Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A-Z Movies, H: "The Handmaid's Tale"

Recommended by:
Rae (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 1990 (West Germany)
American & German, in English
Director - Volker Schloendorff
Stars - Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn

Plot Summary:
In a dystopian future where pollution has rendered most women infertile, religious conservatives have overtaken the country, “cleansing” it of evils and forcing the few remaining fertile women to reproduce. Fertile Kate (Richardson) is captured while trying to escape the country and is eventually placed with a couple, Serena Joy (Dunaway) and the Commander (Duvall), who want her to bear a child for them. Quinn co-stars as the Commander’s right-hand man, Nick.

Blue language; offscreen torture; violence; rape; forced pregnancy; consensual sexy times; and female nudity (breasts only).

Bad Stuff:
I’m giving the idea that pollution could cause infertility in most, but not all, women (like a person could have an “immunity” to pollution) a serious side-eye. I’d rather the story give a more believable “we still haven’t figured out what’s causing the infertility” explanation than some explanation that makes me snort and go, “oh, BS.”

It dragged on a bit, especially toward the beginning, which made it seem way longer than it was.

I didn’t buy the love story between Kate and Nick AT ALL. A few shared glances without conversation and then they’re suddenly in love? What, because they’re both young and reasonably attractive? Okay then. I’m going to assume that this relationship is much better established in the book.

Good Stuff:
I loved that it showcased the hypocrisy of people who “moralize.” In this future, motherhood and babies are fetishized. At the same time, the women who can have babies are denied the opportunity to raise them and if they take any pleasure in making those babies they are deemed “whores.” The men in control have “cleansed” the country of “bad people” (in the Commander’s words, “blacks and homos”) but behind the scenes they run their own brothel, drink, smoke, and keep contraband. None of it was surprising to me. I kept thinking, “Yep, that seems about right.” It felt very realistic.

It also felt uncomfortably prescient. The book came out in 1985; the movie in 1990. At that time in the U.S., while abortion and birth control rights were hotly debated, they were still firmly in place. In the ensuing years, access to abortion has been greatly diminished in many states, and in some cases so has access to birth control. I’m not saying that there’s a conspiracy afoot to force women to have babies, I’m just saying that the idea doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore, especially since there’s rhetoric in this movie similar to what I’ve heard coming out of some politicians’ mouths in recent years. I think it’s a good thing when movies (and books and TV shows) help us examine such issues, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

The Verdict:
First, let me tell you that it was ridiculously difficult to get my hands on a copy of this film. It’s not even available for rent/purchase on iTunes, which I thought was weird. At any rate, I really thought I was going to hate it* and was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I liked it. The acting is so-so but the story itself is pretty interesting. I found it both provocative and timely. I wouldn’t say that it’s an especially fun watch, but sometimes it’s good to watch a film that makes you squirm in your seat and have a serious think.

I give it 4 stars. 

*The reason I thought this is because when it first came out, I saw an episode of Oprah where she gave some audience members free tickets to it and then asked them to come back and review it for the rest of the audience. They HATED it. Every time I’ve heard a reference to this book/film since then, that’s all I could think of.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Art Deco Tour of Downtown LA

Yesterday I went with some friends on an LA Conservancy sponsored walking tour through downtown LA. The Conservancy hosts quite a few guided tours (and some self-guided ones as well). This particular one was the Art Deco tour. It cost $10 per person and met in Pershing Square. Parking was ample in the lot under the square and was only $5 for the whole day with validation.

I’d only been downtown once before, and that was at night. Viewing it from afar the few times I drove by, I was unaware that downtown holds so many historic buildings. This is perhaps because, until the 1950s, buildings in LA were not allowed to have occupied space above 150 feet. Therefore, when viewed from afar, LA’s historic buildings are dwarfed by modern skyscrapers.

I was absolutely delighted to discover the beauty of LA’s historic architecture. First, a few shots of downtown from Pershing Square:

The brick building at the bottom is the Biltmore
Hotel, an example of Beaux Arts architecture.

Sculpture in Pershing Square.

This statue is part of the statue garden (mostly
dedicated to soldiers KIA) in the Square.

The first stop on our tour was the former Title Guarantee & Trust building, which is now residential housing. Our tour guide, Dennis, was extremely informative. He taught us not only about the history of each building, but also about the design elements of Art Deco, called Moderne at the time (and also about its predecessor, Beaux Arts).

A close up to show the zigzag pattern under the
window. Zigzag was prominent in Art Deco.

In Beaux Arts, building sculptures were three-dimensional but in Art
Deco they were more 2D, like this.

The next stop was the former Southern California Edison Company, now Torrey Pines Bank. We were not only allowed in the bank, but also allowed to take pictures, so I got a lot of them:

The man is holding a torch to denote energy, since this
was built for an energy company.

Love this color blocking. The "feet" in this pic
belong to a modern sculpture placed there in the 1980s.

Gorgeous front door. Note the zigzag pattern.

Suns and river etched in the door = energy.

Beautiful marble floors.

Perhaps my favorite picture of the lot.

More gorgeous doors & a favorite pattern of mine:
black & white checkered floors.


Kitty corner across the street is the Rick Riordan Central Library, which has a tower with fantastic tile work on the top:

Sun patterns were also very common in Art Deco.

I didn’t get any good pictures of our next building, the former Mayfair (now Hilton) Hotel. The following picture is of the Pacific Mutual building, which is an example of Beaux Arts (not Art Deco) architecture but I love the way it’s “texturized” so I’m including it:

Then we moved on down the street and around the corner to the James Oviatt building, former home to the famous LA haberdashery Alexander and Oviatt. It now houses a restaurant called Cicada.

The top part of this case is the original etched glass.

Cool marble work in the floor.

This elevator door is glass & denotes orange trees.

Love these doors.

More cool etched glass.

The interior of Cicada. You may recognize it from
"Pretty Woman" or "The Artist."

The light was such that I didn’t capture a good picture of our next stop, the William Fox building, which has a lovely exterior of cream and subtle purple. However, I did capture the magnificent Sun Realty building across the street, and its next door neighbor, the Harris & Frank building. All three of these buildings are now at the heart of the jewelry district:

Harris & Frank on the left; Sun Realty on the right.

Better lighting so you can see the beauty of
the Sun Realty building.

By this point, I have to admit that I was getting tired of picture taking, so even though we saw a few more buildings, I only took pictures of the Eastern Columbia building, which used to be a department store but is now residential housing:

The tour was long, over two and a half hours, but I can’t stress enough how awesome it was. I got to exercise, learn more about the history of LA, see fantastic architecture, and spend a lovely few hours outdoors, all in one fell swoop. This is absolutely my favorite thing I’ve done in LA so far. I highly recommend it! If you’re visiting LA, you need to take one of these tours.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Up with Geography: Azerbaijan

Country Name:




Asian continent. Azerbaijan outlined in dark, shaded,
and with an arrow pointing to it.

A close up of Azerbaijan & its neighbors.

Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia

Water Borders:
Caspian Sea

Total Area(added March 2015)
33,436 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Baku, Ganja, Sumqayit, Mingachevir, Khirdalan

Famous Geographical Point:
Caucasus Mountains

Famous Person:
Elchin Khalilov, geophysicist

Book Set In/About:
Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz

One reporter's account of his time spent in Azerbaijan shortly after it gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

Movie Set In/About:
"The Scoundrel (Merzavets)" (1988), directed by Vagif Mustafayev

The tale of a man who falls in love with a lady of the streets in Baku. According to the one IMDB user who reviewed it, it's both very sad & funny.

Headline of the Day:
"Armenian President Criticizes Azerbaijan at UN Over Karabakh Dispute" in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

If you're like me, this headline will make no sense to you. I took the liberty of doing some research. From what I gather, there is a region of Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh trying to break away and join Armenia. It is, surprisingly, not the part of Azerbaijan that is already separated from the rest by Armenia, but is contained within the larger body of the country.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A-Z Movies, G: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)"

Recommended by:
Laura (friend)

Note: I specifically asked Laura whether she recommended the 2009 or 2011 version and she said 2009, which I dutifully wrote down on my list. Even so, I somehow managed to borrow the 2011 version from the library, and watch it all the way through, before realizing that I had the wrong version (I think I got it in my head for some reason that Daniel Craig was in the 2009 version so I just ignored all signs to the contrary). So, my apologies to Laura. I promise I’ll watch the 2009 version someday so I can compare the two. 

Movie Stats:
Released 2011(UK)
American, Swedish, and Norwegian, in English
Director - David Fincher
Stars - Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard

Plot Summary:
Set in Sweden, when journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) loses a libel lawsuit, leaving him publicly humiliated and his magazine in jeopardy, he’s enticed to northern Sweden by tycoon Henrik Vanger (Plummer), who wants him to solve the 40-year-old mystery of his niece’s disappearance. Mara co-stars as Lisabeth Salander, the young computer hacker whom Blomkvist hires as his assistant, and Skarsgard as Martin Vanger, Henrik’s nephew.

Blue language; graphic rape (both male and female); graphic violence, including torture of humans and one animal; nudity (pretty much everything except I don’t think I saw male butt); and sexy times of the consensual variety.

Bad Stuff:
I hated the very ending. It made me want to punch Mikael in the face for being an obtuse idiot after I’d spent the whole movie really liking him.

You know me, I’m going to complain about the accents. Since I specifically rented the non-Swedish version when there’s a Swedish one available, I won’t complain that they’re not speaking Swedish. However, I will complain that each and every one of these actors spoke with a different accent when all of them are supposed to be Swedish. I find it distracting. (I know, I’m probably the only person in the world that this bothers.)

The opening credits are so weird that it made me uncomfortable. If, however, that was the point, then I say job well done to whoever made them.

Good Stuff:
I loved the mystery. I can’t stress that enough. Stieg Larsson, author of the novel on which this is based, crafted a really taut, interesting story. Although some of my initial suspicions about the mystery turned out to be true, there were enough twists and turns in the story that I got thrown off the track. And despite being right on some level, there was still an aspect or two of it that caught me by surprise. I don’t like most mystery/suspense stories because they’re obvious, but this one is good.

When the film began, I thought to myself, “Oh, here’s Daniel Craig, playing a moody tough guy. Does he even have range?” And then came the scene where Mikael [SPOILER] gets shot and nearly killed [SPOILER] and he’s so very clearly freaked out about it, which frankly wasn’t Bond-like at all. Just like that, I gained a new appreciation for Craig’s range. In fact, everyone was superb in this. I don’t have anything bad to say about any of the actors.

I liked that the bad guy stayed dead. Normally in these kinds of movies, the hero spends 20 minutes trying to kill the bad guy, who comes back from the dead like three times and you’re like, “Oh, just die already. Geez!” Not so in this movie. The bad guy gets what’s coming to him and stays dead, thank god.

The Verdict:
I really liked it. Everyone says the Swedish version is better, which I find difficult to believe because this was really good (perhaps the Swedish version is closer to the book). It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, and if you find sexual violence trigger-y, you might want to give it a pass. But if you like a well-crafted mystery, if you like to keep guessing, and/or if you like a movie where the suspense is ratcheted up very, very slowly, I think you’ll like this one.

I give the movie 4.5 stars.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Echo Park Lake

In a recent article about cheap dates in LA, I read about the paddle boats at Echo Park Lake. I hadn’t been paddle boating in about 18 years, but I have extremely fond memories of the last time I went, at the Binnenalster in Hamburg, Germany with a friend. Therefore, upon learning of the paddle boats here, I had to check it out.

Echo Park is a small neighborhood just northwest of downtown LA (side note: the old houses there are amazing). The lake is quite literally just off Highway 101. We found free parking easily on the street (as always, pay attention to the signs; this is LA after all) but I could see how it wouldn’t so easily be found during certain times of the day/week/year.

To get to the paddle boat dock, you have to go through the little on-site cafe. The boat rental PER PERSON is $10 for adults/$5 for children for up to an hour (cash only). Life jackets are included. Now, while I would concur that $10 per person could typically be considered cheap entertainment, it only took us about half an hour or so to paddle around the lake, so it’s up to you to decide whether $10 for a half hour constitutes a “cheap” date. To me, it was worth it.

The lake, while small, is pretty, with lots of flowers, wildlife, and views of both the neighborhood & part of the city. 

About to board our boat.

Lots of lily pads & flowers, city view in background.

Another city view. Unfortunately I accidentally
deleted my best city view after we'd already
left the park.

You're not allowed to get too close to the edges of the lake, so
this was the best picture I could get of the flowers. There
were light pinks, hot pinks, white, and purple.

The fountain.

There were a lot of ducks, including mallards. We also saw
turtles and tons of dragonflies of different colors.

We both thought the well-defined badonkadonk
on this statue was funny.

So SoCal.

The husband called this area "Jurassic Park."

I had a lot of fun. We laughed a lot, and it was great exercise to boot. While I do recommend this, I would probably only do so to locals. If you’re visiting from out of town, there are plenty of other things to occupy your time in LA. If you live here, and you’re looking for something different and entertaining to do, you should give it a shot.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Greystone Mansion

A couple of months ago, I read this great book called A Bright and Guilty Place by Richard Rayner. Mostly it’s about LA’s crime underworld of the 1920s and 30s. I highly recommend it. One of the stories in the book is about Greystone Mansion. Greystone was built in 1928 by oil baron E.L. Doheny, a gift for his only son, Ned. Only five months after he moved in, Ned was dead in a murder-suicide, along with his long-time friend Hugh Plunket. Both Doheny men & Plunket had been implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal and were due to testify. The Dohenys had been pressuring Plunket to take the fall. (Officially, Plunket was the murderer in the murder-suicide but, according to the book, the physical evidence suggested otherwise.)

Curious as to what happened to Greystone in the ensuing years, I looked it up. Imagine my delight when I discovered that, after purchasing the property in 1965, the City of Beverly Hills designated it as a public park in 1971. I knew I had to swing by for a visit.

Greystone Park is located at 905 Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills, 90210. The grounds are open every day of the year, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or 6 p.m. during Daylight Saving Time). Admission to the park & it’s parking lot are free. The interior of the house is only available via scheduled tours, one Saturday per month from December to April. I would advise checking their calendar before planning your visit because the park is frequently closed for private events.

It's easy to find, not too far off of Sunset Blvd. I arrived about half an hour after the park opened and for most of my visit, it was just me and the groundskeeping crew there. The parking lot is above the mansion’s gardens. You stroll through the gardens as you make your way down the hill, leading you to the mansion.

At the bottom of the post, please read my special note about photography at Greystone Mansion.

The first fountain I saw.

There is great brickwork everywhere.

And also great art details like this.

My favorite fountain.

There are views everywhere, peeking through the
trees. I believe this is West LA.

And here, in the distance, you can see downtown LA.

I loved these fountains. Each one had a different
"mask" & there were probably 6-8 of them.

There were also tons of nooks and crannies like
this. So much to explore!

I thought this was stunning. The fountain "masks"
are on the left.

The lampposts reminded me of England.

I don't know what these are but I think they're really pretty.

Retaining pond on the mansion's massive balcony.

Another retaining pond. All the koi and turtles thought
I was going to feed them.

I didn't take any pictures of the mansion itself because it's  huge and I didn't think I could do it justice, but pictures are readily available at the link I provided in the first paragraph.

For the same reason, I didn't take a picture of my favorite part: the massive balcony leading off the mansion's ballroom. I can well imagine the wild parties that were held there back in the day, the balcony doors thrown open so people could easily move back and forth between it and the ballroom, the alcohol flowing freely. The views from the balcony are amazing. It's a special place.

There is a lot to like about Greystone. The gardens are beautiful; the mansion is impressive; the views are spectacular; and it's very tranquil. For a little while, I forgot that I was in LA. However, it's definitely not a park in the traditional sense. There aren’t a lot of places to sit and hang out, or at least there were very few that were shaded (and the one bench I found in the shade wasn’t terribly comfortable). No picnicking is allowed there.

I highly recommend a visit but my suggestion is that you do so if you’re already in the Beverly Hills area & have an hour or so to spare because you really don’t need more than that to explore this lovely little park (unless you’re signing up for a house tour, which is another story entirely).

Special Note About Photography: After I had taken most of my pictures, I finally noticed the signs saying, “No photography without a permit.” Granted, not all of the signs include that message and the ones that do are so cluttered with “No” this or that information that I simply didn’t notice the camera with a line drawn through it at first. I couldn’t recall seeing anything about this on their website, so I looked it up and a special section called “Filming, Permits, and Commercial Photography,” seems to imply that only commercial photography needs a permit. 

However, I’m still confused on the point. Therefore, I’m posting my pictures with the note that I am NOT a commercial photographer, nor am I profiting from these photos in any way. If, however, I am contacted by someone connected to the park in an official capacity telling me to take the photos down, I will do so immediately.