Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Turning 40

Actual birthday cake that my sweet friends Nick and
Marci made for me.

Today is my 40th birthday.

I’ve never been the type to be particularly bothered by age. I know it’s an oft-repeated platitude, but you really are only as old as you feel, and I can’t say that I feel especially old. Most days, it’s a shock to remember that I’m no longer in my 20s. Although I have noticed that I’m starting to look decidedly more mature - especially in the last five years or so - I don’t have any aches or pains. I still look good. And I figure - I’ve always figured - that the alternative to growing another year older (i.e. death) is worse.

So I can’t say that I’ve been approaching this birthday with any feelings of trepidation. Being the writer that I am, however, there has been a certain amount of navel-gazing going on.

Last week, I started thinking about my 30th birthday party, which was a tremendous amount of fun (and also feels like it was about a million years ago). It was surprising to realize that just about everything has changed in my life since then. The person who hosted that party is no longer my friend. In fact, we “broke up” only months after the party. Every single person who attended that party - while many of them are still friends - are people I no longer get to see because I don’t live in that state anymore. At the time, I had no idea that I would be moving away in less than three years. My husband wasn’t even in the picture, wouldn’t be for another year and a half or so. I had a different cat, my little pumpkin belly Julian, but I didn’t have a dog. My mother was still alive. I wouldn’t complete my Master’s degree for another eleven months. And, most shockingly, I wasn’t pursuing my writing career. In fact, I didn’t really write at all at the time; I wouldn’t start doing so regularly for another five years.

Sometimes, I feel like nothing ever changes. I need these milestones to make me stop and reflect and think to really recognize it, to see that life is full of change and surprises. If you had asked me on that birthday to predict what the next ten years would bring, I would have gotten most of it wrong. I never thought I’d leave Portland, or give up my cat, or lose my mom so young. I never thought I’d have the courage to chase my dream of being a writer. I really couldn’t have envisioned this life if I tried.

Instead of facing middle age with distaste or sadness, all I feel is excitement. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I know that some of it will be bad, but I’m not afraid of that. I’ve already been through a lot of the worst stuff a person can go through. I’ve found that it changed me in a good way. Every year, I figure out how to become a better person, a happier person. Every year, I become more comfortable with being me. 

So, here’s to turning 40. Here’s to chasing dreams and experiencing adventures and learning how to accept ourselves and living life to the fullest. May we all, at the end of our days, look back and think, “Yeah, I totally rocked it.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Up with Geography: Bolivia



South America

South American continent. Bolivia outlined in
dark ink and shaded.

Close up of Bolivia and its neighbors.

Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile

Water Borders:

Total Area:
424,163 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Santa Cruz de la Sierra, La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba, Sucre

Famous Geographical Point:
Salar de Uyuni (the world's largest salt flats; check out the pics online, they're beautiful)

Famous Person:
Simon Iturri Patino, industrialist (known as "The Andean Rockefeller")

Book Set In/About:
The Night by Jaime Saenz

A book of poetry by one of Bolivia's most acclaimed writers.

Movie Set In/About:
"The Cartagena Brothers (Los Hermanos Cartagena)" (1984), directed by Paolo Agazzi

20th century upheaval in Bolivia as seen through the eyes of two brothers, one legitimate and the other illegitimate.

Headline of the Day:
"Miners Escalate Protests in Bolivia" on Yahoo News.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Solo at the Movies: "Testament of Youth" at Royal Laemmle

Note: For a variety of reasons, I missed doing a post for this series in June. My plan is to double up this month.

Theater Info:
Royal Laemmle Theater
11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles
Cost: $8.00 for a matinee showing

Movie Stats:
Released 2014 (UK)
British, in English (some non-translated German)
Director - James Kent
Stars - Alicia Vikander, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan

Plot Summary:
Based on the book of the same name, Vera Brittain’s (Vikander) memoir of love and loss during WWI. Egerton co-stars as Vera’s brother, Edward; Harington as her love interest, Roland; and Morgan as their friend, Victor.

Extreme gore (all violence is off-screen; viewers just get to see the aftermath).

Bad Stuff:
This is not an opinion I share, but I could see where someone would find it slow and boring. (Personally, despite all the action, I found “Jurassic World” way more dull than this film.)

Good Stuff:
The cast is so phenomenal that it’s difficult to single out even just one or two of them. Vikander was amazing. I spent the whole movie thinking, “She looks familiar,” and was absolutely stunned when I looked her up and finally realized she’s the AI in “Ex Machina” (where she was also amazing). I was equally stunned after spending the whole movie trying to place Egerton to realize that it was Eggsy from “Kingsman.” Everything about him in this, including the way he carried himself and the way he spoke, was so completely different from his role in Kingsman that I honestly didn’t realize it was him. I also give serious props to Harington, who I always disliked as John Snow in “Game of Thrones.” I’d never seen him in anything other than GOT, so respect to him for winning me over here. Lastly, I’m giving a special shout out to Hayley Atwell (as nurse Hope), who is such a chameleon in every role that I didn’t recognize her even though I absolutely love her (she also made a surprise-to-me appearance in “Cinderella”).

The cinematography is stunning.

After the movie ended, one of the women next to me turned to her friend and said, “That was a really beautiful movie.” And it was, in every way imaginable. The people, the scenery, the costumes, the story, all of it is incredibly beautiful. In a way, that beauty is terrible, because it makes the film all that much more painful, but it’s still beautiful nonetheless.

The Verdict:
I knew very little about it going in. I wanted to check out the Royal Laemmle, so I looked up what was playing there. I was unfamiliar with all the films, but they all had good ratings, so I chose the one that sounded most interesting to me. I knew only that it starred Vikander (whose name I didn’t recognize) and Harington and that it was about WWI.

This is a film that will punch you repeatedly, ruthlessly, and unapologetically right in the feels. I’ve hardly ever left a movie feeling so gutted. Knowing that it was based on a true story made it even worse. Let me tell you, there was a lot of sniffling going on in that theater, and it wasn’t all coming from me. If that’s not your kind of thing, then you’ll probably want to avoid this one. If you do, however, you’ll be missing out on a really great film. It’s written by an avowed pacifist who experienced the horrors of war firsthand (as a nurse) and felt its terrible wrath over and over again. It’s not supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to make you hurt, and it’s supposed to make you think twice about what the point of war is. It does both of those things very capably. Vera’s story is one that hopefully very few of us will find familiar, but I think it’s one that anyone could imagine happening to them. If you can imagine it, then you’ll definitely want to avoid it. That was her message in life, and I think it’s great that this film continues to carry her message forward, long after she’s gone.

I give the movie 4.75 stars.

About Royal Laemmle Theater:
Another theater that looks dubious on the outside but is great on the inside. Not sure when it was renovated - seems recent - but everything looks brand new: clean, sleek, and modern. The theater I was in was small, but the seats were very comfortable. There’s no parking lot. I walked there this time (it’s just over 2 miles from my place), but I’m familiar with the neighborhood, so I can tell you that there’s free street parking south of SM Blvd, as long as you’re willing to walk a few blocks. The only weird thing about this place is that there appears to be some kind of labor dispute going on. I drove by a few months ago and saw the protestors out front, but then I sort of forgot about it. When I went to the theater today, there were no protestors. However, they were there by the time I left, so I guess the dispute is still ongoing. I have no idea what it’s all about. The protestors made no attempt to talk to me, and I didn’t read their signs. My patronage of the theater is in no way a show of support (or a declaration of lack of support) for either side of the dispute.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

AFI Top 100, #77: "American Graffiti" (1973)

Movie Stats:
Released 1973 (USA)
American, in English
Director - George Lucas
Stars - Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith

Plot Summary:
In 1962 California, friends Curt (Dreyfuss), Steve (Howard), John (Le Mat), and Terry (Smith), all recent high school grads, have one last night of teenaged fun before buckling down into their adult lives.

Brief male nudity (butt only); mild violence; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
Holy crap, it’s SO boring. It’s mostly just them cruising around in their cars for two hours.

It’s not even half as funny as it thinks it is.

With the exception of Dreyfuss, I wasn’t especially impressed with the performances (although it was fun to see Harrison Ford, as Bob Falfa, play out of type).

The little “where are they now” section at the end was surprisingly maudlin. The tone of it didn’t really fit the film. Maybe that was the point? “Welcome to adulthood! It sucks.”

Good Stuff:
Great soundtrack.

Really good performance from Dreyfuss. His storyline makes the whole movie. Howard’s is boring teenaged drama; Le Mat’s is pointless; and Smith’s is supposed to bring the laughs; but Dreyfuss got the meaty role, the question that the movie is actually pondering, and he did really well with it.

I like that it explores a part of the teenage experience that is rarely covered in film: that making the transition from childhood to adulthood is as frightening as it is thrilling, and that it can be difficult to have the courage to embrace that transition with enthusiasm.

The Verdict:
I mean, it’s not like it’s crap or anything. I just saw an awful lot of reviews online waxing poetic about it being an “American classic” and I can’t really find it in myself to agree. This is another one of those movies where I think to myself, “I totally get why Baby Boomers love this.” I really do. This is Baby Boomer nostalgia through and through, much like Forrest Gump is. So I understand how it could end up on this list, because I’m certain most of the AFI voters are Baby Boomers and their elders, but I’m not convinced that it belongs on the list.  I really found it so incredibly dull, which was disappointing, because I was actually looking forward to it. I thought it was going to be fun (I saw it once before, but it was nearly 30 years ago, so I couldn’t remember any of it). I didn’t have fun, unless you count the game I played on my phone while I was watching it. 

I give the movie 2.5 stars.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Music Love: "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" by The Monkees

I love music just as much as, if not more than, I love movies, but for some reason, I don’t talk about that much here. The other day, as I was writing, I had music on and one of the songs I’ve really been digging lately came on. “Why don’t I do some blog posts about the songs I love?” I thought to myself. And hence this series was born.

For my first entry, I present you with The Monkees’ “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).”

I’ve always loved The Monkees. When I was a kid, my brothers and I watched the reruns of their show all the time. Just like there were four of them, there were four of us in our little family, so we each chose a Monkee to represent us. I was Davy Jones; my brother Mike was Mike Nesmith; my brother Ken (a blond) was Peter Tork; and Mickey Dolenz was assigned to my mom because he was the only one left over. Davy Jones was one of my very first crushes. I was devastated when he died a few years ago.

The Monkees are often written off because they were a “manufactured” band. One could even reasonably describe them as a “boy band.” However, they were all talented musicians in their own right before being cast on the show. The producers assigned pretty much all of them to play different instruments than what they normally played, so they had to learn new ones. Jones, for example, was an accomplished drummer, but he virtually never played drums when he was with the Monkees. They wrote a lot of their own songs, especially Nesmith (he also wrote my favorite Linda Ronstadt song, “Different Drum”). All of them could sing. There’s seriously not a weak singer in the bunch. They used each singer differently and, in my opinion, correctly. They definitely knew what they were doing.

I’ve been loving “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” written by Neil Diamond, for a lot of reasons. One, I love Davy’s vocals. He sings this one with more of an edge than normal. Two, I’m a sucker for uptempo, happy-on-the-surface songs that are actually unhappy at the core (see: The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”). And three, I think it’s funny. This guy’s whole problem is that he’s got the hots for two women. Truly an issue for the ages!

As to what’s going on in the video, I couldn’t tell you. It’s a clip from the show, but it’s not an episode I recall. I have no idea why there’s a guy tied up in it, or why The Monkees are singing about a love triangle at what appears to a child’s birthday party. The dancing kids are pretty priceless though! I learned everything I know about 1960s dance moves from this show and from the old “Batman” TV show.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

AFI Top 100, #s 79 & 78

This time, I have two in a row that I’ve previously reviewed, both of them for my Best Picture Project. Below is the pertinent information about each: the movie stats, plot summary, and the rating I gave it.

Movie Stats:
Released 1978 (USA)
American & British, in English (some non-translated Vietnamese)
Director – Michael Cimino
Stars – Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep

Plot Summary:
Follows the story of friends Mike (DeNiro), Steven (Savage), and Nick (Walken) as they go from factory workers in a Pennsylvania steel mill town to soldiers in the wilds of Vietnam. Streep co-stars as Nick’s love interest Linda.

2 stars

Full review HERE.

Movie Stats:
Released 1976 (USA)
American, in English
Director – John G. Avildsen
Stars – Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers

Plot Summary:
When washed-up, low-level fighter Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is offered a chance to fight against heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Weathers), he accepts despite his misgivings. Shire co-stars as Rocky’s love interest Adrian Pennino and Meredith as his manager, Mickey Goldmill.

3.25 stars

Full review HERE.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

AFI Top 100, #80: "The Wild Bunch" (1969)

Movie Stats:
Released 1969 (USA)
American, in English (a lot of Spanish, most of it non-translated; a little bit of non-translated German)
Director - Sam Peckinpah
Stars - William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Emilio Fernandez

Plot Summary:
Pike Bishop (Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Borgnine), a couple of aging outlaws looking to make one last, big score, team up with “Generalisimo” Mapache (Fernandez) to steal military munitions from a train. Ryan co-stars as Deke Thornton, Pike’s former partner who’s been pressed into service by the train company to chase down Pike.

Graphic violence; mild blue language, including a derogatory term in Spanish; female nudity (very brief butt, a fairly long shot of breasts); heavily implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
It’s too long (2 hours, 20 minutes), and I felt every second of it. I know, I know, I sound like a broken record about film length, but a lot of them are honestly just too long and would be better if scenes were shortened or cut out all together. For example, how many times did I need to see them cavorting with prostitutes? Once was enough, really.

Speaking of prostitutes, the misogyny in this film was appalling. Female characters exist literally only to pleasure men. And when they don’t please the men, they get killed. It’s disgusting.

There’s something about the way films were made in the late 1960s/early 1970s that I just don’t like. I don’t understand film terminology well enough to really articulate why. For example, there will be these lingering shots of children looking precocious or frightened or whatever in a way that feels like I’m being bludgeoned over the head with “the point.” And there’s a way that they cut between scenes - mostly into flashbacks in this film - that I find jarring. I don’t know if those examples make sense. Anyway, this movie really felt like a movie of its era in a bad way to me.

Good Stuff:
I enjoyed the friendship between Pike and Dutch.

I liked that the “heroes” are all anti-heroes.

The train heist was pretty nifty.

The Verdict:
It’s not the slowest, most boring, or most racist western I’ve ever seen, but by the end I still had that “that’s nearly two and a half hours of my life I’m never getting back” feeling. With each successive western that I see, I become more and more convinced that they’re not for me. As I was watching it, I got to wondering who the voters were that put the AFI Top 100 together. I did a little digging around and learned that AFI never released their names. Therefore, I’m going to go with my gut instinct and assume that the vast majority of them were older, white gentlemen. If that’s true, I can definitely understand why this movie appealed to them. As a woman born post-1969, however, I found little relatable in it, although I did see a lot that was depressingly familiar (i.e. its disturbing treatment of women). Let’s just say I’m glad to be done with this one. 

I give it 2.5 stars.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Postcards: Vintage Santa Monica

I'm an avid user of public libraries. I have been since I was a kid. I'm typically there at least once a week. I love that, in this modern age, I can order books and DVDs from any library in the system and have them delivered to my local branch, which is only a five-minute walk away. It's all so easy and convenient. It's a rare day that they don't have what I'm looking for. I wish more people understood how truly awesome libraries are.

Last week when I swung by the library to pick up a hold item, I noticed a sign offering a promo for signing up for a library card. The choices were either $5 off something - I honestly can't recall what because my eyes were immediately drawn to the second offer - or a free pack of 10 "Vintage Santa Monica" postcards. They had a sample of the pack out for view.

Since I already have a library card, I couldn't take advantage of the promo. I approached the librarian to ask if I might buy the pack. She said that they weren't selling them, and then gave me a pack for free. It honestly made my day. THANK YOU super cool SMPL librarian! I thought that my readers might enjoy these postcards as well, so below I've posted a select few.

This is the La Monica Ballroom and Santa Monica Pier in 1926. The photographer is C.C. Pierce:

The very first Santa Monica Public Library was located on the second floor of the below building, which is the Bank of Santa Monica. This picture was taken in 1890 by an unknown photographer:

These are paddle board racers, photographed on 8/13/1949 by Del Hagen Studios:

Although this one isn't technically vintage, I think it's my favorite. There's something incredibly pleasing about it. It was taken in Santa Monica's Main Library in September 2005 by Cynni Murphy:

And here is the intersection at 4th and Santa Monica Blvd., photographed circa 1926 or 1927. Photo from Geo Herrmann Photo Art:

All of these images, and more are available for viewing in Santa Monica Public Library's digital archives. Thanks SMPL!

Friday, July 3, 2015

AFI Top 100, #81: "Modern Times" (1936)

Movie Stats:
Released 1936 (USA)
American, in English (much of the film is silent; there aren’t even all that many scene cards)
Director - Charlie Chaplin
Stars - Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard*

Plot Summary:
After a factory worker (Chaplin) suffers a nervous breakdown, he’s forced to navigate the many perils of 1930s America. Goddard co-stars as the gamin, the factory worker’s eventual love interest.

Minor, non-graphic violence; (unintentional) drug use; one scene of sexual humor that I think some would consider inappropriate for children.

Bad Stuff:
Although it came in just under an hour and a half, it still felt too long. In my opinion, some of the gags could have been shorter and still been impactful.

Chaplin’s schtick occasionally gets a little bit too goofy for my taste.

Good Stuff:
It’s so funny! There are some scenes, such as the “feeding machine,” that really had me in stitches. Since there’s little audible dialogue, much of the humor is carried by Chaplin’s facial expressions and his physicality, and it works. I think my favorite thing in the whole movie is his awkward, uncomfortable smile. I laughed every time he flashed it.

I loved the score, which was written by Chaplin (as was the screenplay).

It’s such a great time capsule of 1930s America: the painful transition to modernization, unemployment, strikes, hunger, and desperation, but also a sense of hope that pervaded even during the worst of times.

The Verdict:
I was skeptical of this one, but I have to say that it’s very enjoyable. I had so much fun watching it. I’d actually never seen any of Chaplin’s work before, so this was a pleasant surprise. However, it’s not just humorous. This is a very insightful look into 1930s America. On top of that, it is, at its core, quite poignant. Ultimately, all the factory worker and the gamin want is what everyone wants: meaningful work, love, and a stable home. Those things shouldn’t be that hard to find, and yet they seem to be for so many people. I really felt for their plight. This film may be from the 1930s, but I think that it’s extremely relatable in, um, modern times. If you haven’t yet seen it, you should give it a shot.

I give the movie 4.25 stars.**

*Bonus Fun Fact: Paulette Goddard was married for twelve years to one of my all-time favorite authors, Erich Maria Remarque. For some reason, I think that's just swell.

** In August 2015, after further reflection, I raised the rating of this movie from 4 to 4.25 stars.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

AFI Top 100, #82: "Giant" (1956)

Movie Stats:
Released 1956 (USA)
American, in English (some Spanish, mostly non-translated)
Director - George Stevens (who also gave us A Place in the Sun)
Stars - Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean

Plot Summary:
When Texas rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (Hudson) goes to Maryland to buy a horse, he meets and quickly marries beautiful firebrand Leslie (Taylor). This is the story of their lives together. Dean co-stars as Bick’s ranch hand, Jet Rink.

Minor (fight-related) violence; use of racial slurs.

Bad Stuff:
God save me from schmaltzy 1950s soundtracks. Ugh.

This is one of the most unnecessarily long movies on the planet (3 hours, 20 minutes). Watching it is a test of both endurance and perseverance. Even the kids in the final scene have “Is this thing over yet?” written all over their faces.

Bick is extremely unlikable, and doesn’t improve with age. Actually, I didn’t like Leslie much either. (Nor do I like Jet but he’s supposed to be unlikable.) It’s hard to root for the Benedict family when the parents are mostly insufferable. Not sure how they managed to raise some great kids (except for Luz [Carroll Baker], she kind of sucks too, but then so did her namesake, Bick's sister Luz [Mercedes McCambridge]).

Good Stuff:
This is my favorite of James Dean’s performances.

Great make-up work to age Hudson and Taylor as the movie progresses. Their character development as they aged was good too.

I do like that it’s not all sunshine and puppies. The story of Bick and Leslie feels fairly realistic, with good times and bad.

The Verdict:
True story. I spent my junior year of college in Germany, where I took a class called “The History of Texas.” During the course of the class, the instructor had us watch “The Alamo” (John Wayne version), a David Byrne movie (I think, “True Stories”), and “Giant.” I loved this class, my hands-down favorite of all the ones I took there. I made some really great friends in that class, including Matt, an American grad student and punk rocker, and Doro, a super cool German lady. Matt introduced us to his Finnish friend Demo, and all of us had a lot of fun together. But I digress.

Due to my happy memories of the class and my friends, I nostalgically watched “Giant” again about four years ago. I was appalled to discover how painfully boring it is. When it came time to review it for my AFI project, I was dismayed to realize that I didn’t remember enough of it to feel confident about writing a decent review. What to do? I procrastinated for weeks before finally giving in and re-watching it. My compromise was that I did other things while it was on.

The problem with movies that are fairly realistic is that they tend to be pretty dull. “Giant” is simply too long and unexciting. Watching a film shouldn’t feel like a form of punishment. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst movie I’ve ever seen. There’s just not much about it that I find especially remarkable. I do think that it was rather progressive for its time, particularly in its treatment of racism against Mexicans, but by today’s standards there are a lot of other things that are rather cringe-inducing. I don’t know, even if you’ve got 3+ hours to waste, I wouldn’t say you should waste them on this, unless you want to see a very young, clean-cut Dennis Hopper (as Jordan Benedict III), although I don’t think he appears until about 2 hours in. 

I give it 2.75 stars.