2015 in review

30 Dec

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Top 6 Movies of 2015

13 Dec
Trainwreck

Trainwreck

It is time for my favorite time of year: the movie theaters are playing the films that studios hope will have a shot at an Oscar come next February. And, oh, the most anticipated movie of the last few years, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, premieres on December 18th. In compiling my list of favorite movies of the year, I am pleased to note that half of them are targeted to a female audience. It was a good year for women in movies. Feel free to peruse my favorite movies from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

Spy. In a perfect world, Melissa McCarthy would star in a comedy every summer. But only if it were a good movie- she needs the right vehicle. One that allows her to use her gift for physical comedy, which means not only falling all over herself, but also using her face and small gestures to convey humor in small moments. Notice the scene where she attends a dinner with her work crush, played with over the top smarm by Jude Law. Her romantic disappointment is palpable, and funny. “Spy” is a fast-paced action movie that just happens to be a really funny comedy as well. Bonus points for featuring Rose Byrne as the villain.

Magic Mike XXL. Along with “Spy” and “Trainwreck”, “Magic Mike XXL” was part of this summer’s trifecta of films proving the power of the female audience. Though not starring a woman, but rather a quintet of studs, “Magic Mike XXL” was a strong feminist movie. The hunky strippers at the heart of the story make their way through the southern U.S., making various women’s wildest dreams come true- not by being gigolos, but by paying close attention to them, listening to them, treating them as perhaps no other man ever has. A highlight of the movie for me was watching the men woo a gaggle of middle-aged divorcees in the living room of a southern belle played by Andie MacDowell. That was a highlight, along with the sight of Michael Strahan and Donald Glover performing at a private club in Savannah. It’s a fun way to spend two hours. And it’s all for you, lady.

Trainwreck. If the Comedy Central show “Inside Amy Schumer” is like an intro course into the comedy and worldview of Amy Schumer, “Trainwreck” is her thesis, her dissertation. In it we learn how Amy came to have such a blasé attitude toward men-her jaded father, played by the perfectly cast Colin Quinn. Trainwreck expertly weaves vulgar comedy with genuine romance- romance as experienced by two real, very flawed individuals. The supporting cast is great, notably LeBron James and John Cena.

The Martian– The best sci-fi film of the year (although admittedly, I haven’t seen Ex-Machina), “The Martian” continues a trend from the last few years of survival stories set against a stark, outerspace backdrop (Interstellar from 2014, Gravity from 2013). The struggle is mostly man against nature, as a botanist played by Matt Damon fights to stay alive in a harsh environment, knowing he may not have contact with other humans for years. The movie produces the same optimism and faith in human ingenuity seen in “Apollo 13”. The extended cast is stellar, from Jessica Chastain to Chiwetel Ejiofor to…Donald Glover, his second appearance on this list. One of Ridley Scott’s best films in years.

Bridge of Spies. Going into awards season, it doesn’t seem like “Bridge of Spies” will earn much acclaim, despite the involvement of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Perhaps it is due to its delicate subject matter: that foreign agents held in U.S. detention must be accorded the same rights that we would want given to American agents abroad. It’s a Cold War tale with much to say about current conflicts and how to handle them. Mark Rylance, an actor I had never seen before, does a wonderful job as the accused Soviet spy. The suspense in the film’s third act is expertly filmed, and the movie gets bonus points for featuring German actor Sebastian Koch, who I would watch read the phone book. In German.

Spectre. I was particularly anxious to see this movie, since I was in Mexico City during filming, and recall the excitement of seeing the filming of a helicopter over the Zocalo with a stuntman dangling out. I was excited to see my city as part of the glamorous Bond universe. While Mexico City fades away as the opening credits begin, the rest of the movie is a rip-roaring action film. For one thing, it is not as morose as “Skyfall”. And we get to see the best European acting talent do their thing- Lea Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Naomi Harris. And of course, the creepy Christoph Waltz. It’s sensual, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling. It’s so good.

 

To Hell and Back with Hotel Honolulu

21 Oct
Hotel Honolulu

Hotel Honolulu

Last year I was particularly proud of myself for having read 11 books, although I came just shy of reaching my ultimate goal of reading 12 books in 12 months. But for having relocated to a new country during the year, it’s not bad at all. This year has not been as rewarding, either in terms of quantity or quality. Quantity: I just read my second book of the year. Quality: I haven’t liked both books I’ve read this year. This has got to change.

I very much wanted to like “Hotel Honolulu” by Paul Theroux. I asked a friend whose advice on books I value for a recommendation- I specifically said, anything you can recommend is fine, since I’ll just download it on iBooks and read it on my upcoming trip. So he recommended this book which in its print edition is just over 4oo pages, but in its electronic form is over 1000 “pages”. When I saw that length on my blinking iPhone screen, I gasped. Nevertheless, I began reading my first e-book.

Early on, it became clear to me that the vignette style of the book was not going to hold my attention. The story is narrated by a nameless, successful writer who has fled to Hawaii to remake himself as the manager of the Hotel Honolulu. Reading on the back of the book cover that Paul Theroux splits his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, I figured the narrator of the book may as well be named Thaul Peroux. But the narrator recedes into the background of the story, as we hear more and more about the people that stay at the hotel, the employees, and mostly, the owner of the hotel who hired our narrator to run the place. With no narrative thread to pull the whole thing together, just stories of people who come and go from the hotel, the reader isn’t given a chance to connect with a character beyond the cipher who narrates the story. For this reason, the book was not a page turner. Rather than turning the page because I was eager to follow the story, I simply pressed on for the sake of it.

But there was another reason I not only didn’t get into the story, but was often turned off by it. One common theme I found in “Hotel Honolulu” was men having their hopes and dreams crushed by the shrewish women in their life. Benno Nevermann and Vera Shihab, Royce Lionberg and Rain Conroy, and most significantly, as it takes up much of the second half of the novel, Buddy Hamstra and Pinky. In all of these pairings, you have otherwise happy, successful older men who become entangled with beautiful, wide-eyed young women. They were happy before and yet these women sucked the life out of them. The owner of the hotel, Buddy, goes to the Philippines to find a young, compliant bride, and spends the last years of his life in a contentious relationship with his foreign wife, Pinky. If there were only one relationship like this portrayed in the novel, it wouldn’t be noteworthy. But reading page after page of this dynamic left me feeling icky. The women were an unwelcome intrusion on the boys club of Honolulu. All of this left me reading the book just to finish it, and not enjoy it. Ironically, I always tell friends that life is too short for bad books. Unfortunately, I should have listened to my own advice in this case.

All Hail Game of Thrones

8 Oct
Ser Jorah Mormont

Ser Jorah Mormont

Earlier this summer, I finally succumbed to the mass hysteria, the constant urgings of friends, and began watching Game of Thrones. I resisted for so long. I likened the show to Dungeons and Dragons with nudity, not inclined to watch a show that was so tied to an un-cool genre, fantasy. But I decided to start watching. And I was enthralled.

I used to study Shakespeare, and so I recognized the timeless appeal of these characters. In the case of Jon Snow, you have the outcast determined to prove himself, a bastard at the end of the world, bound by honor and surrounded by men who either admire him or mean him harm. Daenarys Targaryen, similarly cast out to the peripheries of the realm, sheds her skin as a fearful girl and finds her way as a queen and liberator of enslaved men and women. Will she be a benevolent ruler or follow in the footsteps of her Targaryen ancestors and rule with an iron fist? These are just two of the many well-written and well-acted characters in the world of the show.

As a student of literature, I find the characters to be fascinating archetypes, all caught in an intricate power grab. Add in a bit of swordplay, the occasional nude form (more on that later), an attractive cast (as seen in the dashing Ser Jorah Mormont above), and stunning locations, and it’s no surprise why this ‘genre’ medieval fantasy show is so popular. However, as a sensitive person who easily recoils at violence on screen, there were many scenes that were difficult for me to watch. This is not only true of massive battle scenes, but scenes in which characters inflict psychological violence on each other. There is one whole season where we witness one character, Theon Greyjoy, suffer brutal torture at the hands of a mysterious sadist. I had to watch the scenes of his torture through my fingers; it was not only the violence that was hard to stomach, but the cruelty. The consistent message of Game of Thrones seems to be: conducting yourself with honor earns you nothing but suffering. In a dog eat dog world, as Cersei Lannister famously stated in season one, either you win the game of thrones, or you die. Watching Game of Thrones submerges you in a dark universe. Enter at your own risk.

With this being an HBO show, there is plenty of nudity. Before I started watching the series, I had heard criticism of the show’s portrayal of women, specifically its reliance on the abundant female nudity. The nudity is gratuitous, and we see many more naked female bodies than male ones. There is no question that the we see Westeros through a distinctively male gaze. Titillation is the point; the first time we see Daenarys Targaryen, we see her nude. There is no narrative purpose for her nudity. So while the frequent nudity on the show is mostly aggravating, and a result of the show being created largely by men, I commend the writers and producers for crafting so many interesting, multi-dimensional female characters. While watching the series, I often thought to myself, this show would make for such interesting material for a thesis in women’s studies! One reason why I find Daenarys Targaryen, AKA Khaleesi, to be such a fascinating character, is that she is both fierce and feminine. Unlike Arya Stark, who rejects the traditional feminine role she sees her older sister Sansa playing, embracing sword-fighting and even dressing as a boy to evade capture, and Lady Brienne of Tarth, who acts as a knight and denudes herself of all shades of femininity to survive in a man’s world, Daenarys is strong and feminine at the same time. She doesn’t need to shed her femininity to be imposing. I’ll perhaps explore other female characters from the show, like Ygritte the wildling, Margaery Tyrrell, and Olenna Tyrrell in a future post.

So now, like many, I eagerly await the next season of Game of Thrones. Especially the resurrection of Jon Snow by Melisandre the priestess. And just for fun, here is the web recap series Gay of Thrones.

Are you a writer?

2 Sep

Yesterday, as I left the doctor’s office, I held the door open for an elderly woman, and we both entered the elevator together. She looked at me with a glimmer in her eye and asked me, “Are you a writer?”. I didn’t know how to answer. I stammered, “No…but I did some writing as part of my last job”. I was intrigued. Did I look like a writer? Did she figure I must have a job with an unconventional schedule to be at a doctor’s office on a Tuesday morning? In any case, I liked the implication. I liked that this woman looked at me and saw a writer. I eventually asked her, once we were out of the elevator, if she was a writer. She smiled and replied yes. Perhaps it takes a writer to recognize another. In any case, this stranger’s question prompted me to get back to this blog.

The Duggars, ISIS and Fear of Modernity

3 Jun
Hiding from Modernity

Hiding from Modernity

Perhaps it is because I have always regarded having many children (more than 4) as a modern form of female servitude, a peculiar form of modern torture. After four kids, how can you truly pay attention to each child? How can you be attentive to their needs? Of course, this comes from the naive assumption that one has kids to love and nurture them. That is not the only reason couples add to their broods. Some of them believe that a woman’s Christian duty is to birth as many children as possible in order to create more good Christian soldiers. A woman’s duty is to obey her father when she is young and her husband when she is married. Sound truly medieval? It is. It’s also the essence of the Quiverfull movement, which informs the beliefs of the Duggar family, Christian fundamentalists turned reality TV stars.

On the other side of the globe, ISIS is made up of young men from all over the Western world who have been moved by the terrorist group’s call to establish a Muslim caliphate throughout the Levant. Their rise and spread throughout the region, as well as their appeal to Westerners, has baffled people with much more expertise in modern terrorism than I can claim. CNN published a piece stating that ISIS has had success in this area through sophisticated recruitment efforts, with trailers like those that come out of Hollywood to convince young Westerners of their cause. A young ISIS recruit from England was quoted as saying, “I’m from the south of England. I grew up in a middle-class family…Life was easy back home. I had a life. I had a car. But the thing is, you cannot practice Islam back home. We see all around us evil. We see pedophiles. We see homosexuality. We see crime. We see rape.”

The aforementioned Duggars may not seem as sinister as the murderous armies of ISIS. But their worldview comes from the same place as ISIS: a deep fear of modernity, of a world where women are truly equal to men and minorities, such as gay people, also have equal rights. The Quiverfull movement, of which the Duggars are just an example, preaches very traditional roles for men and women in the home. Those who don’t adhere to such roles are heathens in the eyes of Christian fundamentalists. They prefer to homeschool their children instead of expose them to the views of the modern world. It is estimated that 58% of people in the Southern U.S. are Christian fundamentalists. While not all of them have 19 children whom they educate at home, many believe in a fallen world that is filled with sin and evil at every turn; only good Christian warriors will be saved in the end through the power of their faith.

Perhaps it seems extreme that I would compare the fundamentalism of the Duggars to the fundamentalistm behind ISIS. Yes, there are degrees of difference. ISIS is brutally murderous, there is no denying that. But their aims are political. So too is the Christian right’s. They see the onward march of modernity as a grave threat to their way of life rather than the natural arc of human progress. Rather than engage with the modern world, they adhere to a strict, literal, some would say erroneous interpretation of their religious texts. As women gain greater autonomy to live their lives, and minorities make strides in the U.S., the fundamentalist believers both in the U.S. and around the world will have to either fight the modern world, or live with it. I hope that they choose the latter, rather than the Middle Ages.

What does a Mexican look like?

20 Apr

I try to be patient. The new kid at work is young, looks to me like a kindergartner, and has the happy go luck air of a kid happy to have his first real job out of college. I’m nice to him because he, too, is a foreigner in a foreign land. But in his short time at the office, he’s uttered the sentences “Funny, she doesn’t look Mexican”, and “Funny, he doesn’t look Mexican” many times. I usually make a comment like, “Well, I think you’ll find that a Mexican can look like anything”. But sometime I feel like banging my head against the wall. Because I’ve been teaching this lesson my whole life.

It’s true, there is a typical Mexican look. Think brown skin, brown eyes, brown hair. Short stature. Anything that breaks those norms stands out. Even dark-skinned Mexicans who are tall stand out in a crowd. But there are also many Mexicans who offer proof of the internal diversity that many foreigners aren’t aware of. Take a glance at the gallery of famous (and infamous) Mexicans below:

Miguel Osorio Chong:

Osorio Chong

Osorio Chong

The #2 man in the current Cabinet, Osorio Chong, a native of Pachuca, Hidalgo, is the Secretario of Governance, a sort of point man for any hot spots that may arise in Mexican national life. He is of Mexican and Chinese descent.

Carlos Slim:

Carlos Slim

Carlos Slim

Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He is always switching back and forth with Bill Gates as either #1 or#2 wealthiest man in the world. He’s a titan of the business world in both Mexico and abroad. He’s also of Lebanese descent.

Emanuel Lubezki:

Emmanuel_Lubezki

Emmanuel_Lubezki

He has won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the last two years in a row. He is the preferred cinematographer of director Terence Malick. And Mexican cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki is of Polish Jewish descent.

Giovanni Dos Santos:

One of the best players on the Mexican national team, and a standout on Spanish soccer team Villarreal, young Giovanni Dos Santos is a native of Monterrey, the son of a Mexican mother and Brazilian father.

Giovanni Dos Santos

Giovanni Dos Santos

Luis Miguel:

Luis Miguel

Luis Miguel

Nicknamed El Sol de Mexico, Luis Miguel is an icon of Mexican music. He recently played the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City for two sold out weeks. His storied love life is the stuff of telenovelas. And yet this singer of Mexican songs was born in Puerto Rico to a Spanish father and Italian mother.

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