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 Araújo, 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.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #39 - Doris Day: "Pillow Talk" (1959)

Movie Stats:
Released 1959 (USA)
American, in English (minor translated French)
Director - Michael Gordon
Stars - Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall

Plot Summary:
When independent, career-oriented Jan Morrow (Day) shares a party line with womanizer Brad Allen (Hudson), hijinks and romance ensue. Randall co-stars as Jonathan Forbes, Brad’s best friend/Jan’s would-be husband.

Warnings:
Attempted sexual assault; minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
Look, this is a movie that hasn’t aged well. There’s a lot of stuff that’s cringe-inducing to a modern audience, such as the gross gender stereotyping, the misogyny, the homophobia, the blasé attitude toward sexual assault, and alcoholism played for laughs. I greatly dislike films where men misrepresent themselves in order to get what they want from women. I dislike it even more when the woman forgives the man the second marriage is on the table. So there’s a lot about this movie that’s annoying/offensive to me, and I think that many others would feel the same way.

Good Stuff:
If I ignore all of the above, it’s quite fun & funny.

I can’t stress enough how much I loved the costuming & set design. This film is gorgeous. It almost didn’t matter what happened during it; I could’ve looked at it forever.

There was an exchange between Brad & Jonathan that I appreciated, where Jonathan is insisting that Brad will want to settle down & marry one day and Brad keeps asking him to explain why. I liked that Brad kept pushing it, no matter what Jonathan said, trying to get to the heart of why we, as a society, insist upon marriage. I thought it was clever. I wish Jan had been allowed a similar conversation.

About the Performance:
This is the first film of Day’s I’ve seen all the way through. I thought she was great. Very charismatic. Her character was lot stronger, more independent, and much less man-crazy, than I was expecting. Day seems to have done a lot of romantic comedies, like almost exclusively. I’m not convinced that a person who only worked in one genre deserves a place on a “best actor” list, or at least not this high on that list, but I’m willing to be wrong about that. I’d like to see more of her films.

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

The Verdict:
This film irritated pretty much every feminist bone in my body, and yet I enjoyed it anyway. There’s something very charming about it. I want to hate it but I don’t. Of course, you always have to give movies a little leeway for being of their time. So I’m giving it that leeway. Do I think it’s a cinematic masterpiece? No. But it’s fun, cute, and, ultimately, good-hearted.

I give it 3.25 stars.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Music Love: "Let's Groove" by Earth, Wind & Fire


There are few bands whose music fills me with as much joy as Earth, Wind & Fire. Their songs are simply just fun. They make me want to get up and dance. Actually, I usually start dancing in my seat when they come up on shuffle. I love how this song, after the opening chorus, commands you to do so:

Let this groove get you to move
It's alright (alright) alright
Let this groove set in your shoes
So stand up (alright) alright

They want you to have as much fun as they're having. And really, can you go wrong with a video like this? All the sparkles & rainbows & novel (at the time) music video tricks. When I was younger, I would've thought this was lame. Now I think two things: these people were probably on a lot of drugs & they were having a damn good time.

The older I get, the more I can appreciate having a damn good time.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #40 - Jodie Foster: "Inside Man" (2006)

Movie Stats:
Released 2006 (Netherlands)
American, in English (minor, translated Albanian)
Director - Spike Lee
Stars - Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster

Plot Summary:
When a crew of thieves, led by Dalton Russell (Owen), takes over a bank, negotiator Keith Frazier (Washington) works to free the hostages. Foster co-stars as Madeleine White, the woman hired to protect the bank owner’s interests.

Warnings:
Heavy blue language, including racial slurs & rude gestures; violence; minor gore; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
I find the story really unsatisfying. There’s no true ending and no real explanation of why the thieves did what they did or how they got their information. I also feel that the Madeleine White storyline is superfluous. All she does is say that she does things.

Character development is poor for everyone but Keith Frazier. I thought it was particularly bad at developing the thieves. You never even learn most of their real names, let alone their motivations.

All the different storytelling methods are disorienting. First, it’s a straightforward, linear story. Suddenly, it jumps to future interviews with bank hostages. Then, there are flashbacks. I didn’t like it.

Good Stuff:
I enjoyed the underlying mystery (What are the thieves truly after?) and the chess-like game of strategy that unfolds between Dalton and Frazier.

The acting is pretty solid.

It’s got some humor. My favorite exchange is when (I can’t find the exact quote) Frazier makes a throwaway comment about getting a $5 hand job & Captain John Darius (a very understated Willem Dafoe) responds, “$5?” in an interested tone. That made me laugh out loud.

About the Performance:
I had a difficult time choosing a movie for Foster. I’ve already reviewed what are arguably her three biggest roles. I should have reviewed her performance in The Accused, one of her two Best Actress wins (The Silence of the Lambs is the other). After reading what it was about, however, I took a hard pass on it because it sounded like a film that would really piss me off.

Anyway, after looking thoroughly through her filmography and vetoing several films because they either didn’t interest me or I’ve seen & don’t like them, I decided on this one. It was the wrong choice. I had seen it before & remembered not being too thrilled about it. I liked it even less than I remembered. But that’s not the problem. Foster simply isn’t in this film much. Her character has little to do, to the point that I wondered why she was even in it.

That being said, I think she’s an amazing actress who definitely deserves a spot on this list.

Other performances of Foster’s I’ve reviewed: Contact; The Silence of the Lambs; Taxi Driver.

The Verdict:
Yeah, I don’t care for this film. I saw it in the theater when it came out. I recalled feeling “meh” about it but thought maybe a second viewing would give me more favorable feelings. It didn’t. I’m genuinely shocked to find it has such a high rating online. I think the story is a hot mess. The character development is so bad that I literally don’t care about anyone. Keith Frazier is a weirdly unlikable character. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like him, but I found it difficult to rally behind him. I do think that it has a good mystery to it, and I like the tension it creates, but overall I don’t connect with it.

I give it 2.75 stars.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #41 - Ginger Rogers: "Kitty Foyle" (1940)

Movie Stats:
Released 1940 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Sam Wood
Stars - Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, James Craig

Plot Summary:
Kitty Foyle (Rogers) is at a crossroads, trying to decide between two men: the love of her life, Wyn Strafford (Morgan), who can’t offer her marriage, and the man who wants to marry her, Mark Eisen (Craig).

Warnings:
None.

Bad Stuff:
The misogyny is both rampant and awful.

The storytelling isn’t great, and not just because of all the flashbacks. For example, it never explains how Kitty & Mark end up together after she initially tells him she can’t continue to see him.

[SPOILER-y]
I don’t really care for Kitty. She says she’s deeply in love with Wyn, but then she keeps deciding that they can’t be together because of their class differences without giving him a chance to prove that it can work. And the movie wants me to be against him because of this, but I’m like, “Give the guy a chance already.”
[SPOILER]

Good Stuff:
I felt that it more realistically portrays a “class difference” relationship in that he’s wealthy and she’s middle class, rather than going for the extreme of wealthy/abject poverty. Also, I was impressed to hear someone in a film from 1940 say that fairytales give women unrealistic expectations of relationships.

If I ignore the cringe-inducing “drunken Irishman” stereotyping, I really liked Kitty’s dad, Tom Foyle (Ernest Cossart). He’s a good father.

I appreciated how strong Kitty is.

About the Performance:
I never saw a single Rogers film before this. I’m so unfamiliar with her work that I honestly thought she only did musicals/dancing. Anyway, I’m glad to finally see one of her films. I can’t say that I was wowed by her acting skills, but I didn’t think she was bad either. I did find her compelling. I would like to see more of her work in order to get a better feel for her abilities.

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

The Verdict:
It’s okay. The misogyny and stereotyping made me very uncomfortable. I know these things can be prominent in older films, but it seemed more prominent in this than other older movies I’ve seen recently. However, I did like that Kitty is a strong woman and I liked that it addresses lots of interesting issues, some of which rarely see the silver screen. Ultimately, I feel that it was pleasant enough to watch one time around, but that I’ll soon forget all about it.

I give it 3.25 stars.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Woodland Enchantress Cross Stitch, Progress Report 6

Time for the quarterly update on my cross stitch project!

Here's a reminder of what it will look like when I'm done:


Here's what it looked like during my last update in July 2017:


And here's what it looks like now:


This represents 23.75 hours of work spread out over 11 days, my most ever! I discovered, once I got to know the ropes better, that I could take my cross stitch into work when I had day shifts and get in a handful of good hours on it. Now, those hours are somewhat approximate because I do get interrupted often with phone calls. But I did the best I could with keeping track.

As you'll notice, on the left hand side & lower corner, I've reached the edge. That means I'm getting close to done with this quadrant of the pattern! I've been feeling pretty good about how much work I got done this quarter. Then I remember I've been working on it for over a year & still haven't finished even one section. Still a long ways to go!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #42 - Ava Gardner: "The Killers" (1946)

Movie Stats:
Released 1946 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Richard Siodmak
Stars - Edmond O’Brien, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner

Plot Summary:
After small town gas station attendant Ole “Swede” Anderson (Lancaster) is murdered by a pair of hired killers, insurance investigator Jim Reardon (O’Brien) is hired to determine if his policy should be paid out. In the process, he discovers that Anderson’s history is inextricably entwined with that of femme fatale Kitty Collins (Gardner).

Warnings:
Violence.

Bad Stuff:
I didn’t much care for the format, telling the key part of the story through flashbacks.

Do insurance investigators really get all up in people’s business like that? Basically acting like police officers? I doubt they do now or ever did. It was a bit of poetic license for which I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I hated the characters of “the killers.” They were so weirdly aggressive and condescending, especially for a pair of hired thugs. Fortunately, their time in the film is brief.

Good Stuff:
I’m typically not impressed with the acting in film noir (I feel that good acting isn’t the focus of this genre; it’s more about the story) but I thought a lot of it was very good here, especially from secondary characters.

I liked the story. It’s a good mystery, intricate without being confusing and with a satisfying amount of twists & turns. Of course, the original author is Hemingway, so no surprise about that really.

I liked the score. It’s quintessential film noir.

About the Performance:
I don’t think I picked the right film for Gardner. She wasn’t in this a whole lot. I largely felt lukewarm about her, mostly because I didn’t see enough of her. It wasn’t until the final scene that I felt like I got a good look at her acting chops, and then I really liked what I saw. If I ever forget the intricacies of this film, what I’ll remember are her final words and the way she said them. So I think that says something about her abilities. I’d like to see more of her work.

Other performances of Gardner’s I’ve reviewed: On the Beach.

The Verdict:
I’m not always big on film noir. Oftentimes, I feel that these films try too hard to be mysterious or that they have too many plot twists, so it turns into an endless parade of “dun dun DUN!!!” moments, to the detriment of the story. But this is a pretty good entry to the genre. It’s a satisfying mystery. There are a reasonable amount of plot twists. I never felt confused. Plus, it has a lot of interesting characters, most of whom are secondary. Maybe it wasn’t the best film for showcasing Gardner’s talents, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #43 - Grace Kelly: "The Country Girl" (1954)

Movie Stats:
Released 1954 (USA)
American, in English
Director - George Seaton
Stars - Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, William Holden

Plot Summary:
Director Bernie Dodd (Holden) hires alcoholic, over-the-hill actor Frank Elgin (Crosby) as the lead in his latest play, but quickly clashes with Frank’s wife, Georgie (Kelly), whom he believes is the source of Frank’s problems.

Warnings:
None.

Bad Stuff:
[SPOILER]
I really hate that the story went with the old “I now realize I was a total dick to you because I was secretly in love with you all along” trope between Bernie and Georgie. Barf.
[SPOILER]

I didn’t find the final conversation between Bernie, Frank, and Georgie even remotely believable.

I could’ve done without the casual misogyny and homophobia. (Don’t take my son to the hair salon with you, he’ll turn gay, hardy-har-har!)

Good Stuff:
The acting is out of this world. All three leads are fantastic. Holden made me hate Bernie for being such a self-righteous prick. Crosby made me fume at what a manipulative liar Frank is. And Kelly made me feel very, very sorry for Georgie.

I applaud it for being such an unflinching look at addiction & how poisonous it is to everyone who comes in contact with it.

I love the music/soundtrack. I was pleased that Crosby did so much singing. Partway through, my husband wandered in and opined, “You know, he was a good actor, they didn’t need to make him sing in every movie” and I was like, “Shut your mouth! I want to hear the man sing!”

About the Performance:
I like Grace Kelly. I was a little worried about the fact that she was supposed to be “plain” in this. Kelly was a very beautiful woman. I didn’t think they could truly dim her light, but the make-up and costuming departments got it right. It wasn’t about making her look “ugly,” it was about making her look like a beautiful woman who’s been beaten down by life. They achieved that. I expected good things from her in this. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, she exceeded my expectations. I thought she was magnetic.

Side note: Why were her male co-stars always so much older than her? In Rear Window, James Stewart was 21 years her senior. In this, Bing Crosby was 23 years older. And in High Noon, Gary Cooper was 28 years her senior. I checked a couple of her other films and this seems to have just been a trend in casting with her. Kind of weird.

Other performances of Kelly’s I’ve reviewed: Rear Window; High Noon.

The Verdict:
I liked this film a lot. It makes you uncomfortable in the best kind of way. For a large portion of the film, I seethed with hatred for both Bernie and Frank. Some of the vitriol that spews out of Bernie’s mouth will make you want to tear your hair out. It all serves a purpose, though. Bernie doesn’t quite get the comeuppance he so rightly deserves, but the unpleasantness gives way to an ending that’s satisfactory and makes sense. I really admired the film for tackling such a difficult subject in such a straightforward manner and for the excellent acting it showcased.

I give it 4 stars.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Up with Geography: Dominican Republic

Country Name:
Dominican Republic

Capital:
Santo Domingo

Continent:
None - it's an island; closest continent is South America.

Maps:

Island of Hispaniola, featuring both Haiti &
Dominican Republic.

A close-up of Dominican Republic & its neighbor.

Neighbors:
It shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti; Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. Territory, is to the east.

Water Borders:
Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea

Total Area:
18,704 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Santo Domingo, Santiago de los Caballeros, Santo Domingo Oeste, San Pedro de Macoris, La Romana

Famous Geographical Point:
Cordillera Central (“Central Mountain Range”)

Famous Person:
Jose Gabriel García, writer, publisher, politician & co-founder of the Dominican Republic's first cultural society

Book Set In/About:
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

A fictionalized account of four sisters who were some of the leading opponents of General Rafael Trujillo, Dominican Republic's brutal dictator from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Movie Set In/About:
"La Lucha de Ana (Anna's Struggle)" (2012), directed by Bladimir Abud

When Anna's son is murdered, the humble flower seller fights against the system to get justice.

Headline of the Day:
"Dominican Republic Deports Thousands of Haitians in September" on telesurtv.net.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #44 - Marilyn Monroe: "The Misfits" (1961)

Movie Stats:
Released 1961 (USA)
American, in English
Director - John Huston
Stars - Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift

Plot Summary:
After getting a divorce, beautiful but troubled Roslyn Taber (Monroe) falls in with aging cowboy Gay Langland (Gable) and his friends Guido (Wallach) & Perce Howland (Clift).

Warnings:
Violence; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
There’s something about the relationship between Roslyn and Gay that’s just kind of icky to me, and it’s not the age difference. I feel like he takes advantage of her (not sexually) when she’s emotionally vulnerable. It makes it difficult to root for them as a couple.

It’s not exactly thrilling.

Petty complaint: Roslyn is living in an unfinished house without electricity in the middle of the desert and yet her eye make-up is perfect at all times. Super distracting.

Good Stuff:
I absolutely loved Thelma Ritter (as Roslyn’s friend Isabelle Steers). I wish she was in the movie more.

I rather enjoyed that all of the main characters are really messed up people. It was refreshing. It wasn’t about one person’s issues, it was about how everyone comes with their own baggage, no matter how they appear on the surface.

The cinematography is breathtaking.

About the Performance:
I’m not a big fan of Marilyn Monroe as an actress. I think she was beautiful, but I’ve always felt that she was one-note and I absolutely loathe her wide-eyed innocent act & breathy little girl voice. I certainly wouldn’t put her on my own Top 50 list. However, I do think what she presented here was more nuanced than her usual performances. She definitely grew in my estimation. I thought she did a great job, even though I didn’t always understand her character’s motivations.

Other performances of Monroe’s I’ve reviewed: Some Like It Hot; All About Eve.

The Verdict:
I think there’s a lot that’s good in this film. It’s beautiful to look at, and the acting is excellent from everyone. I liked that, on the surface, it’s a western, but that underneath there’s a lot more to it. It’s an interesting exploration of how each of us has our own demons that we deal with (or not). Its biggest failing is in character development. Most of the time, I simply didn’t understand why any of them was doing anything that they did. Also, I found it a bit on the boring side. Overall, I thought it was just okay.

I give it 3 stars.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #45 - Sally Field: "Norma Rae" (1979)

Movie Stats:
Released 1979 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Martin Ritt
Stars - Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges

Plot Summary:
Based on a true story. When labor organizer Reuben (Leibman) shows up to unionize the textile factory in which Norma Rae (Field) works, she eventually decides to take up the cause. Bridges co-stars as Sonny, Norma Rae’s love interest.

Warnings:
Minor blue language; minor violence; very minor gore; heavily implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
Boring.

It takes too long to get going. You know that Norma Rae is going to get involved in unionizing but the film is practically halfway over before that happens.

I know it was part of the point, but I hated the numerous scenes in the factory where I had to listen to characters shout at each other over the noise of the machines.

Good Stuff:
I really liked the character of Sonny. He was interesting and complex and this may sound strange, but I enjoyed his speech pattern.

[SPOILER-y]
I’m glad that the relationship between Norma Rae and Sonny didn’t “go there,” even though they had chemistry. It’s always good to see a male-female friendship and it’s nice when movies avoid falling into cliches.
[SPOILER]

Another strong female role where the romantic relationship is secondary! I approve.

About the Performance:
Sally Field was very good, very believable. I liked that her character was tough, so used to men telling her what she should or shouldn’t do as a woman that she did whatever she wanted without giving their opinions a second thought. At the same time, you could see the cracks in her facade when she faced situations with which she was unfamiliar. Field portrayed that quite well. I think her Oscar win was deserved.

Other performances of Field’s I’ve reviewed: Forrest Gump.

The Verdict:
Mostly, I thought it was dull. It does a good job of showing the situation at the factory, explaining both why many would want to organize and also why they would be afraid to. It’s also good at showcasing the nasty tactics that some employers go to in order to prevent unionizing. Additionally, it did well at portraying the low-key sexism that many women face on an all-too-frequent basis. I enjoyed the characters of Norma Rae and Sonny and their interactions with each other. But I was bored. There’s something about the way they filmed movies in the 1970s that just doesn’t connect with me. I think it’s a pacing issue. They’re often so slow in the beginning that by time they get to the point, I’m already checked out.

I give it 3 stars.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Missouri

State Name:
Missouri

Capital:
Jefferson City

Date of Entry:
August 10, 1821

Maps:

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

A close-up of Missouri & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska

Water Borders:
Missouri River, Mississippi River

Total Area:
69,704 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield, Independence, Columbia

Famous Geographical Point:
Lake of the Ozarks

State Nickname:
The Show-Me State. While the origin isn't entirely clear, it's typically attributed to a speech by Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, a speech intended to indicate that Missourians are neither naive nor gullible.

Famous Person:
T.S. Eliot, poet (one of my personal favorites)

Book Set In/About:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

This novel of a young boy growing up on the Mississippi River is set in a fictional town based on Twain's own childhood home of Hannibal, MO.

Move Set In/About:
"Winter's Bone" (2010), directed by Debra Granik

Set in the Ozarks, a teenaged girl goes on a dangerous mission to find her missing father in an attempt to save herself and her younger siblings from eviction.

Headline of the Day:
"Hyperloop One Route Proposed for Missouri Cities" on nbcnews.com.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #46 - Reese Witherspoon: "Legally Blonde" (2001)

Movie Stats:
Released 2001 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Robert Luketic
Stars - Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Coolidge, Victor Garber, Luke Wilson

Plot Summary:
When Elle Woods (Witherspoon) is dumped by her boyfriend at the exact moment she expects a proposal, she follows him to Harvard Law to win him back. Coolidge co-stars as Elle’s manicurist BFF Paulette; Garber as Callahan, the professor who gives Elle a shot on a murder case; and Wilson as Emmett, Callahan’s associate/Elle’s new love interest.

Warnings:
Mild blue language; very minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
It’s improbable in every way imaginable.

The stereotyping, especially of gay people, is seriously cringe inducing.

Some of the dialogue leaves much to be desired.

Good Stuff:
I love the message. On the surface, it seems like a cliche romance film. You don’t have to dig very deep to discover that in reality it’s about being kind to people and believing in one’s self.

It’s got a great heart.

It’s fun and funny.

About the Performance:
So, I originally planned to review Witherspoon’s performance in “Walk the Line,” which she won an Oscar for. While I do like that film, I wasn’t in the mood for it. I’ve always felt that that film is more about Johnny Cash, and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of him, than it is about June Carter, and Witherspoon’s portrayal of her. I wasn’t a fan of her win, not because she wasn’t good, but because I thought it was more of a supporting role. Ultimately, I chose to switch films.

Do I think Witherspoon is amazing in it? Not exactly. I do think she has great comedic timing. Also, she imbues Elle with a lot of likability. Her bubbly, excessively cheerful character could be annoying. Instead, she’s endearing. That’s not easy to pull off. I do think she’s a good actress. I probably could’ve picked a better film to showcase that, but sometimes you just want to watch something fun.

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

The Verdict:
Listen, this is a very silly film. Practically nothing that happens in it could ever happen in real life. But this isn’t the kind of film that you watch expecting realism, Oscar-winning performances, or great storytelling. This is the kind of film you watch to be entertained and to make you feel good. I’ve always loved it for its message. Elle thinks that she needs a man to make her happy. What she discovers is strength and happiness inside of herself. I also love that she starts out the film as a confident person. This isn’t some sad sack character that learns to love herself. What she learns is to love different things about herself. Maybe that’s a bit after school special-ish, but I think it’s sweet. We could all stand to get to know, and love, the different facets of ourselves. It may be silly but it’s also fun as all get out.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #47 - Halle Berry: "Monster's Ball" (2001)

Movie Stats:
Released 2001 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Marc Forster
Stars - Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry

Plot Summary:
After a series of tragedies, racist white Death Row prison guard Hank Grotowski (Thornton) begins a relationship with Leticia Musgrove (Berry), a black woman whose husband he helped execute.

Warnings:
Heavy blue language (including racial epithets); violence; minor gore; female nudity (breasts and butt); brief male nudity (butt only); sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
The pacing in the first half of the film is good, but I think it bogs down in the second half.

Good Stuff:
The acting is phenomenal. I’m a big fan of actors who are capable of emoting. Thornton is amazing at this. You literally watch him transform from a hateful bigot into a person who is capable of kindness and compassion. Since his character isn’t inclined to say much, Thornton has to rely on facial expressions and body language to convey this. Heath Ledger, as Hank’s son Sonny, was also adept at this. The first moment he appeared on-screen, before he said a word, I thought to myself, “There’s a man suffering from serious depression.” Even Sean Combs, in a relatively small part as Lawrence Musgrove, impresses.

I like that it explored the idea that grief can change one’s life for the positive. This is rarely explored in cinema, perhaps even a little taboo, because grief is supposed to make you sad. We see a lot more depictions of grief ruining people’s lives, or at the very least ruining it for a little while before the protagonist finally gets his/her act together. This felt a lot less cliche/melodramatic.

It’s got a great soundtrack.

About the Performance:
Like the rest of the cast, Halle Berry is fantastic. I support her Oscar win. Most of her performance is understated, because she’s a woman long beat down by grief and the grind of poverty. But if you have any doubts as to her acting ability, you need only see her final scene, where she discovers something shocking. The rest of the movie, she doesn’t say a word as you watch her move through surprise, disgust, acceptance, and finally, into peace, taking life for what it is. I thought it was a powerful scene bolstered by a masterful performance.

Other performances of Berry’s that I’ve reviewed: none.

The Verdict:
I saw this when it came out in the theater. I could recall only three things about it: that I thought it was great; the famous sex scene; and Heath Ledger’s performance because he really stood out. I wasn’t so sure I would like it a second time around. I was wrong! I probably liked it even more than the first time. This is truly excellent cinema. I’d completely forgotten how sad it was. I cried through half of it. The story is full of heavy themes and the characters are complex. In the hands of less capable actors, it might not have come off as good. Luckily, they had an excellent casting director, and the result is something special.

I give it 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Neighborhood Walks: To Curbside Cafe & Vista Public Library

It's been a while since I've done one of these! Our first place in San Diego County wasn't within walking distance of anything interesting. Recently, my husband landed a new job, for which he requires our only car several days a week, leaving me stranded at home due to my own work schedule (my work is only a mile from home). Luckily, my seasonal job will soon be over, and so I can take some train trips on the days he takes the car.

Anyway, when I grew tired of being stuck at home last week, I decided to walk to downtown Vista to get some breakfast and then stop at the library on the way home to pick up a book that was on hold. Many of these pics are from my own neighborhood!

These folks down the street had this sign post up for months, empty. I thought they were either selling their home or had just purchased it & the realtor was lazy. But then this lovely hand-painted sign showed up:


I like this house's garage more than I like the house itself. It's so cute!:


A nicely xeriscaped yard:


I went slightly out of my way to take a picture of this realty sign. I can't get over the fact that this realtor uses a caricature as her professional photo. I just find it really bizarre. I'm half-convinced it's the reason why this house has been sitting on the market for months. (Note: I removed the identifying information from the sign; half the sign isn't randomly missing.)


Interesting flowers that I don't recognize:


For the first time, I noticed that this very blue house has a very blue fountain out front. They also have a very blue mailbox. I'm sensing a theme.


Someone is ready for Halloween:


The Vista Masonic Center makes me so sad every time I see it. I honestly can't tell whether or not it's derelict. It looks like a place in a horror movie that teenagers break into on a lark & end up getting murdered. (Note: I looked it up & not only is it still in use, the Vista Masons appear quite active. And they have a lovely website. I'm shocked. I've never seen a single car parked there or people going in & out.)


Yellow roses never look as beautiful in pictures as they do in person:


Fun cactus:


I spied this traffic cone on the roof of a local school. I wondered if it was tossed up there by naughty children or if there was something construction/janitorial related going on.


I took this picture to show how steep the hills in Vista can be. Also, you can tell by the utterly parched grass that it hadn't rained since June (it sprinkled the following day).


A favorite yard of mine:


Mural on the side of the Curbside Cafe:


Outside Lush Lounge (local coffee shop), they're ready for Day of the Dead:


I love a good Spanish tile:


Vista has had a bit of a rough reputation in recent years. It's a town in transition, and the city planners are working hard to turn it into an artists' colony. I liked this painted sign calling attention to the free doggie poop bags (note: it was completely empty of bags). Funny that the nearest beach that allows dogs is over 20 miles away from Vista. We've never taken our dog to a beach.


I may have liked the detail on the back of the sign more than the painting on the front:


My second destination:


I LOVED these amazing pieces of post-it note artwork in the library's side windows. There was also a Pac-Man & a Superman symbol. Unfortunately, access to the courtyard was locked, so I couldn't get in there for a good angle. Also, someone sitting inside was staring at me, which made me self-conscious. These windows look into the children's area, so I didn't want her to think I was being a creep.


This roundtrip walk totaled 3 miles. I enjoyed the exercise & the time out of the house!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #48 - Angelina Jolie: "Changeling" (2008)

Movie Stats:
Released 2008 (France)
American, in English
Director - Clint Eastwood
Stars - Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich

Plot Summary:
Based on a true story. In the 1920s, after the son of Christine Collins (Jolie) goes missing, the LAPD brings the wrong child back to her and then has her committed to a mental institution when she doesn’t accept him as hers. Donovan co-stars as her main LAPD antagonist, Captain J.J. Jones, and Malkovich as the anti-police crusader who tries to help her, Rev. Gustav Briegleb.

Warnings:
Minor violence; minor gore; minor blue language; non-consensual drug use (psychiatric meds); very brief female nudity (breasts, butt).

Bad Stuff:
It’s a little overly detailed/too long.

This may sound petty, but there’s a particular musical piece used throughout the film that features a saxophone (I believe) and it feels completely out of place. The rest of the film is so great with the period details and then that songs starts and I’m like, “What’s Kenny G doing here?”

Good Stuff:
The acting is stellar. I particularly enjoyed Donovan, who made me thoroughly loathe Captain Jones, and Geoff Pierson as S.S. Hahn, Christine’s fiery, righteously indignant lawyer.

Loved the costuming and set design.

After doing a little research on the internet, I discovered that the film seems to have stuck pretty close to the facts of the case, which I appreciate.

About the Performance:
I’m not super familiar with Jolie’s work but always have this gut feeling that I don't like her. When the film first started, I was skeptical that I could buy her as a 1920s woman. My skepticism was unwarranted. She was really good in this. She imbued Christine with the perfect mix of vulnerability and strength. This is a horrible story, so I would have felt bad for her no matter what, but Jolie’s performance made me like Christine.

Other performances of Jolie’s that I’ve reviewed: The Tourist.

The Verdict:
Holy cow, this story is infuriating. Watching a man, a total stranger to the situation, spend two hours insisting that he knows better than a woman whether a child is hers or not, is rage-inducing on a level that’s difficult to convey. And it’s not as though the film outrageously embellishes the details. Eastwood is a very talented director and he had a great cast and crew to work with. My biggest complaint is the film’s length. It could easily be shortened. The trial scenes, for example, could be cut entirely and replaced with text, “such and such happened to so and so at trial,” etc., and the film wouldn’t suffer for it. But that’s only a minor detraction to an otherwise excellent film. I’m surprised this one never got more attention.

I give it 4.25 stars.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #49 - Sandra Bullock: "The Blind Side" (2009)

Movie Stats:
Released 2009 (USA)
American, in English
Director - John Lee Hancock
Stars - Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw

Plot Summary:
Based on a true story. When homeless teenager Michael Oher (Aaron) is taken in by a well-to-do family, he begins his journey to a career in the NFL. Bullock and McGraw co-star respectively as Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, Oher’s adoptive parents.

Warnings:
Violence (mostly football-related); minor gore; minor blue language; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
It comes across as a little too-good-to-be-true. The “good” guys are always good at all times and never seem to make bad decisions or say the wrong thing. The “bad” guys are seemingly antagonistic out of nowhere (although easily taken down a notch by a well-placed verbal barb). It sort of felt naive, like the writer has a very black-and-white view of the world.

If one isn’t into football, I can see how this film could be boring in parts.

It definitely seeks to tug at those heart strings & it’s quite effective at it.

Good Stuff:
I liked how they portrayed the relationship between Leigh Anne and Michael. I thought it was very nuanced and well done. For two people who came from the opposite side of the tracks, they seemed to accept one another in a way that I’ve rarely seen portrayed in film.

All the acting is very good. In addition to the main actors, I quite enjoyed the performance of Jae Head as SJ, the Tuohys' youngest child.

I found it deeply moving. While I’m sure it’s highly dramatized, the idea that someone would open their home in the way the Tuohys did touched me.

About the Performance:
Bullock was fantastic. I am comfortable with her Oscar win. As I was watching, I reflected on the fact that she often plays spastic characters. This comes out more frequently in her comedic roles, but even in her more serious ones, it’s still there. For example, in Gravity, her character is nervous and clumsy even before the action begins. There’s none of that in this performance. I liked how steely her character was, especially since it masked a soft interior. I was impressed by her.

Other performances of Bullock’s that I’ve reviewed: Gravity; Crash.

The Verdict:
I liked this film a lot more than I was expecting. I thought it would be overly simplistic and sentimental. Most of the movie, I was bothered by whether or not Michael actually wanted the things the Tuohys offered him. He speaks little, and rarely expresses his emotions or opinions. But then the film actually addressed that point, and I was both relieved and impressed. I do still think it’s a bit simplistic, and it’s definitely one of those Oscar-grab type movies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In the end, I was really glad that I finally watched it.

I give it 4.25 stars.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Music Love: "The Night We Met" by Lord Huron



I'm not going to post much about this song. I love the vocals. I love the lyrics:

I am not the only traveler
Who has not repaid his debt
I've been searching for a trail to follow again
Take me back to the night we met

And then I can tell myself
What the hell I'm supposed to do
And then I can tell myself
Not to ride along with you

I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don't know what I'm supposed to do, haunted by the ghost of you
Oh, take me back to the night we met

When the night was full of terrors
And your eyes were filled with tears
When you had not touched me yet
Oh, take me back to the night we met

I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don't know what I'm supposed to do, haunted by the ghost of you
Take me back to the night we met

But most of all, I love how sad and beautiful it is.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Top 50 Actresses, #50 - Julia Roberts: "Erin Brockovich" (2000)

Movie Stats:
Released 2000 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Steven Soderbergh
Stars - Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart

Plot Summary:
Based on a true story. When low income single mother Erin Brockovich (Roberts) muscles her way into a job at a law firm, she uncovers serious wrongdoing by an energy company. Finney co-stars as Brockovich’s boss, Ed Masry, and Eckhart as George, Brockovich’s love interest.

Warnings:
Heavy blue language; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
It’s a little boring. There aren’t any big thrills in it.

Brockovich isn’t exactly likable as a character. She can be very defensive and aggressive. While I appreciated that she’s complex, it’s still off-putting.

Good Stuff:
[SPOILER-y]
I like a good little-guy-takes-on-big-guy-and-wins story, especially one based in reality.
[SPOILER]

I really appreciated how it tackled class issues. It’s not just about how the billion dollar energy conglomerate treats, and tries to treat, the people of a poor community. It’s also about how middle class people view and treat Erin, who is lower class.

It does a good job of portraying a story that is both infuriating and depressing without trying to tug at your heart strings.

About the Performance:
Julia Roberts is one of those actors that I can only ever see as herself. While, by the end of the film, I came to admire Erin Brockovich as a person, it didn’t change how I feel about Julia Roberts as an actress. I didn’t see Erin Brockovich in her performance. It was like, “Oh, there’s Julia Roberts dressed trashy. There she is acting angry.” I’m not saying she’s bad, but I don’t consider her an all-time great. Did she deserve a Best Actress award for this? I’m not sure. I’ve only seen one of the other performances nominated that year (Juliette Binoche in Chocolat). I don’t think Binoche deserved it, but maybe one of the others did.

Other performances of Roberts’s that I’ve reviewed: none.

The Verdict:
There’s a lot to like about this film. It’s a great story. It has complex characters. It doesn’t try to manipulate your emotions. While I may not be sold on Roberts’s performance, I like that she won for a role in a film that’s about a woman as a person, not about a woman in relation to a man. The relationship in the film definitely isn’t the main focus. It’s about Brockovich’s dedication and determination, and about how her work affects the rest of her life. It’s not the most thrilling movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s really solid.

I give it 4.25 stars.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Top 50 Actresses Project: Overview

By the end of my last project (Sci Fi Top 100), I found myself extremely annoyed by the genre’s lack of important female characters. I thought to myself, “For my next project, it sure would be nice to watch a bunch of movies with strong female leads.” So I started hunting for a list of such movies. Unfortunately, I found that, on most of these lists, the main female character was either the romantic interest or the villain, which isn't exactly what I have in mind when I think "strong female lead." Super frustrating.

Still, I persisted, and in the end, I decided to go with a Top 50 Actresses list. I culled this list from AMC. They provided the list of actresses, but I’m the one who chose the movie to watch for each actress. Therefore, while I still ran up against the “most female lead characters are romantic interests” problem, I was able to include quite a few movies where this was not the case. Since this list is voted on by the public, it appears that it can change over time. To avoid confusion, below I’m posting the list as it stood when I copied it down, along with the movies I chose.

A few notes about this project:

My main concern was that I wanted to make sure none of these films were movies that I previously reviewed, an issue I ran up against during both the AFI Top 100 and the Sci Fi Top 100.

So my general rule was that, if the actress won a Best Actress (not Best Supporting) Academy Award for a role, that is the movie I chose to review unless I previously reviewed it. If she won more than one, I chose which of those movies to review based on personal preference.

If I already reviewed one or all of her Award-winning performances OR if she hasn’t won a Best Actress Academy Award, then I looked at her acting credits and chose one of her movies to review. My choices were largely based on IMDB ratings (typically I chose something in the 7s or higher), coupled with my interest in the film based on its description. I avoided movies from the 1970s as much as possible. I've discovered that I'm not a big fan of 1970s film making.

Very occasionally, I have vetoed an Award-winning film simply because I don’t want to watch it. After watching lots of films I had little to no interest in, I wanted to give myself a little leeway. Also, the list is subject to change. Some of these films are surprisingly difficult to get one’s hands on, despite the fact that I have access to an astounding number of ways to see films.

Since the focus of this project is more on performances rather than the films themselves, I’ll include a section about that with each review. Additionally, where applicable, I will provide links to other movies of that performer's that I’ve reviewed.

As usual, I will watch the list from the bottom up, beginning with #50 and making my way to #1. At the end of the project, I will provide a master list of reviews & some final thoughts. Here is the list of Top 50 Actresses:

  1. Bette Davis - Jezebel
  2. Barbra Streisand - Funny Girl
  3. Ingrid Bergman - Gaslight
  4. Olivia de Havilland - The Heiress
  5. Audrey Hepburn - Roman Holiday
  6. Jane Fonda - Klute
  7. Barbara Stanwyck - Ball of Fire
  8. Deborah Kerr - The King and I
  9. Vivien Leigh - Waterloo Bridge
  10. Claudette Colbert - Since You Went Away
  11. Greta Garbo - Ninotchka
  12. Jean Arthur - The Devil and Miss Jones
  13. Katharine Hepburn - The Lion in Winter
  14. Kate Winslet - The Reader
  15. Susan Hayward - I Want to Live!
  16. Elizabeth Taylor - Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  17. Judi Dench - Philomena
  18. Marlene Dietrich - Witness for the Prosecution
  19. Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
  20. Shirley MacLaine - Being There
  21. Julie Andrews - Mary Poppins
  22. Lauren Bacall - To Have and Have Not
  23. Sophia Loren - Two Women
  24. Judy Garland - A Star Is Born
  25. Carole Lombard - To Be or Not to Be
  26. Joan Fontaine - Suspicion
  27. Joan Crawford - Mildred Pierce
  28. Meryl Streep - Sophie’s Choice
  29. Myrna Loy - The Thin Man
  30. Rita Hayworth - Gilda
  31. Maureen O’Hara - The Quiet Man
  32. Mary Pickford - Coquette
  33. Nicole Kidman - The Hours
  34. Jean Harlow - The Public Enemy
  35. Natalie Portman - Black Swan
  36. Natalie Wood - Splendor in the Grass
  37. Mae West - I’m No Angel
  38. Diane Keaton - Reds
  39. Doris Day - Pillow Talk
  40. Jodie Foster - Inside Man
  41. Ginger Rogers - Kitty Foyle
  42. Ava Gardner - The Killers
  43. Grace Kelly - The Country Girl
  44. Marilyn Monroe - The Misfits
  45. Sally Field - Norma Rae
  46. Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line
  47. Halle Berry - Monster’s Ball
  48. Angelina Jolie - Changeling
  49. Sandra Bullock - The Blind Side
  50. Julia Roberts - Erin Brockovich

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Up with Geography: Dominica

Country Name:
Dominica

Capital:
Roseau

Continent:
None - it's an island; closest continent is South America.

Map:


Neighbors:
The closest neighbors are the islands of Guadeloupe to the north & Martinique to the south, which are territories of France. The closest independent nations are Antigua & Barbuda (north of Guadeloupe) and St. Lucia (south of Martinique).

Water Borders:
Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean

Total Area:
290 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Roseau, Portsmouth, Marigot, Berekua, Mahaut

Famous Geographical Point:
Boiling Lake

Famous Person:
Kellyn George, biologist & sickle cell anemia activist

Book Set In/About:
The Dominica Story by Lennox Honeychurch

A comprehensive (non-fiction) history of Dominica, up through 1994.

Movie Set In/About:
"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (2006), directed by Gore Verbinski

In the first sequel of the Pirates franchise, Captain Jack Sparrow battles with the fabled Davy Jones. This was only partially filmed in Dominica. Unfortunately, there were slim pickings for Dominica movies. One that looked interesting was the following documentary short, but I didn't want to choose both a history book & a history movie: "Dominica: Charting a Future for Paradise" (2011), directed by Wyatt Bardouille.

Headline of the Day:
"Dominica Cruise Ship Sector Benefitting from Irma" in the Jamaica Observer.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Best Picture: "Moonlight," 2016

Movie Stats:
Released 2016 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Barry Jenkins
Stars - Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali

Plot Summary:
This movie showcases the life of Chiron, a gay black boy with a crack-addicted mother (played by Naomie Harris) growing up in a rough neighborhood in Miami. Hibbert plays Chiron as a child; Sanders plays him as a teenager; and Rhodes as an adult. Ali co-stars as Juan, a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing.

Warnings:
Heavy blue language (including gay & racial slurs); sexy times; violence; minor gore; drug use (marijuana, crack).

Bad Stuff:
The pace could easily be described as ponderous.

I didn’t care for the experimental camera work. Also, I’ve seen people complain about “lens flare” in other movies (most notably 2009’s “Star Trek”) but it’s not something I ever noticed before this film, where it is both obvious & very distracting.

The ending is rather abrupt/unsatisfactory.

Good Stuff:
The performances from both Ali and Harris are phenomenal. I completely understand why both of them were nominated for Best Supporting awards (and why Ali won).

It’s a very understated, nuanced portrayal of the cycle of poverty, all the pitfalls & how difficult it can be to escape.

It does an excellent job of setting the tone. You can really feel Chiron’s isolation and loneliness.

The Verdict:
I liked it well enough. I don’t think I liked it as much as I expected to, mostly because of how slow it is. I must have checked the time on my phone at least ten times. Also, I found it difficult to connect with Chiron because his character rarely speaks, especially in his younger years. Finally, I was disappointed that Ali’s part is relatively small. I would have liked to see way more of him. Still, I appreciated how understated it is. It's fine piece of storytelling that doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. It gets its point across without beating you over the head with it. In the end, despite the bleak circumstances of most of the characters, I felt a sense of hope, like maybe things could turn it okay, even if I know that they probably won’t, because that’s what the cycle of poverty does to people. It’s a beautiful film, just not one of my favorites.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Note: The Best Picture Master List has been updated to include this movie. It comes in at #39.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100: Final Thoughts

At the beginning of this project, my friend/regular commenter Patricia suggested that I guess what rating I would give each movie, and then, at the end, see how close I came to getting it all right. I thought that sounded like a cool idea, so I did it. However, I think throwing a lot of numbers at you would be kind of boring, so here’s a short analysis of how it all played out.

Out of the 100 movies reviewed for this project:

8 were movies I previously reviewed, and so I couldn’t guess a rating

17 movies, I guessed my rating accurately

23 movies, I was within a quarter star (plus or minus)

12 movies, I was within half a star (plus or minus)

11 movies, I was within three-quarters of a star (plus or minus)

12 movies, I was within 1 star (plus or minus)

17 movies, I was within 1+ stars (plus or minus)

Biggest difference in the positive: The Damned, which I guessed I would give 2 stars. I gave it 4.25.

Biggest difference in the negative: The Man Who Fell to Earth, which I guessed I would give 3.25 stars. I gave it .25 star.

I was more likely to guess low than high. Of the movies in which my guesses were inaccurate, I gave 41 a higher rating than I guessed. That means I gave only 34 a lower rating than I guessed.

I feel that I was more accurate than not. I think guessing within half a star is pretty good. 52 of my guesses were either spot on, or within a half star. Only 40 were wrong by more than half a star.

I really enjoyed this movie project. It was fun to see some of the famous sci fi movies that I’d never seen before. It was even more fun to delve into the world of more obscure sci fi films. However, I was ultimately disappointed by the lack of strong female characters (lots of love interests and/or assistants among the female roles) and near-absence of people of color in these movies. Once I noticed it, I realized that this was true of all of my lists (although the Academy Awards seem to be a little better at it).

Also, I felt that there were several films that didn't belong here because they barely count as sci fi. Two of those that immediately leap to mind are The Truman Show & Three Colours: Red. If it were up to me, I would remove those, perhaps one or two others, and replace them with movies that I like better & that I consider more sci fi-y. Two I would add to the list are: "Equilibrium" and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

Overall, however, I was pleased. I thought it was a very solid list. While I’m happy that I did it, I’m looking forward to moving on to the next. More on the new project next week!