Classic Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)


Title: Do the Right Thing
Release Date: July 21, 1989 
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

Do the Right Thing is a movie I watched ages ago and liked and always meant to revisit. The movie holds up startlingly well after 31 years and remains sadly relevant to our time as it deals with racism, police violence, and even global warming. It features a remarkable ensemble cast including legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson before they became super famous, and the film debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.

The movie is set on the hottest day of the year on one block in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film is largely vignettes of various people on the street and in Sal’s pizzeria. Over the course of the day various antagonisms and aggressions build up leading to a massive fight erupting at Sal’s. When the police arrive they kill a young Black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the people of the neighborhood vent their rage by trashing and burning Sal’s pizzeria.

Spike Lee brings his distinct style to the film. The camera adopts extreme angles and movements to accentuate the conflicts. He also has almost every shot filmed against bold background colors. I remember this style being visually stunning at the time, but partly due to Lee’s influence, it also became emblematic of the late 80s/early 90s period. Music also plays a strong role in the film, especially Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appears 15 times in the movie from the opening credits where Rosie Perez performs a very angry dance to the recurring appearances of Radio Raheem and his boombox. The rest of the soundtrack includes an original jazz score by Bill Lee and soul and R&B tracks, many played by the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who watches over the day from his radio studio.

The cast does a great job of portraying the characters that are recognizable from any urban community. The movie pushes the line of being a neighborhood made up entirely of characters, but restrains itself and allows the nuances and humanity of each person to develop. Stand out performances of the movie include Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, kind of a wise fool who patrols the street in a filthy suit and has an alcohol problem. Davis’ real-life wife Ruby Dee plays Mother Sister, a neighborhood matriarch who looks down on Da Mayor despite his efforts to impress her. Danny Aiello portrays Sal as a complex character, a white man who feels a place of pride being part of a Black and Latin American community and watching the kids grow up eating his pizza, but nevertheless harboring racial animus. Turturro plays one of Sal’s sons, Pino, and despite being from the younger generation he is more openly racist and angry. Finally, there is Spike Lee himself who plays the pizza delivery man Mookie and somehow remains a likable character even though Mookie can often be a selfish jerk.

For all the realism of the movie, it also has a lot of unreality. It is virtually impossible for everything that happens to have happened on one block in one day. I don’t even think that Mookie ever has to go around the corner to deliver a pizza. The only people who ever leave the block and return are the police, the outside antagonists. In of the most startling sequences of the movie, a series of characters look straight at the camera and shout slurs about another race. Despite this movie showing a balance of views and nuance in every character it never gets preachy or reaches for easy conclusions like “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” unlike some weaker movies that have attempted to address the same issues.

I remember when this movie came out that people said the murder of Radio Raheem didn’t resonate since he was an unsympathetic character. Critics who were indifferent to Radio Raheem’s death were nonetheless outraged by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. This valuing of property over human lives is all too familiar in our time where people still try to deny that Black Lives Matter. The heat of the day is also relevant as we have more and more hot days, and characters in the movie even discuss the polar ice caps melting. And the Unspooled podcast notes that New York City is getting much hotter summer days than the 92° in this film. If all that isn’t relevant enough to our times, some characters even discuss Donald Trump!

This movie remains excellent and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.


Rating: *****

Movie Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Title: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Release Date: September 24, 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
Production Company: Campanile Productions | Newman-Foreman Company
Summary/Review:

Loosely inspired by real life events, the film tells the story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who rob trains and banks in Wyoming in the 1890s. After hitting the Union Pacific one two many times, the railroad head puts together a posse of the best law officers and trackers to catch them. After a LONG pursuit, Butch and Sundance decide to flee to Bolivia with the teacher and Sundance’s lover Etta Place (Katharine Ross). There they fall back into their criminal ways and become known as Los Bandidos Yanquis before meeting their ultimate fate.

The movie is a mix of classic Westerns with gorgeous scenery, great cinematography, and lots of action and stunts. It mixes in a bit of New Hollywood brashness with two handsome and super cool male leads who exchange quips and barbs, and some anachronistic musical numbers. It subtly deconstructs the mythology of the Old West, setting the story at a time when the frontier was closing and the first Western movies were appearing on screens. They have to leave the country to find a place wild enough to operate. The movie has a lot of humor and charm, and a lot of quotable lines and I can see how it became such a popular movie.

On the downside, it doesn’t give Katharine Ross much to do. There are some hints of attraction between Butch and Etta – especially in the famous bicycle sequence, but it never emerges into a love triangle (thankfully, because that would’ve been boring). If anything, she seems to be the third wheel in Butch and Sundance’s bromance. And when she leaves it’s a fairly unceremonious departure.

This is a fairly enjoyable movie and one I might watch again, but I definitely wouldn’t rank it among the best of all time.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Music Room (1958)


Title: The Music Room (Jalsaghar)
Release Date: 10 October 1958
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Aurora Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Set in the 1920s, a landlord in Bengal, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), neglects his responsibilities and squanders his family fortune in order to host concerts and dance recitals in the music room of his decaying palace. His need to gain prestige by hosting expensive entertainments only intensifies when a nouveau riche man, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), moves into a neighboring estate. The film shows Roys descent into monomania and willingness to sacrifice everything, including his wife and son. The film is punctuated by three recitals in the music room which are fantastic displays of music and dance.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Tootsie (1982)


TitleTootsie
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Sydney Pollack
Production Company: Mirage Enterprises
Summary/Review:

I saw Tootsie in the movie theaters at the age of 9 and several more times on cable tv in the ensuing years, and loved it.  I was a strange child. I return to this movie many years later as an adult with a great hesitancy. Having a greater awareness of transgender people and media depictions mock and minimize them, I wasn’t sure of the value of watching a movie built on the idea that a man in a dress is inherently funny.

The movie stars Dustin Hoffman as the talented but cantankerous actor Michael Dorsey, who can’t get any parts because no one wants to work with him.  The movie’s director Sydney Pollack plays Michael’s agent, and their arguments about how difficult an actor Michael is to work with are probably inspired by real-life arguments Pollack had with the notoriously difficult Hoffman.  To prove his talent as an actor, Michael disguises himself as a woman named Dorothy Michaels in order to audition for a role on a soap opera.  Naturally, “Dorothy” gets the part.

It’s interesting that the premise is built on Michael needing a disguise more than him needing to be a woman.  The soap opera character quickly becomes a sensation and Dorothy becomes a star.  In an unsurprising twist, Michael finds himself falling for his co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) whereas Julie believes herself to be forming a close attachment with another woman. Another comedic wrinkle is that Julie’s widowed father (Charles Durning) falls in love with Dorothy.

As a social message movie, I kind of love and hate Tootsie at the same time.  Dorothy stands up for herself against the casual sexism and abuse on the set of the soap opera, which is good, but a real woman who did the same thing would likely be fired or punished in some way.  Dorothy inspires her co-workers and fans to be more assertive and take chances, which again is good, but why do women need to learn this lesson from a man.  Finally, Michael is depicted as something of a louche with women early on, and his experience as Dorothy gives him a better understanding of women’s experience, and thus he becomes a better man.  But really, one man becoming a little better is all the outcome of the whole charade?

One thing I forgot about this movie is that it has a really excellent cast. I remembered Lange was in the movie, because she was my first celebrity crush.  But the movie also has Teri Garr as an actress friend of Michael’s who he treats really badly.  And it has Bill Murray as Michael’s playwriter friend, delivering deadpan lines. And Dabney Coleman is there playing a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” who directs the soap opera. And Geena Davis is there as another of Dorothy’s co-stars, often appearing in her underwear.  And they even got the guy from Police Academy and Punky Brewster (George Gaynes) to play an actor who routinely sexual harasses his female co-stars.

Tootsie is clearly a well-made and well-acted film.  It also definitely from the early 80s and its approach to addressing social issues of sexism and masculinity feel horribly dated. Nevertheless, I can see this being an enjoyable viewing if you see at as a period piece and enjoy the work of all the acting talent.  I would not include this move on a list of 100 best of all time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)


Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360
Summary/Review:

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Title: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Release Date: June 11, 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Universal Studios | Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

E.T. was a huge monster hit right at the time when I was the target demographic for this story of an alien botanist stranded on earth and his friendship with a young boy.  And I didn’t really like it.  Watching this movie again for the first time in decades, I found myself far more moved by it than I did when I was 8.

I do remember seeing this in the theater with my family and my sister and I were allowed to go up to the balcony on our own.  Except that I found the movie too scary and forced my sister to go back downstairs to sit with our parents.  Well, it turns out, the first 20 minutes or so of this movie are pretty creepy from John Williams’ music to the slasher film perspective of E.T. running through the woods.  Later in the movie, when a bleached-out E.T. is discovered in a ravine and then the government agents invade the house are also creepy and scary moments.

Of course, the whole movie isn’t creepy.  It’s actually very sweet and a remarkably well-written (by screen written Melissa Mathison) story that balances the humor, drama, and pathos of a realistic childhood friendship (in a Sci-Fi setting, of course). It helps that the movie stars some terrific child actors in Henry Thomas as Elliot and Drew Barrymore as his little sister Gertie. All in all, this movie is much better than I remembered although it does tend to get overly manipulative of the emotions towards the end.  While I wouldn’t put it on my favorite movies of all time list, it is definitely worth watching.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Hate U Give (2018)


Title: The Hate U Give
Release Date: October 5, 2018
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures | Temple Hill Entertainment | State Street Pictures
Summary/Review:

This movie, based on a young adult novel by Angie Thomas, addresses the issues of police violence and systemic racism through the story of a 16-year-girl Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg).  Starr lives in the fictional low-income, Black majority neighborhood of Garden Heights (the film never specifically states where it takes place, but is was filmed in the Atlanta area), but attends an elite private school in a nearby town. Starr reflects on the dual identity she feels from having to behave in different ways at home and at school.

While at a party, Starr meets a childhood friend (and sometimes crush) she hasn’t seen in a long time, Khalil (Algee Smith).  Khalil drives her home and on the way they are pulled over by the police.  The situation escalates and the police officer shoots Khalil dead. As the only witness, Starr is faced with speaking out for Khalil at the risk of retribution from the police, the disruption of her school life, and angering the local drug kinpin (Anthony Mackie), for whom Khalil had worked as a dealer.

The familiar story of police violence we’ve seen through all too many news cycles – protests, failure to indict the police, violence – ensues, but told through Starr’s point of view it becomes a deeply personal story.  The movie benefits from Stenberg’s absolutely stellar performance as Starr. It is also is willing to eschew a cut and dry narrative for real-life complications.  For example, Starr’s father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is advocates for his children to confront racism head on, teaching them to learn the Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program.  Her mother, Lisa (Regina Hall) wants the children to focus on education and avoid conflict.  Both parents are able to air their views but continue to be a very loving couple. Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common), a police detective, shows how even Black police officers internalize systemic racism.

The movie also excels in the fact that while Starr is in the middle of this crisis, her ordinary teenage school life goes with things like attending prom.  Starr must contend with her white classmates using a protest for justice for Khalil merely as an excuse to skip class, and the fragmentation of her relationship with her closest white friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter).  Her white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), initially offers clueless race-blind platitudes, but grows to become a supportive ally.

This is a movie well worth watching, not just because it speaks to our times, but because it offers a very human – and ultimately hopeful – story.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)


Title: Just Mercy
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Endeavor Content | One Community | Participant Media
Macro Media | Gil Netter Productions | Outlier Society
Summary/Review:

This movie flew under radar when it was released last Christmas, but it was available for free on streaming networks in June, so I thought I’d check it out.  The movie is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and adapted from his book of the same name.  Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer and as an idealistic young man we see him move to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative. With the support of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) he works to represent poor prisoners, including death row inmates, get proper legal representation.

The main plot of the movie relates to the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of white teenage girl  in Monroeville (a town the is shown to be proud of  its connection with Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). Stevenson sees that Johnny D. was convicted primarily on the testimony of another prisoner, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a lighter sentence in exchange, and that witnesses who saw Johnny D at the time of the crime (including a cop) were not called at all.

I expect it is no spoiler to note that Stevenson will get Johnny D.’s conviction overturned, but the procedures and indiginities he has to go through still create a lot of tension. The early 1990s were a time when “tough on crime” was at its post-Jim Crow era peak, so its amazing that Stevenson is able to succeed (compare this movie with When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five case happening around the same time). There is also a subplot involving another death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran whose mental health was shattered by PTSD and is convicted for planting a bomb that unintentionally kills someone. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film relate to Richardson’s case.

The movie falls back on some of the cliches of civil rights themed biopics, but it does stand a notch above them.  Jordan and Foxx are absolutely spectacular in acting their roles, and they are a joy to watch.  The movie also foregrounds the Black characters, so it avoids Hollywood’s predilection for “white savior” narratives.  If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out while it’s still free (although it would also be worth paying for).

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Reviews: Mr. Holmes (2015)


Title: Mr. Holmes
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: AI Film | BBC Films | FilmNation Entertainment | Archer Gray Productions | See-Saw Films
Summary/Review:

This film is an adaptation of A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin that  stars Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes.  Having retired to a farm decades earlier where he tends to an apiary.  Holmes struggles with losing his brilliant mind to the onset of memory loss due to senile dementia. His only daily contact with other humans is his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

The movie intertwines three stories.  Holmes is working on rewriting an accurate account of his last case, one he considers a failure, and is shown in flashbacks.  Struggling to remember the details, Holmes had recently traveled to Japan, and more flashbacks show him meeting his correspondent, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and visiting the ruins of Hiroshima.  There they retrieve prickly ash, a plant that is supposed to have medicinal properties for restoring the mind.  The main plot depicts Holmes bonding with Roger, an intelligent and curious boy, while training him how to care for the bees.

The movie is a good adaptation of the book.  It’s gorgeous film and McKellen is perfect at the elderly Holmes.  I don’t know if he watched Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes, but there are times where he seems to be channeling Brett’s physical tics.  The movie is also a moving depiction of Holmes struggling with the most difficult thing to lose, his mind, and the emotional breakthrough he makes with Roger and Mrs. Munro.

Rating: ***