Recent Movie Marathon: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title : Judas and the Black Messiah
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Shaka King
Production Company: MACRO | Participant | Bron Creative | Proximity
Summary/Review:

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the Party.  The result of O’Neal’s work was the coordinated  assassination by the FBI, Chicago Police, and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office  of Hampton while he slept early on the morning of December 4, 1969. The movie also depicts the budding romance of Hampton and Black Panther Party member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who would give birth to their child only 25 days after Hampton’s death.

I’ve long felt that Hampton is one of the great overlooked activists of American history with a unique  ability to unite people across across racial lines towards common cause.  Had he lived longer (Hampton was only 21 when he was killed), I believe that he and other people he inspired would’ve changed the course of American history for the better.  This of course is why he was targeted in the first place by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and others who wanted to preserve systems of white supremacy.

Apart from doing an excellent job of telling the story of Hampton and his betrayal with great performances by Kaluuya and Stanfield, and great direction by Shaka King, this movie is deft in its storytelling and characterization. Hampton’s fiery rhetoric while giving speeches is balanced by his quiet moments of love and dedication to the people. O’Neal is treated sympathetically, albeit not without judgement, and you can understand how he was motivated by fear and misinformation.  Even O’Neal’s FBI handler Roy Mitchell (a composite character portrayed by Jesse Plemons) is depicted as sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement and suspicious of Hoover’s unbridled racist antagonism, although none of this prevents him from stopping the plan to assassinate Hampton.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a good introduction to Fred Hampton’s story and touches on many issues that remain sadly relevant today. If you like this movie, I also recommend watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and reading the book The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas.

Rating: ****1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: tick, tick… BOOM!
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment | 5000 Broadway Productions
Summary/Review:

tick, tick… BOOM! is a biopic about Jonathan Larson done in the style of a Jonathan Larson musical, and based on Larson’s own “rock monologue” produced on-stage in 1992.  Andrew Garfield plays the lead role, cleverly renamed as “Jon,” as an ambitious playwright/composer  trying to get his sci-fi musical Superbia produced in 1990, but running into brick walls.  The title tick, tick…BOOM! refers to Jon’s upcoming 30th birthday and his feeling that he’s running out time to make it big in musical theater.  We in the audience know that the real Larson was running out of time as he would tragically die at the age of 35 just before his hit musical Rent made its Off-Broadway debut.

Garfield’s performance is full of charisma and anxiety, and he does not shy away from portraying how Jon’s monomaniacal focus can make him be quite a douche to his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús). But he never becomes unsympathetic.  In addition to a strong cast, there are a number of cameos by Broadway luminaries, including the original cast of Rent. The music is strong overall, similar in style to the music of Rent, so if you like one you’ll like the other.  The song “Why,” where Jon reflects on his childhood memories with Michael while playing piano in an empty Delacorte Theatre slayed me.

I saw a Rent ages and ages ago and really liked it at the time.  I knew a bit about Larson, but this movie – even if its partially fictionalized – gives me a better appreciation for him as a person and his work.  The director of this movie is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m beginning to realize owes a lot to Larson.  It’s all the more sad that Larson never got to enjoy the same kind of success and admiration that Miranda is experiencing now.

Rating:  ****

Classic Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans.  He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.

I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that.  But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence.  This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.

There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film.  Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.  Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer.  This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen.  It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses.  All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!

Rating: ****

 

Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)


Title: The Social Network
Release Date: October 1, 2010
Director: David Fincher
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Relativity Media | Scott Rudin Productions | Michael De Luca Productions | Trigger Street Productions
Summary/Review:

The Social Network asks the question, can a person unable to create bonds with other human beings make a billion dollar business based on friendship?  The movie is a dramatization of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created Facebook while a sophomore at Harvard University in 2003.  The movie is framed by legal depositions where Zuckerberg faces off against Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield), his friend and Facebook CFO who claims his shares of Facebook were unfairly diluted.  He also faces a legal battle with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea.

I typically don’t like Aaron Sorkin scripts because his dialogue makes everyone sound insufferably smug, but that actually suits the film.  The historical facts of Facebook’s creation are played with loosely, probably because the reality was much more boring, but I feel that it was just as douchey as portrayed here.  Women don’t get much to do in this film except be kind of a decorative wallpaper to activities of the men, but given the dudebros ethos of the film it feels suiting.  The most significant women character in the movie is played by Rooney Mara, who plays a fictional ex-girlfriend of Zuckerberg’s who is supposed to be his inspiration for creating Facebook.

As a connoisseur of movies set in the Boston area, I enjoyed spotting the scenes that were filmed on location.  Poor Jesse Eisenberg had to do a lot of running in this movie, from the streets of real Cambridge all the way to Maryland where there is a dorm building that coincidentally has the same name as his dorm at Harvard.  I also used to frequent The Thirsty Scholar pub in Somerville circa 2003, so maybe I was there when Zuckerberg broke up with his fictional girlfriend.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: All the President’s Men (1976)


Title: All the President’s Men
Release Date: April 4, 1976
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: Wildwood Enterprises
Summary/Review:  This docudrama dramatizes the investigative journalism of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) at The Washington Post to connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at Watergate to President Richard Nixon. It’s kind of fascinating to think of audiences watching this movie at the time of release when the events depicted had just happened but are already being shown with the sheen of historicity.

The acting is top notch with Redford and Hoffman joined by Jason Robards as the Post‘s editor Ben Bradlee and Hal Holbrook as “Deep Throat” among others. The movie does a great job of creating tension out of rather mundane tasks like making phone calls and taking notes so that it is very compelling to watch. The movie also incorporates actual tv and radio news footage from the time period which I think was something new for narrative films, although it would become more common. On the downside, there isn’t much characterization for the leads beyond that Bernstein is apparently the better writer and Woodward is more fastidious about getting the facts right.  I don’t feel that we get any sense of who Woodward and Bernstein were as people apart from being idealistic journalists.

While I won’t deny that this is an excellent film, it is a curious choice for the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Films list.  I expect it is recognized for the film’s influence in dramatize recent political events as well as inspiring generations of idealistic journalists.  I also suspect it is considered an important film because it relates to an important event in American history.  More cynically, it could be that it’s about a significant event in the life of the Baby Boomer generation and thus deemed important because Baby Boomers remain the tastemakers of American culture.  All that aside, it’s an excellent film worth watching.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art by Will Friedwald


Author: Will Friedwald
Title: Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art
Publication Info: New York : Da Capo Press, 1997.
Summary/Review:

Rather than a straightforward biography, which in the case of Francis Albert Sinatra would include a lot of drama and scandal, Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art focus on Sinatra as a singer.  Because of the musicological approach, I found the book challenging to read – and indeed have been reading it on and off for 4 months – but nevertheless still enjoyed it.

Friedwald has an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every song in Sinatra’s discography, including rare recordings only made for the military in WWII and recordings from Sinatra’s radio programs.  He discusses the creation, innovations, and effects of Sinatra’s music in a largely chronological order. The book is arranged in era’s of Sinatra’s career mainly based on collaborations with others like bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Axel Stordahl and arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins.

The book discusses Sinatra’s role in performing the types of songs of that became known as “standards” and the singers role as interpreter (not to mention the challenges Sinatra faced when the music business shifted to a model where songs were “covered” rather than interpreted).  Sinatra lead the shift in prominence of bandleaders to singers during WWII and achieved unprecedented stardom.  But Sinatra’s real strength was reinventing himself consistently so that he could be a hitmaker over six decades.

I found this a unique and informative book. If you’re interested in the work of Sinatra, or in musicology in general, I recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Sinatra, on the other hand, positively celebrates his unhappiness. It seems totally typical of Sinatra that he recorded a song called “Winners,” which is dark and somber, highly depressing.  The flip side of this is “Here’s to the Losers,” which is joyful and upbeat … The implication is that winning is something to be taken seriously, something that carries with it grave responsibility; but losing is something you can have fun with.  The real joy in life is in losing.”

 

Where other singers, at best, work with lyrics and melodies, Sinatra dealt in mental images and pure feelings that he seemed to summon up almost without the intervention of composers, arrangers, and musicians as vital as their contributions were. (In fact, Sinatra was so sure of his relationship with his audience that he gladly acknowledged orchestrators and songwriters in spoken introductions to each number.  How could it take away from what he did to mention the men who put notes and words on paper when it was he who imbued them with all their meaning?)

Recommended books:

Rating:

Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017
Summary/Review:

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)


Title: Fruitvale Station
Release Date: July 12, 2013
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Significant Productions
Summary/Review:

We “Say Their Names” but sometimes that’s all we know about Black people killed by police and vigilantes.  Ryan Coogler’s debut film as director and writer tells the story of the man behind one of those names, Oscar Grant III, who was shot by police in a Oakland metro station just after ringing in the New Year in 2009, and died later that morning.  Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant as someone dealing with the complex mess of everyday life in the 24 hours leading to his shooting.  Melonie Diaz  portrays his girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer adds a lot of emotional heft as his mother Wanda.  Ariana Neal steals scenes as Oscar and Sophina’s 4-year-old daughter Tatiana. This movie feels very real to me.  While it’s not filmed in a vérité or neo-realist style, I don’t feel like I’m watching Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer as actors playing people, but real people.  This movie was released before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began but it captures the meaning of the phrase in its depiction of one precious, human life of a Black man that was taken away.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (2020)


Title: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
Release Date: December 4, 2020
Director: Julien Temple
Production Company: Infinitum Nihil | Nitrate Film | Wild Atlantic Pictures | BBC Music | Warner Music | Screen Ireland
Summary/Review:

“People were always calling me a poet, but it’s very annoying to be called a poet when you’re a musician, because it means you’ve wasted your time writing the music.” – Shane MacGowan

This documentary is a straight-forward biography of singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, most famous for his work with the Celtic punk band The Pogues, in that it covers his life from birth to the present.  Straight-forward except that delightfully-weird animation that is used to recreate key moments of MacGowan’s life as well as what seems to be found footage to complement archival footage of MacGowan, his family, and The Pogues.  MacGowan credits his childhood years on the family farm in Tipperary, Ireland with moulding is life.  He started to drink at the age of 6, but also learned traditional music and lived on a land that still bore the scars of the Great Hunger and the Irish War of Independence.

The movie features original interviews with MacGowan and archival footage where he talks (mumbles, really) about his life and inspirations. There are also scenes of him in conversation with his friends actor Johnny Depp and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.  Interviews with Macgowan’s parents, his sister Siobhan, and wife Victoria Mary Clarke fill out the story.  I would argue the main flaws of this film is that it is overly long and repetitive.  If there’s one thing anyone knows about Shane MacGowan is that he drinks a lot, so that point didn’t need to be beaten to death at the expense of, say, learning more about his songwriting process.  Still, this is an insightful film about a complex and talented man.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Mank (2020)


TitleMank
Release Date:November 13, 2020
Director: David Fincher
Production Company:
Netflix International Pictures | Flying Studio | Panic Pictures | Blue Light
Summary/Review:

This biographical drama tells the story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a talented screenwriter hired to write the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles sets up Mank in a remote desert rental house so he can write the screenplay while recovering from injuries from a car crash, with the ulterior motive of keeping the alcoholic Mank away from the drink. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) serves as Mank’s secretary and confidante while John Houseman (Sam Troughton) checks in and frets over Mank’s progress.

The main story alternates with flashbacks to Mank’s memories from the previous decade.  In one storyline he befriends the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and is drawn in the world of her powerful partner William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Another plot focuses on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign in which Hearst and the Hollywood moguls create propaganda films to smear the social democrat candidate Upton Sinclair.  Mank’s sympathies toward Sinclair puts him at odds with his wealth friends and his Hollywood bosses.

Since Citizen Kane is a satirical attack on Hearst, the conflict in this film is whether Mank should use his personal relationship to inform his writing of the screenplay.  Davies, as portrayed by Seyfried, is sweet, down to earth, and genuinely a friend to Mank, so his work could be seen as a betrayal.  But Mank also has good reasons to continue with the screenplay that will become his best work.

I don’t know how much of this film is “true to life,” although I expect that much of it is embellished. As much as I enjoyed the 62-year-old Oldman’s performance, I think it should be noted that Mank was in his 30s & early 40s when this film take place and actually a year younger than Davies.  I think those casting decisions in historical dramas can really affect our understanding of real life people.  Ultimately the historical accuracy takes a backseat to a personal story of Hollywood politics and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal beliefs.  It’s full of lots of Easter eggs if you know anything about Hollywood history, and is filmed in a style that is a homage to Citizen Kane.

Rating: ***