Friday, March 21, 2014

Best Picture: "Gladiator," 2000

Movie Stats:
Released 2000 (USA)
American & British, in English (There are some very minor non-translated other languages & I’m not even sure what they were except for Latin. However, they were unimportant to the story.)
Director – Ridley Scott
Stars – Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and many more you’ll recognize

Plot Summary:
When Roman general Maximus (Crowe) is betrayed by the scheming son (Commodus, played by Phoenix) of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), his family is killed and he ends up being sold into slavery, where he becomes a gladiator. Nielsen co-stars as Lucilla, Commodus’s sister.

Warnings:
Copious amounts of graphic violence.

Bad Stuff:
Too slow, too long, too dull. The early part of the film, in particular, dragged for me. I kept thinking: “Commodus wants his father to name him emperor. His father wants to give the power to Maximus because he’s sane, ignoring the fact that his son is a scheming a-hole who won’t take that lying down. Move the plot forward already! Sheesh!”

It really bugged me that they kept mentioning how much Maximus loved his wife and son. I would have found their deaths tragic no matter what. I didn’t need them to stress the fact a billion times. I felt like the movie thought I was dumb.

A lot of the sets and make-up felt very heavy-handed in terms of imagery. Take, for example, the market of hanging meat that they walked through on the way to their first tournament, which dripped blood all over them. I actually side-eyed that. Seriously? Why not just randomly have somebody dump buckets of blood on them; it would be just about as subtle. Or take Commodus’s personal rooms, which were all dark and gothic (nothing like Roman style, as far as I know), like I couldn’t already tell he was a bad guy without his “evil-looking” room. I also hated Commodus’s make-up. It made him look sickly when in real life he was known for his strong physique (or so the internet tells me).

Good Stuff:
The music. It’s Hans Zimmer, so that’s unsurprising.

The fight scenes are pretty cool, if a little over-the-top at times. There was actually a scene where a chariot ran into a wall and for a split second I thought it was going to explode into flames, lol.

The Verdict:
I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was well directed at all. All of it felt so ham-handed, like Scott doesn’t know how to do subtle. I was bored and/or irritated more than I felt entertained or thrilled. It reminded me a lot of Braveheart – similar story, about a man who’s lost everything going after the person who took it from him; even the endings are similar (both men succeed and fail at the same time) – except it doesn’t have any humor. It’s really dreary. I’m baffled as to why people like it so much. If I had to take a guess, I’d say they’re so dazzled by the fight scenes that they ignore the rest. 

Mindless, fun (in theory) early summer blockbuster? Sure. Best Picture? No way. I give the movie 2.5 stars.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Best Picture: "American Beauty," 1999

Movie Stats:
Released 1999 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Sam Mendes
Stars – Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, and many others

Plot Summary:
It’s the story of suburban malaise and mid-life crisis. Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, the unhappy suburbanite; Bening as his equally unhappy wife, Caroline; and Birch as their disaffected teenaged daughter Jane.

Warnings:
Copious amounts of blue language; fairly graphic sexy times; nudity (male butt, female breasts); violence, including child abuse; and drug use.

Bad Stuff:
Some of the dialogue felt stiff but I don’t think it was the dialogue itself, which is actually excellent. I think it was the line delivery. Sometimes it felt more like a play than a movie.

The rose petal stuff is weird. To me it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film.

I could see where some people would find it slow and/or boring. I personally don’t feel that way, but I can see such a criticism.

Good Stuff:
Kevin Spacey knocks this one out of the park. He manages to make Lester immensely likable, despite the fact that he’s a pervy skeezball. He nails every facial expression perfectly (I especially love his “long-suffering misery” face). A lot has already been said about him – he won Best Actor – but I don’t think enough has been said about Bening. She is amazing with her barely suppressed rage and forced cheerfulness. I loved her as much as I loathed her character.

I love the dialogue. There are so many great one-liners and snappy comebacks.

The story is so relatable. There is something in it for everyone. It’s about figuring out who you are, whether you’re a teenager at the threshold of adulthood, or an adult who has only just realized that life didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, or an adult who realizes that you’ve never truly allowed yourself to be who you want to be. It’s about the beauty of life, and how wrong it is to turn a blind eye to that beauty.

The Verdict:
I saw this in the theater when it first came out and absolutely loved it. However, I hadn’t seen it since. I was a bit wary. So many movies don’t age well. I thought it entirely possible that it might not seem as good the second time around.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. I still love this movie. It’s brilliant. If you have ever, even once, even for a tiny second, looked around at your life and wondered how, exactly, it turned out the way it did, you should like this film. It’s an unflinching look at the dark side of American – specifically suburban American – life and it’s very well done. No one is the bad guy here; everyone is just an ordinary person trying to get by and find a little happiness. I find it tremendously moving.

I give the movie 4.75 stars.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Up with Geography: Andorra

Curious as to what this project is about? Click on either of the tags at the end of the post.

Country Name:
Andorra

Capital:
Andorra la Vella

Continent:
Europe

Maps:

European continent. Andorra outlined in dark black
and with an arrow pointing to it because it's so tiny.

A closer look at Andorra & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
France & Spain

Water Borders:
None

Total Area(added March 2015)
180.55 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Andorra la Vella, Escaldes-Engordany, Encamp, Sant Julia de Loria, La Massana

Famous Geographical Point:
Pyrenees Mountains, which make up the whole country.

Famous Person:
Juli Minoves Triquell, politician & author

Book Set In/About:
The Road to Andorra by Shirley Deane

The author's account of her travels in Andorra.

Movie Set In/About:
"Idiot Love (Amor Idiota)" (2004), directed by Ventura Pons

The tale of a man's obsession with a woman he's met by chance.

Headline of the Day:
"Andorra Draws Home Buyers Despite Tax Law" in The New York Times.

Note: When I typed "Andorra" into Google, no news items appeared. I then typed in "Andorra news" and this was the first article in the first link that I clicked. It is from August 2013.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Best Picture: "Shakespeare in Love," 1998

Movie Stats:
Released 1998 (USA)
American, in English
Director – John Madden
Stars – Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, and dozens of other actors you’ll recognize

Plot Summary:
While suffering from writer’s block, William Shakespeare (Fiennes) finally meets his muse, Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow) and is inspired to write one of his most famous plays. Rush co-stars as Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose theatre, and Dench as Queen Elizabeth I.

Warnings:
Very minimal blue language; nudity (female breast only); sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
It’s really full of itself. I had this feeling throughout the whole entire movie that it just finds itself so clever and amusing. It was insufferable.

The love story is remarkably similar to that of Titanic. A highborn woman, more intelligent and spirited than her times allow, is engaged to a highborn man who is cruel, stupid, and cowardly, but she falls in love with a handsome, sweet lowborn man. I really didn’t need to see it twice in a row.

A lot of the dialogue was regurgitated from Shakespeare plays so it didn’t feel very fresh. When the writers did strike out on their own, however, the dialogue (like in Titanic) felt too modern. I didn’t believe that it was the way people in 1500s England would speak or interact with one another.

Good Stuff:
The costumes.

The soundtrack.

Rush kept me laughing, as did Imelda Staunton (as Viola’s nurse). I also really enjoyed the performance of Dench as the acerbic, impatient, witty queen.

The Verdict:
It’s truly amazing how one’s perception and tastes can change over time. I saw this in the theater when it came out and really liked it, to the point that when people howled in anger about it winning Best Picture, I thought to myself, “Whatever, it’s a great film!” This time around, I couldn’t stand it. What is the point of this film? It masquerades as a smart flick while really it’s just a rip-off/rehash of Shakespeare. I’m sure it’s meant to be an homage but it doesn’t feel like one, probably because it’s so conceited.

This was a weird year. Of the five nominees, two were about Elizabethan England (and Fiennes & Rush were in both of them) while the other three were about WWII, although each of them showcased a different theater of that war. How strange is that? I’m not sure what deserved the prize in 1998. I’ve never seen “Elizabeth,” so I can’t judge it. “Life Is Beautiful” won Best Foreign so I don’t think it deserves Best Picture on top of it. And I felt that both “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” (which I call “The Long Boring Snooze”) were overrated. Perhaps if I watched them again, however, I would find that my perception of them has changed.

At any rate, this is not the worst Best Picture winner I’ve seen, a title still held by Tom Jones, but I don’t think it deserved the Oscar. If it hadn’t won, it would have become a footnote of movie history, like most movies, because there’s really nothing remarkable about it. 

I give the movie 2.5 stars.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Toys My Dog Destroys: Green Rabbit-Octopus Thingie

I have to admit that I expected green bunny to last longer. I bought her because I thought it would be easy to play tug-of-war with her (it was), which Major enjoys (note: he doesn't like rope toys, which makes tug-of-war more difficult for us). I expected the legs to come off fairly quickly, and was surprised when they weren't the first thing to go.

Here's green bunny before I gave her to Major on 2/24/14:



I thought she looked kind of evil in the face, so I didn't really mind the thought of her meeting her demise. It took three days for the destruction to begin, but once it did, the descent was rapid:

Green Bunny eviscerated 2/271/4

Major finds & removes the squeaker
3/1/14

Major pulls out the rest of the stuffing 3/2/14

First leg comes off 3/7/14.
Major looks at me, wondering why I haven't
thrown it for him yet.

Total destruction 3/8/14.
Doesn't even look like a green bunny anymore.

I purchased green bunny at a major pet store chain for $5.00. She lasted slightly less than 2 weeks. RIP green bunny. We hardly knew ye.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Best Picture: "Titanic," 1997

Movie Stats:
Released 1997 (Japan)
American, in English (occasional bits of other languages, mostly translated)
Director – James Cameron
Stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and many others you’ll recognize

Plot Summary:
It’s the story of star-crossed lovers Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet) set against the backdrop of the Titanic disaster.

Warnings:
Blue language; female nudity (breasts only but there are also multiple drawings of nude women, including full frontal, if that might bother you); disaster-related violence; strongly implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
My biggest problem is the dialogue. People don’t talk like people from the 1910s; they talk like people from the 1990s. It’s very distracting. A lot of it is really cheesy too. Also, some of the exposition is awkward. I was rolling my eyes during the scene where Rose is talking to the ship builder about how she noticed there weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone on the ship. I know she’s portrayed as smart in the film, but there’s no way her self-absorbed character would have noticed something like that. That scene was there solely to inform the portion of the audience that didn’t pay attention in history class that the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats. That's bad writing.

I’ve complained about this a lot in the 90s, but the characters are too one-note. Poor people are noble! They’re happy because they accept what life has given them! Rich people are mean! They’re unhappy because nothing is ever good enough for them! Also, Jack is a total Mary Sue. It’s tiresome.

It has way too much of the 90s cheesiness/sappiness/sentimentality.

Good Stuff:
DiCaprio and Winslet have great chemistry. I like the way they tease each other and laugh together. They seem like really good friends. It’s fun to watch.

Winslet’s wardrobe is fabulous.

The special effects held up pretty well. Some of it doesn’t look that great, and it should be obvious to anyone who’s ever been in an ocean that the disaster scenes weren't filmed in ocean water, but for the most part it looked better than I was expecting.

The Verdict:
I saw this in the theater when it came out. I liked it then, but I was 22 at the time and harboring a long-term crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. When I tried to watch it again about 5 or 6 years later, I couldn’t get through it because I was bored. So I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing it again.

I was a little bored this time too. This movie is very long. There’s also a lot wrong with it. In particular, I think the dialogue is terrible. It’s cheesy and it feels out of place. You know how much I love good dialogue, so when it’s bad, it really kills a film for me. While I think the love story is sweet (although it’s technically adulterous), I don’t think that a sweet love story automatically makes a great film.

On the flip side, I don’t consider this a bad movie. I would be more inclined to call it average or ordinary. It isn’t innovative. It doesn’t have anything new to say. It isn’t deep. It just happens to tell a story that people connected with at the time. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. I just feel that it isn’t an Oscar-caliber film. When I think about the fact that it won out over the sublime "L.A. Confidential," I die a little on the inside.

I know a lot of women who love this film. I don’t know a single man who even likes it (or who will admit to liking it). You might want to take that into consideration before viewing. 

I've really struggled with how to rate this movie. In the end, I decided to give it 2.75 stars.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Final Reflections on February 2014

My final reflection for February 2014 is late because I’ve been having a really hard time writing it. I’m not even sure what draft I’m up to. Let’s just say the number is high. The problem is that I feel like I have a lot to say. As soon as I get halfway through saying it, however, I begin to suspect that what I’m saying is better suited to its own topical essay than a monthly reflection.

Basically, my thoughts are a mess.

So I figured that, rather than banging my head repeatedly against this particular wall, trying to write a reflection that just won’t come out right, I’d give you the highlights instead. They are as follows:

1. I spent most of February getting settled in, including buying furniture and d├ęcor to make our new home as comfortable as possible.

2. I decided to take this whole “life change” thing seriously so I, along with my hubby, am changing pretty much everything, including our bank and our car. I even decided to grow out my hair for the first time in 20 years! We’ll see what else is in store from here.

3. Toward the end of February, I started to get out to do more things and meet people. So far, I’ve been on some great hikes and have met some really nice people.

4. I’ve been feeling disappointed in myself over two issues. The first: not doing as well on a job interview as I could have (although I am still, in theory, in the running for the position). The second: not making any progress in self-publishing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s point #4 that gave me fits every time I tried to write this reflection. I’m considering writing one (or two) essays about it later this month.

That's my February 2014 in a tiny little nutshell. If you're stopping by to read, why don't you tell me how February went for you?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Best Picture: "The English Patient," 1996

Movie Stats:
Released 1996 (Italy)
American & British, in English (some non-translated German, Italian & Arabic)
Director – Anthony Minghella
Stars – Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas

Plot Summary:
In the closing days of WWII, French-Canadian nurse Hana (Binoche) cares for a badly burned, dying man, Count Laszlo de Almasy (Fiennes). The story of his ill-fated love affair with Katharine Clifton (Thomas) is shown to the viewers through flashbacks. Surprise-to-me appearances by Willem Defoe as David “Moose” Caravaggio, a man from Almasy’s past; Colin Firth as Katharine’s husband, Geoffrey; and Naveen Andrews as Hana’s love interest, Kip Singh.

Warnings:
Minimal blue language; some violence; full frontal female nudity; sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
The pace is very slow. I wouldn’t say I was bored, exactly. It just felt like it took so long to get to the point that I had everything figured out before it got there, so nothing was a surprise. And I like surprises.

I couldn’t get into the “love story” of Laszlo and Katharine, which is half the point of the film. For one, despite the fact that Fiennes and Thomas had good chemistry, I didn’t understand why the two characters would go for each other. It was all spite and dislike until suddenly they were making out, which is, granted, a fairly standard trope of movies/TV/books, but I think it’s a rather tired one. For another, I personally don’t find adulterous affairs to be romantic or moving. So their story wasn’t beautiful/tragic to me.

The sex scenes were weird. Maybe they were supposed to come across as animalistic and/or passionate? I’m not sure. I just know I found them off-putting.

Good Stuff:
Hana and Kip together. Very sweet. Their scene in the church was my favorite of the whole entire film. The scene where he speaks to her about his recently departed comrade was a close second.

Juliette Binoche was delightful throughout.

The Verdict:
I’d avoided this movie because, based on what little I knew, I thought I would loathe it. I didn’t loathe it. However, I didn’t quite like it either. It’s one of those films where, if asked about it, I would say that it’s “okay” and that it depends on what kind of movies you’re into. I can see why people love it – I’m sure they get swept up in the romance of it. I don’t happen to be one of those people. To me, it was predictable. I also thought that some of it was ridiculously melodramatic (especially a particular scene with a plane crash toward the end of the film).

I have to say that I’m pretty disappointed with the 90s. Out of the 10 winners, only two of them are set in modern times. Of those two, only one (the upcoming “American Beauty”) gives any kind of insight into what it was like to live in the 1990s. Isn’t that strange? Looking through the list of winners, it’s the only decade where the vast majority had very little to say about the times people were living in. I wonder what that’s all about?

But I digress. If adulterous affairs that end tragically are your thing, then this is the movie for you. As a side note, if you want a good laugh, I recommend checking out the user reviews on IMDB to see how incredibly defensive people are about liking this film, haha. (My personal favorite is the person who opines that the only people who don’t like this film are the same people who haven’t read a book since high school.)

I give the movie 2.75 stars.

6/11/14 - Upon further reflection, I decided to raise the rating of this movie to 3.25 stars. To read more about why, click HERE.