Movie Review: The Northman (2022)


Title:The Northman
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: Regency Enterprises | Perfect World Pictures | New Regency | Square Peg
Summary/Review:

Robert Eggers first two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse,  are among my all-time favorite movies, so when I heard he was making a movie based in Norse legend it immediately became one of my anticipated films.  Well, it wasn’t worth the wait.  The Northman is a straight up revenge story with unhealthy doses of toxic masculinity and aspects of torture porn and slasher films.  Granted, all the reviews for the movie are positive, so this may just not be my thing, but I much prefer moody psychological dramas about people in New England dealing poorly with isolation.

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, a Viking warrior whose sole goal in life is to avenge the murder of his father.  As a child, Amleth witnessed his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and abduct his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  If this plot reminds you of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (or Disney’s The Lion King), well, the legend of Amleth was a direct inspiration.  Learning that Fjölnir lost his kingdom in a war and is now living in exile on Iceland, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and joins a ship of captives being shipped to Iceland.  Along the journey he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow enslaved person, and they become co-conspirators and romantic partners.

Much like Hamlet, there are times when Amleth can carry out his revenge but fails to act due to his faith in a prophecy which only serves to stretch out the movie.  There are times when Amleth seems like he might question the whole vengeance thing and follow a more interesting path, but immediately reverts to the rote cliches of the revenge narrative. Honestly, I found the stakes of Amleth’s revenge get lower and lower as the story went along which just made it kind of sad.

Despite not liking much of The Northman, it is striking to look at, and Eggers maintains a unique directorial touch. I thought Taylor-Joy’s performance was particularly strong and wished her character got more to do than be the romantic interest of the protagonist (actually, The Northman told from Olga’s point of view would be a much more interesting story).  Willem Dafoe has a memorable small part as a rude jester (who makes rude gestures) named Heimir and musician Björk  makes a brief appearance as a Seerees.

Rating: **

Book Review: Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald


Author: Lisa Grunwald 
Title: Time After Time
Narrator: Erin Bennett
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This charming historical romance takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  The adventurous 23-year-old flapper girl Nora and a hardworking railroad employee, Joe, who is a decade her senior, meet at Grand Central in 1937 and fall in love.  The only problem is that Nora is dead.  Killed in a subway crash in 1925, Nora returns every year on the anniversary of her death to Grand Central.  With Joe’s help, Nora learns that she can maintain her bodily form only if she stays within 900 feet of the terminal.

Thus begins a strange romance, where the couple try to make a normal life, taking advantage all of the things a mid-century railroad terminal provides.  This includes the Biltmore Hotel, where the couple lives in hotel rooms, work for Nora, and even an education for Nora at the Grand Central Academy of Art!  There are problems, of courses, mainly that Joe can never bring Nora to Queens to visit his family and that Nora remains forever young while Joe continues to age.  It’s a clever and sweet narrative and it has a twist ending that I enjoyed.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge


Author: Kaitlyn Greenidge
TitleLibertie
Narrator: Waites Channie
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Inc., 2021.
Previously Read By The Same Author: We Love You, Charlie Freeman
Summary/Review:

Set during and immediately after the American Civil War, Libertie is narrated by a free Black girl named Libertie Sampson.  She’s raised in Brooklyn (often referred to in the historically accurate parlance of Kings County) by her mother Cathy who is one of the first Black women to become licensed as a medical doctor.  In addition to running a practice for the local community, Dr. Sampson helps enslaved people who have escaped from the South.

Libertie is under a lot of pressure from her mother to also go into medicine, although Libertie does not wish to follow that path.  Eventually, after flunking out of college, Libertie accepts the marriage proposal of her mother’s apprentice Emmanuel and moves with him to Haiti.  Despite the promise of a new nation of free Black people, Libertie grows quickly disenchanted with Haiti and it at odds with Emmanuel’s family.

This book deals with a lot of issues. The conflict between mother and daughter is at the heart of the novel, but also more broadly the idea of how Black people should be and act now that they’ve gained their freedom.  The book also deals with colorism, as Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and the discrimination among Black people. Finally, it’s a book of self-discovery as Libertie having decided how she does not want to live her life figures out what she really wants to do.

This was a tough book to read since Libertie seems constantly to be dealing with the disapprobation of others and her own self-criticism.  It made me anxious to read.  Nevertheless, this is an excellent narrative with a lot of interesting period detail.

Rating: ***1/2

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: ***