Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)


Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Summary/Review:

Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long.  That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating.  It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West.  Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order.  This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.

The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends.  The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933.  The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.

Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped.  This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.

I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters.  Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities.  I found Jacobs  was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.

The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI.  Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston


Author: Casey McQuiston
Title: One Last Stop
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021)
Summary/Review:

After a troubled childhood with an obsessive mother, August finds it difficult to connect with people.  Things begin to change when she moves to Brooklyn to attend college and is pushed out of her comfort zone by her eccentric housemates, Myla, Niko and Wes.  She also finds herself enraptured by a beautiful punk woman she meets on the Q train, Jane.  However, finding love and happiness is challenged by three strange things about Jane: 1. she can’t seem to leave the train, 2. she can’t remember her past, and 3. she hasn’t aged at all from a picture taken of her in 1976.

This book is great fun as it uses a unique time slip story mixed with a queer romance and a story of New York’s gentrification.  It’s particular interesting to read the contrasts of Jane’s experiences in the early LGBTQ+ liberation movements of the 1970s compared to the more accepting contemporary times.  There are a lot of subplots in this novel that get things a bit confused, and perhaps there’s just a bit too much “deep conversation,” but all is forgiven because I love the characters.  McQuiston does a great job of bringing to life a community of fun, creative, and really horny young adults in the city.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews


In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:

 

Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2


Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2


TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***


Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****


Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time In Queens (2021)


Title: Once Upon a Time In Queens
Release Date: September 14, 2021
Director: Nick Davis
Production Company: ESPN | ITV Studios America | Kimmelot | MLB Productions
Summary/Review:

This ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the 1986 New York Mets is one that I will have trouble reviewing objectively as it pushes all of my nostalgic buttons.  I tend to be a nostalgic person to begin with but this film hit me more emotionally than I ever expected.  It’s not just that it’s about my favorite baseball team’s best season ever but that it so richly captures the time and the place of New York City in the 1980s, which I experienced vicariously as a child of the suburbs.  And it’s not even that it was the “good old days,” as this film demonstrates it was a time of unrepentant greed, unrestrained substance abuse, toxic masculinity, and racial tensions, all of which were exemplified by the Mets.  And yet, there is something about the community that came together around these deeply flawed men who did amazing things on the ballfield.  Living in the past quarter-century of a Yankees-worshiping society, it’s hard to believe how much the Mets were beloved and unifying.

The four-part documentary goes deep into the roots of the Mets, a team that was a replacement for New York and Brooklyn losing the Giants and Dodgers that somehow won a miraculous World Series in 1969, and then trading away their franchise pitcher Tom Seaver in 1977.  The first part focuses on how the team gained a new owner in 1980 and with a new general manager put together the pieces of a winning team that would have very exciting second-place finishes in 1984 and 1985 before dominating baseball in 1986.  The other three parts focus on the season itself with a good amount of film footage both on and off the field, some of it that I’d never seen before.

As you’d expect from a documentary, there are a lot of talking head interviews, and many but not all of the Mets’ players are represented.  Some of the best observations come from Kevin Mitchell, who was a rookie in 1986 and played only one season with the Mets, and Bob Ojeda, who was in his first season with the team and thus has something of an outsider’s perspective on the team’s perspective.  Manager Davy Johnson is also very insightful.  The heart of the film, though, is dedicated to the stars of the team: Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, and Dwight Gooden.  All of them came from troubled family backgrounds and all of them suffered from addictions. I was impressed by how candid and introspective each of these men are in their interviews. The other big star of the team, Gary Carter, died in 2012, otherwise he would’ve been a prominent subject as well. Instead archival footage and interviews with his wife have to suffice.  At the other end of the spectrum, Lenny Dykstra appears to be inebriated and still full of himself.  But he does provide some of the documentary’s best laugh lines.

As documentaries go, there’s nothing groundbreaking in its filmmaking, but it’s extremely well-edited.  I also loved the soundtrack which ranges from Tom Waits to the Beasties Boys to the Mets’ own rally songs (yes, they recorded two that season).  Writers like Greg Prince and Jeff Pearlman offer expert opinion and context while a wide variety of fans including Chuck D, Cyndi Lauper, George R.R. Martin, and various people who recorded “where was I” videos of their experiences during the legendary Game 6 of the World Series.  I didn’t feel that it was necessary to keep cutting in scenes from the movie Fear Strikes Out for the Keith Hernandez story. I also think the epilogue overstates things about the Mets’ “collapse” after 1986.  While they didn’t make it to another World Series, the Mets remained a very good team through the 1990 season. It was harder to start a dynasty in the 1980s, and had the three-division structure of MLB been adopted a decade earlier, the Mets would’ve finished in first place 7 years in a row.  Despite it being a 4-hour movie, Once Upon a Time in Queens went by quickly and left me wanting more.  If you like sports’ documentaries it is definitely worth your time.

 

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Men in Black (1997)


Title: Men in Black
Release Date: July 2, 1997
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Summary/Review:

Men in Black could’ve easily been “Ghostbusters with aliens” or just a star vehicle for Will Smith, but it turned out to be a whole lot more.  The movie draws upon the UFO conspiracy theory of government agents in dark suits who cover up alien encounters and more directly from The Men in Black comic book series based on the lore. I was impressed by the economy of the opening scenes in establishing the role Men in Black in policing refugee extraterrestrials on Earth (with a subtle political message about immigration built into it).  The rest of the film builds on the concept as we follow new recruit Agent J (Smith) learns from the grizzled veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).

The stakes are high, the destruction of earth, but the conflict with the villain, a roach-like creature in a human skin named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) is very down to earth. Linda Fiorentino fills out the cast as Laurel, a doctor in the city morgue who has her memory erased multiple times for discovering aliens on Earth.  The film has a lot of great sight gags and humor and Jones and Smith have a great chemistry together.  This is also a great New York City film where the Guggenheim Museums becomes the perfect setting for a foot chase and the 1964 World’s Fair New York Pavilion is home to flying saucers in disguise (with a cameo by my late, lamented Shea Stadium).

I never saw the Men in Black sequels, and I don’t know if I want to, but this original film stands the test of time. My kids liked it too. A recent podcast episode from Unspooled discusses Men in Black and the hosts get into the weeds of an interesting conversation of how this movie marked the end of an era for blockbuster films preceding our current comic book/superhero dominated film landscape.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Party Girl (1995)


Title: Party Girl
Release Date: June 9, 1995
Director: Daisy von Scherler Mayer
Production Company: First Look Pictures
Summary/Review:

Not many movies can truly be said to change you life.  I watched Party Girl in the 1990s and watching protagonist Mary (Parker Posey) decide to become a librarian made me think that I wanted to be a librarian.  A few years later, I was working in a library, and few years after that I’d earned a masters in library and information science.  Today I work as an archivist within a library.  Granted, I’d always loved spending time in libraries so I probably had a predilection for librarianship, but the positive way it’s depicted in this movie really made me think it was a possible career choice.  That and Parker Posey dancing on a table while shelving books is one of the hottest things ever put to film.

Ironically, Mary is not a sympathetic character.  She is selfish, fashion-obsessed and often rude to her friends.  But the sense of directionless one has in one’s 20s is relatable.  There’s a good supporting cast, including Leo (Guillermo Diaz), Mary’s roommate who’s an aspiring DJ; Mustafa (Omar Townsend), a Lebanese immigrant who runs a falafel stand while hoping to become a teacher; and Judy (Sasha von Scherler), Mary’s godmother and a librarian who hires Mary as a clerk in order to pay off her debts.

The movie remains popular in the librarian community with some funny moments with patrons that are memeable.  The finale where all of Mary’s friends convince Judy that Mary’s librarian skills have really helped them is also a big selling point.  The movie also has a banging soundtrack full of dance tracks from New York’s queer club scene of the 1990s.  It remains one of my all-time favorite comedies.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Fisher King (1991)


Title: The Fisher King
Release Date: September 20, 1991
Director: Terry Gilliam
Production Company: Hill/Obst Productions
Summary/Review:

As a long-time fan of Monty Python, I eagerly anticipated the release of Python-member Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King and rushed to the theaters for its release.  The movie turned out to be the least Gilliam-esque of his movies but also one of his best. Whereas as most Gilliam movies are set in fantastical worlds, The Fisher King is grounded in the reality of late-1980s New York City, where the fantastical elements are found in the mind of Robin Williams’ character Parry.

The story tells of a drive-time shock jock, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), whose rant against yuppies is interpreted by a listener as instructions to carry out a mass shooting at an upscale Manhattan restaurant.  Three years later, Jack is no longer a radio star but down on his luck and depressed, supported by his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) who employs him at her video store.  Reaching rock bottom, Jack attempts suicide but is saved by Parry, a homeless man who has delusions of being a knight of the round table on the grail quest. Jack learns that Parry’s psychotic break was caused by witnessing his wife’s murder in the mass shooting. Parry’s repressed memories of the trauma are represented by visions of a terrifying Red Knight.

Jack decides that he can redeem himself by helping Parry meet a woman he’s attracted to, the awkward Lydia (Amanda Plummer).  But the movie turns out to be about a whole lot more than redemption. First, it is a story of grief, trauma, and depression and how it manifests itself differently in our two lead characters.  Williams performance is particularly saddening after his real life depression lead to his own suicide.  The movie also subtly is a commentary on homeless and the great inequality in cities like New York, particular in a monologue delivered by Tom Waits in a cameo as a disabled veteran. While most of the movie is carried by Bridges’ and Williams’ excellent performances, Ruehl deservedly received Best Supporting Actress for her great contributions.

The Fisher King is both thoughtful and very funny.  It has great scenes that demonstrate Gilliam’s penchant for the fantastical and surreal, particularly one where the commuters at Grand Central Terminal join in a massive waltz to represent Parry’s infatuation with Lydia. The music in the film is spot on from Snap’s “The Power” as the motif of Jack at his most prestigious and most heartless to Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “How About You?” representing Parry’s magical view of New York.  And of course the show stopper is Michael Jeter’s impersonation of Ethel Merman.

The Fisher King remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Putney Swope (1969)


Title: Putney Swope
Release Date: July 10, 1969
Director: Robert Downey Sr.
Production Company: Herald Productions
Summary/Review:

This independent satirical film from 1969 feels way ahead of its time but also incredibly dated in the way it deals with racial prejudice and sexual matters, not to mention its frequent deployment of profanity and nudity.  After the death of the chairman of the board at New York City advertising firm, the board votes for a new leader with almost every member strategically selecting the board’s token Black member, Putney Swope since they can’t vote for themselves.  Arnold Johnson portrays Swope, but his bizarre gravely voice is dubbed by the director Robert Downey, Sr. which immediately brings to mind the use of “white voice” in Sorry To Bother You.

The plot, as much as there is one, involves Swope firing all the white employees (except for a few tokens who are made to ride the freight elevator), replacing them with Black people and renaming the firm as Truth and Soul. Swope becomes more corrupt, firing employees wily-nily as he steals their ideas, eventually becoming a Fidel Castro-like tyrant. Meanwhile the U.S. President (played by a little person named Pepi Hermine) begins to maneuver against Truth and Soul as a threat to national security.  All of this is intercut with the extremely surreal commercials created by the firm which are in full color while the rest of the movie is in black & white.

The movie is most interesting as an artifact of 1960s counterculture than anything that is rewarding to watch for entertainment or insight. The movie was clearly made by and for people using recreational drugs and watching this movie while sober means most of the jokes fell flat for me.  Advertising is an easy target for parody and most of the jokes are more just raucous thumbing the nose at authority than anything insightful. Putney Swope was made about halfway between two great Hollywood satire films, Dr. Strangelove and Network, and it has elements of each.  But I find it is more of a forerunner for scattershot spoof movies of the 1970s like The Groove Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Laura (1944)


Title: Laura 
Release Date: October 11, 1944
Director: Otto Preminger
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I first watched Laura about 25 years ago with a friend named Laura.  I’ve long ago lost touch with her which is sad because she was a good person.  This is irrelevant of course to the story of this film noir murder mystery.  Like many film noir movies, the plot and the actions of its characters don’t make a lot of sense upon thinking about it.  But sense is not important with the delivery of sparkling dialogue and camp theatricality delivered by its actors.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a young woman who works at a New York City advertising firm.  Among the witnesses/suspects he interviews is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a self-aggrandizing columnist who was Laura’s friend and svengali who was jealous of her attention to other men.  One of those men was her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who had been having an affair with Laura’s co-worker.  Shelby is also a kept man to Laura’s socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson examines Laura’s personal effects and admires her oil portrait, it appears that he is falling in love with the dead woman.

Laura is full of twists and turns and mostly some terrific outlandish performances by Webb and Price.  It’s a great example of Classic Hollywood at its wackiest.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: In The Heights (2021)


Title: In The Heights
Release Date: June 10, 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Production Company: 5000 Broadway Productions | Barrio Grrrl! Productions | Likely Story | SGS Pictures | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

In the Heights adapts a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and Moana fame) with a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on her book for the musical).  The film tells the story of several people and their dreams in the Latin American enclave of Washington Heights in New York City, mainly of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds. Like most musicals, the narrative is slight but the song and dance numbers are spectacular.  The movie also features a surprising number of special effects that add to the wow factor. Put together this movie packs an emotional punch.

The main characters include:

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who doubles as the movie’s narrator, a young adult who runs a bodega and dreams to returning to the Dominican Republic where he had his happiest days as a child.

Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), who works as a hair stlyist but dreams of moving downtown and pursuing a career in fashion designer. She is also Usnavi’s crush who gradually realizes that that feelings are mutual.

Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who returns after her first year at Stanford University and feels conflicted about bearing the expectations of the community for her success while missing the community while at school and concerned that her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is sacrificing too much to pay tuition.

Benny (Corey Hawkins), an ambitious young man who works as a dispatcher for Kevin’s car and limousine business. He is also a love interest for Nina.

Sonny de la Vega (Gregory Diaz IV), is Usnavi’s cousin who works in the bodega.  Usnavi wants Sonny to come with him to the Dominican Republic, but Sonny only ever remembers living in New York and wants to follow Nina’s example and go to college.

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), an elderly Cuban woman who is Usnavi’s foster mother and a highly-regarded member of the community (and an amazing singer!).

The story is primarily set over the three hottest days of the summer (channeling the more cheerful parts of Do the Right Thing) leading up to a blackout.  The characters deal with the everyday struggles of love and money, while touching on bigger issues like gentrification (that’s forcing the beauty salon to move to the Bronx) and the rights of undocumented immigrants (particularly DACA). It’s an excellent movie, and definitely worth seeing on the big screen.  In fact it was my first cinematic experience since before the pandemic!

Rating: ****1/2