Friday, January 31, 2014

Best Picture: "The Silence of the Lambs," 1991

Movie Stats:
Released 1991 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Jonathan Demme
Stars – Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins

Plot Summary:
With a serial killer who likes to skin women on the loose, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) is assigned to seek the help of incarcerated psychopath, and former psychologist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins).

Violence, some of it graphic. Disturbing scenarios of a sexual nature. Very brief female nudity (breast only). Um, simulated naked vagina. Surprisingly minimal blue language for the type of movie it is.

Bad Stuff:
It’s gross. When the topics on-hand are sexual deviants, serial killers, and cannibals, a lot of stuff that occurs in the film is stuff that I’m going to find icky.

Good Stuff:
The thing I like the most about it is that it does a great job of setting a creepy tone right from the very beginning. There Clarice is, running the course at Quantico and you have no reason to believe that anything bad might happen to her but the way it’s set up (the weather is gray and presumably cold, she’s all alone, the music is eerie) makes you think that she’s in danger. That tension carries on through the rest of the film. For two hours, I couldn’t relax.

Great acting all around.

The Verdict:
It’s an excellent crime procedural, far more engaging and interesting than The French Connection, that’s for sure (and with a better ending). I liked it. However, thrillers aren’t really my cup of tea – or my Chianti and fava beans, if you will. I don’t really enjoy feeling tense for two hours. If someone were to ask me about it at a party, I’d likely say, “Yeah, you should watch it at least once, although you probably already know the whole plot since people quote it endlessly.” (Or maybe that’s just in my circle of twisted friends.)

Anyway, good film, but not one that I'm going to wax poetic about. I give it 4 stars.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Best Picture: "Dances with Wolves," 1990

Movie Stats:
Released 1990 (USA)
American, in English (lots of translated Sioux; some translated Pawnee)
Director – Kevin Costner
Stars – Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant

Plot Summary:
Set during the American Civil War. When Northern Lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) is sent to a far outpost on the frontier, he befriends a tribe of Sioux. McDonnell co-stars as Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the Sioux as a child; Greene as the Sioux tribe’s holy man, Kicking Bird; and Grant as the Sioux Wind in His Hair, who first starts as Dunbar’s enemy but becomes his friend.

A surprising amount of violence & blood for a PG-13 movie (including some distressing violence toward animals). More than brief male nudity (butt only). Non-graphic sexual scenarios.

Bad Stuff:
Knowing little about Native American culture, I have no idea how accurate this movie is in depicting such things. However, I found the depictions of the Sioux and Pawnee as a whole (not the individual characters) to be rather one-dimensional. The Sioux were very “noble savage.” The Pawnee were mindless, evil villains. And as for the white men, of course anyone who wasn’t Kevin Costner was stupid, evil and/or crazy. It made me a bit uncomfortable.

On the other hand, Kevin Costner’s mullet-like hair made me more uncomfortable than anything else. Yikes!

[SORT OF BIG SPOILER] Seems a bit obvious that Dunbar and Stands with a Fist should end up together. They’re both white! Naturally they must find each other sexually attractive! One of the Sioux women says as much at one point, “The people think it’s a good match. They’re both white.” Cue me giving the movie a side-eye.

Good Stuff:
The cinematography is AMAZING. Seriously. I apparently went to the wrong part of South Dakota when I visited. The Badlands (and Wyoming) are where it’s at.

I actually really enjoyed the music. It was a touch on the 90s-sappy side but overall added a lot to the film, I felt.

Fantastic performances from Greene and Grant. I also enjoyed the brief appearance of Maury Chaykin (as Major Fambrough). It was perplexing and yet oddly amusing.

The Verdict:
After seeing this a long time ago, I didn’t recall a whole lot about it but had always held the impression that it was one of those “white man saves the natives” stories. Upon a subsequent viewing, I see that I was wrong. Dunbar doesn’t save the natives. The natives are certainly not incompetents in need of help. If anything, it is the natives who save Dunbar, from himself by giving him both a family and a purpose.

Which I guess is a long-winded way to say that I enjoyed the movie a lot more this time around. It felt very likable and good-natured, a film that meant well. It also had a surprising amount of humor.

I’m normally not one to take my own warnings very seriously. If you’re watching an “R” rated film, I figure you should expect violence and bad language. However, this is a PG-13. Although the violence isn’t graphic per se, it’s very bloody, and that completely took me aback. This is not family friendly unless you’re cool with talking to your kids about the violence afterward.

That having been said, it's a pretty good film. I give it 4 stars.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Postcard Project: Odds & Ends, Part 2

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

No address. Name of addressee too
faint to read.

There is a limited amount of writing on the back of this card. It's in a foreign language. At first, I thought it might be German but it could also be something like Hungarian or Czech. I can actually read German fairly well, but none of the words on this card look familiar to me. The handwriting is extremely ornate.

Addressed to Grandma but doesn't appear to have been sent
in the mail.

"Dear [redacted]: I want to keep my promise and drop you a few lines besides I want to let you know that I got here allright everything is O.K. Like South Bend so far only if it..."

The sentence literally cuts off in the middle. It doesn't appear to have been sent in the mail (perhaps it was sent as part of a package or given to Grandma later in person). There's no signature. South Bend, Indiana isn't actually that far from where I grew up, but I suppose 30 miles or so was a great distance back in the 1930s.

Addressed to Great-Grandma & Grandma from one of Grandma's
brothers (same one who sent the cards in previous post).

"Dear Mother so sorry to hear you are not well. Just hope you will hurry and get well. Take good care of yourself. Love [redacted]."

Below that, addressed to Grandma:

"[redacted] If Mother would like [redacted] to come he can any time. Leave us know."

During the mid-1930s, my great-grandparents died about six months apart from one another, both unexpectedly (I think). My grandma was living in Virginia at the time her father died. My understanding is that she went home afterwards to look after her mother. This card must have been sent after my great-grandma fell ill. Based on the nature of what was said, I believe it was written by my great-uncle's wife, not by him.

No address or addressee.

The only thing on this card is what we can safely assume are these men's names:

"Herman Smith, Elmer Rardatzke, Herb Thompson, Bill Wood."

I don't know who any of these handsome gents are or if they might have been related to my family or perhaps were family friends. I love how they all have classic "old guy" names except for Bill.

Addressed to Grandma. Was likely sent as part of a letter as there
is a "2" written in the corner like it's the second page. The rest
of the letter is missing.

"I expect to get a spring boat real soon. I really do need so much a Girl sure does need much just to have to work for Clothes alone and that's where all the money goes. [redacted] do you want the words of some songs. Maybe you have got them my sisters Girls copies them from the Victrola. They are Oh Petreshka (In a little Spanish Town. Mary Lou) This is my Lucky Day. They play them so much in the Theaters. I love to see you right now and wonder how you look because you say you have changed did you reduce. I have gained a few pounds. Love and kisses, Tillie."

I don't know who Tillie was (probably a childhood friend of Grandma's) but I'm both appalled by and in awe of her stream-of-consciousness style of writing. I've never before heard of anybody asking someone if they've lost weight by asking "Did you reduce?". Also, I wonder what a spring boat was. Is she talking about an actual boat or something else?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

On Loneliness: Friendships, Part 2

Note: These posts are not intended to give any offense. They are a representation of my thoughts, feelings, and perceptions at the time. AKA, if you considered yourself my friend in high school but don’t see yourself mentioned here, please don’t get mad at me.

Links to Previous Posts in This Series:

In my last post, I discussed my childhood and junior high friendships, a time when I was left abandoned by friends more than once. Today I’ll mostly be talking about my friendships in high school, a time when I felt I powerless in my friendships.

In high school, I did a better job of making friends than I had when I was younger, especially during my junior and senior years, when I started to come out of my shell (and, thereby, gained a lot of acquaintance friends). My first close friends were two sisters whom I will give the nicknames Red and Jean because their initials happen to coincide with friends referred to in my last post. Red and Jean weren’t sisters by blood. Jean’s father was dating Red’s mother. They and several siblings all lived together as a big, blended family.

Red and Jean were rather “worldly” in comparison to me. Both of them had older boyfriends (brothers, actually, if I recall correctly). They’d had, and knew a lot about, sex. They drank. Red got multiple tattoos while we were still teenagers. I’m sure that most adults looked at them and saw trouble. I wouldn’t say that they were “wild” per se, but even as a kid I understood that I couldn’t be like them if I ever wanted to escape the small-town life that I so hated.

People must have wondered what a goody two-shoes like me was doing hanging around with girls like that. In comparison to them, I was incredibly na├»ve. We weren’t the best fit as friends. We had little in common. They were kind to me, though, and encouraged me to be less shy. I was in awe of their boldness. All of the power in the relationship belonged to them, because I was so grateful for their friendship. It wasn’t like they ever tried to abuse that power, but the imbalance was there nonetheless.

I often felt starved for their attention, especially after they got serious with their boyfriends. I would have never said a word to them about it though. I was too afraid of losing their friendship. When I was sixteen, I wrote a poem about them (which I never showed them). It reads, in part: “I could never make you understand/The need I have to hold your hand/I could never hope that you would know/That I feel alone even when you touch me so.”

After all these years, those words still hurt when I read them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my friendship with Red and Jean did not survive the high school years.

The summer I turned fifteen, I suffered through a terrible bout of anorexia. I went through it largely by myself. I think that, for the most part, it was a symptom of how out of control my life felt to me. My world was so small and constricted and I wanted so much more. I felt trapped and helpless. One of the few things I could control was what I ate. In a weird way, anorexia gave me power.

Although it only lasted a few months, it was severe. I had weighed less than 90 pounds to start. By time it was over, I was under 70. It’s very possible that I was close to death. In the end, my mother – forever suspicious of therapists – basically force-fed me and I “got over it.” Anorexia wouldn’t rear its ugly head again for six years. (On a happier note, when I moved to Portland in 1998, I finally got professional help & haven’t had a physical manifestation of the disease since. However, the mental side of anorexia is something that will require constant vigilance to keep at bay for the rest of my life.)

Sometime during my sophomore year, I believe, I became close friends with a girl I’ll call Poetry. She was yet another “troubled” girl. Like me, her troubles were more of the mental variety, and hers were more serious. Despite the pseudonym, I don’t feel comfortable delving into her problems here. Just know that they were bad enough that she was eventually sent to boarding school, where we continued a close friendship as pen pals.

Poetry definitely held all the power in our friendship. I remember feeling surprised when she first started talking to me. Why would someone cool and interesting like her want to be friends with me? With the advantage of maturity, I can now see that my problem here wasn’t my friends but me. Obviously, I had severe self-esteem issues. As I kid, though, I didn’t see it that way. I felt profoundly lucky whenever someone wanted to be my friend.

Our friendship did survive into early college, until circumstances that were essentially beyond my control created a rift. They involved a boy. It was not a love triangle, but when I was pressured to be an intermediary, I called it quits. (Sorry to be cryptic, but it’s definitely not something I want to be specific about in a public forum.) I wouldn’t speak to Poetry for years and years after that, although the wonders of social media brought us back in contact, briefly, a few years ago. Although our friendship didn’t re-blossom as I might have hoped, I can report that, at the time at least, she was doing well.

When I was a junior, I met Julie. She was new in town. She’d grown up in another part of the state, living with her mother after her parents had split. However, her mother was physically abusive and, eventually, her father got custody. I don’t recall the details of how we first met or how we became friends.

Julie was a self-described “weirdo.” She liked all the same uncool sci fi & fantasy stuff that I liked. She was loud & obnoxious (igniting, I think, my life-long love for people who are loud & obnoxious). Despite everything she’d been through, she was a strong, confident person who knew what she wanted. She knew who she was. She genuinely didn’t care what other people thought of her. That was mind-blowing to my teenaged self. I really admired her.

Even so, there was a definite power imbalance in our relationship. Like all the other girls, I felt like she was doing me a favor by being my friend. It never occurred to me that my friendship was also valuable. Remember, self-esteem issues = me. I didn’t like myself in high school, so it was difficult for me to understand why anyone else would. Also, by that point, two of my best friends had already abandoned me. It seemed like something that could and would happen to me again at any moment. I spent a lot of my teen years feeling so desperately needy. I suppose a lot of people felt that way, but I didn’t understand that at the time. I felt alone.

As many of you know, my friendship with Julie has a tragic ending. After high school, we drifted apart. Her life took some truly wacky turns, leaving it difficult for me to relate to her. Honestly, I was kind of a judgmental asshole for a while. I eventually got over it and we had just begun to rebuild a friendship when, nearly ten years ago now, she was killed in a horseback riding accident. I still miss her like crazy.

Compared to my earlier years, college was a cakewalk. I grew up a lot in college. I learned to start liking myself (although that would be a lesson I’d have to learn over and over again for YEARS). I learned that others will like you for who you are and, if they don’t, that they’re not people you should be wasting your time on. I learned that you don’t have to be friends with everyone who wants to be friends with you.

I made friends easily in college. Perhaps that seems like an anti-climactic way to end this post, but it’s the truth. While many of the friends I made were of the superficial sort, more acquaintances than anything else, there were several others whose friendships I still have and cherish.

College was a good time but it didn't magically make my life, or me, perfect. My troubles in general followed me into adulthood. So too did my troubles with friendship. In the next installment of this series, we'll see how my friendships evolved as I aged.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Up with Geography: Albania

Want to know what this project is all about? CLICK HERE.

Country Name:




European continent. Albania outlined & shaded.
Ignore that random line in the Mediterranean
by France & Spain. It's a mistake and I don't
have white out.

A closer look at Albania & its neighbors.

Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece

Water Borders:
Adriatic Sea, Ionian Sea

Total Area(added March 2015)
11,100 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Tirana, Durres, Vlore, Elbasan, Shkoder

Famous Geographical Point:
Lake Ohrid

Famous Person:
Mother Teresa, humanitarian

I realize that Mother Teresa is considered somewhat controversial nowadays but I've decided to stick with her because a lot of people still feel that her legacy is positive.

*Book Set In/About:
Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare

A coming of age tale about a boy growing up in Albania during WWII.

*Movie Set In/About:
"The Lady from the Town (Zonja nga qyteti)" (1976), directed by Piro Milkani

A comedy about a young woman's attempts to find a husband, with the help of her mother.

Headline of the Day:
"Poland Supports Albania's EU Integration" in Business Standard.

*I realized that people might be more inclined to read the books and/or watch the movies if I provided brief descriptions. Bear in mind that, for the most part, I haven't read these books or seen these movies, so my descriptions are based on online reviews.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Final Reflections on 2013

The dust has settled on our move. Our stuff is unpacked. The empty boxes have all been thrown away. We still need to put up our artwork, and there are a few pieces of furniture we’ll need to purchase over time. Essentially, we’re still getting settled in, and I’m in the process of figuring out what our new normal is. Through the din, though, I can hear my creative side, stifled for so many months, clamoring to be let out.

Now seems as good a time as any to get back to my blog, and to reflect on what has so recently passed.

As we neared the end of 2013, before I found out that we were moving, I’d been feeling like it had been a year where not much had happened. I’d started to worry that perhaps I was running in place, that I hadn’t accomplished much. An actual reflection on the year proved this to be untrue: my mother’s estate closed after nearly two years; we paid off two cars; we weathered a small financial crisis; I got my first rejection from a publisher; and I wrote a lot, even if I didn’t finish most of what I started.

In short, it was a pretty busy year.

Even so, as December came to a close, I would catch myself secretly wishing for a shake-up of the status quo. I was yearning for something big to change. Then, out of the blue, a job opportunity arose for my husband and the next thing I knew, we were moving halfway across the country (again). I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nearly all of our moves have happened this quickly. Yet I still feel a bit shell shocked by it all. While I might have been looking for a big change, I wasn’t exactly hoping that everything would change. “Be careful what you wish for” indeed.

Still, what’s done is done, and I don’t feel bad about it. I’m optimistic. I believe that this move will ultimately prove to be the right one for us. And while I might not be ready to jump head first into making a new life here – all of the starting over has, quite frankly, left me rather fatigued – I am ready to jump head first into something else: publishing.

I feel that 2014 is the year to finally get my novels out there, even if I have to do it myself. I’m tired of letting my fears (of rejection, of criticism, etc.) hold me back. So while I’ll continue writing, I’m going to start putting a website together, and seeking an editor, and a cover artist. I’m going to get this stuff figured out because it’s well past time that I do. If no one buys my books, I’m sure I’ll be disappointed. How could I not be? But I think that being disappointed in that way would be better than being disappointed in myself for never trying.

Wish me luck! I have no idea what I'm doing, so if you have any advice, feel free to give it to me. And while you're here, why don't you tell me how 2013 went for you?