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 Reviews: Pina, Well-Digger’s Daughter, etc.

Posted by gck Thursday, March 29, 2012 0 comments

Germany, 2011
Genre: Documentary
Watched: in theater, Cinerama (3D)
Rating: **** (out of 5)

After seeing previews for this film at SIFF many, many times, I finally got to see it at Cinerama, which was a perfect venue for it. I am still not sold on the 3D – it really strains my eyes more than I’d like – but it wasn’t as distracting in this one as in other movies I’ve seen. This was a gorgeous tribute to Pina Bausch and her gorgeous choreography and a beautiful exhibition of dance in general. “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost,” Pina says. By combining shots of her famous dance works with dance shots filmed around the German city of Wuppertal (including scenes in an elevated tram!), it brings dance from the stage to real life. But really, words aren’t enough to describe it, this is a movie to be seen and not just talked about. The soundtrack is also excellent, and the main song keeps getting stuck in my head.

John Carter
USA, 2012
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Watched: in theater, Pacific Science Center (IMAX 3D)
Rating: **1/2 (out of 5)

I don’t think this film is really worth reviewing. I saw it because I had free IMAX tickets, and when I said, “The Lorax,” the guy somehow heard, “John Carter.” It’s a pretty cheesy fantasy action movie that feels really old school content-wise, which makes sense, considering that it’s based on books from the early twentieth century. Special effects are modern, but whatever. He’s a bad boy who’s really good at fighting and ends up on Mars, aka “Barsoom.” She’s a hot, scantily clad princess who also happens to be really awesome at science AND fighting. Guess what happens!!! I give one point for holding my attention for 132 minutes (!!), one point because my brothers and were saying “Jump, Virginia!” for the rest of the weekend, and half a point because I did actually like the ending. I’m sure there will be some people who will enjoy this movie, but it’s not for me.

The Well-Digger’s Daughter
(also: La Fille Du Puisatier)
France, 2011
Genre: Romantic comedy, drama
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: **** (out of 5)

SIFF does mini-festivals throughout the year, generally in celebration of films from specific countries. I usually miss them completely. I almost missed this one – I didn’t see the announcement for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema until pretty close to the date. I was already going to be in the neighborhood on Sunday for a ballet, and the film right after it looked like something that was both well-reviewed and something I’d enjoy, I went for it. And I wasn’t disappointed! It’s a beautiful remake of an old 1940’s French movie by the same name, and I’m sad because the old version doesn’t seem to be easily available through Netflix and Scarecrow Video only has it on VHS. It’s a sad but ultimately sweet tale of a naïve country girl who quickly falls in love with a son from a rich family and finds out that she is pregnant after he has left to go to war. I think I’m so jaded now from these arthouse films that I was certain things were going to end tragically, and there were a few scene breaks in the second half where I thought things might end abruptly. Maybe it’s time to go back to chick flicks for awhile! Patricia, the well-digger’s daughter, looks beautiful in her suffering. But my favorite character is her father, who struggles when the principles he was raised with clash with the happiness of his daughters. Of course, love ultimately triumphs in the end.

It was also a fun when I realized at the end that it was filmed in places I had visited a few years ago – St-Remy-de-Provence, Les Baux, Paradou. I recognized the Alpilles during the movie, and the beauty of the region definitely shone. My French-speaking friend loved the way they spoke French, but I don’t understand well enough to recognize an accent.

Book Review: The Whipping Club

Posted by gck Wednesday, March 28, 2012 0 comments

whippingclubThe Whipping Club by Deborah Henry 

Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: People who enjoy darker historical fiction, people who want to explore a lesser known side of Ireland
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Book 4 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis are not typical young lovers in 1957 Dublin, Ireland; she’s Catholic and teaches at Zion School, and he’s Jewish and a budding journalist. The two plan to wed, but their families object to an interfaith marriage. And when Marian becomes pregnant, she doesn’t tell Ben. Coerced by Father Brennan (a Catholic priest who is also her uncle), Marian goes to Castleboro Mother Baby Home, an institution ruled by Sister Paulinas and Sister Agnes where “sins are purged” via abuse; i.e., pregnant girls are forced to mow the lawn by pulling grass on their hands and knees. Marian is told that her son, Adrian, will be adopted by an American family.

The riveting storyline provides many surprises as it fast-forwards to 1967 where Marian and Ben are married and have a 10-year-old daughter. Marian’s painful secret emerges when she learns that her son was dumped in an abusive orphanage not far from her middle-class home and Sister Agnes is his legal guardian. Thus begins a labyrinthine journey through red tape as the couple fight to regain their firstborn child. Ultimately, 12-year-old Adrian is placed in the Surtane Industrial School for Boys, which is rife with brutality and sexual abuse at the hands of “Christian Brother Ryder.” Though unchecked church power abounds, this is not a religious stereotype or an indictment of faith. Hateful characters like Brother Ryder are balanced with compassionate ones, such as a timid nurse from the Mother Baby Home. Father Brennan deepens into a three-dimensional character who struggles to do what is right.

Henry weaves multilayered themes of prejudice, corruption and redemption with an authentic voice and swift, seamless dialogue. Her prose is engaging, and light poetic touches add immediacy. Echoing the painful lessons of the Jewish Holocaust, Henry’s tale reveals what happens when good people remain silent.

My review:
I didn’t choose this book to represent Ireland when I made my list for the Around the World Challenge, but once I started reading it, I decided that it was a good fit. As promised in the description, The Whipping Club showed an unstereotypical but authentic side of Ireland, opening my eyes to the horrors of industrial schools where orphans and abandoned children were sent and severely mistreated. There was also some exploration of the treatment and perceptions of Jewish people in a highly Catholic society.

An interfaith marriage, a couple trying to regain a lost child, moral ambiguities in the Catholic Church… the description had me very excited to read the book. While it delivered most of what I expected, I felt a lack of emotional connection with the characters and plot until the very end when there was more focus on Adrian’s struggles. Much of the narration came from Marian’s perspective, and I wished I could have cared more about her as a character because it would have made the whole book more powerful.

The story shows the effects of how government paired with corrupt religion can do great harm under the guise of righteousness. It is frustrating to see Ben and Marian unable to bring their biological son back to their loving home while he suffers greater and greater misfortunes in the hands of religious-run state agencies. Though it seems like the industrial school should have been a major part of the story, it doesn’t come into play until late in book, which is unfortunate because I found that to be the most interesting part.

Book Review: Havana Real

Posted by gck Sunday, March 18, 2012 1 comments

havanarealHavana Real by Yoani Sánchez

Genre: Non-fiction, memoir
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: People who enjoy blog posts, people interested in Cuba

Book 3 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” challenge.

Back-cover summary:
She's been kidnapped and beaten, lives under surveillance, and can only get online—in disguise—at tourist hotspots. She's a blogger, she's a Cuban, and she's a worldwide sensation.

Yoani Sánchez is an unusual dissident: no street protests, no attacks on big politicos, no calls for revolution. Rather, she produces a simple diary about what it means to live under the Castro regime: the chronic hunger and the difficulty of shopping; the art of repairing ancient appliances; and the struggles of living under a propaganda machine that pushes deep into public and private life.

For these simple acts of truth-telling her life is one of constant threat. But she continues on, refusing to be silenced—a living response to all who have ceased to believe in a future for Cuba.

My review:
I spent February literally traveling around the world (to China) and as a result did not read any of the books I intended to read for the challenge that month. This one was actually left over from January, and it took me so long to get through it that I’m now way behind for March’s reading as well. Ah well.

I like reading blogs. I have a decent list of them on my RSS reader that I follow somewhat regularly. However, after reading this book, I think blogs are meant to be read as blogs, not compiled into books. The thing is, blogs are generally written to be current, so it’s a good narrative if you’re following the updates as they come. Or maybe an article comes up through an internet search, and it’s interesting as a single snapshot. But as a complete body of work, it’s not as satisfying of a reading experience as a normal book that was written to be consumed as a whole. Also, in Generation Y, Sanchez’s blog that supplied all the articles for the book, there are pictures and reader comments, which add a lot to the posts that the book doesn’t contain.

But the fact is this: I wouldn’t have known about this blog if I hadn’t found out about this book. And even if I’d discovered it, I certainly would not have read back very far. The book was the way I had to get this content. Even if the reading experience wasn’t wholly satisfactory, the content was.


Coincidentally, I had watched Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode about Cuba not long before starting this book. Though Bourdain did touch on the poverty in Cuba, he made the country look like a pretty good place. Havana was shown as a city of fifty years ago, perfectly preserved and maintained, with its vintage cars and charming architecture. Communism had made things pretty great over there, providing free education that included college. Cubans were so educated, the episode stated, that the country was producing so many doctors that they were sending them out to other countries who were desperate for them. And of course, he showed all of the good Cuban food, dining in one of the paladars, small, private restaurants that the government had begun allowing.

I was scratching my head at the end of the episode. Sounds good, sure. But if it’s not really that bad there, why did so many Cubans leave? Why were people so desperate to get out that they were willing to risk their lives in a shoddy boat for the possibility of getting to America? I’m thinking it wasn’t because they wanted to work at a better hospital.

Yoani Sanchez tells it like it really is. In fact, she tweeted in response to his episode: “What is typical Cuban food for you, Anthony Bourdain? Do you really believe that it’s rice and beans, pork, and plantains? Typical Cuban food isn’t typical or Cuban, it’s what turns up with what we can afford. In short, not much.” (translated) In one of her blog posts, she goes into more detail. “When some confused tourist asks me what a typical Cuban dish is, I answer that I don’t remember, but I know the most common everyday recipes. And I list them: ‘Rice with a beef bouillon cube,’ ‘rice with a hot dog,’ ‘rice with a bacon bouillon cube,’ or the delicacy of ‘rice with a chicken-and-tomato bouillon cube.’” (Here’s another blogger’s response to Bourdain’s portrayal of Cuba)

She tells of the Special Period, a time after all the support from the Soviet Union vanished and Cubans struggled not to starve to death. There’s an anecdote that food shortages were so bad that vendors were selling pizza with melted condoms posing as cheese. She tells of how food items are unpredictably available and that most people cannot survive without the black market, but items there might cost a majority of a month’s wages. Furthermore, many things are available only for “convertible pesos,” the Cuban currency for foreigners. It seems like many Cubans can survive only because of money coming in from friends and relatives on the outside.

Bourdain probably enjoyed running water and electricity. But in Cuba, everything is broken, including the pipes. Sanchez writes that Cubans do not take showers. They wash themselves with buckets of water, and items like soap and shampoo are expensive and often not available. The education system? Sure, it’s free, but the university spots weren’t for everyone. And apparently the solution to the shortage of teachers was to make the worst students into teachers, who would proceed to miseducate the students and confess things like, “Study hard so you won’t end up like me. I had to become a teacher because of my bad grades.”

On the other hand, the Communist state of Cuba was more lenient than I expected, too. Perhaps because my mind is conditioned by the sensationalizing from media, but I was surprised that the government did so little to silence Sanchez, even though her blog openly displayed her name and photo. But maybe they don’t have to. Despite the growing number of Cuban bloggers, so many Americans still picture Cuba as Anthony Bourdain showed it. Baseball, pork, and vintage cars.

The content in this book is significant. There are so many more details that I couldn’t cover in a review, and I think it’s important that people read these words that people have struggled so hard to put up on the Internet.

Brussels Sprouts Are Tasty!

Posted by gck Sunday, March 4, 2012 0 comments

I was forced to eat many gross-tasting “healthy things” as a child, but Brussels sprouts apparently isn’t in the Chinese diet, so I don’t remember ever eating them until I was much older. So I don’t have all the “blech” reaction that some people seem to have when I think of them. It’s hard to say, maybe I wouldn’t have hated them as a kid, since I didn’t hate eggplant or broccoli, and really, what’s to hate? They’re sweet little gems in the sad, bitter world of winter vegetables.


After eating out for two weeks in China and eating out most of the days since I’ve been back, I felt like it was time to start cooking today. I cooked for a few hours, hopefully making enough to get me through most of the week. After having a great Brussels sprouts and turnip dish at Tavern Law, I knew I wanted to make some. It was convenient to toss them into the pot when I was making 40 Cloves and a Chicken, but this time I felt like something not as garlic-centric. I asked the internet, and it turned up this recipe that spoke to me. It’s probably the title that did it; who can say no to “Oven-Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Autumn Fruits”? I modified it a little to remove the pears (I wanted less fruit in proportion to the sprouts), remove the onion (it’s on my list to avoid), and use dried herbs (that’s what I had on hand). Martha Stewart also has a version of this that replaces a lot of the seasoning with red wine vinegar. I don’t think I’d do that, but I do like the instructions to cook the bacon separately.

Verdict: the recipe is a winner! The sweetness of the apple really works with the Brussels sprouts. Next time, I’d probably try cooking the bacon separately before adding it to the mix and halving the recipe so it could fit in one pan. I don’t need that much just for one person… or do I? I have a feeling these aren’t going to last too long in the fridge.

Oven-Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Autumn Fruits, Modified (Original)

2 lbs Brussels sprouts
2 medium apples (I used either Gala or Pink Lady, I forget)
3 slices bacon, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 tsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp dried sage
5 gloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp brown sugar
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 450F.
2. Put 1-2 pans in the oven to warm up. You need enough surface area to form a single layer with all ingredients. I used 2.
3. In a big bowl, combine all ingredients. Season well with salt and pepper.
4. Pull out pan(s) and put ingredients in them, forming a single layer.
5. Bake until everything is browned and sprouts are tender, about 30-40 minutes, turning ingredients every 10 minutes.

Movie Reviews: A Dae and a Day on a Plane

Posted by gck Friday, March 2, 2012 0 comments

I recently flew to China and back on Hainan Airlines, a 5-star airline by someone’s rating system. Nice thing about Chinese airlines? They always serve food! Even on a two hour flight that leaves after 11pm, you get food. And on the international leg from Seattle to Beijing, I got their sparkly personal in-flight entertainment system, full of movies and other things on demand. Sadly, on the way back, the movies were still the same, so I had to look harder for what I wanted. Many international movies weren’t options because, as a Chinese airline, subtitles were in Chinese. I don’t like to watch really good movies that I’ve been looking forward to seeing on planes because of poor viewing quality and the potential for “the captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign” interruptions. I did find a few things to keep me entertained, though.

Bran Nue Dae
Australia, 2009
Genre: Musical, Comedy, Coming-of-Age
Watched: Airplane
Rating: *** (out of 5)

This was one I considered watching at SIFF a few years back, but it didn’t make the cut due to lukewarm reviews. I feel like that was an accurate assessment of the film, but it was still fun to see, and the plane was a good place to see it. It’s a romantic comedy/musical about two Australian aboriginal teenagers who are obviously going to end up together, but they face a few bumps in the road first. Her good singing voice leads her to a bad boy in a bar, while he tries to get an education from a mean priest in the city but ends up in a van with hippies. The ending is so ridiculous that you can’t believe they got away with it. But the whole thing is a lot of fun, and the main characters are pretty charming. The main song is easy to get stuck in your head: “There’s nothing I would rather be/ Than to be an Aborigine/ and watch you take my precious land away.”

One Day
USA, 2011
Genre: Romance, Drama
Watched: Airplane
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

So here’s what happened. I saw the preview for this movie, rolled my eyes at Anne Hathaway’s British accent, but looked up information about the movie anyway. The ratings looked pretty dismal, but I discovered that it was based on a book that was rated a little better. So I read the book. I disliked the main male character a lot but enjoyed the way the book was written. And I’ve known for awhile that I wanted to watch the movie, going in with low expectations. It was hard to convince myself to use two hours of my home time to see it, so I was excited to see it on the plane’s list of movies. One of the main review criticisms was Jim Sturgess’s casting as Dexter. Maybe it wasn’t quite faithful to the book’s description of Dex, but I was actually okay with him because he was a lot less obnoxious than Dex in the book! Of course, they cut a lot of it out. Of course, the scenes weren’t as poetic and observational as they were in the book. But it was okay. It was a decent portrayal of two characters and the way they and their relationships morphed over time.

Other films I watched on the plane and will not bother to review: What’s Your Number (mildly entertaining), Chalet Girl (better than I expected!), I Don’t Know How She Does It (didn’t even get halfway through, this was so bad).