Movie Review: Nightcrawler

One movie I missed seeing in theaters is Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film follows an anti-hero from petty theft to the exploitation of crime and the media.Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler

First of all, Jake Gyllenhaal is creepy and 100% unlike-able. I’d say even worse then Draco Malfoy. Nobody could identify with the lead character in Nightcrawler unless you are narcissistic, anti-social, sociopathic, or some combination of the former.

What’s more is that the film has elements that feel realistic and plausible. Lines like “if it bleeds, it leads” or discussions about ratings and blood seem like accurate portrayals of how the media chooses to present the news. The obvious theme is a criticism of the daily news broadcast that knows their ratings are tied to stories about crime creeping into white suburban neighborhoods (they actually say that in the movie, I’m not over-analyzing).

But this film does so much more than that. The cimeotagrphy does an amazing job of adding suspense and choosing shots that add art and cultural critiques to the film.

Early on, we see a large billboard that boldly states focus at a critical time when the main character begins to focus on filming crime scenes. Include iconic shots of a Los Angeles and you’ve got some great background for characters to develop.

We see a character without formal education but unlimited internet access obtain a career and lots of fast cash. With the cost of higher education on the rise, self-taught internet savy people are skipping the books, but education can be used to obtain evil means. While the money being made isn’t necessarily stated, a red sports car does plenty to establish his success.Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Gyllenhaal looks hungry with a skinny face that rarely blinks but can be found never sleeping or looking at peace. This is the type of film you can get lost in because no average viewer will identify with the main character. He spends the entire film going against normal human instincts and morals. You cringe at the thought of not sleeping and eating until you give off vibes like this character. This could even be a throwback to Christian Bale in the Machinist because of the physical contours of the actor’s body, the lack of sleeping, and the questionable mental health.

The ending is built up but predictable. As the viewer, you are lead down a simple path, and the only surprise is that the main character actually goes as far as we expected. I’ve decided to leave out spoilers, but even though I say its predictable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great ending.

Sometimes Hollywood tries too hard with twisted and unpredictable endings. In this film, there is no

Nightcrawler movie poster

doubt in the viewers mind that something bad is going to happen and not to the bad guy. We know that the endgame is going to continue a dark path of loose morals. There was more to like in Dexter Morgan of Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall). There was more to like in the Wicked Witch of the West in Wizard of Oz (just goes to show that anything can be related back to Wizard of Oz).

If you like a good anti-hero character that only develops new tactics to being a bad guy, Nightcrawler is a film to watch. Just don’t expect to watch the news anytime that week. Be like everyone else and use Twitter to read headlines.


Product Review: Airbnb

Like Uber and Lyft, Airbnb offers an alternative for those of us who love to travel but can’t afford the rising cost of hotels and resorts.

In fact, my fondest travel memories come from non-traditional accommodations. I once used to stay for free in exchange for working in a cafe and bookstore on a small island off County Kerry, Ireland.

People asked me often how I manage to make these things work with mounds of student loans looming over my life every second of the day. I’m willing to give up the comforts of a plush bed with room service and get to meet other travelers and go off the traditional tourism path.

So finding Airbnb was fate. Instead of resort fees and fancy restaurants, you rent a room with a local family or you may rent an entire furnished place. Some places offer free breakfast (vegan and vegetarian options might be available) or tips, maps, and laundry services.

The app and website are easy to search. You can narrow your search using filters based on price, # of beds, # of rooms, or limit your search to entire places for rent (those usually cost more). The best feature on the website and app is that you can go to the map view and move around on the map to limit your results. This means you might not like the options in your first search, but you can drag the map and find new areas and places to stay that might be a mile outside of your original source.

I’ve used Airbnb on three occasions. I’m going to compare price options and share a little about my experiences. However, I won’t share contact details or addresses to respect privacy of my hosts who have all provided great experiences.

Memphis, TN

When we began to look at places to stay in Memphis, I was surprised at the cost. Most hotels were $120 to $200 or more plus $20 to park everyday. We only needed three or four nights, but we were on a tight budget regardless. We wanted to be close to downtown Memphis and Beale Street, but we didn’t want to worry constantly about parking.

So we decided to check Airbnb. We opted to stay outside of downtown Memphis but didn’t want to go far. We were within eight miles of Beale Street and the main attractions and paid about $55 per night with all fees included. We were treated everyday with a delicious vegetarian breakfast, other travelers to chat with, and a nice place to stay in a more residential area.

At the end of the trip, we were quite happy with our decision to use Airbnb. In fact, we were pretty sure that staying at hotels would be out of the question for a long while. One year later…

Miami Beach, FL

While planning a trip to the Florida Keys, we had a later flight and realized that our drive to the keys would be dark if we went straight from the airport. So we decided to split our days between the Keys and Miami. Although I had traveled a lot to Miami and the fiance has been there too, there were still things I wanted to check out.

Our criteria for finding a place includes wanting to be within walking distance to the beach, be able to park our rental car near our sleeping spot, have restaurants within walking distance, and a bed to crash on!

South Beach sounded ideal except we weren’t interested in partying at night clubs and being around drunk tourists. So we looked a little north to Miami Beach. Still right on the beachfront, still part of Miami, but with more residential and local populations.

Searching hotels on Miami Beach will get you prices from $139 to $379 per night (average $213 according to Expedia). That doesn’t include the cost of parking or potential resort fees (make sure you watch for lose especially in Vegas or at beach resorts). Now Airbnb will have prices in that range and above if you wanted to pay that much.

We ended up booking a room for $168 for two nights (or $84 per night) including all fees. Personally, this was a great compromise. We were able to park in the area, walk to the beach and restaurants, and we still had access to Miami area attractions (the traffic is another story, however).

Florida Keys

So we left Miami Beach, and we headed to the Florida Keys. If I was shocked at the hotel prices in the Miami area, then I wasn’t prepared to learn how much a hotel in Key West wants to charge! Hotels run between $120 and $605 a night (with an average of $213 per night).

The cheaper hotels are more motels without beachfront access and are older places that have some questionable reviews and feedback. Then if you do the research, you’ll find out that Key West isn’t great for beaches. They have them, but they are small, man-made beaches. There are bigger beaches on Lake Michigan in Chicago.

So we decided to stay within 30 minutes of Key West but near Bahia Honda State Park. This allowed us to spend a day in Key West, a day at the state park, and on the drive down, we stopped to snorkel in one of the upper keys.

If you wanted to spend your entire time in Key West but book on Airbnb, I’d suggest booking early to get a good price. We were looking at places for a while, but by the time we were ready to book, the places in Key West were out of our budget.

Staying 30 minutes north of Key West, we paid around $320 for three nights including all fees. We had a private room to ourselves and access to a backyard pool which made for nice late night conversation and hanging out.

Wrap Up

Again, I am avoiding revealing too much information to respect my hosts’ privacy. So any pictures here are just screen shots of searches done on my phone. I did not stay at any of those listings, they are for demonstration purposes only.

One concern people have when I recommend Airbnb is what if the host is a crazy person? Well, guests leave reviews and feedback for their hosts. The host doesn’t get paid until after you check out and leave, assuming there are no complaints or major issues.

From the three experiences we have had on Airbnb, I feel pretty comfortable recommending the website. Next year, I’d like to use our points and fly to Jamaica. I’m already scouting the great listings on Airbnb in hopes of a good deal!

If you missed my previous post, I also reviewed the Key Lime Pie slices while in the Florida Keys. Check it out! What apps and websites do you use for travel planning? Leave a comment because I’m a travel enthusiast, always looking for the next adventure.

Movie Review: Cake

The film Cake is a drama starring Jennifer Aniston and detailing a woman’s struggle with chronic pain. Since seeing the trailer months ago, I knew this was a must see for a number of reasons.

I seek out films that don’t fit into the typical movie category with lots of sex appeal, action-packed scenes that lack substance, and campy dialogue that does not resemble real life. This film does none of these things.

Aniston is scarred, in pain, rigid, and dressed down like a person in pain would be dressed. Only once in the movie does she “doll” herself up with curls and a nice outfit, but even then, it is very toned down, feminine but not your average Hollywood bombshell look. The best thing is that Aniston’s character lacks like-ability. She is mean, pessimistic, and bitter.

The film itself focuses on a character without the unrealistic expectation of a total transformation. The truth is that we rarely experience change as fast as movies will try to portray them. Instead we see the struggle of a person trying to handle a series of dark and horrible events.

Cake also passes the Bechdel Test. For more details on that criteria, watch this great TED talks video.

Bottom line is that we see a female to female relationship that does not involve competing over a man or crying over broken hearts caused by rugged men. The relationship between the main character and her housekeeper is complex and not a simple relationship. In fact, the housekeeper is the only person who seems to be watching out for her and keeping things together.

While I love that dynamic, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some tiny bit of Romance included. It just doesn’t consume the whole focus of a woman’s mind.

So we have a main character that is female with bigger problems than love and romance. There is an additional character played by Anna Kendrick who is the catalyst for the plot. Kendrick’s character committed suicide prior to the start of the film. Aniston is consumed with a curiosity of suicide. The viewer watches as she toys with death in the beginning, telling us that struggle, identity, and purpose are a choice and not an assumed or assigned role.

Finally, I’ve decided to keep spoilers out of this post. But I will say that I enjoyed the ending of the film. The viewers are brought along this journey, but you don’t fully understand it until the very end when a fact is revealed and things tie together like a bow in an inappropriate place.

As an actress, I’ve liked some of Jennifer Aniston’s film. But she does typically play the hot chick or women in messy break ups. This film shows her true style and gives her the opportunity to act outside of Hollywood’s narrow stereotypes for women. If any of these themes appeal to you, then Cake is a great film you should put in the queue or grab from Redbox.

More movie reviews to come. Got any suggestions for reviews? Please leave me suggestions in the comments area!

Product Review: Ibotta App

Ibotta is a new app I got to try out on my new iPhone. Since my old phone had very, very limited memory, I never got to play with lots of apps and had to be space conscious at all times.

So with a new phone, I was downloading everything and anything. I had heard about or seen ads for the Ibotta app, an app that you can earn rebates on your grocery and misc purchases. I wasn’t too convinced it’d be worthwhile. After all, I’ve tried being that coupon lady, but you’ll never find coupons on things you need: eggs, bananas, almond milk, and so forth.

One great thing is that you can find rebates at a lot of different places. Some include Walmart, Target, Jewel, Mariano’s, Whole Foods (still too expensive for me), and even some other places outside of the grocery category.

But when I used to clip coupons, the options were so limited. Here’s a coupon for a $1.00 a product that will cause me to gain 4 lbs this week. Oh wonderful (sarcasm).

So how is Ibotta different? Well you can earn rebates on things you would never find a coupon for like Bananas and Zucchini. Or other products like eggs and paper towels without limiting you on a brand name.

What do you have to do to earn these rebates? Some include watching a video, taking a survey, or reading a recipe (usually that is for a specific brand). But either way, a little bit of planning can go a long way. Some rebates are for $.20, but others are $2.00. So you do have to weigh the cost of the product with the rebate.

But for many things like eggs and bananas, I am buying those regardless of the rebate options. So often times I am not spending more money, just earning a rebate.

When you make your purchases, save the recipe. To redeem and get the rebates, you will need to scan the barcode and take a picture of the receipt. Produce items that do not have barcode aren’t a problem because they will just verify the product on the receipt.

I have to admit I’m a little addicted to Ibotta. I’ve used it on three grocery trips and have earned $11.60. Once you’ve earned a certain amount, you can transfer to your paypal account, or you can put it on a gift card at Amazon, Starbucks, and other places. Most of the minimum amounts to transfer are $10.

Since I began writing this post, I used it at a gas station. So now I have $12.60, and I am going to treat myself to something delicious at Starbucks when I get around to claiming my money.

With an app like this, the time you put into makes a huge impact. If you download it but never open it, you aren’t going to earn anything. So if you know you wouldn’t spend the time with it, it’s not worth trying. But taking a few minutes to check for rebates and take a picture of a receipt is worth a little extra money in my pocket.

Ibotta received a stamp of approval especially when you can save/earn money but aren’t tied down to specific brand names. I recommend Ibotta for thrifty spenders like me!

A sweet tooth on vacation

I grew up in Chicago. I am used to hot cocoa in negative degree temperatures, hot comfort foods like creamy mac-n-cheese, and ice cream cones in the summer time that melt and drip down your hands and ruin your clothes.

So where did my obsession with Key Lime Pie come from? It’s a mystery really, and to be honest, my first time tasting Key Lime Pie was probably in college. I’ve always been considered a chocolate-aholic. Dark chocolate, white chocolate, milk chocolate, chocolate with nuts, chocolate with caramel, you name it, I want it!

But then I watched an episode of Man Vs. Food on the Travel Channel. The host, Adam Richman, was down in the Florida Keys–a place I was told to visit one day while I was traveling in Miami for work.

Richman tries a lot of the seafood, which I am not a fan of, but beaches and sunny weather are my friends (regardless of my pale skin tone). But then he goes to Blue Heaven for a slice of Key Lime Pie with a Meringue that reaches for the heavens. So that was it. I began to plan our budget friendly vacation to the Florida Keys with the determination to try Key Lime Pie every chance I get. Here are those moments:

key lime pie, hungry tarpoon, robbie's, florida keys, dessert, sweets
A slice from the Hungry Tarpoon

First Stop: Hungry Tarpon Restaurant – Islamorada, FL

This was our first stop on the drive down to the Florida Keys. You can see the place (the whole place is called Robbie’s and the restaurant is called Hungry Tarpon) from the bridge along the main highway. We chose this place to go snorkeling and decided to stick around for some food. Why? Because our boat captain raved about the Key Lime Pie. So it was time to dig in!

This slice really set the pace for the rest of our trip. And three subsequent slices later, it was a hard slice to beat. The whipped cream topping was good, the graham cracker crust was a little thin but plenty sweet. And finally, the key lime pie filling was just right–a little tart, tangy, and perfectly consistent throughout. I still prefer meringue instead of whipped cream.

I loved this slice at Hungry Tarpon, and but it doesn’t earn my top spot for the whole trip. Because it didn’t have meringue, it comes in at #3.

Blue Heave, key west, florida keys, key lime pie slice, dessert, sweets,
A slice from Blue Heaven

Second Stop: Blue Heaven – Key West, FL

And here it is. The whole inspiration for my trip to the keys. This pie stands out in terms of presentation. As you can see, the meringue is really piled on and the edges get a little crisp. I love burnt cheese and burnt ends of things. Maybe I’m weird like this, but this pie slice really made me happy even before I lifted the fork. Just looking at it made me smile!

My favorite thing here (after the meringue) is the pie crust. I love graham cracker crusts, but I like them to be thick and really stand out. Yes, I scraped every graham cracker crumb off the plate, and no, I will not apologize for it.

I wish we had more time in the Florida Keys because this is the only slice we had in Key West. I would have liked to try more, but I had to restrain myself and also eat food not almost entirely made of sugar (insert sarcastic, life isn’t fair comment).

Everything about Blue Heaven’s slice was what I wanted and expected. So I have to give this my personal favorite #1.

boondock's grille, florida keys, key lime pie, dessert, sweets
A slice from Boondock’s Grille

Third Stop: Boondocks Grille & Draft House – Ramrod Key, FL

Whenever you judge and evaluate the things around you, there needs to be someone in last place. Our stop at Boondocks was mediocre and not a great experience. I should note that I was overly sunburnt and experiencing cold and hot flashes from too much sun. I could barely eat dinner.

But that doesn’t mean I’m skipping dessert. We asked our server about the Key Lime Pie, and he did recommend it but added that it wasn’t the same as other places. Intrigued, I had to know more. He said it was a refrigerated version of Key Lime Pie and not the traditional type. If you don’t know, Key Lime Pies are made with non-refrigerated ingredients due to the remoteness of the keys (History by Col).

Maybe we expected an in-house recipe, but neither of us liked this variety. It was frozen and hard to put a fork through, and instead of meringue, it has a whipped topping. I love whipped cream (when it isn’t frozen solid and hard to bite), but meringue and Key Lime Pie are a pairing that just work well. We then found out that the restaurant orders it from a company adding a seal to our disappointment.

Boondocks is frozen throughout and just lacking fresh flavors, so this one earns the bottom spot, #4.

Final Stop: Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory – Tavernier, FL

blond giraffe factory, key lime pie, florida keys, desserts, sweets
A slice from Blond Giraffe Pie Factory

This is the final slice of Key Lime goodness we had before our flight back home to Chicago. We were driving north and saying good bye to the ocean and overseas highways that we came to love dearly. I was on yelp looking for the last chance for Key Lime Pie knowing I would probably never find anything comparable in Chicago (which means I have to learn to make it myself).

In comes Blond Giraffe located right on the main highway and only selling Key Lime Pies and similar flavored products (cookies, chocolate covered pretzels, etc). We stopped in expecting the best. I liked this slice, but I just couldn’t call it my favorite.

It had a good amount of meringue, but again I wanted a thicker graham cracker crust. This was #1 in Dan’s opinion of the whole trip. One thing I did like is that they offered slices with whipped cream, no topping, and meringue topping. So this is a great place if you’ve got diversity in your group’s preferences.

At Blond Giraffe, you’ll find a good slice, great variety and options, but not my favorite overall, so this slice is #2.

*Before I can end my evaluation, I got to make two honorable mentions from our trip (non-key-lime-pie-mentions):

Five Brothers Grocery – Summerland Key, FL

I always support local businesses. We stayed near this Five Brothers Grocery location and passed right by thinking nothing of it. Our host highly recommended it for delicious breakfast sandwiches. We ended up going twice for food and the amazing Cuban coffee. Read the full yelp review in the link above.

El Rancho Grande – Miami Beach, FL

Linked above is my full review of El Rancho Grande on Yelp. Let’s just say that this place had some of the greatest service and delicious food in the Miami Beach area. Save room for desert because the deep fried banana cheesecake is worth the weight you can gain eating something like this.

A Jurassic Review

It’s opening week and even a Friday morning matinee is nearly full of eager people awaiting the start of Jurassic World. You can scan the room and look for the people eager to be there, and then you can find the ones who were dragged by someone else (guilty, right here).

But let’s be honest about something. Who really expected an artistic, well-crafted plot with lovable and timeless characters to grace the screen?

If you did, then you may not have been to the movies since Jurassic Park was released in 1993. The truth is that summer blockbusters have always been a disappointment to most serious movie goers. The big releases of summer are usually spectacles meant to awe and woe teenagers who are at the mall with nothing better to do.

Instead of putting on your critic hat and going to Jurassic World, show up with reasonable expectations. On the surface, the film is quite good. It has those moments of suspense, characters are in grave danger, and the CGI brings to life dinosaurs that used to be the most boring subject in school.

There is no complexity in the characters and their motivations. The film lacks depth and you don’t have to worry about plot twists. There is a problem (a big dinosaur) and they are seeking a solution. Simple as that.

The plot and characters could use some work. For example, many might be uncomfortable with Bryce Dallas Howard’s character who never removes high heels throughout the film despite Chris Pratt telling her that she is ill prepared to track missing children in a jungle of dinosaurs while wearing heels.

You could see the later actions of Howard as saying that women can be strong and still embrace their femininity (we don’t need to shed high heels to be a success or show strength). Or you can see it as 100% impractical that anyone can full on sprint in high heels or that anyone would want to. My feet ached as I watched.

Howard’s character also experiences the shame of a woman without children. She is a corporate career climber and has her nephews visiting. Her sister seems to think one day Howard’s character will have children while the single woman expresses doubts. Why is childbearing an assumed role a women must take one day?

At the end of the film, it is Chris Pratt who fulfills the role as the eye candy for the film. In fact besides Howard, there is a general lack of women in the film. We have younger teenage boys who are quite adorable and will surely bring the Justin Bieber fans to the theater.

Pratt is the over charismatic, rough around the edges, but intelligent and sensitive towards the animals character needed to make this film for both men and women. The males are there for the action, but the women are there for Pratt. This says that the film itself does a good job of appealing to numerous audiences… with exception to the serious film fanatics out there.

For the casual movie goer, it’s like being at a zoo on steroids. The animals are bigger, scarier, and more fascinating. The themes of the film are glaring at you in the face like a gigantic dinosaur.

In fact, the themes are not far off from the original Jurassic Park (if you can remove the cob webs and think back 22 years, if you are old enough to do that). The only difference now is that they have rebuilt the theme park from the disaster that was the plot of the original film. They speak about the original park like a ghost and use whispers and tones of fear and darkness.

Besides making a statement about how humanity is doomed to repeat mistakes, we see a lot of critiques of corporatization. The park itself is a gigantic theme park with corporate labels everywhere. Howard’s character talks about market trends, expected sales, and business words beyond my understanding.

The owner of the park? He is more reminiscent of Tony Stark and not the old rich white man from the original film. So we even see changes in the demographics of the people who hold power.

If you missed the theme of war and military, you may have fallen asleep in your bucket of popcorn. Vincent D’Onofrio is there to portray the unlikeable human who wants to weaponize the dinosaurs to win wars and avoid human casualties.

So not only do we see what happens when we play god with genetics, but we also see humanity at its worst. We see crowds of people gawking at big dinosaurs while a corporation tries to stay up to date with their supply and demand, a demand that leads to the creation of a modified dinosaur who tries to kill everything. This is the first piece of pop culture to predict that humanity will destroy itself.

What does that sound like? Maybe like genetically modified foods in a grocery store that will be produced so long as there is a demand for cheap and easy foods? Maybe tobacco and alcohol products that damage human beings yet the companies can continue to produce and sell those products?

So who is the real enemy in Jurassic World? Corporations or the people who feed them?