Book Review: So Many Ways to Lose by Devin Gordon


Author: Devin Gordon
Title: So Many Ways to Lose
Publication Info: New York City : Harper, 2021.
Summary/Review:

So Many Ways to Lose is a history of the New York Mets by a long-time fan and writer who happens to live near me in Massachusetts. Gordon’s thesis is that the Mets are a team that is known for their futility and for losing in creative ways, and yet that has only made their moments of greatness all the more endearing.

Since I’ve read a lot about the Mets (and of course, spent most of my life watching the team), I was familiar with many of these stories.  But I was impressed with the angles Gordon took on telling the stories. I particularly liked:

  • connecting Cleon Jones story to the history of Africatown in Alabama which was founded by people brought from Africa on the last known slave ship the Clotilda
  • How Mackey Sasser got the yips and had trouble returning the ball to the pitcher
  • While Bobby Bonilla Day has become a day to mock the Mets, Gordon explains that it was a good deal with positive outcomes for the Mets
  • the greatness of the Endy Chavez catch
  • How Bernie Madoff bamboozled the Wilpons, owners of the Mets, but nonetheless a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Wilpons

The parts on the Mets success in 2006 (and subsequent flops in 2007-2008) and 2015 feel rushed.  But then again I’ve read about those accomplishments in other books.  This is an enjoyable sports book and a requirement for every Mets’ fan’s library.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)


Title: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Jon Watts
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Studios | Pascal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been one of the best parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it was with great enthusiasm that I went to see the third Spider-Man movie (although it took me a while to get to theaters!).  Following up on the end of Far From Home where the Rush Limbaugh-like J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) reveals Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker to the world. Naturally, the publicity has a negative effect on Peter’s life, but also on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya), and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Peter asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help casting a spell that would cause the world to forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker.  When the spell goes wrong it draws in villains from other universes including Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church).  Peter, M.J., Ned, and May realize that returning them to their own dimension would cause their deaths, so they work on first curing them of the various maladies that turned them into villains in the first place.

BIG SPOILERS AFTER THE TRAILER

Continue reading “Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)”

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


Author: City of Girls
Title: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Vivian Morris, the black sheep of a wealthy New York State family who flops at Vassar College in 1940.  Her parents ship her off to New York City to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who operates a low-rent theater. Vivian offers he skills as a seamstress to costume design and gets sucked into the glamorous life of the New York theater world. Along the way she befriends a showgirl Celia, becomes enchanted with the refugee English actor Edna, and falls in love/lust with the lead actor.  After a few poor choices she finds herself embroiled in a scandal.

The latter parts of the novel explore Vivian’s life during World War II and in the decades beyond.  Vivian matures and takes on more responsibility and eventually starts her own business, finding the right balance for a countercultural life as an independent woman in the years before women’s liberation.  She also forms a relationship with a WWII veteran suffering  PTSD, Frank.  This latter part of the novel is interesting but it feels more like a long epilogue to Vivian’s life in the pre-WWII theater world.

City of Girls is an enjoyable historical novel and I definitely found it to be a page turner.  True to its title, almost all the significant characters are female with men playing supporting parts which is a good change from the typical novel.  It’s a long book and yet packing several decades of Vivian’s life into maybe the last third of the book still feels rushed, but that’s its only really flaw.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Passing (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Passing
Release Date: October 27, 2021
Director: Rebecca Hall
Production Company: Significant Productions | Picture Films | Flat Five Productions | Film4 Productions | Gamechanger Films | Sweet Tomato Films | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

Set in the 1920s in New York City, Passing stars Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield, a light skinned Black woman living in Harlem and married to a successful Black doctor.  By chance, Irene meets up with a friend from childhood, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), who is passing as white and is married to the nakedly racist John (Alexander Skarsgård).  Initially, Irene wants nothing more to do with Clare, but gradually they begin spending more time together. Clare enjoys reconnecting with African-American culture and becomes close with Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland) and their children.

Passing uses a delicate approach to dealing with serious issues.  A lot of the message of this movie is said in facial expressions and reactions rather than words.  The cinematography and editing also do a great job of capturing the everyday rhythms of life in 1920s New York.  Passing is a slow burn but it’s a good one and worth a watch.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: tick, tick… BOOM!
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment | 5000 Broadway Productions
Summary/Review:

tick, tick… BOOM! is a biopic about Jonathan Larson done in the style of a Jonathan Larson musical, and based on Larson’s own “rock monologue” produced on-stage in 1992.  Andrew Garfield plays the lead role, cleverly renamed as “Jon,” as an ambitious playwright/composer  trying to get his sci-fi musical Superbia produced in 1990, but running into brick walls.  The title tick, tick…BOOM! refers to Jon’s upcoming 30th birthday and his feeling that he’s running out time to make it big in musical theater.  We in the audience know that the real Larson was running out of time as he would tragically die at the age of 35 just before his hit musical Rent made its Off-Broadway debut.

Garfield’s performance is full of charisma and anxiety, and he does not shy away from portraying how Jon’s monomaniacal focus can make him be quite a douche to his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús). But he never becomes unsympathetic.  In addition to a strong cast, there are a number of cameos by Broadway luminaries, including the original cast of Rent. The music is strong overall, similar in style to the music of Rent, so if you like one you’ll like the other.  The song “Why,” where Jon reflects on his childhood memories with Michael while playing piano in an empty Delacorte Theatre slayed me.

I saw a Rent ages and ages ago and really liked it at the time.  I knew a bit about Larson, but this movie – even if its partially fictionalized – gives me a better appreciation for him as a person and his work.  The director of this movie is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m beginning to realize owes a lot to Larson.  It’s all the more sad that Larson never got to enjoy the same kind of success and admiration that Miranda is experiencing now.

Rating:  ****

TV Review: Hawkeye (2021)


Title: Hawkeye
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Jonathan Igla
Director: Rhys Thomas (episodes 1,2, & 6), Bert & Bertie (episodes 3-5)
Season: 1
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), is the overlooked Avenger, who not only never got his own movie, but was just kind of there when the first Avengers movie began.  So this is a belated Hawkeye story that focuses on the aging superhero/dad dealing with the trauma of losing his friend Natasha Romanov as well as hearing loss.  Enter Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), who as a child witnessed the Battle of New York in 2012 when her house in Manhattan was damaged and her father killed. Seeing Hawkeye’s heroics, Kate dedicated her life to learning archery and martial arts skill.

This series is obviously a “passing the baton” story as Barton just wants to get home to his family for Christmas but gets caught up in a crisis that center around Kate.  They have a good chemistry and the show has a good balance of humor, action, and more reflective moments.  It also has an surplus of villains including the Tracksuit Mafia, Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) – a deaf leader of the Tracksuits set on vengeance against Barton’s alter-ego Ronin, and Natasha’s sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who was introduced in Black Widow and once again steals scenes left and right.

I won’t go into much detail but it’s an enjoyable series and another great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Hello, Dolly! (1969)


Title: Hello, Dolly!
Release Date: December 16, 1969
Director: Gene Kelly
Production Company: Chenault Productions
Summary/Review:

Hello, Dolly! is the type of exorbitant, technicolor song & dance musical that I think was already old fashioned at the time of its release in 1969.  It may be the last musical of the classic style because in the 1970s, adaptations of Broadway musicals like Cabaret and Grease had a very different feel to them.  Hello, Dolly! has a long pedigree, going back to 1938 when Thornton Wilder wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, itself based on a century-old story.  Wilder rewrote the play as The Matchmaker in 1955, and in 1963 it was adapted once again as a Broadway musical starring Carol Channing.

In the film, Barbra Streisand stars as Dolly Levi, a widow who works as a matchmaker in New York City and is, as the kids these days say, so very extra!  Dolly sets forth with an elaborate plan to convince the prosperous but cranky Yonkers’ merchant Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) to marry her. She also convinces Horace’s hardworking store clerks, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) to enjoy a day in New York with the milliners Irene (Marianne McAndrew) and Minnie (E. J. Peaker). Chaos ensues.  The movie also features a cameo by Louis Armstrong in his last movie role before his death. He sings the title song with Streisand, a song that he got to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, knocking The Beatles out of the top slot, because pop charts are weird and wonderful that way.

Hello, Dolly! is rather corny, and often very horny, and a lot of it doesn’t really make much sense. (What does Dolly see in Horace, anyway?)  But on pure spectacle, it’s a lot of fun with some great song and dance, so it’s worth a watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Imitation of Life (1959)


Title: Imitation of Life
Release Date: March 17, 1959
Director: Douglas Sirk
Production Company: Universal-International[
Summary/Review:

For a Hollywood movie from 1959, Imitation of Life is surprisingly open about dealing with real issues of race and gender, and unsurprisingly a bit awkward in how it handles those issues.*  The story focuses on two women, one white and one Black, who develop a close relationship over a dozen years in New York City, as well their relationships with their respective daughters.  When we first be Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), she’s an aspiring actor and single mother raising her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham) in a single mother. Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is also a single mother who appears to be homeless at the start of the film, and offers to be Lora’s maid/cook in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker).  Sarah Jane is light-skinned and can pass for white which makes her struggle with her identity.

Lora is a is a surprising-for-1959 confident and assertive woman who achieves her dream of acting on her terms.  She stands up to the men in her life including the lecherous agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) and paternalistic love interest Steve Archer (John Gavin).  The second half of the film fast forwards a decade to a point where Lora is a prosperous Broadway star and living in a suburban mansion with Annie still working and living in her house with their now teenage daughters Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Susie (Sandra Dee).

There are a lot of plotlines going on in Imitation of Life, which I get, because life is messy, but it feels that the prioritization of stories is off-kilter.  Whenever the movie spent too much time delving into Lora’s acting career or Susie’s crush on Steve, I lost interest.  Of course, the most interesting storyline about Sarah Jane and her problems with racial identity is the one most poorly handled.  I feel the direction of the film made her into a rebellious teen who breaks her mother’s heart when they could’ve gone with a more nuanced approach. **

Of course, Imitation of Life is an extremely melodramatic film, although I think that works to its advantage for the most part.  I expected this movie to be a lot more cringy than it was and am overall impressed with the effort at dealing with issues of race and gender in a popular film of the 1950s.

Rating: ***1/2

* As surprising as it is that this movie was made in 1959, it is actually based on a book from 1933 and was originally made into a movie in 1934!

** Just an observation, it doesn’t appear that Susan Kohner had any African American heritage.  The 1934 film actually did cast a light-skinned African American actor, Fredi Washington, in the role.

Classic Movie Review: Annie Hall (1977)/Manhattan (1979)


My effort to watch and review every movie ranked on three lists of greatest films of all time from the American Film Institute, Sight & Sound, and Cahiers du Cinéma offers many challenges.  The biggest one is “Do I really want to watch this movie?”  After all there is no requirement for me to do so beyond my own stubborn pride.  This is the challenge I face with watching Annie Hall (#35 on the AFI list) and Manhattan (#93 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list).

When I was young and my family first got cable tv in 1984, I became a fan of the Woody Allen films played on tv like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, and my favorite Love and Death. Later in my college years I became borderline obsessed with watching every Woody Allen movie ever made.  According to my Letterboxd stats, he is my second-most watched director of all time after Alfred Hitchcock. Through the 90s I watched new Woody Allen films as they were released.  But it’s been two decades since I last watched a Woody Allen movie and I never will watch one again.  Because watching a Woody Allen movie means watching the man who sexually assaulted Dylan Farrow.

There is an ongoing argument in our culture about whether or not one can separate the art from the artist. For me, I have to take several factors into consideration, such as:

  • the severity of the artist’s offense
  • what, if any, efforts has the artist made at accepting consequence and reconciliation
  • if the artist is still alive, will supporting their art provide them with material benefits and social account that would allow them to defend against consequences for their offense, or worse, carry out additional offenses
  • in a collaborative work of art, such as a film, can we recognize the contributions of other artists without elevating the offender

Woody’s Allen’s crime was most grievous and he’s made no effort at redemption.  Supporting his art gives him money and fame that allows him to evade legal consequences and possibly assault other women and girls.  And while many other artists made valuable contributions to Woody Allen films, he is the writer, director, and star of most of them, playing a version of himself.  I’ve tried to watch or rewatch every movie before writing a review for my Classic Movie Project but I can’t in good conscience rewatch these movies, so I will review them based on memories from decades ago.  I will also forgo giving these two moves a star rating.


TitleAnnie Hall
Release Date: March 27, 1977
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe Production
Summary/Review: Annie Hall was once among my favorite movies. It is a clever romantic comedy which involves unusual for the time aspects such as breaking the fourth wall, a classic gag involving Marshall McLuhan and even an animated segment. And Diane Keaton as the title character is the rare woman in a Woody Allen film who gets to be funnier and more likable than Woody’s character. As a film, it hits the sweet spot of Allen gaining technical competence as a director but before he became to self-indulgent.


TitleManhattan
Release Date: April 18, 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:  Unlike Annie Hall, which I watched several times, I only watched Manhattan once.  I was in college in the early 1990s and learning about filmmaking techniques so it was one of the first movies where I could appreciate the black & white cinematography, montage, and the use of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to score the film.  Since New York City had essentially hit rock bottom in the 1970s, it was nice to have a film tribute to Manhattan at the time, although the world of Isaac Davis (Allen) was entirely upper middle class white people.

Apart from the artistic touches, I didn’t like Manhattan all the much.  Mainly because the plot involves the 42-year-old Davis dating the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  Even if you know nothing about Allen’s real life crimes, this is creepy.  It was creepy in the 1990s and it was creepy in 1979.  Apart from that plot point, the humor in this film lacks the nebbish and self-deprecating qualities of Annie Hall, and Davis’ character seems to be more of someone who insists that you should be on his side without giving a good reason to do so.

Classic Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical.  When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis.  Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?

The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms).  This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful.  These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.

Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans.  He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change.  Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel.  The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”  It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.

Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects.  In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream.  Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife.  That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress.  Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance.  Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.

Rating: ***1/2