50 Years, 50 Movies (2015): Carol


I will turn 50 in November of this year, so my project for 2023 will be to watch and review one movie from each year of my life.  The only qualification is that it has to be a movie I’ve not reviewed previously.  If you have any suggestions for movies from the past 50 years, please drop them in the comments!

2015

Top Grossing Movies in 2015:

Best Picture Oscar Nominees and Winners in 2015:

Other Movies I’ve Reviewed from 2015:

World of Tomorrow


Title: Carol
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Production Company: Number 9 Films | Film4 Productions | Killer Films
Summary/Review

Therese (Rooney Mara) is working as a clerk at New York City department store during the holiday season of 1952 who is drawn to a glamorous customer, Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is shopping for a gift for her daughter. They make a connection which eventually leads to a romantic relationship.  Carol is divorcing her husband Herge (Kyle Chandler) and they are fighting for custody of their daughter.  Herge uses Carol’s earlier lesbian relationship with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) and her relationship with Therese to invoke a “morality cause” to gain full custody.

The movie features strong, nuanced performances by Blanchett and Mara.  It’s also gorgeously filmed with some memorable shots.  It kind of feels like Edward Hopper paintings come to life.  The movie also owes a debt to David Lean’s Brief Encounter.  The Christmas theme is tied into the film’s color palette and surely the name Carol is kind of a pun?   The examination of homosexuality in the repressive 1950s is well done, and I found it fascinating that the movie is a faithful adaptation of a book published in 1952, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: Downtown ’81 (2000)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Downtown ’81
Release Date: October 5, 2000
Director: Edo Bertoglio
Production Company: New York Beat Films
Summary/Review:

Part film noir, part beat poetry, and part music video, Downtown ’81 explores a day in the life of Manhattan’s art and club scene through the eyes of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.  After being evicted, Jean meets various real life musicians, artists, and graffiti writers in his perambulations around the Lower East Side.

He does not meet any movie actors and the amateurish performances stand out.  But this movie is more about vibes than anything else and towards the end live performances by various artists such as Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, The Plastics, and Walter Steding & The Dragon People.  Notable people in the cast include David McDermott, Lee Quiñones,  Fab Five Freddy, and a wonderful bit with Debbie Harry.  It’s a fun glimpse at the very weird New York City scene of the early 80s.

Rating: ***

 

90 Movies in 90 Days: Style Wars (1983)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Style Wars
Release Date: 1983
Director: Tony Silver
Production Company: Public Art Films
Summary/Review:

A lot of trains, a lot of fun, a lot of art. Art that’s gonna be part of New York City’s history forever. – Iz the Wiz

In the 1970s, the graffiti-covered subway train became a symbol of the “decline of New York City.”  For the young people of the city, though, graffiti writing served as a form of expression in a growing culture that also created rap music and breakdancing.  This documentary made for PBS television has kind of naive and square outsiders feel to it, but it works because the director allows the subjects of the film to do most of the talking. There’s a lot of candid discussion of their methods, their artistry, as well as the beefs among artists (especially the villainous “Cap”).

In addition to graffiti writers talking about their art, other perspectives are offered from MTA employees, police officers, commuters, and Mayor Ed Koch. They all hate the graffiti and what it represents to the people of the City who don’t want to have their names on every line of the subway.  A highlight of the movie is a joint interview with graffiti writer Skeme and his mother, the latter of whom does not approve of her son’s art at all.  The film also documents the start of the decline of graffiti culture as high-end art studios start getting some writers to create works on canvas for sale.  Meanwhile, the MTA erects double fences with razor wire and guard dogs around the subway yards.

This is the New York City I remember visiting as a child and the cool kid culture I could only admire from afar in the suburbs.  It’s hard to believe that 40 years have gone by already, but the City has changed so much that this movie almost feels like it’s from a different world.

Rating: ****1/2

Holiday Movie Review: It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)


Title: It Happened on 5th Avenue
Release Date: April 19, 1947
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Production Company: Roy Del Ruth Productions
Summary/Review:

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a very Capra-esque comedy of class set in New York City just after World War II.  In fact, it was originally optioned for Frank Capra but he chose to direct It’s a Wonderful Life instead.  Each winter, the second-richest man in the world, Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), boards up his mansion on the Upper East Side and winters in Virginia.  The homeless Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) discovers a way into the mansion and squats in the residence while the O’Connors are away.

One day he makes acquaintance of a recently-evicted veteran, Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), and invites him to stay at the mansion since his apartment building had been demolished to make way for a skyscraper that O’Connor is building.  Soon Bullock brings some of his fellow veterans into the mansion with their wives and young children and they begin working on a plan to develop more permanent housing on an abandoned military base.

When O’Connor’s 18-year-old daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) leaves her finishing school and comes to the mansion, she decides to hide her identity and stay in the growing household. Trudy and Jim soon fall in love, and Trudy calls on her divorced parents, Mike and Mary (Ann Harding), to also move into their own mansion disguised as poor people so they can get to know Jim.  Hijinks ensue with a lot of gags involving McKeever ordering Mike around.

But there’s also a lot of sweetness in this movie as the found family really care for one another.  The central problem of the movie is based on the mostly forgotten post-war housing shortage. In real life the solution was to build housing projects in the cities and sprawling developments in the suburbs.  We’re still dealing with the increased inequality and environmental damage of those solutions so the film feels very relatable.  The political undertones as well as some sexual entendres make this movie feel more modern than 1947. I also like that Jim never actually finds out that Trudy is the O’Connor’s daughter onscreen which seems like a funny thing to leave unresolved.

The humor in this movie is hit or miss and the various subplots have a way of knocking into one another, so I can’t recommend it as a holiday classic.  On the other hand it is an enjoyable romp that is worth checking out.

Rating: ***

Holiday Movie Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


Title: Miracle on 34th Street
Release Date: June 11, 1947
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Revisiting this holiday classic, I am impressed by how efficient it is.  In just over 90 minutes its full of iconic scenes that live on in the cultural memory but also has character-developing moments when the characters are given the space to just talk.  The cast is excellent with Maureen O’Hara starring as Doris Walker, a no-nonsense divorced mother of Susan (Natalie Wood), whose views on reality are challenged by Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), a genial man she hires to play Santa Claus at Macy’s department store, who may or may not be the actual Santa.  John Payne feels like a weak link as Fred Gailey shoehorned in the story as a romantic interest for Doris, but I do like Alvin Greenman as Alfred, a young Macy’s janitor who befriends Kris.

I suppose someone could write entire essays on the depiction of gender in this movie.  I find it interesting that the two lead men are nurturing and imaginative, while the woman is logical.  Also, for 1947, it feels unusual to see a single mother working in an important managerial position in a Hollywood movie.  On the downside, the fact that Kris and Fred decide that they need to “fix” Doris and Susan comes off a bit icky.

The movie is filled with memorable scenes.  I love that they did location shooting on Thanksgiving to capture one-take scenes during the actual parade.  Kris singing with the Dutch orphan, Fred calling the District Attorney’s son to testify, and of course, the moment when the postal workers dump thousands of letters to Santa on the judge’s desk! This definitely remains a movie worth watching every holiday season.

Rating: ****


Book Review: Books about the 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young 
Title: The 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing (2004)
Rating: ***


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young
Title1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing Library Editions (2008)
Rating: ***

Summary/Review:

I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair.  These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.

The first volume details the fair itself.  Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments.  Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.

The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions.  These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF.  Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill.  Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion.  While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.

While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success.  The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state).  Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort.  The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair.  This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over.  Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair!  There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.

Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.

 

*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.

Recommended Books:

Movie Review: The Warriors (1979)


Title: The Warriors
Release Date:  February 9, 1979
Director: Walter Hill
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions
Summary/Review:

Yet another cult film I’ve never watched, The Warriors is take on the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s by way of an Ancient Greek story.  The Warriors are a gang based in Coney Island who with dozens of other gangs travel to the Bronx for a summit called by a charismatic leader Cyrus (Roger Hill).  Cyrus proposes unifying all the gangs and working together against the police to control the city but before he can finish his speech he is assassinated.  (The killer appears to receive his gun from the cops and thus be a police informer but this is never followed-up upon so maybe I misread what was happening).

The Warriors are falsely accused of killing Cyrus and have to flee back to Coney Island for the safety of their home turn, pursued by all the other gangs and the police.  They lose their leader in the initial scuffle and war chief Swan (Michael Beck) takes over shepherding the rest of the gang on their journey home.  He’s challenged by the heel of the gang Ajax (James Remar) who prefers conflict to diplomacy.  The cast overall does a good job of capturing the youth and vulnerability of the gang members and seeing the story from their point of view rather than a societal judgment.  The only actor who didn’t really work for me is David Patrick Kelly as Luther, who really hams things up, although he also delivers the movie’s most famous line.

For a 1970s film, the cast is very diverse although the production company insisted on white actors in the lead.  For a story about gangs of men, the women in the movie have a lot of agency and call out the men on their bullshit.  The most prominent woman character is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who initially taunts The Warriors but then joins them as a valuable contributor to their effort to get back to Brooklyn as well as a romantic interest to Swan. There is homophobia and attempted sexual assault as you might expect from gangsters in a 70s film, but it’s almost all from Ajax, while the rest of the gang appear almost noble.

For an action film, this movie takes things slow, reveling in the scenery of the on-location settings and the quirky costumes of the various gangs while building the tension.  This really works to the film’s advantage, although the choreography of the fight scenes is also good.  Somehow the cartoonish fantasy element of the story also undergirds the gritty reality of the movie and allows for some great character moments. I was particularly impressed by a scene where the exhausted Warriors share a subway car with some wealthy kids and the contrast of their lives is quietly emphasized.

I ended up liking this movie a whole lot more than I expected I would and think it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by Michael R. Virgintino


Author: Michael R. Virgintino
Title: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2019)
Summary/Review:

It sounds make believe, but for five seasons from 1960 to 1964, a theme park that legitimately claimed to be bigger and better than Disneyland operated in the northeast corner of the Bronx.  In fact, the park was designed by the firm of C.V. Wood, who had worked on Disneyland before having a falling out with Walt.  Many Disneyland veterans worked for Wood’s company as well. The park was shaped like a map of the lower 48 states and was divided into seven themed lands:

  • LIttle Old New York – an entry land in a late 19th-century style
  • Old Chicago – which included regular reenactments of the Great Fire of 1871
  • The Great Plains – which featured a replica army stockade and a stagecoach ride
  • San Francisco – home to an earthquake dark ride and the Northwest Fur Trapper boat ride (Freedomland’s answer to the Jungle Cruise)
  • The Old Southwest – where the park’s train ride was often boarded by masked robbers
  • New Orleans/Mardi Gras – opened before Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and had a pirate-themed ride called Buccaneer.  Also home to a Civil War reenactment.
  • Satellite City – The Future – where visitors could visit a recreation of a Cape Canaveral control room and watch a simulated space mission

This book includes detailed description of the lands, attractions, restaurants, and memories of park-goers and employees.  A lot of the book is written in list format rather in narrative that makes it less fun to read, but the material is fascinating nonetheless.

A lot of reasons are given why Freedomland failed.  The biggest is that unlike Southern California, the climate of New York meant the park could only operate seasonally.  Although Virginitino notes that proposals to open Freedomland for special holiday events for Halloween and Christmas were never followed-up on (the same types of things that regional parks in the northern climes do today for added revenue).  Another reason for the failure, one that the park’s owners harped on, is that Freedomland could not compete  with the New York World’s Fair (and its Disney-built attractions) which opened in 1964.  Virginitino notes that in reality, Freedomland was planned with the knowledge of the World’s Fair coming and the hope to piggyback on the fair’s success.  By 1964, Freedomland had already downsized considerably and sold off some of its most ambitious attractions, so that probably affected attendance more than the fair.

Virgintino also puts forward the idea that the property owners (real estate developers separate from the management of the park) had always intended for Freedomland to be temporary.  Plans for Co-Op City, which was eventually built on the site, were put forward in the 1950s.  The author’s evidence suggests that the the Freedomland structures built on the marshy landfill served the purpose of convincing the government to allow the variances to build the more profitable

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Freedomland being able to persevere through the Bronx’s really bad times of the 1970s and 1980s. Also the the superpatriotic theming of the park would’ve been a hard sell as early as the counterculture era of the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, I wish Freedomland had survived. My mother, who grew up in the Bronx, has fond memories of visiting Freedomland in her teen years, and I wish I could’ve gone there with her when I was young.

Oddly, little bits of Freedomland have showed up in my life without me even knowing it. A sternwheeler that sailed at Freedomland was renamed the Mark Twain and was docked for many years by the Steamboat Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Two of the Freedomland trains were loaned by Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts.  And a 20 foot cutout figure of Paul Bunyan later stood outside of United House Wrecking in Stamford, Connecticut during my childhood.

This video from Defunctland will give you a glimpse into Freedomland’s all-too-short history:

Favorite Passages:

Freedomland’s employees were slotted within 54 categories, some of which were not listed by big city employment agencies at the time. Many employees were required to possess unique skills, including buffalo wrangler, carrousel horse jeweler, totem pole carver, and stage coach harness-maker.

Other odd occupations at the park included pretzel bending, seal keeping, doughnut rolling, can-can dancing, glassblowing, and space tracking. The park also employed a skin diver who regularly inspected the Great Lakes for purity and maintenance

A new attraction was five new-born burros appropriately named Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: After Hours (1985)


Title: After Hours
Release Date: September 13, 1985
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: The Geffen Company | Double Play Productions
Summary/Review:

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a nebbish computer data entry worker, meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a coffee shop and they apparently hit it off and exchange phone numbers.  Calling Marcy later that night, she invites him to come to the SoHo loft where she’s staying with her friend the sculptor Kiki (Linda Fiorentino).  Paul begins to feel that he’s not connecting with Marcy and decides to leave. But because he lost all his money, and eventually his house keys, he finds himself stuck in SoHo involved in increasingly bizarre situations and eventually pursued by a Frankenstein-style vigilante mob.

This is a movie that could not be made in the time of cell phones and ATMs, and of course SoHo has long since been tamed and commercialized so that it no longer feels eccentric to outsides.  When you think about it there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about this film but it all holds together with a kind of dream logic.  The most unbelievable thing about this movie is that almost everyone in mid-80s Manhattan is white, with the major exception of Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin who are stereotypically cast as burglars.

The biggest flaw of After Hours is that Paul is just an unlikable character which makes it hard to care about him as the protagonist.  The great performances by the women in this film make up for it though, starting with Arquette and Fiorentino. Additional great performances include Terri Garr as a waitress with a beehive who becomes mysteriously obsessed with Paul, Catherine O’Hara as a Mr. Softee truck driver with a twisted sense of humor, and Verna Bloom as a sculptor who helps Paul out.

By all accounts this is a quirky outlier in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, but I like it a lot more than his violent crime thrillers.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle


Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]
Summary/Review:

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****