Movie Review: Meet John Doe (1941)


Title: Meet John Doe
Release Date: May 3, 1941
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Frank Capra Productions
Summary/Review:

Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid off from her job but submits one last column in the form of a fake letter from John Doe, who rails against the ills of society and threatens to commit public suicide on Christmas Eve.  The column causes a sensation, and Ann is rehired to write more John Doe columns.  A homeless former bush league pitcher, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is recruited to play “John Doe.”

Traveling the country delivering Ann’s speeches, John inspires a John Doe movement where people form clubs and get to know and help out their neighbors.  Millionaire newspaper publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) funds the John Doe movement with the ulterior motive of using John to convert the third-party Presidential campaign.  Norton believes the country needs an authoritarian leader, and when John attempts to expose the plot at a rally, Norton orders the police to go into the crowd and incite a riot against John Doe. (Watching this movie during the same week when peaceful protests across the country were targeted by police violence, made this scene feel on point).

The movie is typical of Frank Capra common-man stories, although it feels a bit uneven compared to his more famous works.  Stanwyck and Cooper are great in their roles although the romance between them is never developed all too well.  The movie falls apart in the final scene where the melodrama is laid on thick, and Stanwyck rushes through dialogue as if she knew it was cheezy and out-of-character, especially the awkward reference to Jesus Christ.  I read that several endings were filmed for this movie, but I don’t think that they picked the right one.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Jungle Book (1967)


Title: The Jungle Book
Release Date: October 18, 1967
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

The Jungle Book is a musical comedy based on the works of Rudyard Kipling, and is the last animated movie which involved Walt Disney in its production.  It’s a straightforward story of a boy raised by wolves named Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), who the wolves council determine must now return to the human village for his own safety.

The movie is episodic, linking together various musical numbers and set pieces with animals that Mowgli encounters on his journey.  The supporting characters make the film.  These include Mowgli’s allies, Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), a serious panther who oversees Mowgli’s exit from the jungle and Baloo (Phil Harris), a carefree sloth bear who wishes to adopt Mowgli to Bagheera’s strong disapproval.  The villains include a hypnotic python named Kaa (Sterling Holloway), a scatting orangutan named King Louie (Louis Prima) who wants the secret of fire, and Shere Khan (George Sanders), a Bengal tiger who hates humans and is determined to kill Mowgli.

The movie features some great music by the Sherman Brothers, with the exception of the most famous song, “The Bare Necessities,” which is by Terry Gilkyson.  The animation captures the movement of animals in a convincing way as well as providing a number of comic gags.  I’ve always thought that movie ends oddly with Mowgli deciding to go to the human village basically because he’s horny.  Nevertheless, this is a competent, straightforward Disney comedy musical.  Not quite an all-time classic, but a does the job for 78 minutes of entertainment.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 20


My favorite podcasts are increasingly becoming so focused on current events that I wonder if they’ll still be relevant on Saturday, but I’m pretty sure that all of these podcasts are still “fresh.”

All Songs Considered :: New Music Friday: Run The Jewels

A deep dive into the terrific new album, RTJF, and album that speaks to a current moment of reckoning with racial discrimination and policing.

Fresh Air :: Poet Eve Ewing Connects 1919 Chicago Riots To Today

Eve Ewing found poetry in the report analyzing Chicago’s “Red Summer” and uses it to draw parallels to systemic racism that persists 100 years later.

Have You Heard :: Arrested Development: How Police Ended Up in Schools

One of the worst aspects of overpolicing in the USA is the use of police to address school discipline issues and the perpetuation of a school-to-prison pipeline. The podcast traces the history of police in schools back to the 1960s and includes some commentary from some brilliant Boston Public School students

Here & Now :: #SayHerName Campaign; The State Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

The #SayHerName Campaign brings awareness to Black women who have suffered from police killings and police brutality, who are overlooked even as the world is focused on Black Lives Matters issues.

Planet Money :: Police Unions And Police Violence

Police unions are not like other unions, as police already have powers that other workers do not, and the existence of police unions helps perpetuate police killings and police violence.

Radiolab :: Nina

The music of Nina Simone and why it resonates with our times.

What Next :: A Politician’s Brush with NYPD Abuse

New York state senator Zellnor Myrie offers his first-hand experience with police violence during protests in Brooklyn, and how it’s translating into dramatic legislative action.


Movie Review: Ugetsu (1953)


Title: Ugetsu
Release Date: March 26, 1953
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production Company: Daiei Film
Summary/Review:

Set during a Civil War in 16th-century Japan’s Sengoku period, this movie is the story of a potter Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori of Rashomon fame) who hopes to take advantage of the troubled times to make a profit selling his wares in a city across a lake. Due to fear of pirates he leaves his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son behind, but is accompanied by his friend Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa) and his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito).

The trio are separated in the city. Tōbei, who always dreamed of becoming a samurai, stumbles into being recognized as a hero by one of the armies, and is rewarded with armor, a horse, and troops to command.  Meanwhile, Ohama is abducted, raped, and forced to work in a brothel.  A noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō, who also starred in Rashomon and Floating Weeds) visits Genjūrō’s stall and he eventually he goes to live with her and marry her, not telling of his wife and child.

This movie is a ghost movie, but the spectral parts are subtle, and in a way unexpected.  This is also a movie where the two wives are severely wronged and the sympathies of the movie are with them against their foolish husband.  The movie is also a morality play, but again one that is well-done and moving.  I found myself weeping at the end, primarily because the final scenes involve some sweet scenes between Genjūrō and his toddler son.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple


Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Artist: Fiona Apple
Release Date: April 17, 2020
Label: Epic
Favorite Tracks:

  • Shameika
  • Under the Table
  • Relay
  • Rack of His
  • Cosmonauts
  • For Her

Thoughts:

I remember Fiona Apple as the tiny woman with the big, bold voice who had a hit with the song “Criminal” (and its unsettling video) back in the 1990s. I’ve heard whispers that Apple continued to have a great career, and I should’ve listened to them since this new album is absolutely brilliant.  In a way, it’s surprising that Apple has returned to widespread acclaim with this album because it’s very experimental with a heavy emphasis on percussion, only holding onto vestiges of pop music around the edges. Apple sings repetitive lyrics in a variety of chants, using her voice like Yoko Ono to become another percussion instrument.  As the title implies, this album is about release, and there’s anger there, but there’s also catharsis and humor.  It has to be heard to be believed.

Rating: ****1/2

Album Review: Unlovely by The Ballroom Thieves


Album: Unlovely
Artist: The Ballroom Thieves 
Release Date: February 12, 2020
Label: Nettwerk Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • Unlovely
  • Tenebrist
  • Homme Run
  • Begin Again
  • Pendulum

Thoughts:

I first learned of Boston-based trio The Ballroom Thieves a few years ago when they were the standout performers at a festival I attended.  Their new album speaks to our times with lyrics that address personal relationship and social movements, and often both at the same time.  The band is described as folk rock and Americana, but I don’t think those genres quite capture the infectious pop sound of the songs that also draw upon classic rock, soul, and even a touch of metal.

Calin “Callie” Peters (vocals, cello, bass), Martin Earley (vocals, guitar), and Devin Mauch (vocals, percussion) are all excellent instrumentalists and the recording captures their performances as well as their tight harmonies.  I tend to get lost in music at the expense of the lyrics, but I was drawn into the chorus of my favorite track “Tenebrist” which is both inspirational and sarcastic:

We all muddy the water
To make it seem less shallow
And if our grief grows like a shadow
In the morning that’s alright
We need the dark to know the light

The music hides anger, frustration, and exhaustion with our political present in the lyrics, so it’s worth a deep listen.

Rating: ****

This performance from WGBH leads off with “Tenebrist” and some older tracks.

The Paste Studio performance includes “Homme Run,” “Love is Easy,” and “Pendulum.”

 

Album Review: Rejoice by Tony Allen, Hugh Masekela


AlbumRejoice
Artist: Tony Allen, Hugh Masekela
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Label: World Circuit
Favorite Tracks:

  • Agbada Boudou
  • Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)
  • We’ve Landed

Thoughts:

Tony Allen was a drummer from Nigeria who was key in defining the genre of Afrobeat when working with Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 band.  In 2010, he collaborated with the equally legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela on the sessions that would lead to this album.  Masekela died in 2018. Allen completed the sessions with some of London’s top jazz artists.

Allen died on April 30, just a little over a month after this album’s release, so it stands as a memorial to him as well.  Nevertheless, it is a joyous recording as the title proclaims.  I don’t have the language and experience to adequately describe Afrobeat and jazz, but I like what I hear.  Most of the album is instrumental, with exceptions like “Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same),” a tribute to Fela Kuti.  In the music you can hear the freedom and friendship of two great artists pushing one another to greater heights.  It’s also a very crisp recording where each instrument resonates richly and deeply.

This is a terrific album and makes me want to dive into the back catalog of both artists.

Rating: ****

 

Movie Review: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (2013)


Title: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
Release Date: 22 May 2013
Director: Tom Bean & Luke Poling
Production Company: Joyce Entertainment | The Offices of SPECTRE
Summary/Review:

I enjoyed seeing George Plimpton’s tv appearances when I was a kid, and I read several of his books, and even saw him speak once when I was in college.  So I was delighted that the Brattle Theatre hosted a virtual screening of a documentary about Plimpton’s life.

George Plimpton was a tall, patrician-looking man from Manhattan’s Upper East Side and descended from a prominent New England family.  After World War II he founded and edited The Paris Review which became a leading literary journal publishing the top authors of the latter half of the 20th century.

And yet he is most famous for his experiments in participatory journalism, particularly in sports, where he pitched to Major League Baseball stars, played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and served as goalkeeper for the Boston Bruins.  Outside of sports, he played a small role in a John Wayne Western, participated in a trapeze act, and played the triangle for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  His articles and books about these experiences provided an “everyman” perspective on the type of achievements that only a small number of people can do.

Plimpton’s charm and affable personality helped him find acceptance among the groups of professionals he covered as well as regular spots as a guest on talk and variety shows.  Interviewees in the movie say that Plimpton was a hard to get to know beneath his persona.  He had a love for celebrity that manifested itself in parties and literary salons, but he also hid considerable self-doubt about his own writing ability.  Plimpton was friends with the Kennedy family and traveled with Robert Kennedy on his 1968 presidential campaign.  Along with Rafer Johnson and Rosie O’Grier, he wrestled Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground, and incident that Plimpton never wrote or spoke about publicly.

The movie shows the funny, charming side of Plimpton that made him the celebrity I remember from my childhood.  But it also peels back the public persona of someone with severe impostor’s syndrome about being among the literary luminaries of his time. His family seem to be embarrassed that Plimpton became a pitchman for various products, but it also showed his dedication to getting money to keep the Paris Review alive.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is a good documentary that looks into the life of an unlikely celebrity and his times.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle


Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Title: All the Bad Apples
Narrator: Marisa Calin and Elizabeth Sastre
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
Summary/Review:

A Dublin teenager, Deena, on the precipice of her 17th birthday accidentally outself herself to her much older sister Rachel and her conservative father. Her other, wilder sister Mandy (Rachel’s twin) goes missing, and when her car is found by some cliffs on the other side of Ireland, she is presumed dead by everyone but Deena.

Instead, Deena goes on a road trip with her best friend, a mixed-race bisexual boy named Finn, and meets a previously unknown niece and an attractive young woman along the way.  They pick up clues in the form of letters from Mandy about the troubled history of women in Deena’s family going back centuries which includes forced pregnancy, rape, ostracization, accusations of witchcraft, abortion, and imprisonment in the notorious Magdelen laundries. The whole time they are pursued by three banshees adding an element of magical realism.

This movie ties together a story of contemporary sexism, homophobia, and discrimination in Ireland with folklore and history.  But does it with very little subtlety.  My mind wandered a lot during this book but let’s chalk that up to reader error. I’m sure this is a perfectly good book for young adults who want stories of adventure and family history with positive female and LGBT characters.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2