Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Nickel Boys
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.

Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends.  Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear.  The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students.  As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.

In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed.  Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse.  There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.

The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story.  The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Jazz by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Jazz
Publication Info: Knopf (1992)
Summary/Review:

Jazz is a novel I read a couple of times in college, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time.  The novel tells the story of a middle-aged couple, Violet and Joe Trace, in Harlem in the 1920s.  Joe has an affair with a younger woman, Dorcas, and then shoots her in a jealous rage. Violet interrupts Dorcas’ open-coffin funeral to disfigure her face with a knife. None of this is spoilers, as it’s all pretty much laid out in the opening pages.

What’s great about Jazz is that it’s the musical of novels, bringing to life the Jazz Age in Harlem through jazz-like riffs, improvisation, and repetition. The sounds of a silent march against lynching or women at the beauty shop gossiping become music.  The novel also fills in the stories of Violet and Joe and other community members including their early years in rural Virginia and arrival in the city. Best of all is the question of who is actually narrating this novel (SPOILER: I’m fully on board with the idea that the book is writing itself).

I’m going to end this review here because it’s hard to write well enough to justify the writing of this novel.  Let me just say that this is one of my all-time favorite books and you should read it.

Favorite Passages:

They were dancing. And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. Like a million more they could hardly wait to get there and love it back.
Risky, I’d say, trying to figure out anybody’s state of mind. But worth the trouble if you’re like me—curious, inventive and well-informed.

“Where you pick up a wild woman?”

“In the woods. Where wild women grow.”

So from Lenox to St. Nicholas and across 135th Street, Lexington, from Convent to Eighth I could hear the men playing out their maple-sugar hearts, tapping it from four-hundred-year-old trees and letting it run down the trunk, wasting it because they didn’t have a bucket to hold it and didn’t want one either. They just wanted to let it run that day, slow if it wished, or fast, but a free run down trees bursting to give it up.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Reviews: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)


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

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

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: ***