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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.

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.

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.

Goodbye to all of that: for Andrew Sullivan

28 Jan
My Dissent of the Day

My Dissent of the Day

I was saddened today when I read on The Dish that Andrew Sullivan will be retiring from the blogosphere to focus on his health and his family. Some have suggested that these are just more histrionics from a writer famous for his freakouts (Buzzfeed collected his reactions to Obama’s first debate performance. In Andrew’s mind Obama had all but lost the election there). I began reading The Dish on a very consistent basis about six years ago- I remember when because not long after I began reading the site, the Green Movement happened in Iran. I was recently unemployed and so had both the time and the inclination to follow The Dish’s liveblog of the protests in real time. It felt like this blog was doing great work, and I had to keep up. It soon became a daily habit.

Andrew Sullivan is, like me, someone with iconoclastic views, who supports gay marriage (he is the intellectual architect of it), marijuana decriminalization who vocally supports the Obama presidency and denounces the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I don’t always agree with him, and am sometimes infuriated with his opinions. I find that he is quite insensitive to women and women’s issues, and his insistence on a connection between race and IQ is abhorrent. Nevertheless, his blog was always an excellent source of not only smartly written opinions, but curation of the best links around the web. From poetry to economic analysis to theology to those gorgeous window views, the site is thoroughly original. Also, Andrew’s commitment to not accepting an ad dollar, and his condemnation of sponsored content are further reasons that his blog will be sorely missed in this media environment.

I, for one, will always remember the feeling I got when I saw that my email to him was the dissent of the day. And I hope Andrew reconsiders. I hope that his underbloggers take up his mantle and keep dishiness alive. And if not, I am thankful that Andrew has contributed so much to my own intellectual development. I hope he enjoys his semi-retirement.

I do not care what Mark Zuckerberg is reading

8 Jan
Book Club

Book Club

It is a New Year, time to look ahead to a vast expanse of 12 months full of possibility. A natural optimist, I like the positivity that takes hold during this time of year, when people take stock of the past year and look to the New Year with hope. Last year I resolved to read 12 books in 12 months, and I came very close, completing book 11 on December 22nd. I’ve always tried to have a good book on hand for empty hours, and have always enjoyed reading both fiction and non-fiction.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that Mark Zuckerberg, so ably portrayed onscreen by Jesse Eisenberg, decided to start a book club. He has said that he would like to pick a new book every other week and discuss it through a forum on Facebook. I appreciate that he can encourage people to read something they would otherwise never read. But because it is not Oprah Winfrey, but rather the founder of the world’s biggest social network who is starting this initiative, I am a bit suspicious. Is this about encouraging reading, or mining user data (I suspect the latter is the motive for any move by Facebook)?

One reason I don’t consider myself to be a Millennial (although technically I’m on the older side of this generation) is that the way that I relate to the digital world is so different from the way people just a few years younger than I am do. I’m still wary. I don’t want to publish too much. Also, as someone who works in digital media, I am familiar with the glee with which digital advertising types discuss mining user data to sell users more and better stuff. The more highly targeted, the better. As a marketer, I think it makes perfect sense. As a consumer, I don’t like feeling so trailed. And so I think that, while it’s entirely possible that Mark Zuckerberg has the purest of intentions and wants to turn Facebook into an intellectual hub, I think it’s more likely that this is a further attempt to turn our reading habits (and our comments on said reading habits) into something that can be monetized.

So thank you, Zuck, but I’ll keep my book reading offline.