A Post of Fire and Ice: Dragonstone

17 Jul

“Dragonstone”, the first episode of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, moves slowly, putting the chess pieces in place for what promises to be a fast-moving, shortened season. Yes, it was a bit slow, but we witnessed a spectacular opening scene that saw Arya, as Walder Frey, poison the extended Frey clan. I have found Arya’s subplot among the least interesting throughout the series, from her travels with the Hound across Westeros to her long stint at the House of White and Black. But her winding storyline looks like it will finally pay off, as she emerges as one of the many strong female characters forging her own destiny at this point in Game of Thrones. More on that later.

I watched “Dragonstone” with both enjoyment and apprehension, because we got to spend unhurried time with minor characters who have become fan favorites- Samwell Tarly furtively studying up on dragonglass at the Citadel, the Hound discovering his mystic powers in the Riverlands, even a quick reminder that loyal Jorah Mormont is alive and still pining after his Khaleesi. But the apprehension comes from knowing that goodness is not rewarded in the Game of Thrones universe. You either win, or you die. Cruelty is met with revenge, as we saw in Arya’s deadly opening scene, doubt and suspicion are sown among siblings, as seen with Sansa and Jon Snow in Winterfell, and Queen Cersei seeks to crush all opponents in King’s Landing. Virtue, when not paired with cunning, leads to death. I believe this is why the farmer and his young daughter, a fleeting presence from season 4, were brought back in skeletal form in this episode- to remind us that when you trust strangers in Westeros, you suffer. It is every man and woman for themselves. Sandor Clegane is a changed man since he stole their silver and left them vulnerable so long ago, remorseful enough to bury them to make amends. He is an example of a character who is coupling steeliness and kindness, generosity and strength. Another character learning to stiffen her spine and not be so naive? Sansa Stark, on a collision course with her brother Jon, who, though wiser to the ways of the world, still extends forgiveness where Sansa believes he should show firmer resolve. We are witnessing a wedge growing between the two, along with Petyr Baelish, who is still lurking in the shadows.

And of course the episode ends where the previous season ended- with Daenarys Targaryen, sailing onward to conquer an ancestral homeland that she does not know. She has already sent shockwaves through the Red Keep, with her massive army, wealth, and shrewd adviser, Tyrion Lannister (I wondered how the information about Daenarys and her crew got back to Cersei so fast. Is Varys still sending secrets to the capital?). The question remains not only if she will take the Iron Throne, but if she would rule as the Breaker of Chains with an eye to meting out justice and righting wrongs, or if she has inherited some of the madness and ruthlessness of her Targaryen blood.

The Sydney Morning Herald had an interesting piece on the evolving gender dynamics of Game of Thrones. I’ve noticed that the show has relied less on brothel scenes and gore and more and character and plot over the years; one other way that the show has matured is that women seem to be ascendant, leaving men quivering in their wake (see: Daenerys and Tyrion, Yara and Theon, Cersei and Jaime, even little Lyanna Mormont urging the Lords of the North to send their daughters to defend their land). When Game of Thrones began, the female characters were victims of fates that were decided by the men around them. However, over the course of six seasons, women like Arya and Sansa have learned to take control of their destinies and not depend on men to defend them. The showdown this season appears to be between two queens: Cersei, with Jamie Lannister at her side, and Daenerys Stormborn, with Tyrion Lannister at her side. This promises to be a short yet thoroughly entertaining season.

Japanese Sojourn

23 Apr
Kyoto

Kyoto

I carried around a sense of melancholy during my first two to three days in Tokyo. There is something about being on the outside of a society that is very familiar and very foreign at the same time that is both thrilling and disorienting. You observe as smartly dressed Japanese women engage in animated conversations on the metro, as a father and his young son play inside a shopping mall elevator, as young people tease each other in a restaurant. You’re in a thoroughly modern, advanced country, perhaps the most developed in the world. And yet language remains a barrier. You observe the tumult of everyday life in Tokyo, on the outside peeking into the lives of others, and feel a twinge of sadness.

Luckily, the Tokyo blues faded, and I eased into my very foreign surroundings. When my traveling companion and I got lost- which happened frequently- we asked for help as best we could, with smiles and gestures, and people obliged us with their own smiles and gestures. It was not uncommon for people to begin walking us to the metro platform or restaurant we were looking for, to make sure that we were on the right path. I never encountered such courteousness in my travels in Europe, and if in Mexico a man offered to help me find my way, I would have become deeply suspicious. One particular joy of traveling in Japan was the security that pervades life there. Women at cafes leave their purses at their tables while they go to the bathroom, trusting that they will be there when they return. Leave something behind at a restaurant? Go back to retrieve it, and it will be right where you left it.

I also couldn’t help but notice the stunning lack of inequality in Japan. There are no visible signs of poverty or suffering, no shantytowns on the outskirts of town as one enters the city from the airport (as in Paris), or within the city. Streets were clean. And yet if Japan sounds like a quaint, Alpine village of quiet people who keep their heads down…go to a baseball game. Or a karaoke saloon. Or a bar. The Japanese know how to let their hair down.

From the neon lights and endless skyscrapers of Tokyo to the shrines and temples on every corner in historic Kyoto, Japan took my breath away every day. It also doesn’t hurt that I was there during sakura, the brief window when cherry blossoms bloom all over the country. The sight of those pink-white flowers every day was a constant delight.

As my trip to Japan becomes more and more distant in time, certain memories will fade. But my positive impression of the country- the kind people, the sounds, the sights- will not fade any time soon.

They let it happen

8 Feb

Donald Trump is our President. It seems incredible, surreal, like a bad joke the cosmos are playing on us. Is the reality show guy, the guy from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, actually sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office occupied by Barack Obama just 18 days ago? Life in America right now is so maddening that I, someone who lives firmly outside of the right-wing bubble, have to ask, how on Earth did we get here?

I keep going back to Reince Priebus. Spineless little worm Reince Priebus. He was the nominal leader of the Republican Party. Reince Priebus never discouraged Donald Trump from running for the Republican nomination. Once he began winning elections, Reince Priebus didn’t pull Trump aside and ask him to drop out for the good of the party. He didn’t ask Trump to tone it down once his rallies became ugly and violent. Throughout the long primary and then general election campaigns, the man in charge of the Republicans let Trump highjack the party, foregoing the good of the country for political gain.

And Paul Ryan? He felt empowered enough to criticize candidate Trump, but now? He is lockstep behind his party’s President. Hard to recall that just four years ago he was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate. I suspect that neither Ryan nor Priebus is driven by right-wing talk radio-driven hate and xenophobia. Priebus’ RNC produced the infamous 2012 autopsy that recommended that Republicans expand outreach to minority communities if they were to thrive in an increasingly diverse America. Ryan’s GOP pays lip service to vague concepts like liberty and opportunity, but when these ideas are made concrete and put on the chopping block by President Trump (I still shudder to type those words), like badmouthing federal judges and not divesting from his businesses, the Republican Speaker stays silent. There is no room for principle when there is a seat at the table and one is thirsty for power.

The ascension of erstwhile Ted Cruz supporter Kellyanne Conway, former RNC hack Sean Spicer, and the aforementioned Ryan and Priebus all show how tempting it is to succumb to access to power. I also suspect that there is an element of fear at play here- these people feared that if they couldn’t beat him, they’d have to join him. And so they joined him. So how did we get here, with a cruel ignoramus as President, with his slender fingers just one push away from the nuclear button? It happened because, one by one, people with scruples fell all over themselves to accommodate him and aid his ascension. They let it happen. Don’t ever forget it.

Jamás Será Vencido

25 Jan
Women's March

Women’s March

Tengo ganas de expresarme pero no sé qué decir. Durante el día de hoy, he sentido rabia, ira, tristeza, y un profundo sentimiento de impotencia. Ya siento que han pasado días desde el Women’s March que asistí en San Francsico el sábado, donde salí sonriendo y con mucha esperanza. Pero hoy, Trump promete construir el muro fronterizo. Pero la noticia no termina ahí.

Según una copia de los planes iniciales de Trump sobre qué hacer con las ciudades santuarias que darán refugio a los inmigrantes indocumentados, se publicará una lista semanal de delitos cometidos por los indocumentados en dichas ciudades. Cuando lo leí en Twitter, mi primer pensamiento fue, “esto provocará una ola de odio”. Cometerán delitos inspirados por esta campaña de odio que viene desde el hombre más poderoso del mundo. Creo que esta lista odiosa es el aspecto mas fea de todo lo que he leído hoy, además del bloqueo de refugiados de países asolados por la guerra, el 35% arancel sobre importaciones mexicanas, y la mentira que votaron miles de millones de “ilegales” que le costaron al pobrecito Trump su voto popular. El término ilegales- un adjetivo para referirse a seres humanos- es ofensivo. Pero suponer que todo voto latino era un voto ilegítimo es sumamente racista. Me molesta que los medios masivos no habla del aspecto racista de esta mentira; lo critican como falso e impreciso, pero no lo ven como parte de la vasta campaña en contra de la comunidad mexicana de Estados Unidos.

Quiero que la esperanza de la marcha femenina se traduce en acciones concretas en las semanas y los meses venideros. Quiero que toda persona decente se declare en contra de este odio. Más que nada, espero que nuestros líderes tanto en California como en Washington reflejen la decencia de su gente. Los latinos están bajo amenaza. Es hora de parar, organizarnos, y manifestarnos. De nuevo.

Fear

15 Jan

It starts as a shudder, a dawning

Realization of

Impossibility

The door closing,

The window, swinging shut

The horizon, extending ever further

And further beyond

Suffocation,

Air whistling and hissing as it escapes

The room

Trapped inside as things close in,

Get smaller and smaller and smaller

And all you can do

Is cower

In fear

Moonlight: A Dissent

23 Dec
Moonlight

Moonlight

I was eager to see “Moonlight”, after reading so many rave reviews. It is being hailed as the best movie of the year by many critics, who call it a masterpiece and a revelation. Such praise places high expectations on a new movie. So I watched it with eagerness, and there were aspects of it that I loved. But there was one key aspect that I didn’t like, and which kept me from fully embracing it.

First, what makes the film moving: the acting. No Best Actor or Best Actress statues will be given to any of the actors from “Moonlight”. It is truly an ensemble piece, which makes sense given that the movie is all about a handful of key people who revolve around the protagonist, Chiron- three individuals who believe in him and support him, and his mother, a mercurial crack addict. No man is an island, and Mahershali Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae do fine work- especially Ali, whose Juan says so much with a glance, a weary look. Kevin, the friend who knows Chiron from childhood to manhood, is expertly played by three different actors. And the three actors who play Chiron illustrate his interior life with their sad eyes, their hunched figures, their sullen faces. Look at the picture that accompanies this post.

But this is where my main criticism lies. The actors playing Chiron rely so heavily on physically manifesting the character in their faces and bodies because they are not given much dialogue. Chiron is practically written as a mute. Rather than think this is a profound statement of how alienated he is, I saw it as a cop out. Someone who is neglected and lonely throughout childhood will certainly not socialize like a normal boy, but he could act out. Rant. Rave. Be awkward and make weird jokes that fall flat. Talk back to his mother. He could confide in one person, and have a moment to reveal something about himself. But because he is so underwritten, we get no sense of his interiority. We only see this wounded soul with sad, puppy dog eyes, but nothing is revealed about him. For most of the movie, we see someone who is barely present in his own life. It is deeply touching to see others reach out to him, especially in the last scene. But I was frustrated at how opaque Chiron remained throughout.

 

Top 5 Movies of 2016

18 Dec
La La Land

La La Land

It’s time for my annual review of movies that I saw this year that I found particularly funny, enjoyable, insightful, moving, or otherwise memorable. 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year; these movies made things better for the two hours of their running time. Who knows what future generations will make of the movies released during this last year of Obama’s presidency: are they the relics of a dying culture, a burst of creative energy before our society fell in 2017? Who knows what this list will look like next year. But here are my favorite movies from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Midnight Special: I argue that this is a better first contact movie that the over-hyped “Arrival”: more spectacular, more thrilling, more human and more urgent than the one in which Amy Adams teaches heptapods the rudiments of English grammar. “Midnight Special” starts with a bang, as we see a boy, wearing goggles, taking off in the night with two grown men. They are fleeing- but from whom? The movie is tautly paced, tossing clues out to the audience slowly but surely so that we may put the pieces together about who the boy is, and why he is so desperately sought by a religious movement and the government. The score is spare and haunting, the acting is superb, notably Adam Driver, Michael Shannon, and the young Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, the young boy whose special powers are at the heart of the movie.

A Hologram for the King: I enjoyed the Dave Eggers book that this movie was based on, but didn’t think that it’s meandering plot lent itself to a film adaptation. But I was happy to be proven wrong when I saw this movie starring Tom Hanks, who has had a knack in this latter half of his career for playing decent men in extraordinary circumstances (Captain Philips, Sully). But here he plays an ordinary man who finds himself in an extraordinary place: the Saudi Arabian desert. Tasked with landing the biggest pitch of his life and making a sale to a Saudi prince, he ends up feeling free being so far from home. He strikes up a friendship with a local driver and begins a flirtation with a doctor. This isn’t the “Lost in Translation” version of being far from home and alienated; this is the liberation of becoming a newer, fuller version of oneself in a distant place. It’s a lovely little film.

The Girl on the Train: This is the rare case of a movie being better than the book. I read the novel earlier this year, and was disappointed in the flimsy plot, since I was expecting something akin to Gone Girl. Well, “The Girl on the Train” proves to be an effective thriller, while also serving as an effective showcase for Emily Blunt. Academy voters will most likely forget about her performance come award season, but she plays a tricky role- alcoholic, desperate, obsessive- and deserves to be recognized.

Southside with You: This movie will feel even more bittersweet as the Obama years fade into memory, I imagine. I already felt nostalgic when watching it this summer, an intimate story of two young, black professionals falling in love over the course of one long, first date….and those two young people are Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. “Southside with You” takes its time, lingering over the hesitant face of Michelle as she opens herself to her confident, assured suitor. We witness the spectacle of two people getting to know each other through conversation, and it is a joy to behold.

La La Land: Unlike the movie described above, “La La Land” gives us the chance to see a young couple fall in love not so much through long conversations, but through song and dance and visual spectacle. And what a spectacle it is. It is gorgeous, with clever nods to French new-wave cinema and classic Old Hollywood musicals, while still being entirely original. This is the rare musical that has you humming the original tunes as you leave the theater, the sure sign of a good musical (can you sing any tune from “Wicked”?). But “La La Land” is more than a musical: it is a love story and a story about the age-old conundrum of safe career paths vs bold creative choices. What if one’s creative dreams clash with one’s pursuit of true love? That is the story told here in loving detail, expertly directed by Damien Chazelle. It’s because of movies like this that we go to the movies.

Dishonorable mention: Hail Caesar. Sadly, I have to call out the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar” for wasting two hours of my life that I will never get back. This film might be enjoyable for old Hollywood aficionados who can guess the real-life inspirations behind the goofy cast of characters. But otherwise, I was left thinking…why? Why watch this movie? Why make this movie? It was all a story not worth telling, in my view.