Into the Water

The town of Beckford in rural England has seen more than its fair share of drowning deaths. The latest victims, both presumed suicides, are teenager Katie Whitaker and, a few weeks later, muckraking writer Nel Abbott. Now, Nel’s daughter Lena (the late Katie’s friend) and Nel’s estranged sister Julia are left to pick up the pieces. Though the two surviving Abbotts don’t know, like, or trust one another, asking around leads them both to the same uncomfortable conclusion: Nel’s death was neither suicide nor accident. But trying to unearth a culprit in a town that likes its secrets proves to be a dangerous game to play at.

When Paula Hawkins followed up her successful debut The Girl on the Train with this 2017 novel, there was reason to be optimistic. First novels are often glimpses at potential yet to be realized. Unfortunately, Into the Water is a step backward rather than forward.

First, the good: Hawkins excels at communicating a sense of place. Beckford’s provincialism rings true, and the town’s everybody-knows-everybody quality contributes to the novel’s tension. After all, it is far more troubling to consider that you have been wronged by someone you have known all your life than it is to know you have been victimized by a random stranger.

Speaking of tension, Into the Water’s central mystery – the suspicious drowning deaths of several women – is fairly engrossing. The first drowning described is the centuries-old public execution of a woman wrongfully accused of witchcraft, and that death hangs over the novel. But as with The Girl on the Train, Hawkins complicates the resolution through misdirection, some of it successful, some of it decidedly not.

As with the previous book, Hawkins employs multiple alternating narrators. While the perspective changes may frustrate some readers, if done correctly, they can also shade characters and lead to a more nuanced understanding of them. Unfortunately, however, this technique is abused rather than used wisely. We have chapters told not only from Lena’s and Julia’s points of view, but also from those of Sean (the policeman investigating Nel’s murder), his father Patrick, his schoolmarm wife Helen, and his junior partner Erin, among others. As a result, the narrative focus is stretched too thin, and these different voices aren’t given enough depth. It says something about a book when the character who grows the most – via changing perceptions of her – is one who has been dead from the beginning.

Then again, in some cases, this is just as well: Hawkins continues to struggle to write male characters. As with The Girl on the Train, abusive and devious men function as red herrings, competing for the role of perpetrator. But whereas the previous book gave these characters some definition beyond their malice, here Hawkins instead traffics largely in one-dimensional stereotypes, from Sean’s reactionary patriarch of a father to a pathetic, insecure ephebophile teacher. If a male writer in 2017 wrote every female character as a femme fatale (without parodic intent), he would rightly be dragged for it. So too should Hawkins for her shallow misandry.

Ultimately, Into the Water squanders its deft use of setting and promising premise on too untenable a structure and too little character exploration. Here’s hoping the next novel rights the course.