Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Best Picture: "Ordinary People," 1980

Movie Stats:
Released 1980 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Robert Redford
Stars – Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton

Plot Summary:
The story of a family learning to cope after the accidental death of the older son. Moore plays mother Beth Jarrett; Sutherland, the father, Calvin Jarrett; and Hutton the younger son, Conrad Jarrett. Hirsch co-stars as Conrad’s psychologist, Dr. Tyrone Berger.

A surprising amount of blue language.

Bad Stuff:
While I didn’t feel this way, I could see where some people would find this slow & pointless. There’s not really anything exciting about it. It’s a character study, which isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

Good Stuff:
The acting is absolutely phenomenal. They were all great; I can’t even say that one actor was better than another (although Hutton, wow, I didn’t know he had it in him). I really expected to hate Beth, who, incapable of expressing love or of forgiving Conrad for being alive while her other son is not, isn’t a particularly sympathetic character. But Moore somehow manages to play her in a way that I just felt pity for her, because her shortcomings hurt her more than anyone else. Sutherland and Hutton have great chemistry together; I could actually believe that they were a loving father and son. Their final scene together broke my heart in a good way. Hirsch too was fantastic; I thought this was one of the better portrayals of a psychologist I’ve ever seen on film.

I liked that it asked a lot of hard questions that didn’t have easy answers, and that it didn’t go for the quick, happy ending.

The Verdict:
First, a story about Timothy Hutton. About a year ago or so, I was flipping through the channels on TV when I stumbled across an episode of The Twilight Zone called “And When the Sky Was Opened.” One of the actors looked really familiar to me. It bothered me so much that I finally looked it up. It turns out that the actor was Jim Hutton, Timothy Hutton’s father. I’ve never seen him in anything else; I recognized him because his son looks so much like him (at the time, my husband and I were going through all the seasons of the show “Leverage,” which Timothy starred in). Jim Hutton died young, in 1979, of cancer. When Timothy won the Best Actor Oscar (deservedly) for “Ordinary People,” he dedicated it to his father.

Now, the verdict. I really liked this film. I was dreading it going in because I figured it was going to be a sob fest. It was. I’m a huge sap. I hate to see people in emotional pain. I’m a sympathetic crier. If someone on-screen is crying, I’m likely to start crying as well. You better believe I was crying my eyes out during this film, and I’m glad no one was around to witness it. While I don’t have children, I imagine that losing a child has got to be just about the most painful thing a person can experience. I can understand why it tears families apart. Watching this film was like sitting through two hours of getting punched right in the emotions.

But I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing. This is a great film. If you’re not adverse to sad stories and ambiguously happy endings, then don’t shy away from this one. There aren’t a lot of movies out there that are capable of being this poignant without straying too far into the category of melodrama. This is one of them.

I give the movie 4.25 stars.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Loneliness: Friendships, Part 1

The more I thought about the topic of friendship, the more I realized that I have a lot to say about it. Therefore, I’ve decided to break this section of the series into three parts. This first part will deal with my childhood & junior high friendships; the second with my high school & college friendships; and the third part will cover adult friendships & conclusions.

I’m one of those people who, on the surface, appears to be really good at friendships. At least, I’m friendly with a lot of people. I have been since college. How can you be lonely? I feel like people are thinking. You know so many people. While that’s true, my friendships have rarely been as close as I would like. Because my family has never been particularly tight, friendships have always been very important to me. However, I’ve always secretly felt that I’m not as important to my friends as they are to me.

Honestly, I’m pretty sure the problem is me. I’m shy about friendships. I like to play my hand pretty close to my chest, not letting people know how much I like them. I’m afraid of appearing overly eager or desperate or, god forbid, needy. I fear rejection.

I’m positive that the seeds of this fear were sown in my childhood, where I faced rejection early and often.

My childhood best friend was the girl who lived across the street. We’ll call her K. We were the same age, but went to different elementary schools. Our friendship mostly stayed in the neighborhood. As I recall it, we were pretty tight.

Things changed the summer before we started junior high together. A girl who lived down the street from us, who was a couple of years younger, broke us up. It was something I didn’t understand then. I still don’t really understand it today, nearly 30 years later. I’m not sure what her end game was. Maybe she was just being evil in the way that girls that age can be evil. The details are fuzzy for me now, but I clearly remember her telling us lies about things each of us supposedly said about the other.

I’m not sure why it worked. As I remember it, I didn’t believe her lies, but K did (granted, my memory could be faulty, allowing me to remember things the way I want rather than how they were). It was very bewildering and painful. In the end, I went into junior high without a best friend. K and I never really made up. Years later, when we were in high school, we discussed the break up briefly and had a laugh about it. But we were never friends again.

In junior high, I had two close girlfriends, N and C. If my memory serves correct, N and I were closer in sixth grade, and I became close to C later, after she moved from another state into my neighborhood. C and I were close enough that we chose to be locker partners in eighth grade, a huge deal because we were required to carry our eighth grade locker partners over into ninth grade, which was at the high school.

Junior high was a tough time for me. I’d been teased to some extent in elementary school, but it was really bad in junior high. Kids were mean. I was easy pickings. N was the first in my long string of friendships with girls that I would now call “troubled.” She came from an even rougher background than me. She lived in a trailer park – a huge social stigma where I grew up. She was even more awkward looks-wise than me. The kids were even meaner to her than they were to me. That’s probably what brought us together. We were united in misery.

C, on the other hand, was pretty normal. I think I started out as a friend of convenience for her. Since she was new to the area, and we lived only a few doors down from one another, I was one of the first people she met. Even so, we quickly became close. I liked her a lot.

I don’t know for sure what happened between me and C. I don’t remember if we had an actual falling out over something. I don’t think so, because as I recall it, partway through eighth grade, C just started to be mean to me out of nowhere. It actually got pretty bad. When I fell in gym one day and sprained my arm and had to go to the hospital, I came back to school the next day to find that C had torn down all of my pictures in our shared locker. This was nothing like it had been with K, where we broke up and then essentially ignored one another. C had a lot of vitriol toward me. Once again, I was thoroughly bewildered.

In hindsight, I believe that C had finally figured out that being friends with me was social suicide, so she dumped me. In high school, she moved on to a more popular clique (not that it was hard to find a group more popular than me). After muddling through ninth grade as uneasy locker partners, we never spoke again.

At the same time, my friendship with N cooled. I don’t remember why. We were never not friends; we just weren’t as close anymore. I know my mother didn’t approve of her, but that probably had little to do with it. Now, I wonder if I did to her what C had done to me, dumping her because she was even lower on the social totem pole than me. I hope this is not the case, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Most preteens are assholes, even me. Whatever the problem, she didn’t deserve my ingratitude. She was really nice. A good friend. 

N got pregnant in high school and dropped out. I’ve never spoken to her again, although she kindly left condolences on my mother’s online obituary (actually, so did K).

It’s probably important here to reiterate that all of this was happening amidst a home environment where I was rarely encouraged to pursue friendships. In fact, my mom often made it difficult to have friends, not allowing parties or sleepovers, complaining if I was on the phone too long, refusing to drive me places, etc. I don’t know if this was a concerted effort on her part to deny me friends or just a lot of different quirks of her personality coming together in a very negative way.

The upshot is, I had a lot of odds stacked against me, and although I struggled hard against them, by time I was fourteen, I’d already been rejected by two of my closest friends. It hurt and it affected the way that I saw friendship from there on out.

Join me next time to discover if I fared any better at friendships in high school.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Postcard Project: 1930s, Part 7

As always, all grammatical/spelling mistakes copied verbatim.

June 24, 1938
Addressed to Grandma & Grandpa

"Dear [redacted], Taking a trip with five other girls & it certainly has been wonderful so far. Visited 'Will Rogers Ranch' while driving thru Okla. also saw plenty of cowboys, one of them took us to one of the ranches here in Texas this morning. The weather plenty warm 104 but at nite it gets so cool you have to have [?] cover. Saw acres of wheat, corn which [illegible] is 5 ft high and fields of cotton wish I could tell you more. Tomorrow we are going to visit Mexico. Love Mary."

While I think a trip with one's girlfriends sounds fun, six women crammed into a car (or hopefully two?) during a Texas summer in the 1930s - with no AC & presumably terrible roads - sounds absolutely horrific. Glad Mary had a good time anyway.

July 7, 1938
Addressed to Grandma

"Hello [redacted] - Having a swell time here - I'm going down the cave now. Peg."

The back of the card indicates that this is the Rainbow Room of Wonderland Cave, three miles west of Cave City, Kentucky. I can't find Wonderland Cave on the map, but Mammoth Cave appears to be just west of Cave City, Kentucky. I'm thinking maybe Wonderland Cave had a name change some time after 1938. My mom took us to Mammoth Cave when we were kids. It was pretty cool.

July 23, 1938
Addressed to Grandma & Grandpa.

"Hello Folks. Enjoying the country up here very much. This is the last Post Office in Michigan. Love, Mary & Don."

Copper Harbor appears to be at the very tippy tip of the "finger" of the Upper Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior, so I don't think Mary was exaggerating when she calls it the last post office in Michigan. This is the last card in the collection from Mary.

August 8, 1938
Addressed to Grandma.

"Hi [redacted]: Here I am in Detroit doing as the Detroiters do. Hope your not melting away at the office. Marie."

I was honestly unaware that Grandma continued to work after she married Grandpa. When I thought about it, though, it kind of made sense. My uncle wouldn't be born for another couple of years, so why not work? I wonder what she did though, if she continued to be a telephone operator, as she was when she lived in Virginia.

November 8, 1938
Addressed to Grandma & Grandpa


This is another card they sent to themselves. It made me laugh. Obviously, they weren't "starving" while they were on vacation. I always heard that my grandpa had a good sense of humor, and I can see it shining through in his writings (it's his handwriting on this card).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Best Picture Interlude: Three More Decades' Worth of Ratings

Look at that, I’ve finished another three decades of Best Picture winners! That means it’s time for another “round-up.” Just like last time, I’ve grouped them by decade, from least favorite to favorite.

10. The Greatest Show on Earth – 1 star
9. An American in Paris – 2 stars
8. Gigi – 2.5 stars
7. From Here to Eternity – 3 stars
6. Around the World in Eighty Days – 3.5 stars
5. Ben-Hur – 3.5 stars
4. All About Eve – 3.75 stars
3. The Bridge on the River Kwai – 4 stars
2. Marty – 4.5 stars
1. On the Waterfront – 4.75 stars

10. Tom Jones - .25 star
9. A Man for All Seasons – 2.5 stars
8. Midnight Cowboy – 2.75 stars
7. My Fair Lady – 3 stars
6. The Apartment – 3.5 stars
5. West Side Story – 4 stars
4. Oliver! – 4.25 stars
3. Lawrence of Arabia – 4.25 stars
2. The Sound of Music – 4.25 stars
1. In the Heat of the Night – 4.75 stars

10. The Deer Hunter – 2 stars
9. The French Connection – 2.75 stars
8. Annie Hall – 3 stars
7. Rocky – 3.25 stars
6. The Sting – 3.5 stars
5. The Godfather Part II – 3.75 stars
4. Kramer vs. Kramer – 4 stars
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 4 stars
2. Patton – 4 stars
1. The Godfather – 4.5 stars

Last time, as I was set to head into the 1950s, I expressed excitement, because I hadn’t seen many of them before. As you can see, however, much of the 1950s were a bitter disappointment. On the other hand, both the 1960s & the 1970s were better than I’d anticipated. I have to admit that I’m looking ahead to the 1980s & 1990s with no small amount of trepidation. I have a feeling that a lot of excessive melodrama is headed my way. I guess I better grab my box of Kleenex!

Best Picture: "Kramer vs. Kramer," 1979

Movie Stats:
Released 1979 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Robert Benton
Stars – Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep

Plot Summary
When Ted Kramer’s (Hoffman) unhappy wife Joanna (Streep) abandons him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry), Ted soon grows into the role of a caring father. After a year and a half, however, Joanna returns and demands custody of their son. A legal battle ensues.

Mild blue language; female nudity that is extremely gratuitous (seriously, there’s no point to the nude scene in this movie other than to have a nude scene).

Bad Stuff:
The manic nature of Ted at the very beginning was a real turn-off because it reminded me too much of the role that Hoffman played in Midnight Cowboy. If his character had behaved that way the whole film, I would have found it unbearable. Luckily, it got better.

The court scenes were so unrealistic as to be laughable. I know that realistic court scenes would be too boring for cinema, but I’m going to go ahead and scoff at the idea of witnesses giving heartfelt monologues on the stand anyway.

This has to be the most civilized custody battle I’ve ever scene, which made it not especially believable.

Good Stuff:
Loved the progression of Hoffman’s character. It was extremely well done. It happened in stages, and it wasn’t always easy, and Ted never became the perfect father or the perfect human being. It just worked. Also, the scenes where he spent quiet moments with his son, working together as a team, were beautiful.

Justin Henry, who played Billy, was surprisingly good. I almost universally loathe child actors (a reflection, perhaps, of my feelings about children in general), but he did a great job. The scene where he’s getting stitches had me cringing, even though they didn’t show anything, simply because of the noises he was making.

I really enjoyed the platonic friendship between Ted and his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander). They didn’t even throw a hint of sexual attraction in there. You don’t see that very often in movies. It was nice.

The Verdict:
I fully expected to hate it & found myself pleasantly surprised. This seems like a very timely movie in terms of the issues: a woman feeling stifled in her marriage & trying to find herself, a man asserting his right to be the primary parent, divorce, a custody battle, struggling to balance work life & home life, etc. These issues were hitting people hard in the 1970s. However, since they continue to resonate today, the movie didn’t feel dated to me (apart from the fashions & styles, of course).

As with many of these Best Picture winners, this isn’t a movie you’re likely to sit down to watch over and over again. But it’s definitely good for at least one viewing, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll enjoy it.

I give the movie 4 stars.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Best Picture: "The Deer Hunter," 1978

Movie Stats:
Released 1978 (USA)
American & British, in English (some non-translated Vietnamese)
Director – Michael Cimino
Stars – Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep

Plot Summary:
Follows the story of friends Mike (DeNiro), Steven (Savage), and Nick (Walken) as they go from factory workers in a Pennsylvanian steel mill town to soldiers in the wilds of Vietnam. Streep co-stars as Nick’s love interest Linda.

Strong blue language, including lots of f-bombs; brief male nudity; and graphic violence, including toward women, children, and animals.

Bad Stuff:
The pacing of it is very weird. Some parts are absolutely interminable, particularly all the scenes in Clairmont, the men’s hometown. I assume that the first hour, which showed the run-up to Steven’s wedding and the wedding itself, was supposed to establish the men’s friendship for the audience, but I didn’t feel it. The stuff in Vietnam was much more interesting and there simply wasn’t enough of it.

So much of it is an aural assault. People are constantly talking over one another, so conversations sound like a cacophony. There’s a lot of screaming and other loud noises. I would have liked to turn it down but then I wouldn’t have been able to hear the occasional one-on-one conversations that occurred.

With the exception of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” the soundtrack was absolutely terrible.

Good Stuff:
There were some rare moments of brilliance. The first Russian Roulette scene in the Viet Cong camp was really intense.

Christopher Walken’s performance.

Some of the cinematography is breathtaking.

The Verdict:
As a child of the 80s, I grew up watching a lot of television & movies about Vietnam. It was a huge part of the public consciousness at the time. Therefore, I have a certain amount of fondness for these kinds of films. I expected, and hoped, to like this movie. I’m disappointed to report that I didn’t.

I felt like it was a wasted opportunity. There was a great story in there somewhere, one about life, love, and friendship. In my opinion, the director failed to find it. By the end of the film, I’d grown irritable. I wanted something better and it made me angry that I didn’t get it.

I don’t recommend it. There are far better films that tackle the subject of the Vietnam War. Do yourself a favor and watch one of those instead.

I give the movie 2 stars.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Best Picture: "Annie Hall," 1977

Movie Stats:
Released 1977 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Woody Allen
Stars – Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Plot Summary:
Follows the love story of comic Alvy Singer (Allen) and actress/singer Annie Hall (Keaton) from beginning to conclusion. Surprise (to me) appearances by Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother Duane & Jeff Goldblum – very briefly – as a party guest.

Very mild blue language; sexual scenarios/innuendo (no nudity); and drug use.

Bad Stuff:
It feels like an hour and a half of Woody Allen analyzing himself.

Listening to Allen stutter-talk grates on my nerves after a while. The fact that Keaton’s character does it as well throughout the whole movie was both distracting and annoying.

I’m not sure that I liked how much the film broke through the 4th wall. On the one hand, it occasionally took me out of the narrative. On the other, it was usually amusing.

Good Stuff:
It definitely has its funny moments. If you’re not a big fan of Allen’s comedic style, however, I doubt you’d find it funny.

At its core, it’s very sweet. It’s a nice look at how people come together and fall apart & there’s no judgment to it. In a way, it’s like a narrative documentary.

It’s pretty realistic. No one is perfect. No one is always likable. That made the characters believable and the story relatable for me.

The Verdict:
I had seen this before, more than once, but it had been a while. I liked Allen’s stuff when I was younger. The older I get, however, the less I like it and the more it kind of irritates me. Although this is one of the shortest Best Picture winners I’ve seen, I found my attention drifting about halfway through. I kept thinking, “Geez, way to drag your audience along on your self-indulgent psychoanalysis, Woody!”

I’m sure that plenty of people love this movie. There are probably many more that loathe it. For me, it was okay. Decent, but not a homerun. It’s definitely one of the ones to see just so you can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that!”

I give the film 3 stars.