Book Review: Jazz by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Jazz
Publication Info: Knopf (1992)
Summary/Review:

Jazz is a novel I read a couple of times in college, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time.  The novel tells the story of a middle-aged couple, Violet and Joe Trace, in Harlem in the 1920s.  Joe has an affair with a younger woman, Dorcas, and then shoots her in a jealous rage. Violet interrupts Dorcas’ open-coffin funeral to disfigure her face with a knife. None of this is spoilers, as it’s all pretty much laid out in the opening pages.

What’s great about Jazz is that it’s the musical of novels, bringing to life the Jazz Age in Harlem through jazz-like riffs, improvisation, and repetition. The sounds of a silent march against lynching or women at the beauty shop gossiping become music.  The novel also fills in the stories of Violet and Joe and other community members including their early years in rural Virginia and arrival in the city. Best of all is the question of who is actually narrating this novel (SPOILER: I’m fully on board with the idea that the book is writing itself).

I’m going to end this review here because it’s hard to write well enough to justify the writing of this novel.  Let me just say that this is one of my all-time favorite books and you should read it.

Favorite Passages:

They were dancing. And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. Like a million more they could hardly wait to get there and love it back.
Risky, I’d say, trying to figure out anybody’s state of mind. But worth the trouble if you’re like me—curious, inventive and well-informed.

“Where you pick up a wild woman?”

“In the woods. Where wild women grow.”

So from Lenox to St. Nicholas and across 135th Street, Lexington, from Convent to Eighth I could hear the men playing out their maple-sugar hearts, tapping it from four-hundred-year-old trees and letting it run down the trunk, wasting it because they didn’t have a bucket to hold it and didn’t want one either. They just wanted to let it run that day, slow if it wished, or fast, but a free run down trees bursting to give it up.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)


Title: 12 Angry Men
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I remember watching in high school, having read the play in English class.

Set almost entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse, 12 Angry Men is a compelling drama about the deliberations on a murder case.  Henry Fonda is the only big-name star in the movie, playing Juror #8, the only juror who feels that there may be reasonable doubt about whether the defendant, and 18 year old Latin American boy, actually murdered his father.  But there are excellent performances all around, including Lee J. Cobb as the angry man who is tough on crime, Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in similar conditions to the defendant, Jack Warden as the wiseass who is apathetic about the case, and George Voskovec as a naturalized American citizen who has a deep faith in democracy.

The movie is well-filmed, taking advantage of the confined space to build a feeling of claustrophobia.  There is also a slow transition of shots from above to close-up shots of characters’ faces over the course of the film. Keeping the camera on a character who is listening rather than talking is also an effective cinematic technique. Partway through the film a summer shower begins outside the windows and reflects the stormy mood in the chamber while also dramatically affecting the lighting.

The movie does his flaws.  Juror #8 visits the neighborhood where the defendant lived and buys a switchblade knife.  Not only are switchblades illegal but as a juror he’s doing research which is prohibited (and he somehow brought the illegal knife into the courthouse which would be harder to do today with security screening).  No less an authority than Sonia Sotomayor has declared that the jurors actions in this film is exactly what jurors should not do, and the Juror #8’s actions probably would’ve lead to a mistrial.  I also feel that it rings hollow that Juror #3’s intransigence is due to his failed relationship with his son.

I found that my experience watching this film changed significantly over 30-some-odd-years.  My teenage self saw this as a demonstration of how the American justice system works for good, or at least an idealistic presentation of such.  Nowadays, I feel the opposite.  The prosecution in this case clearly failed to make a credible case, the defense did even less to protect the defendant, and even the judge seems bored by the case.  11 jurors were ready to send a person to their death and call it a day.  In the real world, people like Juror #8 are few and far between and we’ve seen again and again that we can’t count on them to be around to protect justice and democracy when needed

  • One of the effects of the COVID pandemic is that it was very unsettling to watch dozen men together in a confined space, especially since at least one of them kept coughing.  The amount of second-hand smoke in the room also looked unpleasant.
  • I feel this movie would make a good double feature with Do the Right Thing.  Both movies are said to take place on the hottest day of the year (and thus have very sweaty actors) and deal with very heated arguments regarding race and justice.
  • All through the movie, I felt that Lee J. Cobb reminded me of George C. Scott.  It turns out that Scott played the role  of Juror # 3 in the 1997 remake.  Not only that but Scott took over the role of Lieutenant Kinderman in Exorcist III, which Cobb originated in The Exorcist!
  • I also appreciate that two actors ended up associated with The Odd Couple franchise: John Fiedler, who appeared in the movie, and Jack Klugman, who stared in the tv show.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Portrait of Jennie (1948)


Title: Portrait of Jennie
Release Date: December 25, 1948
Director: William Dieterle
Production Company: Vanguard Films
Summary/Review:

Set in the heart of the Great Depression, a struggling artist named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) finds his muse in a girl he meets in Central Park, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones).  His art dealer and mentor Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees promise in a sketch he makes of Jennie and encourages him to paint her portrait. The problem with Jennie is that she wears long out-of-fashion clothing, talks about a no longer extant theater in the present tense, and every time Eben meets her appears to have aged in years rather than in the days or weeks that have passed.

This movie has a lot of flaws. The dialogue is wordy and clunky, Jones is not at all convincing at portraying a child or even a teenager, and the romance that blossoms between the adult Eben and underage Jennie is downright creepy.  I guess it presages teen paranormal romances where a teenage girl finds romance with a centuries old immortal. Nevertheless, I am won over by the romantic charm of this movie, and it is one I enjoyed in my own youth as well.

Unusual for the time, the movie made use of extensive (and expensive) location shooting.  The shots of the snow-covered and sun-drenched Central Park are worth every cent, and it’s great to see the Cloisters museum doubling as a convent school, and the Graves Light in Boston Harbor appearing in the film’s denouement. There’s also a nice effect where many scenes begin as if they’re painted on canvas.

It’s interesting to watch this movie so soon after A Matter of Life and Death, as both movies are romances that deal with life and afterlife.  Portrait of Jennie even uses a switch from black-and-white to full color for effect, although in a much smaller amount. My favorite scene when I watched this when I was younger is when Eben gets a commission to paint a mural of Michael Collins in an Irish pub, and it remains a great scene.

Portrait of Jennie doesn’t seem to be as well-known or highly-regarded as other movies of its time, but it’s worth seeking out if you like a sweet and romantic fantasy movie with a mix of humor and mystery.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: Elf (2003)


Title: Elf
Release Date: November 7, 2003
Director: Jon Favreau
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Guy Walks Into a Bar Productions
Summary/Review:

I guess I’m a little bit of a Grinch, because I finally watched this “beloved Holiday classic” for the first time and it didn’t resonate with me at all. There’s not even really anything that I can find to criticize about it, I just found it to be almost funny without every really being funny. Will Ferrell does a great job as Buddy, an elf at Santa’s a workshop, who discovers that he was really an orphaned human and goes off to New York City to find his biological father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan).

I can appreciate Ferrell’s performance as a wonderous child in an adult body. I also like that this movie avoids cynicism and really commits to the belief in the Christmas spirit. But maybe because of these things there’s also no real conflict and everyone just seems easily won over by Buddy. I don’t know, I hate to poopoo on everyone’s favorite holiday movie, but this one wasn’t for me.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The Crowd (1928)


Title: The Crowd
Release Date: February 28, 1928
Director: King Vidor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

First thing, a personal note: this is the first movie I’ve ever watched that was released in 1928, which means that I’ve watched at least one movie released every year from 1921 to 2020. One hundred years of film is kind of awe-inspiring.

The Crowd is a melodrama with touches of romance and comedy about John Sims (James Murray), who is born on the Fourth of July in 1900 and believes himself destined for great things. As an adult he moves to New York, works in a large accounting firm, and meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) on a double date to Coney Island and immediately asks to marry her.

The thing about John is that he gives off huge red flags and is something of a jerk. After their romantic honeymoon, their marriage in a claustrophobic apartment gradually spirals downward as John proves he’s ne’er-do-well who only talks a big game. Near the end of the film John has reached rock bottom and is only redeemed when his young son ( Freddie Burke Frederick) shares his unconditional love for him. That scene will probably be extremely cheezy to most viewers, but as a dad who has been pepped up by the love of my children (it made me weepy).

“The Crowd” is a metaphor throughout the film. John sees himself as apart from the crowd as he’s destined towards greatness, and belittles everyday people trying to make ends meet. Throughout the film there are actual crowds of people that the characters get lost in and sometimes act something like a Greek chorus. By the end of the film though, “the Crowd” has a more positive connotation as a community of ordinary people trying their best, and John seemingly accepting his place in the Crowd is a sign that he is really reforming himself.

This movie has great cinematography with moving camera work similar to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The sets for John’s massive office building are also reminiscent of the futuristic settings of Metropolis. I particularly appreciate the great location shots of 1920s Manhattan and Coney Island. As far as the story goes, I like the realism of the scenes on marriage and parenting where people have bad days, get very cranky with one another, and make up.

I would not consider this movie and all-time great, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in silent movies and film history.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner


Author: Eric Foner
Title: Gateway to Freedom
Narrator: J.D. Jackson
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2015)
Other books read by the same author: The Fiery Trial
Summary/Review:

The Underground Railroad was the metaphorical name for the system of routes and safe houses that enslaved Black Americans used to escape slavery and find some modicum of safety in free states of the North and in Canada. I expected the book would primarily detail the journeys of people using the Underground Railroad, but that was not the case. Instead it focused on the work of abolitionists, both free Black and white, who organized the Underground Railroad, as well as the work of Black people who emancipated themselves and then worked to help others.

It focuses specifically on activity in New York City, so some of the most famous abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, are only mentioned tangentially where their stories intersect with the city. This history of the Underground Railroad is particularly focused on how abolitionism, antislavery, and freeing the enslaved was affected by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The book is an interesting prism on how many different people – often ordinary and uncelebrated – worked to help free thousands of people from the bonds of slavery from the 1830s to 1860s.

Recommended books:


Rating: ***1/2

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: ****