Friday, December 15, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #27 - Joan Crawford: "Mildred Pierce" (1945)

Movie Stats:
Released 1945 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Michael Curtiz
Stars - Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott

Plot Summary:
Mildred Pierce’s (Crawford) obsession with giving her daughter Veda (Blyth) everything she herself never had leads to disastrous consequences. Carson co-stars as Wally Fay, Mildred’s friend/business partner, and Scott as Mildred’s second husband, Monte Beragon.

Warnings:
Violence.

Bad Stuff:
The pacing is a bit slow.

It’s occasionally cheesy/overblown. For example, the opening scene (a murder) made me chuckle.

I don’t appreciate the way Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) is portrayed. It’s borderline offensive.

Good Stuff:
Lots of phenomenal acting. Everyone is so good, it’s hard to single anyone out, but I think Blyth is my favorite. She really made me hate Veda.

I enjoyed the character of Ida Corwin (Eve Arden), Mildred’s wise-cracking co-worker/bestie.

This is the second film in a row I’ve seen where the main female character is complex in an interesting and engaging way (as opposed to the frequent, annoying Hollywood tropes of woman-who-can’t-make-up-her-mind or trickster-seducer-woman). You admire Mildred because of her intelligence and perseverance. At the same time, you want to grab her and shake her and tell her to stop spoiling her awful child. She’s flawed but still sympathetic.

About the Performance:
I like Crawford. While possibly not a great human being, she was an impressive actress. She had a knack for truly inhabiting her characters. I believed that she was Mildred Pierce. I wanted to hate her, because it’s almost entirely her fault that Veda is as awful as she is, but I couldn’t. She was too relatable. You can easily see yourself making the same mistake, borne out of a desperate love for your child. It’s powerful stuff.

Other performances of Crawford’s I’ve reviewed: Grand Hotel.

The Verdict:
The pacing is definitely slow and stilted. I thought the movie was too coy in revealing its secrets, which honestly weren’t exactly secrets because they were obvious from the get-go. I frequently got impatient, like get to the point already. Apart from that, however, I thought it was solid. The acting is the best part. Everyone is very good! It was fun to see Jack Carson (who I only knew as Officer O’Hara in “Arsenic and Old Lace”) playing a completely different character (I’ve since learned that he was relatively famous in his day). I also liked the exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic, the complexity of Mildred’s character, and the soundtrack. A few weeks ago, I watched the first episode of the recent Mildred Pierce mini-series (starring Kate Winslet), and I have to say that the tone of this movie is a better fit for the story. Impressive filmmaking; you should check it out.

I give it 4 stars.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Michigan

Michigan is the second of the eight states I’ve lived in to make the list! I was born & raised in this state, living there full time for my first 18 years and part-time during four years of college.

State Name:
Michigan

Capital:
Lansing

Date of Entry:
January 26, 1837

Maps:

Map of USA. Michigan outlined outrageously poorly in
black ink & with name written on it.

Close-up of Michigan & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Wisconsin, Canada, Ohio, Indiana

Water Borders:
Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Saginaw Bay, Lake Saint Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan

Total Area:
96,716 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren, Sterling Heights, Lansing

Famous Geographical Point:
Mackinac Island

State Nickname:
The Great Lakes State. This seems self-explanatory.

Famous Person:
Madonna, singer, songwriter, actress, icon

Book Set In/About:
The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle

A comedic, fictionalized account of a real-life phenomenon, Dr. John Kellogg’s early 20th century vegetarian health spa in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Movie Set In/About:
“Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997), directed by George Armitage

So many movies to choose from (including “Prancer,” which was filmed in the county where I grew up), but I have to go with this supremely weird black comedy about a hit man who receives a job in his hometown, coincidentally at the same time as his ten-year high school reunion.

Headline of the Day:
“Michigan Store Owner Uses Snowplow to Capture Theft Suspect” in U.S. News & World Report.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #28 - Meryl Streep: "Sophie's Choice" (1982)

Movie Stats:
Released 1982 (USA)
American, in English (lots of German & Polish, mostly translated)
Director - Alan J. Pakula
Stars - Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Plot Summary:
Set in 1940s Brooklyn, when aspiring writer Stingo (MacNicol) takes a room in a boarding house, he becomes embroiled in the tumultuous relationship of his neighbors, Sophie (Streep) and Nathan (Kline).

Warnings:
Lots of blue language, including racial epithets; minor violence (mostly off-screen and/or referenced); heavily implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
I didn’t care for the intermittent narration. Honestly, it’s a bit histrionic/overblown.

MacNicol is a glaring weak link in the cast. He’s so “meh” that almost anyone could have played Stingo. And while we’re on the subject of Stingo, that’s such a distractingly dumb name. You never learn his real name, or where the nickname came from. Every time I heard it, I felt a frisson of irritation.

The occasional crude sex language seems out of tune with the rest of the film.

Good Stuff:
Streep and Kline are excellent. I thought Kline was particularly good.

I like that it explores how complex people and their relationships can be. Sophie isn’t just an innocent victim of the Holocaust. She’s a human being who behaved in ways both cowardly and brave, who had to make tough decisions, and who suffered for those decisions. Nathan is the man who saved her, but also the man who torments her. They probably shouldn’t be together, and yet you understand why they are.

I appreciate that it showcases an experience of the Holocaust that isn’t the Jewish experience. The fact that others—gays/lesbians, political dissidents, people with mental or physical disabilities, gypsies, etc.—were also exterminated by the Nazis is often overlooked in public conversation.

About the Performance:
Streep is great in this. She’s one of those actresses whom everyone seems to love and who’s received numerous accolades. While I’ve always liked her well enough, I never quite understood the extensive praise. She typically doesn’t “wow” me. However, I think this is a “wow” performance. She makes Sophie, a person whose choices could easily make her unlikable to an audience, a truly sympathetic character. Also, I’m not Polish, so I won’t claim that her accent is phenomenal, but I found it rather convincing.

Other performances of Streep’s I’ve reviewed: The Hours; A.I. Artificial Intelligence; Out of Africa; Kramer vs. Kramer; The Deer Hunter.

The Verdict:
This film excels at story telling. It’s definitely not chock-full of excitement. It’s mostly a character study of Stingo, Sophie, and Nathan with lots and lots of talking. It could easily be boring. And yet, I didn’t find myself bored. The story and the characters of Sophie & Nathan were interesting enough to keep me engaged. The worst part of it is Stingo, who’s a very blah character, a fact that isn’t helped by MacNicol’s blah performance. Plus, it’s an unrelentingly sad film. Don’t expect to be uplifted by the ending. Ultimately, though, I felt that this movie was both deeply moving and tragically beautiful. I liked it.

I give it 4.25 stars.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #29 - Myrna Loy: "The Thin Man" (1934)

Movie Stats:
Released 1934 (USA)
American, in English
Director - W.S. Van Dyke
Stars - William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton

Plot Summary:
Wealthy Nick & Nora Charles (Powell & Loy) get drawn into a murder investigation and have to use their sleuthing skills to solve the case. O’Sullivan co-stars as Dorothy Wynant, daughter of a missing man who’s suspected of the murder, and Pendleton as police detective Guild. This is the first film of a detective serial that was popular at the time.

Warnings:
Violence; minor gore; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
None of the acting wowed me. It was just okay.

The “reveal” scene goes on far too long. I realize that the movie is trying to tease the audience, but by that point I just wanted them to wrap things up.

Good Stuff:
It’s a pretty good mystery. Even though I guessed early who the ultimate “bad guy” is, I don’t necessarily think it was obvious.

The chemistry between Powell and Loy is phenomenal. I really enjoyed their relationship.

It’s funny. Lots of great dialogue.

Loved the soundtrack.

About the Performance:
Like I said, no one knocked it out of the park, but Loy was more than adequate. She’s got great comedic timing, and her chemistry with Powell is most of what makes the film “zing.” I do wish that she had a little bit more to do. Once it got to the sleuthing portion of the film, there was a strong element of “protect the delicate woman from the bad stuff” that kept her out of most of the action. Overall, however, I found her very likable and engaging.

Other performances of Loy’s I’ve reviewed: The Best Years of Our Lives; The Great Ziegfeld.

The Verdict:
I really enjoyed this film. It’s not the best story ever written and the acting isn’t Oscar-caliber. But it’s still immensely entertaining. Regular readers know that I’m a sucker for characters who face adversity with feigned indifference and snark. This film is full of people like that, and with lots of other fun, eccentric characters. There’s so much great, funny dialogue, and it comes at you so fast that it can be easy to miss, so you'll want to pay close attention. I can see why this serial was popular. It’s immensely entertaining.

I give it 4 stars.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Out and About: St. Louis, Day 2 - Part 2

For the final portion of my solitary afternoon in St. Louis, I went to the Missouri Botanical Garden. It was, hands down, my favorite part of the trip. The garden is enormous, peaceful, and stunningly gorgeous. I was there for several hours, and I could have easily spent more time there, but my brother was ready to pick me up. I didn't even get to see everything!

View of the Climatron, with a fountain & sculptures in the foreground. The inscription at the fountain indicated that the sculptures are on loan:


Inside the Climatron:

Chihuly glass.




Ceiling of the Climatron as seen through latticework.

Be still my heart with this tile work.

Arty shot.

I loved the Fall colors & the Autumn displays that hadn't yet been removed, even though they were already setting up for Christmas:






The mausoleum for Henry Shaw, founder of the garden:


Statue of Juno & aerial view of the maze (taken from the observatory) in the English Garden:



In the German Garden, a lovely tree & my favorite little resting spot:



Ceiling of the gazebo.

The sublime Japanese Garden:







George Washington Carver Garden:


A lovely sentiment.

A final bit of color on my way out the door:


Later that evening, my brother and I joined his conference compatriots at a cool little bar called Propaganda. Then it was back to the hotel , as I had an early flight in the morning. Overall, it was a very enjoyable trip. I'm so glad that I went!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #30 - Rita Hayworth: "Gilda" (1946)

Movie Stats:
Released 1946 (USA)
American, in English (minor, non-translated Spanish, German & French)
Director - Charles Vidor
Stars - Glenn Ford, George Macready, Rita Hayworth

Plot Summary:
After card shark Johnny Farrell (Ford) & casino owner Ballin Mundson (Macready) meet in Buenos Aires, they build a close working relationship until Gilda (Hayworth) comes between them.

Warnings:
Violence; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
I could have done without all the generalizations about women. There’s more than one “All women say/do/are X” statement.

The writing is a little lazy. The film never really explains Johnny & Gilda’s past or the “tungsten plot” and it comes across as less in a “infer it from the story” way and more in a “hand wave, nothing to see here” way. Also, I feel that the “Ballin is crazy!” narrative at the end of the movie is a convenient plot device to help the audience find his fate more palatable. I never got “crazy” from the performance.

I hated how incapable Johnny & Gilda were of behaving and communicating like rational adults around one another. It would be one thing if they were 18/19, but it was really unattractive coming from grown ups. It was difficult to root for them.

Good Stuff:
I loved Joseph Calleia (as police detective Maurice Obregon) and Steven Geray (as “Uncle” Pio). Both of their characters brought humor and rationality to a relatively dreary film.

I enjoyed the dialogue. It wasn’t of the “snappy” variety that I adore, but it was witty.

I liked Johnny & Ballin’s friendship, and how loyal Johnny is to Ballin (until Gilda messes with it, of course).

Hayworth’s costuming is amazing.

About the Performance:
I’m having trouble rating Hayworth’s performance because I disliked Gilda so much as a character. She’s exactly the kind of woman who somehow always ends up in the middle of a love triangle in film: such a terrible, awful, no-good human being that I don't believe that one person would fall in love with her, let alone two at the same time. I guess Hayworth was good at portraying that because I really don’t like her now and don’t think I want to see any more of her films. She’s definitely very beautiful, sexy, and sultry. I think she was born to play characters like this.

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

The Verdict:
While it may not seem like it, I did enjoy this film. Unlikable characters are just as important in fiction as likable ones. My biggest problem is the laziness of the writing, particularly in regards to the “tungsten plot.” It seemed really obvious to me that the author didn’t actually understand anything about tungsten and was using it as a “bogeyman,” of sorts, in the same breathless, reverent way “hacking” is referred to in modern cinema. It bugged me every time it came up. Overall, however, I thought the film was entertaining. It’s very good at setting a dark atmosphere, and the performances are top-notch. I wouldn’t say I liked it quite as much as I expected to, but it’s still above average, as far as movies go.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #31 - Maureen O'Hara: "The Quiet Man" (1952)

Movie Stats:
Released 1952 (UK)
American, in English (minor, non-translated Gaelic)
Director - John Ford
Stars - John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen

Warnings:
Heavy violence; minor gore; sexual assault (non-consensual kissing).

The Verdict:
To save you the trouble of watching a single second of this steaming pile of shit, I’m doing things a little differently with this review. I’m going to tell you the whole entire plot, so obviously this contains SPOILERS.

Sean Thornton (Wayne), born in Ireland but largely raised in America, returns to the town of his birth upon retiring from a boxing career, after he’s accidentally killed a man in the ring. Due to his guilt over this incident, he refuses to fight. He falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara)—after seeing her one time, of course—and wants to marry her. There’s just one problem: Sean pissed off Mary Kate’s brother, town bully “Red” Will Danaher (McLaglen), buy purchasing his own childhood home, property that Red wanted himself.

Red refuses to let Sean marry Mary Kate. Unbeknownst to both Sean & Mary Kate, the townspeople then conspire to trick Red into letting them marry, by telling him that his love interest Sarah Tillane (Natwick) will want him after he’s gotten Mary Kate out of the house (because you can’t have 2 women in one household, natch). On the wedding night, when he finds out that he’s been tricked, Red refuses to let Mary Kate have her dowry. Sean doesn’t care because the money doesn’t matter to him, but once they get home Mary Kate refuses to do her wifely duties until she has her dowry.

Thus, she begins urging Sean to confront Red for the money, which will mean a fight. Although the whole town seems to think she’s being ridiculous (as do I), they encourage Sean to fight because 1. They think he’s a coward if he doesn’t & 2. They hate Red but they’re all too big of cowards themselves to fight him. There’s a lot in the film that disgusted me, but this really took the cake, a whole town full of people pushing a man who’s been traumatized by his past in fighting to fight, for their own selfish gain.

Eventually, Mary Kate leaves Sean. He marches down to the train station to get her back and proceeds to physically, violently drag her the 5 miles back to town. The townspeople follow to enjoy the spectacle; one even givens him a stick to beat Mary Kate with (he doesn’t, but it’s not the only wife beating joke in the film). Sean gets the dowry, and he and Mary Kate throw it in the incinerator (WHAT?). She goes home to cook. Sean proceeds to fight Red. The whole town—from the vicar to the police to a dying man—turns out to watch & bet on this fight. When it’s over, Sean and Red become friends. THE END.

In addition to being sexist, condoning violence of the regular and domestic variety, moral bankruptcy, and rampant stereotyping (All Irish men are drunks! Women with red hair have fiery temperaments!), I thought it was gross in pretty much every way imaginable. I hated it with every fiber of my being. It has exactly 2 redeeming qualities: 1. The cinematography & 2. The (I think intentional) point it makes about being careful of rushing into marriage, so that you don’t end up with someone whose personality and customs you don’t understand.

As for the performance? I hated O’Hara in it, and I really hated her backwards, narrow-minded, angry, ridiculous character. Other performances of hers I’ve reviewed: How Green Was My Valley. Oh look, I hated her in that too.

I give this garbage film one stinking, rotten .25 star.