Saturday, January 31, 2015

A-Z Movies, T: "The Tourist"

Recommended by:
This is one of the last movies my mother went out to see before she passed away. I thought it would be nice to honor her memory by including it on the list.*

Movie Stats:
Released 2010 (Egypt)
American, French & Italian, in English (some French, Italian, Russian, and Spanish, mostly translated)
Director - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Stars - Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany

Plot Summary:
When American tourist Frank Tupelo (Depp), is used by a beautiful woman, Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie), to throw the police off her trail (because she’s going to meet her fugitive boyfriend), he soon finds himself embroiled in a world of intrigue. Bettany co-stars as John Acheson, the overzealous British inspector on Elise’s trail.

Blue language; minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
Some of the dialogue is really terrible. Example:
Elise: “Ask me to dinner.”
Frank: “Would you like to go to dinner?”
Elise: “Women don’t like to be asked questions.”
Me: /bangs head against table

The music is awful. I felt like I was watching a movie from the 90s.

It took a long time to get to the action, but once it did the action was neither very good nor particularly believable. The boat chase scene in particular was terrible.

With about 30 minutes left in the film, I had a feeling that there was one twist left and that I knew what it was. So when it came, I wasn’t especially surprised, but I was still disappointed. What a stupid plot twist!

Good Stuff:
It was nice to see Johnny Depp do some actual acting again. I’d gotten pretty tired of his “lovable weirdo” schtick.

In the way that it was an homage to 1960s spy thrillers, it was enjoyable. Jolie reminded me quite a bit of Audrey Hepburn.

Venice looked beautiful.

The Verdict:
This is one of those movies that the longer it went on, the less I liked it. I was skeptical going in (not a Jolie fan, no longer a Depp fan, and the story sounded dumb to me) but was determined to give it a fair shake. I thought it actually started out with a lot of promise. Once the action began, it fell apart. It was very cliche. Neither plot twist (yes, there were two) was surprising. Nor were they believable. I also found a lot of the personal interactions in this movie troubling; it just didn’t seem like the way that normal human beings would interact with each other. (SPOILER example: If Inspector Acheson keeps doing the exact things his boss, Chief Inspector Jones [Timothy Dalton, in an inspired casting choice. He was very good.], tells him not to do, why is he never fired? Nice accountability in that department.)

I give the movie 2.75 stars. 

*My mother developed an adorable, later-in-life crush on Depp and thus always wanted to see all of his films. I too had a long-term crush on Depp, which started about the time of “21 Jump Street” (the TV show, obviously) and ended about the time he started dressing like a dirty hobo IRL and acting the fool in all of his movies.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Up with Geography: Barbados

Country Name:


None; it's one of the Caribbean islands. The closest continent is South America.


The nearest neighbors are the island nation of St. Lucia, to the northwest, and the island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to the west.

Water Border:
Atlantic Ocean (if I'm reading the map correctly, Barbados doesn't technically touch the Caribbean but I could be wrong and water is, well, fluid).

Total Area(added March 2015)
166 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Bridgetown, Speightstown, Oistins, Bathsheba, Holetown

Famous Geographical Point:
Coles Cave

Famous Person:
Rihanna, singer

Book Set In/About:
No Man in the House by Cecil Foster

A coming-of-age tale set in the early 1960s, during Barbados' bid for independence from Great Britain.

Movie Set In/About:
"From Barbados with Love" (2006), directed by Miguel Antonio Drayton

A documentary about a famous monkey hunter trying to make his biggest kill.

Headline of the Day:
"Barbados Steady in Misery Index" in Nation News.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A-Z Movies, S: "The Station Agent"

Recommended by:
Merinda (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 2003 (USA)
American, in English (some non-translated Spanish)
Director - Thomas McCarthy
Stars - Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams

Plot Summary:
After the death of his friend, Finbar McBride (Dinklage), moves into an abandoned train depot in a rural area of New Jersey. Cannavale co-stars as Joe, the local hotdog vendor, Clarkson as Olivia, a local artist with serious issues, and Williams as Emily, the town’s librarian.

Blue language, minor drug use.

Bad Stuff:
I was not a big fan of the soundtrack. It fairly screamed “indie movie soundtrack circa early 21st century,” and not in a good way.

While this isn’t a problem for me personally, this is very much an independent film in that it’s full of quirky characters caught up in quirky situations. It’s all a bit twee. My husband isn’t a very big fan of indie flicks, and while he wasn’t around while I was watching this, I could hear him in my head saying, “It was kind of weird.”

Good Stuff:
I loved the evolution of Fin’s character. Even before the death of his friend, you could tell how depressed, lonely, and closed off he was. It was interesting to watch him slowly open up. I don’t think he smiled until an hour into the film, but once he finally did, it was well worth the wait. This was a very nice performance from Dinklage.

I enjoyed the warm friendship that eventually grew between Joe, Fin, and Olivia. It made me long for a friendship like that.

I also really liked Joe’s character. You don’t see a character like Joe in film very often: terribly lonely, desperate for connection in a way that men are rarely portrayed, but kind-hearted, gregarious, and persistent. He was completely infectious. I was rooting for him to win over Fin and Olivia.

The Verdict:
I liked it a lot. It’s very sweet and endearing. The story is good, as is the character development, although it takes some patience to wait for those developments to come about. Everyone is very good in it. I liked the costuming, which is maybe a weird thing to say if you’ve seen it, but it all fits in a way that makes sense. I think this is a good film for watching when you need to feel some warm fuzzies at the end of a difficult day. 

I give it 4.5 stars.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Indian Canyons Palm Springs

Over the MLK Day weekend, a friend and I stayed a couple of nights in Palm Springs, a quaint little town in the California desert that was once the playground of the Hollywood rich & famous. It's full of adorable shops, modernist architecture, great restaurants (I had my best steak in years at Workshop), art, and some of the best hiking I've ever done.

There are several places to hike in Palm Springs. We settled on Indian Canyons because it offers numerous trails in a variety of difficulties. The cost is $9 per person (I believe you can get a discount if you buy a pass at the visitor's center on your way into town). I felt it was well worth it because at that price, you have access to multiple canyons.

We began at Andreas Canyon. There was a very helpful and friendly ranger there, who asked us our preferences and then directed us to a one-mile loop along the creek.

This is the only type of palm that is native to California. It is
the California Fan Palm.

I loved the pattern on this tree, which I presume to be some
type of beech.

Once we finished with that route, the ranger directed us down the road to Palm Canyon, where we hiked part of that trail (Palm Canyon is 15 miles in total) to connect with Victor Trail for a 2 mile-loop (there was also a very helpful ranger at Palm Canyon who gave us great directions when we forgot what the last ranger had told us).

Those are large cacti on top of the ridge.

It looked to us as though Palm Canyon had been through
a fire in recent years.

It's like a baby cactus Groot.

View of Palm Canyon from Victor Trail.

Both hikes were great in every sense. The second was slightly harder than the first, although not by any means difficult. The scenery was fantastic. We happened to have perfect weather. Here are a few shots on our way out of the park:

If you're ever in the Palm Springs neighborhood, I recommend you give the hiking a shot. Just remember: this is the desert, so even if it's not that hot out, wear appropriate clothing, put on sunscreen, wear a hat, and bring plenty of water!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A-Z Movies, R: "Raging Bull"

Recommended by:
AFI Top 100 (#24)

Movie Stats:
Released 1980 (Canada & USA simultaneously)
American, in English
Director - Martin Scorsese
Stars - Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Plot Summary:
It’s a biopic of real-life boxer Jake La Motta (DeNiro). Pesci co-stars as Jake’s brother/manager, Joe, and Moriarty as Jake’s wife, Vickie.

Lots of blue language, lots of violence, implied sexy times between an adult male & teenaged female.

Bad Stuff:
Not that I’m terribly keen to see realistic violence, but the action was terrible in this. I could tell they were pulling their punches, to the point where at the beginning of the movie, I thought they were doing it on purpose, like the fighters weren’t really trying to hit each other. Then I realized that it was just really bad fight choreography.

Whoever did the sound editing should be shot. I had the volume turned up to nearly 40 (I typically listen to the volume at 15 or so) and could still barely hear most of the dialogue, although the fight scenes were plenty loud. The actors mumbled a lot.

Nothing much happens. Jake acts like a crazy jerk, everyone tiptoes around him as you do with an abusive person, Joe swears a lot (Joe is basically the same character that Pesci always plays), and sometimes there are boxing scenes. That’s the movie in a nutshell.

Good Stuff:
It’s a fairly interesting character study. It was fascinating (and disturbing and uncomfortable) to watch Jake sabotage himself repeatedly. I guess that’s why people like this movie so much. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Big props to the costumers and set designers. At the beginning, I misread the scene card and thought it started in the 1960s, but it was quickly clear from the set design and costumes that it was actually the 1940s. The whole film was like that. There was never any question when things were taking place.

I wasn’t as impressed with DeNiro’s performance as most people seem to be (it didn’t seem all that different from any other DeNiro character), but I was impressed with his commitment to the role. It must have destroyed his body to first get as skinny as he needed to be for Jake’s early career and then gain 60 pounds for Jake's post-career scenes (or vice versa, depending on how they filmed it).

The Verdict:
I thought it was okay. I wasn’t super impressed, but I didn’t hate it either. There is absolutely nothing redeemable about Jake. He never has a change of heart or becomes a better person. He’s not someone you root for. To me, this is the kind of movie you watch so you can think to yourself, “My god, I can’t believe that awful people like this exist. I’m so glad that I don’t know anyone like that.” It’s not fun or entertaining. Its voyeurism at it’s finest. If that’s you’re thing, you’ll probably love it.

I give the movie 3.5 stars. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Top Books of the Year 2014

Here are the posts for 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. I didn't do this feature for 2013.

And here are the top 5* books I read in 2014. I enthusiastically recommend them:

5. The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey
Young Adult Fiction
This is book 2 of Yancey’s “Monstrumologist” series. Unaware of that, I purchased it before reading the first. I was able to follow it without trouble, and while I later in the year went back to read the first book, I ended up preferring this one. The Monstrumologist series follows the life and times of Will Henry, young apprentice to Pellinore Warthrop, world-famous “monstrumologist” (a man steeped in the science and study of monsters). In this book, they’re hot on the trail of a wendigo, a monster that eats human flesh. It’s full of foul language, gore, and distressing amounts of life-threatening danger for Will Henry. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

4. Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Journalist Laskas travelled the country to interview people involved in a variety of jobs that most Americans give little thought to, from coal miners to waste management technicians to ranch hands to pro football cheerleaders. The results are mixed. Some chapters are only so-so, a bit boring to be honest, but most of them are really interesting, chock full of odd tidbits and new-to-me information. It was a unique way to look at the melting pot that is America.

3. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, journalist Seierstad spent some time living with a bookseller and his family in Kabul. This book discusses what that time was like. As a Westerner, I found this book incredibly difficult to read. This family’s way of life was completely foreign to me, and I couldn’t help but to feel bad for these people, who had virtually no freedom compared to me and the people I know. However, it was really fascinating. I felt like I learned a lot about Afghan culture and history. A truly interesting read.

2. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
This book is Egan’s exploration of the Dust Bowl, America’s greatest ecological disaster. I liked it because it's about the people who stayed during the Dust Bowl (rather than the ones who fled). It had a lot of interesting information about how the disaster came about, its effects, and how humans ultimately prevailed. It also included first-hand accounts. Although it could be a little repetitious, I read the whole thing completely spell-bound, amazed that I spent my whole life knowing so little about this devastating piece of American history. It was also a great reminder that previous generations were a lot more bad-ass than my own.

1. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Fantasy Fiction
This is the tale of Prince Honorious Jorg, a foul-mouthed 14-year-old who’s spent the last 4 years of his life raping, pillaging, and killing his way across the land in order to exact revenge for the death of his mother and lay a claim on the throne. The brilliant thing about Lawrence’s novel, other than some innovative plot twists that injected life into what could have been a tired plot, is that Jorg is the king of anti-heroes. In fact, I spent the first few chapters of the book wondering why I kept reading it, why I hadn’t put it down in disgust. By the end of the book, Lawrence had managed to make Jorg sympathetic, and I found myself rooting for him to win. I thought it was a brilliant piece of writing, and I can’t wait to read the sequels.

*Honorable Mention 6th place goes to The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, an intricate and lovely tale.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Toys My Dog Destroys: Yellow Slipper and Striped Monkey

I have a weird sense of humor, so when I saw a toy shaped like a slipper, I thought it would be pretty funny to buy that for my dog, not that we've never had a problem with Major going after our slippers. Here is yellow slipper when I gave it to Major on 12/12/14:

Major was extremely fond of yellow slipper, as you can see here:

That very same day, he'd chewed off enough of the yellow fuzz on the outside to create a bare patch, so I figured the toy wasn't long for this world:

Sure enough, by the next day, Yellow Slipper was destroyed:

Here Major is in the act of pulling out some of the stuffing:

In fact, he destroyed Yellow Slipper so violently that he somehow flung the squeaker up on top of the printer:

Even so, Major loved this toy, and continued to play with it every day. It was still easy to throw because it had the flap that I could hold onto. So I kept it around, but it was leaving little yellow fuzzies all over the house. Finally, on 1/4/15, my husband insisted we throw it away. Here's Yellow Slipper before it went in the trash:

That same day, I gave Striped Monkey to Major:

 Within ten minutes, Striped Monkey was already torn open:

Is it my imagination or does Major look a little regretful to have destroyed his new toy so quickly?

On 1/10/15 Major somehow found more stuffing in Striped Monkey to pull out:

I threw Striped Monkey away on 1/11/15:

These toys were bought at the same time from a major pet store retailer for $2.50 each. Yellow Slipper lasted about 3 weeks. Striped Monkey lasted only a week (in reality, only about 10 minutes).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Solo at the Movies: "Wild" at Landmark Theatres

Theater Info:
Landmark Theatres
10850 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles
Cost: $10.25 for an 11 a.m. matinee showing

Movie Stats:
Released 2014 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Jean-Marc Vallee
Stars - Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

Plot Summary:
Lost in grief after the untimely death of her mother Bobbi (Dern), Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) embarks on a journey of self-discovery while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

Blue language; female and male nudity (no full frontal); gore; drug use; relatively explicit sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
I felt that the nudity was all fairly gratuitous. It did nothing to further the story and seemed really out of place to me.

There was something about the way that every man behaved as though Cheryl was the most beautiful woman on the planet that I found self-indulgent.

Good Stuff:
There’s a lot to like about this movie. The acting is fantastic. The cinematography is breathtaking (the scene in the field with the cows made me want to pack up and move to the country). The film was handled in such a way (excellent script and direction) that it made a story that could have very easily been boring (it’s a woman walking in the woods for two hours) very interesting. I also really enjoyed the story itself. I feel that it’s relatable for pretty much anyone. Haven’t we all been a little lost at some point in our lives? For me, it was especially poignant, since I lost my mother in a similar fashion (although I didn’t go on a drug and sex binge afterward).

The Verdict:
I liked this movie a lot. When I initially heard of it, I didn’t have much interest, and I didn’t find the trailer particularly compelling. But I kept hearing a lot of good things about it, so when I happened to find myself with some free time, I decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a really great film.

I give it 4.5 stars.

About Landmark Theatres:

I’m very fond of this movie house. Located inside the Westside Pavilion (a mall), the parking is plentiful and free if you’re only there for three hours (they validate for a cheaper fee if you’re there longer than three). The staff is always friendly. I’ve been in four of their theaters and they were all quite comfortable. Also, there’s a great view of the mountains from the main lobby. My only gripe is that the tickets there are kind of spendy. $10.25 for a matinee is a lot, as far as I’m concerned.

Solo at the Movies, Maintenance Post

I love going to the movies by myself. In fact, I prefer it to going with other people. When I go by myself, I can choose to see whichever movie I want, without someone else’s input. I don’t have to wonder if my companion is enjoying the film. I don’t have to worry about my companion talking during the film, or getting annoyed with me if I occasionally make a comment. Best of all, I can spend my time after the film contemplating it, rather than having to engage in a discussion about it with someone else. (I’m still trying to figure out whether or not I liked “Birdman” and I both saw and had a discussion about it with friends.)

Last year, I contemplated the idea of doing a monthly blog series about seeing independent films in the theater. I never got around to doing it. I think making the potential series specific to independent films is what did it in. I just can’t seem to make myself to commit to that.

Since I can’t make myself commit to one independent film per month, I’ve decided to broaden my scope. What I plan to do is visit a different movie theater each month, by myself. This theater may be part of a chain, or it may be independent. The film I watch may be mainstream or independent. It may be old or new, although I plan to only see movies that are new to me.

The purpose of this series will be to review not only the movie, but the theater as well. If I enjoy the series, I may continue it into next year. Who knows? It’s an adventure! 

That’s the “Solo at the Movies” project in a nutshell. Right after this post, you will see the first review of the series.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Final Reflections on December 2014

December 2014 was pretty great, a nice cap on a year that was full of lots of ups and downs (More on that, perhaps, later. I’m still deciding whether or not to do Final Reflections on the year 2014). The month began with a visit to my beloved Austin, where I attended my friends’ wedding, got to enjoy some of the city, and hung out with most of my really awesome Austin friends. It was a short trip, but I had a great time.

After flying back to Cali, I spent the rest of the month really busy with writing, work, household errands/chores, and holiday festivities. In some respects, it’s been a little overwhelming. I’m finding it difficult to balance everything I need and want to do. I feel like I have three jobs: novelist, part-time admin assistant, and housewife. “Why don’t you pawn off some of those household chores on your husband?” I hear you thinking to yourself. Sadly, my husband is working 10-12 hour days right now, and often works on the weekend as well, so he doesn’t have a lot of time or energy for the household errands either.

I think I’m beginning to figure it all out. Getting up earlier in the morning is helping (I sleep too much anyway), and spontaneously losing interest in watching much Netflix has freed me up to get more reading done, a hobby I’ve been meaning to get back to for a while. Even so, after the go-go-go of the first few weeks of December, it was nice at the end of the month to be off work so I could relax and spend a lot of time by myself, which I enjoyed.

Just before New Year's, I released my first novel. My goal had been to release by the end of the year, so I was both thrilled and proud to reach that goal. Since this is my personal blog, and not intended for professional promotion, I will not be using it as a platform to launch my career. However, at the release of each book, I will make one post containing the relevant info. Here is the info for my first book, The Artifact (by J.E. Lorin):

The outpouring of support from my friends has been both tremendous and humbling. It’s been a great reminder that I know a lot of truly wonderful people. The journey to get to this point has been a long one. It wasn’t easy to give myself permission to chase this dream. I’m so happy that I did. Even if the book never gains traction, releasing it fulfilled a lifelong dream. It’s been tremendously gratifying. 

Here’s to hoping that your December was filled with as much fun, laughter, and satisfaction as mine! I wish you all the best in 2015.