Classic Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)


Title: Do the Right Thing
Release Date: July 21, 1989 
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

Do the Right Thing is a movie I watched ages ago and liked and always meant to revisit. The movie holds up startlingly well after 31 years and remains sadly relevant to our time as it deals with racism, police violence, and even global warming. It features a remarkable ensemble cast including legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson before they became super famous, and the film debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.

The movie is set on the hottest day of the year on one block in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film is largely vignettes of various people on the street and in Sal’s pizzeria. Over the course of the day various antagonisms and aggressions build up leading to a massive fight erupting at Sal’s. When the police arrive they kill a young Black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the people of the neighborhood vent their rage by trashing and burning Sal’s pizzeria.

Spike Lee brings his distinct style to the film. The camera adopts extreme angles and movements to accentuate the conflicts. He also has almost every shot filmed against bold background colors. I remember this style being visually stunning at the time, but partly due to Lee’s influence, it also became emblematic of the late 80s/early 90s period. Music also plays a strong role in the film, especially Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appears 15 times in the movie from the opening credits where Rosie Perez performs a very angry dance to the recurring appearances of Radio Raheem and his boombox. The rest of the soundtrack includes an original jazz score by Bill Lee and soul and R&B tracks, many played by the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who watches over the day from his radio studio.

The cast does a great job of portraying the characters that are recognizable from any urban community. The movie pushes the line of being a neighborhood made up entirely of characters, but restrains itself and allows the nuances and humanity of each person to develop. Stand out performances of the movie include Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, kind of a wise fool who patrols the street in a filthy suit and has an alcohol problem. Davis’ real-life wife Ruby Dee plays Mother Sister, a neighborhood matriarch who looks down on Da Mayor despite his efforts to impress her. Danny Aiello portrays Sal as a complex character, a white man who feels a place of pride being part of a Black and Latin American community and watching the kids grow up eating his pizza, but nevertheless harboring racial animus. Turturro plays one of Sal’s sons, Pino, and despite being from the younger generation he is more openly racist and angry. Finally, there is Spike Lee himself who plays the pizza delivery man Mookie and somehow remains a likable character even though Mookie can often be a selfish jerk.

For all the realism of the movie, it also has a lot of unreality. It is virtually impossible for everything that happens to have happened on one block in one day. I don’t even think that Mookie ever has to go around the corner to deliver a pizza. The only people who ever leave the block and return are the police, the outside antagonists. In of the most startling sequences of the movie, a series of characters look straight at the camera and shout slurs about another race. Despite this movie showing a balance of views and nuance in every character it never gets preachy or reaches for easy conclusions like “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” unlike some weaker movies that have attempted to address the same issues.

I remember when this movie came out that people said the murder of Radio Raheem didn’t resonate since he was an unsympathetic character. Critics who were indifferent to Radio Raheem’s death were nonetheless outraged by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. This valuing of property over human lives is all too familiar in our time where people still try to deny that Black Lives Matter. The heat of the day is also relevant as we have more and more hot days, and characters in the movie even discuss the polar ice caps melting. And the Unspooled podcast notes that New York City is getting much hotter summer days than the 92° in this film. If all that isn’t relevant enough to our times, some characters even discuss Donald Trump!

This movie remains excellent and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.


Rating: *****

Scary Movie Review: Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)


Title: Vampires vs. the Bronx
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Director: Oz Rodriguez
Production Company: Broadway Video | Caviar
Summary/Review:

Vampires vs. the Bronx uses the invasion of vampires into a Bronx neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and not at all in a subtle manner. The movie blends horror and social satire with humor and a lot of heart. It’s very 80s Spielberg-ian in the way that kids must team up to fight the evil threatening their community. In this case the threat is a real estate company buying up local businesses and buildings, not to make luxury condos, but to make a nest for vampires. The most chilling line in the film is when a vampire states that they want to be in a neighborhood where no one cares if people go missing.

A team of young teenagers are the lead vampire fighters. Their leader is Miguel (Jaden Michael), a young activist known as Lil Mayor. His nerdy friend Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) has the knowledge of vampire lore. The wild card is Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) who is being recruited to join the local street gang. Their hangout is the local bodega run by Tony (a great performance by Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez). A late addition to the team is Rita (Coco Jones) an older girl who is Miguel’s crush. All the young actors are great and seem like real kids.

The movie is not a groundbreaking in horror and/or social messaging, but it’s also not overly scary or gory like, say, Get Out. So a family could potentially watch it together. It is also is feel-good movie depicting a community coming together to save their neighborhood.


Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Tootsie (1982)


TitleTootsie
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Sydney Pollack
Production Company: Mirage Enterprises
Summary/Review:

I saw Tootsie in the movie theaters at the age of 9 and several more times on cable tv in the ensuing years, and loved it.  I was a strange child. I return to this movie many years later as an adult with a great hesitancy. Having a greater awareness of transgender people and media depictions mock and minimize them, I wasn’t sure of the value of watching a movie built on the idea that a man in a dress is inherently funny.

The movie stars Dustin Hoffman as the talented but cantankerous actor Michael Dorsey, who can’t get any parts because no one wants to work with him.  The movie’s director Sydney Pollack plays Michael’s agent, and their arguments about how difficult an actor Michael is to work with are probably inspired by real-life arguments Pollack had with the notoriously difficult Hoffman.  To prove his talent as an actor, Michael disguises himself as a woman named Dorothy Michaels in order to audition for a role on a soap opera.  Naturally, “Dorothy” gets the part.

It’s interesting that the premise is built on Michael needing a disguise more than him needing to be a woman.  The soap opera character quickly becomes a sensation and Dorothy becomes a star.  In an unsurprising twist, Michael finds himself falling for his co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) whereas Julie believes herself to be forming a close attachment with another woman. Another comedic wrinkle is that Julie’s widowed father (Charles Durning) falls in love with Dorothy.

As a social message movie, I kind of love and hate Tootsie at the same time.  Dorothy stands up for herself against the casual sexism and abuse on the set of the soap opera, which is good, but a real woman who did the same thing would likely be fired or punished in some way.  Dorothy inspires her co-workers and fans to be more assertive and take chances, which again is good, but why do women need to learn this lesson from a man.  Finally, Michael is depicted as something of a louche with women early on, and his experience as Dorothy gives him a better understanding of women’s experience, and thus he becomes a better man.  But really, one man becoming a little better is all the outcome of the whole charade?

One thing I forgot about this movie is that it has a really excellent cast. I remembered Lange was in the movie, because she was my first celebrity crush.  But the movie also has Teri Garr as an actress friend of Michael’s who he treats really badly.  And it has Bill Murray as Michael’s playwriter friend, delivering deadpan lines. And Dabney Coleman is there playing a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” who directs the soap opera. And Geena Davis is there as another of Dorothy’s co-stars, often appearing in her underwear.  And they even got the guy from Police Academy and Punky Brewster (George Gaynes) to play an actor who routinely sexual harasses his female co-stars.

Tootsie is clearly a well-made and well-acted film.  It also definitely from the early 80s and its approach to addressing social issues of sexism and masculinity feel horribly dated. Nevertheless, I can see this being an enjoyable viewing if you see at as a period piece and enjoy the work of all the acting talent.  I would not include this move on a list of 100 best of all time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Out of Towners (1970)


Title: The Out of Towners 
Release Date: May 28, 1970
Director: Arthur Hiller
Production Company: Jalem Productions
Summary/Review:

I don’t know where I got the idea that The Out-of-Towners was a comedy classic, but I guess I figured the combination of Jack Lemmon and Neil Simon would be good for a few laughs.  It turns out the movie offers very few laughs indeed.  Lemmon plays George Kellerman, a businessman from Ohio who travels to New York City with his much put-upon wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis) in order to conduct an interview for a prestigious job. Naturally, every thing that can go wrong goes wrong including a delayed flight that is rerouted to Boston, a crowded train to New York, the inability to get a meal anywhere, losing their hotel room, being robbed, and then abducted, and even getting caught up in an anti-Cuban protest.

There are a few good moments. I particularly like when Gwen and George celebrate finding half-a-box of Cracker Jack to eat for breakfast. The topical references – sanitation and transit strikes, Cuban hijackings – make it a good time capsule for 1970. The movie was also filmed on location in a lot of places in New York and Boston, so I really enjoyed seeing what places looked like 50 years ago.

The main problem with this movie is that George and Gwen aren’t very likable.  Lemmon and Dennis are so talented that I was never totally able to hate them, but I also wasn’t really on their side.  The running gag with George creating an Arya Stark-like list of people he is going to sue is just one of the many things that are plain not funny.  My sense is the New Yorker Neil Simon created his stereotypes of what an awful pair of out-of-towners from the midwest are like without considering that the protagonists are someone you should actually want to root for.  This movie, like the latter-day comedy Quick Change, falls into the “New York is Awful” genre, but I couldn’t help thinking that at the end of the movie when George and Gwen decide to (spoiler) stay in Ohio, that it is New York City that dodged a bullet.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (1984)


Title: Ghostbusters
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Director: Ivan Reitman
Production Company: Columbia-Delphi Productions | Black Rhino
Summary/Review:

I saw Ghostbusters in the movie theaters three times in 1984, and countless times on tv and video over the years since then (often at the prompting of my sister who perhaps loved the movie more than me).  My most recent viewing on the Fourth of July coincided with my first ever visit to a drive-in movie and the first time my children watched Ghostbusters (they loved it too!).

I can’t review this movie objectively.  Despite it’s weird premise, the movie was and remains one of the funniest movies ever made. I’ve always appreciated the little details they built into the movie such as all the visual references to Stay Puft Marshmallows that appear well before we ever see the Marshmallow Man.  On this viewing, I noticed that the music works so well in the film too, both the original score and various pop songs worked into the soundtrack (and yes, I had the soundtrack as a kid).

One thing I don’t like about Ghostbusters is the underlying Libertarian message that comes out in things like the villain being a government agent played by William Atherton who arbitrarily uses his power to bring down hard-working entrepreneurs.  I’ve always liked Bill Murray, but on this viewing I also noticed that Peter Venkman is very creepy.  On the upside I better appreciated the work of Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis as Egon Spengler and Louis Tully. Despite any quibbles I may have, Ghostbusters stands the test of time.

Oh, and despite what you might have heard elsewhere, the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot is really good too.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Muppets Take Manhattan
Release Date: July 13, 1984
Director: Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates
Summary/Review:

I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan more than once in the movie theaters as a ten-year-old, and then numerous times on cable tv, so I’ve probably seen it more than any other Muppet movie.  But it’s still been decades since the last time I watched it so my memories of it were vague. I know from reading Jim Henson’s biography that Henson was moving on to bolder visions at the time and this movie was an opportunity for Frank Oz to gain experience directing. The movie’s style is different from its predecessors and has more of a sitcom feel to it, but nevertheless still has the Muppets’ anarchic cleverness and humor.

Because the Muppets never have the same origin story, this movie introduces the idea that the Muppets met at college and after a successful senior theater performance are encouraged to take their show to Broadway. (This movie also features a fantasy sequence where Miss Piggy imagines the Muppets as babies, thus creating a whole ‘nother origin story spun off as The Muppet Babies). Unable to find a producer, the group splits up while Kermit stays in New York carrying out various schemes to get his show funded.  There’s also a sequence where Kermit suffers amnesia that I completely forgot about (hah!). Kermit ends up working in an advertising firm with other frogs who  are clearly all the Muppet performers offering their loving impersonation of Jim Henson saying “hmmm.”

There are some great bits involving a group of rats working in a dinner where Kermit also gets a job.  There are also the requisite cameo performances.  Dabney Coleman, of course, plays a villain, while Liza Minelli and Ed Koch play themselves.  But my favorite cameo is Gregory Hines who plays a roller skater in Central Park who ends up refereeing an argument between Kermit and Miss Piggy.  This movie also famously shows Kermit and Miss Piggy’s wedding, although I remember seeing an interview with Kermit on tv where he said it was just a movie and not real life.  Miss Piggy disagreed.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Oliver & Company (1988)


Title: Oliver & Company
Release Date: November 18, 1988
Director: George Scribner
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners III
Summary/Review:

On the precipice of the Disney Renaissance, Walt Disney Pictures released Oliver & Company, a movie that has many elements of the Renaissance era but doesn’t put them together quite right.  The movie features then-popular stars like Billy Joel, Cheech Marin,  Bette Midler, and Dom DeLuise, with musical artists like Huey Lewis, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Midler, and Rubén Blades singing on the cheerful soundtrack. The animation style is also a break from typical Disney style and the film is set in contemporary New York City.

The movie takes its inspiration from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphan kitten who is taken in by a gang of street dogs including the carefree Dodger (Joel).  They steal and pickpocket to help the human Fagin (Dom Deluise), a good-hearted vagrant who needs to pay off a debt to the evil loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia), who looks an awful lot like Rudy Giuliani. Just as he’s settling in with the gang of dogs, Oliver meets a very wealthy, kind-hearted girl, Jenny (Natalie Gregory).  Jenny’s diva poodle Georgette (Midler) is insanely jealous of her new pet.  Comic hijinx ensue, and soon the stray dogs, Fagin, and Sykes intersect with Oliver, Jenny, and Georgette.

The movie is a bit of a mess.  Oliver is the protagonist for the early part of the film, but then it shifts to being a story about the “Company.”  The Jenny plotline is pure 80s cheeze (and mind you as an 80s kid I love that stuff, but I do warn you its schlock).  The songs are catchy, but lyrically tend to be obvious commentaries on the movie.  Dodger’s key song “Why Should I Worry?” is repetitive and the lyrics are basically nonsense.

I won’t say that Oliver & Company isn’t entertaining, but it doesn’t really go beyond the bare essentials of a competent movie for kids.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fourteen (2020)


TitleFourteen
Release Date: May 15, 2020
Director: Dan Sallitt
Production Company: Static Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Fourteen through a virtual screening for the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, MA. The movie focuses on two women in their twenties who have been friends since junior high school and retain that friendship as they set out on their individual life paths in Brooklyn.  Mara (Tallie Medel) is a  quietly competent and driven type working as a teacher’s assistant, studying for a graduate degree, and writing a novel in her spare time.  Jo (Norma Kuhling) appears more relaxed, has an acerbic wit, and works as social worker.  It becomes clear early on that Mara is a caretaker, doing things like making sure that Jo isn’t chronically late for work, while Jo makes Mara push her own boundaries.

The movie is impressionist in style, showing short scenes of the two women alone and together over a decade or so.  They cycle through boyfriends, jobs, and apartments with some cathartic moments thrown into the mundanity of everyday life.  Over time, the two women grow apart albeit with no great precipitating event although the challenges to their relationship are evident from the start.  Jo also begins a downward spiral into depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Fourteen is a very honest and realistic depiction of life and relationships done with excellent writing, direction, editing, and acting.

Rating: ***1/2