About This Blog

This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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Movie Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Posted by gck Wednesday, February 29, 2012 0 comments

…or, a night with Ewan McGregor. Yep, that’s right.

I usually don’t bother with Gofobo screenings. I get the invites and they usually don’t work out with my schedule because they’re sent so close to the day of the screening. They’re also commonly in Seattle and it’s a big hassle because I have to get over there, wait in line, and not be guaranteed a seat. But for last night’s screening, the e-mail mentioned that there would be a Q&A with Ewan McGregor afterwards, and SIFF has turned me into a sucker for Q&A. In fact, SIFF was definitely involved in this screening. The person who introduced Ewan McGregor and fielded questions was from SIFF, and I noticed that some people were getting in with SIFF passes, probably people with higher membership levels than mine.

The screening started at 8. My last experience with Gofobo was that they would let people in 30 minutes before, and if you showed up a little before that, you’d get a seat, probably a bad seat. So I figured about an hour before for this one. Fortunately, my friend Alexis, who was interested in seeing Ewan McGregor because she had just seen and enjoyed Perfect Sense, showed up an hour and a half early, and I joined her in line not long after that. We barely got in. They stopped letting people in and told us in the front that there might be seats for us, but they’d have to wait and see. A few people made the cutoff behind us, and that was it. But the good news was that we got to sit in the press seats! Couldn’t ask for better seats, and we weren’t far from where Ewan ended up sitting. Alexis went to the restroom, came back, and was trying to get past some people in the aisle. She said, “Excuse me,” looked down at the person in the seat next to the aisle, and it was Ewan McGregor! He had come in while she was gone.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
USA, 2012
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Watched: in theater, Pacific Place
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

The movie first. I had skimmed the few existing reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and they went about 50-50. So I went in with low expectations, and that worked out well. The movie is based on a novel by the same name, and it’s about a scientist who ends up working on a rich sheik’s crazy dream project to bring salmon to the deserts of Yemen. Along the way, he grows from being a facts-and-figures man to one who embraces the necessity of faith in life. As much as they might present this film as a drama, it’s really a romantic comedy, which means there aren’t any surprises except perhaps around the credibility of the plot events.

The good news is that it’s quite enjoyable to watch. It’s a strong crew of actors, and both Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt are quite funny in general. Amr Waked did a particularly good job in the role of the sheik. Kristen Scott Thomas’s character as the Prime Minister’s bitchy head of PR was just a one-dimensional beg for laughs, but it worked in our theater. There was a lot of poking fun at government incompetence, which appealed both to the audience and to McGregor, who said afterwards in the Q&A that he wasn’t a political person and wanted nothing to do with party politics (when someone asked him about his feelings on Scottish independence).

In the Q&A, there wasn’t too much about the film specifically. It was more like a “Getting to know Ewan McGregor” session. While we were waiting in line, one of the staff said that he was charismatic and aware of it. This was true and made for quite an entertaining Q&A session. He gave long, humorous, yet genuine answers to many of the questions, and at the end when the host was ready to call it a night, he asked for more questions because he was having so much fun. Don’t worry, all of the required movies were mentioned. He brought up Trainspotting, and audience members asked about Moulin Rouge and Star Wars. He mentioned that he picked roles by how he felt when reading through the script, if it was like a gripping book that he didn’t want to end because he enjoyed it so much. He also preferred to play roles that he hadn’t played before, and he enjoyed playing parts that challenged him to grow as an actor.

About the film: no fish were harmed in its production, of course. The dead fish that appeared in a shot was bought dead. He and Emily Blunt made each other laugh so much that you can sometimes see that one of them is about to crack up when the camera moves away. The example he gave was his line, “The water in the woman’s well is cold,” which just sounds a bit dirty, and she barely contains her laughter.

I now regret missing Beginners at SIFF even more! Not only did it turn out to be a great film, Ewan McGregor did a Q&A for that one, too. Ah well. We’ll see what SIFF 2012 brings!

Book Review: Midnight in Austenland

Posted by gck Tuesday, February 28, 2012 0 comments


Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Genre: Chick lit, mystery
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: fans of Jane Austen pastiche, people who enjoy gothic romance/mystery, fans of Northanger Abbey
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Back-cover summary:
When Charlotte Kinder treats herself to a two-week vacation at Austenland, she happily leaves behind her ex-husband and his delightful new wife, her ever-grateful children, and all the rest of her real life in America. She dons a bonnet and stays at a country manor house that provides an immersive Austen experience, complete with gentleman actors who cater to the guests' Austen fantasies.

Everyone at Pembrook Park is playing a role, but increasingly, Charlotte isn't sure where roles end and reality begins. And as the parlor games turn a little bit menacing, she finds she needs more than a good corset to keep herself safe. Is the brooding Mr. Mallery as sinister as he seems? What is Miss Gardenside's mysterious ailment? Was that an actual dead body in the secret attic room? And – perhaps of the most lasting importance – could the stirrings in Charlotte's heart be a sign of real-life love?

The follow-up to reader favorite Austenland provides the same perfectly plotted pleasures, with a feisty new heroine, plenty of fresh and frightening twists, and the possibility of a romance that might just go beyond the proper bounds of Austen's world. How could it not turn out right in the end?

My review:
I listened to Austenland as an audiobook, and I enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure. It employed the technique of injecting well-known phrases directly from Jane Austen’s writing that I find annoying, but I was able to overlook it because I liked the idea of Austenland so much – a place ladies could go to be transported into an Austen fantasyland, with costumes, balls, and swoonworthy gentlemen paid to be fallen in love with. I was really excited when I saw that there would be a return to Austenland in a second book with a main character that seemed quite different from young Austen-addict Jane Hayes from the first. Charlotte Kinder was an older woman with children and a failed marriage. Potential for self-discovery and a more complex love story, perhaps?

Because of my love for Rebecca, I’ve always had this idea that I enjoy gothic romances. However, with some of the books in the gothic romance genre that I’ve read in the last few years, I’m wondering if that’s actually true. I probably wouldn’t put this book into that genre, but it’s darker than I expected, with elements of mystery and thriller that I didn’t expect at all. It’s supposed to be a tribute to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which I haven’t read and I suspect many Austen fans haven’t either. Maybe if I was more familiar with that story, I would have appreciated the mystery plotline in this one, but instead, I found it to be unnecessary and strange. If anything, it made Charlotte seem overly paranoid, and so many dark, “real life” things seeping into the story (like Mr. Wattlesbrook’s poor behavior) made it impossible to immerse into the fantasy. I thought the fantasy was the whole point of these types of books! As a story trying to be serious, it doesn’t have nearly enough substance.

On the other hand, Charlotte as a character is not a bad one. She’s pretty funny, makes interesting observations, and does seem “clever” as she is dubbed, though also somewhat naïve. It’s easy to sympathize with her because her problems are accessible: her husband left her for another woman, she loves her kids but worries that they’re happy without her, etc. She worries and feels sad without being overly whiny. And by the end of the story, she is a stronger, more confident woman, maybe someone suitable to be a Jane Austen heroine.

But seriously… I just want to be able to book a vacation at Pembrook Park. Why does this not exist for real?!

Movie Reviews: Miss Minoes, Norwegian Wood

Posted by gck Thursday, February 23, 2012 0 comments

Watched these films before my China trip but didn’t get around to writing the reviews at that time. Totally should have while it was all fresh in my mind. Oh well.

Miss Minoes
Netherlands, 2001
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: **** (out of 5)

Sometimes I am unapologetic about my tastes. That applies to anything related to Jane Austen + British period drama and… anything about cats. Really, anyone who watches the trailer for Miss Minoes will probably know right away whether to watch it or not. For someone who loves cats, it’s soooo adorable. For a lot of other people, it will likely be ridiculous. Whatever. By accident, a cat suddenly turns into a human, retaining her cat behaviors and ability to talk to cats (but conveniently gaining the ability to talk to humans). She and the Meow Network helps out a journalist who’s about to get sacked because he can never come up with good news stories. Because it is a movie for children, it is dubbed into English instead of subtitled. That bothered me a lot less than I thought it would. Then again, a lot times it’s cats doing the talking so the lips don’t match up anyway. I thought it was a charming, entertaining movie, and I’m sure others will think otherwise, but I don’t care. :)

Norwegian Wood
Japan, 2010
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: **** (out of 5)

Norwegian Wood is based on a very popular novel of the same name written by Haruki Murakami. Watching the movie really made me want to read the book. The movie and, I suspect, the book are not going to be enjoyed by everyone. If you aren’t one for atmospheric, quietly unraveling, extremely character-driven film, you will be bored out of your mind. It’s an arthouse film for sure. There are so many interesting lines in the film – and I am sure there are even more in the book – like “Life is too short to read books that have not stood the test of time.” (Hmm… time to rethink some of my reading?)

They say the book is almost always better than the movie, right? I bet that is true in this case as well. I’m actually glad I saw the movie first. While many of the book lovers may be disappointed with all the details left out, I now hunger for more information about these characters that I met, which I will get by reading the book. Reviewing the film on its own, though, I would say that more background information was needed to give the characters more depth and bring meaning to their actions.

The cinematography and music are stunningly gorgeous and work very well together. The camera frames perfect shots and lingers on them for awhile, and it’s a feast for the eyes. This is probably the strongest aspect of the film.

I was thinking that there was something about Norwegian Wood that reminded me of 500 Days of Summer. After thinking and reading a little, it’s one of the main thematic ideas: that endings always lead to new beginnings. An appropriate lesson for a coming-of-age story where childhood must end for adulthood to begin.

China, Revisited

Posted by gck Wednesday, February 22, 2012 0 comments

top-left: Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, top-right: Tongli
bottom-left: shengjianbao, bottom-right: lantern festival in Old Shanghai

Yeah, I disappeared from the reading and blogging world for a little while because I was running around China for one last time before my visa expired. February is definitely not the best time to go, but I really wanted that last trip, so I did it. Other than a few rainy days and lack of flowers in Hangzhou that made me kind of grumpy, I have to admit that the timing was quite good. Chinese New Year had passed and most of the holiday travelers were done with their travels so crowds were light. I arrived after the Lantern Festival, which occurs fifteen days after the new year, but I still got to enjoy some of the lingering decorations.

left: Nanjing Road, right: cats on Huashan

The last time I went to China, I only visited Beijing (and the Great Wall) and stayed for a little less than a week before heading off to Taiwan. This time I did more, basing most of my trip in Shanghai with a few days in Xi’an, a few days in Hangzhou, and day trips to Tongli and Nanjing. I felt like I got more variety on this trip. The archeological wonder of the Terracotta Warriors, the lively Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, two ancient city walls, the dramatic “martial arts movie” landscape of Huashan, tranquil gardens and temples of Hangzhou, and a wild mix of old and modern, European and Chinese influences in Shanghai.

top-left: Black Dragon Ridge on Huashan, top-right: Terracotta Warriors
bottom-left: Xi’an city wall, bottom-right: Seal Engravers Society in Hangzhou

My intention is to write more detailed blog posts about specific things and places from my trip later, so I’ll leave the summary at that. Just like with India, even weeks of traveling and seeing so many things, I still feel like there’s a ton more to go see. I never made it to Chengdu, Guilin, or Tibet. Maybe next time! I will definitely return (as long as they let me =P).

Movie Review: Coriolanus

Posted by gck Saturday, February 4, 2012 0 comments

He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie;
Which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.
-William Shakespeare, Coriolanus Act II scene i

Before the film, SIFF got someone from Seattle Shakespeare Company to give an introduction. One of the things he said was that the plays of Shakespeare, like a lot great literature, is both timeless and timely. This is how a story set in 500 BC and written in the 1600’s can feel relevant and important in today’s age. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least commonly performed plays, but it’s an appropriate time right now for a small resurgence. My original plan was to read the play, see it performed, and watch the film. I saw the play last month and watched the film today, but I’m still only about halfway through the play. Still, the part that I read definitely made a difference in the other two experiences, and I wish I could have made the effort to finish it beforehand.

UK, 2011
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

I’m used to SIFF Cinema being on the empty side, but the theater actually had pretty good attendance this time. It seemed to be the reverse audience of a chick flick… mostly guys and some girls dragged along with them. A good number of the guys did not look like the type to be watching Shakespeare. But who am I to judge, right? But recalling the trailer (that I’ve seen SO many times), it makes sense – to people who haven’t read anything about the film, it looks like a mainstream action movie. Though the lines in the trailer are indeed from the play, they show such short passages of speech that it’s not obvious at all whether or not the dialogue in the play will be Shakespearean. It is. Looking at current Rotten Tomatoes ratings right now, 93% of critics like it, but only 66% of the audience did. And the one reviewer who didn’t like it says, “No more Shakespeare until we agree it needs to be translated into real English, please.”

film trailer

It’s a difficult task to translate this sort of play to appeal to the modern audience, but I think they did a reasonably good job in this version. Television is used marvelously throughout the film to show “breaking news” (events like the Volsces attacking Rome or the plebians protesting) and to contain some of the scenes; for example: the scene where two officers are discussing Coriolanus’ bid for consul is portrayed as a television talk show, and it works perfectly. Overall, even if a viewer didn’t understand most of the language, he would still know what was going on.

I don’t really have the intention of getting into reviews of the plays I see because performances are temporary things. That means my review won’t be that useful when the run is done, and it also means that I won’t be able to see it again if I miss something the first time around. So I would prefer to immerse myself into the experience and not be caught up in how I want to review it. But in this case, it’s interesting to make comparisons between the performance I saw and the film I watched.

Therese Diekhans as Volumnia, Peter A. Jacobs as Menenius Agrippa,
and David Drummond as Caius Martius Coriolanus, photo courtesy of
John Ullman

If I could have one wish for a change in the performance, it would have been for the group of citizens to feel more powerful. Of course, this is more difficult to do with a small cast, but the power and danger of the masses didn’t seem as real when it was just four people chanting in unison. In the film, the citizens had power. It was particularly relevant when they were clashing with the military, bringing to mind current events and news footage from Egypt, Libya, and other countries. The protests over the grain shortage (haves vs. the have-nots) bears an obvious similarity to the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, as is commonly noted, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be picking sides with this play. Although the outrage of the masses seems legitimate at the beginning, we eventually see how easily they change their collective mind and have a little more sympathy for how Coriolanus feels about the public, even if we’re a bit disgusted about how he expresses it.

The place where I feel that the performance did better than the film was in the character of Coriolanus. I might be alone in feeling this, but he didn’t seem much like the heroic warrior in the film, more like an angry, slightly insane mommy’s boy. The reason for this is in how much they cut out of the battle of Corioles. It doesn’t show how badly they were losing at first and how Coriolanus’ motivation was what caused the victory. It doesn’t show the end of the battle, when he generously declines the spoils and leaves it to be split among the soldiers instead. It’s already hard to like this character in the play, and he’s even less likeable in the film. It doesn’t help that an angry, bald-headed Ralph Fiennes causes me to think of Voldemort.

Both the performance and the film did a little exploration of the homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Coriolanus and his enemy, Titus Aufidius. I dunno. It’s definitely written into the text, but to me, it seems more of something that is thrown in as a concept than a realistic part of the plot. I mean, can you imagine if Osama bin Laden showed up at George Bush’s house and Bush said, “Dude, seeing you here is even better than the first time I had sex with my wife”?! Hmm, well, maybe.

Overall, I do hope people see this film and end up with more interest in Shakespeare. Before watching, I’d recommend reading a detailed summary of the play (scene by scene) at the very least. Or read the play. I still do intend to finish!

Book Review: The Orchid House

Posted by gck Wednesday, February 1, 2012 1 comments


The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley

Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Historical Fiction
Rating: ** (out of 5)
Recommended for: fans of Kate Morton, people who like books about multi-generational family secrets
Received uncorrected e-galley through NetGalley.

Back-cover summary:
A debut spanning from the 1930s to the present day, from a magnificent estate in war-torn England to Thailand, this sweeping novel tells the tale of a concert pianist, Julia, and the prominent Crawford family whose shocking secrets are revealed, leading to devastating consequences for generations to come.

As a child Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park, the great house where her grandfather tended exotic orchids. Years later, while struggling with overwhelming grief over the death of her husband and young child, she returns to the tranquility of the estate. There she reunites with Kit Crawford, heir to the estate and her possible salvation.

When they discover an old diary, Julia seeks out her grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park. Their search takes them back to the 1930s when a former heir to Wharton Park married his young society bride on the eve of World War II. When the two lovers are cruelly separated, the impact will be felt on generations to come.

My review:
I ended up liking the characters and plot of this book more than I expected when I started reading. The book jumps back and forth between the present and recollections from two generations back and deftly spins a story that reveals hidden connections, secrets, and parallels between many of the characters. There are repeated themes of dealing with the grief of losing loved ones, the conflict between love and duty, and the strong bond of family. The settings are lovely, featuring an English country estate and exotic, lush Thailand. All of the story lines wrap up nicely, maybe a little too nicely, but it left me with a feeling of satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the weak writing takes away significantly from this book’s potential. The worst part is the dialogue, and the characters talk too much for this to be overlooked. There’s a lot of uninspired dialogue. There’s an extreme overuse of ellipses. But worst of all is when the author is trying to make the characters sound a certain way, and that character’s dialogue alternates between normal English and something unrealistic and exaggerated. For example, the two French-speaking characters demonstrate their French-ness by constantly adding “n’est-ce pas?” to their sentences. And Lidia, a formerly wealthy Thai woman supposedly educated by the British, mostly speaks in the stereotypical Asian way (“I get pay rise too, so my family very happy.”) but occasionally lapses into regular English, saying things like “Now I must leave you, as I have new guests arriving very soon.” For a character who typically can’t remember to put verbs in sentences, a sentence like “I would have to ask Madame” shows pretty good mastery of verb conjugation. It’s also hard to deal with Kit, a contemporary character, saying things like, “Whilst I concoct the pasta sauce, I shall pour our my troubles to you.”

As a storyteller, Lucinda Riley has potential. Hopefully with her future books, she can overcome the challenge of writing convincing dialogue. I was ultimately glad I didn’t give up on this book, but there were many points while reading where it was tempting to do so.