Monday, November 20, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #34 - Jean Harlow: "The Public Enemy" (1931)

Movie Stats:
Released 1931 (USA)
American, in English
Director - William A. Wellman
Stars - James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow

Plot Summary:
It’s the story of childhood friends Tom Powers (Cagney) & Matt Doyle (Woods), who begin their life of crime at a young age, eventually graduating to the dangerous world of bootleg liquor during Prohibition. Harlow co-stars as Tom’s love interest, Gwen Allen.

Warnings:
Violence; minor gore; rape (offscreen).

Bad Stuff:
The moralizing is ridiculous. It’s not even that I disagree with it (I consider it best to stay away from a life of crime); it’s just so in-your-face and histrionic. It reminded me of the song “We Both Reached for the Gun” from the musical Chicago, which exhorts people to stay away from “jazz and liquor.”

It felt really disjointed, more like s series of vignettes than a cohesive film.

It’s dull.

Good Stuff:
[BIG SPOILER]
I really admired what it did with the rape. First of all, rape of males is very rarely portrayed in film. Rape of males by females is even more rarely portrayed. (In case you’re wondering: a female character gets Tom drunk & has sex with him even though he says no. He doesn’t remember until she tells him. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong.) And even rarer still, the fact that Tom is horrified by what happened, so horrified that he leaves his hideout, which ultimately leads to both his & Matt’s demise. It was a nice change from the standard societal response of “at least you got laid lololol” to male victims of female sexual aggression.
[SPOILER]

I liked Beryl Mercer as Tom’s mother, Ma, and I really liked her character as well. She behaved the way I would expect a real mother to.

About the Performance:
This was a poor choice for Harlow because, much to my irritated surprise, she’s barely in it. On her IMDB page, it’s her #1 “known for” film! That’s why I chose it! I think she has maybe 10 total minutes of screen time, and she hardly says or does anything in those 10 minutes. I’m frankly shocked she received top billing alongside Cagney, because her character isn’t remotely integral to the plot. That said, what little I saw of her, I didn’t care for. Her performance felt like a performance, and an affected one at that. However, I wasn’t completely turned off. I would like to see something else of hers, to get a better handle on her acting ability (this was my first Harlow film). Side note: she has a truly impressive number of credits (43) for a woman who died at the age of 26.

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

The Verdict:
I didn’t like this film at all. It was a huge disappointment because normally I love old gangster films. For some reason, this one just didn’t do it for me. I thought it was preachy and boring and (as much as I liked Mercer) there weren’t any “wow” performances. Plus, I was really annoyed that Harlow got top billing when she’s hardly in it.

I give it 2.25 stars.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #35 - Natalie Portman: "Black Swan" (2010)

Movie Stats:
Released 2010 (Italy)
American, in English (minor non-translated French & Italian)
Director - Darren Aronofsky
Stars - Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Plot Summary:
After winning the lead in “Swan Lake,” ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) slowly descends into madness. Kunis co-stars as Lily, a new ballerina in Nina’s troupe, and Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the director of Nina’s troupe.

Warnings:
Lots of sexy times; sexual assault (non-consensual kissing); violence; extreme gore; heavy blue language; non-consensual drug use (ecstasy, maybe?).

Bad Stuff:
I find it incredibly dull. Here this woman is, losing her mind, and it’s like watching paint dry.

None of the characters are compelling or particularly likable. I think I’m supposed to have sympathy for Nina but I don’t. Her character is too cold to be relatable.

The gore is too much.

Good Stuff:
It does a great job with atmosphere. The way shots are composed, the lighting, etc., give it a pervasive sense of doom throughout.

Good acting. Special shoutout to Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, Erica.

Loved the costuming.

About the Performance:
I’m sitting here thinking about how annoying I find Nina. She’s meek and simpering and childish and I got really, really sick of listening to her shaky breath. “The only time I found this performance believable,” I thought to myself, “is when she ‘becomes’ the black swan.” Then I realized that was the point, that Nina spends the whole film transforming. So actually, Portman’s performance is very good, and she probably deserved the Oscar that she won. I’ve always liked her. Yes, she’s had some stinker performances (I’m looking at you, Star Wars prequels) but I suppose we’ve all had a bad day at the office now and then.

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

The Verdict:
I just don’t like this film. I saw it when it came out, when everyone was raving about what a masterpiece it is. I didn’t care for it then. I decided to give it a second shot because sometimes movies don’t hit you the way they could or should. I thought a repeat viewing might help me to feel differently. It didn’t. I still think this movie is boring as all get out. I don’t connect with Nina, or any of the other characters, for that matter. Plus, I find the extensive gore really disgusting. What this film has going for it the most are the acting and the atmosphere. I don’t think it’s terrible, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea.

I give it 3 stars.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Up with Geography: East Timor

Country Name:
East Timor

Capital:
Dili

Continent:
None - it's an island; closest continent is Asia

Map:
A close-up of East Timor & its neighbor.

Neighbor:
It shares Timor Island with Indonesia. Indonesia is also the closest neighbor, to the north & northwest. Australia is to the southeast.

Water Borders:
Savu Sea, Wetar Strait, Timor Sea

Total Area:
5,743 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Dili, Same, Maliana, Suai, Liquica

Famous Geographical Point:
Tatamailau (mountain)

Famous Person:
Martinho de Ara├║jo, weightlifter

Book Set In/About:
East Timor: Genocide in Paradise by Matthew Jardine

While this book was written before East Timor gained independence in 1999, it covers much of the country’s recent history, which is marked by brutal occupations (Portugal & Indonesia) and neglect (the rest of the world).

Movie Set In/About:
“Balibo” (2009), directed by Robert Connolly

A fictionalized account of the true story of five foreign journalists who were killed during Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. When Australian journalist Roger East arrives in East Timor to investigate the mens’ deaths, he too is caught up in the madness.

Headline of the Day:
"Former Macau Resident Couple on Trial in East Timor Flees the Country to Australia" in Macau Business

Monday, November 13, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #36 - Natalie Wood: "Splendor in the Grass" (1961)

Movie Stats:
Released 1961 (USA)
American, in English (minor non-translated Italian)
Director - Elia Kazan
Stars - Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty

Plot Summary:
In 1920s Kansas, a passionate teenaged romance between Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Wood) and Bud Stamper (Beatty) is torn apart by societal & familial expectations.

Warnings:
Sexual assault; implied rape (nothing on-screen); violence; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
It’s pretty melodramatic. It felt a little bit like “Reefer Madness” in that it takes the point to a ridiculous extreme. “See, if you don’t allow teenagers to have sex, they’ll go mad! Mad, I tell you!”

I kept forgetting that it was set in the 1920s. Apart from the costume & set design, it didn’t feel like it was. I think my particular problem was with the dialogue. It seemed more like 1950s dialogue.

The heavily horn-laden soundtrack killed me.

Good Stuff:
While I did think it overstated its case, I liked that it sharply called into question societal norms about sex. It was also good at showing how much pressure families can put on teenagers in general, and how that pressure, while usually well-meaning, can be detrimental. I thought it was rather advanced for a film of its time.

It makes you uncomfortable in the best kind of way. It’s not pleasant or fun. A lot of scenes had my shoulders up around my ears, but I think that was the intent. It’s supposed to make you think, “Wow, this is really messed up,” so that you call things into question.


Good acting. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Wood, Audrey Christie (as Deanie’s mother, Mrs. Loomis), and Pat Hingle (as Bud’s father, Ace Stamper).

About the Performance:
As mentioned above, I think Wood is very good in this. At first, I didn’t appreciate exactly how good she was because her character is so young and innocent (and frankly childlike for someone who’s supposed to be 17 or 18). It wasn’t until her character went through a crisis, and then came out the other side as a much more mature person, that I truly began to admire her performance. I’ve never had much of an opinion about her. Looking at some of my other reviews of her films, I don’t tend to mention her. But this one made me interested in seeing more of her work.

Other performances of Wood’s I’ve reviewed: West Side Story; The Searchers; Rebel Without a Cause.

The Verdict:
This was much better than I expected. I thought it was going to be a sappy romance movie. Not only is it not that, the film is just as good at showing what’s unhealthy about Deanie and Bud’s relationship as it is showing how unrealistic societal standards about sex have been for a very long time. It tackles a lot of uncomfortable issues. While it can be heavy-handed, I still found it interesting and engaging. Plus, I really liked that it didn’t go for the most simplistic happy ending.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #37 - Mae West: "My Little Chickadee" (1940)

Movie Stats:
Released 1940 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Edward F. Cline
Stars - Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran

Plot Summary:
Sassy, strong-willed Flower Belle Lee (West) is run out of town due to her association with an outlaw & told not to return until she’s respectably married, which prompts her to enter a sham marriage with con-man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields). Shenanigans ensue. Calleia and Foran star respectively as Jeff Badger & Wayne Carter, two of Flower Belle’s suitors.

Warnings:
Lots of sexual innuendo.

Bad Stuff:
The horribly stereotyped Native American character (Milton, played by George Moran) provides a heavy cringe throughout much of the film.

Cuthbert’s repeated attempts to have sex with uninterested Flower Belle, to whom he is “married,” not married, which both of them are well aware of, and the way that’s played for laughs, made me very uncomfortable.

West’s manner of speaking feels out of place in a film set in the Old West. She talks like a snarky film noir character.

Good Stuff:
I loved Margaret Hamilton (of Wicked Witch fame) as town busybody Mrs. Gideon. Her character is highly entertaining.

Flower Belle is the kind of independent, unashamedly sexual, strong female character you don’t expect to see in a movie from 1940. Her identity isn’t wrapped up in the men in her life. It’s refreshing. In relation to that, I liked how the film turned the ideas of marriage and respectability on their heads.

It definitely has its funny moments.

About the Performance:
I never saw a single second of a Mae West film before this. I knew that she presented highly sexualized characters, and so expected to be turned off by her. However, I discovered that there was a lot more nuance to her work than I imagined. Yes, she’s very sexual, but she uses her sexuality to poke fun at societal ideas about what makes women “proper” and “respectable.” That impressed me. I do think that she comes across too modern to be believable as a woman from the Old West, but there wasn’t much about the film in general that was believable, and regardless of that, I found her very charismatic. I can’t say that I want to run out and watch the rest of her films, but I admire her now.

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

The Verdict:
Originally, I was going to review “I’m No Angel,” one of West’s best-known films, but I couldn’t find a copy of it anywhere. Eventually, I had to settle for searching “Mae West” on Netflix. Only two of her movies showed up, and I chose this one because it had better reviews. I don’t think it’s a great film, but I liked it far more than I expected. There’s definitely a lot of gross, cringe-inducing stuff that one might expect in a film of this age, such as the embarrassing racial stereotyping & the men-are-horn-dogs-incapable-of-controlling-themselves offensive jokes. But, there’s also a strong female character who plays with the ideas of societal and gender norms. It was a pleasant surprise. Ultimately, I think most people would see the fun in this film.

I give it 3.25 stars.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Arkansas

State Name:
Arkansas

Capital:
Little Rock

Date of Entry:
June 15, 1836

Maps:

Map of USA. Arkansas outlined in dark ink.

A close-up of Arkansas & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma

Water Borders:
Mississippi River

Total Area:
53,180 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Springdale, Jonesboro

Famous Geographical Point:
Ozark Mountains

State Nickname:
The Natural State. The name is derived from the abundance of scenic nature in the state.

Famous Person:
Billy Bob Thornton, actor, screenwriter, director & musician

Book Set In/About:
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

A family drama set in rural Arkansas.

Movie Set In/About:
"Sling Blade" (1996), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

After 20 years of incarceration (for murder) in an institution, a mentally challenged man befriends a young boy & his mother.

Headline of the Day:
"Report: Blaze at Arkansas Plywood Mill Spread Due to Water" in U.S. News & World Report

Monday, November 6, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #38 - Diane Keaton: "Reds" (1981)

Movie Stats:
Released 1981 (USA)
American, in English (several foreign languages, although mostly Russian, mostly translated)
Director - Warren Beatty
Stars - Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton

Plot Summary:
A biopic of socialist journalist couple John “Jack” Reed (Beatty) & Louise Bryant (Keaton), who, having witnessed the Russian Revolution in person, were sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause.

Warnings:
Blue language; minor violence; brief female nudity in the form of a photograph (butt only); sexy times; consensual drug use (marijuana).

Bad Stuff:
It’s way, way too long (the 25th anniversary edition I saw rolled in at approximately 3.5 hours).

After a while it starts to feel very repetitive. People argue a lot, causing me to develop a very dim view of intellectuals.

I didn’t care for Beatty’s performance. I didn’t find him believable.

Good Stuff:
It covers one of my favorite time periods of American history (early 1900s), which often get skipped over in U.S. history class (apart from WWI of course). I particularly liked that it showed the labor strife of that time period & the brief popularity of American socialism.

I enjoyed the interviews with people who were associated with Jack & Louise in real life.

The cinematography & soundtrack are great.

About the Performance:
I thought Keaton was good. Her performance was much better than Beatty’s. I don’t know how true the story was to real life. It seems widely accepted that Jack and Louise had an open relationship, but did they actually struggle with it? There are plenty of polyamorous people who are happy with that lifestyle. I guess, whether it was true to life or not, I was impressed by how easily Keaton conveyed the struggle, with her words, with her delivery of them, and with her facial expressions. Also, I liked that it showed how, even in a progressive movement, a woman’s voice can be drowned out by a man’s. I’ve always enjoyed Keaton as an actress, and she doesn’t disappoint here.

Other performances of Keaton’s I’ve reviewed: Annie Hall; The Godfather: Part II;  Sleeper; The Godfather.

The Verdict:
I would’ve liked this film a lot more if it had been at least an hour shorter. It doesn’t have the most interesting story on the planet. Even so, I would have gladly endured it if it didn’t drone on and on and on. So much of it could have been left out entirely! I do think there’s a good movie in there. Keaton isn’t the only one to give an engaging performance. I also really enjoyed Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Interviewing Jack & Louise’s friends/family/acquaintances was a nice touch. It’s pretty to look at, and the music is appealing. It wasn’t the worst film I’ve ever seen but I can’t say it was a favorite either.

I give it 2.75 stars.