Thursday, February 27, 2014

Best Picture: "Braveheart," 1995

Movie Stats:
Released 1995 (USA)
American, in English (some translated French & Latin; some non-translated Latin & Scots Gaelic)
Director – Mel Gibson
Stars – Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, and countless others

Plot Summary:
Set in early 14th century Great Britain. After his wife is murdered, Scottish man William Wallace (Gibson) leads a rebellion against his country’s English oppressors. McGoohan co-stars as the King of England, Edward I, aka Longshanks.

Blue language; extreme, graphic violence; brief nudity (female breast, male butt); and a graphic, attempted rape.

Bad Stuff:
Toward the beginning, it has a bit too much of the 90s sugary sentimentality for my taste. I was seriously rolling my eyes during the lovemaking scene.

It’s a little boring/repetitive. There are only so many legs I can see get hacked off in battle before it ceases to have any shock value and actually becomes a bit tedious.

Most of the characters are too one-note. The only thing the English could have done to seem more villainous was twirl their mustaches while shouting “Muahaha!” The Scottish nobles are all corrupt and weak. The Scottish commoners, like Wallace, are all virtuous and brave. Ho hum, I say.

Good Stuff:
There are a few small scenes that I loved because they felt so real. For example, [SPOILER] the way young William turns away when the men come to tell him his father and brother are dead [END SPOILER] and the way Murron’s (William’s wife’s) mother desperately sobs at her funeral both seemed so natural to me. I enjoyed those moments.

Love the soundtrack. I feel like I either owned it at one point or someone I know did because the music all sounded really familiar and I’ve only seen this movie once before.

Hey, everyone had appropriate accents (or at least tried to).

The Verdict:
I’m very “meh” on this film. Despite having seen it before, and recalling that I liked it well enough, I had virtually no desire to watch it again (but needed to in order to comment on it). I don’t think it’s a bad film, although I have serious doubts as to its historical accuracy. It just doesn’t grab me. I don’t feel pulled in by it, or by its message. I feel like it’s a movie you watch for the gory fight scenes and that’s about it. When I think about Braveheart, I don’t think, “The acting and dialogue in that movie are fantastic!” (because they’re not). I think, “A guy gets stabbed in the face! People get their heads bashed in! The Scots moon the British on the battlefield!” I also think, “That’s before everyone knew how crazy Mel Gibson is!” I guess if that appeals to you, go ahead and see it.

I give the movie 3 stars.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On Loneliness: Friendships, Part 3

If you haven’t read the rest of this series but are interested in doing so, just click on the loneliness tag at the end of this piece.

I had a lot of fun in college. I made several good friends and scads & scads of acquaintances. It was the first time in my life when I truly felt accepted for who I was. Once I made my way into the adult, working world, however, it quickly became apparent that college had been a lovely microcosm that bore little resemblance to what life is actually like.

Upon graduation, I joined AmeriCorps. Having decided at some point during my senior year of college (rather arbitrarily) that I wanted to live in Portland, Oregon, I would have preferred a position there. However, positions in the Pacific Northwest were very in-demand and difficult to land, especially for a first year volunteer (AmeriCorps is a one-year commitment with a second-year option). I therefore settled for a position in rural Minnesota in my preferred area of interest, adult literacy.

I had a difficult time in Minnesota. The state was beautiful. The people I worked with were lovely. The work was challenging. However, I was a 22-year-old in rural Minnesota, sixty miles from the Twin Cities, and very poor. There weren’t a lot of people my age around. I was also deep in the throes of my second bout of anorexia. It was difficult to find interesting things to do. I met some really great people while I was there, people I still consider friends, but the truth is that I felt deeply isolated.

By the end of my year there, I was very depressed. My anorexia was starting to get out of control, so I was also scared. In spite of all of this, I signed up for a second year of AmeriCorps and managed to land a position in Portland, working in children’s literacy.

I arrived in Portland with high hopes. Even so, Portland and I got off to a rough start. I was still very poor, and living pretty far outside of the “happening” parts of town. Although I got into therapy for my depression and anorexia immediately, I continued to struggle. I’d felt so isolated in Minnesota that I was starved for human affection. I was giving off serious “needy” vibes. I knew it at the time but had little control over it.

My interactions with potential friends always left me dissatisfied. I felt like people didn’t like me. They probably didn’t. No one likes needy people. The more I was rejected, the more needy I became. It was a terrible cycle. It didn’t help that this was before the Internet really got popular. I had no idea how to meet people, especially people who had the same interests as me. I saw people around me – people in the same AmeriCorps program – flourishing and it was so frustrating to me that I couldn’t figure out how to do the same.

For a while, I contemplated leaving. A good friend from college had moved to nearby Seattle. I thought it might be easier to build a life in a city where I already had a friend. However, I always preferred the city of Portland itself to the city of Seattle. So I stayed. And eventually, it worked out. It took a few years, the help of my then-boyfriend, and a job change, but it worked out. Later, after people really figured out how useful the Internet is, and groups like Meet Up and Meet In started, it got easy to meet people.

In the end, I lived in Portland for 10 years and I made a lot of wonderful friends while I was there. It wasn’t always easy though. I had a couple of broken friendships, a haunting reminder of what I’d been through as a child. One of those friendships ended by my choice. The other did not. The one that didn’t was very painful for me. It’s something I still feel bad about to this day, seven years later.

I had grown up a lot in college. I grew up even more in Portland, and matured in ways I never could have expected. I re-learned two very valuable lessons about friendship, lessons I'd forgotten after college:

1. Liking yourself is more important than other people liking you. Validation from yourself is the only kind that matters.

2. You don’t have to be friends with everyone who wants to be friends with you. Pick your friends wisely.

I also learned a third lesson that I continue to find difficult to accept:

3. Very few relationships in your life – romantic or friendly – are meant to last forever.

I left Portland, a city I had grown to love deeply, to follow my newly-minted husband to Hawaii. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that we’ve moved around a lot since then. In fact, there have been four major and two minor moves in about 5.5 years. It’s been exhausting physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s also made it very difficult not only to maintain the friendships I already had, but also to build new ones.

I rarely have difficulty with meeting people anymore. As I said, the Internet has made that infinitely easier. Also, I think I’ve become a lot more fun to be around. I’m a lot happier than I used to be, and a lot less serious as well. I joke around a lot. Although I still feel lonely, I rarely feel needy. People, generally, seem to like me. However, although I easily meet and get along with lots of people, I seem to have trouble sealing the deal, so to speak. I have a hard time making the close friendships that I crave.

I think that our transient lifestyle in recent years has a lot to do with this. Unless you’re spending tons of time with a person, you’re not going to build a really deep connection in just a year or two. Some of it is a problem within me, though. Part of me will always be that person who once scared away potential friends. I’m overly conscious of appearing needy or too eager to connect. I tend to be passive when forming friendships, to let the other person make the overt gestures. Because of this, I probably give off a vibe that I’m not as interested in most friendships as I actually am.

Even when I do make what I think are deep connections, I find that, as soon as I move away, they begin to diminish. This was true even of several of the close, long-term friendships I shared in Portland. The truth is that friendships are difficult to maintain over distance. Most people aren’t willing to put in the effort. I don’t think that it’s even a conscious thing. You move, and your friends miss you and you miss them, but eventually, new people are met, new friends are made. You’re still friends, but you’re not as close as you used to be.

Frankly, this has been very disappointing for me. I suppose I’ve been na├»ve. I keep thinking that my friendships are going to be like ones in movies or books, true blue till the end, but it’s not reality. I think that lesson #3 above has been the toughest lesson of all, but life continues to prove it true over and over again.

A fourth lesson has come out of all this moving around. I’ve learned how to be alone without feeling lonely. Before, I kept loneliness at bay by always being busy. There was even a long stretch in Portland where I had to build alone time into my schedule. These last few years, I’ve gotten comfortable with being by myself. I’ve gotten comfortable with myself. It’s nice. It feels healthier.

Even so, I still go through periods of loneliness. It’s not a longing for interaction; it’s the same longing I’ve always had: deep connections, true blue friends. Sometimes I wonder if I’m searching for something that’s not even possible. Maybe I’ve been fooled by the social narrative. Maybe no one has the kind of friendships I’m looking for. Somehow, I’m not convinced. I think what I want is out there.

I will continue to look. I will continue to work on myself and my hang-ups. I'll probably also continue to feel frustration, but it's a price I'm willing to pay. My hope is that now we're settled for good (in theory), I'll be able to start building strong friendships. The adventure that is life marches on. Most of the time, it feels like I'm just along for the ride.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Toys My Dog Destroys: Lamb Chop & Porcupine

Ever since we adopted doggie, I've been astounded by how quickly he destroys his toys. After all, he was already bordering on middle-aged when we got him. I thought perhaps he wouldn't be quite so, um, vivacious. He's my first-ever dog, okay? I guess I was a little naive.

Major loves his toys. Whenever he gets one, he has to run around the house triumphantly with it, making it squeak loudly as he shakes/mauls it with his mouth and tries tear it open to rip out its guts. Let's just say that he loves his toys to death.

After his first few toys were quickly destroyed, I decided to go cheap, trolling the $1.00 toy bin at a well-known discount retailer. To my dismay, I discovered that these toys usually lasted under an hour. That's when I started getting his toys at a well-known pet store chain. They're a few dollars more expensive, but they definitely last longer.

Somewhere along the line, after discovering the latest tell-tale evidence of destruction, I decided to start documenting the massacre. I find it amusing. Perhaps someone else will as well, or perhaps everyone is going to think I'm crazy/stupid. I guess we'll see.

My plan wasn't terribly well thought-out at first, so I don't have "before" pictures of Lamb Chop and Porcupine. In the future, I'll include both "before" and "after" pics of the toy, how much I spent on it, and how long it lasted. If I think to do it, I'll try to document when he inevitably busts into it and starts ripping out its guts and the squeaker. I often let him continue to play with the toy once it's desiccated because he wants to and I don't see the harm.

This is Lamb Chop. I bought her at a pet store for about $3.00. Major really loved Lamb Chop. In spite of the onslaught, she lasted approximately 3-4 months.

It's a bit difficult to tell from this pic but she's
actually torn in half. I threw her away after this.

This is Porcupine. I bought Porcupine at a pet store for about $3.00. I gave him to Major right about the time we moved and threw him away today, so that means he lasted less than two months.

Porcupine's yarn "quills" were actually torn off
about two seconds after I gave him to Major.

Here's the hole whereby Major pulled out all
the stuffing.

Note: we do make sure that Major doesn't eat/swallow any of the stuffing he pulls out.

And in case you haven't seen my other post about Major, here's a picture to remind you of what the vicious beast looks like:

I hope you have as much fun with this project as I do!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Best Picture: "Forrest Gump," 1994

Movie Stats:
Released 1994 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Robert Zemeckis
Stars – Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson

Plot Summary:
The life and times of Forrest Gump (Hanks), a man born with a slightly-below-average IQ. Field co-stars as his mother; Wright as his love interest, Jenny; Sinise as his the leader of his Vietnam-era Army platoon (and later friend), Lt. Dan Taylor; and Williamson as his best Army buddy, Bubba Blue.

Very minimal blue language; somewhat graphic war violence (but that part of the movie is brief); non-graphic sexual scenarios (no nudity), one of which heavily implies child molestation.

Bad Stuff:
I remember people at the time making a big deal out of the technology used to insert Forrest into well-known historic footage, such as a meeting with President Johnson. That special effect hasn’t held up well. In fact, it’s really bad/creepy.

It’s SO cheesy, really cringe- and eye roll-inducing cheesy. So you want me to believe that [SPOILERS] Forrest, as a child, not only met Elvis but also gave him his dance moves? That because he can run really fast, he magically gets a football scholarship to college? That he was unintentionally responsible for or present at many of the cool things that happened in the 1960s and 70s? [END SPOILERS] I know I’m supposed to find this stuff cute/funny/charming but I don’t. I think it’s stupid and annoying.

Good Stuff:
If you wade through all the cheese, you eventually get to some genuinely funny stuff. The line “One night, it started to rain. It didn’t stop for four months.” had me laughing out loud. So too did the homage to Midnight Cowboy.

Loved Gary Sinise in this. I thought he was the best part.

It’s good-hearted. It’s difficult to dislike a film this sweet. It feels sort of wrong, like disliking Forrest himself just because he’s goofy and stupid.

The Verdict:
I successfully avoided this movie for 20 years. Back in my younger days, I had a strong dislike of “The Toms” – Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. I did my best not to see any of their movies. Although everyone I know raves about “Forrest Gump,” I never saw it because, I reasoned, I already disliked Tom Hanks, why would I want to watch a movie of him acting stupid? Although my opinion of Hanks later changed (my opinion of Cruise did not), I still never had any desire to see this film. To me, it just looked sappy and cheesy.

I was not wrong. It was even cheesier than I was anticipating. Even so, as I said above, it’s kind of hard to dislike it. While I’ll probably never watch it again, or recommend it to anyone, I don’t loathe it as I have some other winners (The Greatest Show on Earth, Tom Jones). Do I think it deserved the win? Probably not. It’s not groundbreaking nor does it delve into any meaty issues, but it is incredibly likable.

I give it 3 stars.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Best Picture: "Schindler's List," 1993

Movie Stats:
Released 1993 (USA)
American, in English (significant amounts of non-translated German, Hebrew, and Polish)
Director – Steven Spielberg
Stars – Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

Plot Summary:
Ostensibly, this is the story of Oskar Schindler (Neeson), an Austrian businessman who used his factories during WWII to save approximately 1,200 Jews. In general, however, it is about the Holocaust. Kingsley co-stars as Schindler’s Jewish co-conspirator (and accountant) Itzhak Stern and Fiennes as Captain Amon Goeth, commander of the Plaszow concentration camp.

Graphic violence (Come on, it’s a movie about the Holocaust, what did you expect?). Blue language, including copious f-bombs. Significant nudity, both male and female, including full-frontal, although much of it is non-sexual in nature. Non-consensual sexual touching.

Bad Stuff:
Some of the stylistic stuff bugs. For example, at the very beginning it seemed clear that the movie was trying to “feel” like a movie from the 30s/40s, and not just because it’s in black and white (I’m talking about the way certain scenes were shot, etc.). Also, there’s the scene with the girl in the pink coat. To me, these attempts at style distracted from the more serious, straightforward nature of the rest of the storytelling. They felt out of place.

If you’ve read my previous reviews, you know it bugs me when a movie takes place in a foreign country, involving foreign people, but is in English. I know filmmakers do it because most moviegoers are lazy & don’t want to read subtitles (and perhaps because subtitling is an extra expense). But I dislike it. If you're going to do this, I expect accents, at least, to be consistent. They weren't in this film. For example, although both Goeth and Schindler were Austrian, Fiennes spoke with an Austrian accent and Neeson did not. That bugged me to distraction.

Good Stuff:
The realism. Honestly, it’s stomach-churning at times, but in a weird way that’s a good thing. I think it’s important to take an unflinching look at a topic this horrific. Why pretend it was anything other than what it was? People’s reactions to their circumstances are also portrayed very realistically. Some people become heroes; others become villains. Even Schindler is very believably portrayed as a reluctant hero, practically duped (initially, at least) into saving people. I enjoyed that lack of sugar-coating.

The acting. This has got to be one of Fiennes’s best performances. He is absolutely chilling as the homicidal, unstable Goeth. I also really enjoyed Kingsley’s performance. So different from his performance in Gandhi, so nuanced and understated. I wasn’t feeling especially impressed with Neeson (not that he was bad) until the very end. The expression on his face when he realizes that, no matter how many people he saved, there were so many more he didn’t save, that heartbroken grief, really punched me in the gut.

The Verdict:
I spent my junior year of college in Germany. While there, I had the opportunity to visit a former concentration camp, Buchenwald (now a memorial/museum). I am neither religious nor spiritual. I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in ghosts. But there was something about that place, a feeling, as though the atrocities that took place there changed its very essence for all time. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Most people will never get to have an experience like that. Movies like this are the closest they’ll ever get. This is a great movie for giving viewers a sense of what that time was like – that constant sense of fear, horror and desperation. It puts you there. If you possess even an ounce of compassion or empathy, it will shake you. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one.

I give it 4.5 stars.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Up with Geography: Algeria

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

Country Name:




Continent of Africa. Algeria outlined in
black ink & shaded.

A closer look at Algeria & its neighbors.

Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco (Note: There is a territory between Mauritania and Morocco called Western Sahara that is currently in dispute. It is not included as a neighbor because it's not currently an official country.)

Water Borders:
Mediterranean Sea

Total Area(added March 2015)
919, 595 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Annaba, Blida

Famous Geographical Point:
Sahara Desert

Famous Person:
Saint Augustine, theologian

Book Set In/About:
The Stranger by Albert Camus

The story of a young Algerian man drawn into a world of intrigue and murder.

Movie Set In/About:
"The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri)" (1966), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

A movie about the Algerian people struggling to gain independence from France.

Headline of the Day:
"Algerian Court Detains 10 Over Sectarian Violence" in Al Arabiya News.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Best Picture: "Unforgiven," 1992

Movie Stats:
Released 1992 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Clint Eastwood
Stars – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett

Plot Summary:
Set in 1880s Wild West. The promise of a big payday lures retired gunslinger William Munny (Eastwood) away from his pig farm to make one last kill. Freeman co-stars as Munny’s best friend, and former partner, Ned Logan; Hackman as the vicious sheriff they run afoul of, Little Bill Daggett; and Woolvett as the young greenhorn who brings Munny out of retirement, “The Schofield Kid.”

Graphic violence. Lots of blue language. Non-graphic sex scene (no nudity).

Bad Stuff:
Slow and plodding.

At the beginning of the film, the language seemed oddly stiff. I found it distracting. I don’t know if it got better as the film went along or if I got used to it.

Good Stuff:
Hackman was delightfully, intensely terrifying. In theory, he’s the good guy and he was scarier than anybody else in the film. Loved Richard Harris’s somewhat brief turn as English Bob, especially his rant in regards to having a queen versus having a president. I’m also always happy to see Saul Rubinek on my screen, in this case as dime novelist W.W. Beauchamp.

Amazing cinematography.

The best part is the realism. A man isn’t going to come out of 11 years of retirement and immediately be a BAMF again. His aim is going to be off. His horse, no longer used to being saddled, isn’t going to be especially cooperative in that regard. Sleeping on the ground at any age is no fun, but in your 50s or 60s it’s really going to suck. Kudos to the film for showing these things but not making a big deal out of them. I enjoy subtlety.

The Verdict:
I think it’s time to finally admit to myself that I just don’t like Westerns very much. I understand that this is supposed to be one of the really good ones but I don’t get the love. I thought it was dull. There Gene Hackman is, kicking the crap out of somebody, and I’m eyeing my phone, considering playing a game or two because I’m really bored (after all, it’s the second time he’s kicked the crap out of somebody; I kind of got the point the first time).

I did enjoy a lot of the underlying themes of the film: confronting one’s past, discovering one’s true nature, dealing with regrets, etc. Those are all things that are very relatable. Just because it’s relatable, however, doesn’t mean that it was presented in a way that I was able to connect with. I don’t think it’s a terrible film. Like The Silence of the Lambs, this movie just wasn’t my thing. Since it was much duller than Lambs, it’s getting a lower rating.

I give the film 3.25 stars.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Final Reflections on January 2014

As most of you know, the beginning of January was a complete whirlwind for me. There was a lot of packing, cleaning, selling off surplus furniture, taking unwanted stuff to Goodwill, and seeing friends for a final fare-thee-well, all the things that make moving both so difficult and so stressful. It’s not easy to keep one’s sense of humor through it all, but I try to stay upbeat.

All too soon, our time in Dallas was up. We took off early on the morning of January 8 to drive across the country. Despite the fact that I had only the dog for company (the husband and I drove in separate cars), I really enjoyed the trip. With the notable exception of the portion of Texas between Amarillo and the New Mexico state line, the scenery was beautiful. I especially enjoyed the mountains outside of Albuquerque, which we hit at sunset that night, and the ones outside of Flagstaff, which we saw the sun rise with the following morning.

My first taste of LA-area freeway traffic was nerve-wracking but I took a friend’s advice to “just drive like a crazy person” and I did fine. Finding the apartment we’d snagged sight-unseen from Dallas was easy. Luckily, the place turned out to be great but, as I’d told my husband, it could have had an active meth lab in the living room and I probably still would’ve signed the lease at that point.

In the wake of all the stress, I felt exhausted until this past weekend. I’ve been keeping my pledge to ease into Santa Monica. I haven’t done a whole lot that’s exciting and I’m okay with that. I’ve been exploring the immediate area slowly, getting to know my new town bit by bit. There’s plenty of time to branch out into the surrounding area. Mostly I’ve been doing a lot of walking, sitting out in the sun, and reading. I’ve been doing a little writing as well. I try to get out of the house for at least a few hours every single day.

On the job front, I’m being really careful to only apply for things that truly sound interesting to me. I’ve put out two resumes so far. Today I heard back that I’ve made it through the first phase of the application process at one of those, a job with the city. I’m feeling pretty stoked about that. And as for friends, it’s honestly not something I’m all that concerned about right now (for once in my life; it’s kind of a relief).

That's my life these days. I'm footloose and fancy-free, so to speak, figuring things out and feeling pretty good about it in the process (I was kind of nutty the first week we were here but I've calmed down). No deep thoughts for me. If you're stopping by to read, why don't you tell me how the first month of the year went for you?