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Downton Abbey (inspired by Films to be buried with)

7 Mar

Film as comfort food. We may watch different movies for different reasons- to have a good cry, like with “The Joy Luck Club”, or to have a good laugh, like with “The Birdcage”. But some movies are just like warm blankets, something to snuggle up with and enjoy when you’re in the mood for something pleasant and not too challenging. With the pandemic and shelter in place of the last year, many of us have watched and rewatched certain TV shows and movies to get our minds off of the awfulness of the news outside our doors. Last March, during the initial shutdown, I found myself watching the movie “Downton Abbey”. For me, it was like discovering a whole new world, since I had never seen the TV show. The movie received poor reviews, because it had a scant plot, barely a reason to exist. There is no story, but rather a two hour hangout with beloved characters in a welcoming setting. And that is what has made it such comforting cinema to watch and rewatch.

The gorgeous music, the sumptuous interiors of the home, the green fields surrounding it- for me, these are the main attractions of the world of “Downtown Abbey”. The characters are mostly secondary, but even their dramas are quaint in comparison- a butler experiences a gay night on the town, the princess learns to accept her curmudgeonly husband thanks to an exchange with Tom, the Irish widower who lives at Downton Abbey. The plot is low stakes, and I love it. All the better to sit back, relax, and spend two hours in this lovely little early-20th century world.

Legends of the Fall (inspired by Films to be buried with)

6 Mar

I’ve been wanting to write about a movie that I consider to be the sexiest movie, but there’s been a problem- I’ve had trouble deciding on what is the sexiest movie. I can think of sexy scenes easier than I can think of a sexy movie. And is this a movie that inspires lust, or that just portrays it? I decided to go for a sensual movie, one with a sweeping, epic story about three handsome brothers, one in particular. “Legends of the Fall” is one particularly sexy movie that marked the adolescence and teen years of a lot of women my age. Brad Pitt as Tristan in that movie was the definition of what a manly, loyal, passionate man looks and sounds like.

“Legends of the Fall” also has the bonus of being about many things, not just a sexy couple spending lots of time romping around together in bed (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Perhaps that’s my Catholic shame peeking through- I can’t focus on a sexy movie about love and sex, so I choose one that instead shows a family over a period of many years. Yet at the heart of the movie is the tension between one brother, Alfred, who is logical and wants to live a respectable life, and another brother, Tristan, who is untamed, passionate, and as wild as the Montana wilderness. He goes on to have an affair with his brother Alfred’s wife (during the regrettable part of the mid 90’s when Hollywood tried to foist Julia Ormond on us). She is drawn to him for every way that he is different from her aloof husband. And Brad Pitt gets many chances to smolder directly into the camera. Which makes this movie the sexiest of all.

Temple of Doom (inspired by Films to be buried with)

5 Mar

Is there a film that you used to love but have since come to realize is pretty bad? The answer, for me, comes in the form of Indiana Jones, Willie Scott, and Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. This movie fell very far for me- it used to be way up there, and now, when I recently watched it, I could only count the many ways it failed. How could a movie that once brought me so much joy be so bad, after all? Let’s see:

The story is a mess (first we go from China, to a plane crash, to an Indian village, to a trek to an Indian palace…). The editing, continuity and sound mixing are bad (Willie Scott yelling at her elephant like a ventriloquist). The one note characterization of Short Round, Indiana’s sidekick who has seemingly known him forever? The cartoonish portrayal of the evil Thuggi cult, and the icky foreign food like chilled monkey brains. So much of it now is eyeroll-inducing. And yet as a kid the sense of adventure that animates “Temple of Doom” won me over. There was a period of several months during elementary school- several months!- when my brother and I would pop this VHS tape in our VCR and watch it promptly after school EVERY DAY. We knew all the lines and every beat by heart. We cheered as Indiana and his friends liberated the imprisoned Indian children. Perhaps this movie is best watched with an uncritical eye. But as I recently discovered, it’s hard to watch as an adult.

Lady Bird (inspired by Films to be buried with)

4 Mar

Lady Bird, more than any recent movie, felt very much like watching my own teenage years play out onscreen. There are details, of course, that I don’t have in common with main character Lady Bird (real name Christine), like her required school uniform, losing her virginity to Timothee Chalamet, and her best friendship with Beanie Feldstein. But more broadly, the contours of Lady Bird’s coming of age mirror my own. I also was a precocious, independent, headstrong, creative teenage girl, so some of the things that Christine does, like dye her hair pink and date inappropriate boys, ring very true for me. And there is a scene where she and her mother, played so well by Laurie Metcalf, have a prolonged interaction in a clothing store that starts with a fiery argument and ends in mindless chit chat. It feels very close to mall outings I have had with my own mother that can go from 0-60 in no time, then back to 0.

Lady Bird applies to colleges on the East Coast, even though her grades aren’t stellar, and even though she can’t really afford it, because she has big dreams for herself and aches to move away from her hometown, for which she only develops some affection after she leaves (like writer/director Greta Gerwig). I also attended a Catholic high school, and although we didn’t have to wear uniforms, I’m aware of the restrictions (and joys) of life on a small Catholic school campus. This was another aspect of the story that rang true for me.

Saoirse Ronan plays this role so well, and Greta Gerwig does such a lovely job bringing Sacramento to life on the big screen, a city that rarely gets a chance to shine on the big screen. “Lady Bird” very accurately portrays me as a teenager, just a few years later and a few miles north.

The Birdcage (inspired by Films to be buried with)

3 Mar

I don’t know if “The Birdcage” qualifies as the best movie ever made by Hollywood, or by critics, or by audiences, but in my book it’s perfect. What are the many ways in which it is perfect? Let’s see:

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Elaine May

Starring Robin Williams, Dianne Wiest, and a very memorable, heavily accented Hank Azaria.

“The Birdcage” ably straddles the line between slapstick, silly humor (“Madonna! Madonna! But you keep it all inside”), intelligent, turn-for-a-second-and-you’ll-miss-it dialogue (“Mary, it’s porno, not pronto), and adept social commentary. I often think of what a favorite college professor of mine said, and it applies here: Steven Soderbergh could have written a million op-eds decrying the war on drugs. Instead he made Traffic. Which I always interpreted to mean: a well-crafted, two hour movie can say as much as a host of polemics on a timely subject- and can often say it better, and in a more entertaining way. The moral of every Disney movie is ‘Be yourself’. The moral of “The Birdcage” could be summed up in the same way, while also critiquing the mind-numbing hypocrisy of 1990’s political life (the holier than thou family values crew in Washington and their very unsavory private lives). This movie is so quotable, I don’t know where to start (“Lady, not for a million bucks”, “May I take your purse as usual or….for the first time”), but it’s incisive and hilarious at the same time, a real rarity.

The Joy Luck Club (inspired by Films to be buried with)

2 Mar

Crying because of something you see in a movie is a disorienting experience. It’s cathartic, so at times it’s an experience to seek out, and yet at other times it’s an experience to avoid. Because you know how you’ll react. For a while now, my Dad has been reminding me that “The Joy Luck Club” is newly recorded on our TV, and yet I hesitate to watch it. Maybe some evening when I’m all alone, and need a good cry. Or when I miss my Mom.

I don’t think it usually pops up on lists of movies that make audiences cry- it’s no “Dead Poets Society”- but it’s about the relationships between a set of mothers and daughters- specifically, immigrant mothers. Naturally, the comparison to my family is apt, since my Mom was born in Mexico, the only one of her friends to not be born in the U.S. Yet there are aspects of her life in the old country, and her striving for a better life in America, that resonate in the movie. One obvious theme that comes through is the idea that mothers will do anything at all for their children. I recall a scene where an exhausted woman leaves her howling twin babies by the side of the road, as she continues on her journey with one older child. Then, towards the end of the film, this grown baby, now an adult, travels to China to meet the twin sisters she never knew. The durable ties of family. Cue the tears.

The one scene, besides that one, that always gets my tears flowing is the one where this same daughter, played by Ming-Na Wen, argues to her mother that she is nothing like her peers because she isn’t as smart, or beautiful, or successful. Her mother stops her and says, “You have perfect quality heart. I see you”. I can barely type the sentence without tearing up now! What a resolution to a difficult mother/daughter relationship. Maybe I relate to the young woman who always compares herself unfavorably to her peers, and just wants that familial (motherly) recognition. I see you. It’s so simple, and so moving.

Requiem for a Dream (inspired by Films to be buried with)

2 Mar

No movie has produced such a visceral reaction in me than “Requiem for a dream”. By the end of it, I was ugly crying, sobbing, in the living room. Why did it shake me to my core? And how on Earth did this start with the movie “White Chicks?”

I went to see the movie White Chicks in the theaters with my Mom, and on the way home she casually mentioned that Marlon Wayans had done a dramatic role once- and I should check it out, because he was really good in it. For whatever reason, we found “Requiem for a dream” on TV and watched it right away (was it a Saturday? Was it the summer? Why did we have all the time in the world?). I was horrified by the lengths that the characters in the movie- played alternately by Marlon Wayans, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn- went to to get their next drug high. In two hours, addiction takes over their lives, and we see as they lose their selfhood in the pursuit of the next hit. I see Marlon Wayans working on a chain gang in the South, the lower half of his arm missing (I don’t remember why. Wasted away with too much heroin use?). I see Jennifer Connolly getting dollar bills thrown in her face as men yell “Ass to Ass!”, and she furiously pumps away. And the saddest scene of all, the friends of Ellen Burstyn’s character, embracing each other on a bench, consoling each other as they sob, mourning the loss of their friend, still alive but ravaged by too many electroshock treatments.

And in between it all, the hiss and gurgle of blue water trickling and the drug (heroin?) hissing as it cooks on a spoon. This is all what lingers from “Requiem for a Dream”. There are no ghosts or corpses, but it is still the scariest movie I can think. I haven’t watched it more than once, and I don’t think I could.

January and February and everything after

2 Jan

Luckily, 2020 is already receding quickly from memory, and living with my parents becomes just another fact of life for me. But a year ago I was attending a New Year’s Day fitness class at Barry’s Bootcamp, taking a Lyft from my apartment to get to the Castro district location, then walking back to 17th and Castro, where I waited for a 24 Divisadero bus to take me over the hill towards home. Well, first I probably stopped and had lunch at Dara Indian, because stopping in there after a workout and stuffing my face with vegetable curry and rice and chai is what I liked to do. It was part of that nice little city life routine I had worked out for myself. It wasn’t grand, but it was part of the rhythm of my days. It broke about two months into 2020, and it now feels like a very distant memory. Walking down Castro Street to pick up coffee in the Castro, or walking in the other direction to stroll 24th Street in my neighborhood, Noe Valley. I guess one thing these recollections have in common is independence. Freedom. The freedom to encounter familiar face, neighbors, the occasional tourist with a map and a camera. In February, I bought Girl Scout cookies from a young girl towing her cookies in a red wagon in front of the Castro Theater. I took Muni to Cole Valley to meet girlfriends at Padrecito for margaritas and Mexican food on the night of the California primary election. On our way out, I stopped to excitedly tell a couple at a table near us that I had also voted for Elizabeth Warren (one or both of them were wearing Warren caps, the memory fades for me a bit, but I remember at least one khaki baseball cap). I waited in the cold with my friends until we all got Lyfts and Ubers home. And that cold, February night was the last night any of us would see each other for a long time. I haven’t seen them since.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of positive reflections of people feeling gratitude for the lessons taught by 2020. I feel enormously grateful for making it through my summer of physical rehab, which also feels like a distant dream, like something that will just be a bit of trivia in no time. Yes, we should thank the year that’s passed for teaching us what’s important, what we value. What we miss. For me, that’s other people. It’s the friends and coworkers who made up my days, but also the hundreds of people who make up daily life- the commuters packed into a morning Muni car, the people jammed into cafés in the morning, packed restaurants at lunch, crowded bars at Happy Hour where I’d gather with coworkers to talk about anything and everything non-work related. The common thread was people- everywhere, at all times. Sometimes loud, sometimes annoying, but always there. It’s the crowds and strangers I miss, the ones I’ll be happiest to see when life comes crawling back. People. They’re what I won’t take for granted in 2021.

The year I stopped reading

30 Dec

I can’t entirely blame the loss of my reading habit on the pandemic, because I stopped reading in February. As I recall, I became engrossed in “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu in January, and then…nothing. There were two books I picked up and abandoned in February: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney and “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell, which I found excruciating. I always did my reading during my commute, pulling my current novel out of my bag and reading it on the J-Church, between Church and 20th and Montgomery stations in the morning, and then Montgomery to Church and 24th in the afternoons. As the cars ambled by Dolores Park, the doors blocked by strollers and nannies, I pulled out my book again and got through a few more pages. For whatever reason, I found that I could only read during that in-between place that was not work and not home. The ferry, the bus, the trolley car. Occasionally, a café, like the big, comfy chair at the Philz in the Castro, where I would often sit and read for an hour or so. Once I stopped commuting and I stayed home all day, my fiction-reading ceased.

But not for lack of trying. In addition to the two books above, I tried reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward and “Circe” by Madeleine Miller. And maybe under different circumstances I would have finished them both, but I only got about a third of the way through the first, and barely into the second, without getting any further. Is it because I’ve lost my physical space for reading? Or have I lost my desire, my mental space?

I’ve tried picking up new books during this time. I’ve tried reading, because I don’t know who I am if I’m not a reader. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had my nose in a book. It feels like an important part of who I am. Susan the reader, that’s how I’ve always been described. Social media is great for keeping up with friends and jokes and keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. But to get absorbed in a well-told story, in a world of the author’s own making, all in my head, populated by an ever-changing cast made up of the people I see every day- that’s an experience that I cherish, and that seems to be fading from me with each abandoned book.

I hope to leave this weird aversion to novel-reading behind with the rest of 2020. I hope to finish my current book, the second book in the “Three-Body Problem” trilogy, and resume my residence in the worlds of novels. I miss it there.

Top TV Shows of 2020

24 Dec

I wish I could say I spent the hours indoors these last few months training for the Iron Man triathlon, but I actually spent time in front of a TV screen when I wasn’t in front of my work screen. But when there was this much good TV, and so much ugliness going on in the world outside, television was even more of a refuge than usual. The shows below brought some

The Crown: I’ve enjoyed every season of The Crown, and even muddled through when some early episodes were slow-paced and seemed to offer little narrative reward, due to the stellar acting, writing and visuals (this is still Buckingham Palace, after all). But Season 4 had no dull moments, most likely because of the introduction of two new characters- Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Season 4 had a voyeuristic quality, seeing the sad origins of the Prince Charles and Princess Diana story we all knew would end in tragedy, and seeing characters we knew were rotten, notably Camilla. One of the family members this season notes that new members of the family either bend or break. I thought about that as it relates to Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. One bent, and one nearly broke.

Fauda: It came out years ago, but I discovered this Israeli series this spring, and quickly binged all two seasons. It was an action-packed take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and though believability was stretched in some places- I wondered how the main Israeli agent could speak such good Arabic as he went undercover in the West Bank- I thought the pacing was so well-done, first in the West Bank in season one and then in the Gaza Strip in season two. I enjoyed hearing some Arabic here and there (habibi tells me that romance is being discussed). I’m eagerly awaiting season three on Netflix.

Ted Lasso: So well-written and so winningly lead by Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso is the optimistic show we all need. How do you explain a Division II football coach being asked to coach an English Premier League soccer team? As the show explains it, he was hired by the team’s new owner, who hired him to sabotage the team, which she got from her boorish ex-husband in a divorce, and which she hopes to drive into the ground. So how does Ted Lasso earn the respect of the team and its English fans? With his winning attitude and endless supply of folksy expressions, of course (his tangent on the fabulousness of Alfonso Ribeiro is a highlight). I just may rewatch it. It’s that delightful.

The Last Dance: Another relic of the springtime quarantine, The Last Dance was something to look forward to for four weeks in a row. Did it take 20 years to put this documentary together? Who knows, but it was just what we needed at the time. The show that launched a thousand Jordan memes, this look at stardom and solitude in the person of one Michael Jordan was revealing about the man, but also the times, when If you had visions of basketball stardom in the 90’s, you had to step aside, because it was Jordan’s show, for better or for worse. The structure of the documentary was compelling, interspersing footage from Jordan’s final season with his early years in North Carolina. All in all, it was so entertaining and meticulously done.