Saturday, February 28, 2015

A-Z Movies, Z: "Zero Charisma"

Recommended by:
Suzanne (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 2013 (USA)
American, in English
Directors - Katie Graham & Andrew Matthews
Stars - Sam Edison, Garrett Graham, Brock England

Plot Summary:
A nerd with virtually no social skills, Scott (Edison), finds his position as Game Master of a D&D-like role playing game suddenly challenged by the far more charismatic Miles (Graham). England co-stars as Scott’s bestie, Wayne.

Blue language, minor violence, and some sexual innuendo that might go over your head if you’re particularly naive.

Bad Stuff:
If you’ve never played a tabletop role playing game, I have a hard time imagining that you would find this movie amusing.

It’s a bit slow and boring.

Scott’s lack of social skills made me so uncomfortable. On the one hand, I felt bad for him, because I’ve known people who struggle to connect with other human beings and I know how frustrating it is for them. On the other hand, he was angry and a total sour puss and lacked even the tiniest sense of humor so it was difficult to rally behind him. I cringed through almost the whole movie.

Good Stuff:
As someone who has done tabletop role playing games, there was so much of this I could relate to. That thing I said above about cringing through the whole movie? That’s also sort of a good thing, because that means it accurately captures what people in this subculture can be like at times. It made me chuckle quite a bit.

Loved the soundtrack.

The acting was pretty good. Usually in these low budget flicks, the acting is the worst part, but not here.

The Verdict:
First, a geeky interlude. One of the scenes takes place at Donut Taco Palace II, which my husband and I used to frequent when we lived in the neighborhood (this was filmed in Austin). I can’t even tell you how many times we’ve directed people to eat there. Honestly, what could be better than a place that sells both breakfast tacos and donuts? I was genuinely thrilled to see it in the movie.

As cringe-inducing as this movie is, I really admire it for its unflinching, realistic portrayal of the gaming subculture. I have met every single one of the archetypes that appears in this. There are also some genuinely funny moments. I literally laughed out loud when Scott was buying snacks for his game night and the cashier asked him if he was getting food for his nephew’s birthday party. It’s a bit too slow for my tastes, however. While it clocks in at an hour and a half, it felt much longer. 

I give the movie 3.25 stars.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A-Z Movies, Y: "You Again"

Recommended by:
Sarah (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 2010 (Kazakhstan and Russia simultaneously)*
American, in English
Director - Andy Fickman
Stars - Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Odette Annable

Plot Summary:
When former nerd Marni (Bell) discovers that her older brother Will (James Wolk) is marrying her high school nemesis Joanna (Annable), she becomes determined to show Joanna’s true colors to Will. Curtis co-stars as Marni’s mother Gail, who turns out to have a similar long-standing feud with Joanna’s aunt, Mona (Weaver).

Minor violence, very mild blue language.

Bad Stuff:
I wouldn’t say that this movie is unrealistic in the way that people interact. Lots of people are immature. Lots of people don’t like confrontation. So I don’t find it far-fetched that Marni & Joanna and Gail & Mona would pick at each other rather than sit down and have adult conversations with each other. And I know that this movie wouldn’t be this movie if everyone in it acted like an adult. However, it was really frustrating that, at the very least, Marni never sat Will down and said, “Hey, you know what? Your fiancee made high school a living nightmare for me and she won’t apologize for it and it makes me feel really awful.” Would that really be so hard?

I didn’t like the ending. [SPOILER] I didn’t buy Joanna’s “transformation.” She had ample opportunity to pull Marni aside and apologize. Not only did she not do that, she refused to do it when asked to. That’s not the hallmark of a nice, mature person. Furthermore, she lied rather extensively to Will. I personally have a big problem with liars, and would rather that films not show people easily forgiving liars and taking them back because people who lie like that have serious issues. [SPOILER]

Good Stuff:
I loved that, during their big confrontation, when Joanna tried to brush off Marni’s concerns with “oh, that was high school,” Marni said, “No, you don’t get to belittle this.” I thought that was very powerful. I wish that more bullies could hear and understand that.

Everyone was great, but I especially loved the bit players in this. The Rock was hilarious in his cameo. When is Betty White (as Marni’s grandma, Bunny) not awesome? I also thought that Kristin Chenoweth (as wedding planner Georgia King) was very funny.

There was a lot more warmth to it than other, similar movies.

The Verdict:
Full disclosure: I tend to hate movies where people are mean to each other for “comedic” effect. I don’t find it funny. I went into this movie expecting it to be like that. I wouldn’t say that I found it funny per se. I don’t recall laughing a whole lot. However, I did find that some of it resonated with me. I was bullied in elementary and junior high school, but fortunately largely ignored in high school. I recall how painful it was. At this point, I’m well past it. I wouldn’t expect any apologies. But if I’d run into any of those people when I was under 30, it might have been a different story. Not an “I need revenge” story like this, but the pain would have felt fresher, like it did for Marni. I got where she was coming from and I could relate on a certain level. I also know how going back to where you came from can make you feel like an insecure kid all over again. Lastly, the “meanness” level in this was a lot lower than I was expecting, so I didn’t spend too much time cringing uncomfortably. For the most part, I enjoyed it.

I give it 3.5 stars. 

*Weird, I know. It was released in the U.S. the next day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Solo at the Movies: "Kingsman" at AMC Dine-In

Theater Info:
AMC Dine-In Theater Marina 6
13455 Maxella Ave, Marina Del Rey
Cost: $12.79 for an 12 p.m. matinee showing

Movie Stats:
Released 2014 (USA)*
British, in English (some Swedish, both translated and not, and some Arabic that I can’t remember if it was translated or not)
Director - Matthew Vaughn
Stars - Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton

Plot Summary:
British Secret Service agent Harry “Galahad” Hart (Firth), and his protege “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton), take on American billionaire Valentine (Jackson), who is bent on causing worldwide destruction.

Blue language; extreme violence; brief female nudity (butt only); very explicit reference to sexy times, although no actual sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
The references to sex toward the end were very jarring. There’s not the barest mention of sex nearly the whole film, not even a minor love story, and then, bam, out of nowhere they’re talking about [SPOILER] doing anal [SPOILER] and I’m like, “Where the heck did that come from?” I don’t mind sex in movies, but it felt so out of place in relation to the rest of the film that it actually made me uncomfortable.

I thought it was weird that the movie singled out Obama (although they never say it’s him, it’s clearly meant to be him) as the only world leader shown to be shady. It’s certainly implied that other leaders are, but the way that it was done made me feel like someone involved in the film has a beef with him, which, once again, felt out of place and also, in my opinion, inappropriate in a movie like this. (As I’m typing this, I’ve come up with a theory about it. You can ask me in the comments if you want to know.)

Good Stuff:
All of the acting is great. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Firth do a bad job, but he seemed like he really enjoyed himself making this, and it was nice to see him play an action hero. Jackson was definitely out of type, playing a total goofball, which was funny and he was good at it.  Egerton was the breakout star though. I was very impressed with his accent work, especially after discovering that he’s Welsh.

It was surprisingly deep, posing a lot of interesting questions about wealth, class, and right-to-life, but not in a way that felt preachy.

It was so much fun!

The Verdict:
The thing that surprised me the most about it is how violent it is. I’ve seen plenty of violent films, but for some reason I just wasn’t expecting this high level of violence for this particular film. It made a lot more sense later, after I discovered that Vaughn also directed “Kick-Ass” (It was a definite “Ohhhhh!” moment). At any rate, I wouldn’t say it was off-putting for me, just surprising. Regardless, I enjoyed the heck out of it. It was way more fun than any Bond movie I’ve ever slogged through. Loved all the actors, loved the story line, loved the action, loved how clever it was. The only thing I didn’t love was the ending.

I give it 4 stars.

About AMC Dine-In Theater Marina 6:
I like this movie house. Located inside Villa Marina (a shopping complex), the parking is plentiful and free. The service is okay. The seats are comfortable (and they recline). I went once before and may or may not have gotten a touch of food poisoning from my meal. This time, I had a burger and it was great (I can hear Samuel L. Jackson in my head saying, “Mmmm, that IS a tasty burger!”). Of course, because it’s a dine-in theater, the tickets are expensive, but I feel that the food is fairly priced. I’ve spent nearly as much on just popcorn and a soda before, so getting a burger and fries for that price instead is great by me. I would definitely go back, although probably for a date night rather than alone. 

*According to IMDB, this movie was first released in 2014 at the U.S.'s Butt-Numb-a-Thon festival, which was a detail too hilarious for me to not mention in my review. However, its worldwide release was in 2015.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Martial Arts History Museum

Very occasionally, I like to watch a show called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this show frequently showcases restaurants in Southern California. On one such episode, I learned about a place called Chili John's in Burbank. My husband and I decided to check it out (the food was very good and the atmosphere was really fun, in case you're wondering) but since Burbank is kind of a long drive for us (about 20 miles), I decided to look for something else to do while we were in town. And this is how I discovered the Martial Arts History Museum.

Located at 2319 W. Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank (barely a mile from Chili John's), the museum was founded in 1999. It costs $10 per person ($5 for children), with a $2 discount for senior citizens or active duty military. It's open Thurs. - Sun., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. While it's fairly small, and largely reading-based, it's absolutely packed with information.

My favorite part about the museum is that it's divided into sections based on country of origin. There are sections for: China, Japan, Korea, Hawaii, The Philippines, and Thailand (it's possible I've forgotten a country). There is also a timeline of how the various practices were introduced to America and sections on martial arts in anime/animation, television, and movies, not to mention a "hall of fame" for a variety of American martial artists.

Below are pictures from some of the sections.

I thought this bit about how the various "animal"
forms were created was interesting, although I
assume these stories are apocryphal.

For dancing.

Huge drum.

Thought this shield was cool.

A variety of kung fu weapons.

A woman's Tai Chi uniform on the left. A man's
Kung Fu uniform on the right.

This and the two directly below are
different samurai uniforms.

A judo gi.

Ninja uniform.

Ninja weapons.

Kendo uniform.

I just loved how epic this painting was.

I neglected to take a picture of any of the uniforms, such as for Tae Kwon Do, except for the one you can see in the upper right of the picture below.

A Korean drum and fan.


This was my favorite section, because even after two and a half years on Maui, I'd never heard of Lua before. When I asked the very helpful gentleman at the front about it later, he said that until the last twenty years or so, Hawaiians had been very secretive about it. Once it started dying out, they began talking about it with outsiders to help preserve the tradition.

A bit of info about Lua.

Lua weapons.

More Lua weapons.

Even more Lua weapons. 

This is a Kenpo uniform. Kenpo is another form
of Hawaiian martial art. 


Some info on the Filipino martial art
of Kali, which I'd also never heard of.

Kali sticks.

Part of the Muay Thai uniform.

A Khon mask (for dancing).


"Dragon Lady" costume from the film
"X-Treme Fighter."

A replica of Kato's mask from the TV
show "Green Hornet."

The real shield from the "Mortal Kombat" movie.

A Cobra Kai patch from "Karate Kid."

Ralph Macchio's actual headband from
"Karate Kid, Part II."

There was a lot more to this place than what you see in these pictures. I loved this museum. I thought it was really fun and informative. I learned so much. The division of the sections helped me to finally learn the distinctions of styles. I now feel like I have a much better handle on where the various forms of martial arts originated. In addition to all of the displays, there are also several informational videos, and the gentleman up front was very knowledgable and friendly.

If you're going to be in Burbank and have a free hour or so, I highly recommend you check this place out! It's well worth the money and I'm positive you'll learn something.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A-Z Movies, X: "Xanadu"

Recommended by:
Jeff (friend)*

Movie Stats:
Released 1980 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Robert Greenwald
Stars - Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck

Plot Summary:
Stuck in a dead-end job and feeling uninspired in his art, painter Sonny Malone (Beck) unwittingly awakens muse Kira (Newton-John), who quickly falls in love with him and inspires him to open a night club called Xanadu with his newfound friend, Danny McGuire (Kelly).

Very mild blue language.

Bad Stuff:
The music made me want to weep.

I get that rollerskating was a huge fad around the time this came out, but holy crap does it date this film. Anyone unfamiliar with the time period would be like, “Why is everyone dance rollerskating everywhere?”

I read that Michael Beck was nominated for a Razzie for this, but I don’t think that’s fair. Given the material, I thought he was very good. The performance was a huge departure from the only other film I’ve seen him in, “The Warriors,” where he played Swan, the gang’s leader. I felt the weak link here was Newton-John. The “breathy little girl” voice made sense when she was Sandy in “Grease,” but here it just grated on my nerves.

The final scene had a very strong “everything but the kitchen sink” vibe that had me rolling my eyes and whining, “When is it going to be over?”

Good Stuff:
It will forever be a pleasure to watch Gene Kelly sing and dance. He was in his late 60s when this was filmed and he still moved with such grace and beauty. He was much too good for this movie.

I liked the happy-go-lucky heart at the core of this and the “chase your dreams” message.

The Verdict:
There is little about this movie that makes any sense. For example, if Sonny needs inspiration as a painter, why does the muse who comes to help him talk him into opening a night club with a stranger? 

Who cares? Just sing, dance, and roller-skate and forget about everything else. I feel like it’s one of those movies you need to be on drugs to truly appreciate. 

I give it 2 stars.

*In all fairness to Jeff, this wasn’t so much an “I love this movie, you should watch it” recommendation as an “You’ve seen all the other ‘X’ movies people suggested and I’m the first one to say, ‘Xanadu’” recommendation.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Toys My Dog Destroys: Green Grateful Dead Bear

Okay, so she’s not really a Grateful Dead Bear, but her color reminded me of those iconic bears, hence the nickname. I gave her to Major on January 11, 2015. Here are her pre-destruction pics:

He got the stuffing out of her body that very same day:

Here he is with his conquest:

This scene struck me as particularly sad. Here is Green Bear next to one of the cat's toys:

Despite removing all of the stuffing out of the body, Major continued to play a lot with Green Bear. This was by far one of his favorite toys. He's always had trouble getting the stuffing out of toys' heads; he just can't seem to finesse it out. However, on January 15, he busted into Green Bear's head:

Even after de-stuffing her head, he continued to play with her a lot. She was good for throwing and playing tug-of-war. Some time during the week of January 26, he pulled off one of her legs while we were playing tug-of-war. I didn't take a picture at the time because I was sick that week. After that, he continued to play with her, and sometimes with just her leg. Hilariously, the cat sometimes played with her torn-off leg as well. Here is the leg before I threw it away:

And here is all of Green Grateful Dead Bear before I threw her away on February 11:

I bought her for $2.50 at a major pet store retailer. She lasted only one month, but she was well worth the money because Major absolutely loved her.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A-Z Movies, W: "Withnail and I"

Recommended by:
Bree (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 1987 (USA)
British, in English (some non-translated Latin)
Director - Bruce Robinson
Stars - Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths

Plot Summary:
In 1960s London, two unemployed actors, Withnail (Grant) and “I” (McGann, the movie never names this character but IMDB maintains his name is Marwood), deciding they need a break from their lives, take a holiday at the lake country cabin of Monty (Griffiths), Withnail’s uncle.

Blue language; minor drug use; one scene that treads dangerously close to sexual assault (non graphic).

Bad Stuff:
I found both main characters completely insufferable. Moaning, whining, shouting, passive aggressive drama queens. If I knew people like this in real life, I would avoid them at all costs.

It’s billed as a black comedy but I didn’t find it the least bit funny.

Everything I’ve read about this movie, including the DVD case, describes Monty as “lecherous.” I didn’t see it like that. I actually found this whole story line completely offensive and somewhat homophobic. To get the key to the cabin, Withnail told Monty that “I” was gay and single. While we don’t find this out until later, Monty is working under the assumption that “I” might be interested in him. When Monty makes some rather gentle passes at him, “I” never once tells him that he’s not interested. By the time Monty goes for it, he’s been strung along for a long time. While I will agree that Monty then takes things too far, he does eventually back off and doesn’t continue to pursue “I.” So I don’t really see how that’s lecherous. I really disliked “I” for being such a wimp from the start & not being honest with Monty about being straight.

It features some of the most unflattering underwear I’ve ever seen in my life.

Good Stuff:
I enjoyed Griffiths’ performance. I never really noticed this actor until his turn in the Harry Potter movies (as Harry’s uncle). Once he was on my radar screen, I realized he was in a lot of stuff I’d seen and that he was actually a rather good actor. I’m bummed that he died so young.

The Verdict:
Given all the shouting and over-acting, this really felt like a play that had been turned into a movie. I was genuinely surprised to discover that it wasn’t. The internet tells me that this is a cult classic in Britain. I’m perplexed as to why. There are plenty of “cult classic” films that I love (“Harold and Maude,” “The Warriors,” “Better Off Dead”) but this definitely isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if my friend who recommended this likes it (not everyone recommended movies they liked), but if she does, I hope she’ll swing by and tell us why as a counterpoint. I’d welcome it! As for me, I hated this movie. 

I give it 1 star.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Up with Geography: Belarus





Map of Europe. Belarus outlined in dark
ink and shaded.

A close-up of Belarus & its neighbors.

Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania

Water Borders:

Total area:
80,155 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Minsk, Homyel, Mahilyow, Vitsyebsk, Hrodna

Famous Geographical Point:
Dnieper River

Famous Person:
Marc Chagall, artist

Book Set In/About:
War's Unwomanly Face by S. Alexiyevich

True stories of Belorussian women who served in the military (on the Soviet side) during WWII.

Movie Set In/About:
"Come and See (Idi i smotri)" (1985), directed by Elem Klimov

About a young boy serving in the Soviet Army during WWII.

Headline of the Day:
"Ukraine Crisis: Leaders Plan New Minsk Peace Talks" in BBC News.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A-Z Movies, V: "Veronica Mars"

Recommended by:
Myself (I just really wanted to see this movie, okay?)

Movie Stats:
Released 2014 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Rob Thomas
Stars – Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Jerry O’Connell

Plot Summary:
A continuation of the TV series of the same name, plucky private investigator Veronica Mars (Bell) returns to her hometown of Neptune, CA in order to clear the name of her ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls (Dohring), who’s been accused of murder. Colantoni co-stars as Veronica’s dad Keith Mars and O’Connell as the new, even more evil sheriff Dan Lamb, brother of the previous evil sheriff.

Minimal blue language; non-graphic sexy times; minor violence (some mildly graphic).

Bad Stuff:
It feels less like a movie and more like an extended TV episode.

I didn’t really like that the story line with Weevil (Francis Capra) was left hanging, although it seemed like that was intentional, i.e. there are plans for a sequel. (Yay!)

With the high school reunion storyline, I felt a little confused at times as to whether some characters (i.e. Cobb, Susan Knight, etc.) were in the original show or not, which was frustrating.

Good Stuff:
If you’re a fan of the show (which I am), nearly the whole cast has returned here, which was truly a delight to see.

The best thing about the show – other than the witty dialogue, which is in abundance in the film – was always the relationships. So many of the actors have great chemistry with each other. Keith is one of my all-time favorite TV dads. I love seeing him joke and banter with Veronica while, at the same time, worrying over her. I love how Logan and Veronica are forever, inexorably drawn to one another. I love that Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) remains a lovable, affable asshole that enjoys matching wits with Veronica as much as he hates her. The relationships are both fun and touching.

The mystery, as always, is multi-layered and complex. I was guessing until the end. You know I love a movie that manages to surprise me.

The Verdict:
I loved it. I think it had a few issues, as mentioned above. If you never liked the show, I don’t know why you’d even consider watching this. It’s pretty much exactly like the show, so don’t bother. If you never watched the show, you might want to before seeing the movie. I think the movie is enjoyable without seeing the show, but you might be a little lost, or at least feel like you’re missing out on some big joke (which you kind of are).

If, however, you liked the show, then you’ll probably like this. It’s immensely entertaining. I smiled the whole time and laughed quite a bit. I’m thrilled by the implication that there will be a sequel. Shut up and take my money, I say. 

I give the movie 4.25 stars.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A-Z Movies, U: "Unfinished Song"

Recommended by:
Cindy (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 2012 (Canada)
British & German, in English
Director - Paul Andrew Williams
Stars - Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccleston

Plot Summary:
Cantankerous Arthur (Stamp), still reeling from his wife Marion’s (Redgrave) terminal cancer diagnosis, takes comfort in her choir group. Arterton co-stars as the choir’s volunteer director, Elizabeth, and Eccleston as Arthur and Marion’s son, James.

Very minor blue language, plus a rude gesture or two.

Bad Stuff:
In terms of the singing competition, the story seemed pretty unrealistic to me, although many other aspects of the film were very realistic.

I didn’t really like Eccleston in it. He just kind of grimaced and moped through the whole thing.

Good Stuff:
I really enjoyed Stamp’s performance, very subtle and layered.

I liked the underlying story. Major movie companies aren’t keen on telling stories for older people. I suppose it’s not where the money is. But those stories are important to tell, because they’re stories that most of us will live at some point. This particular one really resonated with me.

It had some surprisingly funny moments.

The Verdict:
Man, some movies should come with a “waterworks” warning on the tin. I could tell from reading the description that this wasn’t going to be an easy one for me to get through emotionally, but I wasn’t expecting to be crying from practically the opening scene. I’m so glad I watched this from the comfort of my own living room. Since my mother’s death, I can’t seem to get through films about cancer without bawling my eyes out, and there’s something about stories of long-term partners coming to grips with the fact that someday they’ll lose each other that really gets to me. I guess I can imagine myself in this scenario (most likely my husband losing me, since my family seems to die fairly young) all too well. Let’s just say I barely survived watching this film.

That being said, I really liked it. It’s a good story, very satisfactory. As sad as it is, there are a lot of amusing moments in it as well. I loved the choir’s various song choices. And there are some strong performances. All in all, it was quite well done. 

I give it 4.25 stars.