Classic Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)


Title: Intolerance
Release Date: September 5, 1916
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production Company: Triangle Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

This 105-year-old epic officially becomes the oldest feature film I’ve watched in its entirety, replacing Broken Blossoms (by the same director), which I watched in a high school film class. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the movie-going public at a time when feature length films had existed only for a decade. Movies were as likely to be shown in storefronts as in theaters with many shorts running continuously as viewers wandered in and out. Now audiences were being asked to commit 3-1/2 hours to watching four different stories cut together in a single narrative.

Of course, Intolerance only made the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Movies” list because D.W. Griffith’s preceding film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, recognized for its innovation in filmmaking was rightly also deemed to be racist a.f.  Intolerance was not an apology from D.W. Griffith for his depiction of leering Black men and inspiring the Ku Klux Klan to reform, but instead he felt that the criticism of his film and NAACP-lead protests were intolerant of him!  So, it appears that Griffith was not only a pioneer in filming techniques and creating feature length films, but he also may have invented the “You’re the real racist” trope used by white supremacists to this very day. 

Intolerance features four intertwined stories about “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” A recurring motif features a woman (film superstar Lillian Gish in what’s basically a cameo) rocking a baby in a cradle who symbolizes The Eternal Motherhood

  1. The main story is set in the present day and tells of the travails of a working class woman known as The Dear One (a fantastic performance by Mae Marsh). Her life is turned upside down by the forces of Puritanical moral reformers (misogynistically described in a title card as woman who go into philanthropy because men no longer consider them attractive). She and her husband, The Boy (Robert Harron), lose their jobs, have their baby taken away, and The Boy is wrongly convicted for murder, among other trials. There are some surprisingly progressive aspects to this segment as well, such as a depiction of National Guard troops firing on unarmed striking laborers (a criticism of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914) and appeal to abolish prisons.
  2. The modern American story is the only one with a cohesive storyline, but the Ancient Babylon story is the one that Griffith lavished money and attention on. Massive sets were built in central Hollywood (later recreated as a shopping center called Hollywood & Hollywood that I wandered through on my visit to Los Angeles in 2007) and cast thousands of extras for elaborate dance and battle scenes. The theme is the religious divide that lead to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BCE, but really it’s all about the spectacle.  Kudos to The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for being another strong female character and a great performance in this segment.
  3. Significantly less screen time is given to the French Renaissance story which depicts the French monarchy’s massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.  I had trouble following the story here but scenes were few and far between.
  4. The shortest segment is the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Howard Gaye) that incorporates only a small number of Gospel stories, such as the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Jesus forgiving the woman for adultery, and a brief glimpse of the crucifixion.

The movie does have an amazing amount of spectacle, especially when you consider that it was made 105 years ago, and is worth a watch for that alone.  But Intolerance is also a bit of a slog, and not very coherent. Compared with other silent films I’ve watched, this one is way over-reliant on title cards (some of them even have footnotes!!!) and great acting performances by the likes of Marsh and Talmadge are lost in the shuffle. I’d say that mostly this is a movie to watch if you’re interested in film history, but I doubt it will entertain anyone otherwise.

Recent Movie Marathon: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Release Date: November 25, 2020
Director: George C. Wolfe
Production Company: Escape Artists | Mundy Lane Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Adapted from the play by August Wilson and inspired by the real life of “The Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the story of one tense day in a record studio in Chicago in 1927. Viola Davis plays the celebrity blues singer with verve and command. She comes off as a bit of a diva, but in the nuance we learn that she’s learned that she has to give no quarter to white men when dealing with her work and her art. And capturing her voice on record is already something that they want more than she does.

The other man character is a talented and ambitious trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final role) who hopes to start a band of his own. Levee argues with the other, more experienced band members (Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts) on everything from musical arrangements to religion and dealing with racism. He also develops a mutual attraction with Ma Rainey’s young girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).

The movie clearly exhibits its origins as a stage play with much of it being the heated conversations among the characters in confined places. But it also takes advantage of its filmic qualities, especially the way the camera moves to follow the musicians as they perform. And, ooh the music, it is absolutely brilliant. The movie comes to an absolutely stunning climax that I did not expect to happen at all. The movie is tragic and heartbreaking but really a tour-de-force of brilliant acting.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Little Women (2019)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Little Women
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Regency Enterprises | Pascal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel by Louis May Alcott is a master class in capturing the spirit rather than the letter of a work of art. The movie is very clear when it is making a statement on the life of Alcott, and the limits she fought against in a time when the aspirations of women were more restricted, and when it is illustrating Alcott’s fictionalized story. The movie also benefits by setting the main plot at the time when the March daughters are older and intercutting flashbacks to their childhood, rather than telling the story chronologically. The book was episodic but the way it’s mixed up here makes it flow as more of a continuous story.

Saorsie Ronan is spectacular as Jo March, the talented writer who does not want to be pigeonholed into a life acceptable for a lady. Florence Pugh is also excellent in bringing out the many layers of Amy March, as opposed to the impression I had of her as being a vain and greedy caricature in the novel. The rest of the cast is good all around but Laura Dern as Marmee March and Meryl Streep as Aunt March deserve special praise. It’s quite a treat to have several generations of the most talented women in film all appearing in the same movie.

And if that wasn’t awesome enough, the movie was also primarily filmed on locations in Massachusetts. This includes a park nearby my house, Arnold Arboretum, which oddly plays the setting of Paris.


Rating: *****

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow


Author: Alix E. Harrow
Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Narrator: January LaVoy
Publication Info: Hachette Book Group, 2019 

Summary/Review:

Set in the early 20th century, this story is told by the young January Scaller.  Her mother is presumed dead and her father works for the New England Archaeological Society (an old boys club type of place) traveling the world to collect new items for their collections.  January escapes into books and then later discovers doorways that lead her into new universes (it’s all a rather obvious metaphor of books as portals).

Through the doorways and support from some friends (and a large dog named Bad) after her father is also assumed to be dead she is able to learn the sinister secret of the New England Archaeological Society and her guardian Mr. Locke (what a metaphorical name in a book about doors!).  She also uncovers her family history and her place in the world, or more accurately her place in the multiverse.  The book is an interesting enough concept, and I certainly wanted to read to the end to find out what happened, but it didn’t really grab me either.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Scary Movie Review: The Witch (2015)


For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: The VVitch: A New England Folktale
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: Parts and Labor | RT Features | Rooks Nest Entertainment | Maiden Voyage Pictures | Mott Street Pictures | Code Red Productions | Scythia Films | Pulse Films | Special Projects
Summary/Review:

New England is a spooky place, and to the Puritans of 1630 it was an untamed world of nightmares.  Although director Robert Eggers had to go to a remote part of Ontario to find an undeveloped place to film, the movie captures the dark and mysterious New England forest. This also may be the most authentic depiction of Puritan settlers on film drawing on original documents for the dialogue and research into religious and folklore beliefs. The Witch is also beautiful to look at, with most scenes filmed by natural light or candlelight, adding to the sense of eeriness.

The movie begins with a man, William (Ralph Ineson), getting exiled from a Puritan community.  He leads his family into the wilderness, building a small farmstead in a clearing by a foreboding forest.  His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) feels the loss of her home in England, and grows increasingly overcome with grief as her children go missing.  The eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the main protagonist of the film, a teenager learning to take on adult responsibilities.  The next in line, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is an adolescent boy feeling the need to prove himself as a provider for his family.  Then there are the twin children Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) who are kids who basically do what kids do: play.  But that behavior is not acceptable in a family of religious zealots maintaining a farm in the wilderness, and Thomasin gets blamed for their “misbehavior” leading her to torment them by saying she’s a witch (big mistake!).

The family also has a newborn baby, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube and Athan Conrad Dube), and while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him he is snatched away.  The movie makes it clear early on that there’s an actual witch living in the wood.  But a lot of suspense in this film is drawn from the sense that what we’re seeing is not reality.  Was the baby really just taken by a wolf? Is a family member possessed or merely delirious from an illness?  Do the animals act up because they’re agents of Satan or because they’re hungry and sick? Is the family torn apart because of the Devil or because their confined lives and religious zealotry make them susceptible to fear and mistrust? Are there really demons or are they hallucinating due to ergot from their spoiled crops.

The film wisely never answers these questions leaving everything unsettled and lingering.  This is not your typical horror film.  Jump scares are few and while the climax of the film is disturbingly violent, the camera does not linger on gore or its hidden in shadows.  The acting is good, particularly Taylor-Joy, whose unnaturally oversize eyes express a lot, and Ineson, who balances his outward devotion to God with the inward knowledge that he is failing to provide for his family.  Watch this one on a dark, rainy and windy night in New England for the extra effect.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Wings (1927)


Title: Wings
Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Famous Players – Lasky
Summary/Review:

A big budget war epic and romance featuring the biggest star of the era?  This movie is totally Oscar bait!  Except the Academy Awards didn’t exist when this movie was made and it would win the first Best Picture award at a ceremony in 1929.  Clara  Bow is the big star of this movie, and while it’s clear that here role is awkwardly shoehorned into an existing story, she’s a delight every time she’s on the screen.  I found myself crushing hard on a woman born before my grandparents!

The story focuses on Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) a young man who tinkers with engines and is enthralled with the local beauty Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston).  Meanwhile, his neighbor Mary (Bow) is in love with him, but he’s oblivious to her attentions.  Sylvia is in fact all but betrothed to David (Richard Arlen).  When the war comes, both Jack and David enlist in the Army Air Force, and after some initial tension at training camp they become good friends and ace pilots.  Meanwhile, Mary does her part for the war effort as an ambulance driver.

The love “quadrangle” is central to the melodramatic plot of the film.  But there’s also quite a bit of humor.  El Brendel plays a character named Herman Schwimpf who consistently is challenged on his German name and thus demonstrates his over-the-top pugnacity for the American war effort (but then he disappears about half through, so I guess they ran out of gags for him).  In an extended scenes in Paris, Jack gets intoxicated on leave and comically goes on about the bubbles in champagne (which are animated on the screen) while Mary attempts to get him to his room to sleep.  But really, this movie is about airplanes flying and shooting and one another, and the scenes of aerial combat are really quite remarkable over 90 years later.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Battleship Potemkin (1925)


Title: Battleship Potemkin
Release Date: December 21, 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

This classic Soviet propaganda film dramatizes events of the Russian uprising of 1905, which the filmmaker Eisenstein saw as a prelude to the successful October Revolution of 1917.  The film depicts sailors aboard the Potemkin returning after the Russo-Japanese War and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the officers.

When some of the sailors refuse to eat maggot-infested meat, the tyrannical captain sentences them to death for insubordination.  But a revolutionary sailor inspires the firing squad to lower their rifles, and the sailors stage a mutiny instead.  Grigory Vakulinchuk, the Bolshevik sailor, dies in the uprising and when his body is brought to Odessa, thousands of civilians pay their respects. The people join in the revolution, but it is quickly repressed by a detachment of Cossacks who massacre them on the city’s giant stairway.  The sailors escape on the Potemkin as Tsarist ships refuse to fire on them.

The movie impresses with its innovative film-making techniques, most notably editing between long and close-up shots, and creating connections among a sequence of shots.  The most famous sequence is when the Cossacks fire upon the people on the Odessa Steps, which depicts brutal violence and cuts between the precision of the soldiers and the faces of their victims on a seemingly endless set of steps.

This is definitely a movie worth watching for its technical brilliance and its role in film history.  That being said, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, not just due to the violence but the almost complete lack of characterization of the people depicted.  They are merely cogs in a propaganda machine with no opportunity to empathize with them as individuals.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Kindred
Narrator: Kim Staunton
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 1998 [Originally published in 1979]
Summary/Review:

I’ve only recently become aware of the late science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose contributions to the genre have likely been overlooked due to her being an African American woman.  This novel, starting in the bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Dana, an African American writer repeatedly torn from her own time in California and sent to antebellum Maryland plantation.  There she has to save the life of a boy, and later a man, named Rufus, the heir of the plantation owner.  Early on, Dana discovers that Rufus is her own ancestor, so her existence depends on his survival.

This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery – beatings, selling off family members, and rape.  But it get’s even more uncomfortable in how on Dana’s increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus.  Dana’s devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.

Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future.  Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana.  Nevertheless, Dana’s knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.

This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old.  Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole


Author: Alyssa Cole
Title
: An Extraordinary Union
Publication Info: New York, NY : Kensington Books, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Set in the early days of the American Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, this historical romance tells the story of two spies for the Union working undercover behind enemy lines. Ellen Burns is a freed woman with a photographic memory who disguises herself as a mute slave and is hired out to the estate of a Confederate Senator. Malcolm McCall, a Scottish immigrant, works as a detective for the Pinkertons and poses as a Confederate soldier.  Together they uncover a Confederate plot to build an ironclad ship that could break the blockade of Southern ports.

Upon meeting and discovering that they’re working on the same side, the pair find a mutual attraction.  Malcolm is more overt in trying to act on that attraction, getting quite rude and handsy, which makes this book uncomfortable.  I appreciate that the author clearly will not let Malcolm coast as a “noble abolitionist” but calls out the power and privilege he has as a white man and how that is a threat to Ellen even when he has good intentions.  Both characters are well developed and interesting people.  Even a major antagonist, a loathsome Southern Belle named Susie McCaffrey, turns out to be more complex than she initially appears.

Of course, Ellen and Malcolm have lots and lots of sex, which I find awkwardly worded, but that may be just me.  Nevertheless, this is a well-written and engaging novel touching upon mystery, adventure, history, and social change.

Favorite Passages:

“Malcolm’s mind got muddled with anger thinking of how, in these lands, institutionalized sin was seen as a way of life that needed defending.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***