Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hiatus

Just a quick update to let everyone know that my blog will be on hiatus for the next couple of weeks.

As most of you know, because you're my friends in real life, my husband recently landed a job in California. We'll be moving next week. During this time of moving & getting settled in our new home, I'll be putting my creative side on hold.

You can expect me back in mid- to late January, when you'll get an end-of-the-year review for 2013. I'll also be resuming my current projects: Best Picture reviews, antique postcards, world geography, and essays on loneliness. I'll also be starting some new projects in 2014, although you'll have to wait to see what those are.

Happy New Year, everyone! Best of luck in 2014.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Best Picture: "Driving Miss Daisy," 1989

Movie Stats:
Released 1989 (USA)
American, in English (very minimal Hebrew, both translated and not)
Director – Bruce Beresford
Stars – Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd

Plot Summary:
Set in Georgia circa 1950s-1960s. After elderly Daisy Werthan (Tandy) has an accident in her car, her son Boolie (Aykroyd) hires her a chauffeur, Hoke Colburn (Freeman), much to her consternation.

Warnings:
None

Bad Stuff:
A lot of the music is super 1980s-cheesy.

It lacked the emotional punch I expected it to have.

Good Stuff:
Solid acting from all the main players. I especially enjoyed Aykroyd’s performance as the good-natured, put-upon Boolie.

It’s very sweet and amusing.

The Verdict:
There’s nothing wrong with this movie. As I said, it’s very sweet, if not especially exciting. Like a lot of the 80s winners, it’s a movie about life – about the passage of time, and about how we and our relationships change as we grow and age. It’s not earth-shattering or titillating, but it’s the kind of movie that practically anyone will find relatable.

I actually like this film. It’s charming. In comparison to the “greats,” however, it falls far short. I don’t understand why it won Best Picture. It’s simply not good enough for that kind of award. Because of that, I don’t feel comfortable giving it a rating in the 4s, even though it’s very enjoyable. While I would recommend that you watch it if you’re in the mood for something endearing and heart-warming, I would tell you not to anticipate being wowed.

I give the movie 3.75 stars.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Best Picture: "Rain Man," 1988

Movie Stats:
Released 1988 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Barry Levinson
Stars – Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman

Plot Summary
After his estranged father dies, young, self-absorbed Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) discovers the brother he never knew he had, Raymond (Hoffman), a high-functioning autistic man who lives in a group home.

Warnings:
A copious amount of blue language; extremely brief nudity (female breasts – blink and you’ll miss it).

Bad Stuff:
The music is so incredibly terrible.

It annoyed me that some of the central questions of the story were never answered. Why, after Charlie’s mother died and his brother was placed in the home, was his father so cold to him? Why did no one ever tell him he had a brother? Why did they continue to try to keep it from him after his father died? It’s not as though Charlie doesn’t ask these questions; they’re just kind of shrugged off. It felt like lazy/unimaginative writing.

It was a little boring. Not “this feels like death by a thousand cuts” boring. More like “I’ve checked the clock more than once in the past ten minutes” boring.

Good Stuff:
Watching Charlie’s character grow was extremely satisfying. It was very difficult to watch him in the beginning, especially whenever he yelled at Raymond. Honestly, it was a bit distressing. By the end of the film, however, I was kind of rooting for him. Perhaps the writer expended all his creative energy on this part of the tale and that’s why some of the other stuff was left out.

Phenomenal job by Hoffman. I guess Cruise was good as well, but whenever he’s playing an asshole, I always feel like he’s just being himself.

It felt nice to laugh occasionally. I think this is the first 80s winner that had any genuinely funny moments.

The Verdict:
If you’re a friend of mine, then you’ll know that I’ve been staunchly anti-Cruise for a very long time. For as long as I can remember, in fact. I avoid his movies as much as possible and have never seen some of his most famous ones, including this one. I never would have watched it if not for this project.

I didn’t think it was bad, and I didn’t think Cruise was bad in it. However, I wasn’t especially wowed either. When it came down to it, I didn’t feel the emotional connection to this story that I have to some of the other really great 80s winners (Platoon, Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People). A story like this should forge that kind of connection. I’m not sure how, exactly, this movie could fall short of that, but it did for me.

Therefore, while I didn’t hate it, I’m not inclined to heap it with praise either. I think you’d probably like it. You’d probably enjoy both the story and the performances. But I don’t think you’ll be missing out if you never see it.

I give the movie 3.5 stars.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Best Picture: "The Last Emperor," 1987

Movie Stats:
Released 1987 (Japan)
Chinese, Italian, British & French (according to IMDB), in English with some Mandarin (both translated and not), some Japanese (both translated and not), and very minimal non-translated Russian
Director – Bernardo Bertolucci
Stars – John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, plus many other actors you’ll recognize

Plot Summary:
It’s the story of Puyi (Lone as the adult version), the last emperor of China. Chen co-stars as his wife, the empress Wan Jung, and O’Toole as Reginald Johnston, adolescent Puyi’s Scottish tutor.

Warnings:
Very brief nudity (female breasts, all of a young male child). A scene that bordered way too close to pedophilia for my comfort (oddly enough, not related to the scene of a naked child). There was little violence, but when there was it was pretty graphic. One random f-bomb toward the end of the movie.

Bad Stuff:
Boy, where to start?

First off, it was confusing. I don’t have a strong grasp of Chinese history and this movie didn’t really improve it. In particular, the stuff during WWII, when Puyi collaborated with the Japanese, was baffling. In one scene, after a Japanese official’s suicide, my husband asked, “Who was that?” I replied, “One of the Japanese guys.” He said, “You don’t know which one?” I said, “I’m not sure they ever said?” There were just too many people whose names/titles were never really explained, or at least weren't explained well.

Secondly, the movie never got me to care enough about the characters to be concerned about their fates. Perhaps that’s related to problem #1.

Thirdly, I hated that it was in English. It felt wrong, almost borderline offensive. I would’ve preferred it be in Mandarin with subtitles.

Lastly, I didn’t like O’Toole’s character. He sort of came in with this smug, “white guy knows best” attitude. It was a real turn off, and also kind of offensive. Besides, if the movie is to be believed, most of what he encouraged his charge to think and do is what got Puyi in trouble later in life.

Good Stuff:
The costumes and make-up were beautiful.

The cinematography was great.

I guess the acting was good, especially from the children, but all the bad stuff detracted from it.

The Verdict:
I say don’t bother watching it. I was so bored and confused partway through that I looked up Puyi online and started reading about his life. That was far more interesting than this movie.

I give it 2 stars.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Postcard Project: Odds & Ends, Part 1

All of these cards are undated and/or are without sent-to addresses. I've placed them in a semblance of chronological order based almost entirely upon guessing. As always, spelling and grammatical mistakes are copied verbatim from the cards.

No date or address. I don't recognize the children pictured.

". . . tired when we got . . . the train ride. Be sure . . . of May then Harry will . . . He is going to be confirmed . . . with . . . and I am . . . I hope . . . me along. I am there already when you get this picture and so is Louie."

Doesn't make much sense when you can't read the whole thing, does it?

Card addressed but not stamped.
Name of addressee too faint to read.

"From [town name redacted] Wis to [town name redacted] Mich. I am sending you only a half a dozen of Postcard, for some one took them while I was out working & so now I am sending you all I have left. Am sorry But I couldn't find out who took the rest. Will write more with time. From your Dad."

My best guess is that this is from my great-grandfather (who I never met because he died in the 1930s) to one of his children. I'm thinking that, after the family moved to Michigan, he might have stayed behind in Wisconsin for a while to work.

I do find it curious that the card is written in English. Great-Grandpa emigrated from Germany to America as an adult, so English definitely wasn't his first language. I know that my mom always said that my grandma (who I also never met because she died a few months before I was born) was embarrassed by her German heritage. I wonder if my great-grandparents just tried really hard to put Germany behind them. If my guess about the timing of this card is correct, it would have been sent after the Great War, but before WWII.


The following three cards are all from the same person, one of Grandma's older brothers, to different people. None of them are addressed or stamped, so they were probably sent as part of a letter or a package. My guess is that all of them were sent somewhere between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s.

Not addressed to a particular person, probably meant for
the family in general.

"Wishing you a merry Xmas and a Happy New Year. From [redacted]."

Addressed to his parents.

"Easter Wishes To Mother & Dad. From [redacted]."

Addressed to his brother.

"Easter Joy to [redacted]. From [redacted]."

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Up with Geography: Afghanistan

I forgot to mention in my maintenance post that I'll be going through the countries alphabetically. Want to know what this project is all about? You can read an explanation of it HERE.

Country Name:
Afghanistan

Capital:
Kabul

Continent:
Asia

Maps:

This is my terrible drawing of the Asian Continent. Get used to
seeing it. Afghanistan is outlined in dark ink & shaded.

A closer look at Afghanistan & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Pakistan

Water Borders:
None

Total Area(added March 2015)
251,827 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kanduz

Famous Geographical Point:
Hindu Kush Mountains

It occurred to me after the fact that I should probably include this category on the map. I will from here on out, but for Afghanistan imagine them stretching northeast of Kabul and into Pakistan underneath that little arm on the right.

Famous Person:
Abdul Hai Habibi, historian

Book Set In/About:
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Movie Set In/About:
"Jung (War) in the Land of Mujaheddin," directed by Fabrizio Lazzaretti & Alberto Vendemmiati

Headline of the Day:
"In Afghanistan, Hagel Presses for Pact on Security, but Is Not Meeting Karzai" in The New York Times.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Best Picture: "Platoon," 1986

Movie Stats:
Released 1986 (USA)
American & British, in English (some Vietnamese, both translated and not)
Director – Oliver Stone
Stars – Charlie Sheen, Willem Defoe, Tom Berenger, and lots of other men you’ll recognize

Plot Summary:
Na├»ve Chris Taylor (Sheen) volunteers for the infantry during the Vietnam War in an attempt to exert independence from his parents. He soon learns how misguided he was. Defoe and Berenger co-star respectively as Sgts. Elias and Barnes, the two men fighting for Chris’s “soul.”

Warnings:
Blue language, racist language, and violence (including toward women, children, and animals) in copious amounts. One non-graphic rape scene.

Bad Stuff:
As much as I love John C. McGinley, his performance as Sgt. O’Neill was so over-the-top that it was distracting.

I wasn’t keen on the voiceover. I was glad that it was fairly limited.

[SPOILER] I found it a tad convenient/heavy-handed that nearly all the men on the “bad” Barnes side ended up dead while most of the men on the “good” Elias side made it out.

Good Stuff:
Other than McGinley, pretty much everyone else turned in a great performance. Defoe is understated (surprisingly) as the kindly and competent Elias. Berenger is absolutely terrifying as the simmering, off-his-rocker Barnes. I also really enjoyed the performance of Keith David as King, the good-natured man who takes Chris under his wing. But by far the break-out star is Sheen. I’d forgotten that he used to be a good actor. His transformation from wide-eyed greenie to battle-hardened beserker, in less than a year, is amazing.

The cinematography is gorgeous.

I’ve never been in a war, but there’s something about this film that has always felt very real to me. I believe it’s because of the atmosphere Stone set. There’s an underlying tension all the time, even when the men are relaxing. As a viewer, I had this constant sense that disaster was right around the corner. It’s intense. If someone asked me, I’d describe this film as “dark and gritty.”

I also enjoy that the film is morally gray. It’s definitely not one of those “rah rah rah, Americans are great” war films. The insanity of war makes people do insane things, and this movie doesn’t pull any punches in addressing that.

The Verdict:
I’d seen this a few times before, but it had been quite a while. From the opening score (oh yeah, the music is great too), I felt this heavy sadness come over me. It was very Pavlovian; since I’d seen it before, and knew what was to come, the music triggered the grief of previous viewings.

This isn’t a happy movie. However, it’s a good one. It’s long been one of my favorites of the Vietnam War genre. I’m glad that, upon this subsequent viewing, it held up. It still felt fresh and real, gripping and moving. It’s a movie I’ll probably watch again a few years from now and get something totally different out of it than what I got before. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.

I give the movie 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Up with Geography: Maintenance Post

About a year ago, my husband and I started participating in a weekly pub quiz competition. The experience has largely been both fun and satisfying, but it can also occasionally be frustrating and it’s almost always humbling. In a way, it’s nice to get a weekly reminder of much I don’t know.

In particular, I’ve discovered a huge lack of knowledge in three areas: 1. While I may know the lyrics to practically every famous classic rock song, I rarely know the titles of those songs or who sang them; 2. Baseball; and 3. World Geography.

A few weeks ago, something on a friend’s blog (I can no longer recall what) sparked an idea about my lack of geography knowledge and here we are. I have a new project, a world geography project. It’s mostly for myself and I don’t really expect anyone else to be interested in it, but I figure that while I’m going through the effort of doing the research, I may as well blog about it.

The purpose of this post is to spell out how my geography posts will be formatted and what each of the categories mean. You can expect my first country post – Afghanistan – to appear within the next few days. 

So without further ado, here is the proposed layout of these future posts:

Country Name:
This is the name of the country, in English.

Capital:
This is the name of the country’s capital city, in English.

Continent:
This is the continent on which the country is located. If the country is an island, the continent will be “none” and it will be noted that it is an island or an island chain.

Maps:
There will be two for each country. One will depict the region where the country is located. The other will depict the country more close up, including the names of the surrounding countries and/or water. These maps will be hand-drawn by me.

Neighbors:
This will denote all of the countries that share a border with the country in question.

Water Borders:
This will denote any large bodies of water that make up an entire border or a significant partial border of the country in question. Included are: oceans, seas, and occasionally gulfs, bays and lakes. Not included are rivers or internal bodies of water.

Total Area: (added March 2015)
The total area of the country, in square miles.

Five Largest Cities:
The five largest cities in the country in descending order. Population numbers will not be given because such stats are very changeable.

Famous Geographical Point:
An interesting and/or well-known geographical point of the country. Where possible, I’ve picked things that should be known worldwide, i.e. the Grand Canyon or the Sahara Desert. They will all be naturally occurring, i.e. nothing manmade.

Note that some countries have several famous geographical points. Please don’t be offended if I didn’t pick the one you think I should have, but feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

After getting to know a little bit about the geography of each country, I thought it would be fun to know some of the culture/pop culture. Therefore, I’m including the following categories:

Famous Person:
A famous person who was born in that country. The person has to have been born in that country; I am not including people of that descent who were born in other countries. Where possible, I’ve picked a name that I recognize. Barring that, I’ve picked someone who sounded interesting to me upon further research. I’m trying to keep this fun, so I’ve picked people who have had a positive influence on the world. Therefore, don’t expect to find despots or criminals in here (i.e. no Hitler, Stalin, etc.).

Note that pretty much every country has produced multiple famous people. Please don’t be offended if I didn’t pick the one you think I should have, but feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

Book Set In/About:
A book set in and/or about the country, either fiction or non-fiction. I took suggestions from Goodreads and tried to pick books with ratings of 4 stars or higher. I also tried to pick books that sounded interesting, in case you or I might want to read them someday.

Note that pretty much every country has produced lots of literature. Please don’t be offended if I didn’t pick the book you think I should have, but feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

Movie Set In/About:
A movie set in and/or about the country, either fiction or non-fiction. In some cases, I had to settle for a movie made by a director from that country. I took suggestions from several sources online and checked them against IMDB. I tried to pick movies with a rating of 7.0 or higher, in case you or I might want to watch them someday.

Note that pretty much every country has produced lots of movies. Please don’t be offended if I didn’t pick the film you think I should have, but feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

Headline of the Day:
Right as I am about to post the country, I will google the country’s name. The first news headline that pops up will be what I post here.


There you have it - my grand geography project. So far, it's been very engrossing and also very interesting, and I haven't even made it to the "C"s yet! I hope you'll find it as fun as I do.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Final Reflections on November 2013

I know that I say this every month, but I really can’t believe how quickly this year has gone by. When you’re younger, they tell you that the older you get, the faster time goes. Well, it’s totally true. I shudder to think how quickly my final years are going to pass.

Okay, so that’s a little morbid. While I am a fairly morbid person, I’m not actively trying to be morbid right now. But it’s a gray winter’s morning and I’m still feeling sleepy after a night filled with weird dreams. You’ll have to forgive me if my Poe side peeks through a bit.

November was nice enough, I suppose. Uneventful. I did have a very good visit from my brother. I showed him some of the city and he got to meet some of my friends and see some of what I do with my time. We visited the Sixth Floor Museum and also the Dallas Museum of Art, which is absolutely fantastic. Admission is free there (there are some paid-for exhibits but there is no pressure to partake of them). Although we saw quite a bit of beautiful art, there was still at least one floor we never got to, so I’ll have to go back.

It was nice to see my brother and I’m glad that he visited. The rest of November was largely unremarkable. My brother’s visit threw off my exercise plan, which is no one’s fault but my own. I know myself well enough to know that I’m unlikely to get back on track in December.

So too is my writing still off-kilter. I started yet another new romance novel. I KNOW. I’m thoroughly convinced now that I’m self-sabotaging. I think I don’t want to finish the fourth novel (I currently have FIVE partial fourth novels) because I’m afraid to move on to the publishing stage.

It seems clear that it’s time to push myself out of the nest. The current plan is to start working on publishing in January, whether the fourth novel is finished or not. I know that it probably seems like I’m still stalling. The truth is that I work extra hours in December and, if it’s anything like last year, I’ll be too tired to focus on anything other than entertaining myself at the end of my workdays. So January it is.

Also, I'd like to point out that soccer season is over (except for the final next weekend, which I will watch even though my team's not in it). It's left me feeling at loose ends. It's a bit pathetic really. Although hope is on the horizon. The Winter Olympics - superior to the Summer Olympics, imho - are less than two months away and of course 2014 includes World Cup. World Cup! It's like a soccer all-you-can-eat buffet!

Anyway, that's November 2013, plus my expectations for the coming months, in a nutshell. That's my life. If you're stopping by to read, why don't you tell me what's been happening in yours?