Month: July 2014

The nonsense I’ve been catching up on (Oculus, 49 Days)

(WORDPRESS DELETED THE 49 DAYS SECTION OF MY POST AND NOW I HAVE TO REWRITE THE WHOLE THING FTS)

A while ago I did a post on this HK horror film called Rigor Mortis (link), in which I mentioned that there was a period of time in my life where horror films were pretty much my thing.  I was watching a whole bunch of them before I was introduced to this movie miracle called The Godfather where I learnt that movies were so much more than just getting the crap scared out of you. Still, when writing a blog about old dramas and Oscar films, I do sometimes feel that I need a break from all that emotionally intense, heavily dramatic material. And by that, I mean that I’ve been visiting some no-brainer, purely stupid and fun movies/tv dramas just to give my brain a break. Of course, pretentious people would say that these movies are not worthy of their “appreciation”, but I do believe that watching brainless films are a major part of the movie viewing experience as well (well, mainly the fun part)!

So without further ado, allow me to introduce to you some of the nonsense I’ve been treating my brain to:

1) Oculus (2014)

I’m not lying when I say that I’ve become quite immune to horror movies nowadays. Ok fine, I will jump at the jump scares (EVEN when I know it’s coming dammit), and some of the suspenseful scenes do make my heart beat faster, but when the whole thing ends they don’t leave me sleepless at night or afraid of visiting the washroom by myself. By now, I feel like I’m beginning to see through all the shtick that horror film-makers (not just US horror films, but Asian ones as well) are trying to over exploit in their movies – possessing every goddamn object possible (mirrors, shoes, wigs, scissors, mannequins, cellos, dolls, pianos), long hair ghouls (“Yurei”) contorting their body into every possible angle that puts the greatest contortionist to shame, an explosion of blood, gore, maggots, goo and slime, the typical “someone walking behind you” trick blablabla… I’m sorry, but this inherent awareness on my part that all this is nothing more than clear manipulation on the director’s part to gross me out and make me scream really makes me roll my eyes at such scares, especially if they are poorly executed. Sure, it scares me while I’m in the moment, but beyond that it doesn’t last. It’s like while I’m in a haunted house – the fact that I’m aware the chainsaw guy chasing me down the alley is a paid actor results in the whole experience being nothing more than cheap thrills. 

It also doesn’t help that most horror films suffer from absymal writing – the stories are often lacking in credibility and convoluted, making the whole thing silly instead of frightening. I mean the whole thing about photos in Sinister (Oscar-nominee Ethan Hawke, why!?!?) was such a lame attempt at making me afraid of pictures, while Mama’s (Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain, why!?!?) sentimental ending involving the reunification of mama ghost and baby was, well, unsatisfying. To me anyway. They often try to blend some emotional moments into the story, but the whole thing comes off as distracting, contrived and awkward. Bleahz.

Still, the trailer for Oculus had my interest piqued. What I gathered from it was that it was still going to be another average, run-off-your-mill horror film involving a demonic mirror (Oooo, original!), but at the same time I could see that it was going to play the psychological horror card instead of relying on cheap scares. And boy, I was impressed! The story involves a pair of siblings reunited after the lasser glass, the demonic mirror in question, caused the death of their parents ten years ago. The brother was incriminated and sent to a psychiatric faculty for treatment, while the sister spent her past 10 years waiting for his release so that they can fulfil their “promise” on wanting to destroy the damn thing. This to me was one of the flaws of the writing; Ok, I get that they are psychologically scarred but why would you want to mess around with a supernatural force that destroyed your family 10 years ago? Move on! Did they really think that they had a chance in destroying it? And also, why didn’t they just attempt using the “emergency” plan right from the start, which is to smash the mirror with an anchor connected to a switch? And in the first place, what made them think that they could smash the mirror when they have tried to in the first place (Granted, they used golf clubs when they were young but I don’t think using a heavier object was going to help)?

Still, ignoring all these tiny loopholes, I actually found myself appreciating Oculus much more than some of the acclaimed horror films today (The Conjuring!?). What I appreciated about it was its very smart storytelling: they made it clear from the start that the demonic mirror was able to manipulate its victims into hearing and seeing what it wants them to. That way, they were able to blend two storylines together: what was happening now, and what happened ten years ago. The director uses what happened ten years ago to not only mess around with the heads of the two main characters, but to also explain to the viewer what really happened then. I thought that was a smart move, as it gave the movie the “mindfuck” element that was needed, but at the same time I thought it was quite well-handled as it never became too complicated or confusing to follow.

As mentioned, the film attempts to rely more on the horror elements rather than cheap scares. Naturally, there are jump scares as usual (yes, yes I jumped) but they weren’t that bad as compared to others. I thought the ghouls were actually pretty creepy: I liked how they weren’t doing weird stuff like vomiting blood and goo and cracking their bones, but just standing there and…smiling at you, with their glowing eyes. That was a nice touch. I love psychological horror in general, and over here it’s used effectively. Besides letting the ghouls smile at them as the characters run through the corridors in fear, there’s also that infamous apple/light bulb scene which was genuinely disturbing. And I like the famous scene in the trailer where the clothed “figures” were turning in the mirror’s reflection; spooky!

Oculus is no masterpiece, but I think it’s one of the better films of the genre to have come out lately. Of course, look away if you are expecting brain eating zombies and gore or Kayako crawling down the stair (Ju-on is on youtube), but I think it’s a nice attempt at psychological horror despite its flaws. 3.5/5.

2) 49 Days

*This is goddamn infuriating. I basically typed out the entire section of this part but for some reason the page refreshed on its own (NOT MY FAULT) and deleted it*

Basically, I was talking about my disdain for Korean family dramas but now I have to do it in a succinct manner as I no longer have the energy to go into the rant that I did the first time: My family loves them, I don’t. The writing is usually lazy, sloppy and incredibly cheesy, and they run over 100 unnecessary episodes, which makes them agonizing to sit through every dinner. From what I’ve seen (I’ll admit that I’m biased: haven’t see a lot of them) they are usually a manipulation of the following elements: a poor family, a rich family, swapped babies (betweeen the rich and poor), an impossible annoying protagonist (can be from the rich or poor family) with a heart purer than the purest of gold and will do anything right even if it’s none of his/her fracking business and will land him in even more trouble (Oh Ja Ryong), a vindictive antagonist (usually from the poor family, may or may not be a swapped baby) with a “woe-is-me” attitude who goes all out to attack the protagonist because “god is so unfair to me blablabla STFU”. Naturally, you get company politics that I couldn’t care less about, usually involving the bad guy trying to take over the good guy’s company while stealing their partner at the same time. To me, there’s this “I’ve seen this too many times” feeling that haunts me every time they show, and they are nothing more than tiresome. And talk about lazy naming of shows: Moon And Stars For You, Twinkle Twinkle, Oh Ja Ryong Is Coming! Add in a grating opening theme song while at it, and the whole thing just collapses in my eyes.

I know people tend to praise the acting, and I’m sure Korea has fantastic actors (the ones I know are those in the art-house films, like Choi Min Sik and Song Kang Ho), but over here it’s just overwrought and plain annoying. When they’re sad, they CRY, they WAIL, the TEARS FLOW OUT, they SCREAM, they BANG THEIR FISTS on the ground, they SHAKE THEIR HANDS IN THE MOST DRAMATIC FASHION and basically they go through 500 degrees of hamtastic overacting to communicate that despair to you. Otherwise, they smile so widely and add in cute poses just to prove that they are meant to bring and spread positivity to the whole world…bleahz.

Still, 49 Days belongs to a different category altogether. With only 20 episodes, it’s clear that the show is catered towards younger audiences even though my entire family watched it. Actually, the show was released 3 years ago and my whole family has already watched it back then (except me), but now that it is playing on Channel U (lagging behind as usual), they are naturally watching it again because they loved the show then, and still do. And yes, I joined in this time.

Ok my opinion is biased: I only watched the last ten episodes, but that was enough for me because the show’s story line isn’t that hard to understand. The plot is kinda very whacky: a rich, soon-to-marry girl Ji-Hyun gets into an accident and was taken “before her time is up”. She meets her “scheduler” cum guardian angel, a young hippie who gives her two options: a) Accept that she is taken too soon or b) goes on this 49 Days pilgrimage to find 3 people who love her and collect their tears so as to prove her life has value before time runs out (or face death), cause it’s like totally her fault that she was taken before her time? Naturally she chooses b and was loaned the body of this moping, despondent shell of a woman called Yi-Kyung who basically has no meaning in her life other than to spend her nights working and her days sleeping. Incidentally, this woman was the cause of the accident as she tried to commit suicide by letting a truck run over her. Anyway, as if things weren’t complicated enough, there were even rules in place: a) the tears musn’t come from family members cause heaven is one troublemaking bitch and b) our leading girl must never ever reveal her true identity or else she will DIE, although it’s okay if the living people somehow figures it out as long as she doesn’t acknowledge it and pretends she doesn’t know that they know. Of course, the chances of this happening is very low and is sooooo not going to happen, right?

So under the disguise of Yi-Kyung, Ji-Hyun goes begins her 49 Days journey while her real self remains in a vegetative state in the hospital, with a “very slim chance of waking up”. She uses Yi-Kyungs body in the day, and returns it to her at night without Yi-Kyung realising, of course. In the meantime, Ji-Hyun learns that she isn’t as popular as she is (take that, sunshine girl) and that her fiance was actually having an affair with her BEST friend and is plotting to…guess what!?!? TAKE OVER THE COMPANY! So what was originally a mission to collect 3 tears becomes a mission to save her company…under the disguise of this other woman.

I’ll just keep my review of the show short:

Positive:

1) The cast is beautiful. Superficial reason? Yes, but there’s no denying that watching beautiful Koreans work their magic on screen makes the whole show a lot more tolerable.

Oh no, we’re really nice actually!

Our leading girl Ji-hyun and her “scheduler”

2) The acting is not bad: No, I wouldn’t be throwing Emmys their way but it isn’t as bad as their family drama counterparts. The best in the cast would be Lee Yo-Won, who has to play a double role here as the “possessed” Yi-Kyung in the day and the catatonic Yi-Kyung at night. For the most part, she sells it and I did see 2 different characters, although the real Yi-Kyung is just boring and almost catatonic. It was meant to be like that, so I was okay. Bae Soo Bin plays Min-ho,  the scheming fiance and yes, he was very good as well, using his character’s past to justify his actions (yeah yeah, another “woe-is-me” poor kid). Is this actor destined to play a villain? I just watched him play a cannibalistic plastic surgeon in Horror Stories (I’m not familiar with his work, don’t bash me). Anyway, the entire cast was good, but these 2 stood out for me.

Not-so-good:

1) Writing loses strength towards the end: In many ways. Yi-Kyung starts to become more and more “aware” of Ji-Hyun’s spiritual presence and towards the end they could even SPEAK to one another, although Yi-Kyung couldn’t see her. It was really…weird, the way Yi-Kyung was like “oh you can use my body for the next 10 days, cause my life has no meaning so just use my body as you will blablaba”. Also, the whole “it’s okay that the humans figure out who you are, as long as you don’t say so yourself” rule feels a bit weird, but I guess they needed a way for the living characters to figure out who she is (even though the chances of this happening are sooooooo slim, indeed). In many scenes, Han Kang (Ji-Hyun’s old classmate) speaks to Ji-Hyun (as Yi-Kyung) but because of that stupid “you musn’t reveal your identity rule”, they have to keep referring to Ji-Hyun in THIRD PERSON even though she’s actually there. Like for instance, when Han successfully persuaded Ji-Hyun’s dad to go for surgery, she had to say “Ji-Hyun would be grateful to you” as Yi-Kyung, even though by then Han Kang was already aware of what’s going on. Yes, the whole thing is as bizarre as it sounds. Haven’t they watched Heaven Can Wait (1978)?

The plot twist wasn’t very good, and to me it was just plain contrived. Major spoiler ahead, although Ji-Hyun collects her 3 tears, it turns out that she still couldn’t save herself as she was already destined to die not long after the accident. “Had this accident not happen, I would have committed suicide from the pain of knowing that my fiance cheated on me and robbed my company. So I’m glad that I used the 49 Days to set things right,” she said sadly after she woke up form her coma (her scheduler dropped the bomb on her not long after she woke up). This part was fine for me (seriously) until the next major plot twist ahead, which was that Yi-Kyung was apparently Ji-Hyun’s long lost sister. God.

2) Waaaay too many freaking crying scenes towards the end: If you are familiar with Korean dramas, you know that they love making their actors cry. To me, it’s very clear that each crying scene is an “on cue” thing rather than a truthful moment, but for the most part it worked as an emotional scene. Until the end: GOODNESS! They cry and they cry and they cry over the betrayal, heartbreak, loss, death blablabla and it was damn near to driving me nuts. It wasn’t as overwrought as their soaps, but it was such an obvious manipulation on the director’s part.

Okok, I shall end this very long post here. 49 Days was actually quite a watchable K-drama that I’m not gonna deny I enjoyed despite the wonky ending and weird scenes here and there. I wouldn’t hesitate in giving it a B+, and that’s generous from someone who usually don’t watch them. Meanwhile, I shall get started on A Clockwork Orange (1971) soon.

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Performance of the week: Geraldine Page in Summer And Smoke (1961)

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Geraldine Page received her second Oscar nomination (first Best Actress, for her second feature film!) for playing Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke. Even though she won the Golden Globe, she eventually lost the big one to Sophia Loren for Two Women (What a performance!).From what I’ve seen, the 60s was such an interesting era for movie awards – most of the actual best actress winners actually never won the Golden Globe and several other precursor awards, which makes the guessing game a lot harder than nowadays. Furthermore, she was up against major stars like Audrey Hepburn and young Natalie Wood who, if you think about it, was actually more of a film veteran than Page was. I guess there were loads of these so-called “surprise” winners back then, especially for the case of Loren since she became the first performer to win for a foreign language performance, and yet you can’t help but applaud the Academy then for making brave, original choices (unlike now).

Summer And Smoke is a terrific film. I personally enjoyed it and I can just watch it over and over again. Only Tennessee Williams could get away with making such theatrical material work on screen. Personally, I enjoyed this much more than Sweet Bird Of Youth, although people in general seem to prefer Page’s performance there. There’s so much emotional and sexual tension between the characters, and like the rest of Williams’ works, the over-the-top nature of the material adds to the brilliance of the story instead of undermining it. The colourful sets and costumes are once again an added bonus for me, as they make the film such a delight to watch. The acting is also good throughout; Laurence Harvey gives his next best performance here (or at least from what I’ve seen) after Room At The Top, Rita Moreno was quite fun as the wild and bitchy Rosa Zacharias, and Una Merkel was also very good as Alma’s crazy mother. I felt that her nomination was a bit much though, as the role is a bit limited.

When talking about her performance in Sweet Bird Of Youth (1962), I talked about how Geraldine Page is probably one of the most respected actresses ever. I mean, when F. Murray Abraham presented her Oscar in 1986, he called her the “greatest actress of the english language” and she even received a standing ovation for that win. Meryl Streep was also a great admirer of hers, which says a lot. However, as I got to read more and more blogs and forums (taken with a pinch of salt, naturally), I realise that her style seems to be a hit-or-miss with modern audiences nowadays. Personally, I love her; I agree she is a bit theatrical, especially since she was primarily a stage actress, but I’m not going to deny that she is becoming one of my favourites as I watch more and more of her work. I’m not someone who is very particular about acting styles as what I’m looking for is emotional honesty in performances and not so much on how the actors achieve it, but watching real method actors (Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Kim Stanley, Robert De Niro) do their magic on screen can be quite a breath-taking experience. There’s a kind of energy in Page’s performances that I really love, and her versatility is damn impressive. I mean, she played a totally different character one year later after playing this prudish spinster, and still managed to gave a fantastic, critically-acclaimed performance.That’s really saying something.

However, from what I gather, Page’s performance here isn’t her most popular one, and it is actually pretty divisive. It’s easy to see why: she played the role on stage, and she basically recreated the role on film, so you can expect her acting to be extremely mannered and theatrical. This kind of acting can understandably be a real turn-off for most people, and it doesn’t help that the character isn’t the most likable either. For me…well, I’m divided on the love side. There, I said it. But before I go into why, I’ll just talk about the way I interpreted this character and Geraldine’s take on it. *possible spoilers* Alma Winemiller is basically a repressed spinster who has to live under the same roof as her dominating, mentally unstable mother as well as her conservative father, whom if I’m not wrong is a preacher. She spends most of her time as a voice coach, and her life is basically boring until the “wild” young doctor John returns. Alma has always loved John, or at least harboured a secret crush on him since they were kids. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, Alma ended up performing the role of the minister’s wife after her mother suffers a breakdown, while John got to live wildly as he pursued an education in medicine. As such, his return to the town wakes up the inner desire in Alma, and she finds herself becoming more and more manipulative and possessive in order to win back his love.

I understand where Page’s detractors are coming from when they criticise her theatrical approach to the character. Her ultra conservative and prudish behaviour can seem fake and ridiculous to many, or as John puts it, she’s “putting on airs”. She has a “fancy way of speaking” as he calls it; she refers to fireworks as “pyrotechnical displays”, calls his car a “magnificent automobile” and hopes that he has a “strong character” when Rosa gives him a flirtatious smile. The way I read it, however, which I think is the way Page approached it too, was that Alma was using this “conservative” facade merely as a way to deal with John, which is why it seems unnatural. Yes, she is a repressed and plain spinster, but I don’t think this was her true nature, and I feel that people may actually tend to overlook how manipulative Alma actually is. She’s playing the passive-aggressive card by rejecting his advances and insisting that he has to be a gentleman, but I think deep down, the “animal” inside her that John often refers to deeply desires him. I mean, she can even go over to his house at 2am in the morning, pretending to be sick so as to get close to him. And of course, the famous phone call to his father in order to stop his marriage to Rosa spoke volumes about her to me.

The famous monologue at the end of the film is easily the highlight of the performance. It really showed how much Alma has changed, and how she has come to embrace her true nature. It’s a brilliantly delivered piece by Page, considering how theatrical it really was (“…the girl who said no…she doesn’t exist anymore! She died last summer, suffocated from the smoke…something on fire inside of her!”) Whenever I think about Tennessee Williams’ monologues, I instantly think of Kate Hepburn’s brilliant piece about the sea turtles in Suddenly, Last Summer. Only the best performers are able to nail the theatrical nature of his dialogues without making it seem ridiculous, and Page is no exception.  The tears, the lines, the mannerism are all perfectly “calculated”, making it a very intense experience.

Overall, I don’t consider this a legendary and mind-blowing performance but I consider it a great piece by an actress consider a master of the cradt. The criticisms thrown at it are understandable; I can see how the role can be played in a more natural and subtle manner (Deborah Kerr would have been great, I think), but I like Page’s approach to it and I felt that the risks she took paid off. And even so, I didn’t think the self-awareness of it all was that bad; it was kinda fascinating to me, like watching an acting teacher teaching her students how to deliver their lines perfectly and time their tears. It’s a solid piece of work that I respect and enjoyed.

Will continue Best Picture 1971 next week…I have rested enough, and I want to get it over and done with before school reopens. 

Performance of the week: Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938)

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Movie legend Bette Davis won her second and final Oscar for playing Julie Marsden in William Wyler’s Jezebel. It’s almost strange to think that this would be Davis’ final Oscar considering how the immense popularity of her later works (All About Eve in 1950 and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? In 1962) would eventually eclipse this one. I have always been curious about this work, since it is one of Davis’ lesser talked about performance despite it being the one she actually won the Oscar for.

Jezebel is a solid movie that is very good but not legendary by any means. I am a huge fan of William Wyler in general (The Collector, Roman Holiday, Mrs Miniver, The Little Foxes, Wuthering Heights etc.) so I know that even his lesser works will be “good” at the very least. And that’s what I feel about Jezebel: It’s a solid, perfectly watchable film made by a master. The story is not very interesting, but the scenes are very well shot and filled with emotional tension. I also love the set and costume designs, which is always a plus for period films. The performances are solid throughout, which is another plus point, but I find Fay Bainter’s Oscar win a bit much. I mean, I usually love these supporting aunts/guardian roles but hers was a bit one dimensional even though she played what was required of her very well (very nice, reassuring presence). Interesting to note that she was the first double nominee in history though, receiving a best actress nomination the same year for her work in White Banners. Having said all that, I sorta understand why Jezebel is a bit forgotten nowadays, considering how Gone with The Wind was made one year later.

And the same can be said for Davis’ Oscar winning turn as manipulative Southern Belle Julie Marsden, which will eventually be overshadowed by Vivien Leigh’s legendary Scarlett O’Hara the next year. But firstly: what more can be said about Bette Davis? I’m sure most film fans would have heard of her at the very least, even if they haven’t watched any of her films. This woman is one of the most interesting Hollywood personalities I have ever known; I can seriously just watch an entire interview of hers to listen to the stuff that she says. I am full of admiration at how she seriously fought for her career, giving her 200% in all her roles and delivering fantastic performances. People tend to compare her to Katharine Hepburn; original, straightforward personalities with distinct acting styles that can be a turn off (“always seeing the actress”). Although I prefer subtle acting, I won’t deny my huge admiration of these two actresses because of the risks they take in their acting choices. Personally, I prefer Hepburn’s acting style and yet I don’t think less of Davis. She is really LOUD sometimes, but the way I see it is because of the 200% energy she injects into the roles, which can payoff tremendously or result in hideous overacting in some of her lesser performances. In short, she is brilliant.

While Katharine Hepburn’s forte was spinsters and manipulative women, Bette Davis was particularly known for playing bitches. Amazingly, the bitches she play are as different from one another as possible; can anyone honestly say that Margo Channing, Regina Giddens, ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson and over here in Jezebel, Julie Marsden are the same characters? To me, this demonstrates Davis’ capabilities as an actress in her understanding and delicate handling of her characters, and not just some scenery-chewing, Oscar-baiting actress (there’s some truth to this though). In Jezebel, she displays a side of her that is lesser seen; a quiet, vindictive side. I’m even amazed at how she manages to change her usual way of speaking, adopting a soft, quietly dangerous way of delivering the lines. With this, she establishes Julie Marsden as a frivolous, “devil-may-care” lady on the surface, but is in fact someone who can be ultra manipulative deep inside. There’s a quiet fierceness to this role that makes it quite juicy to watch; it’s as though Davis is deliberately containing that energy within her instead of letting it explode out of her. Watching her insist on wearing the red dress to the ball even though she’s not supposed to, or when she kisses an already married Preston in the garden and then subtly manipulates Cantrell into getting into a fight with him afterwards without saying it out loud is just delicious to watch in a sadistic way.

Yet beneath all that bitchiness, I feel like Davis actually added a lot of depth and layers to this part. She shows the emotionally vulnerable moments of the character very well, like her palpable embarrassment during the famous red dress sequence (considering she was the one who masterminded it!), and at the end of the day, you realise that she is nothing more than a spoilt Southern Belle who is a bit too manipulative and possessive for her own good. She goes all out to wreck havoc to get things her way but regrets her action afterwards. Also, throughout the whole movie, I feel that Davis handled the development of her character very naturally, and her final monologue to Amy (Preston’s wife) actually showed how Julie has wised up. She realises that she can never have Preston as a lover but still wants to take care of him as he is about to be sent off to be quarantined because of his illness. It’s a scene that shows how complicated Julie is; she knows that Amy can never survive in a rough environment (“I can fight better than you”) and wants to go in her place, and yet there are times I suspect that this is her way of indicating she has won the battle: that Preston is better off with her, even if his heart isn’t.

This is a delightful, underrated performance by a terrific actress that should be discussed more often. I really really enjoyed Bette Davis work here, and I daresay her Oscar win is deserved even if the character is a diet version of Scarlett O’ Hara (and it’s meant to be for that matter). Great, enjoyable work.

p.s. As you realise, I have been neglecting my 1971 best picture for a while. I definitely will not give up on it, but I must admit that at the moment I’m feeling a bit lazy and I’m focusing my attention more on these performances posts for a while. I will certainly resume it once I’m in the mood, which has been affected by incidents such as the tragic MH17 crash. Thankfully, no one I know was involved but it just saddened me greatly over the past few days (I don’t know why) and I wasn’t really in the mood for movies. R.I.P to the victims.

Performance of the week: Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed (1956)

Nancy Kelly received her only Oscar nomination for playing Christine Penmark, the mother of a murderous child in The Bad Seed. She previously played the part on stage and even won the Tony Award for her performance there. Also reprising their stage roles are Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack, both Oscar nominated for their respective performances as Hortense, the mother of the murdered child, and Rhoda Penmark, the little murderer.

The Bad Seed is…okay. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either. It’s very watchable and entertaining, but at the end of the day I don’t have any strong feelings for it. I guess in 1956 it must have been considered “shocking” but by today’s standards it is very mild and dated. The whole film seems to have retained its stage roots, with a good 90% of the entire movie taking place inside the house and the characters entering and leaving for each scene. That wasn’t a big problem for me though. I just wished that it delved deeper into the whole “nature vs nurture” debate instead of touching on it so superficially (“She’s a bad seed. Done”). Also, while the pigtail (her hair is like that for 24/7 it seems. Even when she’s sleeping) killer must have been the source of everybody’s nightmares back then, I find her a little bit hard to take seriously now, and the same can be said for McCormack’s performance (even though I’m aware of the fact that it has its fans). I get that her character is supposed to be this psychotic, fake good girl who is a bit too intent on killing people, and she played it as she’s supposed to, but the writing of the character just isn’t very believable at times and all that screeching came off as a bit plastic instead of frightening to me. (“YOU BETTER BRING BACK THE SHOES BACK TO ME LEROOOOOOY! RIGHT HERE TO MEEEEH” “SO I KEPT ON HITTING HIM WITH THE SHOES MO-THEEEEEER”) I guess that was the point of it; she was supposed to be smarter than other kids but not mature enough to cover up her tracks, which is why her curtseys and “acting cute” is very fake. I’m just torn up about what to feel about her work, which affected my opinion of the movie as a whole. I guess the film explains it by letting her mother see through her act, which sort of justifies the “fake-ness” of it. 

Having said all that, I thought Eileen Heckart was fantastic as the mother of the dead child – with merely 2 scenes, she gave us all an acting class on how to play a drunk without being hammy and ridiculous. Her over-the-top acting matched the inner pain of the character very well, and she might even have deserved to win the Oscar (haven’t watched Dorothy Malone though).

So what about Nancy Kelly? From what I‘ve read on the internet, her performance here seems to be frequently lambasted as the worst performance to be nominated for the best actress Oscar. That being said, from what I’ve read and watched (Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr), it seems like 1956 isn’t the greatest year for this category either and everybody seems to have their own favourites for the win. For the case of Nancy Kelly, the criticisms thrown at her are generally about her extreme overacting in some scenes, and in this case, I would have to agree. I get that her character is on the verge of a breakdown and is hysterical, but no matter how hard I try to use this to justify her acting choices, it still feels overdone. This is especially so with the scene where she was confronting her father about her past. Maybe I’m being over particular, but the way she “recalls” her dreams felt way too abrupt and random (“DENKER!?”) and all that screeching afterwards was a bit funny (“IS SHE FATHER IS SHE!?”).

So why did I choose to write about a commonly criticised performance? I don’t know, it could be the rebellious side in me that tends to favour criticised works, but I felt like the performance actually grew on me by quite a bit! Firstly, Kelly played the role on stage and while this may not necessarily justify anything, I always felt that she understood this character inside out and was not resorting to histrionics purely for the sake of it. People have often criticised Kelly’s role as the one being in the background while the supporting characters steal the show. That may be partially true, since Eileen Heckart steals the 2 scenes that she was in, but I’ve always felt that Kelly’s character was the emotional core of this twisted film. I also thought her ending phone call with her husband was very well-handled and she injected a right amount of sadness and regret into it.

Another aspect that I liked is how she handles the character’s gradual realisation of the truth about her own daughter. Individually, her hysterical scenes are way too much, but I did feel that there was a kind of gradual arc that may be easy to overlook. From the beginning to the end, I found myself believing that Christine was slowly becoming more and more disturbed of her daughter’s actions, and in this sense, I found the build-up towards her hysterical behaviour somewhat justified, even if Kelly’s delivery is clumsy. I also liked her famous breakdown scene with the “STOP THAT MUSIC!” screech – I found myself believing the character’s devastation at that point.

So all in all, I actually kinda liked Nancy Kelly’s performance here, even though I’m not supposed to! Despite the flaws, there was something about it that drew me to her work here; it could be the honesty underneath the extreme overacting, or the fact that I’m usually drawn to such highly emotional characters. Interesting work, that may not necessarily be perfect, but has something in it that I admire. 

The Last Picture Show (1971)

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The Last Picture Show. Really, what more can be said about this incredible film? Unlike Coming Home (1978), watching this movie the second time was an equally, if not more, wonderful experience than before. There were some new discoveries this time round that I really loved, while the old elements that I enjoyed so much back then were still as great as ever.. 

The brilliance in The Last Picture Show is in its extremely strong direction by Peter Bogdanovich. The whole minimalist approach adds to the simplicity of the people living in this dying town, and I especially love how the film’s music only comes from the radios being played. What is amazing about this film is how the different stories and themes gel together, be it the coming of age and sexual awakening of the high schoolers, or the reminiscing of broken dreams and old love by the adults. As such, what you get is a haunting and saddening representation of people together living in a community, yet at the same time their colourful personalities breathes life to the bleak setting of the film. The way the stories intertwine, the way everybody knows whats going on (I love how everybody talks about the football match in the beginning) grounds the earth with a certain realism that easy to watch. It brings out all kinds of emotions, be it humour through the bitchy and cynical Lois Farrow (played FANTASTICALLY by Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn), or immense sadness by the lonely Ruth Popper (played by Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman, very deserving win), or disturbing moments like when the gang forces a young boy onto a prostitute. It’s all very well-handled without becoming overly cluttered and messy. The final shot of the dying town with the howling winds always stayed with me because of the sadness it evokes. 

Another brilliant aspect of the film would be its sharp, distinct characterization among the characters. The youngsters aren’t the most interesting to me, but the characters are all very well-written; There’s the cocky Duane (played brilliantly by a very young Jeff Bridges in his first Oscar-nominated role), who finds his manliness being questioned because of his inability to “perform”, the sensible Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) who is confused about the concept of love, and Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), who is curious about, well, sex. To me, it is the adults who steal the show. Tying everything together is the almost symbolic character “Sam The Lion”, played by Oscar-winner Ben Johnson, whose performance is one of the most deserving winners this category has ever seen (although I must admit I’m a tiny bit less enthusiastic this time round). Sam is like the wise man and the heart of the town; everyone loves him, everyone respects him and after his passing, the town saw itself going into decline. It’s a brilliantly written part, and the famous monologue about his old love is one of the finest acted scenes ever. The same goes for Cloris Leachman, who plays the lonely Ruth Popper who gets into an affair with Sonny. The sadness, loneliness and desperation of the character as she gets made use of then neglected is just heartbreaking to watch. However, the one performance that really captivated me this time round a lot more than previously was Ellen Burstyn’s brief but brilliant turn as Lois Farrow. She brings humour into the film through her cynical and sarcastic personality, such as when she tells her daughter to sleep with Duane to learn that he is nothing special, and when she tells the other woman to “kiss my ass”. However, despite the briefness of her role, Burstyn turns Lois Farrow into a three-dimensional human being, and her final monologue to Sonny where she reveals that she was the true love of Sam the Lion is just heartbreaking. What is even more amazing is how Ben Johnson and her never had any dialogue or scenes together, and yet she manages to make it believable that they were once in love. It’s a captivating, heartbreaking performance that would have been equally deserving of the win (she’s one of my favourite actress, so I’m very biased).

In short, I love this film. It gave me the chills, it made me laugh, it made me sad, and more importantly it made me feel human. No apologies here: 5/5. 

Performance of the week: Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

Katharine Hepburn received her ninth Oscar nomination for playing Mary Tyrone in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Before I talk about her performance, let me just say that like the other film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s other play Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), this movie came pretty close to driving me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a well written story about failed dreams (and by the way I am a sucker for dysfunctional family dramas), but like Mourning Becomes Electra, the infinite dialogue in this movie was both a blessing and a curse. The way the characters bicker over their failures and crushed hopes is interesting, but it goes on for WAY too long and literally feels like a whole day’s journey into night time.  It would have been a great stage production, watching each of the lengthy scenes play out in the theatre setting but on film it feels a bit awkward. I guess Sidney Lumet couldn’t decide which part of the play should have been left out so he just retained everything on camera, hoping that the brilliance would transfer over. The actors were fine though; I didn’t think Ralph Richardson was as bad as people say, although I agree that his performance was probably more suited for stage. It feels like he is shouting his lines at times, even during the normal conversations. Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell were both very good as well. Still, none of the performances match up the central leading lady’s work.

As I mentioned in my post about her performance as Mrs Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, I consider myself a huge fan of Katharine Hepburn. Nowadays, there are always criticisms about her playing variations of herself in different roles, which I both agree and disagree. She has some very strong and distinct mannerisms in all her performances that may result in people not being able to “see through the actress” or whatever they call it, but at the same time I feel that she inhibits the roles so well that I find myself actually buying that the mannerisms came from the characters and not her. What I love about her is her unique, one-of-a-kind personality that she injects into her performances, without making it seem repetitive (to me). In short, she was a terrific actress whom I really enjoy watching in general.

Hepburn’s comfort zone as an actress comes from playing, well, spinsters (I haven’t watched a lot of her spinster roles to be honest) as well as manipulative, borderline insane women. Personally, I love the latter performances because I just get this kick out of watching her deliver the sarcastic one-liners while simultaneously exposing the vulnerable side of these characters. That being said, Mary Tyrone is very different from these usual “Hepburn characters”, which I assume is the reason why this was her personal favourite performance. There isn’t that trademark arrogance and strong façade that she is so used to displaying on screen. Another way of looking at it would be that Mary Tyrone is an extension of Violet Venable after the end of Suddenly, Last Summer. It’s like reality has finally set in, and she’s this broken down ghost who constantly reminisces about her past and happy memories. What is surprising about this performance is that she doesn’t really get as much screen time as her male counterparts, although this may have been the intention. The way Mary Tyrone is written and described is as though she was meant to be this ghost of the past; the way the other characters claim they hear her footsteps at night, the way she descends from the stairs etc. Simply put, Hepburn astonishingly lives up to this part, outshining her co-stars even though she isn’t the central focus of this story.

Mary Tyrone is one damn difficult role to play; she’s this morphine-addicted matriarch who is borderline insane, and yet still aware enough of what is happening around her.  Under a lesser actress, the whole thing would have seemed ridiculous and hammy but Hepburn nails it, making you believe that this woman is seriously whacked. She has A LOT of delicious monologues about her broken dreams that she delivers flawlessly without making it feel repetitive (what I feel about the other actors). There’s always this element of surprise, be it her sudden “I HATE DOCTORS!” outburst, or the way she weirdly collapses on the floor while talking about how she first met James Tyrone. Yet, despite the crazy ramblings, you can sense the immense sadness coming from the character, and you realise that whatever she’s saying actually have truth in them.

To me, the only fault with the performance is how limited her screen time is, which is totally not her fault of course. Towards the end, a great portion of the film is dedicated to the confrontation between James and Edmund, followed by Jamie and Edmund, and Hepburn disappears throughout this entire segment. However, when she returns for the final scene, she breathes life back into the film again with her monologue about how she used to be a nun, which sounds strange here but works incredibly in the context of the film. This is a fantastic performance by a truly great actress that is worthy of all the praise it deserves. No wonder people call 1962 one of the strongest years for best actress.

Anyway, since this is one of the rare occasions that I actually watched all the best actress nominees in a single year, here is my ranking of the 1962 actresses:

1)      Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (5/5)

2)      Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (5/5)

3)      Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker (5/5)

4)      Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (4.5/5)

5)      Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses (4.5/5)

p.s. wordpress just became majorly weird with its new settings and I am still trying to figure out my way around here, like adjusting the picture size. Annoying