Monday, January 15, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #22 - Lauren Bacall: "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Movie Stats:
Released 1944 (USA)
American, in English (minor, non-translated French)
Director - Howard Hawks
Stars - Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan

Plot Summary:
On Vichy-controlled Martinique during WWII, American fishing boat captain Harry Morgan (Bogart) gets swept up in a plot to transport a French resistance leader. Bacall co-stars as Marie “Slim” Browning, an American lounge singer who’s Harry’s love interest, and Brennan as Eddie, Harry’s drunkard BFF.

Violence; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
It’s dull. Nothing terribly thrilling happens. It’s mostly fast talking and bluster.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Bogey, but he did pretty much play the same guy in everything. In this he’s sort of a cross between Charlie Allnutt (The African Queen) and Rick Blaine (Casablanca).

I’m getting kind of sick of films where people meet & immediately fall in love (or become BFFs). I realize that, in terms of filmmaking, it’s cost effective, but it’s not realistic. How am I supposed to believe that Harry and Slim care about each other this deeply when they only just met? And how am I supposed to root for them? I cared more about Harry’s relationship with Eddie, because it was deeper & more meaningful.

Good Stuff:
Harry’s friendship with Eddie. They really cared about one another. I always appreciate it when male friendships are portrayed this way in film.

This is Bogey and Bacall’s first film together, and with the chemistry that crackles between them, you’ll understand why it wasn’t their last.

Bacall’s costuming is pretty great.

About the Performance:
I won’t claim to be terribly familiar with Bacall’s work. The only other films of hers I’ve seen are The Big Sleep and, apparently, Misery, but I saw that film so long ago I don’t remember her character. I would say that her character here is very similar to her character in The Big Sleep: cool, charming and aloof. So I wasn’t exactly impressed. However, there’s no denying that she was striking. She had a sultry voice, she commands the screen, and she had phenomenal chemistry with Bogart. Was she a great actress in the way that, say, Shirley MacLaine is? I would say no, but I can definitely see why she’s considered iconic.

Other performances of Bacall’s I’ve reviewed: none.

The Verdict:
It was okay. I thought the story was a bit simplistic, which meant that it didn’t end up being terribly exciting. The subject matter is a bit too close to Casablanca; the performances of the leads too similar to their other performances. I just wasn’t wowed. It’s one of those films that I’m not bothered to have seen, but I’ll never watch it again and someday soon I’ll forget all about it.

I give it 3.5 stars.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #23 - Sophia Loren: "Two Women" (1960)

Movie Stats:
Released 1960 (Italy)
Italian & French, in Italian (some German; I watched with English subtitles)
Director - Vittorio de Sica
Stars - Sophia Loren, Eleonora Brown, Jean-Paul Belmondo

Plot Summary:
In WWII Italy, shop owner Cesira (Loren) tries to protect herself & her daughter Rosetta (Brown) from the horrors of war by leaving Rome for the countryside. However, she finds that horror follows them. Belmondo co-stars as Michele, Cesira’s friend/sort-of love interest.

Violence; minor gore; brief female nudity (breast only); heavily implied consensual sex; on-screen, semi-graphic rape.

Bad Stuff:
It’s pretty dull. The pace is slow.

I found it difficult to relate to Cesira. I mean, I understood that her prime motivator was protection of her daughter, but other than that it was hard to gauge what she was thinking and feeling.

I think it’s weird that Rosetta is said to have a heart condition in the opening scene, and yet it was never mentioned again.

Good Stuff:
I thought the themes it explored were intriguing, such as: 1. The naivety/childishness of thinking that one can simply ignore war & not be touched by it and 2. The various forms of danger & harassment women face from men.

Cesira’s reaction to the bad thing that happens toward the end of the film felt very authentic. It made sense to me that a woman of her time period & education level would behave that way, and I admired the film for portraying like that.

I liked that Cesira was a strong, independent woman.

About the Performance:
I thought Loren was good when the scene required a heavy emotion such as fear, grief, or shame. When it required softer or more subtle emotion, she seemed flat. I had no idea what she was thinking. The best example of this is her early scene with Giovanni (Raf Vallone), which played out very differently than I expected because she had no visible or verbal emotional reaction to him until the end of the scene. It was frustrating. I feel like she simultaneously impressed me and disappointed me.

Other performances of Loren’s I’ve reviewed: none.

The Verdict:
It was just okay to me. There’s nothing I can point out that made it terrible, but I can’t say that watching this film was either entertaining or really all that interesting either. It took me forever to write this review because I was completely stumped about what I should say.

I give it 3 stars.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Up with U.S. Geography: Florida

State Name:


Date of Entry:
March 3, 1845


Map of USA. Florida outlined in dark ink.

A close-up of Florida & its neighbors.

Alabama, Georgia

Water Borders:
Atlantic Ocean, Straits of Florida, Gulf of Mexico

Total Area:
65,755 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando

Famous Geographical Point:
The Everglades

State Nickname:
The Sunshine State. It's really sunny there.

Famous Person:
Chris Evert, tennis player (winner of 18 Gran Slam singles championships)

Book Set In/About:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A middle-aged woman recounts her life—three different periods, each defined by the man she was with at the time—to a friend.

Movie Set In/About:
"Key Largo" (1948), directed by John Huston

Former soldier Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), turned pacifistic by his experiences in the war, visits an old friend's hotel in Key Largo. Soon, the twin threats of mobsters and an approaching hurricane force Frank into action.

Headline of the Day:
"Florida Governor Wants Tax Cuts, Laws to Fight Opioid Crisis" in U.S. News & World Report.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #24 - Judy Garland: "A Star Is Born" (1954)

Movie Stats:
Released 1954 (USA)
American, in English
Director - George Cukor
Stars - Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford

Plot Summary:
After a chance meeting with famed actor Norman Maine (Mason), small-time singer Esther Blodgett (Garland; the character is known later in the film by stage name Vicki Lester) gets her big break, but at what cost? Bickford co-stars as Oliver Niles, studio head.

Very minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
It’s LONG (3 hours).

I didn’t care for the scenes toward the beginning that showed the passage of time via still pictures with overlaid dialogue. They didn’t fit with the rest of the film.

As with many films about Hollywood, it’s a bit too self-referential & I got to wondering if the only reason this particular story is so popular (it’s been made a whopping 4 times, with the next remake coming out this year) is because it shows the seedy underbelly of the industry.

Good Stuff:
The cinematography, set design, and costuming are very slick and stylish. I was in love.

Garland really had some pipes. Just thinking about her singing in this film is making me teary-eyed.

The acting is phenomenal. All the key players are very good, with Garland as the standout, but I also enjoyed two smaller roles: Jack Carson as studio publicist Matt Libby (even if his character is a jerk) & Tommy Noonan as Esther’s songwriter, Danny McGuire.

Shallow: I could listen to Mason talk all day every day.

About the Performance:
I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Garland. Until this film, I’d only seen 3 of her other performances: one of which I didn’t care for; one I don’t recall (“Meet Me in St. Louis”); and one where I thought she was amazing. She’s fantastic in this. Knowing of her life struggles, which would eventually lead her to an early grave, I can only imagine that she drew upon her own experiences for this performance. It must have been difficult to play a person trying to save someone she loved from addiction when she herself could not be saved from it. Or perhaps she didn’t have that much self-awareness. At any rate, that’s what I kept thinking of the whole time; it lent an air of poignancy to the film & broke my heart.

Other performances of Garland’s I’ve reviewed: Judgment at Nuremberg; The Wizard of Oz.

The Verdict:
Much to my surprise, I loved this film. With all the song & dance routines, it occasionally gives the impression that there’s not much substance to it. Sometimes I found myself thinking, “Is this just a vehicle to showcase Garland’s singing?” Not that this would be a bad thing, but I got a little impatient for it to get to the point. In between all that singing and dancing, however, this film does have substance. In fact, it has a great deal of it. I thought the central romance was very believable, natural & sweet; Garland & Mason had great chemistry together. I loved practically everything about this movie. Yes, it’s too long, and it suffers from some self-adulation, but overall it struck a nice balance between delighting me & making me cry. Sort of like life, I guess.

I give it 4.5 stars.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Top Movies of the Year 2017

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

This year I watched a whopping 185 full length films.* 73 of those were films that I’d seen before. My biggest film-watching month was January, when I saw 20 films. The lowest film-watching month was March, when I saw 12 films (probably due to the move). I have to admit, I feel that this is WAY too much film watching & that there are probably some better things I could be doing with my time. My goal is to watch fewer films in 2018.

That being said, here are my favorite films watched in 2017:

5. “Be Here Now” (2015), directed by Lilibet Foster

This documentary follows actor Andy Whitfield, who had recently shot to international fame as the lead in the TV show “Spartacus,” as he fights cancer. SPOILER ALERT: Andy died of his cancer in 2011 at the age of 39, leaving behind a wife & two young children. This film is sad but incredibly, deeply moving.

4. “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016), directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

Teenager Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) struggles to find herself after her best friend starts to date her older brother. One of the few “teen” films I’ve seen that actually captures what it feels like to be a teenager.

3. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), directed by Taika Waititi

In the third installment of the franchise, Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) faces his deadliest foe yet, his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). This film is immensely funny and entertaining.

2. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), directed by Martin McDonagh

After her daughter is murdered, with no movement on the case, Mildred (Frances McDormand) pays for an advertisement, spread across three billboards, calling out the local sheriff. It’s a lot more violent than I was expecting, but the acting in this film is absolutely phenomenal. I particularly loved McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson.

1. “Wind River” (2017), directed by Taylor Sheridan

When a young woman is found dead on a Native American reservation, green FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) investigates the death with the help of local game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). The advertising for this film gave many the impression (myself included) that this is a taut, psychological thriller. It’s not. There are some tense moments, but overall this film is a slow-paced character study. It’s visually stunning, it’s poignant and emotional, and Renner is amazing in it.

Honorable Mentions: Lady Bird, Philomena, Metropolis

*As usual, my criteria is that I must watch the whole film from beginning to end. I don’t count “partial” watches.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Top Songs of the Year 2017

In no particular order, and with little commentary, out of all the songs I downloaded in 2017, here are the 5 that I listened to the most.

"I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life... " Ugh, gut punch.

I don't care for the rest of the album, but I love this song:

"I gotta find out who I'm meant to be. I don't believe in destiny. But with every word you swear to me, all my beliefs start caving in... "

I heard this song on the radio & immediately fell in love with Mike Protich's voice:

True story. When the theater I work at had a two-week run of the musical "Sunset Boulevard" over the summer, I had this song stuck in my head the whole time (due to the opening lyrics).

Monday, January 1, 2018

Top Books of the Year 2017

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

I had a difficult year reading-wise. Nearly every book I completed ended up being just okay. Nothing really "wowed" me, but here are the 5 books I enjoyed the most:

5. Eruption by Steve Olson

An in-depth look at the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The specific focus of this book is to dispel the erroneous notion that the 57 people who died in the eruption were in the area "illegally" and thus "deserved" their deaths. (In fact, only the famous Harry R. Truman was illegally in the "red zone." The other 2 people killed in the red zone had permission to be there. All of the other victims were in the "blue zone," which was perfectly legal to be in.) Olson does a good job of explaining the history of logging in the area, and the political climate of the time, both of which directly led to the establishment of the loosey-goosey blue zone, and thus the deaths of far too many people. I also appreciated how thorough he was at explaining the various ways people can be killed in a volcanic eruption, even a dozen miles away from the blast.

4. 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin

The nearly unbelievable story of Salvador Alvarenga, a fisherman who, after getting caught in a terrible storm, spent 438 days adrift at sea, traveling all the way from Mexico to Marshall Islands. Alvarenga's boat was small; nearly all of his supplies were washed overboard in the storm, including food, water, and tools. His creativity in ensuring his own survival made it difficult to put this book down. He even made his own entertainment! I particularly enjoyed the "soccer game" he played with all of the birds he captured (by hand!). I'm not sure that I've ever read anything more inspiring than this story.

3. The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City by Margaret Creighton

An exploration of the assassination of President William McKinley in September 1901, set against the backdrop of the World's Fair in Buffalo, NY. Creighton does a good job of setting the stage. It's just as much about Buffalo (and the surrounding area, including Niagra Falls) & the Fair as it is about McKinley & his assassin. Creighton uses quite a few contemporary accounts, really bringing this time period to life. I have a strange fascination with the World's Fair & wish it was something we still did in modern times.

2. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy Fiction

When I started reading this book, a co-worker fretted that I wouldn't be able to enjoy it, because it's set in the same universe as Bardugo's other books (but is an independent story) and I've read nothing else of Bardugo's. This wasn't a problem for me. Although I'm unfamiliar with her universe, I never felt lost or confused. In fact, I found her universe imaginative, her characters interesting and complex, and the story entertaining. In particular, I thought that the "heist" portion of the tale was very well done. My only complaint is that I didn't realize that it's the first book of a series. I loved the heck out of it right until the last two chapters, when I realized that the story wasn't going to be resolved. It was hugely disappointing. I may be the only person on the planet who prefers standalone books, but I do. I'll probably never read the sequels, so I'll never know where the story goes.

1. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

The only book this year that I truly loved. An excerpt from my review: "Simon is the tale of a closeted teenaged gay boy named Simon whose secret is discovered by a classmate, leading to blackmail. Which sounds pretty serious, and while there are some serious undertones to the story, overall it’s very lighthearted and sweet and fun.

The thing I liked most about this book was the characterization. I read a lot of young adult fiction and tend to find that teenagers don’t really act like teenagers in YA books. This is probably because most YA books are written by adults. I thought Albetalli did a fantastic job with writing realistic teenaged characters. I thought she did a fantastic job of writing nuanced adult characters as well."

I really can't gush enough about this book. I read it in 3 hours. It's now an all-time favorite!