Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Best Picture: "Million Dollar Baby," 2004

Movie Stats:
Released 2004 (USA)
American, in English (very minimal non-translated German; minimal translated Gaelic)
Director – Clint Eastwood
Stars – Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

Plot Summary:
Plucky, would-be fighter Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) worms her way into the heart of grizzled old boxer-turned-gym-owner-and-trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and works her way up to the championship game. Freeman co-stars as Frankie’s long-time friend and gym manager, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupree.

Minimal blue language; boxing-related violence.

Bad Stuff:
The foreshadowing was really heavy-handed. I actually chuckled when the “bad” fighter (Billie the Blue Bear, played by Lucia Rijker) turned up for the final fight in a robe that made her look like an evil sorceress. It was silly.

As much as I love Morgan Freeman’s voice (who doesn’t?), the narration bugged me the whole movie until they revealed at the end why he was doing it. Then it made sense but that was seriously about two minutes before the film ended.

It’s a touch over-sentimental.

Good Stuff:
I loved the relationships between the characters. The obvious focal point was the father-daughter-like relationship between Frankie and Maggie, which was both touching and realistic. I personally enjoyed the friendship between Frankie and Scrap. You could tell that these men had known and loved each other for decades. A “lesser” relationship I adored was the one between Scrap and “Danger,” played by Jay Baruchel. It was so subtle and sweet.

Fantastic performances by all the key players.

The dialogue is great.

The Verdict:
I didn’t want to like this film. I’ve never been particularly interested in the premise so it hasn’t been on my list of “oh, I always wanted to see that.” I thought it sounded kind of dumb. I was wrong.

This is a great film. I really enjoyed it. The relationships are the best part. It’s tremendously satisfying to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the long-term friendship between Frankie and Scrap, and watching the love build between Frankie and Maggie. It’s also very touching. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this movie is depressing. While it does have a sad ending, I didn’t find it depressing. I thought that it was beautiful. Of course, I’ve always been a sucker for stories that involve people doing whatever it takes for the people they love.

I give the movie 4.25 stars.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Up with Geography: Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua and Barbuda

St. John's (on Antigua)

None - it's made up of two islands in the Caribbean Sea; closest continent is South America

Okay, dear readers. I was going to draw a map of all of the islands in the Caribbean Sea but I couldn't do it. Most of them are too small and I don't have the patience today. So you only get one map. I trust in your intelligence that you know where the Caribbean Sea is and/or that you know how to use Google to look it up.

A close-up of Antigua and Barbuda

The nearest neighbors are St. Kitts & Nevis to the west (an independent nation), Montserrat to the southwest (owned by the U.K.) and Guadaloupe to the south (owned by France).

Water Borders:
Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean

Total Area(added March 2015)
170 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
St. John's, All Saints, Liberta, Potter's Village, Bolans

Famous Geographical Point:
Mount Obama (known as Boggy Peak until August 2009)

Famous Person:
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, actress

Book Set In/About:
At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid

A series of short stories about life in the Caribbean. (Sorry to be vague, but I haven't read it and it's really hard to find a review where anyone tells you what the book is actually about.)

Movie Set In/About:
"Working Girl" (2010), directed by Nigel Trellis

When a schoolgirl falls on hard times, she's forced into the world of prostitution.

Headline of the Day:
"Court Rules: Antigua and Barbuda Will Go to Poll on Old Boundaries, New Electoral List" in West Indies News Network

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Best Picture: "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," 2003

Movie Stats:
Released 2003 (New Zealand)
American & Kiwi, in English (plus some made-up languages, mostly translated)
Director – Peter Jackson
Stars – Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, plus loads of others and about half of the population of New Zealand

Plot Summary:
In the final installment of the trilogy, hobbits Frodo Baggins (Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Astin) struggle to reach Mordor in order to destroy the ring while their friends Aragorn (Mortensen) and Gandalf (McKellan) clash with Sauron’s swarming hoards.

Loads and loads of (mostly war-related) violence.

Bad Stuff:
I find the Frodo/Sam/Smeagol dynamic incredibly tiresome. I like Frodo and Sam together, although there’s no denying that watching them walk around a whole bunch isn’t terribly exciting. When Smeagol is thrown into the mix, I just want to roll my eyes and moan at the screen, “I know the power of the ring is corrupting you, Frodo, but how can you NOT see that Smeagol is totally evil?” I get the importance of the Smeagol character but holy crap is he annoying (especially his voice).

Why do all the elves talk all slow and whispery? Is it supposed to make them seem mysterious? Does one lack the ability to speak normally if one is immortal?

The multiple-ending thing is pretty stupid. I’m told that it’s in line with the books but I’ve never read the books. I remember in the theater, people started to clap as the first ending came to an end but then the movie kept going so people stopped but then the second ending started to end and people started clapping again until it became clear that it wasn’t really the end either. Then everyone gave up. It was very awkward.

Good Stuff:
I like the way this movie intersperses beautiful moments between all of the death and destruction. My three favorites: the lighting of the signal fires; Pippen (Billy Boyd) singing a haunting song as Faramir (David Wenham) rides off to his presumed death; and Frodo saying to Sam, “I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.”

After 11 years, the special effects have held up surprisingly well. I still really like the ghosts. They’re so creepy. The only stuff I thought looked bad was the stuff I thought looked bad at the time (in particular, in many long-shots, it’s very obvious that the hobbits are being played by children).

I love this soundtrack.

“That still only counts as one!” Makes me laugh every single time.

The Verdict:
Another movie I own. I’ve seen it countless times. I wasn’t going to watch it again but then I realized that I needed to in order to give some specifics on what I like and don’t like. However, I sort of just had it on in the background while I did other stuff.

This is not my favorite of the LOTR movies. That distinction goes to “The Two Towers.” I think that giving Best Picture to one movie in a series is a little strange. It’s obvious that the Academy wanted to reward Jackson for turning this material into three very good films. All three were nominated; the academy waited until the last one to bestow the award. I’m not sure I would have made the same decision, although it is nice to see a fantasy movie win Best Picture for once.

It might not be my favorite but it’s still a good movie. It drags a bit in some parts (especially the never-ending parade of endings). Overall, though, it’s quite enjoyable. The fight scenes are well choreographed. The bad guys are appropriately evil & horrifying. All the actors turn in great performances. I don’t think there’s a clunker in the bunch. There are also some fantastic, rousing speeches, although the credit for those rightly goes to Tolkein, not the moviemakers. If you like high fantasy, you should like these movies, although I recommend you start with the first one or you’ll be lost.

I give the movie 4 stars.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Best Picture: "Chicago," 2002

Movie Stats:
Released 2002 (USA)
American, German & Canadian, in English (some non-translated Hungarian)
Director – Rob Marshall
Stars – Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah

Plot Summary:
When aspiring jazz singer/dancer Roxie Hart (Zellweger) murders her two-timing, dishonest lover Fred Casely (Dominic West), she’s forced to hire attorney and flim-flam man Billy Flynn (Gere) in order to beat the rap. Zeta-Jones co-stars as fellow murderess and jazz singer/dancer Velma Kelly and Latifah as the jailhouse matron Mama Morton.

Blue language; loads of sexual innuendo & implied sexy times; mild violence.

Bad Stuff:
The message of this film is questionable. I thought about this a lot in the days prior to watching it again (I actually own a copy). “Should I like this film as much as I do?” I wondered. “It makes light of murdering men.” I realized, however, that the message isn’t “all men deserve it when they get murdered.” The intent is to poke fun at the spectacle that the media makes of murder, especially when there’s an attractive lady involved. In fact, it references some particular murders that occurred during jazz-age Chicago. Even so, if this musical were about a bunch of men murdering the women in their lives, I doubt we’d all find it quite so fun/entertaining.

I try not to pick on actresses for their weight, but Zellweger’s thinness in this movie disturbs me to the point of distraction. Watching her here makes me very uncomfortable. She makes Zeta-Jones look huge in comparison and Zeta-Jones isn’t a large woman.

Good Stuff:
This is the only movie musical I own the soundtrack to. I love nearly all the songs. My particular favorites are “When You’re Good to Mama,” “Roxie,” “Mister Cellophane,” and “Razzle Dazzle.” I also think the dance sequences are very well choreographed. I especially love the subtle dance number that John C. Reilly (as Roxie’s sad-sack husband Amos) does during “Mister Cellophane.”

All the performances are great as well. As far as singing goes, I especially enjoy Zeta-Jones and Latifah. Both have really lovely voices. As for acting, I love Reilly and Gere. Reilly in particular gets me every time. Poor, simple Amos.

The costumes are to die for.

The Verdict:
In case you can’t tell, I love this movie. I think it’s a lot of fun. The song and dance routines are great. I want to own every single costume. I really enjoy the way it satirizes not only American media but also the justice system. [SPOILER] Basically, it says that if you have enough money, you can get off any charge. The only innocent person in the film is executed because she can’t afford a good defense. [SPOILER] Also, the casting was perfect. I have a hard time imagining anyone else in these roles. It’s sexy and funny and smart. I really don’t know why you haven’t watched it already.

I give the movie 4.25 stars.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Best Picture: "A Beautiful Mind," 2001


Note: In case you’re wondering why it took me so long to review this flick, I waited nearly a month for it to come in at the library. I was the #3 hold on just one copy. Hopefully this will be the last delay & I’ll be finishing up this series by the end of June.

Movie Stats:
Released 2001 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Ron Howard
Stars – Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, plus a dozen other actors you’ll recognize

Plot Summary:
It’s essentially a biography of Nobel prize-winning American mathematician John Nash (Crowe). Connelly co-stars as his wife, Alicia.

None. It may have some blue language but if it did, it’s so mild that I didn’t even notice.

Bad Stuff:
It’s dull as dishwater.

Normally, I don’t mind spoilers but I have to wonder if already knowing the “big reveal” of this movie made it difficult to get swept up in it. I knew that Nash is mentally ill. As soon as he was recruited to be a cryptographer, I knew he was hallucinating. Therefore, that part of the movie held no suspense for me. In fact, it felt like it dragged on forever.

Conversely, I thought the stuff that was more interesting was overlooked in favor of trying to play up the suspense. I could have done with more scenes of Nash and his wife coming to terms with his mental illness. I also thought the part where he realized that he would have to give up his best friend (college roommate Charles – played by Paul Bettany – who was a hallucination all along) forever was very poignant and could have been better explored.

Also, it drove me nuts that, at the beginning of the film, Crowe was obviously too old for the part he was playing. In 1947, when the movie began, Nash was 19. At the time of filming, Crowe was probably 36. I know I’m being nitpicky but if you know me at all, you’ll know that I tend to get hung up on this kind of stuff.

Good Stuff:
Age problems aside, I thought that Crowe was very good. He’s not one of my favorite actors. I feel like most of the roles he takes, any decent actor could play. Occasionally, however, he’s brilliant. This was one of those times. I found him very believable.

The movie did fool me in regards to Charles. I didn’t get that he was a hallucination until the psychologist (Dr. Rosen, played by Christopher Plummer) told Nash so in the mental hospital.

The Verdict:
This movie has always been high on my list of “movies I have virtually no interest in.” However, even though my expectations were low, I was still underwhelmed. I just don’t think it was especially well done. Still, I’m going to give it a slight benefit of the doubt. I do find the central story – a man struggling to overcome mental illness – intriguing. I thought the portrayal of mental illness was done fairly well, based on my own past experience with mentally ill persons. I was also intrigued by the idea that not all of Nash’s hallucinations were bad (another point I wish would have been better explored). Perhaps it would have seemed better/more engaging if I’d seen it back when it came out, before I’d had a chance to be spoiled about it.

I give the movie 2.75 stars.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Loneliness: Romance

I’ve been having trouble writing this piece. Over the last few days, I slowly began to realize that it was because I felt like I was over-sharing. It’s one thing to provide intimate details about one’s friendships. It’s another thing entirely to dish about one’s romantic life. It made me uncomfortable. Therefore, I decided to tone down the details. We’ll have to see, dear readers, if you still find it interesting and/or relatable.

When I speak of my romantic life, I should be clear that there hasn’t been much of one. I spent most of my life without a partner. I didn’t have my first boyfriend until the summer after I graduated high school. The relationship was short lived. Throughout all of college, and well into my 20s, I never had a serious love interest.

It took me a long time to realize that the problem lay inside of me. To be sure, I was a bit of an ugly duckling. I don’t say that in an attempt to gain sympathy or to hunt for compliments. It honestly took me a while to grow into my looks, or at least to accept them. I was in my late 20s before I began to feel like a beautiful swan. I’ve also always been a bit of a tomboy, just “one of the guys.” For a long time, I thought these things were my problem. Not pretty enough, too much of a boy. Not desirable.

Throughout my early 20s, until I met the man who would later become my fiancĂ©, I often felt used. Inevitably, it seemed, the people I became involved with would get what they wanted from me and leave. Or they wouldn’t get what they wanted and leave. Or, even worse, they would leave at the first sign of trouble. I felt like I could never be perfect enough. As soon as I had a bad day, they’d be out the door, running as fast as they could.

It was humiliating and depressing. I was lonely. And I felt abandoned every single time. It got to the point where I didn’t think anyone would stay. I was surprised when someone did. I felt lucky. “Finally, someone is putting up with my crap,” I thought. My fiancĂ© and I put up with each other’s crap for about five years. Things didn’t work out. In the end, I think we’d both agree that this was for the best. To this day, we’re still good friends. When we broke up, I moved out on my own for the first time in my life: no family, no significant other, and no roommate. Just me. I loved it.

But then something bad happened. I’m not going to tell you what, but in order to put the kibosh on wild speculation, I will tell you that it did not involve any form of assault, sexual or otherwise. But it was a big deal at the time. I felt like my life would never be the same. It forced me to take a step back from everything, to evaluate not only my relationships but also myself.

At the time, I was in the middle of grad school, about to start the eight-month process to write my Master’s thesis in order to complete the program. I decided to focus on that. No more chasing after relationships, or even friendships. I threw myself into writing my thesis and put myself back in therapy.

It was the best decision of my life. I’d been through therapy before on more than one occasion. I don’t regret any of the therapy I’ve been through. Each of my counselors was important in his or her way. I felt like the times I’d gone before had been for fixing specific problems, though, like my anorexia. This one was for fixing the rest of me.

I’m not going to tell you that I had some immediate insight because that’s not what happened. There was no lightning bolt. I completed my Master’s degree and got back out into the world, rebuilding the social life that had been neglected while I wrote my thesis. Some time after I finished my degree, my therapist and I agreed that I’d gotten as much as I could in our sessions. What I discovered in the months after that was that now that I was happy with myself, people were drawn to me.

It wasn’t something I did out of any conscious effort. I was happy because I’d finished my degree, something that had been high on the list of things I’d wanted to do with my life. I was also happy because I finally liked myself. I’d gone through an ordeal and come out the other side with the realization that I could rely on myself, that I was strong and clever and accomplished. I realized that I would never need someone else to make me feel better because I knew how to do that for myself.

Not only did I attract more people – in a nine-month period I was asked out on more dates than during the rest of my life combined – but I also attracted a higher quality of person. While none of those relationships, save for the obvious one, worked out, most of them ended with a minimum of drama. I think this was when I finally started relating to my potential love interests like an adult, rather than like a teenager.

When I met the man who would become my husband, I was immediately drawn to him because he challenged me. I wasn’t used to that. He didn’t just accept my opinions; he wanted to know how I had formed them. It could be frustrating at times – it still is – but I liked it. I liked that he made me think. The first time we met, he had a girlfriend. It was disappointing but I moved on. When we met again a couple of months later, he was single. That night, one of the last things he said to me before we parted ways was that happiness is a choice. I didn’t believe him then.

It took me years to accept that he was right. Now it’s the coda that I live by. No matter what we’ve been through – and we’ve been through a lot – I have chosen to be happy. I feel the strongest, mentally and emotionally, that I’ve ever felt. Of course, I obviously still feel lonely sometimes or I wouldn’t be writing this series. But I never feel lonely in my romantic life.

I don’t worry that my husband is going to leave me. I never feel like he’s putting up with my crap. Neither do I feel like I’m putting up with his. That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not. We rarely fight, but we bicker frequently, and sometimes we don’t like each other very much. But it’s okay. That’s life. That’s living with, and relating to, another human being. I married my husband with every intention of staying together forever. That is still my intention. If, for some reason, things don’t work out, however, I know I’ll be okay because I already am. My husband isn’t a void-filler. He’s the man I love.

Love isn’t like how they portray it in chick flicks. No one is going to complete you. If you have a hole inside of you, you need to fill it yourself. It’s no one’s job to fix you. In hindsight, I can see that this was my problem for all those years. I may not have realized it at the time, but I was looking for someone to build up my self-esteem. No one wants that job. Once I learned how to build it up myself, I became more attractive to other people as a by-product.

Sometimes I wish I'd learned this lesson earlier in life. If I had, though, then I probably would never have found myself here. I like here. So instead of wishing to change the past, I'll just be happy to have learned the lesson at all, while enjoying the present and looking forward to the future.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Up with Geography: Angola

Country Name:




African continent. Angola outlined in dark
ink and shaded.

A closer view of Angola & its neighbors. Note that a small piece
of Angola is separated from the main body by Congo DRC.

Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Namibia

Water Borders:
Atlantic Ocean (South)

Total Area(added March 2015)
481, 354 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Luanda, Cabinda, Huambo, Lubango, Kuito

Famous Geographical Point:
Zambezi River

Famous Person:
Ana Clara Guerra Marques, dancer

Book Set In/About:
Mayombe by Pepetela

Set during the fight for Angolan independence, this book tackles such issues as racism, tribalism, sexism, and more.

Movie Set In/About:
"Sambizanga" (1973), directed by Sarah Maldoror

Also set during the Angolan fight for independence (from the Portuguese), a man is arrested for his involvement in the independence movement and his wife visits police station after police station to look for him.

Headline of the Day:
"Angola's Top Bank BAI Tightens Lending to Halt Profit Slide" in Reuters.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Final Reflections on March 2014

Have you ever gone through a chunk of your life where things are just sort of crummy for a while? That describes large periods of my life over the last five years or so. Things could have been worse, for sure, and I tried to keep my humor throughout everything, but that doesn’t change the fact that life was stressful for a while.

Since moving to California, however, things have been pretty awesome. My husband is happy. I’m happy. Our animals are happy. We like our new apartment. We like our new city. My husband likes his job. All in all, things are great and it’s . . . weird.

It can be difficult to accept being happy, can’t it? It’s funny, in a sick kind of way. I really enjoy being this happy, but a part of me feels like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Things can’t always be this good, can they?” My traitorous brain asks. “When is the next bad thing going to happen?” Obviously, I don’t want to think like that. I’m doing my best to drown out that negative voice and to accept being happy. It’s a work in progress.

In the meantime, things are going well. In March we saw visits from two different sets of friends. We also got to spend time with my husband’s family, which was part of the point of moving to California. So all of that was fun.

I never heard back definitively about that city job I interviewed for, but it’s safe to assume at this point that I didn’t get it. After the rather strange interview, I feel okay about that. The husband and I recently had a conversation about my job situation. We ultimately agreed that I should focus on writing/publishing and not worry about getting a traditional job. This was mostly his idea. I feel a little weird about not contributing financially to the family (for now), but I’m happy to have the opportunity to try to make something out of my writing.

After a pep talk from a friend, there has been movement not only in my writing but in the publishing aspect as well. I don’t have anything to report on that yet but hope to in my monthly wrap-up for April.

In March I also did more social stuff, which continues to go well. I’ve already met one person who has started to become a friend and there are others who I could see becoming friends eventually as well. The funny thing is, I still feel absolutely no pressure in this area of my life. I haven’t been feeling lonely or bored or depressed. I’ve just been enjoying the social interaction I’ve been getting and that feels like enough for now. 

In a nutshell, I'm saying that everything is currently coming up roses. If you're stopping by to read, why don't you tell me how March 2014 went for you?