Month: March 2017

USA & Mexico Part 2

Mexico trip was a blast; I loved the places we visited and while I almost never had a bad group on my organised trips, our group in Mexico was probably the most fun one and just a great bunch of people. We started in Mexico City, which I wished I could have spent more time in as it felt like I only scratched the surface. Or maybe not, because, as I realised only a few days before, Mexico City is 2,250 m above the sea level, which means altitude sickness and its lovely symptoms like increased motion sickness and feeling bloated. Anyway, the highlight for me was visiting Casa Azul, The Frida Kahlo Museum, where she and Diego Rivera lived and which is dedicated to her life and works. There weren’t that many actual Frida Kahlo paintings, but it’s still a must-visit for any Frida fan (and I so want her colourful kitchen).

In Puebla, I got to see Mexican wrestling, which was awesome and super-cheesy, and one of the most ornate churches I’ve ever seen (gold, gold, and more gold). The bright-coloured buildings in the town centre are just gorgeous, and while in the Artist Quarter I dared to taste crunchy and spicy fried crickets. This and the cactus were some of the more exotic food things I tried in Mexico.

Oaxaca was probably my favourite city; I loved exploring the big covered local market and the central pedestrian-only street has nice cafes, art/craft galleries and boutiques. While in Oaxaca, we also had a long day trip, going to the ancient Zapotec city of Monte Alban and getting acquainted with the several varieties of mezcal. The hike to Hierve el Agua, the petrified waterfalls, was a bit of a killer for an unfit person like myself, but totally worth it as the rock formations are just amazing. We also had a chance to swim in the natural infinity pools nearby, but I chickened out on the account of late chilly evening and just enjoyed the stunning scenery. On the way back, our local guide serenaded us on the mike with traditional Mexican songs, and a few people including myself had a go as well – I sang what I could remember of Dark Eyes, which is probably the most famous traditional Russian romance song.

I studied Spanish for a few months about eight years ago and this trip might inspire me to take it up again. As it was, I could understand a few stray phrases and words here and there, but my vocabulary is just too limited to get by.

USA & Mexico Part 1

This whole trip happened because of a very special event: the 25th Anniversary Bash for the Ultima Dragons, the internet fan club devoted to the Ultima role-playing game series whose member I’ve been for close to 20 years. I travelled to Vietnam last year and I didn’t anticipate another trip overseas so soon after, but when I heard that a celebration was to be held in Anaheim, I decided almost instantly that I wanted to come. Flying to USA and back again from Australia is quite an ordeal, so to make the most of it I also tacked on an organised trip to Mexico; I’ve never been to Central or South America so I thought I’d start with USA’s closest neighbour.

The Anniversary Bash was one of the most memorable and incredible things I’ve been to in my life and I’m so happy I made it. I had so much fun hanging around with the fellow Dragons, most of whom I met face-to-face for the first time, and celebrating our passion for all things Ultima. It felt surreal, having a long-time hobby that you couldn’t really talk about to anyone in real life, and then be surrounded by people who totally get it and are happy to discuss the most obscure Ultima things.

Another part of the fun was visiting Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks. Because of my acute motion sickness I could only watch other people scream in terror as they spun and plunged on their rides, but even walking around the parks was good fun. Disneyland changed a lot since I’ve been there last, and of course Star Wars stuff is now everywhere. Why they kept the It’s a Small World ride is anyone’s guess, I still have nightmares about it 16 years on.

I also had a few days to myself in LA, which I spent in a relaxed manner without cramming in much sightseeing. The one exception was a very busy organised day trip to see the countryside (very lush and green at this time of year), and visit Santa Barbara, Solvang and Hearst Castle. Other than myself there were only two other passengers, and our guide had a huge wealth of knowledge about LA and California. I got a taste of the everyday LA traffic, which is frankly insane.

Solvang is a touristy but cute-as-a-button town originally settled by the Danish, with the quaint architecture and a bakery on every corner (I had a Danish, naturally). Hearst Castle is the former estate of William Randolph Hearst, whose life story was the main inspiration for Citizen Kane, and is basically a testament to what millions of dollars can buy. Our excellent guide there had an amusing habit of referring to Hearst in a present tense. After the castle, we made an unscheduled stop at the beach where elephant seals hang around after the mating season, which was very cool.

While in LA, I stumbled on a unique museum called the Museum of Broken Relationships, which was too weird not to investigate. It turned out to be a pretty moving experience – it exhibited personal items donated by the people from around the world, accompanied by a story about a broken relationship. Mostly romantic ones, but also familial, friendships, breaking away from their religion, all laid out in a clean and elegant space completely at odds with the trashy Hollywood Boulevard. I could have done without a collection of pubic hair and navel lint, but having the objects next to the stories really made the memories feel more tangible.

The Broad art museum in Downtown LA was worth spending 45 minutes in a queue for, and had an excellent collection of mostly American contemporary art – Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein.

Movies I watched on my flights

Me Before You

Romance film with a difference. Emilia Clarke of the Game of Thrones fame is Lou, a quirky, adorably klutzy girl who is fond of bright colours and just lost her job. Desperate for work, she is hired as a caregiver of Will, an impossibly handsome and wealthy young man who became a quadriplegic after an accident two years ago. Will has a capable Aussie physical therapist (played by Steve Peacocke from Home and Away of all people) looking after him so Lou’s role is more that of a companion, and the true reason she was hired by Will’s mother is revealed later in the film. At first Will treats Lou’s wacky upbeat ways with coldness and disdain, but this is a romantic drama so the usual developments happen.

Clarke, freed from her stoic Daenerys straitjacket, is going for the opposite style here, acting with every single facial muscle, especially her extraordinarily mobile eyebrows (seriously, I was so distracted from the story at times by the eyebrow acrobatics). But despite being a tad over-the-top, she’s quite likeable and makes for a decent chick flick heroine. I was a bit nervous seeing her and Charles Dance in the same scenes, in case he decided to order her assassination or something.

The ending of the film was probably controversial, but to be fair I don’t think that the movie necessarily set out to make a broad statement about a group of people. It made complete sense to me that this particular individual made this particular choice.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I’ve watched and read so many angry nerd reviews of this movie I felt like I’ve seen the damn thing over and over already, but I guess I just had to find out for myself how bad it was. Yup it’s bad. Boring, glum, unlikable Superman; brain-numbing action; no narrative drive or flow, with scenes just happening. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a twitchy, bizarre performance that’s almost so-bad-it’s-good, though he doesn’t scale the majestic WTF heights of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending. I liked what little I saw of Wonder Woman, and Ben Affleck is legitimately good as jaded older Batman, who is also the only character in the film with traceable and believable motivations, at least until the Martha scene which is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen onscreen. Like so many modern blockbusters is tries to cram in way too much, and would have probably worked better if it simply set out to be a Batman vs Superman movie, rather than a Justice League prequel.

Suicide Squad

I watched one crappy DC movie I skipped at the cinema so I thought I might watch another one, and sheesh this film makes Batman v Superman look like bloody Hamlet in comparison. It’s less a movie and more like a mutilated corpse of a movie, sliced and diced and put together in the editing room by a hundred blind cooks. The first half in particular is a total incoherent mess, with endless character introductions and obnoxious use of popular songs. The main villain is lame as hell and there’s yet another army of CGI minions for our heroes to fight in bloodless battles. It’s a pity because Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn are pretty damn great, as is Viola Davis in the role of the ruthless intelligence officer who assembles the team of villains. The second half does give some glimpses of “a bunch of outcasts form a family” feeling that the movie was aiming for, but it’s too little too late.

A Street Cat Named Bob

Finally a good movie! Based on a true story of James Bowen, a homeless street musician and a recovering drug addict in London, and the touching bond he forms with a stray ginger tom which ends up changing his life. Cats in movies are often relegated to the villain roles, so it’s nice to see a film about a human/animal connection that’s not about a dog. Drugs and homelessness make for a strange mix with a cute animal story, but it strikes the right tone and Luke Treadaway’s performance as James is hugely sympathetic. A sweet, unassuming, life-affirming film that well and truly melted my heart. I didn’t realise until later that the cat in the movie was the real-life Bob the Cat, and he’s honestly just the coolest, chillest feline, who is happy to hang around with his human in the busy centre of London and sit on his shoulders wherever he goes. Give Bob a kitty Oscar!

Bridget Jones’s Baby

Too long and patchy maybe, but the movie recaptures much of the charm and magic that made the original one of my favourite romcoms and feelgood-movies-to-go-to. Our favourite British everywoman is now in her 40s, and while she has her weight and career more or less sorted out, romantic happiness is still elusive, having broken up with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) some time ago. Flames are rekindled when the two meet at a christening, but unfortunately Bridget also just spent a night at a music festival with a handsome American entrepreneur Jack (Patrick Dempsey), so when she finds herself with a bun in the oven she’s not sure who the father is.

The movie is maybe not quite as sharp and funny as it could have been, though it did get some big laughs out of me, especially whenever Emma Thompson’s no-nonsense obstetrician is onscreen. But Renee Zellweger as Bridget is just so irrepressible and appealing and while the movie puts her through the usual course of pratfalls and mishaps, it never feels mean-spirited. The movie is also wise not to make Jack into Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver MkII; while he’s smooth and charming he’s a genuinely decent guy who cares about Bridget. But of course if you can’t guess which of the two men Bridget ultimately ends up with, you probably haven’t watched much in the romantic genre.