Friday, February 16, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #15 - Susan Hayward: "I Want to Live!" (1958)

Movie Stats:
Released 1958 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Robert Wise
Stars - Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland

Plot Summary:
Based on a true story, petty crook Barbara Graham (Hayward) finds herself on the path to the gas chamber after she’s accused of participating in a murder. Oakland co-stars as Edward S. Montgomery, a journalist covering Graham’s case.

Warnings:
Violence; very minor gore; very minor blue language; implied sexy times; implied drug use (there is one brief scene where two men smoke what appears to be a marijuana joint but it’s never spoken of).

Bad Stuff:
Hayward’s performance, and the film in general, are occasionally melodramatic.

It’s too long. There are many scenes that could have been tightened.

Good Stuff:
I liked that it subtly explored the idea that—whether or not one believes in Graham’s guilt*—the jury and press viewed her more harshly because she wasn’t a “good” girl. I was frankly surprised to see that sentiment in a film from the 1950s.

Thankfully, it kept the trial portion to a minimum and focused instead on Graham’s life both before and after it. I particularly enjoyed the extensive “death watch” scene. It’s very intense. As someone who’s done a lot of true crime reading, it rang very true-to-life to me.

The jazzy soundtrack is fantastic!

About Performance:
While I did think that Hayward was sometimes too much, overall it was an excellent performance. Barbara Graham is a person who shouldn’t be likable. She’s brash and crass and rude. She’s her own worst enemy. So many times, I wanted to grab and shake her, but that’s only because it takes her far too long to realize just how serious the fix she’s in is. Hayward does a good job of portraying the vulnerability underneath Graham’s hard exterior. I never even heard of her before doing this list. I liked her enough that I would like to see more.

Other performances of Haywards I’ve reviewed: none.

The Verdict:
I expected this to be a solid film & it is. The story is told well, the performances are good, and the score is out of this world. Seriously, I’m not even the biggest fan of 1950s jazz but something about it really fit with the film and gave it extra panache. I don’t have any complaints other than what was posted above. This is probably one of the better films you’ve never seen.

I give it 4.25 stars.


*There are still a lot of questions as to Graham’s involvement in the murder. Depending on which source you read, she was either the killer or she wasn’t even at the murder scene. The film falls on the sympathetic side.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Up with Geography: El Salvador

Country Name:
El Salvador

Capital:
San Salvador

Continent:
North America

Maps:
North American continent. El Salvador
outlined in dark ink.

A close-up of El Salvador & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Guatemala, Honduras

Water Borders:
Paz River, Lago de Guija, Sumpul River, Lempa River, Torola River, Goascaron River, Pacific Ocean

Total Area:
8,124 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
San Salvador, Soyapango, Santa Ana, San Miguel, Mejicanos

Famous Geographical Point:
San Miguel (volcano)

Famous Person:
José Arturo Castellanos Contreras, army colonel & diplomat who helped save 40,000 people during the Holocaust

Book Set In/About:
Un Dia en la Vida (One Day of Life) by Manilo Argueta

This tale follows one woman's daily life during the Salvadoran Civil War.

Movie Set In/About:
"Return to El Salvador" (2010), directed by Jamie Moffett

17 years after U.N. peace accords ended the civil war, this film documents how the people of El Salvador are living their lives.

Headline of the Day:
"The Impact 200,000 Returning Expats Will Have on El Salvador" in International Banker.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #16 - Elizabeth Taylor: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

Movie Stats:
Released 1966 (USA)
American, in English (some minor, non-translated Latin & Spanish)
Director - Mike Nichols
Stars - Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

Plot Summary:
Toxic middle-aged couple George (Burton) & Martha (Taylor) spend an evening tearing one another down, much to the horror of their guests, young couple Nick (Segal) & Honey (Dennis), who get caught up in the drama.

Warnings:
Blue language; violence; heavily implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
It’s basically just 2+ hours of people yelling at each other.

I don’t find the premise believable. If I was at someone’s home and they began to repeatedly bicker with & tear down their spouse & call them names, I would leave.

I thought Dennis was terrible. I’m genuinely perplexed by her Oscar win for this performance. My husband watched part of the film with me. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Is she supposed to be mentally disabled?” That’s how strange she was in the role, even before her character got drunk.

Good Stuff:
I really enjoyed the opening scene, where George & Martha are strolling home from a party. It’s visually lovely. That and the soft music lull you into a false sense of security as to what the rest of the film will be like.

Apart from Dennis, the acting is very good.

It does a good job of showing all the small ways—and some of the big ways—a relationship can go terribly, horribly wrong.

About the Performance:
Taylor is great. Most roles I’ve seen her in, she’s dignified, refined, and beautiful. In this, she’s a crass, bitter, awful, shrieking mess of a human being. I absolutely loathed her. And that’s the point. You’re not supposed to like Martha. You’re not really supposed to like any of the main characters, except maybe Honey. At the same time, Taylor gives Martha just enough vulnerability that you can feel a little bit sorry for her. I was duly impressed.

Other performances of Taylor’s I’ve reviewed: Giant; A Place in the Sun.

The Verdict:
This is one of those films that I understand why it’s considered good & why it’s a classic. It’s specifically designed to make you uncomfortable. You’re not supposed to like it in the sense that you’re having a good time during it. You’re supposed to watch it with a wince on your face, feeling grateful that you’re not currently experiencing anything like this. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. When it was over, I told my husband, “That movie was awful.” I hated it. And yet, as I’ve taken the time to really think about it while working on this review, I recognize how masterful it was. I’m torn between giving it a rating based on how much I enjoyed it (not at all) and how much I admire it (greatly). But I feel magnanimous, so I’ve decided to give it a good rating. Definitely not a film I’d ever watch again, though.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #17 - Judi Dench: "Philomena" (2013)

Movie Stats:
Released 2013 (Italy)
British, American & French, in English
Director - Stephen Frears
Stars - Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Plot Summary:
Based on a true story, cynical journalist Martin Sexsmith (Coogan) helps elderly Philomena Lee (Dench) search for the son who was taken away from her by a convent when she was a teenager.

Warnings:
Blue language; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
I don’t find Coogan especially believable in this serious role.

I’m not a fan of big, dramatic confrontation scenes in film, especially when they occur between strangers. For example, the “dogged-journalist-stick-a-foot-in-the-door” scene or the “yell-at-nuns” scene. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t believe that people do those sorts of things in real life, so it tends to take me right out of the movie as I think to myself, “That would never happen. They would call the police!”

Good Stuff:
It shines a spotlight on a topic that is woefully ignored across all media.

Apart from the slight skepticism I’ve thrown in Coogan’s direction, the acting is very good.

I enjoy the friendship that forms between Martin and Philomena.

About the Performance:
Dench is great. Her performance is really what sold the film for me. She’s entirely believable as a woman with a long-ago wound that has never healed. Most of her role calls for her to be understated, but Dench does an excellent job of portraying what’s underneath the “stiff upper lip” exterior. You can feel what she feels, even when she’s not actively expressing it.

Other performances of Dench’s I’ve reviewed: Shakespeare in Love.

The Verdict:
I watched this film on a whim last year. My intention was to watch bits and pieces of it again to “refresh” my memory before writing this review, but when I went to do so, I sadly discovered that it’s no longer available for free on Amazon Prime. So this is all from memory. I absolutely loved this movie. It’s very emotional; I cried like a baby. One of the things I admire most about it is that there’s an obvious direction the Philomena/Martin relationship could have gone (mother/surrogate son) that it didn’t go in. I truly appreciate those rarely portrayed platonic relationships between women and men, especially ones with such a large age gap. It’s nice to see some age diversity in film. I do think that the movie occasionally  gets overdramatic, but for the most part it’s a lovely little story about grief, loss, perseverance, and friendship.

I give it 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Up with U.S. Geography: Texas

Texas is the third of the eight states I've lived in to make the list! My husband and I spent slightly longer than three years there, split almost evenly between Austin & Dallas.

State Name:
Texas

Capital:
Austin

Date of Entry:
December 29, 1845

Maps:

Map of the USA. Texas outlined in dark ink & with
name written on it.

A close-up of Texas & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mexico, New Mexico

Water Borders:
Red River, Sabine River, Gulf of Mexico, Rio Grande

Total Area:
268,581 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth

Famous Geographical Point:
South Padre Island

State Nickname:
The Lone Star State. The Texas flag from the time it was an independent republic, to now, well into statehood, famously features one star.

Famous Person:
Frederick "Tex" Avery, animator, director, cartoonist, and voice actor (best known for Bugs Bunny and co.)

It was hard to choose. So many famous people are from Texas! On the bright side, I now know that Cyd Charisse's real name was Tula Ellice Finklea. I can see the appeal of the stage name.

Book Set In/About:
Texas: A Novel by James A. Michener

This nearly 1500-page behemoth spans four and a half centuries of Texas history, from Spanish conquistadors to modern statehood.

Movie Set In/About:
"Hud" (1963), directed by Martin Ritt

On a failing Texas cattle farm, a father and son are locked in a power struggle.

Headline of the Day:
"Northwest Mall Picked as Houston Station Site for Texas Bullet Train" on KTRK-TV.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #18 - Marlene Dietrich: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)

Movie Stats:
Released 1957 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Billy Wilder
Stars - Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Plot Summary:
Recently returned to work after a heart attack, barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Laughton) takes on a criminal case against the wishes of his doctors, that of accused murderer Leonard Vole (Power), whose wife Christine (Dietrich) is playing an angle Roberts doesn’t quite understand.

Warnings:
Sexual harassment; minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
I’m not a big fan of courtroom dramas. I usually find them simultaneously boring and histrionic/overblown.

I didn’t care for the soundtrack. It didn’t fit the film.

Good Stuff:
The acting is out of this world. Everyone is so good that it’s impossible to single any one person out.

I loved the “big twist.” Quite frankly, it makes the film.

I enjoyed that none of the main characters are who they seem to be on the surface. They all have depth that is slowly revealed through the course of the film.

About the Performance:
Dietrich is so good that it’s impossible to understand how good she is until the twist is revealed. For most of the film, I resented her representation. It seemed such a standard, BS portrayal of a German woman in the wake of WWII: the aloof, unfeeling ice queen. Then the twist happened and it was like, “Ohhhh, that’s exactly how I was supposed to feel!” There is no amount of praise I could heap on her that would be enough. This is a truly excellent performance.

Other performances of Dietrich’s I’ve reviewed: Judgment at Nuremberg.

The Verdict:
Truthfully, I spent most of the film feeling so-so about it. I really liked the beginning, which showcases powerhouse performances by Laughton and Power, but then it got to the trial part. As I said above, I don’t really care for courtroom dramas. They often rehash details that were discussed earlier in the film/show/book, hence making them boring, while at the same time featuring a bunch of grandstanding, which doesn’t happen in real-life trials, hence making them both overblown and unrealistic. So I was suffering through that part of the film. And then came the twist and everything clicked into place and I thought to myself, “This is one of the most masterful stories I’ve ever seen.” I was completely snowed; never saw the ending coming, and that’s a rare feat. The trial portion of the film is Dietrich’s time to shine, and shine she does. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

I give it 4.5 stars.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Top 50 Actresses, #19 - Cate Blanchett: "Blue Jasmine" (2013)

Movie Stats:
Released 2013 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Woody Allen
Stars - Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale

Plot Summary:
After her life falls apart, wealthy socialite Jasmine (Blanchett) tries to adjust to living in a lower financial caste. Hawkins co-stars as Jasmine’s lower-class sister, Ginger, and Cannavale as Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili.

Warnings:
Blue language; attempted sexual assault; violence; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
All these San Franciscans sure talk and sound an awful lot like New Yorkers. You can definitely tell that Woody Allen wrote this script.

Normally I’m a fan of open endings but I found this one unsatisfactory.

Some of the conversations are a bit repetitive. While it’s true-to-life, in film it gets tiresome.

Good Stuff:
I really liked the topic, and it’s not one that we see portrayed often in film: how difficult it can be to “come down” in circumstances. That’s actually something that’s been on my mind since so many people committed suicide during the real estate crash 10 years ago.

It does a good job of putting many of its characters (specifically Jasmine and Chili, but also Augie, Ginger’s ex-husband, played by Andrew Dice Clay*) on the thin edge of likability. For example, while I didn’t particularly care for Jasmine, I admired that she actually tried to get her life back together, instead of just relying on her sister’s kindness.

Loved the soundtrack.

About the Performance:
Blanchett is fantastic. Jasmine really isn’t very likable. She’s cold and snobbish and basically useless. However, she is relatable. Most of us have hit a point in our lives when we simply find it difficult to cope. Blanchett takes that small piece of what we can relate to and runs with it. As much as Jasmine exasperates you, you can’t help but to root for her. Blanchett earned a well-deserved Oscar for this. Also, I want to note that while I spent the whole film thinking that Hawkins’s American accent was shaky at best, I didn’t even notice that Blanchett was doing an accent until I looked her up & was reminded that she’s Australian.

Other performances of Blanchett’s I’ve reviewed: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The Verdict:
I have to admit, once I realized this was an Allen film, I was very skeptical. I loathe his “schtick” and tend to find his films exhausting. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I think it helps that Allen himself isn’t in it. Also, that it’s short. If it had gone on any longer, I might have gotten annoyed. It’s an interesting topic, portrayed in a sensitive manner, elevated by Blanchett’s performance. It’s not a film I would watch repeatedly, but I think it’s really solid.

I give it 4 stars.


*I didn’t recognize him at all. When I was writing this review, I was floored to discover he played Augie.