A Post of Fire and Ice: The Spoils of War

7 Aug

“The Spoils of War”, the fourth episode in this abbreviated seventh season of Game of Thrones, was the first episode yet where I felt that my expectations and the show I watched didn’t quite match up. My friends and I heard that the episode would be epic, one of the best ever, and while it showed us some things we had never seen before, like the Dothraki in battle, I didn’t feel that it lived up to the hype. The Dothraki and Dany’s dragon roared into battle to ambush the Lannister army as they were heading back to King’s Landing. Sure, the element of surprise was the point. Jon Snow told Daenerys earlier on that she needs to show the people why she is unlike every other ruler they’ve known. Perhaps Daenerys flew in to attack the Lannisters knowing full well that, while the display she put on had little strategic importance, this was largely for public relations. The common people will talk and rally to her side. And word will get back to Queen Cersei.

But let’s rewind and revisit the second reunion of Stark siblings in two weeks: last week it was Bran and Sansa, this week it was Arya and Sansa. The sisters talked to each other with stilted language, and it’s good to remember that this may not just be the awkwardness of separating as girls and reuniting as women. Back in season 1, when they were last together, they were as different as night and day. The princess who wanted to marry a prince and the tomboy who wanted to learn to fight. In their own ways, they’ve matured- Sansa is a jaded survivor, wise to the manipulations of others, while Arya has taken her fierce independence and desire to be controlled by no one to an extreme. They both, along with their brother Bran/The Three-Eyed Raven, must learn to band together and be a family again. There is a reason the Stark family sigil is a wolf. They only succeed as a pack, not alone. There is a reason they are under the same roof again as winter closes in.

Sibling loyalty is also on display as Tyrion catches sight of Jaime for the first time since fleeing Westeros in late season 4. Tyrion’s loyalties may be tested soon, since I predict that the ambush in The Reach ends not with Jaime drowning in a surprisingly deep lake alongside Bronn, but will result in his being taken captive by Daenerys (not the first time Jaime has been taken hostage after a battle. He spent nearly all of season 2 as a Stark bargaining chip). The final moments of this episode, when Jaime charges at Daenerys with an improvised spear, prompt dread in his brother Tyrion, who still feels some affection for the older brother who freed him so long ago, to whom he owes so much. We also see, in that final, panicked charge towards the enemy, a glimpse into what makes Jaime tick: an instinct to kill an enemy, to defend the realm, with no regard to his own likely injury or death, if it is for the greater good. It may be noble or it may be foolish (Tyrion certainly thinks the latter), but Jaime is a warrior at heart choosing to fight rather than observe from the sidelines as Bronn urged him to do. I doubt that Game of Thrones is done with him yet. I believe that Jaime, along with Bran, Arya, Samwell, the Hound and others will all play an important role in the war to come. Soon.

Also, it must be noted that every time poor Dickon Tarly’s name is mentioned, I laugh. I was glad to know that, in the universe of the show, it is considered a pretty ridiculous name (Bronn sure thinks so). I wrote about the show’s approach to humor more when writing about “The Queen’s Justice”.

A Post of Fire and Ice: The Queen’s Justice

1 Aug

Halfway through season 3, “The Queen’s Justice” provided some real satisfaction to the fan who has become invested in the Game of Thrones universe. After “Stormborn”, Daenerys and Jon Snow met- the fire and ice that give the series its title. Sansa reunited with her brother Bran, whom she hadn’t seen since he was a child. And Olenna Tyrell had a truly good death.

This episode was notable for how funny it was. Usually, as Vulture noted, humor on Game of Thrones has been a quip or a vulgar comment, but rarely has it made me laugh out loud. However, there were moments in this otherwise tense episode, full of poison lips and stymied military plans, that were clever- a testament to the writing of David Benioff and Dan Weiss. When Daenerys is announced by all of her powerful titles by Missandei, Ser Davos Seaworth triumphantly introduces Jon Snow thusly: “This is Jon Snow. He’s King in the North”.  Later on in the episode, Tyrion- always a source of wit and wisdom- tries to pass off an observation of his own as ancient wisdom, and Daenery catches him.

The humor in the episode underscores the strength of the writing. When Jon Snow and Daenerys meet, the scene isn’t hurried- rather, we see how these two very different, very unlikely rulers have assumed the mantle of leadership. Daenerys is haughty, presuming her titles and Jon’s ancestral oath to her house. Jon speaks to her of White Walkers and armies of the dead. We see that neither of them has learned how to politick, how to use rhetoric to convince a sceptic of their course of action, despite blunders in Meereen and Castle Black, respectively. As battles are lost across the continent, Daenerys will surely rethink her reliance on Tyrion- perhaps she’ll heed the words of the Queen of Highgarden, who told her to be a dragon. Jon Snow, meanwhile, needs to tread carefully. He’s a Northerner in a precarious position in the south, still too concerned with what’s noble than with what will work.

Sansa and Bran’s reunion was brief, but touching. One of my hopes as the series winds down, and I think may fans share it, is to see a reunion of surviving Stark children. Once Jon returns from Dragonstone- assuming he returns- all but Arya will be at Winterfell again. But will the Stark children become a family once again, or have their varying paths lead them so far from home that they won’t be able to relate to each other any more? Bran and Sansa already see a huge difference in one another. Arya is now a cold-blooded assassin. Bran has one mission to accomplish- tell Jon Snow about his true parentage. It is most likely this reason, and not homesickness, that brought him home.

The final scene of “The Queen’s Justice” is, again, a master class in acting, writing and directing. Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell communicates so much with a single look, such as the satisfaction of using her final moments alive to tell Jaime Lannister that she murdered Joffrey. And Nikolai Coster-Waldau, just as he did in the season 6 finale with his sister Cersei, conveys anger and disappointment in one withering stare. Olenna’s final scene was the ultimate mic drop. What a way to go.

 

A Post of Fire and Ice: Stormborn

24 Jul

The second episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones, “Stormborn”, takes us right where we left off after “Dragonstone“.  Daenerys Targaryen is a far cry from the meek bride married off to Khal Drogo in season 1; after amassing wealth and an army, breaking chains across Slaver’s Bay and instilling fear across Essos, she has developed into a fierce leader, learning to suss out the true motives of those around her, though still leaning on the counsel of a trusted few, such as Tyrion Lannister and, in this episode, Olenna Tyrell. Daenerys is certainly my pick to sit on the Iron Throne by series’ end, though we are seeing what kind of ruler she may be, and again, whether she will be fair and just or inherit the mad tendencies of her father (note that she told Varys, who seems to be moving up in the dead pool after his tense standoff with the Khaleesi, that she would burn him alive if he betrayed her). This is also the first season, perhaps since season 2 in Qarth, that Danerys is without the moderating influence of a lover. Recall that she left Dario Naaharis in Meereen. Without a lover to confide in, she harder, less soft. For better or worse.

Similarly, Cersei is more ruthless without three children to love. She seems to overestimate the loyalty of her subjects and underestimates the severity of what she is up against (Using a crossbow to fight dragons? Marrying the usurping king of the unimportant Iron Islands?). Cersei betrays no fear, but her position seems rather weak moving forward. She seems to have no allies and a weak military advantage faced with Khaleesi’s formidable forces. Also, notably, she has no one shrewd- no Tywin, no Varys, no Littlefinger- advising her. Only her brother Jaime is left to entreaty his sister to think through her actions and plead the Lannister case within Westeros.

Elsewhere, the prospect of Arya reuniting with her sister Sansa and Jon Snow meeting Daenerys is very real, and imminent. We are, remarkably, already one third of the way through this short season, which means that every character is featured for a reason. Samwell Tarly must be curing Jorah Mormont of his greyscale for some reason (both characters are the most loyal followers of Jon Snow and Khaleesi, respectively). Theon must have jumped ship, literally, for some reason, so he could serve some greater purpose elsewhere in the plot, other than just to serve as a living cautionary tale against betrayal and cowardice. Missandei and Grey Worm, though not important movers of the greater plot, are both humble servants of the Mother of Dragons. Their growing love has been satisfying to watch, and Grey Worm’s speech about Missandei being his weakness was a highlight of the episode.

The pieces are still being laid on the grand chess board (as comedian Kumail Nanjiani pointed out on Twitter, the manufacturers of the game pieces moved around on these massive maps must be the wealthiest house in Westeros). Things are moving fast, and characters from disparate parts of the realm are meeting and clashing and partnering already. Next week’s episode promises to be even more satisfying (Stark reunion!).

 

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 Black and White. 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 pay. 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, as is 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.