Movie Review: Glory (1989)


Title: Glory
Release Date: December 15, 1989
Director: Edward Zwick
Production Company: Freddie Fields Productions
Summary/Review:

Glory was the first major motion picture to depict African American men fighting in the American Civil War.  I remember seeing it when it first came out at a theater in Washington, DC while visiting my sister at college.  I’ll always remember during the Battle of James Island scene that a Black man sitting behind us openly cheering for the 54th Regiment: “Get, him!  Yes! Ok!  Now help him out!”  This is why representation is important. I watched the movie several times in the ensuing years and it was one of my favorites, but this is the first time I revisited in a few decades.  I’m happy to report that it holds up very well.

Like most historical dramas, Glory is not 100% factual.  One of the biggest changes from the historical record is that apart for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), all of the major characters in this movie are composite characters rather than historical figures.  This has the unfortunate effect of lending a “white savior narrative” sheen to the story, especially early on when the movie is primarily from Shaw’s point of view.  But it also means we don’t get to know of actual Black members of the regiment like Frederick Douglass’ two sons, Lewis and Charles, or William Harvey Carney, who would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.  The real Massachusetts 54th Regiment was also made up primarily of freemen born in Massachusetts and other Northern states whereas the movie depicts the rank and file as mostly men who had recently emancipated themselves from slavery in the South.

Despite these inaccuracies, I still think the movie does a good job of dramatizing the 54th Regiments’ from recruitment to the fateful Battle of Fort Wagner.  The core group of soldiers in the movie include:

  • Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) – a formerly enslaved man with a lot of anger and mistrust of others
  • Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) – an older, paternal figure who is recognized as the first Black noncommissioned officer in the regiment
  • Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) – a highly-educated freeborn man from Massachusetts who is close friends with the Shaw family and struggles with the physical exertion of being a soldier
  • Private Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy) – a younger soldier who is generally enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve in the army

In other words, like most war movies, each of these men are more of a type than an individual.  But great acting performances, especially from Washington and Freeman, really bring these characters to life.  Cary Elwes also stars as a white officer who occasionally locks horns with Colonel Shaw over how to command the regiment justly.

Apart from addressing a historical blindspot of the importance of Black soldiers to the ultimate Union victory in suppressing the enslavers’ insurrection, I think that Glory is the earliest movie that depicted the full-scale horror of the Civil War.  At times it almost feels like an anti-war movie, and deals subtly with things like Shaw’s PTSD after the Battle of Antietam.  Despite factual inaccuracies, I think this film still stands as a more accurate representation of the Civil War than your typical Hollywood fare.

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

Scary Movie Marathon: The City of the Dead (1960)


Title: The City of the Dead
Release Date: September 1960
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Production Company:  Vulcan
Summary/Review:

This is a horror film that is earnestly built on the premise that the people executed as witches in the hysteria of 1692 were not only actually practicing witchcraft but were in league with Lucifer himself.  In the present day, the fictional town of Whitewood, Massachusetts is home to a coven of the survivors of the panic where nearly 300-year-old witches still practice their dark rights.  College student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) visits the remote and mysterious town to conduct ethnographic research with the encouragement of her creepy professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee).  Nan stays at the Raven’s Inn run by the mysterious innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel).

Strange things happen.  The plot is straightforward, predictable, and kind of cheezy.  But for whatever else this film lacks it makes up for it with atmosphere.  The black & white cinematography and the rickety wooden buildings of the set are suitably spooky.  And the budget for artificial fog must’ve been enormous.  I thought the film was largely a dud but if you’re a fan of old-fashioned horror films you could do a lot worse.

The movie was released in 1960, so similarities with Psycho (woman protagonist stays at a hotel and goes missing halfway through the movie and her family and friends team up to find out what happened to her) are coincidental.  I do wonder if Monty Python watched this film, because the scenes of the witch burning ritual in this film and in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are shot in almost identical ways.  The City of the Dead was made in Britain so I suppose they can be forgiven for the inaccuracy of people driving around with their windows open and only wearing light coats in February in Massachusetts.  But they also make the common error of depicting witch burning when witches were only executed by hanging in New England. Nice American accents though.

Rating: **

 

Album Review: Tell Me I’m Bad by Editrix


 

AlbumTell Me I’m Bad
Artist: Editrix
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Label: Exploding in Sound Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Tell Me I’m Bad”
  • “Chelsea”
  • “She Wants to Go and Party”

Thoughts: The Western Massachusetts trio Editrix combines sweet singsong vocals over shredding guitar. Both the vocals and guitar are provided by Wendy Eisenberg, while Steve Cameron plays bass and Josh Daniel plays drums.  The great punk/indie rock melodies support lyrics that are often political but also humorous.  I found a great piece online that breaks down each song, something I’d love to see more of: https://www.talkhouse.com/a-guide-to-editrixs-tell-me-im-bad/

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: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 19


Ben Franklin’s World :: The World of the Wampanoag

A two-party history of the indigenous people of Eastern Massachusetts who encountered the Puritan settlers of Plymouth in 1620.

Planet Money :: We Buy a Lot of Christmas Trees

A behind-the-scenes look into how the Christmas tree market works.

Planet Money :: The Case Against Facebook

A suit filed by the federal government and 46 state attorney generals against Facebook is stirring up the long-dormant history of anti-trust action in the United States.

Radiolab :: The Ashes on the Lawn

The purposes of protest and why they can’t be modulated to avoid offending people as seen through the story of the ACT UP protests to support relief from the AIDS crisis.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Edison’s Demon Dolls

Talking dolls are creepy and have been so since they were first invented in the 1890s by Thomas Edison himself.

Snap Judgment :: The Crossroad

A true story of a good Samaritan in the time of COVID 19.

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Massachusetts: It’s Time to VOTE!!!


Today it is exactly four weeks until Election Day on November 3rd, 2020. It’s an exciting and terrifying time, but I remain hopeful. Voting alone will not help restore democracy and help make our country that works for all its people – advocacy, activism, and protest will be necessary as well – but I believe the results of the 2020 election can give us a big push in the correct direction.

I need my fellow Massachusetts citizens to do the following things:

Please share this post widely on social media and feel free to contact me if you need help figuring how to navigate the electoral system in you city or town.  I’m pretty good at tracking those things down.

Photopost: deCordova Sculpture Park


Photographs from my first ever visit to the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. I tried to have fun capturing the sculpture against the natural landscape and museum architecture.

Listening Stone” by Joseph Wheelwright

The Wild Within” by Rachel Mica Weiss

Pasture Song” by Nancy Winship Milliken

Tree … #2” by Myoung Ho Lee

Ugly Mess” by Aaron Curry

Donut with 3 Balls” by Fletcher Benton

Eve Celebrant” by Marianna Pineda

Found art, a natural sculpture in the woods.

Cardinal Points” by Alexander Liberman

Elegantka” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

Best of All  Possible Worlds” by Saul Melman

Lincoln” by DeWitt Godfrey

Venusvine” by Richard Rosenblum

Two Big Black Hearts” by Jim Dine

Two Big Black Hearts” by Jim Dine (Detail)

Album Review: Unlovely by The Ballroom Thieves


Album: Unlovely
Artist: The Ballroom Thieves 
Release Date: February 12, 2020
Label: Nettwerk Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • Unlovely
  • Tenebrist
  • Homme Run
  • Begin Again
  • Pendulum

Thoughts:

I first learned of Boston-based trio The Ballroom Thieves a few years ago when they were the standout performers at a festival I attended.  Their new album speaks to our times with lyrics that address personal relationship and social movements, and often both at the same time.  The band is described as folk rock and Americana, but I don’t think those genres quite capture the infectious pop sound of the songs that also draw upon classic rock, soul, and even a touch of metal.

Calin “Callie” Peters (vocals, cello, bass), Martin Earley (vocals, guitar), and Devin Mauch (vocals, percussion) are all excellent instrumentalists and the recording captures their performances as well as their tight harmonies.  I tend to get lost in music at the expense of the lyrics, but I was drawn into the chorus of my favorite track “Tenebrist” which is both inspirational and sarcastic:

We all muddy the water
To make it seem less shallow
And if our grief grows like a shadow
In the morning that’s alright
We need the dark to know the light

The music hides anger, frustration, and exhaustion with our political present in the lyrics, so it’s worth a deep listen.

Rating: ****

This performance from WGBH leads off with “Tenebrist” and some older tracks.

The Paste Studio performance includes “Homme Run,” “Love is Easy,” and “Pendulum.”

 

Documentary Movie Review: Sacco and Vanzetti (2006) #atozchallenge


Title: Sacco and Vanzetti
Release Date: April 6, 2006
Director: Peter Miller
Production Company: Willow Pond Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary tells this history of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a pair of Italian immigrants active in the anarchist movement who were convicted and executed for murder in Massachusetts in the 1920s.  The movie is Ken Burns style with lots archival photographs and film and modern day experts talking about the case, including Mary Anne Trasciatti, Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel, Nunzio Pernicone, Arlo Guthrie, and David Kaiser. Tony Shalhoub and John Turturo provide the voices of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I’m familiar with the case but learned a lot of new things from this movie:

  • the men became anarchists due to sympathy towards the plight of poor and working people, although they were actually more prosperous themselves than typical Italian immigrants of the time
  • the defense lawyer Fred Moore took on prominent leftist labor cases and stirred up a lot of publicity around the case which provoked a lot of retaliatory anger from the justice system
  • their case was tried at Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, which is still in use
  • Judge Webster Thayer was very prejudicial and allowed the prosecution to allow evidence of Sacco and Vanzetti’s anarchist ideology and WWI draft resistance even though they did not pertain to the trial
  • at least one of the bullets presented as evidence in the case was not actually one found at the scene of the crime but fired later from Sacco’s pistol
  • the witnesses who placed Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene of the crime were unreliable at best
  • motions for retrial were denied by Judge Thayer, the same judge who tried their case
  • In 1925, Celestino Medeiros confessed to the murder.  Thayer still denied a retrial.
  • despite their names forever linked together, Sacco and Vanzetti were isolated from one another for the entire 7 years of the case.

The issues of how the United States mistreats immigrants and fails to uphold civil liberties for all remains a relevant issue in our time.  The 100th anniversary of the arrest of Sacco & Vanzetti will occur on May 5th.  If you are unaware of their case or want to learn more about it, this documentary is a good place to start.

Rating: ***1/2