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SF-NY-TA

September 25th, 2010 · No Comments

It’s been a while…so I’m trying something new.

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Burma: Kengtung tribal villages

February 9th, 2009 · No Comments

The next part of our trip was just as remote as Mrauk U and the Chin region — but significantly more strenuous. We flew to the far East of the country near the border with China, Laos, and Thailand, part of the Golden Triangle. Kengtung is well known for the diversity of people that live in surrounding villages, all accessible by day hike. So we set off on another adventure — captivated and warmed by the people we met.

Kimberly

For photos, click here:

Kengtung

After 5 hours on a small plane, we finally arrived in Kengtung, the capital of the Eastern Shan state. The only problem with this place is getting here! Our little plane stopped in three other cities before it finally landed (late) in Kengtung. Luckily, our hotel had send a guide to pick us up from the airport, so we already felt well taken care of and ready to explore this remote part of Burma that borders China, Laos, and Thailand. (And is part of the famous Golden Triangle…the opium trade.)

Our late arrival didn’t stop us from getting in some sightseeing on our first day. After getting settled at the hotel, our guide took us to his house, where his wife and two motorcycles were waiting for us. And so we set off, the four of us on motorbikes, on a 45 minute ride to the Palaung village. The Paulung people are well known for the many silver belts they wear around their waist and chest. Some of the women had so many on, that it almost made a layer of armor. The houses were an interesting arrangement, with the livestock all living below the families. (Literally pigs, chicken, and waterbuffalo were running around under their huts.) Dan and I were surprised at how (relatively) well off the people in the village seemed. The huts all had electricity — and some of the people had motorbikes. When Dan asked our guide about the source of their income, he responded: “They grow things in the jungle.”

The next day, we went to the morning market to collect supplies for the day. Our guide and his wife convinced us to try a sampling of the local cuisine: we bought bamboo shoots, steamed chicken in a banana leaf, and sticky rice for our lunch. We also purchased some shampoo and crackers to share with the local people when we visited their village. I felt conflicted about bringing gifts of any sort (why is it OK to beg for shampoo, but not money?). While shampoo and crackers seemed like a good choice, I worried about the chemicals in the shampoo polluting their water and the sweet crackers harming the children’s teeth. There never seems to be a simple solution, even when one is trying to do something good.

We set off on bikes again, this time to the remote Lahu Shi village in the mountains. It was a long, hot, exhausting hike (3 hours!!) — but it was completely worth it when we arrived to find the village celebrating the full moon festival. The men, women, and children were all dressed in traditional attire of white shirts with blue pants or skirts. The children and women had colorful beaded necklaces. All the boys were playing a top spinning game, where the goal is to hit your opponents’ top with your own. (I love how boys can make even top spinning competitive!) A small group of women were playing drums and smashing symbols, while other women danced around a flagpole. After much coercion, I finally joined in (and Dan played the role of photographer to excuse him from participating…)

Check out this video of the Lahu Shi performing their ceremonial dance for the Full Moon Festival:

After a while, we were invited into the local “monastery” (read: hut where the one monk lives). It was packed full of people eager to hear the monk speak. He had come to the village only three months earlier, before then the people practiced a purely animist religion. Now, they were learning how to incorporate buddhist beliefs with their own. The monk started shaking uncontrollably and then left the hut to take a walk. It seemed clear to Dan and me that he was very sick, though no one else wanted to admit that. When the monk returned, he talked to the people, and then one of the women started vibrating and giggling. Our guide explained that the “spirit” had “come into her” — this was a very special thing that could happen to only 10 people in the whole village. Shortly thereafter another woman started shaking and smiling; it seemed the “spirit” had also visited her. Dan and I didn’t know quite what to say to this, but our guide’s wife was visibly uncomfortable (she had never seen this before) and asked him if we could go. We thanked the villagers for our tea and set off to enjoy our “picnic” lunch on the hiking trail back down to the valley.

This day ended with the strangest hot springs experience I’ve had to date. I’ve been to hot springs in many places, washed myself on a little stool with my mom in Takayama, Japan –and frolicked in the warm water in Honduras in my bathing suit. But I’ve never been someplace with private rooms for one to enjoy the hot springs. Basically, Dan and I took a bath in a “double room” with sulfury water. However, given that our hotel seemed always out of hot water, this was a nice way to relax our sore muscles and get clean at the same time.

The next day we set out for some different hilltribe villages. After over an hour on the motorbikes, we finally arrived at the Akha village north of Kengtung. The Akha women are especially famous for their beautiful silver headdresses. Each one has an elaborate engraved silver plate on the back, with many silver beads and old Indian silver rupees dangling from the sides. The Akha women are also known for their weaving … and they know it. We were surprised how quickly they set up “shop” when we arrived, hanging purses, belts, and hats for sale over the fence posts.

We left the Akha women and hiked for a short while up the mountain to an Eng village. The Eng also are expert weavers and tried to convince us to buy many things from them. Our guide knows the local people well, so we were immediately invited up to sit with the chief of the village and take some tea with him. As we sat and overlooked the valley, at least fifteen Eng women and children crammed into the sitting place to join us. As with the day before, all were really happy to be getting shampoo and crackers!

We also visited another village which was large enough to have a school. In addition to watching the children practice their English, we got another musical performance! Check out this video:

Our last day in Kengtung was spent exploring the town itself. We started by visiting the famous buffalo market, where they sell (you guessed it!) water buffalo. Very strangely, it seems the buffalo trade operates more like a stock market, with speculators hoarding buffalo when they think the prices will rise and trying to sell to the hot Thai and Chinese markets. Unfortunately, buffalo prices came down recently from $1200 to only $800-900 a buffalo, so there wasn’t much action. Dan still picked out the buffalo he wanted though….he keeps telling me that he ordered it and it will be waiting for us in San Francisco.

We also visited the big market and saw people from many different tribes buying and selling goods. Among the stranger items for sale were bamboo worms, birds (to free for good merit), gunpowder, and buffalo fat (when you fry it, it puffs up like a cheeto…for those of you who have spent time in Mexico, think Chicharon).

Lastly, our guide took us to the most important of the many monasteries in town, Wat Jong Kam. It was breathtaking, with many different images of the buddha seated together in the main hall. The highlight was after our visit though, when we stopped to visit our guide’s mother who lived nearby. In all my travels, I’ve never felt so much like I have really gotten to know the local people as I have here in Burma. We have been literally invited into their homes, met their families, and heard their personal stories (or at least what they feel comfortable talking about openly). It has been wonderful.

Once again, this part of our trip was organized by Good News Travels. Highly recommended.
William Myatwunna
Good News Travels
www.myanmargoodnewstravel.com

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Burma: Ngapali Beach

February 6th, 2009 · No Comments

After several days of treks and long boat rides, we knew we would need some R&R, so we had planned for a few nights of relaxing on the beach on the Western coast at Ngapali. It was definitely the perfect plan. We’d go back in a heart beat.

Daniel

Check out photos, here:

Ngapali Beach

This morning, we woke early (3:30am!), in order to catch an early riverboat ride all the way back to Sittwe to catch our flight to the beach. We are quite excited to have a few days to relax here before the next part of our journey, especially as we are really happy with our hotel, The Amata Resort. (If only $120 bought you such luxury in the US!!) The beach is beautiful and tranquil, nothing at all like the dirty beach we had stayed at in Vietnam.

The peaceful shoreline here is great for taking a swim or simply curling up a with a good book. Unfortunately, I came down with a nasty case of food poisoning and had to rest most of our time at this fantastic beach resort. Thankfully the hotel staff were able to provide plenty of plain white toast and Sprite. Despite the tummy upset, we were grateful for a nice break from our days of trekking.

Amata Resort
Ngapali Beach
Rooms from $110 per night
www.amataresort.com

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Burma: Sittwe, Mrauk U, & the Chin villages

February 3rd, 2009 · No Comments

We decided to take 2 months off work to take an international adventure. First stop on our trip, Burma (also known as Myanmar). We started by visiting a very remote part of the country, the Rakhine State: the fishing town of Sittwe, a six hour boat ride past tiny villages, the ancient capital of Mrauk U with its hundreds of pagodas. We ventured even further into the isolated Chin State and visited villages where the women still follow the custom of tattooing their faces.

Kimberly

For photos, click here:

Sittwe & Mrauk U

After a day in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, we headed out for the remote Rakhine State on the west coast of the country. It was a short flight to Sittwe, but wow the cities are so different. We met our wonderful guide, Than, at the airport — we could tell right away that he was going to be great. (Note that we have changed the names of all the people we met to protect their identities.) We had barely left the airport before he started talking about the government and worsening conditions in the country. I was surprised that he would speak so freely, but this was just a taste of what would come. Over the next four days, we learned a lot about Than’s attitude towards the country, and what he was willing to do to help his people. It was very inspiring.

Sittwe is a reasonably large town in the Rakhine State, but very small and poor compared to modern Yangon. On our flight (which only operates 3 times a week), we were two of maybe 10 foreigners. Once we got into town, we didn’t see another causasian all day. The locals clearly don’t see many Westerners either, as they were enthralled with our presence. I’m sure the fact that we were young also added to our mystique. (The few other Westerners we saw in our time in this part of the country were all at least 20 years older than we are.) And then, to top it all off, I’m blond… Needless to say, there were many stares. After a while, I got used to it –but still, I would notice that crowds were assembling and people were following us around, all curious about the young, white couple. Everyone wanted to know if we were a couple or brother and sister, and seemed surprised when Thun told them we were married….so young, they would say.

Than took us around the city and showed us the cinema (with rows of bicycles parked outside), the seashore, and the monastery he attended as a chiled. When we visited the monastery, we were surpised that the head monk invited us to sit with him. He was curious about us — where we were from, how old we were… Than acted as a translator in what felt like a magical time.

The following morning, we rose early to catch out boat to the old royal city of Mrauk U. We had a small private boat just for us, and, I must say, it was the most magical 6 hours I have ever spent on a boat. Watching the scenery as we floated by, seeing the fishermen and sailors pass as they headed downstream, taking photos of buffalo and small settlements, it was just breathtaking. As we got further upstream, children would rush out to the riverbanks and yell and wave as we went past. Their smiles were so bright.

We arrived in Mrauk U mid-day and immediately set off to see the many pagodas. Mrauk U is like a smaller version of Bagan, with considerably fewer tourists. The pagodas were interesting, and the landscape quite beautiful. But I must say that would not have been sufficient to warrant such a long journey. Rather, it was the people we met who made our time there so worthwhile — the novice monks, no more than 6 or 7, who would follow us around the pagodas and smile and giggle when we would catch their eyes, the old men who would stare in an uncomfortable manner, the women who eagerly smiled at me, but wouldn’t make eye contact with Daniel.

The next day, we set off on an even more exotic adventure, to the remote Chin villages upriver. The Chin’s are known for their unique custom of tattooing the women’s faces. The story is that it was done to ensure that other minority groups would not steal their women, but that is not certain. The practice is fading away now, as the younger generation do not find it fashionable. The Chin state is heavily controlled by the government of Myanmar, so you can only visit with a permit. I had arranged this part of our trip with a wonderful travel agency in Yangon, so we were all set.

We were excited to be visiting a place where so few tourists went. It was another 3 hours upstream, this time on a small boat, to reach the villages. At the first village, we were eagerly greeted by the el
der women of the village. They came to us, their tattooed faces smiling, with their right hand extended. It was such a privilege to meet these women, to shake their hands, to be welcomed into their village. The most respected woman took us to the school that she was building and had us meet the children. The kids were thrilled with our arrival, and eagerly recited their mathmatics timestables for us. Before we left for the next village, we made a small donation to help finish with the building of the school. Click here for a video of the school:

The next village was similar, except that the women were much more reclusive, and the children even more outgoing. This time, when we arrived at the school (already finished), the teacher had the children stand for us. The next thing we knew, the kids were all singing “Brother John, Are you sleeping…”, followed by “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It was such a heartwarming moment.  Click here for the video:

We used a fantastic travel agent to book all our flights and tours in Burma. We highly highly recommend him. William, at Good News Travels, went so far above and beyond in helping us plan our trip — answering all sorts of questions, and even brining me caladryl to the hotel in Yangon for my itchy mosquito bites. He plans the travel arrangements for the US Government Officials — and has been recognized as a “Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Naste Traveler. Shockingly, he’s incredibly affordable and is happy to book an all inclusive tour or a la carte flights and hotels. If you’re planning a trip to Burma, you should absolutely use William. Our trip to Sittwe, Mrauk U, and the Chin villages was organized by him.

William Myatwunna
Good News Travels
http://www.myanmargoodnewstravel.com/

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Sundance Film Festival 2009 — Best of Fest

January 25th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Over the course of the festival, we watched 21 films in ten days…and there were still many more we wish we had seen. Below is the list of our favorites, as well as films to be on the lookout for in theaters (ones that we know have distribution deals as of March 2009).

Fair disclosure: the synposes of these films have been pulled together from a number of sources, most commonly the Sundance Film Festival 2009 Filmguide, Cinematial.com, and Indiewire. The text in italics is my opinion or reaction to the film.

Kimberly



OUR FAVORITE FILMS FROM THE FESTIVAL

Dramas

Precious (formerly called Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire)
U.S.A.
Directed by Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball) and written by Damien Paul.
Cast: Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique, and Gabourney Sidibe (who gives an incredible performance as the lead, unbelievably in her first motion picture).

The film tells the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young girl in Harlem struggling to overcome tremendous obstacles and discover her own voice. Precious is pregnant with her father’s child for the second time, struggling to read and write at school, and physically and emotionally imprisoned by her abusive mother. Yet, somehow she finds the strength to turn her life around.

This film was incredible. Honestly, it was painful to watch at times – certainly the topic is quite heavy. However, it was undeniably the best made film we saw at Sundance – as reflected by it winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award (which rarely happens).

*Winner: Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, Special Jury Prize for Acting to Mo’Nique for her portrayal of a mentally ill mother.

Picked up by Lionsgate, planning for a Fall 2009 release. (Note the legal battle with Weinstein Co…who apparently also thought they had purchased the rights to the film.)

The Maid (La Nana)
Chile
Directed by Sebastián Silva
Cast: Catalina Saavedra
When her mistress brings on another servant to help with the chores, a bitter and introverted maid wreaks havoc on the household.

This is a beautiful foreign film, something I hope others will get to see. No stars, no fancy plot twists, just solid writing, directing, and acting. A very satisfying production.

Winner: *World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic, World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting to Catalina Saavedra for her portrayal of a bitter and introverted maid.

Adam
U.S.A.
Written and directed by Max Mayer (longtime stage director)
Cast: Hugh Dancy (Evening, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and many West End theater productions), Rose Byrne (Marie Antoinette, Wicker Park, and FX’s Damages), and Peter Gallagher (While You Were Sleeping, American Beauty, and Fox’s The O.C.)

A conventional but delicately crafted drama that movingly tests the viability of a relationship between two Manhattan neighbors: a brilliant young man with Asperger syndrome and his patient but uncertain girlfriend, a kindergarten teacher and children’s book writer.

This was probably my favorite film of the festival. I found it so touching and so beautifully made. From the opening voiceover of the story of The Little Prince, to the ending where Beth reads from the children’s book she has written for Adam – it was simply lovely. It has been a long time since I have seen such wonderfully acted performances and on-screen chemistry as was given by Dancy and Byrne. I predict this film could be the breakout hit of 2009; certainly that is what Fox Searchlight is hoping for: a repeat of their success with 2005’s Once.

Winner: Alfred P. Sloan Prize, is presented to an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character.
Picked up by Fox Searchlight (for the high $100Ks), coming out in 2009

Rudo y Cursi
Mexico
Written and directed by Carlos Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien)
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diares, and Babel) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Milk, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights)

A drama/comedy about two brothers from a rural lower class Mexican family with roots in a little banana town on the coast of Mexico, and fighting with each other because of the desire to perform better in professional soccer. It is also a parody of contemporary Mexico’s Narco-society perceptions of life and values – and the Mexican “rags-to-riches” dream, which director Cuaron sadly stated in Q&A is linked only to soccer or Pop-Idol these days.

This was one of the first films we saw at the festival, and a wonderful way to Kick off our Sundance 2009 experience. Everything about the film was great, energetic, and fun. Sundance was Rudo y Cursi’s U.S. premiere – as the film had opened in Mexico a few weeks earlier. Sony wisely saw the potential and picked up the film before the festival even started – by the time it premiered at Sundance, it was already one of the top five grossing films in Mexican history….amazing to think of the potential for where it still has to go.

Picked up by Sony Classics, coming out in the U.S. on May 8, 2009

Shrink
U.S.A.
Directed by Jonas Pate (NBC’s Friday Night Lights) Written by Thomas Moffett
Cast: Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, Se7en, and Moon), Keke Palmer (Akeela and the Bee), Mark Webber, Dallas Roberts (Showtime’s The L Word), Saffron Burrows (ABC’s Boston Legal), and Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting).

Kevin Spacey plays a pot-smoking psychiatrist to the Hollywood elite, struggling to deal with his wife’s death. Spacey’s clientele cut across different parts of the L.A. scene: an aging actress with a cheating, country-singer husband; an alcoholic film vet who’d prefer to think himself a sex addict; a young writer whose big problem is having nothing to say; a superagent with more ticks than a cornfield; his beleaguered and pregnant assistant; and a high school girl who finds a balm for her broken heart in matinee movies.

This was my favorite of the Premiere films at the festival. While clearly bigger budget, this film still had the free-spirit irreverence of a good independent film (and notably, it’s still looking for distribution – thus very independent). The film was very satisfying and well made across all aspects. The acting, cinematography, directing, and writing were all balanced and extremely good. And getting to ask Kevin Spacey a question was pretty awesome – though the true highlight was that he held eye contact with me during his entire response, almost making me feel like the two of us were having our own private conversation.

Still no distribution deals yet, but I’d think something would have to come through. As Variety put it: “Theatrical seems a no-brainer.”

World’s Greatest Dad
U.S.A.
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (stand up comedian, actor in Police Academy, director of Sleeping Dogs Lie)
Cast: Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting), Daryl Sabara (Spy Kids), Alexie Gilmore (Definitely, Maybe), Tom Kenny (voice of SpongeBob)

A high school poetry teacher and failed writer’s son dies in a freak masturbation accident. Not wanting to expose his family to the embarrassing publicity of a freak masturbation accident resulting in death, the father decides to cover it up by writing a fake suicide note and claiming that his son took his own life. When the story — including the suicide note — becomes a sensation, he decides to revive his writing career by fabricating an entire journal supposedly written by his son before his death.

One of those rare films that is both thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. While watching the film, I was confused if it was serious or comedic…if I was supposed to laugh or cry. But during the Q&A, where Goldthwait bared his soul and shared his personal hardships and views on life, I realized that was exactly the point. This dark comedy was great—with what could be Robin Williams’ best performance. I just hope it gets picked up so more people can see it.

No distribution deals yet, though I understand negotiations are underway.

Cold Souls
U.S.A.
Written and directed by Sophie Barthes
Cast: Paul Giamatti (Sideways, American Splendor, and Fred Claus), Dina Korzun, David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck), Emily Watson (Cradle Will Rock and Gosford Park), Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), and Katheryn Winnick

Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, a New York actor who’s preparing for the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and finding it increasingly difficult to separate himself from the character. He learns of the new business of “soul storage” — the science of temporarily removing up to 95% of a person’s soul and all the emotional burdens that accompany it. Trouble is that he can’t act without a soul, and when he decides he wants it back, he discovers that it’s been stolen and taken to Russia.

A really enjoyable, quirky film. As always, Giamatti is fantastic – his body language and facial expressions could do all the acting, without him even saying a word.

No distribution yet.

The Winning Season
U.S.A.
Written and directed by James Strouse (Grace is Gone)
Cast: Sam Rockwell (Choke, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and The Assassination of Jesse James, Moon), Emma Roberts (Nancy Drew, Hotel for Dogs, and Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous – also Julia Roberts’ neice), Rob Corddry (The Daily Show), Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), Rooney Mara (Dare)

An alcoholic ex-basketball star who is currently occupied busing tables is wallowing in self-pity and depressed by his estranged relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. When he is handed the reins of a girl’s basketball team by the school’s principal, what ensues is tempestuous and trying for all concerned.

Certainly not the best film we saw, but possibly the most enjoyable. This is the one film I’m eager to see again when it comes out theatrically. Sam Rockwell’s performance was fantastic – both during the dramatic and comedic parts. Too many side-plots distracted from the core of the film and gave only a glimpse to underdeveloped characters. The film finished shooting at Thanksgiving and the cut we saw was finished only 48 hours before the screening. It’s quite possible that what is shown in the theatrical release is different – and hopefully better.

Picked up by Lionsgate Films, TBA release date.

Documentaries

It Might Get Loud
U.S.A.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth)

A documentary about electric guitar, as told through Jimmy Page (Led Zepplin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (The White Stripes). The film shows not only a personal musical history and discussion of musical philosophy by the three artists, but also a 2-day jam session with the three generations of musicians.

This was one of my favorite films of the festival. There is something just so incredible about watching the creative process unfold – especially with these three talented musicians. My only disappointment was the Jack White was the only one to come to the premiere – Dan and I would have preferred to see Jimmy or The Edge.

Came into Sundance with distribution, as it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in November after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Coming mid-2009.

Burma VJ
Denmark
Directed by Anders Østergaard and edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros.

In September 2007, Burmese journalists risked life imprisonment to report violent government reaction to peaceful protests from inside their sealed-off country. The film is told from the first person account of the leader of the Democratic Voice of Burma, the illegal reporting group in Burma. Via clandestine phone calls, Joshua dispenses his posse of video warriors, who covertly film the abuses in their country, then smuggle their footage out of the country – eventually to Norway, where it is broadcast to the world and back to Burma.

As Dan and I were heading off to Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) only a few days after the festival, we were eager to see this film. A little long and slow at times, we still found it extremely moving to think about what these men and women are risking to share this news and footage outside their closed country.

*Winner: World Cinema Documentary Editing Award
TV rights picked up by HBO, to be shown in 2010
Theatrical rights picked up by Oscilloscope, Spring 2009 release

The Yes Men Fix the World
France/U.S.A.
Directed by The Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno)

Andy and Mike, the “Yes Men”, are notorious troublemakers who sneak into corporate events disguised as captains of industry. A subject of the 2003 Sundance documentary, “The Yes Men,” they are back as writers/directors of this film. The stunts they pull off are incredible. Here is one example: getting invited to speak live on BBC News as a representative of Dow Chemical to falsely announce that Dow will be shutting down Union Carbide division and using the $12B in reparations for the Bhopal disaster.

The film was entertaining – and the subject matter fascinating. What I truly enjoyed was that it not only showed us the unbelievable pranks, but also provided a window into just how the Yes Men pull them off. My only disappointment was that it seems the Yes Men are great at creating disturbances and getting attention, but aren’t able to capitalize on the opportunities they have to effect change. I was left wondering if they don’t really have any solutions to offer, just criticism.


OTHER FILMS WE SAW AND ENJOYED

Dramas

An Education
United Kingdom
Directed by Lone Scherfig, written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy).
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard (Dead Man Walking, Kinsey, Garden State), Carey Mulligan (Pride and Prejudice), Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2, Chocolat, and The Da Vinci Code), Emma Thompson (Howard’s End, Stranger than Fiction, Last Chance Harvey)

In the early 60s, a sharp 16-year-old with sights set on Oxford meets a handsome older man whose sophistication enraptures and sidetracks both her and her parents.

This was one of the most sought after tickets of the festival. We enjoyed it a lot, but found parts of it unrealistic. (Really, parents are going to let a much older man take their 16 year old daughter away for weekend trips? Really, the school is never going to talk to the parents?) Thoroughly enjoyable, but certainly not the best thing we saw. Look for it in theaters later this year, as it was one of the films that sparked bidding wars.

*Winner: World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic, World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic
Picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, coming out in Fall 2009.

Dare
U.S.A.
Written by David Brind, Directed by Adam Salky
Cast: Emmy Rossum (The Phantom of the Opera, Mystic River, and The Day After Tomorrow), Zach Gilford (NBC’s Friday Night Lights), Ashley Springer, Ana Gasteyer (SNL and Mean Girls), Alan Cumming (GoldenEye, X2, Spy Kids), Sandra Bernhard (stand-up comedian)

Dare follows three very-different teenagers through the last semester of high school. There are Alexa, the overachieving good girl who longs to break out of her shell; Ben, the melancholy outsider confused about his sexuality; and Johnny, the rich kid who has everything, including good looks, but hides behind his bad-boy persona. This unlikely trio fall into each other’s lives and each others arms, making a last-ditch effort to shake things up before they actually have to start living as adults.

Somehow I missed that this film is about a threesome when reading the synopsis in the Sundance guide. I was really happy I saw it, but even happier that I didn’t see it with my mother… The actors give great performances, and the film overall feels like a significantly more edgy version of the high school films I love like “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” or “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

Five Minutes of Heaven
United Kingdom/Ireland
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion), written by Guy Hibbert.
Cast: Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kinsey) and James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday, Matchpoint)

Two men from the same town but from different sides of the Irish political divide discover that the past is never dead. One man (Neeson) is the killer; the other (Nesbitt) is the brother of the man he killed. One feels he dare not ask for forgiveness; the other feels he is incapable of giving it.

An incredibly powerful film. I found it thought provoking about the possibility of reconciliation, but also the reality that the anger and hurt are extremely difficult to overcome. Both lead actors gave wonderful performances.

*Winner: World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic, World Cinema Screenwriting Award

No distribution announced as of yet.

Victoria Day
Canada
Written and directed by David Bezmozgis
Cast: Holly Deveaux, Scott Beaudin, John Mavrogiannis, Mark Rendall and an assortment of teenaged actors from the Greater Toronto Area.

Ben Spektor is enjoying his life as a young adult in 1988. He’s a star player on the high school hockey team, the next Gretsky if his father has anything to say about it. Jordan Chapman is Ben’s teammate, and perpetual tormentor. While out catching a Bob Dylan concert Ben runs into Jordan, who needs five bucks to buy some drugs. Ben hands over the cash and walks away. From then on we watch as Ben deals with the aftermath of Jordan’s disappearance. It turns out Ben was the last person, at least of those who knew Jordan, to see the young man before he disappeared. The situation is made all the more awkward when Ben starts a tentative relationship with Cayla, Jordan’s younger sister.

Dan and I were both struck by how realistic this film was. While it could have easily turned into a crime drama about the missing boy, the film instead focuses on how this incident affects the lead character.

Motherhood
U.S.A.
Written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann
Cast: Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill), Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), Anthony Edwards (NBC’s ER)

Eliza Welch is a frazzled, multitasking mom trying to balance her role as a wife and mother with her dreams of becoming a writer. In the day-in-the-life movie, Eliza struggles to pull together her daughter’s sixth birthday party, contemplates an extra-marital fling and seizes upon the career opportunity of a lifetime.

This felt like a very satisfying independent film – one of those films where it’s not about what happens, but about the characters and their struggle. We saw this with my mother, and she said it did a great job of showing that feeling of being overwhelmed and lonely that is often an unfortunate part of Motherhood. Uma Thurman was fantastic in the film – and more beautiful in person that I ever would have expected.

Zion and his Brother
Israel
Written and directed by Eran Merav (Underdogs)
Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Tzachi Grad, Reuven Badalov, Ofer Hayun

A sensitive sibling drama set in Haifa, where two brothers are living a dysfunctional life with a single parent. Like Cain and Abel, or better yet, like Jacob and Esau, they do battle under the coastal train tracks which form a sort of post birth womb.

One of those sad foreign films about poverty and dysfunctional family dynamics. The young actors did a wonderful job, especially considering they were untrained.

Documentaries

Art & Copy
U.S.A.
Directed by Doug Pray

Essentially, a history of 20th century advertising, director Doug Pray interviews some of the greatest names in the field and recounts their successes. The film combines clips of ads with interviews with titans in the field like Dan Wieden (Nike’s “Just do it”), Hal Riney (Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America”) and George Lois (”I want my MTV!”).

Good, but not great, this documentary gives an interesting overview of the advertising business.

Picked up by boutique distributor Arthouse Films.

The Reckoning
U.S.A.
Directed by Pamela Yates

Late in the twentieth century, in response to horrific atrocities igniting increasingly around the world, more than 60 countries united to launch the International Criminal Court (ICC)—the first permanent home for prosecuting perpetrators (no matter how powerful) of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. This documentary follows charismatic ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo for three years across four continents as he and his team tirelessly issue arrest warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, put Congolese warlords on trial, challenge the U.N. Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president for the Darfur massacres, and shake up the Colombian justice system.

A poignant documentary that provided a good education about the formation and working of the ICC. A little too long for my taste, but I’m extremely glad I saw it. Especially relevant given the recent ICC warrant against al-Bashir for his involvement in the Darfur killings.


…AND THE BAD FILMS

As quoted from USA Today: “Then there were two outright failures: Billy Bob Thornton starred in both of them. First came Manure, a surreal comedy from the Polish brothers about 1950s-era fertilizer salesmen that caused a lot of walkouts and painful silence during the post-screening Q&A. Then came The Informers, an adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis short-story collection about decadent Los Angeles scumbags.” We saw Manure and agreed it was pretty awful – worse yet was the arrogance and rudeness of the director during the Q&A. My brother saw The Informers and said it wasn’t that terrible, but it had helped that he had come in with low expectations, having read a very negative review right before the screening.


OTHER TOP FILMS THAT OUR FRIENDS/FAMILY SAW:

Dramas

Sin Nombre
U.S.A,/ Mexico
Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast: Paulina Gaitan, Karl Braun, and many first time actors

Filmmaker Fukunaga’s first-hand experiences with Mexican immigrants seeking the promise of the U.S. form the basis of this epic Spanish-language dramatic thriller. The film tracks the fate of three teenagers traveling through Mexico on their way toward the U.S. border. But the journey is a tough one: First the trio must cross a river into Mexico, and then hop a train — by riding on its roof — for a three-week journey to the border. Before the train arrives, Sayla’s father tells her that half the people traveling with them (100-200) will either die or be caught by border police and sent back home. Nevertheless, the promise of a better life on the other side is too appetizing to ignore.

This is the film we are most eager to see when it comes out in the theaters, as we were unable to see it during the festival. Our friends saw it and said it was amazing – and it was the film we heard the most about from festival staff and other attendees.

Winner: Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic, Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic
Came into the festival with distribution with Focus Features, coming out March 20, 2009.

Humpday
U.S.A.
Written and directed by Lynn Shelton
Cast: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), and Alycia Delmore

A farcical comedy about straight male bonding gone a little too far. Set in Seattle’s hip urban youth scene, the movie focuses on two straight buddies’ intent on fulfilling the unlikely goal of filming themselves having sex—with each other—for the town’s local porn festival. To these hilariously mixed up journeymen, violating their sexual dispositions offers an absurd, idyllic escape from their mundane existence.

From reading the synopsis, this looked like the one film Dan and I had no interest in seeing – so we were shocked to hear repeatedly how great it was. (Even more so from the two 65 year old ladies riding the bus who said it was laugh-out-loud funny…) We’re looking forward to seeing this film later this year, either in theaters or on V.O.D. (video on demand).

*Winner: Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence
Picked up by Magnolia Pictures, coming to VOD in July 2009, theatrical release in August.

Spread
U.S.A.
Directed by David MacKenzie (Young Adam) and written by Jason Dean Hall
Cast: Ashton Kutcher (Punk’d, That 70’s Show), Anne Heche (Psycho, Six Days Seven Nights), Margarita Levieva (Fox’s Vanished), Rachel Blanchard (Clueless TV series), Sebastian Stan, Sonia Rockwell

Nicki is a lothario on the make in Los Angeles. In his attempt to sleep his way to money and privilege, he courts women like high-powered attorney Samantha, but his plans are jeopardized when he falls for a waitress who is playing the same game.

Our friends saw this and didn’t have great things to say. They described the film as watching 2 hours of Ashton Kutcher having sex (which did make the experience enjoyable for them). It will be interesting to see how the film is edited for a theatrical release.

Picked up by Anchor Bay in one of the largest acquisition of the festival at $3.5M

Documentaries

We Live in Public
U.S.A.
Directed by Ondi Timoner (Dig!)

The film portrays the story of the Internet’s revolutionary impact on human interaction as told through the eyes of maverick web pioneer, Josh Harris, and his transgressive art project that shocked New York.

*Winner: Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary

Playing the festival circuit in early 2009

The Cove
U.S.A.
Directed by Louie Psihoyos

The Cove exposes an atrocity of unimaginable brutality. The dolphin slaughter depicted here is committed yearly and without knowledge of the general Japanese public, even though they could be buying highly-toxic mercury-laden dolphin meat disguised as fish from their local supermarkets. s Barred access to the site, the film crew (which includes most notably the man who trained Flipper, Richard O’Barry) was forced to utilize covert military tactics and equipment, including thermal heat sensors and the help of two world-class free divers, to accomplish their mission.

*Winner: Audience Award: U.S. Documentary

Roadside Attractions picked up the film for limited distribution: July 31, 2009

Afghan Star
Afghanistan/United Kingdom
Directed by Havana Marking

After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Pop Idol has come to television in Afghanistan: millions are watching and voting for their favorite singer. Marking’s film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk their lives to sing.

*Winner: World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary, World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary

Picked up by Zeitgeist, Summer 2009

Tyson
U.S.A.
Written and directed by James Toback (Bugsy)

Described as a “psycho-documentary”, this film investigates the many controversial moments in the life of the boxer and celebrity. Raised in Brooklyn, his father disappeared from Tyson’s life at a very young age. He then was under the wing of his manager Cus D’Amato who helped steer the career of the young boxing phenomenon. Soon he was thrown into the spotlight and led a life of recklessness with alcohol, drugs and sex.

Picked up by Sony Classics, coming out April 24, 2009

Good Hair
U.S.
Directed by Jeff Stilson (stand up comedian: The Chris Rock Show)

When Chris Rock’s daughter, Lola, came up to him crying and asked, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” the bewildered comic committed himself to search the ends of the earth and the depths of black culture to find out who had put that question into his little girl’s head! Director Jeff Stilson’s camera followed the funnyman, and the result is Good Hair, a wonderfully insightful and entertaining, yet remarkably serious, documentary about African American hair culture.

Special Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary

Prom Night in Mississippi
U.S.A,
Written and directed by Paul Saltzman

In 1997, Academy Award–winning actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for the senior prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi under one condition: the prom had to be racially integrated. His offer was ignored. In 2008, Freeman offered again. This time the school board accepted, and history was made. Unfortunately, Freeman’s generosity fans the flames of racism—and racism in Charleston has a distinctly generational tinge. Some white parents forbid their children to attend the integrated prom and hold a separate white-only dance.

Playing the film festival circuit in early 2009


OTHER FILMS TO LOOK FOR IN THEATERS

Adventureland
U.S.A
Directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad)
Cast: Kristen Stewart (Twilight), Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, The Hunting Party), Ryan Reynolds (ABC’s Two Guys and a Girl), Martin Starr (NBC’s Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up), Bill Hader (SNL, Knocked Up), Kristen Wiig (SNL, Knocked Up)

James Brennan (Eisenberg) can’t wait to embark on a post-college tour of Europe. When his parents announce they can no longer subsidize his trip, he has little choice but to take a thankless job at a local amusement park. What should be his worst summer ever turns into the adventure—including finding love with co-worker Em (Stewart)—of a lifetime.

Came into the festival with distribution with Miramax, coming out March 27, 2009

Amreeka
U.S./Canada/Kuwait
Directed by: Cherien Dabis
Cast: Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Alia Shawkat, Joseph Ziegler

A warm and lighthearted film about one Palestinian family’s tumultuous journey into Diaspora amidst the cultural fallout of America’s war in Iraq. A Palestinian single mom struggles to maintain her optimistic spirit in the daily grind of intimidating West Bank checkpoints, the constant nagging of a controlling mother, and the haunting shadows of a failed marriage. Everything changes one day when she receives a letter informing her that her family has been granted a U.S. green card.

Picked up by National Geographic Pictures, Fall 2009 release

Brooklyn’s Finest
U.S.A.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day)
Cast: Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunrise), Richard Gere (Pretty Woman, Chicago), Don Cheadle (Oceans Eleven, Hotel Rwanda), Wesley Snipes (Passenger 57, Blade), Ellen Barkin (Ocean’s Thirteen)

A cops-turned-criminals drama. Sal (Hawke) is a detective tempted by greed and corruption, Eddie (Gere) has lost his loyalty to the police force and Tango (Cheadle) is forced to choose between friendship and his duty as an undercover cop. Fate brings the three together during a bust in a Brooklyn housing project.

Senator Distribution reportedly paid under $5 million for “Brooklyn’s Finest” with a commitment of at least $10 million to market the film. Lots of drama over the melodramatic final shot, which Fuqua is rumored to have agreed to redo as a part of the distribution deal. Coming out in 4th quarter of 2009.

Black Dynamite
U.S.A.
Written and directed by: Scott Sanders (Thick as Thieves), also written by Michael Jai White
Cast: Michael Jai White (The Dark Knight), Tommy Davidson (In Living Color), Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Arsenio Hall, Byron Minns, Kym Whitley

A bawdy comedy that plays with 1970s blaxploitation flicks the way Austin Powers did with 1960s spy thrillers. When “the man” kills his brother, pumps heroin into the local orphanage, and floods the ghetto with a secret weapon disguised as Anaconda Malt Liquor, there is only one brother bad enough, strong enough, and brave enough to take them on: the legendary Black Dynamite.

Picked up by Sony Pictures for $2M, coming out in 2009

Dead Snow
Norway
Written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, also written by Stig Frode Henriksen
Cast: Vegard Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Jenny Skavlan, Jeppe Beck Laursen, Lasse Valdal

A Nazi zombie horror/comedy. For eight medical students, Easter vacation begins innocently enough. They pack their cars full of ski equipment and enough beer to fuel their escape from everyday life to the snowy, isolated hills outside of Øksfjord, Norway. Once there, they receive a late-night visit from a shady hiker, who tells them a story about Nazi occupation of the area during World War II. After doing their fair share of raping and pillaging, the dreaded battalion faced a brutal and vengeful uprising by the citizens of the town. The soldiers who managed to survive the onslaught, including their dreaded leader Colonel Herzog, were driven into the hills by the angry mob, where they supposedly froze to death, never to be seen again. But if the horror genre has taught us anything, it’s that the raucous behavior and promiscuity of the younger generation always have a way of bringing evil spirits back to life.

Picked up by IFC Films, coming out in 2009.

500 Days of Summer
U.S.A.
Directed by Mark Webb
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (10 Things I Hate About You, NBC’s 3rd Rock from the Sun) and Zooey Deschanel (Yes Men, Elf)

The film tells the story of the relationship between a woman, Summer (Deschanel), who doesn’t believe in true love and a man, Tom (Gordon-Levitt), described as a hopeless romantic, who falls in love with her. Over a span of 500 days, it is told from the perspective of Tom, who is influenced by pop music and breaks out into song throughout the movie.

Came into the festival with distribution with Fox Searchlight, coming out July 24, 2009

The Greatest
U.S.
Directed by: Shana Feste
Cast: Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking, Thelma and Louise, Stepmom), Pierce Brosnan (James Bond: Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies…), Carey Mulligan (Pride and Prejudice), Johnny Simmons (Evan Almighty), Aaron Johnson, Michael Shannon

The death of their teenage son, Bennett, in a car crash is almost too much for the Brewer family to bear, not just because his was a life of such promise but also because the impact of his death unleashes the turmoil that was just beneath the surface of their lives. His mother becomes obsessed and can’t let go; his father, in turn, can’t face it at all; and his brother’s secondary status is magnified and entrenched. And when Bennett’s girlfriend appears, the family must come to grips with circumstances that complicate their loss even further.

Picked up by Senator Distribution

In the Loop
United Kingdom
Directed by Armando Iannucci (BBC’s The Thick of It)
Cast: Peter Capaldi (BBC’s The Thick of It, James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Tom Hollander (Pride and Prejudice, Pirates of the Carribean), David Rashe, Gina McKee, Chris Addison, Anna Chulmsky, Mimi Kennedy

British and American defense and state departments on a hilariously nasty rush to war that looks a lot like Iraq. When a British cabinet minister, Simon Foster, comments publicly that he thinks war is “unforeseeable,” the result is an immediate bollocking from Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s testy bulldog pushing for war. Unable to clarify his position, Simon is sent to Washington, where, trying desperately to be important, he meets Karen Clark, a U.S. State Department official, and General Miller, who see him as a transatlantic partner in building a consensus against war. Described as “It’s The Office meets The West Wing.”

Picked up by IFC films, coming out in 2009.

Moon
United Kingdom
Directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie), written by Nathan Parker
Cast: Sam Rockwell (Choke, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and The Assassination of Jesse James, The Winning Season), Kevin Spacey (Usual Suspects, American Beauty, Shrink), Dominique McElligott, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry, Kaya Scodelario, Malcolm Stewart

In the near future, Astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell) is sent on a three year mission to live on the far side of the moon and mine Helium-3, a chemical that has now become Earth’s primary source of energy. His moon base has lost live communication with Earth and is rather lonely. But luckily his contract is almost up and he will soon return home to his loving wife Tess and their three year old daughter Eve. But as the final days clock down, Sam suffers a freak accident and discovers a secret which puts into question everything.

Picked up by Sony Classics from Sony Pictures Worldwide; coming out in June 2009

→ 1 CommentTags: North America · sundance

Sundance Film Festival 2009 — Top 10 Moments

January 25th, 2009 · No Comments

This is my fourth Sundance Film Festival, and Dan’s third. However, this is the first year we came for the entire 10 days of the festival. It was an incredible time. Our friends came for the long Martin Luther King Day weekend and my family came for the second half to celebrate my mom’s big birthday. It’s still my favorite vacation by far, where else can you find such a great combination of world-class skiing, independent film, top-notch restaurants, celebrity spotting, bar hopping, and just hanging out with friends/family in the hot tub after a long day?!

Below are my top 10 Sundance 2009 moments!

Kimberly

For photos of friends, films, and lots of celebrities, click here.

Sundance Film Festival 2009

Kimberly and Dan’s Sundance Film Festival 2009 Top 10

1. Dan almost blinding Robin Williams with our flash, as he couldn’t figure out how to get the camera to take the picture in low light while Robin and I were hugging

2. Seeing Bobcat Goldthwait cry because he was so touched by the audience’s reaction to the premiere of his film, World’s Greatest Dad

3. Having a “moment” with Kevin Spacey (in an auditorium with 1200 other people) when I asked him a question at the premiere of his film Shrink and he responded to me with full eye-contact

4. Feeling Lee Daniels’ excitement at the “white people embracing” his film Precious (originally named Push) at the award screening for it winning the Grand Jury Prize of the festival

5. Watching Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White jam in the documentary, It Might Get Loud

6. Meeting one of the lead prosecutors of the International Criminal Court at a screening of the documentary The Reckoning

7. Bringing Zookie into the Filmmaker Lodge, where industry folks network and talk shop. We were hoping he’d get “noticed” – but not this year.

8. Wearing our Festival Passes around town and feeling important, although we could never come up with a good answer for, “Who are you here with?” Next year, I’m saying, “I’m with a small film called Little White Monster

9. Being approached on Main Street by a legitimate lead actor who thought I was someone I clearly was not…and then being introduced to his film’s producer and chatting for a few minutes

10. Sharing the experience with 20 “Sundance Virgins” – our friends and family are hooked!

→ No CommentsTags: North America · sundance

Mexico City: Month Two

August 30th, 2008 · 1 Comment

We are having a great time here in Mexico City! Read below for an attempt to crystallize why. And, many of you have been asking for photos of our neighborhood and apartment, so check out the link attached!

Kimberly

For photos, click here.

From Mexico City — our neighborhood

Month two in Mexico City, and we still love it!

It’s quite surprising how easy it is to live here. I’m being quite serious when I say that our experience has been more positive here than in Paris. Shocking, I know! But we’ve decided it’s driven by a few things: cost, social network, convenience, and hospitality.

It goes without saying that Paris was ridiculously expensive, and Mexico City is quite affordable. Not to say that things are super cheap here (other than taxis, which are!) – but compared to Paris or San Francisco, it’s quite affordable. Going out to eat at the nicest restaurants in the city will cost $80-100 a couple – and I’m talking about top noch places (the former chef of Everest in Chicago opened a great place here called Pujol, which has to be half the price)!

When we lived in Paris, we didn’t have any friends. It was just the three of us (including Zookie, of course!), which was great, but did get lonely. It has been wonderful to have a social network here in Mexico City. Obviously I know a lot of people from Bain – and it certainly helps that there are three other American expats down here working on this project with me: Phil, Matthew, and Ravi. We go out to dinner at least two nights a week with my colleagues and spend time with them on weekends too. Phil and Matthew brought their families down here – even their kids! And Matthew and his wife, Erin, brought their dog, Gunther – so Zookie even has friends here! But, even outside Bain, we have other friends who live here or who we have been introduced to – Max (from Stanford GSB), Julia (a friend of the Schnitzer cousins), and others. While Dan and I love spending time together – we learned in Paris that we get lonely when we don’t have other friends around.

When we lived in Paris, we were really surprised by how difficult it was to get simple things done – stores closed on random days of the week, you had to go to all the specialty stores just to get household items (drugs sold only in pharmacies, birthday cards in papeleries, etc.), even getting our mail was a hassle! Well, in Mexico, we have been shocked by how easy everyday life is! Dan called the other day to ask if the pet store had a 5 pound bag of Zookie’s dog food in stock; they offered to deliver it and arrived in 15 minutes!! A friend of mine recommended a manicurist who will come to our apartment before or after I go to work and give me a mani/pedi – for only $25 USD!

Best of all, they have Costco! I LOVE Costco – and Costco here is just like Costco in the U.S., but better! They have all the same things: bagels, pita chips, chocolate chip cookies, cashmere sweaters) ….and more! Mini cinnamon donuts, arrachera, Chihuahua cheese – and the prepared food section is amazing: empanadas, paella, crepes con cajeta (caramel)… And the best part is that Costco is open every day until 9pm – even Sunday! (compare that to Paris, where everything is closed on Sunday…)

[Yes, I did just dedicate a whole paragraph to my love of Costco – my mom will be so proud!]

Lastly, Mexicans are some of the friendliest, most welcoming people we have met in all our travels. Typically, people are not especially friendly in large cities – so we didn’t expect much in Mexico City. We have been completely surprised! Whereas we never knew our neighbors before (in Chicago, San Francisco, or Paris) – here we talk with most of them. (This is partly due to an incident involving Dan getting locked out of the apartment with Zookie and our friend’s dog, Gunther running around the building…but that’s another story for another blog. ) When we lived in Paris, we always waited for people to ask where we were from, why we were there – but no one cared. Here, in Mexico, everyone is very curious about our story and eager to talk with us. And, surprisingly, I feel more linguistically comfortable here (even though my Spanish is limited to “Donde esta el bano?” or “Dos tacos, por favor.”) than I did in France (even though I’m close to fluent in French!) The Mexicans are so honored that a foreigner is trying to speak their language, they help you out. The French are so insulted that everyone is not completely fluent in their language, they are horrified at your mistakes!

I think that part of the hospitality culture is driven by Mexicans having a very different culture than Americans in the sense that leisure time is spent in public places. On weekends in the U.S. most people spend time at home or in their own backyards – with a closed group of family or friends. On weekends in Mexico, everyone goes out to the parks and squares and enjoys the days together. Vendors fill the parks and streets selling all kinds of tasty food: fresh fruit, boiled elote (corn), cotton candy, tacos, and more. In addition to the food are the ubiquitous balloon sellers, the stands where kids can rent toy cars and bikes, the clowns and performers…even people dressed in costumes as cartoon characters! After living here for a while, we realized that Mexicans have just decided to take the theme park environment and make it completely accessible to the public. Everything we’d see on the weekends would be completely normal in the U.S. – but only inside Disneyland, Sea World, or Six Flags. Here, in Mexico, they have just kept the party atmosphere everywhere!

→ 1 CommentTags: America · Mexico · North America

Oaxaca

August 21st, 2008 · No Comments

Part II of the Haimsohn family roadtrip was to Oaxaca. This beautiful city is a destination in itself – but the handicraft villages and ruins in the mountains nearby make it a must-see spot in Mexico.

Kimberly

For photos, click here: Oaxaca, Villages

Oaxaca Villages around Oaxaca

After a six hour drive from Puebla, we finally reached the city of Oaxaca. This region of the country is well known for its strong indigenous culture, authentic handicrafts, and incredible ruins. It’s a land of mountains and valleys checkered with cornfields, just stunning in August, which is during the rainy season and when the corn is green. We stayed in the city of Oaxaca, but split our time between exploring its museums, churches, and pedestrian streets and the nearby towns and ruins.

Oaxaca City

In Oaxaca city, we visited the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Started in the 1550s by Dominican friars and finished a century later, it contains the work of all the best artists of that period. Ornate plaster statues and flowers cover the extravagantly gilded walls and ceiling. On the ceiling above the entrance there is an elaborate genealogical tree of the Dominican order, which starts with don Domingo de Guzmán, Saint Dominic himself.

Next to the church is the Museo Regional de Oaxaca, occupying what used to be one of the greatest Dominican convents of colonial Mexico. The museum is an ambitious project that displays the course of human development in the Oaxaca valley from earliest times to the 20th century.

A number of the museum’s rooms are dedicated to the nearby ruins of Monte Alban (which we visited during our trip), with the most famous display being the artifacts from Monte Albán’s Tomb 7, which were discovered in 1932. The tomb contained 12 to 14 corpses and some 500 pieces of jewelry and art, making use of almost 8 pounds of gold and turquoise, conch shell, amber, and obsidian. The museum also had several other interesting exhibits, including much from the colonial times all the way through the present day.

The other highlight of Oaxaca city was definitely the market. Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate. (Remember that the Mexicans introduced the rest of the world to chocolate…through hot chocolate.) We enjoyed some tasty cups of hot chocolate here. Dan was tempted by the chapulines (those would be grasshoppers), but he decided to hold out for the restaurant version. As with all markets in developing countries, this was a fascinating place to spend the morning.

Monte Alban

The spectacular ruins of Monte Albán sits on a mountain that rises from the middle of the valley floor — or, rather, divides two valleys. From here you can see all that lies between you and the distant mountains. Around 500 B.C., the Zapotec people began the monumental exercise of leveling the top of a mountain, where they would build their city.

The ruins are centered on the Great Plaza, a man-made area created by flattening the mountaintop. Of the many interesting ruins here, our favorites were the I-shaped ball court (which differs slightly from Maya and Toltec ball courts in that there are no goal rings), the “observatory” (shaped like a ship), and the famous Loz Danzantes. Los Danzantes (which translates to the dancers) is covered with large stone slabs that have distorted naked figures carved into them. The people were originally thought to be dancers – but more careful research pointed out the distorted bodies and pained expressions likely connoted disease. Then, some researchers pointed out that many of the figures had mutilated genitals – so now the theory rests that these are actually depictions of prisoners of war…a far cry from the original happy thought of dancers!

South of Monte Alban: Handicraft villages of San Bartolo Coyotepec and San Martin Tilcajete

San Bartolo is the home of the famous black pottery sold all over Oaxaca. In 1953, a native woman named Doña Rosa invented the technique of smoking the pottery during firing to make it black and rubbing the fired pieces with a piece of quartz to produce a sheen. Although Doña Rosa died in 1979, her son, Valente Nieto Real, carries on the tradition. We were lucky to watch Valente demonstrate his mother’s techniques using only two crude plates (as a potter’s wheel). We picked up a beautiful vase for only $10 – such a steal!

San Martín Tilcajete, another 15km (10 miles) south of San Bartolo, is home to woodcarvers who produce alebrijes — fantastical, brightly painted animals and imaginary beasts. The town is incredibly small, with only a few streets – but many little houses and workshops to visit. We stopped in a few places and watched the process of turning tree stumps into hot-pink cows, fantastical dragons and colorful turtles.

East of Oaxaca: Puzzle-like ruins of Mitla, weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, and tree of El Tule

We headed out the next day straight east from Oaxaca on a hunt for more authentic village experiences. Our first stop were the geometric ruins of Mitla. The Zapotec settled Mitla around 600 B.C., but it became a Mixtec bastion in the late 10th century. The stone buildings here are inlaid with small cut stones to form geometric patterns. The most common motif is the zigzag pattern, the same one seen repeatedly on Mitla blankets.

Our next stop was Teotitlán, famous for weaving, and now an obviously prosperous town, to judge by all the current development. This is where you’ll want to go for rugs, and you’ll find no shortage of weavers and stores. We made a short visit to the museum, but refrained from purchasing any rugs. We did, however, enjoy a tasty traditional lunch at Restaurant Tlamanalli, cooked by three Zapotec sisters in very authentic style.

On our way back to Oaxaca, we stopped at Santa María del Tule, famous for the immense El Tule Tree, an ahuehuete (Montezuma cypress, akin to the bald cypress) standing in a churchyard just off the main road. It is now over 2,000 years old and is said to have the broadest trunk of any tree in the world.

Casa Cid de Leon
Av. Morelos 602 – Oaxaca
+52 (951) 514-1893
www.casaciddeleon.com
-One of the premier hotels in the city, the Cid de Leon was a nice choice for our stay. Honestly, we were just thrilled that they would take Zookie – and he certainly won over the entire staff (including the maid who was initially terrified of him and was taking him for walks by the end of our stay). The décor was a little much for our tastes (our room had a lot of dolls and stuffed animals in it) – but it was a very comfortable place to stay. We actually rented the El Mio Cid suite, a two bedroom, two story suite – Zookie had a ball running up and down the stairs between our room and my parents’.

Restaurante Los Danzantes
Acala 403 – Oaxaca
+52 (951) 501-1184
www.losdanzantes.com
-A colonial patio transformed into a gourmet, contemporary dining experience. To be honest, we had only an OK meal here. The food was pretty good – but the service was terrible. Perhaps we just came on an off night? We had expected it to be the highlight of our dining experiences in Oaxaca

Casa Oaxaca
Constitucion 104A – Oaxaca
+52 (951) 516-8889
www.casaoaxaca.com.mx
-Often referred to as Oaxacan fusion, this restaurant is a place for a special occasion. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner here. (Dan got his chapulines!) The hotel in town by the same name is connected (and where we would have loved to have stayed, if only Zookie had been welcome). Strangely, the restaurant is not located in the hotel, but a few blocks away.

Temple
Calle Garcia Vigil 409A
+52 (951) 516-8676
www.restaurantetemple.com
-When you’ve had enough Mexican food and need a break, head to dinner at this place. We enjoyed an incredibly tasty meal here of pasta, gourmet sandwiches, and beautiful salads. Highly recommended!

Restaurant Tlamanalli
Av. Juárez 39 – Teotitlan de Valle
+52 (951) 524-4006
-Run by three Zapotec sisters who serve authentic Oaxacan cuisine. It is considered the most authentic food in the country by some. We enjoyed a tasty lunch – but the ambiance and watching the sisters cook was truly the highlight. Note that it’s open only for lunch: Monday through Friday from 1 to 4pm.

Restaurante Tipico La Capilla
Carretera Oaxaca-Zaachila, Km 14 – Zaachila
+52 (951) 528-6115
-This place looks like a tour group tourist trap, but don’t be put off. It was our best lunch in the Oaxaca region! The antojitos (appetizers) were really tasty – and the Oaxacan mole negro chicken was wonderful. If you happen to be traveling with children, this is the place to go! There are animals (birds and monkeys!) and lots of room for the kids to run around and play (even swings)!

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Puebla

August 18th, 2008 · No Comments

My parents came to visit us in Mexico in August – and we took a roadtrip to Puebla and Oaxaca. The beautiful colonial city of Puebla was the first stop on our trip, and we visited a number of the smaller towns in the area, including the giant pyramid of Cholula.

Kimberly

For photos, click here.

Puebla and the road to Oaxaca

After negotiating Mexico City traffic, we finally made it out of the city. I think my parents were a little shocked by the peculiarities of driving in Mexico – and all the interesting things you can purchase out the window of your car while stuck in traffic. Would you like some chicharon? A bubble machine? Toy airplane?…

We arrived in Puebla in time for lunch, and convinced the waiter at Fonda la Mexicana to allow us to bring Zookie into the restaurant, as long as we sat in the corner by the door. Sadly, we weren’t in Puebla long enough to sample all its famous cuisine – but we did try a few of the special regional dishes. Puebla is considered the cradle of Mexican Cuisine, having produced some of the countries classic dishes. Mole Poblano: a spicy sauce with more than 20 ingredients. Pipian: similar to a mole, but based on ground toasted squash seeds. Chiles en Nogada: a poblano chile stuffed with a spicy-sweet filling made of pork and chicken, and served with a walnut crème sauce and pomegranate seeds.

After lunch, we checked out a few of the cities classic sites: the Museo Amparo, with its stunning collection of pre-Columbian pieces and colonial furniture; the Cathedral and Iglesia de Santo Domingo; and the Zocalo. We had to take turns visiting the museums and churches, as we had Zookie with us – and he wasn’t invited inside. Of course Zookie made friends, including another dog who wouldn’t leave him alone…my mom finally found refuge in a store of Talaverna pottery – where she ended up buying some beautiful pieces.

We decided not to stay in Puebla, but rather in the nearby city of Cholula – famous for its pyramid. When Cortes arrived, the local Cholulans planned a secret revolt – but he was tipped off and managed to kill over 6000 Cholulans in just one day. Cortes then vowed to build a church for every day of the year or one on top of every pagan temple (sources vary). He didn’t get quite that far, but did manage to build at least 39…including the most famous one Santuario de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, on top of the world’s largest pyramid.

The Great Pyramid was built between 1-600 A.D., and was actually built over several times. As power changed hands, interest in the pyramid faded, and it eventually became completely overgrown and unrecognizable. It wasn’t until 1931, when Archaeologists dug tunnels, that it was proved that this was not just a giant hill, but rather a man-made pyramid. And yes, Cortes did build a church on top. In fact, we were lucky enough to happen to be visiting on a festival day, and were able to see the parade and festivities for the saint of the church!

We also visited two beautiful and unique churches just outside of the town. The church of Tonantzintla is often referred to as Mexico’s most exuberant, with a brightly painted stucco interior in a style referred to as Indian Baroque. And San Francisco Acatepec is famed for its beautiful tiled exterior: decorated with blue, green, and yellow Talavera tiles set in red brick.

Hotel La Quinta Luna
Calle 3 Sur 702 – Cholula
+52 (222) 247-8915 or (1-800-728-9098 from the U.S.)
www.laquintaluna.com
-Small boutique hotel with six rooms off a large courtyard. The owners rescued this single-story colonial house from ruins and clearly have spent a fortune restoring it. We had a wonderful stay and especially enjoyed breakfast in the garden. Highly recommended.

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Cuernavaca

August 3rd, 2008 · No Comments

For our first trip, we decided to explore the nearby city of Cuernavaca. This is a very popular weekend getaway, especially for wealthy Mexico City residents. We relaxed in our posh boutique hotel, explored the ruins of Xochicalco, and visited Cortes’ palace.

Kimberly

For photos, click here

Cuernavaca

Cuernavaca is only an hour or so south of Mexico City (but it usually takes more than an hour just to get out of Mexico City!) so it is a very popular weekend destination for D.F. residents. I had been working very long hours, so we decided to take two days to relax and refresh.

Dan found this wonderful boutique hotel, La Casa Azul – where all the rooms are decorated in styles found in different parts of the country. Our room was from Olinea, which is known for its beautiful lacquered wood work.

On Saturday, we drove to the ruins of Xochicalco. The drive itself was amazing. The countryside around Cuernavaca is extremely lush and almost tropical. This was also our first experience driving around small town Mexico – culture shock! People have stands for all kinds of food on the side of the road: freshly made ice cream, watermelon, tacos and barbacoa. In the middle of the freeway, people have set up stands with towers of roses piled high – and when traffic appears, vendors walk the lanes of the freeway selling anything from cookies to phone cards to bubble makers!

The ruins themselves were really interesting. It was hard to tell how much was original v. reconstruction – but the setting completely made up for that. The hilltop ruin, which dates from ~700 A.D., was once a city populated by at least 10,000 people. The most famous sight here is the Piramide de Quetzalcoatl (Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent), which is marked by intricate geometric patterns and stone reliefs of men and serpents.

Back in Cuernavaca, we explored the town and enjoyed watching all the families spending their afternoon in the main square. We visited the Catedral de Cuernavaca, the Jardin Borda, and the Jardin Juares. Our favorite sight was certainly the Palacio de Cortes, where the conquistador lived in the 1500s. The highlight of the palace are the Diego Rivera murals on the second floor, tracing the history of Cuernavaca from the Spanish invasion to the present.

We enjoyed some great food over this weekend! Cuernavaca has some great restaurants – and other amazing hotels. See below for the details on the places we discovered.

La Casa Azul
Calle Arista 17 – Centro – Cuernavaca
+52 (777) 314-2141
http://hotelcasaazul.com.mx/
-Beautiful new boutique hotel in the heart of Cuernavaca. Rooms are decorated in styles reflective of different parts of the region. Two nice pools and quiet ambiance make it a perfect place to relax.

Casa Hidalgo
Calle Hidalgo 6 – Cuernavaca
+52 (777) 312-2749
www.casahidalgo.com
-This gourmet Mexican restaurant is in a beautifully restored colonial building across from the Palacio de Cortez. Sophisticated and innovative cuisine. We had the mango and tequila soup, duck, fillet hidalgo (breaded and stuffed with Serrano ham and manchego cheese) and crepes con cajeta.

La Manantitas
Ricardo Linares 107 — Cuernavaca
+52 (777) 362-0000 (hotel) +52 (777) 362-0019 (restaurant)
www.lasmananitas.com.mx
-Cuernavaca’s most renowned luxury lodging (part of Relaix & Chateaux) and a popular weekend dining spot for affluent Mexico City residents (a friend just suggested we join them here for Sunday brunch). We did not stay here—but it looked like it’d be a great place to get away from the rush of things. We did enjoy a wonderful dinner here – it was so good that we came back the next day for brunch!

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