My Cultural Diet

Quick reviews of movies, TV shows, books, restaurants, etc. My own private Goodreads, Letterboxd, and Yelp all rolled into one (more info here). Ratings are 100% subjective, non-scientific, and subject to change. May contain affiliate links.

Zeiram 2
I liked this one better than the original Zeiram. It still has all of the original’s flaws — namely, annoying hijinks from the heroine’s bumbling companions. And even worse, she has a third bumbling companion this time around. But there were several moments that had me cackling with glee (such as when our heroine, an alien bounty hunter named Iria, roundhouse kicks a laser blast into a building behind her, which promptly explodes). As with the original movie, I’d love to see a more serious take on Zeiram minus the goofy humor that, instead, focuses on the body horror, monster designs, and cool alien gadgets.
Magnificent Warriors
I started watching this thinking it was 1986’s Royal Warriors, a “modern” police action film that also stars Michelle Yeoh and was also directed by David Chung. But here, Yeoh plays a pilot and smuggler in 1930s-era China who gets caught up in the anti-Japanese resistance. Action-wise, this has some pretty impressive sequences that really allow Yeoh to show off, especially with the rope dart. However, the film’s hampered by an uneven tone. One minute, it seems to want to be a serious, patriotic, even epic war film. The next, it’s an Indiana Jones-esque adventure film or a broad slapstick comedy involving mistaken identities and corny Richard Ng hijinks. As a result, it ends up being something of a mess.
The Sandman, Volume 9: The Kindly Ones
The most ambitious Sandman volume to date, with Neil Gaiman wrapping up several storylines from previous volumes as Morpheus is forced to finally confront his past sins and mistakes, and the impact that they’re having on his realm. It is a bit odd to read a comic series that is clearly self-contained, especially given that we live in an age of nigh-endless sequels, reboots, retcons. As a result, there’s a truly tragic and melancholy bent to Gaiman’s storyline, as Morpheus moves towards the inevitable end. But there are plenty of little details and side stories woven in, as well.
The Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds' End
I was a bit cool on this volume at first, with its disjointed stories told by a group of travelers — some of whom are human, some of whom are not — trapped in a mysterious inn during a “reality storm.” But it really grew on me as it continued. In some ways, this volume really feels like Neil Gaiman flexing his storytelling muscles, be it a bizarre seafaring tale or a story from a death-obsessed city of morticians. Given that Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, only shows up in glorified cameos, Worlds’ End can feel particularly distant from the central Sandman mythos, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
There’s not a lot to be said about Raiders of the Lost Ark that hasn’t been said before, and by people a lot smarter than me. The film is a timeless action-adventure classic, and for very good reason. One thing I did pay more attention to during this viewing was the film’s directing and cinematography, be it the use of extreme focus or shadows to heighten tension and make certain scenes even more intense and epic. Also, the editing and pacing is immaculate; the film’s almost two hours long and it doesn’t contain a single wasted moment.
The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives
My least favorite Sandman volume so far. It possesses some cool ideas and concepts (e.g., the family taking care of the head of Morpheus’ son, the nigh-immortal beings living amongst us) and Gaiman’s references are quite clever in places (e.g., the Isaac Newton one). However, the actual storyline — Dream and his sister Delirium set off in search of their brother Destruction, who abdicated his duties and left their family 300 years ago — never really grabbed me. It felt too disjointed, with none of the urgency found in previous volumes’ storylines.
I was inspired to re-watch RRR after “Naatu Naatu” won the Oscar for “Best Original Song” (and deservedly so). This time, however, I watched it with my wife and some of our kids — and we all loved it. Indeed, I think I liked RRR a little bit more the second time around because I watched it with others. Some movies are simply meant to be enjoyed with a crowd, and RRR is a perfect example of that. Much of my enjoyment came from seeing my family’s joyous (or incredulous) reactions to Raju and Bheem’s latest exploit — e.g., saving a kid from a fiery train wreck, wooing a pretty girl, taking on a British army whilst the disabled Raju is sitting on Bheem’s shoulders — and thinking to myself, “Just wait, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” RRR is pure, unadulterated entertainment spectacle: the action scenes are totally ridiculous in the best way possible, the melodrama is piled on miles thick, the bromance is the greatest in cinematic history, and of course, “Naatu Naatu” is an absolute banger.
Sherlock Holmes
I seem to recall there being a bit of a kerfuffle over this movie, specifically concerning Robert Downey Jr.‘s casting as the world’s most famous detective and director Guy Ritchie’s visual flare. That honestly seems a little quaint these days. This is an unorthodox Sherlock Holmes movie, no doubt about that, but that makes it no less entertaining. Downey and Jude Law have great chemistry as Holmes and Dr. Watson, and of course, I’m a sucker for a storyline involving secret societies and the blending of magic and technology. One minor detail: I’ve become so used to watching movies with subtitles that I actually found myself struggling to make out the movie’s dialog at times. Or maybe that’s just another sign that I’m getting older.
The Princess and the Pilot
I’m a sucker for aviation-themed anime (e.g., Last Exile, Macross Plus). Jun Shishido’s The Princess and the Pilot is a good enough example, but what’s frustrating is that it could’ve been a great one. The movie’s world-building is interesting and detailed (the setting is WW2-esque albeit with some more advanced technology) while the artwork and animation are solid, and even beautiful at times (as one would expect from a Madhouse title). Unfortunately, the movie’s storyline is too slight to leave much of an impact. There are interesting angles and aspects, but the movie barely explores any of them. As a result, it achieves neither the poignancy nor the bittersweet ending that it’s so clearly aiming for.
The Last Orphan by Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X, Book Eight)
The Last Orphan by Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X, Book Eight)
The title suggests that this is the final Orphan X novel, and if that’s the case, then the series ends on an underwhelming note. Mind you, I never read these novels expecting high art, but rather, something really entertaining — think Jason Bourne meets Burn Notice — that I can devour in a single day. (Which I did here.) To his credit, Hurwitz puts his hero, a former government assassin named Evan Smoak, through the mental and emotional ringer to honestly explore the trauma and morality of his profession. But the result is page after page of clunky, portentous dialog. Put it this way: the descriptions of Smoak’s military equipment and super-secret ninjutsu techniques are more believable and enjoyable than any “serious” dialog. Combine that with a lackluster villain who’s a thinly veiled Elon Musk (I think) and several plot threads left unresolved in order to include new ones, and I think this might be the series’ weakest book.
The Sandman, Volume 6: Fables & Reflections
This series of short stories is largely disconnected from the larger Sandman mythos; Morpheus appears in each of them, though often as a glorified cameo. But I think that lets Gaiman be a little freer and looser, and explore other angles of the character. My favorite stories are probably “Three Septembers and a January,” which follows a fictionalized account of Joshua Abraham Norton (the first and only emperor of the United States) and “August,” in which Augustus Caesar disguises himself as a beggar and talks about his dreams for the Roman Empire. However, my absolute favorite is “Ramadan,” the very first Sandman story I bought. Neil Gaiman’s storytelling is beautiful, P. Craig Russell’s artwork is gorgeous, and the story ends on a final twist that makes it all the more poignant.
The Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You
As I was reading A Game of You, I realized that this was the very first Sandman story that I ever read. I was probably a junior in high school, and my friend Leah — who was into all sorts of cool art and music — introduced me to The Sandman. One of the big angles of this book is that it prominently features both a transgender character (Wanda) and a lesbian couple in a very positive light, which I’m sure was plenty controversial/revolutionary back in the early ’90s. At the same time, I’m curious how the magical limitations placed on Wanda because she’s still biologically male would be perceived today. It’s an interesting bit of world-building to be sure, though it doesn’t affect Wanda’s heroism or how the characters actually view her in the storyline. Gaiman considers this his favorite storyline.
Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits
Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits
I’m probably in the minority here, but I actually enjoy 2005’s Constantine, which stars Keanu Reeves as the occultist John Constantine. However, that’s probably because I hadn’t yet read Dangerous Habits, on which the movie is loosely based. Very loosely based. Indeed, our protagonist’s lung cancer aside, they’re basically different stories entirely. And as much as I like Keanu, Dangerous Habits has the better story. There’s something so quintessentially Constantine-esque about seeing him try to con the Lords of Hell only to then wallow in a pit of misery, regret, and self-hatred. By comparison, Constantine’s story about the Devil’s son and the Lance of Longinus is just silly. (I am, of course, still planning to see Constantine 2.)
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My wife and I have both been on a bit of noir kick lately, and I picked this up after reading her review. I did enjoy the hard-boiled dialog, which is often funny and frequently ventures on cliché — until you remember that this is probably the original source for this sort of thing, that is. As for the actual storyline, I confess that I got lost amidst all of the twists and turns. I’m sure it all holds together, but by the end, I didn’t really care. Which is frustrating because I do like Chandler’s language, which was — as I said — humorously hard-boiled. But it could also be surprisingly beautiful and even poignant at times, whether capturing Philip Marlowe’s lonely life or the mundane details of Little Fawn Lake.
The Tandoor
This was our go-to Indian restaurant for quite awhile, but it had been a few years since our last visit. Unfortunately, we weren’t terribly impressed this time around. I’m no masochist but I do like my chicken tikka korma to have some heat. My dish, however, had almost no flavor. I also found it odd that they were out of tandoori chicken. How can you be out of tandoori chicken when your restaurant’s name is literally The Tandoor?
I don’t make it here very often, which is a shame because they make terrific banh mi sandwiches. The bread is perfectly toasted, the meat is well-seasoned, and the toppings (e.g., cucumbers, carrots, peppers) are both colorful and flavorful. I’m not a big fan of bubble tea but my family assures me that the cafe’s bubble tea is delicious.
Virginia’s Travelers Cafe
I’ve been intrigued by this little diner for years, having driven past it many times. So we finally checked it out this morning. I think we were hoping to find a hidden little gem in Lincoln, but it was just OK. There was nothing terrible about the food, but neither was there anything remarkable about it, either.
The Sandman, Season One
I didn’t really dislike anything about Netflix’s adaptation of the beloved comic series, though I do wish that Tom Sturridge looked a bit more Robert Smith-esque (but that’s just my inner high school goth talking). It’s obvious that the show was a passion project — Neil Gaiman’s writing tends to have that effect. But my somewhat muted reaction may be due to the fact that I was reading the volumes being adapted (Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House) at the same time, and no adaptation can truly capture the richness of Gaiman’s storytelling. (See also Stardust). I was glad to see, however, that Netflix toned down some of the comics’ nastiness (e.g., the diner episode, hard as it may be to believe, is much worse in the comics). All that said, I’m looking forward to season two because (A) the good stuff in Netflix’s Sandman is very good and (B) I’m excited to see Morpheus and Lucifer’s inevitable confrontation.
The Visitor
I’m pretty sure The Visitor has been lodged in my subconscious ever since I glimpsed its VHS cover on the video store racks back in grade school. This bizarre Italian film about an alien warrior tracking down a psychic-powered eight-year-old girl who might be the spawn of Satan isn’t exactly coherent. Still, I was never not fascinated by its weird juxtaposition of the ominous and mundane through a trippy score, some also-trippy visual effects, and an uncanny ability to create an otherworldly atmosphere in spite of the melodramatic acting and ham-fisted dialog. Part of me would love to see a modern remake — the film certainly has plenty of intriguing elements (e.g., otherworldly warriors, psychic children, Satanic secret societies — but you’d lose something without the genuine ’70s aesthetic, most notably the architecture of Atlanta’s now-demolished Omni Coliseum.
The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud
I wanted to like this one, I really did. On the surface, it seems like a really goofy, nostalgic ode to classic video games. Plus, it stars action superstar Scott Adkins as the titular Max Cloud, an ultra-vain interstellar hero. So you’d think this one would be right up my alley. And sure, I chuckled once or twice and enjoyed some of the retro imagery. But Max Cloud is so ineptly made with nostalgic references so on-the-nose — e.g., Karate Kid posters, light-up phones — that any possible charm gets drowned out. Which is a shame because there’s a cool concept in there somewhere, waiting for a better film to realize it. To be fair, though, I didn’t actively hate this like I did Max Reload and the Nether Blasters.