Classic Movie Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

Title: Stalag 17
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Set in the prisoner of war camp in Germany in December 1944, Stalag 17 sits somewhere between the grim realism of A Man Escaped and the goofiness of Hogan Heroes (at tv show clearly drew upon this movie for influence). The story focuses on a barracks of American prisoners where attempts at escape and the possession of a radio are foiled by the genial and seemingly incompetent guard, Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman). The men in the barracks suspect that one of their own is a spy, and suspicion falls on a cynical Bostonian who has succeeded in bargaining for luxuries with the Germans, J.J. Sefton (William Holden, reunited with director Billy Wilder after Sunset Boulevard).

The move successfully balances drama with comedy. A lot of screen time is given to Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss ) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) whose comic antics keep the barracks loose.  At times, it feels more like a frat house than a prison camp, especially when the men leer at the Russian women prisoners in an adjacent camp. Meanwhile, Sefton works to clear his name and find the real stoolie, while all the prisoner work to defend Lieutenant James Dunbar (Don Taylor) from execution. If there’s one flaw with the movie is that the audience isn’t given any clues on who is spying for the Germans although I suppose the movie isn’t meant to be a mystery.  The movie also features a young Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane! fame as the barracks security chief, Frank Price.

I watched this movie multiple times when I was young, and I’m happy to say that it still holds up as an engaging film.  I didn’t know who Billy Wilder was back then, but now that I’ve seen more of his work, I can definitely say that Wilder was a versatile and talented writer and director.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 30

Have You Heard? ::  Reopening a Can of Worms

A deep dive into the debate over sending children back to school during the pandemic.

Lost Massachusetts :: The Lost Corner: AKA Hells Acre, The Oblong, Etc.

I’ve always been fascinated with “The Oblong” on the CT-NY border but had not known of the lawless settlement that once was in the corner of Massachusetts.

The Memory Palace :: The Stone

Long before the fears of a “9/11 Mosque” were stoked by prejudiced Americans, another fear of an outsiders’ religion manifested in protests and violence over a stone for the Washington Monument.

Radiolab :: Smile My Ass

Candid Camera created “reality television” by redefining how we viewed reality itself.

What Next :: Did the Media Fail the Trump Years?



Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Music Discoveries: Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time 480-471

Last September, Rolling Stone magazine released their most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which includes a greater variety of artists and genres than previous lists. Looking through the list, there were many albums I’d never listened to before and a few I’d never even heard of. In fact, counting it up, I found that I’d only listened to 140 of the albums, although I’d heard songs from many more. So I’ve decided my project for 2021 is to listen to 10 albums each week and write up some thoughts about each one.

Previous Posts:

Artist:  Miranda Lambert
Album: The Weight of These Wings
Year: 2016
Label: eRCA Nashville
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: No
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks:

  • Runnin’ Just in Case
  • Highway Vagabond
  • Good Ol’ Days

Thoughts: I’m not a huge fan of contemporary country, but this album exceeded my expectations. While country underlies every track, the collection explores a great variety of genres. The songs and lyrics are well-crafted and tell the story of Lambert moving on from her recent divorce.  I think at 24 tracks the album goes on a bit long and would’ve been more effective if trimmed down to a single album.

Artist: Selena
Album: Amor Prohibido
Year: 1994
Label: EMA Latin
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Only by name
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Probably not
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Fotos Y Recuerdos”
  • “Bidi Bid Bom Bom”
  • “Tus Desprecios”

Thoughts: Texas Tejano musician Selena was already a legend before a murderer ended her life far to early at the age of 23. As much as I’ve heard about her success and tragedy, I never before heard any of her music, to my knowledge. I was surprised by the chintzy synths, although Selena’s voice transcends the production values. I have to admit that while Selena’s artistry is not something that engages me that nonetheless I can recognize her talent and understand why she is loved by so many.  The album also includes a cover of “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders, retitled as “Fotos Y Recuerdos,” which I like a lot better than the original.

Artist: The Kinks
AlbumSomething Else by the Kings
Year: 1968
Label: Oye
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes (“Waterloo Sunset” to be specific)
Would I Listen to this Album Again?:  Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Death of a Clown”
  • “Harry Rag”
  • “Love Me Till the Sun Shines”
  • “Waterloo Sunset”

Thoughts: The Kinks are one of those bands I’ve long felt I need to pay more attention to, and they’ve been on my short list for a Music Discovery for some time.  This album marks the transition of The Kinks from a British Invasion rock band to a band that writes wry, introspective, and observational songs about every day people. The Kinks aren’t folk rock but their music is informed by the folk tradition, and this album also reflects that odd music hall revival that coincided with psychedelic rock in England.

Artist: Howlin’ Wolf
Album: Moanin’ in the Moonlight
Year: 1959
Label: Chess
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Smokestack’ Lightnin'”
  • “All Night Boogie (All Night Long)”
  • “Evil (Is Going On)”

Thoughts: I’ve been critical of the RS 500’s inclusion of compilation albums on this list, and expect I will continue to harp on this issue as I work my way through the list, but here’s an instance where I think that they got it right.  Much like fellow Chess blues artist Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf’s only appearance on the RS 500 is a collection of singles from the 1950s.  The difference here is that Moanin’ in the Moonlight was released in 1959 while Howlin’ Wolf was still at his artistic peak.  Howlin’ Wolf and his production crew likely had input on song selection and sequencing.  And as the LP was just becoming commercially viable at this time, it certainly brought Howlin’ Wolf’s music to the attention of new audiences, including the many blues and blues rock artists of the 60s and 70s who would draw on his influence.  So yes, this is how a compilation album can indeed be a greatest album of all time!

Artist: Sparks
AlbumKimono My House
Year: Island
Label: 1974
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Vaguely
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Talent is an Asset”

Thoughts: I only learned of Sparks last spring when a friend recommended their most recent album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. I liked the album, although not enough to review it on its own, and was surprised that a band that sounded so contemporary went back to the 1960s. This 1974 album was their breakout record and influenced artists from Morrisey to Björk. It doesn’t resonate with me though as it is very prog rock and sounds like Rush performing Rocky Horror.

Artist: Sheryl Crow
AlbumSheryl Crow
Year: 1996
Label: A&M
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Unfortunately
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks: None

Thoughts: When Sheryl Crow’s first few singles hit the airwaves I always went through a phase where first I would think, this is kinda good, but after repeated hearings would like the song less and less.  Eventually I grew to just dislike everything by Sheryl Crow.  I’m trying to listen to every album on this list with an open mind, but I’m not at all surprised that I still don’t like the music of Sheryl Crow.

Artist: Big Star
Album: #1 Record
Year: 1972
Label: Ardent
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: By reputation
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Maybe, one day
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Thirteen”

Thoughts: Big Star and its band leader Alex Chilton are revered among rock music enthusiasts but I’ve never been able to get the appeal.  It’s not that Big Star is bad, far from it, I just don’t hear it as so amazingly great. They feel to me more like a great bar band than the icons who inspired R.E.M. and The Replacements.

Artist: Daddy Yankee
Album: Barrio Fino
Year: 2004
Label: V.I. Music
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: No
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Maybe
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Like You”
  • “Salud y Vida”

Thoughts: I like the sound of reggaetón, which I typically experience as beats from a passing car or coming over the speakers at the corner store. This is the first time I’ve ever sat down and listened to a reggaetón album, and I liked it just fine.  Daddy Yankee, of course, practically invented the genre of reggaetón so naturally he deserves a spot on this list even if it isn’t something I’d listen to all the time.

Artist: SZA
Year: 2017
Label: RCA
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: No
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Not likely
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Wavy (Interlude) (feat. James Fauntleroy)”
  • “Normal Girl”

Thoughts: SZA is another contemporary artist I’m not at all familiar with.  The downtempo style of hip-hop and R&B doesn’t really appeal to me, but nevertheless this album is not bad.

Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Album: Surrealistic Pillow
Year: 1967
Label: RCA
Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No
Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes
Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Somebody to Love”
  • “White Rabbit”

Thoughts: One can argue about what albums deserve inclusion on this current version Rolling Stone 500 and how they should be ranked, but the nice thing about it is that they’ve made a conscious effort to include a greater variety of genres, artists of different backgrounds, and across different eras.  The appearance of Jefferson Airplane here is a reminder of the old Rolling Stone which was fixated on promoting the late 60s San Francisco scene as the epitome of all that is good in rock music. The album includes the two songs that everyone knows Jefferson Airplane for, and a lot of mediocrity.  In fact, the rest of the album sounds more like a folk rock album than psychedelia so it definitely captures the band in transition.

Running List of Albums I’d Listen to Again

  • 500. Arcade Fire, Funeral
  • 498. Suicide, Suicide
  • 497. Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto
  • 494. The Ronettes, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes
  • 489. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector from Phil Spector and Various Artists, Back to Mono (1958-1969)
  • 487. Black Flag, Damaged
  • 485, Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  • 483, Muddy Waters, The Anthology
  • 482, The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
  • 481, Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister
  • 478, The Kinks, Something Else by the Kinks
  • 477, Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ in the Moonlight

Classic Movie Reviews: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Title: Sansho the Bailiff
Release Date:  March 31, 1954
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production Company: Daiei Film

In the 11th-century, a virtuous governor is banished by the feudal lord because he has been too kind and generous to the ordinary people.  His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and children, Zushiō and Anju, are sent to live with her brother, but along the journey they are captured. Tamaki is sold into prostitution while the children are sent to a manorial estate where they work as slaves under the brutal Sanshō (Eitarō Shindō).

A decade passes and Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) and Zushiō (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) plot their escape.  What follows is a grim and tragic story of suffering, suicide, revenge, loss, and grief.  The film is punctuated just often enough by moments of humanity that keep one from falling into despair.  But this is a definitely a movie that is an indictment of humankind.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge

Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Shane (1953)

Release Date: April 23, 1953
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review: I was under the mistaken impression that this movie was a Western about a boy and his dog, like Old Yeller. In fact, Shane (Alan Ladd) is a human, a drifter who arrives on the homestead of Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur) Starrett and takes up work as their hired hand. The Starrett’s young son Joey grows attached to Shane looking up to him with hero worship.

All is not well in the valley though. The Starrets and other homesteaders are routinely harassed by cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to keep the range free of farmers.  Shane, who is suspected to have a past as a gunfighter, must chose between fighting Ryker’s gang and his newfound domestic bliss. Things come to a head when Ryker brings a gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), to do his dirty work.

On the surface, this movie appears to be aiming for a wholesome, All-American Western, but it has a lot of subtlety and nuance.  Shane never speaks of his past but we learn something of his character through his mannerisms.  There’s a definite attraction between Shane and Marian that is also never spoken aloud.  And the movie comes down against violence and guns, with only the child Joey buying into the myth of the Old West. When a saloon brawl occurs mid-film and a gunfight at his conclusion they pack a wallop because of all the tension building to these outpourings of violence.

This is a scenic film, with the jagged peaks of the Teton Range in the background of almost every outdoors scene. Having visited Grand Tetons National Park in the past year, it was fun to see it used as a film set. I also liked the scene set at a funeral which not only was a rare moment of grief in a Western, but the camera wanders around to children and animals on the edge of the crowd for a very naturalistic moment. I also appreciate that the 52-year-old Jean Arthur can look like a mother of a 9-year-old in her thirties. This is a big change from Sunset Boulevard a few years earlier, which depicted 49-year-old Gloria Swanson as impossibly aged.

Shane is an honest and nuanced film that does justice to the traditions of the Western genre without fall for its tropes and needless violence. It also would be great if it was retold in The Mandalorian.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Title: Portrait of Jennie
Release Date: December 25, 1948
Director: William Dieterle
Production Company: Vanguard Films

Set in the heart of the Great Depression, a struggling artist named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) finds his muse in a girl he meets in Central Park, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones).  His art dealer and mentor Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees promise in a sketch he makes of Jennie and encourages him to paint her portrait. The problem with Jennie is that she wears long out-of-fashion clothing, talks about a no longer extant theater in the present tense, and every time Eben meets her appears to have aged in years rather than in the days or weeks that have passed.

This movie has a lot of flaws. The dialogue is wordy and clunky, Jones is not at all convincing at portraying a child or even a teenager, and the romance that blossoms between the adult Eben and underage Jennie is downright creepy.  I guess it presages teen paranormal romances where a teenage girl finds romance with a centuries old immortal. Nevertheless, I am won over by the romantic charm of this movie, and it is one I enjoyed in my own youth as well.

Unusual for the time, the movie made use of extensive (and expensive) location shooting.  The shots of the snow-covered and sun-drenched Central Park are worth every cent, and it’s great to see the Cloisters museum doubling as a convent school, and the Graves Light in Boston Harbor appearing in the film’s denouement. There’s also a nice effect where many scenes begin as if they’re painted on canvas.

It’s interesting to watch this movie so soon after A Matter of Life and Death, as both movies are romances that deal with life and afterlife.  Portrait of Jennie even uses a switch from black-and-white to full color for effect, although in a much smaller amount. My favorite scene when I watched this when I was younger is when Eben gets a commission to paint a mural of Michael Collins in an Irish pub, and it remains a great scene.

Portrait of Jennie doesn’t seem to be as well-known or highly-regarded as other movies of its time, but it’s worth seeking out if you like a sweet and romantic fantasy movie with a mix of humor and mystery.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Late Spring (1949)

Title: Late Spring
Release Date: September 19, 1949
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku

Following on Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds, watching this movie is making me a Yasujirō Ozu fan.  Conceptually it’s linked to Tokyo Story as part of a trilogy of films staring Setsuko Hara as a young woman named Noriko, although otherwise the characters and the film are related.  Two other actors who later appear in Tokyo Story are also stars in this film, Chishū Ryū who plays Noriko’s father Shukichi Somiya and Haruko Sugimura who plays her Aunt Masa.

Noriko is a single 27-year-old woman who has found contentment in supporting her aging father who is still working as a professor.  But Masa has determined that it is time for Noriko to marry, and ensnares Shukichi in helping her convince Noriko.  It’s a deceptively simple movie and one where the unspoken thoughts and desires are just underneath the surface of the smiling faces.

The movie was filmed just after World War II under the American occupation and the war and postwar are also underlying factors, from mention of Noriko’s ill health due to overwork during the war to English language signs and a Coca-Cola advertisement on the roadside.  The movie’s script was actually heavily censored by the Occupation authorities, but nevertheless a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a father and daughter shines thorugh.

Rating: ****

Podcast of the Week Ending January 22

Radio Boston :: Four Black Leaders In Boston Who Are Carrying On The King Legacy

Interviews with four impressive Black Bostonians: Monica Cannon-Grant, State Rep. Liz Miranda, Imari Paris Jeffries, and Michael Bobbitt.

Strong Songs :: “Space Oddity” and “Starman” by David Bowie

This new-to-me podcast breaks down the music and lyrics of two of my favorite Bowie songs.

The Brattle Film Podcast :: State of the Cinema

A discussion of how movie theaters are struggling against competition from streaming services and COVID. Will cinema be able to return to normal once the pandemic is over, and is that even desirable?

The Moth :: Birds of a Feather

Stories about birds: specifically ravens, chickens, and a highly-educated grey parrot.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021