Doc Martin

Screen shot 2013-02-08 at 8.15.42 AMDoes anyone else watch this Doc Martin show? It’s a British TV series that’s being broadcast stateside on PBS. To be honest, I’m not very fond of it but I watch it because my parents love it and whenever it’s on it makes me think of them.

Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) is the central character, a London surgeon who gets sent down to backwater resort town Portwenn as a general practitioner. There he is surrounded by a zany cast of characters who are constantly bringing him new and ridiculous cases. It’s a little like a British version of House, but I’m not sure why I can’t get into it. Mostly, I think it’s that Dr. Ellingham is just such an unpleasant and, in later seasons, barely functional human being that it’s hard to believe anyone–especially his long-suffering love Louisa–would put up with him. Also, though, the antics of the quirky townspeople just get repetitive after a while. I suppose in the UK where you get short seasons and then a long hiatus you may not notice these things. But I get back-to-back episodes on KUAT every Thursday. Then again, just tonight they started rebroadcasting the series from the beginning and I have to say I like the early episodes a little more. They make many of the characters seem more human and less incompetent.


Movie Review: Chasing Ice

This weekend I had the opportunity to watch Chasing Ice, a new documentary that follows the work of the Extreme Ice Survey. The EIS was founded by noted photographer James Balog in 2007 with the goal of investigating climate change through the automated photography of glaciers in a variety of polar sites.

As a feature film, I think the movie is actually a bit thin. Running 75 minutes, only the final act of the film is really concerned with showing us the payoff–Balog’s pictures and video that clearly illustrate the retreat of glaciers worldwide. These pictures are no doubt striking… but after paying $8 to see the film in theaters I kind of wanted to see them all, not just the few glaciers that are profiled. Call me greedy, but the photos are really where it’s at here.

Aside from the glaciers, Balog and his team also produced amazing photos of meltwater pooling on glaciers, Swiss-cheese holes boring into the glacier as a result of collected pools of dust and soot, and almost otherworldly ice-scapes that may never be seen again. Frankly, a 75-minute slideshow of these amazing photographs with commentary would have made me a happy camper, but given the film’s length I felt it went a little overboard by focusing on Balog himself as a human interest story. I don’t want to sell him short at all because Balog’s project is ambitious and remarkable… but more than anything he came off to me like a perfectionist who places himself and his assistants in some really dangerous situations. A visionary, but maybe not the kind of person you’d want to have for a boss.

In all Chasing Ice is worth watching, but probably not in theaters. The film was produced in part by National Geographic and I imagine it will air on their cable channel in the future. Otherwise, get it on DVD and watch it on the best-quality TV you can find.

Movie Review: Thor

Screen shot 2012-12-01 at 10.04.20 PM(This is a film review of Thor. Spoilers may follow.)

I promise I’ll get back to posting about running, training, etc. in a couple of days. But now for something completely different. I ended up with some free Redbox codes after they rented me a bad DVD last week, so I decided to get some light-hearted flicks as long as I’m renting on the company’s dime. Tonight’s selection: 2011’s blockbuster Thor.

Inspired by some comic books I’ve never read and Norse mythology that I know little about, Thor is the story of the titular “God” of Thunder (who is really more of an interdimensional/interplanetary being, played by Chris Hemsworth), the impetuous elder son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) who rules over Asgard. As he is introduced, Thor is kind of a butthead who enjoys harassing other civilizations, twirling his magic hammer like a drum majorette, and hanging out with his underdeveloped but smartly dressed clan of warrior friends. Oh, and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, in typical little brother fashion, seems just happy to be there. Their idyllic, peaceful world becomes threatened when Thor disobeys Odin’s orders and provokes a war with a neighboring civilization of snow misers, inspiring Odin to disinherit Thor and leaving Loki to unleash havoc in Asgard. Oh, and there’s also a portal to Earth and Thor ends up saving New Mexico. Huh?

What’s goodCompared to the usual crop of superhero films, this boasts an impressive cast. In addition to Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman plays Earthling love interest Jane, Stellan Skarsgård is Dr. Selvig, Kat Dennings of Two Broke Girls plays Darcy, and Kenneth “Hamlet” Branagh directs. Some of the special effects are good, and the movie is overall mildly amusing. This is also good, though there’s not nearly enough of it:

Screen shot 2012-12-01 at 10.16.08 PM

What’s not good: Unfortunately, most of the film. If you’re looking for character development, don’t get your hopes up. Even at the most basic level, when I get to the end of a movie and can’t name several characters let alone understand what their powers are, the script obviously has some issues. Beyond that, characters seem to behave erratically with no apparent catalyst. Thor falls in love with Jane and undergoes a complete personality transplant with little explanation. Loki also maybe loves, maybe hates the snow misers and maybe loves, maybe hates Odin and Thor. There is an interdimensional gate keeper who watches the vaguely phallic portal to other dimensions, and he is loyal to… who knows? Maybe Odin? Loki? Thor?

Dancing his way to Asgard

Dancing his way to Asgard

The female roles here are also disappointing, though perhaps unsurprisingly so considering the genre. Jaimie Alexander as Sif is very cool, but gets little screen time. Renee Russo as Frigga does almost nothing. Kat Dennings has some pithy one-liners, but the worst of all of them is Natalie Portman. As female scientists go, she ranks right up there with Denise Richards for believability. Which is to say, she is not believable at all in this role. I say this not just because she’s too young or too pretty, mind you (although anyone who knows anything about academia will tell you just how implausible it is that a scientist in her late 20s/early 30s would be running a major expedition with an established, senior scientist as her assistant and a political science major hanging around for no apparent reason), but it’s because Jane doesn’t seem to do anything scientific. Her research activities appear to consist primarily of moving things around in her lab, squinting at photographs, and chasing extraterrestrial beings. Other than that, she sits around doe-eyed listening to Thor’s tales of nine realms and swallowing all of it. Oh, honey, and you think you’re getting this research published? I was also unconvinced by her chemistry with Thor, which is surprising because I’d have thought that Chris Hemsworth would have chemistry with a cup of tepid water. Instead, their relationship comes off more like a weird puppy love than anything smoldering or passionate.


Science cat displays more scientific knowledge than Natalie Portman does in this entire movie.

On a more cynical level, I also found myself annoyed by the relentless marketing of the Marvel Brand in this movie. It’s not enough that at the beginning of the DVD, the viewer is force-fed promos for the tie-in video game and various other Marvel films; cross-references are embedded throughout to Iron ManCaptain America, and The Avengers. A not-so-secret “secret” scene at the end of the film is all about hyping The Avengers and ensures us that the characters presented here will return. I’m sure the entire audience breathes a sigh of relief. Honestly, I’m glad I saw this movie for free because I’d be resentful if I paid $10 to see this in theaters only to be bombarded with tie-in advertising and not-so-subtle product placement. My sympathy is also with parents who take their kids to these films only to find they’re a gateway drug to a dizzying array of spin-offs, sequels, and merchandising. Yes, I know–It’s a capitalist world we live in and thank goodness folks like Thor are here to protect it. Or, at least to protect isolated its desert towns.

Thor is rated PG-13 and runs about 1 hour 50 minutes. It is available on DVD now.

Movie Review: Argo

If you know me in real life, you know that I have to be really intrigued by a movie to go see it for full price on a Friday night on opening weekend. However, Argo hooked me with great early reviews and a fascinating premise: The story of how the CIA (working with our Canadian allies) rescued six American embassy personnel from Iran during the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981. So was it worth $10 to see the film in theaters? Simply put, yes. In fact, Argo is hands-down the movie of the year for me.

Affleck as Tony Mendez

Ben Affleck (who also directs) plays the lead role as Tony Mendez, a down-on-his-luck CIA exfiltration expert who is initially called in to “consult” with the State Department on rescuing the six, who amazingly were able to walk out a back door as the embassy in Tehran was being stormed. Mendez quickly realizes that State is way in over its head, and lobbies to take over the whole operation with a brainstorm (inspired by his son’s Star Wars obsession) to sneak out the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film. The whole operation takes on a tongue-in-cheek air as Mendez recruits Hollywood types John Chambers (a real Hollywood makeup artist, played by John Goodman) and Les Siegel (played by Alan Arkin, who steals every scene he is in) to make the film–Argo–look like the real deal. Victor Garber also does an excellent turn as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who risks his own life by hiding the six Americans in his residence.

Part of the genius of Argo is that blends tone perfectly. On the one hand, director Affleck creates a genuine sense of danger and thrill surrounding the fate of the six. While they are never fully developed as characters, their terror is conveyed mostly through looks, gestures, and sparse dialogue. Affleck also gives us a glimpse of Iran spinning out of control, an extremist state where people are executed in the streets. The threat to Americans is very real. At the same time, the antics of the Hollywood storyline provide lots of laughs. The whole cover story is ridiculous, and everyone involved knows that, but Chambers and Siegel are in the business of BS and they’re determined to sell it for all it’s worth. The film also deserves kudos for the costume, makeup, and set design, which recreate the era so deliciously that it’s like rolling around naked on a shag carpet.

Those who like politics, thrillers, and spy movies will love Argo. Anyone who follows current-day political events will also note the parallels between 1980 and today: Popular revolutions in the Middle East spinning out of control, American diplomats in danger, and a government trying to keep pace with rapidly unfolding events. Argo also suggests how things have changed. Today, it’s hard to imagine that the press and a president in the midst of a hotly contested election would unite in secrecy and refrain from publicizing this issue. If this crisis happened today, I wonder if the Obama administration and the press would unite the way they did in 1980 to avoid publicizing (and politicizing) a rescue operation in the interest of protecting the Americans still in Tehran.

Argo is the type of movie you leave wanting more. It will certainly spark after-discussions and Internet searches about how much of the story is true, and how it relates to the world today. To me, such curiosity is the sign of a great film. This one deserves a spot at the top of your to-see list.

Half the Sky: Responses and Further Resources

As a follow-up to my earlier review of Half the Sky, here are some further thoughts and resources. If you haven’t seen the entire series, check it out through next week (10/8-10/9) at PBS online here.

I was referred to this interesting blog post about the series by Anna North. I want to clarify that I agree we shouldn’t accept the insights of Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky project uncritically. My earlier review mentions my discomfort with the use of beautiful American actresses in the special to lend the project awareness and pop appeal. In classes I have taught where we used the Half the Sky book as an instructional tool, we also discussed the issue of “rescuing” sex workers in particular. What kind of moral judgment is involved in this? Is sex work universally bad and, if not, how do we untangle that? Most importantly, when individuals “rescue” girls from sex work, what new complications/dangers/ideas are we introducing into their lives? What ripple effects does it have for those who remain in the system or are vulnerable to this? None of this can be adequately engaged in a 40-minute TV segment. But I also take issue with some of the criticisms advanced by North and others:

  • Just as Kristof is an “elite,” many of those criticizing the HtS project are also elites–other members of the media, academic elites, etc. North quotes critics as stating that a view of the lives of women in the developing world “should include women in the developing world creating their own media.” There’s a very fine line here, namely that it makes me uncomfortable to see elite women chastising non-Western women activists for not doing more, which is essentially what this statement implies to me. I have to wonder how the average rape crisis worker or a rape victim in Sierra Leone is going to be able to effectively make their own media and get their own message out without further resources. Do we live in an age of YouTube and Twitter? Sure. But does the average woman living in conditions of extreme poverty have access to the technology, the time, even the safe space to engage with these fora? I don’t think so. However, Half the Sky is the kind of project that might make such engagement more possible. Case in point, Edna Adan is on Twitter as of yesterday and already has nearly 500 followers, Somaly Mam also has a Twitter page in place with nearly 400,000 followers. This is the kind of media that will allow these women to speak directly without using Kristof as a mouthpiece, but would these pages exist or would they receive such attention without this documentary? Even on my blog, I noticed a spike in hits on my review after the special aired. There is clearly an impact here.
  • There also seems to be a larger backlash lately against any attempts by Westerners to intervene in developing world issues. Some of this debate goes back to the Kony 2012 campaign earlier this year and before, but this dialogue makes me uncomfortable as well. Take, for example, Anne Elizabeth Moore’s statement, quoted by North: “Readers should be asking themselves, ‘Who’s being quoted? Are they all white? Are they young? Is there a translator present?’ If everyone involved is speaking perfect English, they may be tailoring what they say to an English-speaking audience (though of course translators can tailor as well).” A statement like this is overly simplistic, and it should be made clear that this is only one of many ways to determine an individual’s audience–I assume by “perfect English” she is implying unaccented or American English, but it’s worth noting that English is the first or a primary language in much of the developing world. Speaking English well is a poor criteria for judging someone’s veracity and, as Moore points out, speaking through a translator also poses pitfalls. So what insight is this statement really giving us? Being Western or speaking English is not by itself what we should be emphasizing as criteria for legitimacy. Instead, a better litmus test might be: “Are these Western, English-speaking activists knowledgable? Do they have dialogue with those they are helping? Have they adequately assessed the community’s needs?” Just as a Westerner may not always be the best person to help, they also aren’t necessarily doing more harm than good because of their identity.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit on this but I wanted to respond to these points. I sometimes get resentful when I see some feminists (and this is particularly true of academic feminists) implying that all feminists should or should not like a project or consider it acceptable. The critical response to Half the Sky from these women is unsurprising and in some ways is valid, but it’s also disappointing. My point is that criticism should be constructive, and to tear down this project without offering ways to move forward or make something better is not beneficial. It also runs the risk of alienating allies and casting feminist political projects in a poor light. To be critical is often good, but to place individuals in such a quandary that they throw up their hands and decide to do nothing is dangerous. Where do we draw that line?

I am following Edna Adan, Somaly Mam, and others on social media because I want to hear more of what they have to say. I believe the impact of Half the Sky will encourage others to do the same, and I hope it encourages some of you to do so as well.

TV Review: Half the Sky

[FYI: This post contains some graphic descriptions of female genital mutilation, and links to related material.]

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of part of the new PBS/Independent Lens series Half the Sky. The series doesn’t air on public television until October 1 & 2, but screenings are taking place at public libraries now across the country.

This series, based on the bestselling book by authors and NY Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, highlights issues affecting women worldwide. The entire 4-hour series will cover several issues dealt with in the book including education, human trafficking, maternal mortality, and violence against women. In my screening, we saw a 45-minute segment focused on maternal mortality and female genital mutilation.

I hope everyone will check your local listings and tune into this series. Even as someone who has read the book and understands the issues involved, I still found this episode powerful, moving, and informative. While maternal health was the focus of this episode, Kristof and the filmmakers do a great job of showing this issue in a holistic way. Most of this segment takes place in Somaliland, where the problem of women dying from preventable causes like obstructed labor, infections, and eclampsia are tied to larger problems within the society. First, no type of family planning exists for these women, and we are told that it is not uncommon for a woman to have 8-10 babies over her lifetime. One woman interviewed in the film has 15 children. Having too many children too close together poses obvious health risks.


Another, more horrifying problem is that of female genital mutilation. While maternal mortality is billed as the focus of the episode, I think FGM is really the story here. Most Americans probably don’t know this practice exists, and many that do probably don’t grasp the brutality of it. Even this episode shies away from fully explaining or illustrating the problem, and I think that’s a shame. While I understand the limits of what can be shown on TV, this practice needs to be brought out into the light. People need to understand that FGM still happens, and they need to understand that it’s not “female circumcision” as some kind of counterpart to male “circumcision.” Circumcision as we know it for boy children involves removal of the foreskin, often for religious or cultural reasons, and while there is debate about the practice in the U.S. today, it is often done in safe and sanitary conditions and doesn’t hinder male reproductive functions or sexual enjoyment. FGM, on the other hand, is a practice that has as its primary purpose to control women. To protect female honor, FGM is practiced to make sex less enjoyable for a woman. Extreme forms also make childbirth and premarital sex impossible.

In the most basic form of FGM, the clitoris and/or clitoral hood are removed. This inhibits sexual pleasure. In more intensive forms like that practiced in Somaliland, though, the process goes even further. All of the external parts of the genitalia, including the inner and outer labia are also cut away. Then, a girl undergoing the process is literally immobilized, her legs tied up for as much as 40 days while her genital area heals together, literally healing itself shut except for a small hole–sometimes as small as a matchstick–through which she can pee and menstruate. During the healing process, she also often receives little or no food or water because she has been so intensely mutilated that she can’t excrete properly. After experiencing all of this horror, once a girl comes of age to marry she will literally have to be sliced open again so that she can have sex or deliver children. And all of this is usually done by traditional “cutters” without anesthesia or proper sanitation. (You can see diagrams of various procedures here.)

Folks, this isn’t like the circumcision that men experience. I can’t emphasize how inappropriate the term “circumcision” is. This is like if circumcision involved cutting off a boy’s entire penis and foreskin, sewing up his genital area, and then slicing him open again when it was time for his testes to drop. It is unimaginable, barbaric, and it would never be done to a male child the way it is done to females.

Crusader Edna Adan

This segment of Half the Sky does a lot to educate about the procedure. We meet a “cutter,” an elderly female who says she continues to perform the procedure mostly to make money. We see a traditional birth assistant and hear how she has sliced open several women with the same blade. We hear mothers explain that the procedure continues because it is demanded by the community; no one would marry their son off to a non-mutilated girl. We hear from Edna Adan–a former UN diplomat and the true hero of this episode–about how dangerous the procedure is not only because it obstructs labor, but also because mutilated and scarred tissue cannot properly stretch for delivery. Adan is fighting this practice with education, building a hospital and training midwives to go out in the community and fight this tradition. But she has a long road ahead.

This is just one of the six Half the Sky segments you will see on PBS, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch them all. As I said, the series avoids some of the more graphic details I’ve provided here, which is both a plus and a minus. The series is appropriate for older teens and young adults, but at the same time I hope it will spur viewers to pick up the Half the Sky book, hit the Internet, and research these issues further. Kristof and WuDunn make credible narrators for the series, though some of their celebrity co-hosts seem unnecessary. Watching Diane Lane talk to Somaliland women, constantly looking shocked and asking silly questions… it’s probably the typical reaction a lot of privileged U.S. women would have to the problem, but she was the least engaging part of the episode for me. I didn’t even know who she was at first.

If you’d like to know more, please check the Half the Sky web site for more info and showtimes for the series. You can also learn more about Edna Adan’s hospital online, and Tostan is another organization that fights the FGM practice and accepts donations, interns, or volunteers. FGM is a practice that should not exist in any form, anywhere in today’s world.

Olympic Wrap-Up: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I discussed some of the many things I enjoyed about the London 2012 games. This post reflects on some ways that organizers and broadcasters could make Rio 2016 even better. Here are some semi-random thoughts from a semi-anonymous Internet blogger. 🙂

Advice for the IOC and Rio 2016 Organizers

I have every confidence that Rio 2016 will be unforgettable. How could it not be, set in one of the world’s most beautiful places? I really hope Rio uses the games as an opportunity to show off its natural beauty and diverse culture. I also hope the games bring a financial boost that can help the country address the very real issues of crime and poverty that it faces. I know many of the 2016 venues are probably under construction already (especially with the World Cup coming up in 2014), but Rio could take a page from London’s book by using the games to highlight and revitalize many of the neighborhoods of Rio that tourists don’t often see. The city is really, really big—so show it off as much as possible!

In a more controversial suggestion, I’d love to see more co-ed events in the Olympics. 2012 was such a big year for women in the games, why not take it one step further? As a runner, I like women’s races… but I also sometimes like racing with men. Why stage two marathons when you could stage one? The same goes for triathlons. I’m hard pressed to see the downside of men and women racing together. There may be cultural issues here, sure, but the IOC already kind of forces countries to allow women to compete alongside men… it’s a short step to putting them in the same events. Some of the games, like equestrian competitions, already have co-ed teams, and separating the genders in some sports just seems archaic. Sure, it’s also more bodies on the field of play at once… but we all know that marathons and triathlons can be staged with thousands of participants. The marginal cost would be small, and the result would be a lot more excitement and the ability to more easily broadcast distance events. (See also my note below on the coverage of distance events, generally.)

My favorite pic from Brazil

Advice for NBC: Fixing an #nbcfail

In the U.S., NBC also really needs work on its coverage. I know that in broadcasting the games, it’s impossible to please everyone… but NBC does need to listen to criticism in a few areas. In Rio, there’s no reason not to show the opening ceremonies live. Given how long the broadcast is, even folks on the West Coast can tune in and catch part of it if they’re just getting home. If not, then just air it live in the East and repeat it for those in other time zones. It was baffling to me here out West that marquee events like the triathlons and the marathons were covered live at 3 or 4AM local time and then weren’t replayed during the afternoon/evening. Also, good luck if you wanted to see the open water swim marathon, which was barely promoted and buried in a weird time slot. What’s with the disdain for distance events?

It also incensed me that NBC continually touted “live online coverage of every event” when it wasn’t really available to everyone. If you had a premium cable package with a major provider, you were golden. But those of us who rely on broadcast TV couldn’t get live coverage—even of events that were being shown over the air! That wasn’t a classy move; it was false advertising. NBC should make at least some events free and live for everyone. They should also think about showing a more diverse selection of events over the air. Archery was very highly rated on cable, but I never saw it on broadcast. By contrast, volleyball and water polo were on almost every freaking day, and NBC seemed to have an aggressive marketing campaign for water polo that was totally baffling. I don’t care how many times you tell me that water polo is “just like ice hockey”; it isn’t ice hockey. That’s why we have Winter Olympics.

Yep, still not an ice rink.

NBC should also dial down the “filler.” Showing lengthy documentaries on the host country and past Olympic teams is not in and of itself a bad thing, but when you air this programming unannounced in the time slot reserved for Olympic coverage, viewers again feel cheated. Consider moving more of this filler to online content or air it in the weeks leading up to the game. As much as I love Oscar Pistorius, it was interesting to me that NBC aired Mary Carillo’s in-depth story on him once before the games on Rock Center, and then aired the same piece at least two more times during the games. I just found it odd that I saw that three times… and yet would have had to wake up at 3AM for the marathon coverage. Hmm.

With that being said, I’m sorry to see the Summer Olympics end for another four years. I hope some of you enjoyed them as much as I did!