Sunday, April 29, 2007

More recently watched: the good, the bad, and the silly...

This was fun. Not my favorite genre exactly, so I was a little weary of this 3-hour experiment, allegedly filled with much violence and gore. But no worries. Grindhouse is a glorious send-up of bad B-movie thrillers. A double-feature embellished with fake trailers. But you already knew all that. The first part, Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez, was a parody of zombie flicks, so colorful that the red of wounds and lipstick was practically bleeding off the screen. The second part, Death Proof, was by Tarantino: a crazy stuntman, chatty girls, and car chases. I particularly liked the second part of Tarantino’s film, which featured Zoe Bell, a very cool stuntwoman from New Zealand, who apparently did all the stunts for Uma Thurman in both Kill Bills.

Kill Bill (I and II)
And so my introduction to Tarantino continues. I had avoided Kill Bill, but after watching Grindhouse and Zoe Bell, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. The gore -- of which I’d read so much – didn’t really seem like gore. There was more choreography in it than violence. The scene that made me genuinely uncomfortable, though, was the one with Uma Thurman being buried alive.

Plane Dead
Zombies strike again. This time on a plane bound for Paris. Nice, lighthearted flick, where you know pretty much right away which characters are dispensable and which will survive in the end.

Ginger Snaps
High-school girls and werewolves. High-school girls turning into werewolves. Need I say more?

Long Way Round
Travel-around-the-world genre is quickly becoming my favorite. (Have I mentioned I'd watched yet another season of the Amazing Race?) This documentary involves Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman (his daddy directed Deliverance) traveling around the world on motorcycles. More specifically, the trip begins in London and takes the two through Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Siberia. Then they fly to Alaska (along with their motorcycles) and the journey resumes. They get to New York – their unofficial finish line – where their families greet them -- and then fly back to England. Lessons learned: Mongolia has the worst roads. Ewan McGregor is alergic to bugs. There was some amazing footage along the way: friendly Russian drunks, a Ukrainian policeman with a guitar and a gun, Alaskan bears catching fish. But after a while, the whole thing got a tiny bit tedious. I am afraid they spent more time showing the preparations for the journey and the logistics of the filming and the support crew than the trip itself. And there were way too many recaps and repeats.

Black Book (Zwartboek)
The director of this movie, Paul Verhoeven, is generally known in America for such movies as Basic Instinct, Total Recall, or Robocop. My introduction to his work, however, was Soldier of Orange, a WWII movie he made back in Europe. Black Book is his new one, and like Soldier of Orange it was made in Holland and takes place during the WWII. It’s got a structure of a good old adventure. The heroine, Rachel (or ‘Ellis’ as she is later known) is a Jewish girl, formerly a singer, and in the course of the movie she runs away from Germans, joins the Resistance, infiltrates the local branch of Gestapo, has an affair with a Nazi, etc. What amazes me here is the way American (and some English) reviewers responded to the movie. Before saying a word about the movie, they make it clear that they just don’t care for Paul Verhoeven, whether he’s making his movies in Europe or in America (and that nothing will ever change their mind) Imagine the nerve! He shows a Jewish girl undressing in front of a Nazi! Repeatedly! And she falls for him… Well, I never… What’s worse, Verhoeven dares to imply that some of the Resistance members were anti-Semitic (No way! They are the good guys!) and that some of the liberated nations (and their liberators) acted no better than Nazis (Impossible!). The reviewers call such suggestions, “loosey-goosey moral relativism” (see the New York Times). Oh really? What does it mean exactly? “Jewish survival remains a never-ending story,” tells us the New York Times reviewer. Fair enough. No argument here. But does it mean all Jewish people must be portrayed as saints? Must we accept the story-book version of history to justify the existence of Israel?

Jacob’s Ladder
Yet another war movie. Vietnam War. One of those that are listed among modern classics, and yet something I’d never seen before. Since I love all the movies that feature parallel realities, I instantly appreciated this one. Also, as someone who as a kid got sick at the mere sight of hospitals, I fully appreciated the gruesomeness of the main character’s nightmares.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Romantic Willimantic

We have an apartment!

The second apartment-hunting trip took place yesterday and lasted 12 hours, and at the end we signed a lease. Our new home is in the town of Willimantic, a place famous for its former textile mills (it used to be known as “Thread City”), its Victorian houses, and its frogs. Yes, these frog things are everywhere, though the most famous ones -- sitting atop spools of thread – decorate the Frog bridge. (See the picture!) Apparently, one night in 1754, during the French and Indian War, the residents of Willimantic were woken up by strange and loud noises. They decided it was the enemy and prepared for an attack, only to discover that the sounds belonged to hundreds of bullfrogs. Or so the story goes.

Willimantic is an actual town, with some shops, restaurants, the population of about 15,000, and a bit of a heroin problem (according to some sources). It’s cute, but somewhat economically depressed; rough around the edges, but, we are told, not really dangerous. Aside from Frogs, it has a food co-op, a Polish breakfast place, a yoga studio, a brewery, and a bus that goes to the University of Connecticut, which is about 7 miles away. It’s known as a very liberal blue-collar town. Though of course it’s also full of artists, college professors, and students.

The apartment we found is in the nicest part of Willimantic, up on a hill. The whole street is beautiful and peaceful. Our place is the whole second floor of a house. It’s got four bedrooms, a 2-room eat-in kitchen, a cozy living room, and a huge attic. The wonderful lady who owns it lives downstairs. The rent is $950, which is amazing given all the space we get. The best part is probably the apartment’s layout -- Movie Dictator and I can work in our separate studies and not bother each other. What we need now is one of those apartment-size washer/dryer combos that don’t require special hookups. If you know of a good one, let me know.

We’ll be moving at the end of May, and once we’ve moved I’ll post some pictures. But for now I leave you with another photo of Frog Bridge and Willimantic.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Apartment Hunting in Connecticut – Round I.

We spent much of yesterday in Connecticut, looking at houses and apartments. So far, no luck.

It’s a good thing that UConn isn’t very far from Boston. Our first appointment was at 10:30. We met with a nice real-estate lady (recommended by someone from the English department), who had a 3-bedroom house in Storrs to show us. The house was immaculate, completely renovated (though tiny), with the rent under $1000, and pretty close to campus. The problem was, it sat right in the middle of a construction site. In fact, it was owned by a construction company, whose office was right across from it, and we could see some lady checking us out from her office window. Unnerving. We said we’d think about it and rushed to our next appointment.

The next appointment was at 11:30, and it didn’t last long. At a Mobile station in Ashford we met up with a woman named Natalie, who showed us what the ad referred to as “condo” and what we immediately recognized as a grimy and smelly 2-bedroom apartment, populated by two graduate students. To Natalie’s credit, she could tell the place wasn’t for us and she didn’t waste our time.

The next house we saw was in Chaplin. The most amazing house - in the middle of some woods and completely secluded. The people it belonged to bought it as their second house, but didn’t have the time to live in it. I wish I knew more about architecture, so I could describe it properly. (I’ve attached a picture instead.) Movie Dictator, an architect’s son, fell in love with it immediately. So why didn’t we rent it? Two reasons. One: it was way more than we could afford. Two: it was too secluded. As much as Movie Dictator wanted to live in the middle the woods, he quickly realized that without a car (or even the ability to drive one), he would be completely disconnected from the civilization.

And so we left "the house in the woods" and went to see a house by the lake. I was really hopeful about this one. It sounded perfect on paper. Plus Movie Dictator had been dreaming of living by a lake. We drove into Coventry, got a little lost, but finally found the right place. Outside the house looked fine, but inside it felt kind of cramped, its three bedrooms clamped together. It resembled another one of those student apartments. Even more disconserting, the couple who owned the house were still very attached to it – e.g., they had some of their stuff stored there, and they wanted to come and use the house if we ever were away, and they wanted to come and use their boat from time to time… Also they didn’t want anyone to smoke outside on the deck (Isn’t it what decks are for?). Also they kept telling us how they wanted to stay friends with their neighbors there, and to make a good impression on them, and we were starting to get a sense we’d be watched all the time, especially since the neighbors’ houses were practically pressed against the rental house. And once again, it was just too far from sidewalks and stores, too impractical for Movie Dictator.

The final place we saw was called “a duplex.” Of course, it turned out to be another one of those dark, horrid, smelly student-apartments. We took one look at it and left.

By then we were exhausted, headachy, soaked (it rained all day), and hungry as hell. We drove to Willimantic, which is…gasp…an actual town. Like with an actual town center and shops and everything. We visited it before – during my interview trip – and liked it. Seeing it now, after all the “wilderness,” we realized that it was what we needed. A town. In theory, a house in the woods might be perfect for a couple of writers like ourselves; but in reality it would be a nightmare. The whole house-hunting trip – though a failure – was quite useful. We have our priorities straight now, and we’re going to concentrate on towns, especially Willimantic and Manchester.

On the final note: none of this would’ve been possible without our trusted GPS device, Mio. We didn’t have to look at maps or worry about directions. All day long we rushed among these little towns (Ashford, Coventry, Storrs, Mansfield) that surround the university, and not once did we get lost. (Okay, we did once. But only slightly.) Overall, Mio performed admirably, and for that we are thankful.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Recently Watched...

The other day, I was asked what movies I'd seen lately, and guess what, I drew blank. The truth is, we watch so many that they're starting to blur together. So I decided to keep track of the movies I see, write little blurbs about them, and post some of these blurbs from time to time. Below is the first installment:

Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton. Written by Alistair MacLean. An intricate WWII spy/adventure story. Spies, double spies, unexpected turns of events, etc. Really well written, each step is thought through in advance. Not my favorite genre, but I liked it. It kept me on my toes, and damn, Clint Eastwood used to be cute!

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Mystery/fantasy/horror, felt a little like a Steven King knock off. Light and cheesy. But since it’s a John Carpenter’s movie, it had a nice look to it and was fun to watch.

Monster (2003)
Sad, sad, sad. They really made me sympathize with the heroine. And her little shit of a girlfriend was just that, a little shit. (Of course, I might feel differently once we watch the documentary about Aileen Wuornos, who inspired the movie.) I was blown away by Charlize Theron, whom I previously only seen in dainty light-weight roles. And it’s not just her look that are different here, it’s everything – the way she moves, her speech, her posture, her mannerisms. (That Oscar was well deserved!) Here’s a little trivia for you: she is from South Africa, her first language is Afrikaans, and yet, no trace of an accent (or as Movie Dictator points out: no flattened vowels).

In Debt We Trust
A documentary about America and credit card debt. Nothing I didn’t know already, but I liked the interviews with the “typical American folk” about their ways of dealing with money, e.g., a young woman explaining how she’s working on eliminating her debt by carefully managing a bunch of 0% credit cards, or a married wife/mother who tells us she’s from a well-off middle-class family and is used to certain standards – translation: feels entitled to spend above her means, even though she’s got two kids and her husband is the only one with a job. This could’ve been a good/basic film about debt, but its makers went overboard with “cute”/annoying songs and visual jokes. I think they were trying to make the whole thing light and funny.

First Snow
A tightly-wound little film with Guy Pearce playing a slick cock-sure salesman who has a strange encounter with a fortune teller. A simple but intense (and in the end rewarding) movie about fate.

A Korean chick-flick/slapstick comedy. Odd. One of those movies that switch direction half-way through. In part one, a young woman breaks up with her boyfriend and, prompted by the breakup, reflects back on her previous relationships. In part two, she decides to take revenge on each of her old boyfriends (except for the last one): she calculates how much money she spent on each and starts sending them bills and generally harassing them. In the end, we’re told it was all about her trying to find herself. It’s all well and good, but lady, whenever you decide to spend money on someone, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re doing it to feel loving, or virtuous, or long-suffering. You’re doing it out of altruism. Which is to say, don’t ask for refunds in the future. (I know, I know, it’s just a movie.)

Monday, April 2, 2007

April Fools

I was born on April 1st. So was my sister, except seven years after me. It’s also the day our parents decided to get married. Our family has always had a thing about numbers. A series of weird coincidences. The latest one is that Movie Dictator and my sister’s husbands also share a birthday – April 18th -- which is also our mother’s birthday. Like I said, weird.

In Russia April 1st is the official day of Laughter/Humor and the unofficial day of pranks, i.e., you really can’t believe anything you hear even if it’s on the radio or in the newspaper. Yet it’s true. April 1st is my and my sister’s birthday and we’ve often been referred to as 'April 1st Joke' by family and friends.

We don’t often get to celebrate our birthday together, what with my sister living in Seattle and me living all over the place. When we do, it’s great. Otherwise, we end up calling each other several times a day to track the progress of our birthday.

Usually it’s fun. Yesterday it wasn’t.

Now, some people believe that birthdays should be ignored until they go away. Movie Dictator, for example. He claims to not even know how old he is. (I do, but I’m sworn to secrecy and not allowed to tell him.) His one idea for celebrating was to feed me sweets and tea spiked with Ambien, to ensure that the birthday passes like a pleasant blur. No expectations, no hard feelings. I must admit it didn’t seem altogether unpleasant, but in the end I had to reject this idea.

Instead we went to a Korean restaurant for lunch. Afterwards we watched movies, and Movie Dictator allowed me my choice of silly romantic comedies. (Woohoo! Chainsaws and cannibals are out. Gwyneth Paltrow is in.) And all along I tried to ignore the phone calls from my family.

You see, my sister was in Las Vegas at the time, celebrating her birthday in style. She’d known in advance she was being taken to Vegas. But there was a twist to it, a surprise involving a limo, a helicopter, a flight to Grand Canyon, and a lunch. How cool is that, I ask you.

I’m not being bitter, honestly. (Okay, maybe a little.) My point is we couldn’t afford Vegas or a helicopter right now, and I’m fine with that. My point is about expectations. Are they reasonable?

For some reason I always expect surprises and magic and fireworks. Something breathtaking. Growing up, I would tell my parents that all I wanted for my birthday was a brother or a sister. On my seventh birthday, that was what I got. A sister. I guess nothing else could ever compare to that. On my fourteenth birthday, my first one since the brace, I wandered the streets of Moscow trying to find some big celebration (I didn’t). On my eighteenth birthday I skipped all the lectures at my college and spent the morning watching Disney cartoons at a nearby movie house. The birthday after that I was in America. On my twenty-fourth birthday, I had just arrived in Boston and having returned from the first day at my new job, found myself snowed in in a motel. And on the night of my thirtieth birthday, I stood in a stairwell of my apartment building, drunk and terrified, watching an equally terrified mouse trying to climb up the stairs ahead of me, one step at a time.

I guess my nature is to blame. Somehow I always end up feeling a little sad and alienated, even in the midst of the wildest celebration. Or maybe none of my celebrations have been wild enough. Or even remotely wild. Maybe what I need next year is to jump off a plane or climb a small mountain. Or travel somewhere. I don’t like the idea of April Fools’ Day passing unnoticed. Even if it means that year after year, I set myself up for disappointment. Maybe the disappointment is the point.

As for yesterday, it wasn’t so bad. I mean how bad can it be if you get to spend it eating ice-cream from a Russian store and watching a Korean flick called 200 Pounds Beauty? And for the first time in years, I didn’t feel lonely at the end of the day. How could I, with Movie Dictator explaining to me why birthdays should be outlawed.