Saturday, February 25, 2023

BOOKS: Gender Queer: A Memoir

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe was the most banned book of the 2021-2022 school year (per PEN America), which seemed to me a great reason to buy it and read it. All the more so because it is a great window into the experience of a non-binary person, something I’ve been eager to learn more about as we have more and more gender-nonconforming people in our lives. Kobabe (who uses the pronouns e/em/eir) is a talented graphic artist, and the book is a graphic memoir, presented in comic book style, so I couldn’t do this one on audio, I had to buy the physical book and read it the old-fashioned way. I found the graphic aspect quite an effective communication style, telling the story through illustrations, captions, dialog, and thought bubbles. Eir story was so interesting as e really struggled to figure out eir identity. (Yes, I had to type that sentence haltingly. This pronoun thing doesn’t come easily to anyone, including the author, who talks about struggling with it and messing up emself. But e also eloquently describes how e felt when eir pronouns weren’t respected, and how much it meant to em when they were.) E tried to find eir place as lesbian, trans, asexual, but nothing was quite right. I appreciate how eir experience was so different to mine, as a cisgender gay man. I started with similar feelings of alienation and not understanding where I fit in the world, but then I had a clear epiphany – I’m not this, I’m that! Kobabe knew e wasn’t “this”, but really struggled to figure out eir “that”. The book is a candid and direct depiction of eir experiences and feelings, told in a simple and accessible way that would be perfectly appropriate for a teenage reader (and incredibly valuable for one who was experiencing similar struggles). Eir story is much more emotional and social than physical, but does include some candid scenes of eir first menstruation, eir first pap smear, and eir first tentative sexual encounter, which is what the book banners will point to. I didn’t find those few parts to be the least bit prurient, erotic, or in any way inappropriate for a teenager. An 8th grader wouldn’t find anything here about sex or anatomy that they hadn’t already seen in health class, but they might learn much about empathy for the variety of human experience.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

FILM: Of An Age

Of An Age is the second feature film from Macedonian-Australian writer-director Goran Stolevski, and won some acclaim at film festivals in Australia. It depicts a fleeting romantic encounter that leaves indelible marks on the two lives even 11 years later. I found it very reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s classic Before Sunset, not only in concept, but in its minimalist, live-stream feel. I’m sure that Stolevski must have seen the Before trilogy and thought to himself, I’ve got to make a gay version of that for a young Macedonian immigrant in Melbourne. The romance is a tantalizingly smoldering build, propelled by the strength of the actors’ performances and their chemistry. Will we see a sequel ten years later?

Saturday, February 04, 2023

FILM: Close

The Belgian film Close is a vivid, tender, heartbreaking coming-of-age story of two best boyhood friends whose friendship is tested by the social crucible of starting middle school. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and is a contender for Best International Feature Film at the 2023 Oscars. While the coming-of-age genre is well-explored for adolescents and sexual awakening, there are far fewer “coming-of-a-younger-age” films that are presexual and innocent. My friend Alan compared it to Stand By Me, a similar story of childhood friendship at that age, young enough to be innocent, but powerful enough to mark you for life. (Perhaps we have to go back to 1986 to find something so comparable.) And he noted the likeness between Eden Dambrine, the young star of Close, and the young River Phoenix, in their captivating performances. The film is very cinematic, in that much of the story is shown rather than told, and Eden Dambrine’s talent to convey emotion wordlessly is breathtaking. So much just plays across his face as he is attending a concert, or running through a field, or lying in bed. It’s haunting. (Think of Timothée Chalamet looking into the fire at the end of Call Me By Your Name.) The underlying emotions are enhanced by the visually lush film. Scenes of harvesting flowers (the family business of one of the boys) harken paintings of Dutch masters but with impressionist colors.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

FILM: A Man Called Otto

If you’re looking for a warm feel-good film, you’ll enjoy A Man Called Otto, in which Tom Hanks portrays a punctilious old curmudgeon whose sole satisfaction in life since his wife died is to patrol his neighborhood for HOA infractions. When a young immigrant family rents a house across the street, Otto’s life is turned around in ways he never expects. It’s apparently a remake of a 2015 Swedish film that I hadn’t known of. To me it was reminiscent of other fine films of the “crusty old man forms unexpected bond with new young neighbors” genre like St. Vincent (Bill Murray) and Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), though each has its own unique twists. Here we gradually learn about Otto’s past and perhaps what has made him so grumpy. In a grace note of casting, the younger Otto in flashbacks is played by Truman Hanks, Tom’s real life son. Second week in a row we came out of the film smiling through damp eyes.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

FILM: Living

In Living, Bill Nighy gives an exquisite performance as Mr. Williams, a dour elder manager in the 1950s British civil service who, when confronted with his own mortality, struggles to find meaning in his life. This is actually a remake of Ikura, an Akiro Kurosawa classic from 1962 but it transplants beautifully from Japanese culture to British with its constrictive social conventions and comic-pathetic depiction of “county hall” bureaucracy. No surprise given this beautifully written adaptation was by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go). We came out of this film smiling through damp eyes.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

New Zealand Itinerary

We had a fantastic 18-day trip to New Zealand.
AucklandDay 1 - Arrive in Auckland
The 13-hour direct flight from LAX to Auckland was not as bad as expected. We left at 9pm, arrived at 6am, and slept on the flight, so weren't too out of synch. And in terms of "body clock" hours, New Zealand is a day ahead but only three hours earlier than California, so it's kind of the same as going to Hawaii. We pick up a rental car at the airport, and settle into the Cordis Hotel, a high-end business class hotel that will be our home for the next two nights (US$235/night). After getting settled, we wander down to the Sky Tower to familiarize ourselves with this city by surveying it from 700 feet up. From there, we wander down to Viaduct Harbor, the Commercial Business District, and to the charming Albert Park, before circling back to the harbor front for dinner.
Day 2 - Explore Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island We had no set agenda for our first couple days in New Zealand, intentionally leaving things open to be as lazy or ambitious as we felt while we got adjusted to the timezone. We chose to take the ferry out to Waiheke Island and spend most of the day there, exploring Oneroa beach and the cute little town with some nice galleries, restaurants, and shops. We took the bus in to town, but did the 30-minute walk back through the Atawhai Whenua nature reserve, a lovely walk through fern-filled and bird-filled forest. The 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke is nice in itself to give you a good sense of Auckland Harbor and its several islands. Dinner we had booked ahead for Ahi, one of Auckland's top restaurants with lovely views over the Ferry Building.
Day 3 - Hobbiton en route to Rotorua
Hobbiton In the morning, on the way out of Auckland, we did the short walk up to Maungawhau Mt Eden, an ancient volcanic crater with lovely views over greater Auckland. We then headed to Hobbiton to spend an afternoon being utterly charmed by the Lord of the Rings movie set. Even the one in our group who didn't care a bit about LoTR was delighted by this magical fairy tale setting. From there we continued to Rotorua, where we would spend the next four nights at the Novotel Rotorua Lakeside, an excellent base for the area (US$229/night). We had a little time to wander up to the lakefront and walk a bit along the nice newly built walkways there. (Driving time: 2 hours from Auckland to Hobbiton, then another hour to Rotorua.)
George about to abseilDay 4 - Rotorua: Canopy Tour and Glow Worms
This packed day started with a morning walk over to Ohinemutu, a Māori settlement, where we checked out the Te Papaiouru marae (a Māori meeting house) with its intricate carvings, and the historic St Faith Church with its Māori interior craftwork. We also gawked at all the fumaroles, places where steam just comes up out of the ground or bubbles up in the water, in this geothermally active area. In the afternoon, we embarked on the Ultimate Canopy Tour, an amazing adventure exploring the forest canopy of a nature reserve by way of ziplines, suspension swing bridges, and catwalks. In the evening, we set out for a naturalist-led nocturnal glow worm tour forest walk.
Maori powhiri hakaDay 5 - Rotorua: Government Gardens and Maori Encounter
We took this as a low-key day, just wandered the town, did some souvenir shopping. We also wandered the Government Gardens, and admired the Rotorua Museum (currently closed for renovations) which is a splendid example of Elizabethan Revival architecture. In the evening, we attended Te Pā Tū a Māori cultural experience and feast.
Geyser at Te PuiaDay 6 - Rotorua: Te Puia and Waimangu
In the morning, we headed to Te Puia for different Māori experience. We had a guided tour of the Māori natural reserve near Rotorua, which included watching the Pohutu geyser in one of its regular eruptions, visiting a kiwi conservation habitat (so cool to see these iconic birds in real life), and touring the institute of traditional M&amcr;ori crafts of wood carving, stone carving, and weaving. In the afternoon, it was raining but we drove around the nearby countryside to see the some of the geothermal features like Waimangu Volcanic Valley and the Orakei Korako Geothermal Park, and headed to Lake Taupō for dinner, taking in Huka Falls on the way.
Day 7 - Fly Rotorua to Christchurch
Christchurch Arts Centre A noon flight from Rotorua to Christchurch allowed us a leisurely departure from the North Island and arrival in the South in plenty of time to get settled in our extraordinary hotel for the next three nights, The Observatory, a boutique hotel built into the historic neo-Gothic former campus of Canterbury College now repurposed as an arts centre, cinema, and wine bar. Like staying at Hogwarts, but with a modern interior makeover (US$185/night for basic room, $277 for suite). We had time in the afternoon for a stroll along the Avon River and a peek into the botanical gardens across the street, before heading to a tasting menu dinner at Inati.
Hector's dolphinsDay 8 - Akaroa Day Trip (Dolphins and Penguins)
We drove out to the historic harbor town of Akaroa on the Banks peninsula, a beautiful scenic drive up, over, and into the ancient volcanic caldera that forms the harbor. In the afternoon we took a harbor cruise where we got to see the Hector's dolphins, an endangered species of dolphin endemic to this area. In the evening, we did a naturalist-led tour to see the Pohatu penguins on the sea, coming ashore, and in their nests. (The drive from Christchurch to Akaroa is about 90 minutes each way.)
ZZZDay 9 - Christchurch (Punting, Cathedrals)
We explored Christchurch, delving deeper into the amazing botanic gardens, checking out the Canterbury Museum, going punting on the Avon (an iconic Christchurch activity), lunching at the Riverside Markets, and visiting the reconstruction site of the classic Christchurch cathedral (destroyed in a 2011 earthquake) and the "transitional" cathedral built of cardboard and shipping containers that has temporarily replaced it.
Day 10 - Drive to Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo chapel We drove from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo, with a lovely lunch stop at Barker's in Geraldine. Our home for the next couple of nights in this area was Hazel's House, a 4-bedroom, 2.5-bath rental home (US$186/night split across 2 couples). (This lake town is like a New Zealand version of Lake Arrowhead, not very many hotels, more rental homes catering to weekend vacationers from Christchurch as well as international travelers.) We had time to wander down by the vivid blue lake (the striking color is caused by "glacial dust" from the glacier runoff that feeds tha lake), to see the charming chapel and sheepdog statue, and the glorious profusion of lupines that were in bloom all around the lake. In the evening, we drove to Lake Pukaki (35 minutes) to the exclusive Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat where we enjoyed a very memorable dinner in a gorgeous setting.
Day 11 - Aoraki Mt Cook Air Safari and Glacier Tour
Aoraki Air Safari In the morning, we did the Grand Traverse with Air Safaris, an hour long aerial tour up and around the dramatic snow-covered mountain peaks of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park (the "southern Alps") and a good look at the Tasman and Franz Josef glaciers. In the afternoon, we drove up to Mt Cook Village and its historic Hermitage Hotel, where we took the Glacier Explorers tour combining a beautiful hike through alpine terrain to Tasman Lake, where a small pontoon boat took us out to see (and touch and taste) some icebergs and to get a good look at the Tasman Glacier. (Drive from Lake Tekapo to Mt Cook Village about 1:10 each way.)
Day 12 - Drive to Wanaka
ZZZ In the morning, we drove out to the Omerama Clay Cliffs, a lovely hike amidst more profusions of lupine and other wild flowers to a striking clay rock formation. In Omarama, we had a lovely lunch at the Pink Glider Cafe, at the glider airport (a major site for glider planes). We then continued on to our next destination, Lake Wanaka, another beautiful lake in the foothills of the southern Alps, this one the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. We had time for a little walk along the lakeshore and to see the Instagram-famous #thatwanakatree before taking a lovely dinner at the Wineglass Cafe in the Edgewater Hotel. Our home for the night in Lake Wanaka was the , a motel on the outside (very convenient car parking in front of each room) with unexpectedly high-end furnishings on the inside (US$145/night). (Total drive time today was 2:20)
Yacht on Lake Te AnauDay 13 - Drive to Te Anau
In the morning heading out of Lake Wanaka, we took a fascinating tour and tasting at The Cardrona Disillery who are just now bringing out their first aged batches of whisky in the finest Scottish tradition, along with excellent gin and vodka. We stopped for a well-recommended lunch at Provisions of Arrowtown and took some time to walk the main street of that charming town, before driving on to our next destination, Te Anau, the lakeside gateway to the Fiordlands. Our rooms for the next two nights were the Lakefront Lodge in the heart of Te Anau (US$171/night). We enjoyed an evening stroll along the shore of the beautiful lake, watching the birds and the boats, and a visit to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary to see some rare endemic birds like the takahē. (Total drive time today was 2:50)
Milford Sound PiopiotahiDay 14 - Milford Sound Piopiotahi
This day was devoted to driving out to the famous Milford Sound Piopiotahi, where we had booked a boat on Cruise Milford. Milford Sound is a stunning place, often compared to the Norwegian fjords, though the more familiar resemblance for me was Yosemite Valley (if it were half-filled with sea water). The drive from Te Anau is about two hours, but it is a spectacular drive in itself, mostly within Fiordland National Park, and you'll want to allow for stops to look at waterfalls and take short hikes in the magical beech forests. We got back in time for a very nice dinner at the Redcliff Cafe.
Kepler TrackDay 15 - Kepler Track and Drive to Queenstown
In the morning, just outside of Te Anau, we stopped at the Rainbow Reach along the Waiau River, where we could sample a short bit of the famous Kepler Track (one of New Zealand's famous "great walks", multi-day hikes with huts along the way). The river and forest are beautiful, and you can see why this was one of the many Lord of the Rings film locations. From there, we made the 2-hour drive from Te Anau to Queenstown, much of that scenic along the vast Lake Wakatipu. We checked in to our lodgings for the next two nights, a splurge luxury 2-bedroom apartment at The Rees Hotel with a deck with breathtaking views over the lake and across to The Remarkables mountain range (US$293/couple/night). We enjoyed an extraordinary dinner in the hotel's True South dining room.
Paraglider over QueenstownDay 16 - Explore Queenstown
We enjoyed a leisurely day exploring Queenstown, starting with the gondola ride up to the top of Bob's Peak, where we had spectacular views over Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains, and we tried the luge course. From both above and below, we watched people parasailing off the top of the mountain and landing down in town, but we weren't quite brave enough to try it ourselves. For dinner, we shared the famous roast lamb at Pedro's By The Lake.
Queenstown GardensDay 17 - Queenstown Bonus Day
We had time before our late afternoon flight home, so in the morning we took a scenic (if rainy) drive up the lake to Glenorchy, before returning to Queenstown to see why people waited in such long lines for Fergburger (they are good!), and then packing up and heading to the airport. Alas, we discovered at the airport that our Queenstown-Auckland leg was canceled, and Air New Zealand had rebooked us to fly home on the same flights the next day. They very graciously put us up for another night at the Sofitel Queenstown, right in the heart of town. Once resettled, we spent the rest of that day wandering through the expansive and beautiful Queenstown Gardens, and enjoying our "bonus day".
TuataraDay 18 - Fly Home
We once again had time before we had to get to the airport, so we walked over the Kiwi Park bird sanctuary, where we got to see not only the iconic kiwis, but a number of other endemic birds and reptiles, including the fascinating tuatara. This time our flights did come off as planned, and we had smooth flights from Queenstown to Auckland (1:45 flight time) and then Auckland direct home to LAX (12 hours).
Notes on the itinerary
Overall, we were extremely happy with this itinerary. We'd recommend all of the hotels and experiences. None of the driving times were onerous. November (late spring in NZ) was a good time, not quite the busy summer season, flowers in bloom, and lots of baby lambs and birdlings. Pro tip: Since we arrived in Auckland at 6am, we intentionally booked the hotel for the previous night just so we could arrive early in the morning and have immediate access to our room, rather than having to wait until the afternoon to check in. That's a trade-off of cost for comfort that we've made before for early arrivals, and never regretted it. A nap if you need it and a hot shower makes that arrival so much better.
Regrets and Things We Might Do Differently
No regrets, this worked out great. Things I'd do different would just be extensions: would have loved to have got down to Tongariro National Park for a night or two in the Chateau Tongariro and hiking in the park's dramatic volcanoes (this would be a spur trip out of Rotorua). Could have spent another night in Lake Wanaka, getting into Mount Aspiring National Park and Rob Roy Glacier. Wouldn't have minded another night in Te Anau to explore that lovely area. And we missed getting to see the Dark Sky Project in Lake Tekapo because we were there on the days it was closed (though it wouldn't have mattered because it was cloudy). Weather note: it will rain at some point during your trip, so pack accordingly, be willing to do stuff anyway if it's not raining too hard, and just be flexible in your plans.
Notes on Cost
The total cost of this trip was about $9600 per couple (two couples traveling together, including coach airfare out of LAX), including about $1500/person airfare, $4000/couple on lodging (average room cost $240/night for mostly higher end hotels), $2460 for rental cars and gas (we rented oversize 7-passenger vehicles to accommodate 4 people with large luggage), and $1400/couple for "experiences" (ziplining, boat cruises, etc). Not included in that was $2100/couple for food, about $115/day. Prices for everything were much lower than at home. The NZ$ was about US$0.60, and posted prices looked pretty normal, so it's like everything was on sale 40% off. We dined at some very high-end restaurants, and even those were about $100/person all in. (Note that in New Zealand, tipping is not a thing. They pay their staff a living wage and don't expect tips.)

Friday, April 08, 2022

FILM: Everything Everywhere All At Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once was fun, funny, and heartfelt. From the trailer, the film looks like some strange mix of The Matrix and Kung Fu Panda, not the sort of thing we’d usually go for, but from reading some reviews (and seeing that this got really high scores on both critic and popular ratings), we decided to give it a try. It turns out that it’s really a mix of The Matrix, Kung Fu Panda, and It’s A Wonderful Life, and if you can’t imagine what that creative blend would be like, that just attests to the unique creativity of this film. On one level, it’s a story about an immigrant family with a small business struggling to make ends meet, and questioning some of their life choices. On another level, it raises questions about how humanity can rise above the nihilism that ought to be inherent in contemplating what a small speck in a vast universe we are. And on another level, it’s the story of an overburdened laundromat owner (Michelle Yeoh) as being the unlikely superhero the multiverse needs to counter the ultimate evil in the form of an everything bagel, while avoiding the menace of an IRS tax auditor (hilariously portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis). I'm glad that we made the choice (at least in this universe) to see it.

Friday, March 04, 2022

FILM: Cyrano

Friday afternoon movie - we both really enjoyed Cyrano, which just opened this weekend, with Peter Dinklage in the title role. We'd heard a less than lukewarm review of it on NPR, so went in with lowered expectations, but just looking for a little escape and romance. We were delighted and transported. Dinklage, as any Game of Thrones fan knows, is capable of greatness, and he is superb in this role - charming, full of panache, and so passionate. Haley Bennett as Roxanne is every bit his match, and Kelvin Harrison Jr is a sweet Christian to complete this triangle. The costuming and cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (filmed in Sicily, which we recognized from our recent trip), making it a feast for the eyes as the story works your heart and tears. The songs and the singing were lovely and moving. Bennett has a beautiful voice, and while Dinklage certainly doesn't have a Broadway voice, he definitely wasn't Pierce Brosnan either, and the authenticity of his voice didn't offend my ear. Definitely recommend.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

FILM: The Power of the Dog

Last night we watched The Power of the Dog, which has a lot of Oscar hype. It did indeed have some great performances, fine direction (Jane Campion), gorgeous cinematography, and an excellent score. The film is set in Montana 1923, following two brothers who run a prosperous cattle ranch, one of whom, George (an understated performance by Jesse Plemons), marries a widow with a young adult son. The single brother, Phil (exquisitely performed by Benedict Cumberbatch), is a study in repression and tortured masculinity, with strong ideas of what it means to be a man, and an ever-present reverence for a long-gone mentor named Bronco Henry (visually represented by Henry’s empty saddle). Phil is intimidating to George’s new wife Rose (evocatively portrayed by Kirsten Dunst) and to her effeminate son Peter, and drives Rose to drink. The film follows this character tension amidst beautiful scenes of cowboy / ranch life in the very photogenic Montana hills. It’s a shame we saw this at home, as it really deserves the big screen. It is vividly filmed, and you almost feel the wind, taste the dust, and smell the cattle. The time, place, and feel are reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain (and geographically these characters could well have run into Jack and Ennis), but there’s little romance to be found here. If you were looking for an action-packed western, this is not your film, but if you appreciate tight character studies, this is more that. As far as action, relatively little actually happens in this slow-developing story, which is carried by the great performances, beautiful scenery, and score. To be honest, even three-quarters of the way through, I could have easily turned it off. And yet I am glad that I stuck with it to the unexpected end, and it stayed with me, making me think about it.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

FILM: Cruella

Cruella is as wicked fun as it looks, and Emma Stone is delightfully wicked in bringing to life this re-envisioned classic Disney villain. Evil characters are so much more interesting than good ones, and especially when writers dream up intriguing back stories where people aren’t quite as black-and-white as a 1961 Disney film may have made them out to be. Especially when they are foiled against an even more evil villain in Emma Thompson’s fantastically wicked baroness, who imperiously rules over a London fashion empire, whom a young Cruella aspires to be like and eventually take down. Using the cut-throat high fashion industry as the set is brilliant for this story, and comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada are apt, especially since this film was co-written by the same writer. Emma Thompson’s baroness makes even Meryl Streep’s fashion queen seem warm. The 1980s London punk aesthetic is the perfect look for the young upstart designer, with a gothy parade of fantastic costumes, and there’s just something about London that makes for charming thieves and grifters, with fun heisty bits like at times like a lighter version of Ocean’s Eight. The twisted plot has enough twists to keep this villainous prequel intriguing to the end, with some nice puzzle pieces falling into place to set up the classic Disney film.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

FILM: Los Hermanos

If you like modern Cuban classical music, or if you just enjoy a good uplifting story, you should see Los Hermanos (The Brothers), a documentary about two Cuban brothers, both extraordinary musicians, one a violinist who made his life in the US and the other a composer and pianist who made his life in Cuba. After decades of limited contact, the two finally got the opportunity to make music together in a joyful reunion. Through some improbably obtained archival footage, we get glimpses of their childhood in Havana, their musical education, and their father who is a notable Cuban composer and conductor. The film beautifully presents Cuban life in all its contradictions, the joy and the privations, the cultural richness and the bureaucracy. But the heart of the story is the music and the passion for making it, and the music these brothers are making is vibrant and riveting. There are some great scenes that really give insight into how musicians talk to each other as they are bringing a piece of music to life. There is a joy in life that they exude in their music, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves, on their strings, and in their scores. We came away from this film smiling, humming, and filled with their contagious joy. We were lucky to attend the film premiere in Santa Monica, where we could enjoy this music-filled film in full theater sound, and afterward there was a Q&A with the filmmakers Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel hosted by NPR arts journalist Mandelit Del Barco. (Ken is an old high school friend, and I couldn’t be more proud to know Ken and Marcia after seeing this fantastic work!)