Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014 Movies, For What It's Worth

It's movie award season again!  I'll have to be honest, this year's selection was limited at best and most of those nominated for awards didn't even screen at most theaters.  Where in years past, there was always something playing in my preferred genre that I hoped to see, that was not the case this year.  There were some that were enjoyable, but overall it was a disappointing year for movies...in my opinion.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - This was the first movie I saw in 2014.  A Tom Clancy super secret spy movie (my favorite genre) with his recurring character Jack Ryan.  Chris Pine starred as the just-starting-out Jack Ryan, super secret spy, and Kevin Costner (where has he been?) played his handler.  Ryan's new wife is kidnapped during his undercover job in Russia by the man he's investigating.   After Alec Baldwin's and Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan, Chris Pine had a lot to live up to.  Plus, I haven't really been a fan of these flashback Jack Ryan movies where he's supposed to be a younger CIA agent - he's certainly younger - but the technology is somehow more modern than it was with older versions.  With that being said, it was an entertaining two hours with a lot of super secret spy gadgets, car chases, and explosions.
The Monuments Men - I posted about this one last summer.  It still shocks me that the reviews were so scathing.  I liked it.  It was interesting, and I thought they did a good job making it entertaining.
3 Days to Kill - Another Kevin Costner film...was he trying to make a comeback this year?  Costner's character is an aging super secret spy who has a terminal illness.  He decides to leave his job to take care of himself and reconnect with his estranged daughter.  Then he's offered one last job...to take out one of the world's most ruthless terrorist in exchange for the cure to his disease.  He's already agreed to stay with his daughter while her mother goes out of town, but can't turn down the cure so the daughter makes his super secret spy work much more difficult.  Again, it was entertaining with all the  bells and whistles of an action film, but it also had some humor to it.
Non-Stop - I'm such a Liam Neeson fan.  Even at 62, he still does action movies well.  He is a down-and-out air marshall who is inadvertently tied to a terrorist attack on one of his flights when the terrorists demand a ransom payment be made into a bank account linked to him.  The film is twisty and turvy and co-stars Julianne Moore who, even in a supporting role, is an entertaining actress.  Another one that isn't going to earn any awards, but was a lot of fun to watch.
Bad Words - Jason Bateman stars in this independent film about a middle-aged "loser" who, due to a loophole in the rules, is allowed to participate in his middle school spelling bee.  When I first saw the preview of this film, my eyes rolled.  It seemed like a stupid premise, and I'm not usually a fan of silly or slapstick.  But after being invited to see it, I'm actually glad I did.  I do warn that it is RAUNCHY, so if you are easily offended, this film is not for you.  Luckily, I am not, so spent an hour and half laughing out loud.  It is well written, quick.  Plus, there is a sweet story that emerges when Bateman's character befriends another contestant and takes on a fatherly role.  I liked it, but wouldn't recommend it to everyone.
The Other Woman - Again, not a genre of movie that I gravitate towards.  Leslie Mann starred in this film, and she's known for more of the silly comedies like "This is 40" and "Knocked Up".  Her character in this film found out that her husband was having an affair.  His mistress, Cameron Diaz, did not know he was married and therefore wife and mistress teamed up to get even.  Shenanigans ensue.  There were a lot of laughable moments, but predictable at best.
Chef - I reviewed this one previously.  I have to to tell you, it was probably my favorite of the year.  
Blended - Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are divorced parents who are set up on a blind date.  The date is a disaster.  A few months later they both decide to take family vacations and wind up on an African safari together.  Another typical silly rom-com.  I do like both Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, and it was sometimes cute, but mostly silly.
A Most Wanted Man - This adaption of the John le Carre novel of the same name starred Phillip Seymore Hoffman (in his last role before dying of a drug overdose) as a German counter intelligence agent working in Hamburg, Germany shortly after 9/11.  He and his team work to turn a Chechen refugee with ties to a terrorist organization.  It is an outstanding film with an ending that leaves you feeling like you've been punched in the stomach.  What a shame it came out so early in the year and therefore isn't up for any awards as it's very well written and acted.
The Drop - Based on a short story by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby, Gone and Mystic River), Tom Hardy plays a Brooklyn bartender who works at a bar linked up with the Chechen mob.  The bar is a drop location for the mob's illegal earnings.  After a couple of neighborhood guys try to rob the place the Chechens believe it to be an inside job.  James Gandolfini (another last film for an actor who has since passed) stars as the previous owner of the bar before succumbing to the mob's influence.  It's a gritty, dark film, and the writing is excellent.
This is Where I Leave You - After the family patriarch dies, his adult children return home to sit shiva alongside their mother for a week.  Jane Fonda stars as the mother and Jason Bateman and Tina Fey play the two main characters/siblings.  It's a family reunion of sorts where each member brings his/her new family along with any personal "baggage" to help mourn the loss of their father while reverting back to behaviors only revealed around family.  The film received average reviews, but I enjoyed it.  I've always found family (with the exception of my own family of course) drama and interaction quite comical.
A Walk Among the Tombstones - Another Liam Neeson film, this time he is a former cop turned private detective who helps a drug dealer after his wife is kidnapped.  Based on the Matthew Scudder series of books by Lawrence Block, Scudder uncovers a pair of serial kidnappers/murderers are responsible and seem to be targeting women in the lives of powerful, but dangerous men.  With the amount of crime and violence we are exposed to from both real accounts and television/movie fiction, most of us have grown immune to it.  The crimes in this film were disturbing.  It was a good detective story but a very creepy crime.  And Neeson plays the repenting antihero so well.
The Skeleton Twins - Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are twins who, after years of estrangement, reconnect when the brother attempts suicide.  Both aren't happy in their own lives, and after reconnecting, force each other to examine why that is.  The trailer of the film makes it look light and comedic, where in fact it's pretty dark at times.  There are some humorous scenes, but it is definitely a drama.  It is well written and acted.
Gone Girl - I posted a review of the film previously.  I had high expectations of the film after reading the book.  It didn't veer much from the story, which is rare in Hollywood, however the element of surprise was missing since I knew it was coming.  I'd recommend it, but warn if you've read the book,  it is a bit of a let down.
St. Vincent - Bill Murray stars as a lonely, unhappy, and broke man who is tasked with watching his new neighbor's son when she must unexpectedly work late.  An unlikely friendship and mentorship emerges between the two.  The banter between them is fun and sweet.  It's a nice film and a little reminiscent of "As Good As It Gets" with Jack Nicholson from a few years ago.
The Homesman - A frontier woman (Hillary Swank) offers to take three women who are suffering from mental illness due to pioneer life to a safe place in Iowa where they can get the help that they need.  The trip in a covered wagon isn't an easy one so she hires a claim-jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) to help her on the trip.  Most of the film is the trip in which they encounter thieves, wild animals, Native Americans all while dealing with the women who must be tied to the wagon to keep them from running away.  The film takes a surprising turn about three-fourths of the way through.  I never would have chosen to see this movie, but there was nothing else playing when we wanted to go.  It was well done though and, from the reviews, did a pretty good job portraying pioneer life.  There was talk of Oscar nominations, and yet there weren't any for this film.
The Gambler - I've never met a Marky Mark Wahlberg movie I didn't like...until this one.  The Gambler is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name starring James Caan.  Wahlberg plays a college professor who has a penchant for gambling, and losing.  He has lost a lot of money and is in debt to a lot of dangerous people.  It sounded like a movie right up my alley, but it wasn't very good.  The main character had zero redeeming qualities that made you want it to all work out in the end for him, and his monologue scenes seemed indulgent to me.  The film's one redeeming quality was the small part that John Goodman played as the dangerous but caring bookie.
Big Eyes - Wow!  What a story.  After seeing the preview of this movie over the summer, my mom mentioned remembering how popular the Keane paintings (children with oversized eyes) were back in 60s. She and I went to see this movie on Christmas Day.  Margaret Keane, played by Amy Adams, moved to San Francisco in 50s and met Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a supposedly struggling artist.  Through a series of events, he took credit as the artist of the big-eyed paintings and became incredibly rich and famous.  For a few years, he manipulated her into keeping the truth in the family for both their sakes, but she finally had enough and leaves him.  At that time, the truth comes out about the real artist.  Walter Keane was a sham all along.  The real Margaret Keane is still alive and paints every day.  Her story is interesting, and it was brought to life on the big screen quite well by both main actors and Director Tim Burton, who happens to be a Keane collector.  Amy Adams won the Golden Globe for her part, but didn't even get a nomination for the Oscar.
These titles just made it to the theater this month.  Somehow they are still part of the 2014 nominations.  I am including them here as they are part of this year's award's season.
Cake - Holy cow, I don't think I've ever walked out of a film feeling so sad.  Jennifer Aniston starred and produced this film about a chronic pain sufferer called Claire.  A fellow sufferer from a support group she attended committed suicide, leaving a husband and young son behind.  The suicide greatly affects Claire, and the story follows her over the next few weeks after the suicide.  While there were bits of humor throughout the film, it is definitely a drama and, at times, hard to watch.  Aniston fully deserved her Golden Globe nomination as she was painfully brilliant.  I think she was robbed not getting nominated for an Oscar.  I'm pretty well-adjusted emotionally, but I did spend the rest of the day tired and a tad melancholy after seeing it.
American Sniper - This movie started a ton of controversy a couple of weeks ago.  Even though I have a lot to say on that subject matter, I will not address that in this post.  As for the movie, it was exactly what it was billed to be.  It is based on the story of Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL, who has been called the deadliest sniper in our history with 160 confirmed kills in the line of duty.  The movie (based on the book) tells about his 4 tours of duty in the Iraq War but also about the difficulty being home with his family after each tour.  The movie was well done, and I didn't feel like it was glorifying OR playing down the horrors of war and his part in it. He had a job to do, and he did it - that's what it was about.  Movies like this are hard to say "I liked it" because it dealt with very serious subject matter AND, if you are familiar with the story, ends very sadly and ironically.  However, it was a good movie - action-packed, suspenseful, sad, funny, I thought I might throw-up a few times - so it was entertaining.  That's why I go to the movies.  I'm not a fan of Bradley Cooper, but he did a good job, maybe not Oscar worthy, but a good job.

Over winter break, I watched some that came out last year but didn't get a chance to see in the theater.  Watching movies at home is hard for me because I either work on something while watching and don't pay attention or fall asleep.  I managed to make it through these without missing too much.
The Good Girls - A coming of age film about two best friends who make a pact to lose their virginity before they both head off to college.  Unfortunately, they both have their sights set on the same brooding photographer, which threatens their friendship.  Although good actors starred in the film (Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Dreyfuss, Demi Moore, Ellen Barkin) it was a little slow, and the writing wasn't all that developed. meh
The Equalizer - A former super, secret spy, Denzil Washington's character now lives alone in a crummy Boston apartment and works at a Home Depot type store.  When a young girl/prostitute he knows gets beaten up by her pimp, he uses his former skills to tell them to back off.  What he doesn't realize is that they are just one small cog in a Russian organized crime machine who decide they don't like his interfering.  It's a a group of about 100 Russians with machine guns and knives against old Denzil.  And who do you suppose wins at the end?  Predictable and yet fascinating as he kills or incapacitates every single Russian without the use of a gun (except for once).  Even as a predictable action film, it was just so-so.
The Grand Budapest Hotel - This one is up for an Oscar.  I'm kind of surprised, but then I'm not either.  It is WACKY (typical of Wes Anderson).  It's a story, within a story, within a story so I'm finding it hard to summarize it.  It takes place in a fictional European ski resort and tells the story of the notorious concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and lobby boy.  It is funny in an odd sort of way. The set design is amazing, so I was glad to see that it received nominations for that - it's worth a watch just for the design and cinematography.  A lot of people didn't care for it, finding it too quirky, but I liked it.
Calvary - Brendan Gleeson stars as a small town priest, Father James, in County Sligo, Ireland.  The film begins with Father James hearing confession from a man who had been abused by a priest as a boy.  The voice tells Father James that he wants to kill a priest for what was done to him, but not a bad priest.  He wants to take the life of a good priest as that would be more shocking.  The man tells Father James that he will be killed in one week, as to let the Father get his affairs in order.  Quite a start to a movie.  The film depicts the next 7 days.  We meet the people of the small town, wondering who it was in the confessional.  Over the next 7 days, Father James counsels the people in his church and deals with his out of touch colleagues.  There are many themes running through this film, some relating to the Catholic church but most going beyond that.  Without giving away the ending, I will say I was shocked and a little sad when it was over.  There are several very funny moments in the film, but it is definitely a drama.  And I have to add, I could not get over how much Brendan Gleeson with a beard looks just like my dad did, which added a whole other emotional element to the film for me.
It seems as if I've had to widened my genre of movie going this past year due to the limited choices of GOOD films in the theaters.  After starting this post, I read an article about how movie going declined in 2014.  The reason initially predicted was the cost of a night out to the movies, but after further research it seems as if regular movie goers felt the same way I do about 2014 - the movie options weren't very good.  It was also disappointing to see that so many of the films nominated for the Academy Awards never came to the mainstream theaters and/or didn't release at the theaters until 2015.  We are stuck enduring 3 screens of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Hunger Games, but movies like The Imitation Game or Foxcatcher aren't playing anywhere nearby.  Now that they've been nominated, we might see them start to come back out to general theaters as it gets closer to the Oscars.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Air Quality

Last week, Jay Leno appeared on the Bill Maher's Real Time.  I've never been much of a Jay Leno watcher and don't know much about him, but apparently he's very knowledgeable about cars.  The segment got under way with a discussion of our surprisingly low fuel prices over the last month.  Leno predicted the reason for the price drop was that we are driving smarter, more fuel efficient cars.  There are probably 20 million more cars on the road than there were ten years ago but we are using less fuel.
He gave an interesting comparison about how our cars have changed over the years.  A 1977 Ford Galaxy parked on the road with the engine off pollutes the air more than a new car driving down the road at 65 mph.  The paint used on the Galaxy alone pollutes the air.  Our cars are being built better and therefore our pollution has actually been greatly reduced over the last 20-30 years. And in a city like Los Angeles, where we are addicted to our cars and have very limited public transportation, that reduction in pollution does say something about those pesky regulations that have been placed on cars over the last several years.
Leno referenced not being able to see the mountains when he first moved out here in the mid 70s due to the smog we had here.  Having been born in the 70s, I have actually witnessed the reversed pollution that has taken place over the last several years.  I vividly remember looking out towards the mountains, any of them, and have them be just covered in a haze of brown smog.  Our air was BROWN.  It would sock itself in The Valley (the mountains corralling it in), and you could literally see the air.
There were many days when, as a kid who played outside for hours, it would hurt to breathe.  A deep breath would seize up your lungs.  When telling our parents about how our chests hurt after running and playing, they would say things like, "It's the smog.  Try taking smaller breaths," or, "Don't breathe too deeply when you're outside."  We had been the most polluted city for so many years, it was just the norm.
But now, it is a rare day to see the brown haze hanging over our heads, and I can't tell you the last time my chest hurst.  We are still a heavily polluted city in other types of pollutants, but so much less of it comes from our cars.  But it does always make me chuckle when, once-in-a-blue moon, poor air quality is calculated and we have to keep our school kids inside the buildings.  The announcement is given via the PA system.  It makes me roll more eyes.  Air quality?  You have got to be kidding me.  If  your chest ain't hurting when you breathe, it's fine!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

To Pull the Trigger or Not

This year my car turns 12 years old.  It's been a good car and has been paid off for probably 10 of those year.  It has low, low mileage and gets me from point A to point B.  So what's the problem?  Well, it's 12 years old and the new models are so pretty and shiny and get much better gas mileage than mine does.  Therefore, I have been contemplating getting a new car, or at least a new-to-me car.  In this decision making process there is really only one pro - A NEW CAR - and one con - A CAR PAYMENT.  And since I'm on the fence about that con, and whether I'm ready to start making a payment again, I haven't taken the plunge.
In my family growing up we never had new cars.  We rode in used cars until they were unrideable and then bought more used cars.  In fact, my current escape was my first new car ever and I didn't get that one until my previous car had so many repair bills I was finally talked into getting a new one when it stopped going backwards.  My friend Jason shared his philosophy with me, "When your car repair bills start to cost more than your car payment would be, it's time to go car shopping." And the minute I thought about trying to drive a car that didn't go backwards we went car shopping, and I came home with my current car.
This car still goes backwards and has been relatively low maintenance.  Which is probably why I've been hemming and hawing over this decision.  Until this week.  The engine light went on during the middle of last week and I noticed I had some oil on the garage floor underneath where the car is parked.  I took the car into my mechanic on Wednesday for a thorough going over.  The engine light was due to some wear and tear holes in some part or another.  It was an easy and fairly inexpensive repair.  However, the oil leak is another matter.  While not an urgent fix, the leak is coming from a part of the car that is very expensive to replace.  To repair it will be upwards of $1300.    When I first heard this amount, I had Jason sitting on my shoulder saying, "It's time!"  But after paying for the first repair, I spoke with my mechanic who told me under no uncertain terms would he get rid of my car if it were him.  He said his brother has my exact same model and it has 300,000 miles on it...mine has 70,000.  He said that while the cost to repair is pricey, it's maybe 4 months of car payments and if that gets me another couple of years without a repair I'm still ahead.  While I take the mechanic's advice with a grain of salt, as I know he wants my business and if I get a new car that is under warranty he won't be seeing me for awhile, I do trust his opinion as I haven't had any reason not to since I've been going to him.
So now I'm back to where I started.  Stick with what I have and make a repair payment here and there or get something new and taking on a regular car payment for the next X number of years but knowing I can rely on the car working?  At this point it could go either way.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Sketchbook Project, Again

While cleaning up the office a few weeks ago, I found a blank sketchbook under a pile of papers.  It had been issued to me by the Sketchbook Project.  I figured it was the one I had ordered a year or so ago and never got around to working in it.  But as it turns out, it 's actually the most current one, 2014-15, and the one I recently finished was the 2013 book.  At first I was disappointed that I worked in the wrong one, but after going on their website I found out I can still turn the old one in AND the new one as well.  So I went to work.  Over Thanksgiving break and during this past week of winter break, the new one was completed.
I pulled out all the lame paper that comes inside the sketchbooks and rebound it with my favorite watercolor paper.  There's always a bit of a struggle to get started in these Project books.  I wasn't really sure what the "theme" would be for this one and the first few pages reflect that insecurity.  But as it got going, I stopped worrying about it so much and just enjoyed working in it.  Anyhow, I'm happy with the finished book...
Sending both sketchbooks in tomorrow!  
I look forward to the mobile library making it to LA this year.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve...Great Expectations

New Year's Eve is often billed as the event of the year, but I have found it doesn't really live up to its hype.  Not unlike Valentine's Day, there is an unwarranted pressure to have an especially good time on New Year's Eve, and those great expectations often leave the night falling short.  Sure, I have attended some fun New Year's Eve parties, but no more fun than parties on any other occasion, or on no occasion at all for that matter.
In order to bring in the Millennium (remember the calamity that was predicted when changing from 1999 to 2000 - hard to believe that was 15 YEARS AGO!), some friends and I decided to bring in the New Year with something exceptionally better than usual.  Living in Boston at the time, we made plans to spend the New Year's weekend in NYC - staying in a fancy hotel, dinner at some trendy restaurant, and bringing in the New Year by club hopping around the city.  I'm not trying to be vague on the plans, but see, I don't remember much of it.  Unfortunately, that wasn't due to the great time I had.  The week leading up to our time away, I came down with a cold.  By the time we left, it had turned into a really bad cold. I spent most of the weekend on serious cold medicine and forced myself to  get out of bed, take a shower, put on my fancy party dress, and leave the hotel room.  It was New Year's Eve, and I did not plan on spending it sick in bed.  But that's exactly what I should have done.  By the end of the night I could hardly walk on my own and spent New Year's Day at the hotel...in bed, waiting for Urgent Care to open on the 2nd.  After being diagnosed with pneumonia we headed back to Mass. where I was nursed back to health in my own bed.  New Year's Eve is never what it's cracked up to be!
I returned home from Hawaii on the red eye a day ago and don't feel like I've caught up on my sleep yet, evident by the nodding off every time I sit down.  I've received a couple of invites for this evening.  Although, a soiree is what is expected for tonight, staying in my pajamas, soup for dinner, and early to bed sound much more appealing to me this year.
How about you?  A fan of New Year's Eve parties or of going to bed at a reasonable hour?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gifts

It's always a relief to have finished all the Christmas shopping.  Gifts for kids are pretty easy.  Even if you don't know what to buy for a kid, their parents are usually able to give hints on what the kids want, because they want A LOT of things.  Adults, on the other hand, can be quite challenging.  Adults don't go around much commenting on the things they want because most of the time adults buy those things for themselves.  Every so often, a mention might be made about something they'd really like to have, but often that is larger than the average friend or family member might buy -  like a car or a new kitchen (I've tried!).  Therefore, on most occasions I'm left to my own devices with finding gifts for friends and family members.  Once Christmas arrives, all the presents have been wrapped or stuffed in bags, there's an "I'm done!" feeling that occurs.
But it doesn't last long!  January is only a few short days away, and I have some important January birthdays to worry about.  Before my dad passed away, there were only 11 short days between Christmas and his birthday.  But even now, January still has a few birthdays that I buy for.  And I've used up all my good ideas with Christmas!  No rest for the Christmas gift weary...It's time to get my thinking cap back on again!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The 50th State

A few weeks ago, BuzzFeed posted a "story" about how employees in their London office were given maps of the US and were asked to fill in the 50 states.  The results were shared, and they are quite funny.  These are just a few.  
I can't say I'm surprised.  Most from this country can't name all 50 of them either...especially those rectangles and squares in the middle.  The map they were given was a bit confusing too as both Alaska and Hawaii were moved from their actual location to where Mexico would be.  A few of the Londoners still located the 49th and 50th state, some mixed them up, and others left them alone altogether.  

While Hawaii and Alaska are not attached to the rest of the country, they ARE still part of the US.  While I'm not sure what the rest of the world is taught about our geography, how specific they go beyond locating the country, I am almost certain that the high powered executives that run companies like Staples, Amazon, Costco, and Home Depot DO know that Hawaii and Alaska are part of the United States.  So why is it that they either refuse to ship there or charge more to do so?

With the holidays right around the corner, I've been making my shopping list and checking it twice.  Since I'll be spending Christmas in Hawaii this year, it is much easier to order gifts (what I can) and just have them sent right to Hawaii than buy them here and try to lug them over in my luggage.  Plus, the tax in Hawaii is only like 4% compared to our 10%.  That's the beauty of online shopping, right?  Well, wrong, a lot of the time when shipping to Hawaii (and Alaska).  

After shopping around for the electronics on my list, I found that Staples had the best deal on the price and free shipping.  However, after entering all of my shipping information the order stopped with a "We don't ship to Hawaii" message.  Most everything else I needed I was able to order on Amazon.  I had just recently signed up for a free month of Amazon Prime, which offers free 2-day shipping and is amazing when I'm having things delivered here  - sometimes it only takes a day and it's even been delivered on SUNDAY!  Anyhow, after having all my items in the cart, ready to pay, I got to the shipping screen....a few of the items were not available 2 day, but were guaranteed 5 day, a few more were not guaranteed any time, and they wanted to charge me $5 to send a gift card for Kindle books to Hawaii - the exact same gift card that came in an envelope through the regular mail was going to be free sent to my house but $5 to send to Hawaii.  When I send mail to Hawaii it still costs me $0.49 to mail an envelope so where in the world did they come up with $5?!?!?

That's the thing about all of these weird shipping practices.  When using the US Postal Service, the costs don't change because it's Hawaii.  Their priority shipping is based on weight and zip code.  Shipping to Boston will cost the same as shipping to Kona - it's the same distance.  And envelopes are sent with the cost of a stamp - regardless of where it's going.  And Hawaii IS part of the United States.  Of course UPS and FedEx are going to be different, but still.

After all was said and done, Apple shipped the electronics I needed on Thursday, and the package arrived yesterday...for free!  I ended up shipping the gift card to my house for free as that is easy to pack and had the remaining items sent to my mom's place, still taking advantage of the free (albeit slower) shipping.  Fingers crossed everything arrives by the 25th!