Movie Review: Heaven Help Us (1985) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Heaven Help Us
Release Date: February 8, 1985
Director: Michael Dinner
Production Company: HBO Pictures | Silver Screen Partners
Synopsis:

After the death of his parents, teenager Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is sent to live with his grandparents in Brooklyn.  He’s enrolled at an all-boys Catholic high school, St. Basil’s, run by an order of monks (his grandmother hopes he will go into the priesthood).  He falls into a crowd of oddballs including Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a nerd who is dismissive of everyone else’s lower intelligence, and Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a bully who is repeating the year at school. Michael is shocked by the severe strictness of the school, especially Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), a teacher who routinely uses corporal punishment and humiliation on the students.

Michael also meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a girl who has dropped out of public school to run her father’s soda shop across the street from St. Basil’s.  It’s revealed over the course of the movie that her father is suffering from severe mental health issues and unable to run it himself.  Michael and Danni start off awkwardly but begin to date in one of the sweetest teen romances ever depicted on screen.

Over the course of a few months of the school year, Michael, Caesar, Rooney and others (including the weird kid who can’t stop masturbating) play pranks, go to confession, see Pope Paul VI’s procession in Manhattan, have a dance with students from the girls’ school (after a lecture on lust by a priest played by Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit part), and they repeatedly get in trouble.  Things come to a head in a violent confrontation with Brother Constance and a surprise twist at the finale.

Three characters I haven’t mentioned in this synopsis add flavor to the story.  First is Michael’s little sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) who is obsessed with death and burial.  She seems quirky at first but in a really touching scene with Michael she expresses her fear of losing him the way they lost their parents. It’s a small but beautiful scene that shows how children internalize trauma.  The next is Brother Timothy (John Heard), a new teacher who joins the staff at the same time Michael arrives and is a “cool” young monk, who smokes and trades baseball cards with the kids, and acts as an adviser to Michael.  He’s kind of the personification of Vatican II reforms in the movie.  Finally, there’s Donald Sutherland in a terrific performance as Brother Thadeus, the strict but ultimately fair headmaster of St. Basil’s

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I watched this movie when it was shown on cable tv in the mid-1980s. Growing up Catholic in a New York City suburb with parents who were teenagers in New York at the time this movie is set it was a no-brainer that I would watch and enjoy this movie.  It was fun to get a look back at the “bad old days” of the Catholic church with Latin masses and corporal punishment.

In retrospect, the 20 years between the time the movie is set and the time it was released doesn’t seem all that long.  In fact, the first English mass was held in the United States in late 1964, so this movie isn’t even set during the Latin mass period.  Still, both New York City and the Catholic church seemed to change quite a bit in those 20 short years.

What Did I Remember?:

I hadn’t watched this movie since the 1980s but it was surprisingly fresh in my mind.

What Did I Forget?:

I didn’t forget things so much as see them in a different light from an adult perspective.  For example, that kid who masturbates is a funny gag when you’re a kid, but as an adult it seems like a serious problem that should be addressed before he commits a sex offense on someone.  Similarly, Brother Constance was always a mean teacher, but now I see him as a total monster who’s comeuppance should’ve had more severe legal repercussions.  The movie also takes on a different feel in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse revelations that were allowed to persist due to many of the same factors of a corrupt system of power that we see in the film.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

If you break it down to its essence, Heaven Help Us is a series of vignettes soaked in Baby Boomer nostalgia.  But it is so much better than that. I think the strong cast of actors really makes all these characters feel real rather than archetypes.  A lot of the younger actors would go on to longer careers so you’re really seeing them come into their own here.  Also, as I noted above with the scene of Michael and Boo, there are a number of great, well-directed and well-written scenes that economically capture moments of great humanity.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Rooney is a bully and sexually aggressive with women and initially an antagonist to Michael, but eventually they become friends.  I think Dillon does a good job of giving Rooney some depth, but overall I think the movie wants to think of his behavior as funny and overlook how harmful it is.

Also, at the end of the movie, there’s an American Graffiti style epilogue where Rooney narrates what happened to all the characters.  It feels out of tune with the rest of the movie and ultimately unnecessary.

Is It a Classic?:

Objectively this movie falls short of being a movie classic, but subjectively it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with H:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  2. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
  3. High Fidelity (2000)
  4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  5. Hope and Glory (1987)

What is your favorite movie starting with H? What do you guess will be my movie for I? (Hint: it has characters named Bert and Ernie).  Let me know in the comments!

Documentary Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “D” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “D” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Dark DaysThe Day the Series StoppedThe Day the Series StoppedDecoding Desire, Dear Mr. WattersonDolphinsand Don’t You Forget About Me.

Title: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Director: David France
Production Company: Public Square Films
Summary/Review:

Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City entertainer and activist, who, among other things, participated in the Stonewall Uprising, was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), modeled for Andy Warhol, and participated in ACT-UP.  Through her life she is identified as a drag queen, transvestite, or transgender person and even her family use female and male pronouns interchangeably.  Her charm and easygoing nature made her a beloved figure in New York’s LGBTQ community and earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”  Shortly after the Pride festival in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River.

The police declared her death a suicide and quickly closed the case, but many in the LGBTQ did not believe Marsha was suicidal and suspected she was murdered. As the movie documents, transgender people are murdered at an inordinate rate, even to this day,  with the police failing to investigate the crimes and when someone is actually charged with the offense they receive light sentences. The main focus of this movie is activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project carrying out her own investigation of this cold case 25 years after Marsha’s death.

The story of Marsha P. Johnson is a story that parallels the Gay Liberation movement in New York.  Key figures who feature prominently in the movie are Randy Wicker and Sylvia Rivera. Wicker is a gay activist and writer who was Johnson’s housemate for many years. His opposition to a Pride street festival run by the Mafia has contribute to a theory that Martha was killed by the mob. Rivera co-founded STAR with Johnson in 1970 to provide support for homeless drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. She was outspoken against the gay rights movement being dominated by white, cisgender men who left out transgender people and people of color in order to assimilate with mainstream society.  In the documentary we learn she left New York City after speaking out at a 1973 rally, but returned after Marsha Johnson’s death.  In archival footage, Sylvia Rivera is interviewed while living in a homeless encampment on the Hudson River in the 1990s and suffering from alcoholism.  She is able to go cold turkey with the help of friends, and returns to activism, receiving global recognition for being in the vanguard of LGBTQ equality.

I like that I learned a lot about important activists like Cruz, Rivera, and Wicker and others in this movie. It is a bit disappointing that there isn’t as much about Marsha P. Johnson in the movie.  But then, I guess that reflects reality. Johnson was taken from this world at a young age and is not here to tell her story.  This is a movie that like many a good documentary will make you a little bit smarter, but also a little bit sadder.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: Bill Cunningham New York (2011) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “B” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “B” documentaries I’ve reviewed are BabiesBallerinaBarbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry,  Being Elmo, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Boredom.

Title: Bill Cunningham New York
Release Date: March 16, 2011
Director: Richard Press
Production Company: First Thought Films
Summary/Review:

The movie starts with a man photographing passing pedestrians on a street corner in Midtown Manhattan.  It’s a bit creepy, and not too far into the movie a pair of women yell at him to stop. We learn the man is a fashion photographer for the New York Times who publishes collages of street fashion as well from fundraising soirees and models strutting down the catwalk.  But as we get to know the humble man behind the camera, all the preconceived notions of fashion photographer.

Cunningham is not at all fashionable himself, consistently wearing the same blue jacket as he bikes around Manhattan with his camera. He lives modestly in a studio apartment within Carnegie Hall filled with filing cabinets of his photographs (part of the movie documents Carnegie Hall management evicting Cunningham and other aging artists to make more room for revenue-producing office space).  He never accepts payment or even food and drink at the events he covers.  He does try to photograph celebrities, but focuses on photographing fashionable clothing that captures his eye.  And he never mocks the everyday people he photographs, instead celebrating their fashion sense. Indeed he’s something of an anthropologist documenting fashion trends that emerge from the populist.

Every Blogging A to Z Challenge I’ve done on documentary movies has included one on a street photographer – previously Finding Vivian Maier and Zimbelism – and they’re all complex and a bit odd people. I’m not terribly interested in fashion photography but do feel I learned to appreciate something about it through Bill Cunningham’s unique life story.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)


TitleMidnight Cowboy
Release Date: May 25, 1969
Director: John Schlesinger
Production Company: Jerome Hellman Productions
Summary/Review:

Midnight Cowboy is a just plain weird movie.  Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck (no, not the sports announcer people love to hate), a Texan who leaves for New York City believing his natural charm to women will make him a successful prostitute.  There he meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a con man with a limp who nevertheless takes Buck in as a roommate in the derelict apartment where he squats.  Buck is a stereotypical Texan and Rizzo is a stereotypical New Yorker, but due to the acting talents of Voight and Hoffman they are stereotypes that are nevertheless fully-realized human beings. Their story as two outsiders suffering increasing poverty while finding friendship in one another is a good one.

Unfortunately, Midnight Cowboy also wants to go all-in on exposing the lurid underbelly of New York.  Again and again, it depicts sex acts in movie theaters, hypocritical Christian fanatics, a countercultural party with some of Andy Warhol’s hangers-on, and lots of gratuitous violence.  These scenes are also stereotypes, a Hollywood image of New York City decrepitude that would be repeated in B-movies for the next three decades.  Maybe they were new on-screen in 1969, but unlike Voight and Hoffman’s performances, there’s nothing particularly interesting about this rubbernecking at bad old New York.

I can see why Midnight Cowboy made the impression it did upon release, and it’s definitely a clinic for acting technique, but it’s many flaws make it a good film for me but not a greatest of all time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Odd Couple (1968)


Title: The Odd Couple 
Release Date: May 2, 1968
Director: Gene Saks
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Odd Couple tv series was an institution of my childhood and I always enjoyed Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as Oscar and Felix.  But I’d never before seen the movie it was based on (nor the Neil Simon play which launched The Odd Couple franchise).  The basic plot is that Felix (Jack Lemmon) splits up with his wife and ends up moving in with his divorced poker buddy Oscar (Walter Matthau).  Tensions grow between the pair as Felix’s tidiness and neuroses clash with Oscar’s slobbishness and relaxed attitude.

What I really like about this movie is that it allows men to break from macho stereotypes and actually show feelings.  Both men discuss their sadness of separation from their families, Felix admits that he knows that his neat freak tendencies come from deeper problems, and they even express affection for one another despite driving each other crazy.

The movie is comic and heartwarming and has a great supporting cast. Even John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, has a part as one of the poker night group.  The movie is also a great slice of life of late 60s New York.  And I have to appreciate Oscar’s dedication to the Mets when the team had not even had a winning season yet at that point.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)


Title: The Apartment
Release Date: June 30, 1960
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: The Mirisch Company
Summary/Review:

C. C. “Bud” Baxter is an insurance clerk in a giant New York City corporation whose Upper West side apartment has become a trysting place for senior executives and their extramarital partners.  Unable to return home, Bud stays late at work and wonders the street at night in hopes that he’ll gain favor and a promotion.

At last he’s called to the office of personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, seeming even slimier than the murderer he played in Double Indemnity), and given a promotion and a private office. The catch is that Sheldrake wants in on using the apartment for his own affair.  Despite having a reputation as a Lothario with his neighbors, Bud doesn’t have a dating life of his own, but does have a crush on the elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).  In a sad twist, Bud learns that Fran is Sheldrake’s mistress.

There’s a shocking incident about halfway through this film that makes it darker than the pure comedy it appears to be.  But it ends up being a transformative event for the lead characters. This movie must’ve been risque in 1960 since Bud’s neighbors all but say “the nonstop fucking in your apartment is too loud!” Today, the movie is shocking in the casual sexism on display as women employees of the company are treated as targets for sexual conquest by the male executives.

Of course, Bud is presented as the “good guy” in contrast to the sleezeball executives.  Nevertheless, he helps prop up the system by covering for their infidelities and even Sheldrake’s lies to Fran.  Thus the conclusion of this movie is terrific when Bud finally chooses to be a mensch. And the final scene – “Shut up and deal!” – is perfect.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)


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

Title: Black Swan
Release Date: December 3, 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures | Protozoa Pictures | Phoenix Pictures | Dune Entertainment
Summary/Review:

This isn’t a conventional choice for a horror film but it deals with the protagonist having a mental breakdown, hallucinations, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders, and extremely unhealthy relationships, all things that are horrifying in their own ways.  Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a dancer selected for lead role in a New York City ballet company’s performance of Swan Lake.

Nina faces numerous conflicts, including internal, as she attempts to achieve “perfection” in her dance.  The company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) drives her to let go of her inhibitions and makes unwanted sexual advances.  Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), was a dancer in her younger days and is a protective stage mother eager to command Nina’s career.  Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) is the former prima ballerina forced into retirement by Thomas, who takes out her resentment on Nina.  And then there is a new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who lacks Nina’s technical skills, but embodies the sensuality Thomas is looking for in his dancers, and she is appointed as Nina’s alternate.

Since the movie is presented from Nina’s point of view, we often see Lily as a rival, as Nina fears Lily will take her part.  I think in reality that Lily is actually friendly and only wants to reach out to Nina but suffers her projection.  As the narrative moves toward the opening night of Swan Lake, Nina’s hallucinations become more vivid and violent.  There’s a significant amount of body horror in this film, even when simply focusing on the dancer’s ordinary performance where the camera focuses on the sights and sounds of the stress on their bodies.

The movie is no doubt a bit cheezy and cliched.  There are some plot points that seemed staged to increase the drama without being realistic (like, would a prima ballerina really be responsible for putting on her own makeup alone in a dressing room?). Nevertheless, Portman’s strong acting helps make the film better.  I’m also impressed by the camera work that follows Portman around when she’s on stage which really draws one into the performance.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane


Author: Mary Beth Keane
Title: Ask Again, Yes
Narrator: Molly Pope
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This novel begins in 1973 when recent Irish immigrant Francis Gleeson falls into becoming a cop and meets Brian Stanhope, an American-born child of  Irish immigrants, at the police academy.  They are paired on there first beat in the Bronx for a few summer weeks, and share their dreams, although they don’t become particularly close.  Francis marries a Polish-Italian woman named Lena and they settle down in a quiet (fictional) suburban town north of New York called Gillam.  Shortly afterwards, Brian and his newlywed Irish immigrant wife Anne move into the neighboring house.

Lena makes every effort to reach out to Anne as a neighbor, but Anne is at first reserved, and then outright antagonistic.  Lena gives birth to three daughters in quick succession.  After a couple of miscarriages, Anne gives birth to a son, Peter.  Despite, the coldness between the two families, Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate become best friends.  And then in 1991, when the kids are on the verge of graduating middle school, they share that have romantic feelings for one another.  On the same of night, an act of violence permanently changes the lives of both families.

The bulk of the novel follows that night in 1991 up to the present day focusing on the lives of all six of these characters as they struggle with their past.  Kate and Peter reunite in college and eventually marry, to the disappointment and befuddlement of their parents.  I found the childhood lovers still devoted to one another as adults hard to swallow, and this book also has a number of the coincidences that only occur in literature.  Setting that aside though, the book is an excellent character study that examines generational trauma that contributes to depression, alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness.  It also is a story of compassion, where the characters learn to recognize that people are not their worst actions.

 

Recommended books: Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, and Payback by Thomas Kelly
Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)


Title: My Man Godfrey
Release Date: September 6, 1936
Director: Gregory La Cava
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched My Man Godfrey after watching several silent films, and it was startled by the quick and frequent dialogue.  Talkies were of course well established by 1936 and this movie makes the most of it with enough witty repartee to make up for decades of silents.  This movie is both a romantic comedy and a mild social commentary on the idle rich.  At the center of this film is the dysfunctional Bullock Family and the butler they hire, Godfrey (William Powell) who straightens things out for them.

The film begins with Godfrey living in an homeless encampment along New York’s East River until he is picked up by the youngest member of the Bullock clan, Irene (Carol Lombard), who needs a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt being held by wealthy elites based at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  Irene takes a liking to Godfrey and offers him a job as the family’s butler, and declares that he will be her “protégé.”

Despite learning of the high rate of turnover for the Bullock’s butler and being warned of the family’s general horribleness by the maid Molly (Jean Dixon), Godfrey finds the job restores his spirits, and enables him to work on a project to help out the other “forgotten men.” Irene falls in love with Godfrey and tries many dramatic ways to get his attention and to return her affection.  Irene’s vindictive older sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), meanwhile, and schemes to spoil any happiness for Irene or Godfrey (I’ve never seen Patrick in a movie before, but she is both a talented actor and stunningly gorgeous). And Godfrey has a secret past that may come back to haunt him.  All of this if played at maximum screwball comedy level.

The denouement of the movie has Godfrey shorting the stock market, both to save Bullocks from financial ruin, and to fund a night club on the former homeless encampment which provides jobs for 50 “forgotten men.”  Honestly, I didn’t expect short-selling stock to feature in a Depression-era comedy, but it was a great twist.  The final scene where Irene manipulates Godfrey into marrying is both uncomfortable and unnecessary, but otherwise this is a terrific film.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When They See Us (2019)


Title: When They See Us
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Harpo Films | Tribeca Productions | ARRAY | Participant Media
Summary/Review:

This Netflix miniseries dramatizes the stories of five teenage boys from Harlem who were accused and convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park, but would be exonerated for the crime over a decade later.  The film covers the same as the Ken Burns’ documentary Central Park Five but with a greater emphasis on the emotional impact on the boys and their families.  When they see is directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also responsible for the biopic Selma, the documentary 13th, and fantasy/adventure A Wrinkle in Time (which is quite a varied portfolio).  While the four parts tell a complete story, each part also works as a stand-alone film.

The first part focuses on the night of the incident.  The media portrayed them as part of a “wolf pack” of “superpredators” who went out “wilding,” commiting crimes for fun. The truth is that the 5 boys and others were caught up in spontaneous gathering of about 30 teenagers who mostly didn’t know one another and went to Central Park to horse around.  And yes, some of them did participate in assault, robbery, and vandalism, but by and large that was a small portion of the larger group.  Oddly, one of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is an overhead shot of the boys running into the park.  The five – Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron – were among those rounded up by the police. When the unconcious jogger is found, the police held them overnight without food or sleep, interogate them without parents present, and coerce them to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. The NYC District Attorney Sex Crimes Unit leader Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) works up a narrative from the skimpy evidence to place the boys at the scene of the crime.

The second part focuses on the trial.  The film only dramatizes one of the two trials.  We see the boys support one another as they resolutely refuse a plea bargain or anything but their full innocence.  There’s support among the families too, but also a lot of tension as what course of action to take and distrust of the other families’ children. Archival footage of Donald Trump condeming the Five is shown with a mother commenting that his fifteen minutes are almost up, perhaps too big of a wink for this movie.  Their lawyers are not up to snuff to take on the city’s prosecuter Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) despite the only evidence being coerced confessions that contradict one another. The five are all found guilty.

Part three focuses on the four younger members of the group – Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin – each of whom serve around 6-7 years in juvenile detention.  The film shows their transition from boys to adults through phone calls and visits with their families.  Then each is released and tries to return to their lives.  There are tensions with family members as they adjust to changes that happened during their imprisonment.  Worse, the law regarding what convicted felons and sex offenders can do leaves them very little opportunity to find work and housing, and require frequent check-ins.  One of them turns to crime to make ends meet and ends up back in prison.

The younger four are played by different actors as a child and as an adult – Kevin Richardson (Asante Black and Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares).  They all put in an excellent performance portraying their characters, but the major star of the miniseries is Jharrel Jerome who plays Korey Wise both as a teenager and an adult.  Wise was 16 at the time of the case and thus tried as an adult.  He was sent to prisons where the other prisoners and guards targeted him for severe abuse.  Wise requested transfers to other prisons farther from NYC and spent lots of time in solitary for his own safety.  In one prison, there’s even a white guard who is sympathetic to wise and treats him humanely.  Many of the most intense scenes of the film focus on Wise enduring long periods of time in solitude and having memories and daydreams. Flashbacks show his close relationship with his transgender older sister until their mother throws her out of the house.  One of the most beautiful sequences shows Wise imaging that instead of going to Central Park with the other boys that he took his girlfriend to Coney Island.

In 2001, Wise meets another prisoner named Matias Reyes (one he’d actually had a fight with in prison several years earlier).  Reyes admits that he had raped the Centeral Park jogger on his own.  His description of the attack and DNA evidence verifies his claim, and this leads to vacating the convictions of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise.

This movie is beautifully directed  and yet a brutal depection of a grave injustice. It is an important film to watch to get an understanding of the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system against black and brown people.

Rating: ****