Thursday, July 31, 2014

A-Z Movies, C: "Casino"

Recommended by:
Hafidha (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 1995 (USA)
American & French, in English (some very minor non-translated French & Persian) 
Director - Martin Scorsese
Stars - Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, and many others

Plot Summary:
A difference of opinion on tactics, and a woman, come between two old mafia friends in 1980s Las Vegas. De Niro plays casino boss Sam “Ace” Rothstein; Pesci plays enforcer & street boss Nicky Santoro; and Stone plays the woman, Ginger McKenna.

Extreme, graphic violence; lots of blue language, including racial and homophobic slurs; very brief female nudity (breast and butt); and implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
In general, I’m not a big fan of using voiceover. I don’t mind it in small doses, especially if it’s only at the beginning of a film (and it made sense at the beginning here to set up the story). A whole film of it, however, is just too much. To me it feels like lazy writing. I shouldn’t need constant voiceover exposition to explain what’s happening. The characters’ actions, words, and facial expressions should convey all of that.

Except for Ace, I didn’t feel a connection to any of the characters. I couldn’t have cared less when [SPOILER] nearly all of them inevitably died because it’s a Scorsese film what did you expect [SPOILER].

I was bored.

Good Stuff:
The costuming and styling were fantastic. I spent the whole film admiring them.

While De Niro frequently plays very similar characters, he has enough acting ability to provide nuance. I really liked his portrayal of Ace, who at his core was a good guy even though he was a bad guy. To me his performance stood out in sharp relief against Pesci, who always plays the same character without nuance (albeit a character I happen to enjoy having on my screen, especially in “Home Alone”).

The soundtrack was spot on.

The Verdict:
Scorsese is so hit and miss for me. He directed one of my favorite movies of all time, “The Departed.” He also directed a movie I loathe so much that it still makes me angry that I ever watched it, “Gangs of New York.” His movies are pretty much always too long, so they can be a chore to get through even when you like them. I think he’s better at hitting his mark when he develops his characters in a way that’s relatable to the audience. That’s why “The Departed” is so eminently watchable.

“Casino” isn’t the worst Scorsese film I’ve ever seen but it’s definitely on the lower end of the spectrum for me. I didn’t like most of the characters and I couldn’t care less about casinos or gambling, so it just ended up feeling like work to me. I didn’t hate it, but if anyone ever invited me over for movie night and wanted to watch this I’d have to turn them down. 

I give the movie 2.75 stars.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A-Z Movies, B: "Barry Lyndon"

Recommended by:
E’an (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 1975 (UK & USA simultaneously)
American & British, in English (significant amounts of non-translated German; minimal non-translated French)
Director - Stanley Kubrick
Stars - Ryan O’Neal

Plot Summary:
The slow rise and meteoric fall of commoner Redmond Barry, aka Barry Lyndon (O’Neal), set against the backdrop of 18th century Europe.

Violence; implied sexual scenarios.

Bad Stuff:
I didn’t like that Irishman Barry Lyndon didn’t have an Irish accent. It was especially noticeable when he was surrounded by other characters speaking with Irish accents. Later in the movie, when O’Neal spoke German with a passable accent, I had to wonder why he couldn’t have pulled off an Irish accent.

It’s way too long. It could have been maybe half the length and been a tremendously enjoyable movie. There were a few scenes in particular that seemed to drag on forever. They felt overplayed, like when an SNL skit goes on for a long time and I find myself thinking, “Dude, I got the point like five minutes ago. Move on already!”

I didn’t like that Barry Lyndon became less likable/sympathetic as the story went on. It felt like a waste of my time to continue caring about what happened to him.

Good Stuff:
The costumes and make-up were great. I didn’t even realize what a great job they’d done making O’Neal look like a teenager in the beginning until later on, when he was playing closer to his actual age (early 30s).

I could tell that the physical film was of high quality. A lot of films from the 70s are dark or grainy or over-saturated with light so everything looks washed out. In other words, they tend to look crappy. Everything in this film has a beautiful, crisp quality to it though. And the cinematography is gorgeous.

In a lot of scenes, the dialogue is sparse. The director let the actors’ actions, facial expressions, and body language do all the talking. I really liked that. Some of those scenes were incredibly powerful.

The Verdict:
It was okay. It would be an overstatement to say I hated it, or even that I didn’t like it. In many ways, I thought it was a very likable film. In fact, I’d have to say that, for the first half, I quite enjoyed it. It wasn’t until the second half (after an actual intermission!) that my attention began to wane. I didn’t much care for the story line about his marriage of convenience, as I felt that Barry’s turn toward complete and utter jerkdom sort of came out of the blue (there were some allusions to the fact that Barry had learned to do “bad things” while serving in the Prussian army but none of those bad things were shown so he was essentially still a largely lovable dope until his marriage). 

If the film had stopped at the intermission, it would be getting a higher rating. However, it did not, so it gets 3.5 stars.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A-Z Movies, A: "Aaah! Zombies!!"

Note: This movie is listed on IMDB as “Wasting Away,” but I rented it from iTunes as “Aaah! Zombies!!” and that is the name listed as the title at the beginning of the film.

Recommended by:
Chuck (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 2007 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Matthew Kohnen
Stars - Matthew Davis, Julianna Robinson, Michael Grant Terry, Betsy Beutler

Plot Summary:
When a military experiment goes awry, friends Mike (Davis), Vanessa (Robinson), Tim (Terry), and Cindy (Beutler) are turned into zombies. This is their story.

Blue language; violence & gore; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
This is entirely a personal preference issue, but the humor is really silly & goofy & heavy on the gross-out factor. That’s not typically to my taste (although there are exceptions to this rule). I didn’t find it very funny. I only laughed a couple of times.

I was kind of bored. The movie felt longer than it was. It seemed like it took the main characters a long time to clue in to what was actually happening to them.

Good Stuff:
On the other hand, it was fairly amusing that the main characters were so oblivious. I liked that they couldn’t grasp the enormity of the situation. It seemed like really natural reaction to me. It just went on a touch too long.

I liked the basic concept of it, a zombie movie from the zombie’s perspective. It felt fresh and different.

The Verdict:
I’ve had a difficult time deciding how to rate this film. It wasn’t really my thing, but I recognize that it wasn’t a bad movie either. I know a lot of people who would think it’s hilarious.

Toward the beginning, I was annoyed by how bad the special effects were. Then I realized that it was intentional, an homage to the old George Romero-type zombie flicks. There were a lot of subtler, more clever, things like that that kept me from disliking it wholesale. I guess, overall, I would classify this as entertaining for one viewing, but a film that I’m unlikely to watch again.

I give it 3 stars.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

La Brea Tar Pits

Yesterday we visited the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum, located at 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. It's open 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. most days of the year.

Statue at the entrance to the Page Museum.

The Tar Pits are part of “Museum Row,” a section of LA that houses four major museums. In fact, it’s right next door to the LA County Museum of Art. The area is easily accessible via several freeways and by public transit. The cost for the Tar Pits is $12 for adults. A parking lot is available at the corner of Curson Ave. & 6th St. for a flat fee of $9.00. There is also on-street, metered parking available, which would be cheaper as meters typically cost $1/hour. As the museum’s website warns, however, pay attention to the parking signs; in LA, just because it’s a metered spot doesn’t mean it’s okay to park there all the time.

The Pits are part of the lovely little Hancock Park. The park is open to the street, so you can peruse it, and some of the pits, without paying an entrance fee. The fee is for the museum and for viewing the Observation Pit.

Inside the museum, you’ll see lots and lots of fossils.

Harland's Ground Sloth.

Antique Bison.

Dragonflies! Apparently a very rare fossil to find.

Giant Wooly Mammoth.

There are also fossilized bones that you can touch, and a tar pull so you can see how hard it would be to pull yourself out of a tar pit if you happen to stumble into one.

Wall of dire wolf skulls.

However, the big point of the museum is education. There is a video that explains how the tar pits formed, and how the animals became trapped in them (I didn’t watch the other video available, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the research program). There are also displays that explain how the pits were discovered & how the museum was founded. Additionally, they have a “fishbowl lab,” where you can watch workers as they sort through “matrix” for and clean fossils. There’s a nice little atrium as well:

Waterfall in the Atrium.

One thing you shouldn’t miss is the large timeline wall. I nearly walked past it but fortunately my husband got sucked in and I started following him. The timeline wall tells you what animals existed in California at what time, and when they went extinct. I didn’t take any pictures of it, even though it was one of my favorite parts of the museum.

The Pits are outside in the park. Here is the Lake Pit:

Dramatization. Page Museum in the background.

Long view of the lake. LACMA in background.

And at Pit 91 they’re actively doing excavation work:

Excavators at work.

Uncovered fossil.

There is also the Observation Pit, but you can only get in if you take part in the Excavation Tour. The tour is free with your admission to the museum. We were supposed to go on the tour but my husband’s chronic foot problem was bothering him so we skipped it. I was disappointed not to see the Observation Pit.

The museum is definitely on the older side and could perhaps use an influx of mad cash for an update. However, I still really enjoyed it and wish we would have gone on the tour. If you’re visiting LA and aren’t keen on hitting up the museum, I advise that you at least swing by the park so you can see the pits that are open to the public. They’re really cool.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Up with Geography: Armenia

Country Name:



Asian continent. Armenia shaded darker,
with an arrow pointing to it.

A closer look at Armenia & its neighbors.

Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey

Water Borders:

Total Area(added March 2015)
11,484 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Yerevan, Gyumri, Vanadzor, Vargharshapat, Hrazdan

Famous Geographical Point:
Lake Sevan

Famous Person:
Alexander Arutiunian, composer

Book Set In/About:
Family of Shadows by Garin K. Hovannisian

A history of Armenia, told through the lens of three generations of Hovannisian's Armenian-American family.

Movie Set In/About:
"We and Our Mountains (Meq enq, mer sarere)" (1969), directed by Henrik Malyan

As best as I can tell, this is a comedy about four shepherds who eat a neighbor's sheep and try to come to an agreement with him for payment but are thwarted by a young, eager police officer who wants to press criminal charges.

Headline of the Day:
"Armenia's President Honors by His Presence 'Book' Movie Premiere" in the Armenian News Agency.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A-Z Movie Project, Maintenance Post

This month, I’ll be starting my latest movie project, A-Z movies. After the lengthy project that was watching all the Best Picture winners, I wanted to do something that wouldn’t take quite as much time. I anticipate finishing by the end of the year at the very latest.

For this project, I requested movie recommendations from friends and family. In a few cases, I took a recommendation from an online community or from a “best” list. My only requirement was that all of these had to be movies I hadn’t seen before. I accepted recommendations for any genre (except porn) and from any country, as long as the movie could be easily obtained via the library or via rental. In most cases, I accepted the first recommendation I received for each letter. The project does include one movie that was my own recommendation, i.e. a movie I just really wanted to see.

I’ll be posting my reviews in alphabetical order, from A-Z. They will be done in my typical format. I’ve followed the standard grammar rule that words like “the” and “a” don’t count if they’re the first word of a title. For example, if “The Lord of the Rings” were on my list (it is not), it would be my “L” movie, not my “T” movie. Upon completion of the project, I'll post a master list of reviews.

Since all of these movies were recommendations, I feel compelled to point out the possibility that I may not like some of them. Tastes vary widely. That is to say, don’t get mad at me if I don’t like the movie you recommended.

Look for my first review within the week!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Universal Studios Hollywood

Last week we had the opportunity to visit Universal Studios Hollywood, located at 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 91608. I hadn’t been to a Universal Studios in over 20 years, and that was in Florida. I’m not typically one for amusement parks, but my husband is, so when our friends, who have annual passes, told us they could get us in for more than half off, we quickly agreed.

Universal Studios Hollywood is spread out over three different levels on a hillside.* It was easy to get around and I felt that the signage was both clear and useful. They even have easily readable, digital billboards that tell you how long the wait for each ride is. All of the lines we stood in were either fully or partially covered and most had misters as well, so I never felt like I was roasting or working on my sunburn (even so, as always, I recommend wearing sunscreen).

We were there for about five hours on a Wednesday afternoon. It was packed! Despite this, I didn’t find any of the wait times especially egregious. I think the longest we waited was about 45 minutes. The lines moved quickly and efficiently. We went on nearly all the rides. If we’d been there an hour longer, I think we could have easily hit the few we missed, although we weren’t especially interested in those.

I enjoyed everything we did. My favorite ride was probably “The Mummy.” It’s short but incredibly intense and a lot of fun. “The Transformers” ride was really cool. “The Simpsons” ride was hilarious. After that one, my face hurt from laughing so much. I also really liked the studio tour. Universal Studios Hollywood is actually a working studio. On the tour, they drive you around both the indoor and outdoor sets. I’m told that, frequently, you can see filming as it occurs, and even sometimes speak with the actors, but we were on the last tour of the day, so all the filming had shut down. Despite this, it was still interesting and included some special effects, which I wasn’t expecting.

Two warnings. 1. The first ride we went on was “Jurassic Park.” We got thoroughly, utterly soaked. Our friends said they’d never gotten remotely that wet the times they’d been on it before. None of us were prepared for it. We suspect that they may have turned up the water effects for the summer. Anyway, just bear that in mind when you’re deciding what to wear and when you want to go on the ride. 2. I have a sensitive neck, which leaves me prone to neck-related headaches. Some of the rides made me a little achy. It’s something to consider if you’ve had previous neck injuries.

One other thing I will say is that this is not a place for people vacationing on a budget. Our friends got one of us in for free and one of us in with 15% off and that ticket still cost us $80. Also, their annual pass gives them free parking, otherwise that would have cost us $15. Once inside, the snack food cost about the same as at a movie theater. There’s real food too but we didn’t buy any of that. We did have dinner on the CityWalk outside of the park and the prices were fairly standard for LA.

If budget isn’t a concern for you, then consider this for your vacation plans. I highly recommend it! It’s a lot of fun and a thoroughly pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

*Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures because I was lazy. There are actually some really great views, especially as the day wore on and the smog dies down a bit.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Final Reflections on June 2014

June is always a month of mixed emotions for me because my wedding anniversary will forever be followed two days later by the anniversary of my mother’s death. The best of times and the worst of times, all in one week.

In the past, our wedding anniversaries have been so bad (with the exception of our first) that it’s become something of a joke. Of course, it’s not by design. Bad things just seem to happen to us in mid-June. This year, we made a concentrated effort to make it a good one. Since our bodies complied by not getting sick (like last year), we were able to succeed. We went on a lovely dinner cruise in Marina del Ray, where we dressed up fancy like adults for once, had a five-course meal, and drank some champagne. It was nice.

I tried to get out as much as possible early on in the month because I knew that World Cup was starting on the 12th and that once it started I wouldn’t be leaving the house much. My goal (no pun intended) was to watch every single game. Unfortunately, I missed two full games due to my sewing class (But I got a cute skirt out of it instead. Yay!). I also missed the second halves of two games that were being shown simultaneously because we had the opportunity to go to Universal Studios.

Other than that, I’ve watched them all and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun. It’s been a great Cup. I can’t even be sad that my #1 team is out of the tournament because it’s all been so tremendously enjoyable. I’ll probably go into withdrawal once it’s over.

There hasn’t been much going on in my life besides the Cup. I’ve been at a standstill with every aspect of my writing, including publishing. Nothing seems to be helping me move forward. One day, I was trying to work on something when I suddenly realized that I don’t even like my own writing anymore. I decided to take a step back. Recently, I've been thinking about getting some part-time work. I think that adding some structure to my life could be helpful. Plus, as much as I enjoy living a life free of obligations, I’ve never felt especially comfortable with the idea that I’m not contributing financially to my family.

I guess if there were one word to sum up the month, though, it would be “soccer.” It’s been my life’s blood. I’m hoping that, by the end of July, I’ll have something more exciting to be talking about, but for now that’s it. If you’re stopping by to read, why don’t you tell me what captivated you in June?