Monday, January 30, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #52: "Predator" (1987)

Movie Stats:
Released 1987 (USA)
American, in English (some Spanish, mostly translated)
Director - John McTiernan
Stars - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers

Plot Summary:
When a team of mercenaries is hired to rescue the survivors of a downed helicopter from rebels in an unnamed jungle country, they run afoul of a dangerous alien creature. Schwarzenegger stars as the leader of the mercenaries, Dutch, and Weathers as his buddy, CIA agent Dillon.

Extreme violence; extreme gore; heavy blue language.

Bad Stuff:
There’s no real point to it (unless you consider showing off Arnie’s muscles a “point”). It’s pure action, no message.

It suffers a little bit from “action movie magic.” For example, I’m fairly certain that, in real life, with approximately 100,000 bullets flying around, at least one of them would hit a human target that the shooter didn’t intended for it to hit.

The alien’s camouflage special effect has not aged particularly well.

Good Stuff:
One of my least favorite tropes is the overpowered villain that’s brought down by luck, so I really appreciated that Dutch used his wits and his skills to defeat the predator.

A lot of times, sci fi action movies create rules for themselves only to then repeatedly break them. I think this film does a good job of avoiding that. For example, the predator has a fairly strict honor code (for one, it doesn’t attack non-combatants) that he doesn’t break, even when he encounters greater danger than he expected. Also, the film does a great job of communicating that via action rather than exposition.

I liked the soundtrack.

The Verdict:
If testosterone could be harnessed as a source of energy, this film alone could light up a major city for at least a week, I think. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. If you don’t mind violence and gore, it’s immensely enjoyable. You don’t go into it thinking, “This is going to make me question reality/give me food for thought.” You go into it thinking, “I’m going to see lots of explosions, hear lots of pithy one-liners, and it’s going to look freaking cool.” It’s all about your expectations. This is a great entry to the action genre with a sci fi twist. I’m a little bit surprised by its high placement on the list, but my husband argues that it was innovative for the time, which I think is a fair assessment.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #53: "Akira" (1988)

Movie Stats:
Released 1988 (Japan)
Japanese, in Japanese (I saw a version that was dubbed in English)
Director - Katsuhiro Otomo
Stars - Cam Clarke, Jan Rabson, Lara Cody

Plot Summary:
In post-apocalyptic New Tokyo, two teenaged members of a motorcycle gang - Kaneda (Clarke) and Tetsuo (Rabson) - get caught up in a very dangerous government plot. Cody co-stars as Kei, a woman also involved in the plot/Kaneda’s love interest.

Lots of violence; gore; brief female nudity (breasts only); blue language.

Bad Stuff:
I recently saw someone online reference this movie and say, “What the hell did I just watch?” So apparently some people find it confusing. I didn’t think it was, but I could see how it would be too philosophical/out there for a lot of moviegoers.

This is probably a dumb thing to criticize, but I could’ve done without the creepy little kids and their creepy little kid voices.

The occasional attempts at humor felt out of place within the context of the film.

Good Stuff:
The animation is impressive.

I liked the plot. It’s complex and engaging. It felt realistic, particularly the behavior of the government, i.e. “What, we screwed something up? Let’s do it the exact same way and see if we screw it up again.” I also enjoyed the friendship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, and that the film recognized that friendships can be both important and complicated.

The soundtrack is great.

The Verdict:
I thought this was a really solid film. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest fan of Japanese anime. In my opinion, it has a tendency to be really weird, usually in a way that makes me uncomfortable. This one was no exception when it came to weirdness, but I found that I didn’t mind. The overall plot saves it from straying into my dislike category, largely because it’s coherent and interesting. As usual, I wish I could’ve seen it in its original language with subtitles, but that wasn’t the version I was sent. In the end, I thought these voice actors were better than most (I see on IMDB that all of them have had very active careers), so it wasn’t much of a distraction. Definitely a film you should watch at least once in your lifetime.

I give it 4 stars.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Woodland Enchantress Cross Stitch, Project Report 3

Three more months have passed, so it's time for another update on my cross stitch!

A reminder of what it's supposed to look like when I'm done:

What it looked like in October 2016:

What it looks like now:

This represents 23.25 hours of work spread out over 10 days. Nearly all of that work was done at home, most of it in 2 hour chunks, although there were a couple of days where I fit in 3+ hours. I felt like I'd done a lot until I saw the picture of where it was at last time I posted. Now it feels like I've done hardly anything at all.

Oh well, onward and upward!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #54: "Soylent Green" (1973)

Movie Stats:
Released 1973 (USA)
American, in English (very minimal translated Spanish)
Director - Richard Fleischer
Stars - Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson

Plot Summary:
In a near, dystopian future, police detective Thorn (Heston) uncovers a disturbing conspiracy while investigating the murder of a wealthy man. Robinson co-stars as Thorn’s partner, Sol Roth.

Violence; gore; very minor blue language; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
The fight scenes are cheesy.

Since this movie is over 40 years old, I already knew its big secret, even though I’d never seen a single second of it before (didn’t even know who starred in it). Already knowing the big secret made the great lengths the movie goes through to keep it seem silly. I felt like, “Geez, just spit it out already.” (It doesn’t until the final scene.)

The “love interest” (Shirl, portrayed by Leigh Taylor-Young) felt shoehorned in and unnecessary.

Good Stuff:
I always enjoy a dystopian future that feels realistic. The problems the human race faces in this (overpopulation, pollution, climate change, famine) made sense. The way individual people and society react to those issues also made sense.

It’s moving. A lot of times, when dystopian futures are depicted, empathy, compassion, and wonder are missing. That’s not the case here. My favorite scene was when Sol and Thorn were viewing a video of Earth as it was (i.e. teeming with natural beauty) and Sol, an old man who knew that world, said, “See, didn’t I tell you?” and Thorn, a younger man, replied, “I didn’t know. How could I have imagined?” The idea that whole generations of human beings could grow up without knowing natural beauty affected me.

There are a lot of “big hitters” in this (in addition to Heston and Robinson: Chuck Connors, Brock Peters, Joseph Cotten, and more). They all do a pretty good job.

The Verdict:
I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. I expected it to be slow, boring, and cheesy (like a lot of 1970s sci fi). While the fight scenes were indeed cheesy, the rest of it wasn’t, and I didn’t find it slow or boring at all. Knowing “the secret” took the suspense out of it, but that’s certainly not the movie’s fault. I feel like I complain a lot that the movies on this list have great ideas that are executed poorly. This one has a great idea that’s executed well. It was refreshing after a couple of films that didn’t exactly delight me.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #55: "Repo Man" (1984)

Movie Stats:
Released 1984 (West Germany)
American, in English (some non-translated Spanish)
Director - Alex Cox
Stars - Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton

Plot Summary:
Disaffected youth Otto (Estevez) stumbles into a job as a repo man and finds himself embroiled in a strange plot that involves aliens and a missing car. Stanton co-stars as Bud, Otto’s repo man mentor.

Lots of blue language (including homophobic slurs); violence; gore; references to sexy times; drug use.

Bad Stuff:
Well, you won’t be wondering if this movie is low budget. When you think of a “cult classic,” you’re probably thinking of this level of quality (poor).

It’s dull. Felt way longer than an hour and a half.

It just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Nothing is ever explained. People don’t behave the way you would expect people to behave. Especially toward the end, everything fell apart and I kept thinking, “Why is that person banding together with that person? Why did that person turn on those people? Where did that repo man get a machine gun?” Etc.

Good Stuff:
It has some pretty funny moments. A personal favorite: [SPOILER-y I guess] At the hospital, when Otto lifts the blanket covering the face of a presumed corpse to find his sort-of-friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) underneath. “Otto … ” Kevin groans and Otto, expressionless, lays the blanket back down and walks away. [SPOILER] I laughed way too hard at that.

I like its weirdo ending. It fits this weirdo film.

I love the punk rock soundtrack.

The Verdict:
Look, I was a bit of a punk rocker when I was younger, so I think I get why teenaged me thought this movie was hilarious and awesome. As an adult, I can tell that it’s supposed to be edgy and cool and weird. It’s not that I don’t “get it.” It’s that I don’t much care for it. Movies can be weird and still make sense. Not only does this not make sense, it’s a hot mess. Underneath it all, there’s a bit of charm that saves it from being completely terrible, and the performances of Stanton and Tracey Walter (as repo yard handyman Miller) also give it a boost. So I won’t completely pan it, but I also don’t think you’re missing out on anything if you never see it.

I give it 2.75 stars.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Music Love: "Mexican Chef" by Xenia Rubinos

I can’t say that I listen to a lot of music that’s “political” in nature but from the opening bass line of “Mexican Chef,” I was hooked.

I found it on a 2016 “best songs of the year” list. At first, I only listened to the catchy tune. The lyrics seemed a bit non-sensical until I really began to listen to them. Then I realized that Xenia Rubinos had something important and poignant to say about the experience of people of color in the United States.

From the opening lyrics: “French bistro … Dominican chef … Italian restaurant … Boricua* chef … Chinese takeout … Mexican chef …Noveau America … Bachata* in the back”

To the meat of the song: “Brown walks your baby, Brown walks your dog, Brown raised America in place of its mom. Brown cleans your house, Brown takes the trash, Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass.”

To the refrain that may be stuck in your head for days: “I want it, want it all now. I want it all now. We build the ghettos and we tear them down.”

Rubinos is talking about how people of color do much of the hard, important labor that keeps America going, and how they get so little recognition for it that they are often lumped into one indistinguishable category of “brown.”

Some people may find that offensive, or it may make them feel defensive, but I find it fresh and insightful. I like that she took a sensitive, serious topic and packaged it in a way that people will get into because it’s both fun and relatable. Plus, she’s got some great dance moves.

It was a fitting song, I think, for 2016 and certainly deserved its place on a “best of” list.

*Perhaps, like me, you know little Spanish. Boricua is a colloquial term for Puerto Ricans, especially those living in the U.S. Bachata is a particular type of music & dance that originated in the Dominican Republic.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #56: "The Time Machine" (1960)

Movie Stats:
Released 1960 (Italy)
American, in English
Director - George Pal
Stars - Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux

Plot Summary:
Inventor H. George Wells (Taylor) creates a time machine that he uses to take a fantastical journey into the future. Young co-stars as George’s friend, David Filby, and Mimieux as George’s love interest, Weena.

Violence; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
I didn’t like George. He’s histrionic, sanctimonious, and incredibly condescending toward Weena. I’m unsure if it’s because she’s young or because she’s a woman or a little bit of both. Whatever the reason, it’s very annoying.

It’s dull.

It’s cheesy.

Good Stuff:
I liked David. Everyone could use a friend like him.

The beginning, while slow, was pretty interesting to me. I enjoyed the discussion of the fourth dimension and time travel.

The Verdict:
So, there are a lot of movies on this list based on the fiction of H.G. Wells. Also, I recently read one of his books (The Island of Dr. Moreau) for my book group. With so much exposure to him, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a fan of H.G. Wells. I find his writing to be juvenile, I tend to not like his main characters (who are often histrionic), and he reuses ideas frequently. Every time another Wells story appears on my list, my heart sinks.

After reading a synopsis of the book, it seems that this version of the movie (there are several remakes) follows it most closely, but I think it suffers a lot from the time period it was filmed during. It’s goofy, the special effects are bad, and the music is almost painfully overbearing. I do think there were a couple of good ideas in there, but the execution was poor. I’m genuinely shocked that it has such great reviews on IMDB. I thought it was a boring chore.

I give it 2 stars.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Top Movies of the Year 2016

Inspired by a friend, in 2016 I kept track of my movie viewing habits. I subsequently decided to make a post about my favorites.

In total I watched 142 full-length movies.* 50 of those were movies I’d seen at least once before. I also watched 20+ short films. The “plus” is because I was lazy & didn’t keep track of how many films I saw during the two days of the Oceanside International Film Festival that I attended.

Top 5 Full Length Films:

5.Hello, My Name Is Doris” (2015), directed by Michael Showalter

After the death of her mother, 60-something Doris (Sally Field) slowly begins to blossom. This doesn’t have the best reviews online but I thought it was both sweet and charming.

4.Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Teenager Greg (Thomas Mann) befriends Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a peer with cancer, and learns valuable lessons about life and friendship.

3. Spotlight” (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy

A dramatized look at the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal. 2015’s Best Picture winner, it’s very, very good.

2.The American Astronaut” (2001), directed by Cory McAbee

It’s a space western musical in which trader Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee) sets out on a mission that will earn him a big payday. This movie is rather quirky, but I found it endlessly entertaining.

1.The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young” (2014), directed by Annika Iltis & Timothy James Kane

This documentary showcases the Barkley Marathons, an “ultramarathon trail race” held in Tennessee each year. This marathon is insane and the documentary about it is absolutely delightful. I found it on a Reddit thread about “great films you’re missing on Netflix instant watch” and added it to my list. I was not disappointed.

Honorable Mentions: The Damned, Populaire, Chinatown

Top 3 Short Films:

3.Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay)” (2015), directed by Patrick Vollrath

A divorced man, feeling threatened by his ex-wife’s new relationship, does something desperate in order to retain custody of his daughter. You will hate this father and empathize with him all at the same time. It’s masterfully done.

2.Shok” (2015), directed by Jamie Donoughue

Two young boys find their friendship tested in war-torn Kosovo. The ending is absolutely gut-wrenching. I felt devastated for days after.

1.World of Tomorrow” (2015), directed by Don Hertzfeldt

In this animated short, a young girl is visited by her future self (sort of). It’s weird and inventive and funny and poignant.

Honorable Mentions: A Girl in the River (Best Documentary Short Winner), In Memory

*My criteria is that I had to watch the film in full. Frequently, I will turn on a film in the background while I'm working (usually something I’ve seen before) and not complete it. In my opinion, those don’t count.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Up with Geography: Costa Rica

Country Name:
Costa Rica

San Jose

North America

North American continent. Costa Rica outlined
in dark ink & shaded.

A close-up of Costa Rica & its neighbors.

Nicaragua, Panama

Water Borders:
Pacific Ocean, San Juan River, Caribbean Sea

Total Area:
19,653 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
San Jose, Puerto Limon, Alajuela, Heredia, Cinco Esquinas

Famous Geographical Point:
Lake Arenal

Famous Person:
Jorge Eduardo Arroyo-PĂ©rez, playwright, poet, ambassador & more

Book Set In/About:
Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica by Jack Ewing

A series of essays about the Costa Rican ecosystem written by a man who lives there. I have to admit that I tried to read this book a few years ago based on a friend's recommendation & couldn't get into it, but it has great reviews online so maybe it's just me.

Movie Set In/About:
"Viaje" (2015), directed by Paz Fabrega

After meeting at a party, two young Costa Ricans take a spontaneous camping trip together and their romance blossoms.

Headline of the Day:
"The Rainforest Masks of Costa Rica Being Shared Around the World" in The Costa Rican Times.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #57: "Dune" (1984)

Movie Stats:
Released 1984 (USA)
American, in English
Director - David Lynch
Stars - Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Kenneth McMillan, and many others

Plot Summary:
In a distant future where the fate of the universe depends on who controls a power-giving spice, young Paul Atreides (MacLachlan) discovers that he may be the messiah prophesied to save humanity. Annis co-stars as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and McMillan as Paul’s nemesis, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

Violence; gore; drug use; mildly implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
The constant whispering voiceover “inner monologue” exposition drove me nuts. It’s like the director thought his audience would be too stupid to understand the film or that his actors were too weak to convey the point with actions/expressions.

There’s a lot of scenery chewing. McMillan is the worst offender, but plenty of others have their moments, such as Brad Dourif (as Harkonnen sycophant Piter De Vries), Sian Phillips (as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam), and even, occasionally, the great Patrick Stewart (as Paul’s personal trainer, Gurney Halleck).

I find it dull. Not completely sure why, but I think it has to do with pacing.

Good Stuff:
I enjoy its mystical elements.

It’s got a nice spin on the standard messiah story. There are elements that set it apart from others.

A lot of the special effects still look really cool. Granted, some of them are awful (the shield stuff in particular), but I suspect those things weren't good at the time either. I’ve always thought the glowing eyes look great, and I was impressed by the worms. The “explode stuff with my mind” stuff is good. So is Harkonnen’s flying. I was relieved by how much it didn’t look like wire-fu.

The Verdict:
I can’t say that I’ve ever been a big fan of this film. I enjoy the creativity of the story, in that it’s a fresh take on a very old trope. A lot of the special effects have held up, and there are a ton of actors in it that you’d recognize (some of whom perform more capably than others). For me, I think this is a case of bad directing hampered by the time period in which it was made. This is a rare instance when I’d love to see a modern remake (the most recent was in 2000), because I think it would benefit greatly from some 2010s gritty realism. If they ever do another remake, I hope the director will trust the audience enough to not insist that his characters constantly whisper their thoughts in voiceover.

I give it 2.75 stars.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Top Books of the Year 2016

Click on the Top Books tag at the bottom to view all the posts on this topic.

Here are my favorite books of 2016:

5. Callings by Dave Isay
Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, an ongoing oral history project. The mission of StoryCorps "is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world." To that end, they provide booths throughout the country where people can share & record their histories. Amongst other things, Isay has published several books of these stories. Usually these books are themed. I've read most of them & find them incredibly moving. I wasn't expecting Callings, which is about peoples' careers, to be as moving. I was a fool. It brought me to tears more than once. Truly touching and inspiring.

4. This Love is Not for Cowards by Robert Andrew Powell
Journalist Powell spent a year living in Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico's most dangerous cities, in order to follow the trajectory of the city's beloved soccer team, the Indios. Mexico's soccer federation runs on a promotion/relegation system. The Indios, newly promoted to the top tier, were fighting to stay there. At the same time, the city was experiencing a surge in drug cartel-related violence. This book is about so much more than soccer. It's about the history of Mexico and of Juarez. It's about drugs and gangs and violence. And it's about love, love for club and city and country. So interesting that it made me want to learn more about Mexico.

3. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Young Adult Fiction
Well-to-do teenager Cadence spends each summer with her extended family on a private island off Cape Cod. One summer, tragedy occurs, but it is a tragedy that Cadence cannot remember. Fragile and unstable, Cadence returns to the island to piece her past together, but the truth may be too much for her to bear. Before reading this book, I'd heard that I would never see the ending coming. They were right about that. This one was a gut punch. It broke my heart. I was depressed for days after finishing it. Maybe that makes it sound unappealing, but you have to believe me that this book is really lovely.

2. Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson
What happens to presidents after they die? Do their bodies lie in state or do they take a trip around the country? Where are they buried? How are they remembered? And how are those legacies formed? Carlson covers all of those questions and more in this immensely entertaining and informative book about the U.S. Presidents. I particularly appreciated that Carlson traveled around the country to visit each president's gravesite. Visiting a president's grave is literally something I'd never considered before. I enjoyed his descriptions of all of those places I will likely never see. This book inspired me; I've added a bunch of presidential biographies to my reading list.

1. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Young Adult Fiction
Ostensibly this book is about two boys, former boyfriends, trying to break the world record for longest kiss. In reality, it's about much more. Levithan intertwines several connecting stories to build a beautiful tapestry about love and acceptance, fear and bravery, longing and connection. Initially, I found the "Greek chorus" of HIV victims off-putting, but as I kept reading, I began to recognize how beautiful it was. This book touched me deeply.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Kentucky

State Name:


Date of Entry:
June 1, 1792

Map of USA. Kentucky outlined in dark ink, shaded &
with name written on it.

A close-up of Kentucky & its neighbors.

Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee

Water Borders:
Mississippi River, Ohio River

Total Area:
40,409 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green, Owensboro, Covington

Famous Geographical Point:
Lake Cumberland

State Nickname:
The Bluegrass State. Because of the abundant amount of bluegrass (the plant, not the music) in the state.

Famous Person:
Muhammad Ali, titan of boxing

Book Set In/About:
The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

Set during Kentucky's early history, it's about pioneers from Virginia.

Movie Set In/About:
"Harlan County, U.S.A." (1976), directed by Barbara Kopple

A documentary about the 1973 miners' strike in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Headline of the Day:
"Kentucky Prime Spot to View 2017's Rare Solar Eclipse" on WLWT Cincinnati.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #58: "Donnie Darko" (2001)

Movie Stats:
Released 2001 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Richard Kelly
Stars - Jake Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Jena Malone, and many others

Plot Summary:
Troubled teen Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) has visions and is told by his imaginary friend Frank (Duval) - who also makes him do bad things - that the world will soon end. But is he crazy? Malone co-stars as Donnie’s new girlfriend, Gretchen Ross.

Lots of blue language; violence; gore; very minor drug use; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
Drew Barrymore, as teacher Karen Pomeroy, is noticeably awful. The only weak link of the cast.

I’m not sure that I completely buy the Darko family’s reactions to Donnie’s behavior. They were a lot less concerned than one might expect.

Good Stuff:
Gyllenhaal is phenomenal. I also greatly enjoyed Patrick Swayze (as motivational speaker Jim Cunningham). The rest of the cast, apart from Barrymore, is good too.

There are a lot of movies that play the “Is this person crazy?” game. Most of them, in my opinion, aren’t very good at it. This one is really good at it. I was unsure of the truth throughout the whole thing. It reminded me a lot of “Take Shelter,” a great film of this genre with a weak conclusion. Fortunately, “Donnie Darko” escaped the weak conclusion trap.

I enjoyed the cinematography. The opening scene in particular is breathtaking.

Great pacing.

The Verdict:
Gosh, this movie isn’t what I was expecting at all. I had a completely wrong idea as to what it’s about. I avoided it for years because of that idea. It’s a good reminder that it’s always best to inform one’s self about things, rather than proceeding based on impressions. If I hadn’t been so resistant to it, I wouldn’t have missed out on this fantastic film for 15 years. That being said, you can probably guess that I really enjoyed it. I thought it was well-written, well-filmed, and well-acted. The added bonus is that the story is interesting. It has this little nugget of a mystery and it does an excellent job of slowly unraveling that mystery. The ending is open to interpretation. I don’t always enjoy that, but I think it fits here. And if you choose to interpret it the way I interpret it, it’s a beautiful story about love and sacrifice. I found it moving.

I give it 4.5 stars.