I paid a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time since before the pandemic began. It was nice to get there early on a relatively uncrowded day and have some of the galleries to myself. The Gardner Museum used to be strict about prohibiting photography but in these Instagramable days they now allowed picture-taking without a flash. So I tried to make my own art through photography. I also enjoyed the audio tours that are now available through smartphones.
Title: Glory Release Date: December 15, 1989 Director: Edward Zwick Production Company: Freddie Fields Productions Summary/Review:
Glory was the first major motion picture to depict African American men fighting in the American Civil War. I remember seeing it when it first came out at a theater in Washington, DC while visiting my sister at college. I’ll always remember during the Battle of James Island scene that a Black man sitting behind us openly cheering for the 54th Regiment: “Get, him! Yes! Ok! Now help him out!” This is why representation is important. I watched the movie several times in the ensuing years and it was one of my favorites, but this is the first time I revisited in a few decades. I’m happy to report that it holds up very well.
Like most historical dramas, Glory is not 100% factual. One of the biggest changes from the historical record is that apart for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), all of the major characters in this movie are composite characters rather than historical figures. This has the unfortunate effect of lending a “white savior narrative” sheen to the story, especially early on when the movie is primarily from Shaw’s point of view. But it also means we don’t get to know of actual Black members of the regiment like Frederick Douglass’ two sons, Lewis and Charles, or William Harvey Carney, who would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. The real Massachusetts 54th Regiment was also made up primarily of freemen born in Massachusetts and other Northern states whereas the movie depicts the rank and file as mostly men who had recently emancipated themselves from slavery in the South.
Despite these inaccuracies, I still think the movie does a good job of dramatizing the 54th Regiments’ from recruitment to the fateful Battle of Fort Wagner. The core group of soldiers in the movie include:
Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) – a formerly enslaved man with a lot of anger and mistrust of others
Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) – an older, paternal figure who is recognized as the first Black noncommissioned officer in the regiment
Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) – a highly-educated freeborn man from Massachusetts who is close friends with the Shaw family and struggles with the physical exertion of being a soldier
Private Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy) – a younger soldier who is generally enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve in the army
In other words, like most war movies, each of these men are more of a type than an individual. But great acting performances, especially from Washington and Freeman, really bring these characters to life. Cary Elwes also stars as a white officer who occasionally locks horns with Colonel Shaw over how to command the regiment justly.
Apart from addressing a historical blindspot of the importance of Black soldiers to the ultimate Union victory in suppressing the enslavers’ insurrection, I think that Glory is the earliest movie that depicted the full-scale horror of the Civil War. At times it almost feels like an anti-war movie, and deals subtly with things like Shaw’s PTSD after the Battle of Antietam. Despite factual inaccuracies, I think this film still stands as a more accurate representation of the Civil War than your typical Hollywood fare.
Over the past few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch lots of movies considered to be among the best of all time. Now, for the first time, I’ve made my own list of favorite movies of all time. Every other Wednesday throughout 2022, I will be revealing ten movies in my list of 250 Favorite Movies of All Time.
Title: Dope Director: Rick Famuyiwa Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Tyga
Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, ASAP Rocky Year: 2015 When did I first watch this movie?: July 2016 Why is this one of my all time favorites?: The teen coming-of-age comedy is updated for the 2010s when a pair of nerdy Black teens get caught in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong and have to use their wits to outfox gang members and the authorities. It’s a fun but thoughtful take on some old tropes.
Title: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure Director: Tim Burton Cast: Paul Reubens, E.G. Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, Judd Omen Year: 1985 When did I first watch this movie?: In the theatres, summer of 1985 Why is this one of my all time favorites?: I’ve read that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has the “perfect script.” It’s 90-minutes long, a crisis occurs 30 minutes in (Pee-wee’s bike is stolen), and the crisis is resolved 60 minutes in (Pee-wee finds his bike, then he has to recover it). Whether or not that is true, this movie is an absurdist masterpiece, and an endearing comedy which ties together a series of gags that all still hit almost 40 years later.
Title: Arsenic and Old Lace Director: Frank Capra Cast: Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Josephine Hull,
Jean Adair Year: 1944 When did I first watch this movie?: Some time in the mid-1980s Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Speaking of absurdist masterpieces, this movie features a great performance by Cary Grant as the straight man in a family of literally insane people who has to deal with the discovery that his gentle, elderly aunts are serial killers.
Title: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Director: Richard Marquand Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz Year: 1983 When did I first watch this movie?: In the theaters in May 1983 Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This was the much-awaited finale of the original trilogy of Star Wars movies, and one that paid off a lot of the threads that had been developing with exciting action and drama. A lot of people hate the Ewoks, but I think it was a brilliant twist to have creatures so innocuous-looking that the Emperor would never foresee their alliance with the Rebels would be a turning point.
Title: 10 Things I Hate About You Director: Gil Junger Cast: Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik, Larry Miller, Andrew Keegan, David Krumholtz, Susan May Pratt Year: 1999 When did I first watch this movie?: January 2020 Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Another classic teen movie, this time updating Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for the 1990s. Stiles and Ledger have the chemistry that sells the humor and the romance of this movie.
Title: The Philadelphia Story Director: George Cukor Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler Year: 1940 When did I first watch this movie?: In my college days in the early 1990s Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Perhaps the perfect screwball comedy featuring romance and hijinks among the Philadelphia Main Line set. The trio of Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart is possibly the greatest collection of stars at the top of their game ever to appear on film.
Title: Winged Migration Director: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats Cast: So many birds Year:2001 When did I first watch this movie?: Circa 2003, on DVD Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This thrilling nature documentary follows the migration of various flocks of birds using new technology to “fly” alongside them. I’ve always meant to rewatch this on a big screen as it deserves to be seen
Title: Groundhog Day Director: Harold Ramis Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott Year: 1993 When did I first watch this movie?: In college, early-to-mid 90s Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This movie basically invented a new sub-genre of time loop romantic comedies, but it still remains the best. Bill Murray is at his comic peak and also begin to expand his acting range. And there are so many memorable gags and quotable lines.
Title: Hope and Glory Director: John Boorman Cast:Sarah Miles, David Hayman, Derrick O’Connor, Susan Wooldridge, Sammi Davis, Ian Bannen, Sebastian Rice-Edwards Year: 1987 When did I first watch this movie?: Late 80s Why is this one of my all time favorites?: The movie is a delightfully nostalgic piece about growing up in a horrible time: London, during the Blitz. It’s a great comedy about the community that grows up on the home front during times of strife.
Title: The Great Dictator Director: Charles Chaplin Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich Year: 1940 When did I first watch this movie?: September 2019 for my original Classic Movies project Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Speaking of World War II, Charlie Chaplin’s first full-talkie movie is this outstanding send-up of fascism and dictatorship that remains frighteningly relevant in our time.
Title: Your Name. Release Date: July 3, 2016 Director: Makoto Shinkai Production Company: Toho | CoMix Wave Films Summary/Review:
Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl living in a rural Japanese village. Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a teenage boy living in the heart of Tokyo. They have nothing in common, and don’t even know one another. But one day they mysteriously begin swapping bodies, something that continues periodically over time. They begin to learn more about one another by recording diary entries into one another’s phones. Ultimately they begin to realize that their fate is tied in with a comet that broke-up over Japan three years earlier.
This movie has some commonalities with other in the body swap genre, such as a running gag of Taki fondling “his” breasts every time he wakes up in Mitsuha’s body. But it goes way beyond those surface similarities and works really well as romantic fantasy that draws on Japanese culture and collective trauma. I felt at times that the musical score was inappropriate to the mood of the movie, and that the epilogue of the movie runs on a bit too long. But other than that it is a brilliant and imaginative story with a great visual delight.
Like it says on the tin, this is a history of the legendary Disney Parks attraction, the Haunted Mansion. The story of its is one of competing ideas among the imagineers – some wanted it to be scary, some wanted it to be funny, and Walt mainly wanted it to be clean and well-maintained. The attraction opened after over a decade of planning and work, and despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of unity on what it should be, it became an instant classic. The book also carries us through on a virtual ride on a Doom Buggy exploring the different details and modifications made over the years. Would you believe they once had a live human performed in knight’s armor swinging a sword at passing guests? This is a fun and in-depth book about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it brilliant.
I typically post my favorites of the year in December and January, but I never got around to posting a list of movies. I’m not a fan of the Oscars, or award shows in general, but I figured with the awards being given out tonight, this is a good time as any to post my movie list.
Here is my list of every movie I’ve watched from 2021 with links to my reviews, ranked from my most favorite to least favorite. Despite the ranking I think all of these movies were pretty good with the exception of the last film on the list. Note that I use the date of release to general audiences whereas sources like Letterboxd considers some of these movies from 2020 because they were screened at film festivals.
Title: Powwow Highway Release Date: February 24, 1989 Director: Jonathan Wacks Production Company: Handmade Films Summary/Review:
Powwow Highway is a buddy-road trip-comedy-drama featuring two men from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Lame Deer, Montana. Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) is an activist with a cynical world view and a short temper. Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) is fascinated with the old ways of the Cheyenne people and drawn to mystical vision. He decides to get a “pony” (really a derelict old Buick) to carry out a quest. When greedy developers attempt to remove Buddy’s opposition to their strip-mining contract have Buddy’s estranged sister framed and arrested in Santa Fe, he turns to Philbert to have him drive him there.
They don’t exactly take the most direct route, with Philbert detouring to the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and attending a Christmas powwow at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with Oglala Lakota friends. The contrast between Buddy’s serious and often angry personality and Philbert’s relaxed demeanor that often seems divorced from present-day realities is played for laughs, but also feels natural. Farmer’s performance is particularly engaging and fully realized.
There are a lot of similarities between Powwow Highway and the later film Smoke Signals (which also stars Gary Farmer in a very different role), but not so much that I can’t enjoy them both for their unique qualities. It could be that I just really enjoy Native American-buddy-road trip-comedy-dramas.
Album: Present Tense Artist: Yumi Zouma Release Date: March 18, 2022 Label: Polyvinyl Record Co. Favorite Tracks:
Where the Light Used to Lay
The fourth album from Yumi Zouma, a band based out of Christchurch, New Zealand, features lead vocalist Christie Simpson’s ethereal vocals layered over dreamy guitar pop. I try not to let nostalgia guide my taste but this music is reminiscent of electronic pop of the 1980s or perhaps an early 90s group like The Sundays.
A lovely folk-pop tune from the Brooklyn-based Deer Scout that is a collaboration with her father on a song her mother originally sang. I’ll need to check out Deer Scout’s full album Woodpecker when it is released on April 8.
Title: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure Release Date:August 9, 1985 Director: Tim Burton Production Company: Aspen Film Society Summary/Review:
“The mind plays tricks on you. You play tricks back! It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting…”
Pee-wee Herman just kind of existed in the ether of the early 80s as this obnoxious man-child character. Created by actor Paul Reubens, Pee-wee basically became his identity. In fact, the credits for this movie say “Pee-wee Herman” as himself. At any rate, those of us were around in the 80s were uncertain about a whole movie about this character. But it got good reviews, and I remember going to see it with my family on our vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.
Turns out, it’s an absurdist masterpiece. I don’t know how many times I watched this as a kid, but returning to it after several decades, I can tell it’s lost nothing. The basic story is that Pee-wee’s bike is stolen and he goes on a cross-country journey to the Alamo to find it. It ends up being one of the best bicycle-themed movies ever made, along with Bicycle Thieves and Breaking Away. It also shares a meta-commentary on Hollywood movies with The Muppet Movie.
But really, this is a movie for misfits and weirdos. All the people Pee-wee meets along the way basically find happiness from their encounter no matter how much of an outcast they may be. Plus there’s just a lot of random weirdness, and one moment that haunted my childhood nightmares (“Tell ’em, Large Marge sent ya!”). Tim Burton, a former animator at Walt Disney, made his feature-length directorial debut here seemingly a perfect match for Pee-wee’s eccentricity. The score by Danny Elfman is best described as Clown College Fight Song music and also fits in perfectly.
“There are thousands and thousands of uses for corn, all of which I will tell you about right now.”