Thursday, October 29, 2015

AFI Top 100, #59: "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955)

Movie Stats:
Released 1955 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Nicholas Ray
Stars - James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo

Plot Summary:
A day in the life of three troubled teenagers: Jim Stark (Dean),  Judy (Wood), and John “Plato” Crawford (Mineo).


Bad Stuff:
It’s definitely a teenager movie about teenagers having teenager problems. The first time I saw it, I was barely out of my teenage years myself (I may have still been in them), so it really spoke to me. Seeing it as an adult, I have to say that much of it feels like a lot of unnecessary drama.

I found myself bristling at the idea that Jim had so many problems because his dad was emasculated by his mom (Oh the humanity, he wore a frilly apron!). That’s some straight-up 1950s mentality, and I’m definitely not a 1950s woman.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the soundtrack, but when am I ever when it comes to 50s films?

Good Stuff:
As annoying as all the teenaged drama was, it seemed like the writers understood what it’s like to be a teenager. So many things rang true. For example, John giving himself the nickname “Plato,” exactly the kind of pretentious thing I would’ve done at that age. Or Jim vehemently insisting that he didn’t want to grow up to be like his father. Or this exchange between bully Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and Jim right before the “chickie run”:

Buzz: You know something? I like you.
Jim: Why do we do this?
Buzz: You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?

Honestly genius. All the aimlessness, confusion, and anger of the teenaged years wrapped up in three short sentences. I also really loved the scene where Jim, Judy, and Plato were “playing house” in the abandoned mansion. It seemed exactly like the kind of exchange a group of three friends messing around would have.

Great performances from Dean, Mineo, and Jim Backus (as Jim’s dad Frank).

The Verdict:
Well, I hope everyone gets a chance to see this at an age where it’s applicable. I don’t think it packs quite the same punch once you’re an adult. It’s not so much that you lose the ability to relate. It’s more that, as ineffectual as all the adult characters are, you start to see that they have a point: the feelings that Jim and Judy experience are normal, mundane even, and given a few years, they’ll grow out of it. None of it is as big or as important as they think it is. (Plato, on the other hand, has serious mental health issues. Poor kid.)

Performances are, by and large, pretty good. I liked the dialogue. However, the amount of action/drama that could be packed into one night bordered on the absurd. As a film that addresses the problems of teenagers, I think it’s rather brilliant. However, because of that, it has limited appeal, in my opinion. At the end of the day, it’s definitely a “see it at least once in your life” film.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Up with Geography: Brazil



South America

South American continent. Brazil outlined
in dark ink and shaded.

A close-up of Brazil & its neighbors.

Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana (a French territory), Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia

Water Borders:
Atlantic Ocean

Total Area:
3,287,597 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Brasilia, Fortaleza

Famous Geographical Point:
Amazon Rain Forest

Famous Person:
Pele, one of the most widely recognized soccer players in the world

Book Set In/About:
The War at the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

A fictionalized account of Canudos, a 19th century Brazilian community targeted by the government.

Movie Set In/About:
"City of God (Cidade de Deus)" (2002), directed by Fernando Mereilles & Katia Lund

It's the story of people trying to live their lives and escape the grinding poverty of the Rio slums.

Headline of the Day:
"#BlackLivesMatter Has Gone Global and Brazil Needs It - Badly" in NBC News.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

AFI Top 100, #60: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)

Movie Stats:
Released 1981 (USA)
American, in English (plus several other languages, some translated, some not)
Director - Steven Spielberg
Stars - Harrison Ford, Karen Allen

Plot Summary:
Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones (Ford), an archaeologist and adventurer, is drawn into a quest to find the Ark of the Covenant. Allen co-stars as Indy’s friend and love interest, Marion Ravenwood.

Fairly graphic violence; implied sexy times; blue language.

Bad Stuff:
I mean, I know they’re Nazis, but the bad guys are such caricatures that the only reason they don’t twirl their mustaches is because they don’t have them to twirl. It’s pretty over-the-top.

Every Indiana Jones movie has a moment, a moment where I can no longer suspend my disbelief, where I have to roll my eyes and think to myself, “Oh, come on now, that’s just too ridiculous to believe.” In this one, it’s the [SPOILER I guess] traitor monkey [SPOILER]. So embarrassingly stupid.

Good Stuff:
It’s so much fun!

It’s funny. These films all have great dialogue (my personal favorite is Last Crusade, wonderful banter, and excellent chemistry between Ford and Connery).

It’s got great pacing. Starts you out with action, slows it down a bit for some exposition, and then it’s off to the races. It never feels slow or boring, just moves on from one thrill to the next.

The Verdict:
Have you ever met a person who doesn’t like at least one of the Indiana Jones movies? I haven’t. They’re popular for a reason: they’re a high-charged, entertaining romps around the world that we all wish we could go on at least once in our lives. The character of Indy is relatable, I think, because he’s a mix between an everyman and a Renaissance Man. He’s got both book smarts and common sense, he’s strong, he’s handsome, he can fight, he knows how to do random stuff, but unlike the IMO dreadfully boring Superman, he also makes mistakes. What’s not to like? While this isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones flick (see above), it’s a damn fine film.

I give it 4.25 stars.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

AFI Top 100, #61: "Vertigo" (1958)

Movie Stats:
Released  1958 (UK)
American, in English
Director - Alfred Hitchcock
Stars - James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Plot Summary:
Recently retired San Francisco PD detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart), suffering from a paralyzing fear of heights, is hired by an old college buddy to follow the buddy’s wife, Madeleine (Novak), who appears to be suffering from a mental break. Bel Geddes co-stars as Scottie’s friend, Midge.


Bad Stuff:
Scottie is literally the least subtle detective on the planet (seriously, in the car he follows like less than one car length behind, stops every time she stops, noticeably follows her on-foot in deserted places and stares at her), so I figured that Madeleine was either laughably oblivious or that the whole thing was a set up. Therefore, the movie didn’t feel very suspenseful to me.

It felt slow. The numerous scenes of Scottie driving around were pretty boring.

The ending is a huge bowl of WTF.

Good Stuff:
The scenery is beautiful. I don’t remember SF looking that nice the one time I went there.

Stewart is fantastic, as always.

While the suspense was missing for me, I liked the ultimate explanation of what happened.
 It was sort of deliciously evil.

The Verdict:
Shallow side note: holy wow, Barbara Bel Geddes was so pretty! And her character was about a billion times better than Madeleine. I had such a huge girl crush on her in this. I could have watched a whole movie of Midge and “Johnny” (her nickname for Scottie) bantering.

But alas, that’s not what this movie was about. Having now seen 4 Hitchcock movies in the last year or so (review for Notorious; reviews for North by Northwest and Psycho coming later as part of this project), I’m beginning to think I’m not much of a fan. Most of his movies start out really interesting to me, but the longer they go on, the less engaged I feel. My personal opinion is that they simply don’t hold together very well. That being said, I don’t think this is a bad entry to the list. It has quite a lot going for it, with magnificent scenery, great acting, and an interesting plot. It’s one of those films where, in a different mindset on a different day, I might think better of it, so I’m not going to judge it too harshly.

I give it 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Music Love: "Lonesome Rider" by The Beth Edges

A few weeks ago, I was at the Radical Reels Film Tour, an offshoot of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Both are super cool film tours that showcase shorts (anywhere from 2 to 30ish minutes) about outdoor sports such as rock climbing, skiing, and kayaking. Radical Reels focuses on the more “extreme” end of these sports. Both festivals are a lot of fun. If you get a chance, you should check them out! The Banff tour goes all over the world; Radical Reels has events in Canada, the USA, and Australia.

At any rate, it was at the tour, during one of these films, that I first heard The Beth Edges. I can’t tell you what song it was, or what movie it was in (I’m guessing it was the one about the crazy Austrian guys who put their BMX-type bikes on skis to ride them down mountains, doing tricks) and they weren’t even my favorite of the two bands whose names I wrote down. About a week later, I remembered that I’d written down these bands (the other was FMLYBND) and decided to look them up on iTunes.

A listen to FMLYBND left me, frankly, puzzled as to why they’d intrigued me in the first place. Then I listened to The Beth Edges and immediately fell in love. I loved them so much, in fact, that it was difficult to choose just one song to download. (If I let myself, I would spend hundreds of dollars on music, so I try to keep it in check.) The song I chose is the one above.

I don’t know about you, but I never would have guessed that this young band hails from Austria. All of their songs are in English, and to me they have a very British sound, which is probably why I like them so much. In fact, they remind me of early Kooks, and I love early Kooks (I like later Kooks too, but reserve most of my love for the early years). There’s something about the quality of singer Tobias Gruenzweil’s voice that’s often reminiscent of the Kooks’ Luke Pritchard. The music has a similar sound too.

I love pretty much every about this band and this particular song: their sound, and Grunzweil’s voice, and their lyrics. What drew me to this song was the pleading refrain, “Just wanted you to know that I’ll be trying to change for the better.” It hits very close to home for me, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I can do to be a better person. As much as I love this song, however, I hate the video, so much so that I almost decided to put up an unofficial video instead. Eventually, I decided that I want you to hear the studio version. Maybe just close your eyes and listen to it instead of watching.

A day or two after I downloaded “Lonesome Rider,” my husband spontaneously gave me an iTunes gift card. That same night, I bought both Beth Edges albums. They’re phenomenal. Can’t recommend them enough. If, for some reason, you don’t like “Lonesome Rider,” check out “Made-Up Stories,” “Older Than Me,” and “Follow Your Feet.” Just don’t miss out on this band!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

AFI Top 100, #62: "Tootsie" (1982)

Movie Stats:
Released 1982 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Sydney Pollack
Stars - Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Charles Durning

Plot Summary:
Frustrated by his long-term inability to land jobs, actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) goes out for a part dressed as a woman - and gets it. Lange co-stars as Michael’s love interest, Julie; Garr as his friend, Sandy; Murray as his roommate, Jeff; and Durning as Julie’s father, Les.

Blue language; implied sexy times; one scene with non-consensual groping.

Bad Stuff:
The casual homophobia and transphobia made me uncomfortable. A man dressed as a woman? He must be gay and he definitely needs therapy, hardee-har-har. It’s not outrageous, but it’s definitely old school. You can tell that this isn’t a movie with a modern-day mindset.

I didn’t like Michael very much. He gets better by the end, but for most of the movie it was difficult for me to root for his happy ending.

The soundtrack is terrible.

Good Stuff:
Bill Murray was fantastic. I enjoyed seeing him play “the straight man” for once. I also really loved George Gaynes as Michael’s soap opera co-star John Van Horn, a dim-witted lech who was forever slow on the uptake. Nearly every line of his cracked me up.

On that note, some of it is very funny.

It’s crafted in a pretty clever way. I expected the message to be in-your-face but it wasn’t; it was surprisingly rather subtle.

The Verdict:
Honestly, I was dreading this movie because I figured it would be one of those films that was really enlightened for the time but now, over 30 years later, would seem archaic. I was happily surprised to be wrong. It wasn’t really what I was expecting at all. Yes, Michael learned how to be a better person through his experience living as a woman, but I thought the film did a good job of showing how things are difficult for women in unobtrusive ways. It addresses the small indignities that many women face every day, such as being condescended to with nicknames - like “tootsie” - and how some men just expect their advances to be well-received, without drifting into long monologues about it. I never felt like I was being preached at. On the other hand, there’s a strong element of “man saves the day” (Julie doesn’t know how to be a strong, independent woman until Michael, a man dressed as a woman, shows her) that ran counter to the message, I felt. I didn’t like that. All in all, however, I thought it was solid, still relevant and both amusing and entertaining. 

I give it 3.75 stars.

Monday, October 5, 2015

AFI Top 100, #63: "Stagecoach" (1939)

Movie Stats:
Released 1939 (USA)
American, in English (some non-translated Spanish)
Director - John Ford
Stars - John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft

Plot Summary:
A stagecoach run across Arizona territory is complicated by the cast of characters aboard it and by the threat of Apache attack. Wayne stars as escaped con Ringo Kid; Trevor as Dallas, a woman of ill repute; Mitchell as the drunkard Doc Josiah Boone; and Bancroft as the fair-minded Marshal Curley Wilcox.


Bad Stuff:
The scene with the “Native American” wife Yakima (Mexican actress Elvira Rios) was so strange, very out of place. It was like, [SPOILER] “Quick, a lady is having a baby, call in all available ladies!” and then all she did was sing a song, get her back up band to steal the extra horses, and run away. Huh? I felt like the director just wanted that particular actress to sing a song so he found a way to shoehorn it in (as an aside, she did have a lovely voice). [SPOILER]

The pacing at the end was weird. It was a lot of build-up for virtually no pay-off.

Good Stuff:
I loved the complex characterizations. Just because Doc Boone managed to sober up long enough to save someone’s life, for example, didn’t mean that he wasn’t still an alcoholic. Kudos to the script for hinting that his problems stemmed from his experiences in the Civil War. Even bigger kudos to the film for recognizing that women without family, like Dallas, have had few reputable options throughout much of human history. And unlike most lawmen in the movies, Curley didn’t see the world in black-and-white. All of this was so refreshing. It was such a surprise for a Western.

The secondary characters were great too, and brought a fun dimension to everything. I especially enjoyed the chatty, simple-minded coach driver Buck (Andy Devine) and the timid whiskey peddler Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek).

It actually has a lot of funny dialogue.

The Verdict:
I could have sworn I’d seen this before. I distinctly remember watching a John Wayne movie that involved a stagecoach with a motley cast of characters, and a running battle with “Indians.” That movie, however, was in color and included a scene where Wayne slapped a hysterical woman (the female lead, I believe). This movie is in black and white and includes no such slapping scene. So I have no idea what I’m remembering. If you know what movie I’m talking about, please let me know in the comments.

Anyway, when I thought I was going to watch that movie again, I wasn’t looking forward to it because I didn’t like it. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I would be watching something else entirely. And I’m happy to report that I finally found a Western that I like. For real! I really, really liked this a lot! It was fun and surprisingly layered and sensitive and pretty funny in parts. I was amused by how shabbily the character of the blowhard banker Ellsworth Gatewood (Berton Churchill) was portrayed because, given the timing of the movie’s release toward the end of the Great Depression, it seemed like it was a sentiment of the time creeping in. For once, I finally get what all the hullabaloo about John Ford was. 

I give it 4.25 stars.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Out and About: Chicago, Day 4

To read more about this trip, click HERE, HERE, and HERE.

My final hotel was relatively close walking distance to Lincoln Park, so after my morning ablutions and a stop for coffee, I headed out for a stroll through the park, on my way to the nature museum and the zoo. Everywhere I went in Chicago, I found random statues. Lincoln Park didn't disappoint me in this. I saw several there, including this gem:

The pose of the above statue was so dramatic that I absolutely had to find out who John Peter Altgeld was. Turns out, he was the 20th governor of Illinois (in the late 19th century), and a leading figure of the Progressive movement. As such, he pioneered child labor laws, hence the fact that he's protecting children in the statue. By the way, his last name means "old money" in German.

After meandering through the park, I made my way to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum just in time for it to open. I was disappointed to discover that the Butterfly Haven was closed for the week. However, because it was, the cost of admission was only $5 instead of $9, which I thought was incredibly fair. Also, when I went past the haven, I could still see through the windows, so I got to see some butterflies even if I didn't get to walk amongst them, which was nice.

I loved the Mysteries of the Marsh, where learned about the marshland that used to cover Illinois (it was mostly destroyed to make way for farmland) and where I also took this picture of one of my most favorite things in the word, dragonflies:

I also really, really loved the Wilderness Walk. I didn't take any pictures of it because it's not an experience you can convey with pictures. Basically, it's a series of small, free-standing rooms that you walk through. The motion activates the lights and sounds, so when you step inside, you see and hear Illinois nature. There are three or four of them, each one conveying a different habitat. It's very cool.

Additionally, I enjoyed the Heritage of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, an exhibit on the "mother" organization of the museum, where they have a lot of items from the early 20th century, including old nature footage, notes, and preserved specimens. I particularly liked this lovely display of insects:

Outside, there are nature trails and the pretty, serene North Pond, where I saw a couple of birds chilling on a log:

After leaving the nature museum, I went to the always-free Lincoln Park Zoo. I liked this zoo a lot, much better than LA's zoo, and that costs money. Here are a few of the animal shots I took. I didn't write down the names of any of the animals, so other than the giraffe and the meerkats, I'm not sure what they are:

I noticed this butterfly chilling on a trash can, so I stopped to snap a pic:

South of the zoo is the South Pond, which you can take a trail around. I did for part of the way:

There are excellent views of downtown Chicago from there:

Then I crossed over the pond and went to the farm animal portion of the zoo, where they had this lovely little garden:

After leaving the zoo, I caught the bus to downtown Chicago, where I ate lunch before taking the train out to the airport. A train snafu caused delays (sadly, a train struck someone on the tracks a few stops north of the one I was at), I arrived at O'Hare to massive security lines, and in my flustered state, I nearly boarded the wrong plane. Which is to say, I almost missed a flight for the first time in my life. But I made it, and landed safely back in LA, happy to be home.

I had an excellent time in Chicago. My negative observations about the city: car drivers there honk at pretty much everything at all times of the day and night & pedestrians act like jaywalking is a competitive sport. This gave the impression of rudeness. However, contrary to that impression, I found that people were, to a fault, extremely polite, and often overtly friendly. More than one stranger struck up a conversation with me.

Despite numerous visits throughout my childhood and late teen years, I was never very big on Chicago. This trip changed my mind. Perhaps I simply needed to get out more, and explore the world, to gain an appreciation for what an amazing city it is. I love Chicago. I can't wait to go back!