Saturday, March 3, 2018

THE BEST AND WORST OF 2017: GLIMPSES OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE


Another year has come and gone, and as of this writing I’ve only seen 43 of the year’s movies.  At times in the past some fellow movie aficionados have admonished me for not “seeing enough crap.”  I suppose that’s fair.  And yet I can’t help feeling a certain virtue.  I try to see movies that interest me or movies that cross the event horizon of public consciousness or movies that simply trigger that Pavlovian urge to sit in a dark theater for a couple hours.  Which means I mostly see things I like or for which I have a natural proclivity.  And somehow I still see just enough “crap” to recognize it as such.  I fear if I saw too much “crap” I might start giving it the benefit of the doubt.  Also I read.  A lot.  [Side Note:  If you like “hard” science fiction, stop what you are doing and read Cixin Liu’s mammoth Three-Body trilogy.  It will blow your mind.]  All this is to say that I have better things to do than waste my time on lousy movies if I can at all help it.

My favorite movies this year featured outsiders in main or major roles.  Almost every character in THE FLORIDA PROJECT lives on the fringe of society.  In GET OUT a black boyfriend spends a nightmarish weekend with his girlfriend’s wealthy white family.  And THE SHAPE OF WATER’s protagonists include a mute janitor, her black co-worker, a gay neighbor, a compassionate Soviet agent, and a humanoid sea creature.  In movies from the early ‘60s (the era when the movie is set) few of these characters would even attain supporting stature.  The latter two would likely be the villain and the monster, respectively.  Instead the movie’s monster is a U.S. government agent (normally our ‘60s ostensible hero).

The best films of 2017 remind us that we can discover courage, understanding and resilience in unexpected places.  Perhaps we would do well to move beyond our normal comfort zones, both on screen and off.  We might be surprised and heartened but what we experience there.  Speaking only for myself, pleasant surprises and happy accidents are two of my favorite things in art and in life.  Here’s to more in 2018.

Thanks to everyone who has been willing to engage with me and the movies throughout the year.  It’s always a pleasure to speak passionately and intelligently with such thoughtful and honorable people.  For this, I can only offer my most profound gratitude and humility.

Finally, thanks to my supportive family and friends.  I’m lucky to have you.
  
Brian Pope
March 3, 2018
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THE BEST OF 2017

THE TOP THREE
(in alphabetical order)
THE FLORIDA PROJECT  Set in “The Magic Kingdom,” a transient hotel on the outskirts of Disneyworld, Sean Baker’s raucous film explores America’s indigent underbelly through the eyes of 7-year-old Moonee (a riveting Brooklyn Pierce) and her struggling ex-stripper mother (an excellent Bria Vinaite).  Kindhearted hotel manager Bobby (a tender Willem Dafoe) acts as beleaguered parent to the kids and emotionally stunted adults in his reluctant care.  Funny, frustrating and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
GET OUT  Writer/director Jordan Peele taps into the cultural zeitgeist with this pitch black social horror comedy, upending conventional wisdom about race relations in America.  Black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) visit her progressive parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) at their remote family estate, but he finds the demeanor (and presence) of black servants unnerving.  The truth, once revealed, is even more outrageous than imagined, but Peele’s arch tone never wavers.
THE SHAPE OF WATER  At a top secret government lab, mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) becomes infatuated with a mystical sea creature (Doug Jones) captured by a ruthless federal agent (Michael Shannon).  She plots to free him with the help of artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer).  Director Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous fantasy mashes together the disparate genres of espionage thriller, fairy tale romance, and social drama to create a meticulously crafted and heartfelt love letter to the movies.
THE BEST OF THE REST OF THE TOP TEN
(in alphabetical order)
BLADE RUNNER 2049  Heretical as this may sound, director Denis Villeneuve improves upon Ridley Scott’s visionary but flawed 1982 cult film with this overlong but visually and thematically rich meditation on identity.
BRAD’S STATUS  Mike White turns a father and son tour of colleges into an awkward comedy drama about the problems of privilege.  Austin Abrams is terrific as the son, and Ben Stiller gives his best performance in years.
THE DISASTER ARTIST  An affectionate recounting of the relationship between enigmatic Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and actor Greg Sistero (Dave Franco) and the creation of one of the worst movies ever made.
LADY BIRD  This prickly coming-of-age comedy and unsentimental mother/daughter drama highlights Greta Gerwig’s unique and quirky cinema voice.  Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are absolute knockouts.
LOGAN  After slumming in uninspired X-MEN and WOLVERINE sequels Hugh Jackman finally shows his acting chops in this violent, resonant elegy that does for superheroes what THE WILD BUNCH did for cowboys.
MUDBOUND  Set in rural Georgia just after World War II Dee Rees’ richly observed film follows two returning soldiers (one white, one black) who must navigate the bonds of brotherhood against ingrained Southern racism.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI  Too uneven in tone to take completely seriously, yet Martin McDonagh’s film about vengeance, guilt and futility is difficult to shake, as are the indelible performances of Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.
Runners-Up of 2017
(in alphabetical order)
THE BIG SICK
I, TONYA
PATTI CAKE$
THE POST
RAW
Honorable Mentions: BABY DRIVER; BEATRIZ AT DINNER; CALL ME BY YOUR NAME; JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2; PERSONAL SHOPPER; PHANTOM THREAD; STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

THE WORST of 2017
(in alphabetical order)
DARKEST HOUR  By turns tedious and ridiculous, Joe Wright’s film torpedoes Gary Oldman’s prodigious thespian effort which sinks to the bottom of the English Channel.
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.  Even Denzel Washington’s integrity and intelligence can’t save a film that doesn’t know what it’s saying or how to say it.
WILSON  Daniel Clowes adaptation of his graphic novel about a misanthrope fails completely in its translation to the screen, wasting the talents of Woody Harrelson and Judy Greer.

Friday, March 2, 2018

THE POPE’S 2017 OSCAR® PREDICTIONS

It’s time once again to match wits with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  This year the Academy has broadened its membership to include more diversity.  Will this affect the final vote?  It certainly seems to have affected the nominations.  We’ll see.  Below are my predictions for the 2017 Oscars®.

To assist with your own predictions I’ve created what I call a Prediction Confidence Indicator (PCI) from 1 to 5.  1=Not very confident, 2=Somewhat confident, 3=Confident, 4=Mostly confident, 5=Very confident.

And the nominees are:

Best Picture:

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
DARKEST HOUR
DUNKIRK
GET OUT
LADY BIRD
PHANTOM THREAD
THE POST
THE SHAPE OF WATER
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

As in most years past Best Picture will come down to two films:  THE SHAPE OF WATER and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.  With the increase in nominated films (up to 10) and the change in voting methodology (ranking films from 1 thru 9, in this instance) a film need not have the most #1 votes to prevail.  Now a #2 or a #3 ranking could spell the difference between a LA LA LAND and a MOONLIGHT.  If you put credence in award history your best bet is THREE BILLBOARDS, which won the Golden Globe for Drama, the SAG Ensemble award, and the BAFTA Best Picture.  Item of note:  THREE BILLBOARDS did not snag a Best Director nomination.  It’s rare for a film to win Best Picture without a Best Director nod.  Last exception:  ARGO in 2013.  THE SHAPE OF WATER, on the other hand, has won almost every Best Director award this season.  If I could vote I would pick GET OUT, a film that will be discussed decades from now.  If I dare think like the Academy I would predict THE SHAPE OF WATER.  If I had my druthers THE FLORIDA PROJECT would be nominated rather than DARKEST HOUR.

Should Win:     GET OUT
Will Win:          THE SHAPE OF WATER (PCI 2)
Overlooked:    THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Best Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson, PHANTOM THREAD
Guillermo del Toro, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Greta Gerwig, LADY BIRD
Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK
Jordan Peele, GET OUT

Guillermo del Toro has won almost every directing award this season.  It seems unlikely the Academy will break the trend.

Should and Will Win:   Guillermo del Toro, THE SHAPE OF WATER (PCI 5)
Overlooked:    Sean Baker, THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Best Actress:

Sally Hawkins, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Frances McDormand, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Margot Robbie, I, TONYA
Saoirse Ronan, LADY BIRD
Meryl Streep, THE POST

In an average year any one of these remarkable performances could reasonably win.  But this is not an average year.  Absent a five-way tie, I predict Frances McDormand will earn her second Oscar® for THREE BILLBOARDS.  However, I would be thrilled if Sally Hawkins won.

Should Win:     Sally Hawkins, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Will Win:          Frances McDormand, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING,
                                                             MISSOURI (PCI 5)
Overlooked:    Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD

Best Actor:

Timothée Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Daniel Day-Lewis, PHANTOM THREAD
Daniel Kaluuya, GET OUT
Gary Oldman, DARKEST HOUR
Denzel Washington, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Gary Oldman is the closest thing to a slam dunk this year, despite the film abandoning him (metaphorically) at Dunkirk with its frustrating mix of tedium and silliness.  Denzel Washington gets the consolation slot abandoned by James Franco after abuse accusations derailed his chances.  Robert Pattinson’s fearless turn in GOOD TIME deserves the slot more.  My vote would go to Daniel Kaluuya.

Should Win:     Daniel Kaluuya, GET OUT
Will Win:          Gary Oldman, DARKEST HOUR (PCI 5)
Overlooked:    Robert Pattinson, GOOD TIME

Best Supporting Actress:

Mary J. Blige, MUDBOUND
Allison Janney, I, TONYA
Lesley Manville, PHANTOM THREAD
Laurie Metcalf, LADY BIRD
Octavia Spencer, THE SHAPE OF WATER

Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf have been doing exceptional, underrated work for years now.  It’s a shame both can’t win.  Metcalf gives the more complex, nuanced performance, but Janney gets the showier part and runs with it.  I’d give the award to Metcalf, but Janney will win.  Do yourself a favor and rent THE FLORIDA PROJECT, a heartbreaking movie with a terrific performance by 7-year-old Brooklyn Prince.

Should Win:     Laurie Metcalf, LADY BIRD
Will Win:          Allison Janney, I, TONYA (PCI 4)
Overlooked:    Brooklyn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Best Supporting Actor:

Willem Dafoe, THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Woody Harrelson, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Richard Jenkins, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Christopher Plummer, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
Sam Rockwell, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

A category chock full of great character actors.  Willem Dafoe earned his first nomination for PLATOON in 1987, and he deserves the award here for his subtle, compassionate work.  Still my money is on Sam Rockwell, an always exceptional actor in a showpiece role, for the win.  Armie Hammer should have been included in this list for his enigmatic performance in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

Should Win:     Willem Dafoe, THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Will Win:          Sam Rockwell, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING,
                                                  MISSOURI (PCI 5)
Overlooked:    Armie Hammer, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green, LOGAN
James Ivory, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, THE DISASTER ARTIST
Aaron Sorkin, MOLLY’S GAME
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, MUDBOUND

For a more in-depth discussion of the adapted screenplay nominees, please check out Pilar Alessandra’s On The Page Oscar 2018 podcast (www.onthepage.tv).  James Ivory will win because 1) he’s had a long and respected career as a producer, director and writer without winning an Oscar®; and 2) CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is the only adapted screenplay nominee also nominated for Best Picture.

Should Win:     Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, THE DISASTER ARTIST
Will Win:          James Ivory, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (PCI 5)
Overlooked:    James Gray, THE LOST CITY OF Z

Best Original Screenplay:

Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Greta Gerwig, LADY BIRD
Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, THE BIG SICK
Martin McDonagh, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Jordan Peele, GET OUT

For a more in-depth discussion of the original screenplay nominees, please check out Pilar Alessandra’s On The Page Oscar 2018 podcast (www.onthepage.tv).  Because Martin McDonagh was snubbed in the Best Director category conventional wisdom would suggest the Academy would reward him with a screenplay Oscar®.  Quite possible.  However, THREE BILLBOARDS will likely be getting plenty of acting love and quite possibly a Best Picture win.  Jordan Peele has written the movie of the moment, so I predict he earns the gold.

Should and Will Win:   Jordan Peele, GET OUT (PCI 3)
Overlooked:                Mike White, BRAD’S STATUS or BEATRIZ AT DINNER

Best Animated Film:

THE BOSS BABY
THE BREADWINNER
COCO
FERDINAND
LOVING VINCENT

Of the nominees I only saw FERDINAND, which didn’t impress as Best Animated Film.

Should Win:     Couldn’t say.
Will Win:          COCO (PCI 5)

Best Foreign Language Film:

A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Chile)
THE INSULT (Lebanon)
LOVELESS (Russia)
ON BODY AND SOUL (Hungary)
THE SQUARE (Sweden)

I’ve yet to see any of the nominees.  I hear A FANTASTIC WOMAN is the front-runner. 

Should Win:    Couldn't say.
Will Win:          A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Chile) (PCI 3)

Best Documentary Feature:

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL
FACES PLACES
ICARUS
LAST MEN IN ALEPPO
STRONG ISLAND

I’ve yet to see any of the nominees.  I hear great things about FACES PLACES and would love to hear Agnes Varda speak.

Should Win:     Couldn’t say.
Will Win:          FACES PLACES (PCI 4)

Best Cinematography:

Roger Deakins, BLADE RUNNER 2049
Bruno Delbonnel, DARKEST HOUR
Dan Laustsen, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Rachel Morrison, MUDBOUND
Hoyte van Hoytema, DUNKIRK

Roger Deakins may finally get the Oscar® he so richly deserves.  However, Dan Laustsen may play spoiler if SHAPE OF WATER gains momentum.  Or Hoyte van Hoytema if DUNKIRK gets amply rewarded for its technical achievements.

Should and Will Win:   Roger Deakins, BLADE RUNNER 2049 (PCI 3)

Best Film Editing:

Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss, BABY DRIVER
Jon Gregory, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Tatiana S. Riegel, I, TONYA
Lee Smith, DUNKIRK
Sidney Wolinsky, THE SHAPE OF WATER

I’m in the minority and found DUNKIRK’s trifurcated timeline more distancing than immersive.  SHAPE OF WATER, on the other hand, reeled me in.  I’d give the gold to Sidney Wolinsky, but the Academy will probably honor Lee Smith.

Should Win:     Sidney Wolinsky, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Will Win:          Lee Smith, DUNKIRK (PCI 4)

Best Costume Design:

Consolata Boyle, VICTORIA AND ABDUL
Mark Bridges, PHANTOM THREAD
Jacqueline Durran, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Jacqueline Durran, DARKEST HOUR
Luis Sequeira, THE SHAPE OF WATER

It seems intuitive to give the costume award to a movie about a dress designer.  Who am I to argue?  That said, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and SHAPE OF WATER are the most likely spoilers.

Should and Will Win:   Mark Bridges, PHANTOM THREAD (PCI 3)

Best Production Design:

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
BLADE RUNNER 2049
DARKEST HOUR
DUNKIRK
THE SHAPE OF WATER

I found the dark future envisioned by BLADE RUNNER 2049 most compelling.  However, the Academy will probably reward the dark fairy tale of SHAPE OF WATER.

Should Win:     BLADE RUNNER 2049
Will Win:          THE SHAPE OF WATER (PCI 4)

Best Original Score:

Carter Burwell, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Alexandre Desplat, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Jonny Greenwood, PHANTOM THREAD
John Williams, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Hans Zimmer, DUNKIRK

Jonny Greenwood’s score was easily my favorite this year.  The likely winner, however, is Alexandre Desplat.

Should Win:     Jonny Greenwood, PHANTOM THREAD
Will Win:          Alexander Desplat, THE SHAPE OF WATER (PCI 4)

Best Original Song:

“Mighty River,” MUDBOUND
“Mystery of Love,” CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
“Remember Me,” COCO
“Stand Up for Something,” MARSHALL
“This Is Me,” THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

The only song I remember (and remember liking) is Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love.”  The rest is noise.

Should Win:     “Mystery of Love,” CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Will Win:          “Remember Me,” COCO (PCI 3)

Best Sound Mixing:

BABY DRIVER
BLADE RUNNER 2049
DUNKIRK
THE SHAPE OF WATER
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

DUNKIRK will probably win, but it loses points for Hans Zimmer’s grating score accompanying the soundscape.

Should Win:     BLADE RUNNER 2049
Will Win:          DUNKIRK (PCI 3)

Best Sound Editing:

BABY DRIVER
BLADE RUNNER 2049
DUNKIRK
THE SHAPE OF WATER
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

War movies seem to garner sound editing awards (I think), so I’m going with DUNKIRK.

Should Win:     BLADE RUNNER 2049
Will Win:          DUNKIRK (PCI 3)

Best Visual Effects:

BLADE RUNNER 2049
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

The myriad ape effects in WAR FOR are certainly a virtuoso achievement, but I found its whole less than the sum of its parts.

Should Win:     BLADE RUNNER 2049
Will Win:          WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (PCI 2)

Best Makeup:

DARKEST HOUR
VICTORIA AND ABDUL
WONDER

Gary Oldman should give his Oscar® to the makeup designer as well.

Should and Will Win:   DARKEST HOUR (PCI 5)

Best Documentary Short Subject:

EDITH+EDDIE
HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405
HEROIN(E)
KNIFE SKILLS
TRAFFIC STOP

No clue, so I’ll guess.

Will Win:          EDITH+EDDIE (PCI 1)

Best Animated Short Subject:

DEAR BASKETBALL
GARDEN PARTY
LOU
NEGATIVE SPACE
REVOLTING RHYMES

Kobe Bryant produced DEAR BASKETBALL, and that’s why I’m picking it.

Will Win:          DEAR BASKETBALL (PCI 3)

Best Live Action Short Subject:

DeKALB ELEMENTARY
THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK
MY NEPHEW EMMETT
THE SILENT CHILD
WATU WOTE/ALL OF US

I’m guessing again.

Will Win:          DeKALB ELEMENTARY (PCI 2)

Friday, February 23, 2018

THE POPE'S PICKS AT ON THE PAGE (OSCAR 2018)

Michael Musa and I join noted screenwriting teacher and author Pilar Alessandra at her On the Page podcast to discuss the 2017 Oscar-nominated screenplays.  Podcast producer Pat Francis, host of the popular Rock Solid podcast, and YA author Nina Berry join the fracas.  The gloves are coming off...

Just copy the below link into your browser and click on Oscar Podcast 2018 link (#546).

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/on-the-page-screenwriting/id262077408

Enjoy.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

HAPPY BUDDHAS: Vietnam Travelogue (Part 4 – Of Dollars and Dong)

28 November 2017 (Tuesday)

Somehow I manage to set my travel alarm clock back 30 minutes, so I wake up 30 minutes later than I planned.  After a fortifying breakfast I join the city tour.  The toilet in my room won’t flush, so I leave a note for housekeeping.  I hope it will be fixed by my return.

As the bus makes its way to the Museum of Ethnology I notice power lines strung haphazardly along the city streets, bunched and bound together.  This would not meet U.S. safety standards.  The city bustles but doesn’t seem as dirty as last night.  Perhaps this morning was trash day.

Hai guides us around the outdoor component of the museum.  We see housing and burial structures of the various tribes that populate the more remote regions of the country.  Inside the museum there are more traditional exhibits.  We only have 30 minutes inside.  I could have used 30 more, but it’s on to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex.

Uncle Ho’s final resting place is a boxy multilevel structure in the middle of a large mall convenient for parades and other large gatherings.  Military personnel are everywhere.  The mausoleum proper is guarded by 2 soldiers in white dress uniforms.  Every hour the guard changes.  We catch the noon ceremony.  Before arriving Hai told us to hold off on any politically sensitive questions until we were back on board the bus.  Several “tourists” wandering the mall are likely government spies, and there is an underground monitoring station beneath a grassy knoll that records everything said in the complex.  They can translate all language to make sure foreign tours weren’t being given non-Communist propaganda.  No shorts above the knee are allowed, and shoulders must be covered.  We must show respect for Uncle Ho.

Our last official stop before lunch is Hoa Lo Prison (dubbed by American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”), built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners during colonial times.  The French would shackle one or both legs of a prisoner depending on how well they were behaving.  The guillotine used for executions remains on display.

After the gloom of the prison we make an unscheduled stop at Marou, a specialty chocolate shop with cacao varieties from different regions of Vietnam.  We spend far more time than Hai allotted as nearly everyone gets chocolate bars, candies and hot chocolate.

For lunch before our scheduled Water Puppet Theater performance I follow Hai, Tom & Anne, Lana & Mike, and Ana Maria to a restaurant near the theater overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake and have a simple vegetable fried rice and a Hanoi beer.

We walk to the Lotus Theater for the performance which features traditional North Vietnamese music and signing, along with water puppetry that focuses on local legends and the farming and fishing life of the local peasants.  There is a lot of chatting during the show either from tourists who don’t know better or children caught up in the spectacle.  Though the music and puppetry are interesting, the inertia of sitting after the long day of walking causes me and several group members to nod off occasionally.

Back at the hotel (my toilet is fixed) I promptly pass out and sleep until 10:00 p.m.  I hope I am able to sleep tonight.

29 November 2017 (Wednesday)

Side Note:  Vietnam is a communist country.  However, as Hai pointed out, communism is no longer an economic philosophy.  It is solely political.  And wholly corrupt.  Capitalism runs rampant here, most obviously in Saigon.

Today is our final optional tour.  I’m glad to be out of Hanoi for a few hours.  The dirty air and dirty streets have begun to get to me and my sinuses.  We visit the Thay Pagoda, the master pagoda, about an hour outside the city.  It’s not as elaborate and elevated as the pagodas and tombs we saw in Hue.  Its title notwithstanding, this pagoda feels quite modest.

The next stop is So Village where we are given a clear reminder of the poverty of much of country.  We visit the home of an 87-year-old woman who offers us biscuits and tea, as well as some beetle nut (which no one accepts because it turns your teeth black).  When she’s not doing household chores, she makes brooms and fans to sell.  Most of her children and grandchildren live in cities where they could find jobs.

We drive back to Hanoi for lunch at a chain restaurant (not Vietnamese) called Al Fresco.  Pleasant but nothing special.

Back to the hotel then one more trek to Café Pho Co for a hot egg coffee.  I follow our path from the first night.  The streets are busier and dirtier than before.  Or at least it seems that way.  My sinuses cry out for relief.  I wish I were wearing a mask.  Now I understand why they are ubiquitous on the streets of Vietnam.  I don’t think I could stay in the city another full day.  I would be in respiratory distress.

I run into Marika and her Irish boyfriend (husband?) from our tour group at Café Pho Co.  They had the same idea.  She is in rapture over the hot egg coffee, and I can’t say I blame her.  We have a group farewell dinner tonight, but they will not be attending.  Instead they have a street food tour.  Perhaps I will see them at breakfast tomorrow before departure.

I walk to the park around Hoan Kiem Lake and find a bench to relax upon.  Before too long a young woman with a backpack approaches me and starts chatting me up.  Earlier in the tour Hai mentioned that students would frequently want to practice English with tourists.  Since the first words out of her mouth are “Do you speak English?” I assume this is the case.  She pulls out a handwritten essay on the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake and asks me to read it aloud to make sure it makes sense.  The young woman’s English is spotty.  She claims to be 12 but that can’t be the case since I met an 11-year-old in So Village who was much younger.  I assume she is confused about English numbers.  She says she is studying banking and working part time with kids, so my guess is she’s a college student.  After a time I excuse myself and walk back to the hotel.

Breathing the air has become more and more difficult.  I return to my hotel room and hibernate until dinner.

Hai walks the group to 5 Spices, a local restaurant.  I sit with Rike and Pam again.  We’re the Special People’s Club.

The food is delicious, our best group meal to date, but Rike is accidentally given a chicken cake and makes a fuss.  The staff is very apologetic, and she’s given special attention the rest of the evening.

We walk back to the hotel, and I say my goodbyes to Tom & Anne and Lana & Mike, since they leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning for Thailand.  I also say goodbye to Ali & Fariba and their boys.  They leave at 9:00 a.m., but I may see them at breakfast.

Back to the room for a shower and to begin a course of decongestant.  I hope that helps.  I do not want any sinus issues on the plane home.  My shuttle leaves the hotel for the airport at 12:45 p.m. tomorrow, so luggage out at 11:45 p.m. and check out at noon.

30 November 2017 (Thursday)

My last day in Vietnam.  Pack and breakfast.  There’s still time before luggage out, so I walk over to Truc Bach Lake.  Anne said it was an easy walk away.  My sinuses are unhappy, though the decongestant seems to have helped somewhat.

The air around the lake and the surrounding city is hazy.  I try to take a picture but everything’s white and gray wash.  The lake is close and easily walkable within an hour.

I stop at a convenience store to buy water and use up some of my remaining dong.  On the far side of the lake I see a “Cho” (dog) restaurant.  Walk on by.

Back at the hotel I finish packing, put my luggage out, and walk across the street for a quick lunch before the shuttle to the airport.  My biggest language difficulty of the trip occurs with the young waiter at the restaurant.  Luckily the hostess speaks decent English and translates my order.

Ana Vigo (a Peruvian who lives in Los Angeles) holds up our shuttle a few minutes while she waits for her dressmaker to deliver clothes she ordered.

Hai, Ana and her friend Matthew, and Michael and his 83-year-old mother Dinah are in the 12:45 p.m. group.  Ana, Matthew, Dinah and I are on the same flights to L.A.  Dinah’s son Michael is flying to Cambodia.  Hai flies back to his home in Saigon.

Dinah and I sat together at breakfast, so she adopts me as her proxy son for the trip home.  In Guangzhou we pick up boarding passes for our long final flight.  Ana and I are seated next to each other.  I ask for an emergency exit row, but the agent counts wrong and gives me the row in front of the emergency exit, which is the world’s worst row (with a wall behind the seat).

After takeoff Ana, who’s feeling claustrophobic, looks for another open seat and finds one, so her seat opens up to my left.  The middle aged gentlemen on the aisle is an odd duck who plans to sleep at LAX and catch a flight to Montana the next day.  He says he brought his own sleeping bag.

I sleep most of the flight.  We arrive early, but it takes time for luggage to arrive and a considerable wait for the shuttle from the airport.  LAX is the worst.  The U.S. Customs agent who processes us is a smug jerk.  He belittles some poor Asian man who clearly struggled with English.  With a welcome like that, who’d want to come to this country?  It’s time for persons in misplaced positions of authority to get taken to the woodshed.  My two cents.

HAPPY BUDDHAS: Vietnam Travelogue (Part 3 – Communism)

25 November 2017 (Saturday)

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Side Note:  In Hoi An Hai recommended the massage services at the hotel’s spa.  However, he specifically did not recommend the massage services at the hotel in Hue.  According to him they focus little on massage and keep asking whether you want a “happy ending.”

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I’m up before wake-up call for a quick stretch.  My right leg is stiff – perhaps from yesterday’s walking tour.  I realize I left my handkerchief drying in my room at the Hoi An Trials Resort.  Oh well.  Better than forgetting my phone.

I breakfast with Armond, a tech wiz from the Bay Area.  He’s traveling with his parents and brother, Alex.  Lana interrupts to enlist Armond’s help.  She’s a real estate agent, and her email was hacked by a particularly aggressive hacker.  She can’t figure out how to change her password.  Armond kindly offers his assistance.

Before leaving for the Perfume River tour I discover my hotel safe won’t open.  The safe contains my passport (which I don’t need for the tour) and my camera (which I do).  I call the front desk, and they send housekeeping.  While waiting for my safe to be opened I call the front desk to let Hai know I’m running late.  Housekeeping opens the safe, but now it’s locked open.  I lock what valuables I don’t need in my suitcase and head downstairs.  I’ll have to sort this out after the tour.

Overcast skies but no rain for the one hour cruise on a Dragon Boat (tourist version) down the Perfume River to Thien Mu Pagoda.  The pagoda has lots of stairs and beautiful grounds.  We take a bus to the Khai Dinh tomb.  This particular king didn’t like his concubines and preferred his bodyguards.  His queen became pregnant (by the king’s uncle, or so it was believed) and gave birth to the next king – technically not related to the king by blood.  But what could the monarch say nothing without causing more problems?  There are even more stairs here.  Grimmer in mood, and the rain starts again.  Next stop is the Tu Duc tomb via an Incense and Cone Hat making shop.  The Tu Duc tomb has more extensive grounds but the tomb itself is being renovated.

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Side Note:  While waiting on the tour bus to leave Khai Dinh tomb I see the Kiwis from the XO Tour heading up to the site.  When we spoke during the food tour they had mentioned they would be in Hue a day after me.  I knock on the window, and they wave back in recognition.

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Lunch is a vegan affair, prepared and served by nuns at the Dong Thuyen Pagoda.  Ana Maria and I share a plate (it’s two to a plate all around).  After lunch Hai interviews (and translates for) a 19-year-old nun.  She answers questions about her life in the nunnery.  She wanted to become a nun from a very early age.  She is very endearing.

Back at the hotel I call reception to have my safe fixed, with just enough time to scout a dinner location before dark.  Both Hai and Lonely Planet recommend the Mandarin Café, so I trek there.  Glad I scouted in daylight as the map is not very clear.  Back to the hotel to read and rest my knee, which is sore after all the stair climbing.

Next the dinner trek for real.  After dark there are significantly more taxi drivers accosting you.  One cyclo driver approaches me.  When I refuse he makes the universal sign for smoking.  I’m not sure if he wants a cigarette or is offering marijuana.  Either way my answer is no.

Mandarin Café is both a restaurant and a travel agency run by Mr. Cu, who displays his exceptional photos on the walls.  I order the local beer on his recommendation (Hai said it tastes like water; we’ll see), fried vegetable spring rolls as an appetizer, and sautéed mixed seafood for the main course.  Dessert is a mango pancake with ice cream and chocolate sauce, along with coffee and condensed milk.  Decadent!

Before leaving the restaurant Mr. Cu gives me one of his pictures as a souvenir.  Some fellow tour companions are eating at the restaurant when I arrive and leave shortly thereafter to check out the Night Market (if it isn’t closed due to rain).  They suggest I meet them, but my knee is still bothering me and I don’t want to overdo it.  So back to the hotel to shower and pack for tomorrow’s flight to Hanoi.

26 November 2017 (Sunday)

A brief stretch before breakfast, then on to the Hue airport.  Hai warns us that the customs officials there can be stern, but the woman who checks our passports is fairly typical.  Not friendly, not unfriendly.  The flight is short, but the bus ride to Halong Bay feels long.  The scenery begins to reflect the politics in Hanoi – flat, gray buildings become the norm.

We stop halfway to Halong Bay for a modest lunch at a restaurant whose proceeds assist victims of Agent Orange.  The food is unremarkable but hits the spot.  During the final leg to Halong Bay Hai fills us in our upcoming hotel’s scam to make you pay for drinks from the fridge in your room.  I take inventory when I arrive (even take a picture of the fridge contents just in case).  After unpacking I walk toward the bay with Ana Maria so she can smoke.

At the group dinner that evening I sit (once again) with my fellow vegan/vegetarians, Rike and Pam.  Joining us are Ali, his wife Fariba, son Ali and other son Alex.  They migrated to the U.S. from Iran.  The sons and I talk science fiction books, then Rike changes the subject (as is her wont) to politics, which I have no interest in.  Hai sits next to us but eats very little.  I wonder if he has some dietary restrictions, because I can’t recall him eating much of anything thus far.

After dinner Ana Vigo (as opposed to Ana Maria) suggests drinks at the Skybar.  When I return to my room many of my group are gathered outside the elevator.  They are still there when I head to the less busy elevator down the hall.  The Skybar is on the 16th floor.  It has trendy pretensions and tries too hard.  The only group member there is Fariba.  The outdoor seating looks enticing, so I head back to my room for a jacket, figuring the rest of the group will have arrived by the time I return.  Not so.  They must have gone to the night market.  I have no interest in that, or in waiting.  I make an early night of it.

27 November 2017 (Monday)

Because several tour groups are in the hotel Hai suggests we arrive at breakfast this morning before 7:00 a.m.  I arrive at 6:30 a.m., and it’s already a zoo.  Clearly everyone has the same idea.  A half hour later the crowds subside.  Oh well.  The food is good, though coffee and milk are in short supply.

Rike, the politics talker, is a lawyer from the D.C. area (originally from Nigeria).  She sits across from me and, bless her heart, talks my ear off.  Both she and Pam (who rounds out the non-meat-eating trio) seem to abhor silence.  Maybe it’s too many vegetables in their diet.

During check out Hai’s warning about housekeeping is confirmed.  Anne and Tom are called to task for removing a glass from their room.  All’s well that ends well, however, as it is tracked to the dining room (?!).  This meticulousness seems egregious.  However, Hai says it’s not uncommon for Korean or Chinese businessmen to get drunk and try to enter the wrong room.  Perhaps they (the businessmen) tear up their rooms, which has led to housekeeping’s overcompensating behavior.

At 8:00 a.m. we bus to the marina for our cruise of Halong Bay, which has hundreds of islands, many with caves.  We cruise for two hours before stopping to explore three caves in one of the islands.  The bay is gorgeous, the sailing serene, and the caves breathtaking.  Even the crowds at the caves aren’t too obnoxious.

After the cave crawl it’s back to the boat for a 9-course lunch.  No joke.  By the end of the meal I am full to near exploding.  Hai says this particular lunch used to be 11 courses.  That must have been coma inducing.

We take our 4-hour bus ride back to Hanoi where we will spend the remainder of the tour.  We arrive earlier than expected, so Hai conducts an informal walking orientation of the city.  He leads us from the hotel to Hoan Kiem Lake, then walks us to the Café Pho Co for a hot egg coffee, a Hanoi specialty.  I also have an uninspired piece of chocolate cake.  Dessert before dinner tonight.  Some teenage girls bus the tables.  I give one a $1 tip, and she is completely overwhelmed.  As I leave I see her speaking excitedly to a co-worker.  Never has a dollar gone so far.

Hai warned us about hygiene in the city, and the walk confirms this.  The sidewalks and curbs are covered with detritus.  According to Hai it’s not uncommon at street food stations for patrons to toss their used napkins on the floor around their table.

Tom & Anne, Mike & Lana, and Ana Maria and I walk back to the hotel (a significant hike).  I lead the way, since no one else feels confident of the route.  We make it back without incident – only minor stress crossing the street.  On the walk down Hai showed us his “kung fu” technique.  You wait for a break in the traffic, step into the road and hold up your hand.  It works for him but is not as easy for a non-native to pull off.

We go straight to Cha Ca Thang Lang for dinner.  It’s next door to the hotel, and they only serve fish.  You get a full meal for a mere 170,000 VND (the equivalent of $8) plus whatever you want to drink.  I also have the Bai Ha Nai (the local beer).  The fish is amazing.  I have yet to have a bad meal here.  The check comes all together, and there is some drama as we pay separately, some in dong (VND), some in dollars.  No credit cards at this restaurant.

We walk the few steps to the hotel and bid each other good night.  Tomorrow’s official city tour begins at 9:00 a.m., so we get an extra hour of sleep.  Huzzah!