My quarantine birthday

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Having your birthday in the era of COVID is different. Dinner at a nice restaurant comes to you in a large box. Your friends & colleagues show up, but you all gather on Zoom. Socially distanced cake happens w/ face shields on.

But you know what doesn’t change? The love. I’m so grateful to everyone for taking a few minutes out of their day to stop by and wish me happy birthday via Zoom yesterday, and for my lovely wife for arranging the whole event.

Among a parade of folks from all different parts of my life, my dear friend Matthew Weber showed up in the Zoom chat and was his characteristically amazing self. He wrote three Haikus to celebrate the occasion of my birth, which I shall now reproduce for you in full:

“Renaissance hombre
With a depth of excellence
Parallel to none

A voice and a heart
That is smooth and savory
Foie Gras kind of friend

Mysterious? Yes!
But crack that sweet hardened nut
And your reward? Joy.”

This inspired me to ask us the whole crew to get into a haiku-writing session, and in fact, many great haikus were written impromptu and shared. Here is mine:

“Zoom with all my peeps
Even in mid-pandemic
I’m very lucky”

Even in the middle of everything, there can still be love and kindness. My friends and colleagues are a frequent reminder of this.

Most days

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‘For those of us who are privileged enough to work from home during the pandemic, the events of the past few months have really messed with the notion of time. Days blend into each other. The weekend, while still a much-needed source of rest, doesn’t feel demarcated from the rest of the week anymore. The things we used to look forward to — gatherings with friends, nights out on the town, opening weekends for blockbuster films — have all melted away. We’ve been left with the endless repetition of the daily routine.

The pandemic has had this strange effect of freezing our lives in place. Whatever financial position or professional status you’d achieved by February 2020? That’s basically what you’re going to be stuck with for awhile. The friends you had pre-COVID? If you’re lucky, they’ll still be around when this is all over (but you probably aren’t going to add to their ranks so much during this time).

Most days, I struggle to dream of a future where things get better. Where we’re allowed to dream again. Where people trust in each other, in the idea of truth, in the possibility of a government that is benevolent and that values science and expertise. This whole pandemic has been absolutely shattering.

But there is one thing I do think about. It’s this interview Larry Brilliant to Wired magazine not too long ago. For those of you who don’t know who Larry Brilliant is, he’s one of the scientists that worked to eradicate smallpox (check out his amazing TED talk on the subject here).

When asked whether he was scared or not, Brilliant responded:

I’m in the age group that has a one in seven mortality rate if I get it. If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention. But I’m not scared. I firmly believe that the steps that we’re taking will extend the time that it takes for the virus to make the rounds. I think that, in turn, will increase the likelihood that we will have a vaccine or we will have a prophylactic antiviral in time to cut off, reduce, or truncate the spread. Everybody needs to remember: This is not a zombie apocalypse. It’s not a mass extinction event.

“It’s not a mass extinction event.”

Yes, I will grant that if our bar for comfort right now is “the thing is not a mass extinction event,” things have truly gone off the rails. But for some reason I’ve often reflected on this sentence in recent days.

It often feels like the world is ending. For many people, the pain caused by the sickness or death of loved ones will be irreparable. The financial consequences of the pandemic will be with us for a generation.

But this is not a mass extinction event. It’s not an asteroid that’s going to wipe out all life on Earth. It’s not 28 Days Later. Humanity will survive this.

[It’ll also be up to us what type of society we want to live in afterwards. How much do we want to support the middle class? How do we want our cities to look? Do we still need restaurants? Concerts?]

In Seattle, the governor has announced a phased plan to re-open the economy. Slowly, we are seeing signs of life returning to our streets and our businesses. The farmer’s market has opened back up. Many restaurants I used to go to are now operational, albeit for pick-up/delivery only. It is a process that will take months, at the absolute bare minimum, but it is a process that has begun.

In The New Yorker, James Ross Gardner writes about what it feels like to live in Seattle right now:

For now, we stay at home and wait. And we watch other regions that are in the position we were in weeks before. The wave of casualties and economic destruction that first hit Seattle has long since rolled across the country, every city a replica of our empty, boarded-up own. But here, in the first U.S. state with a confirmed case, the first to log a death, there is cause, however modest, for optimism. We showed that there’s a way to slow the spread. That it could, in fact, be done. At the beginning of all this, at the start of March, as the death count climbed, and we stopped shaking hands and sitting in the same rooms together, I thought of Seattle as living in the laboratory of the nation’s future. I hoped I was wrong. Now I hope I’m right.

I hope so too.

A few other interesting things from around the web:

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Thanks for reading. If you enjoy my work, please consider sharing it on social media. Thank you.

Image credit: cottonbro from Pexels

The problem with falling behind

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After three months on  sabbatical, I recently returned to my job at Amazon. I’m fortunate to work for an organization and for colleagues who were so understanding and allowed me to have some time off.

I’d originally had plans to write a post summarizing all the stuff I did on my leave, but with the Coronavirus pandemic impacting us all in dramatic and unpredictable ways, it just didn’t feel like the right time to talk about how I’d used my sabbatical to try to lose weight, learn Photoshop, and make some podcasts. Who gives a crap?

So I froze. I put off the writing. I said I’d come back to it when I felt like it. Maybe when I had something profound and interesting to say.

But the problem with falling behind when you’re making stuff online is that that feeling of behind-ness is self-compounding.

It’s like forgetting to respond to a text or an email from a friend. The first few days, no big deal. A week later, you’re definitely going to need to apologize when you hit ‘send.’ By the time you’re a month in, you feel better off just pretending that text never existed. (For this reason, I support Reply All’s notion of an Email Debt Forgiveness Day).

Bottom line, I got so far behind that I didn’t see a path towards not being behind. Ultimately, the only way to get on that path was for me to sit down at my keyboard, accept my shame, and just bang something out, no matter how unsubstantial. So, that’s what this update is: My attempt to get back on a somewhat normal schedule with these posts.

One thing that I think this pandemic has really helped to crystallize is exactly what one’s standing is in relation to society. Doctors and medical personnel? Essential. The people who help you get your food and other important items? Super necessary.

People who write and podcast about movies and TV and the internet? Eh.

My colleague C. Robert Cargill recently described someone who works in Hollywood as “an entertainer when times are good and a distraction when times are bad.”

This pandemic is causing inconceivable horrors, inflicting pain, suffering, and destruction all around the world. Our medical system is under threat and our political institutions may never recover. But one side effect of this carnage is that it’s forced many of us to reconsider exactly what it is we are doing with our lives. What do we want to dedicate the majority of our days to? What do we want to build? What do we want to change? What are we willing to stand up for? How did we help others? Did we alleviate or accelerate people’s suffering? And also: How do we want to be remembered during this time?

The political tumult of the past few years have forced me to discard many of my life’s plans and opt instead for stability and safety as much as possible. The pandemic has accelerated those impulses even further. But in the midst of it, I want to keep challenging myself to constantly re-evaluate out how I can best spend my days. If there’s one thing we are all acutely aware of now, it’s that those days may be limited.

If you’ve read this far: Thanks for sticking with me, even despite my irregular updates! I’m really going to try to write more consistently, even if the updates are shorter, just because I find it valuable to have a way to communicate with y’all directly. I may even invest in a better platform that Tinyletter (looking at Substack, Revue, or perhaps a full-blown Mailchimp account).

While I haven’t been posting here very often, I’ve still been cranking out content all around the internet the past few months. Here are a few highlights.

  • I continue to publish Culturally Relevant each week, my podcast featuring interviews with filmmakers, artists, and writers. For the past month, I’ve been recording audio diaries reflecting on what it was like to live through this pandemic in Seattle, where one of the first outbreaks in the US occurred. But I also recently had one of my heroes on the show, Alan Yang, who joined to discuss his new Netflix film, Tigertail. Listen here.
  • Speaking of Alan Yang, he joined the Slashfilmcast to review Demolition Man. We also had Dan Trachtenberg on to discuss Judgment Night. And if you’re looking for our review of Tiger King, well, that’s right here.
  • I was honored to be profiled on Letterboxd recently. You can follow my account there, where I try to make fun reviews and lists.
  • Patrick H. Willems makes some great film-related YouTube videos and I’ve recently started recording video commentaries with him. Check them out on his second channel.
  • Speaking of YouTube, I’d gotten into a pretty good groove making YouTube videos for my YouTube channel. I was grateful to have Melissa Tamminga join me to review movies like The Invisible Man and Birds of Prey. And when she couldn’t join me, I’d tackle reviews myself like this one I made for Sonic The Hedgehog. On occasion, I’d make videos like this one about anti-Asian racism in the age of COVID (which I was grateful to see was picked up by NowThis). But the COVID pandemic not only blew a hole in my plan to review a new theatrical release each week (hard to do that when there are no theatrical releases anymore) — it also temporarily destroyed my desire to keep making videos. But I’ve already got some new ideas cooking and I really want to get back into the game. So hey, do me a favor and hit subscribe if you can. I’ll (eventually) make it worth your while.

Until next time, I hope everyone is staying well, staying safe, and staying indoors if it’s at all possible for you to do so. Thanks for doing your part for the collective good.

Photo credit: Burst, from Pexels

A few thoughts on ‘Hillary’

Love her or strongly dislike her, Hillary Clinton has led an interesting and remarkable life in American politics. Nanette Burstein’s 4-hour documentary (now streaming on Hulu) is a fascinating, insightful, and expansive look at her career. Virtually every major event in Clinton’s political life is covered here, and you get to hear Clinton’s perspective on each one in a way you never have before.

I love the way Burstein structures this doc, cutting from her 2016 election campaign back to critical milestones throughout Clinton’s life. It allows you to see parallels between the present day and the challenges that have dogged Clinton throughout her life.

There is a TON of candid behind-the-scenes footage that gives you a glimpse at Clinton and her staff in a far more unguarded state than we’re used to. You really feel like you get to see the human behind the figure that the media has created.

All that said, those hoping for an extremely even-handed perspective on Hillary will likely be disappointed. This is a largely sympathetic portrait, but not necessarily one that feels undeserving.

But even those who aren’t Hillary fans I think will find a lot of insight here as to how media and politics have changed and shaped our perception of Clinton throughout the years. This being the week that Elizabeth Warren has dropped out of the Presidential race, there are too many parallels to count.

‘The Invisible Man’ Review

Wow it is really upsetting to see Elizabeth Moss being controlled by a sinister force that seeks to strip her of her individuality and define her actions and beliefs in increasingly upsetting ways.

Anyway, on a totally separate note, I saw The Invisible Man recently.

Leigh Whannell hits another solid one out of the park, crafting a horror thriller that’s equal parts scary and upsetting (and seemingly doing it on a pretty low budget). Whannell understands that with a concept like the invisible man, even a simple camera pan can convey terror as you have no idea if the villain is actually standing right there.

Moss is doing top tier work here. At one point she has a conversation WITH A DOORWAY that is one of the most mesmerizing pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. Her performance really elevates this  material.

Other random notes:
-The opening sequence of this film is a masterclass in showing instead of telling.
-I saw this movie in Dolby Atmos and I’d recommend that presentation (or IMAX) if you can, as the sound design in the film is truly excellent. For much of this film you’re only hearing the action as opposed to seeing it.
-I wasn’t a fan of the later plot developments in the film, which I thought gave the whole thing a much more muddled and ambiguous message.

‘Birds of Prey’ review

There’s a scene in Birds of Prey where a character is breaking into a prison and accidentally activates the sprinkler system before she starts fighting the prisoners one by one. Why? Because it looks really cool when people are fighting in slow motion in puddles of water!

That’s the aesthetic driving force of this film: Because it looks cool!

And indeed, it does look cool. None of the characters in this movie have super powers, so in place of the typical CG-heavy razzle dazzle that we’re accustomed to, the movie features extremely well-choreographed and performed hand-to-hand fight sequences. All the actors, Robbie especially, do a great job selling these sequences and they are a joy to watch.

But is there any substance behind the style? Birds of Prey focuses primarily on Harley Quinn and poses the question as to whether this character, who has often been defined by her relationship to another character, can support her own film.

To make that happen, the movie throws a ton of ideas at the wall. It introduces a colorful cast of characters, including Ewan McGregor playing a scenery-chewing villain and Rosie Perez playing a cop who is straight out of an 80s TV show (a fact that’s remarked upon by several of the other characters). It tells its story Fight-Club-style with a first-person narration and rapid time jumps just to make sure you don’t lose interest.

But the fundamental problem with making a film based off of a villain is that at some point the villain needs to be someone you can root for. Harley Quinn always struck me as one of the scariest characters in the DC Universe. When I’ve seen depictions of her in the past, as in Batman: The Animated Series, I always found her psychosis to be terrifying. How could someone who was once a regular, functioning member of society be changed to a killer over something like love? If it could happen to a psychiatrist like Harley Quinn, it could literally happen to anyone. Such was the Joker’s persuasive power and madness.

The film doesn’t do anything to explore that dynamic. Instead, it gives her a redemptive arc – one that I didn’t find particularly convincing. Whether you feel the same way will dictate how much you appreciate the film.

It sure is a lot of fun to look at, though!