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

Movie Review: The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)


Title: The Forty-Year-Old Version
Release Date: October 9, 2020
Director: Radha Blank
Production Company: New Slate Ventures | Hillman Grad Productions | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

Radha (Rahda Blank) is a playwright nearing her 40th birthday who is dealing with the lack of success after winning a “30 Under 30” award early in her career and has taken to teaching at high school.  Her agent and childhood friend Archie (Peter Kim) helps her get producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney) to support her play about a Black couple dealing with gentrification in Harlem, but insists that she emphasize what Radha calls “poverty porn” and add a white character.  Radha feels her vision for the play escaping her and decides to make her voice heard by recording hip hop tracks with the laconic D (Oswin Benjamin) who runs a studio out of his Brooklyn apartment. Radha and D also form a romantic relationship, which is all fair since men who write/direct/star in their own films have a tradition of giving themselves younger love interests.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is very funny and also cringe-inducing with its characters following their worst instincts.  Radha Blank does a great job playing a character that can be very unsympathetic but still very likable.  I also like Radha’s chemistry with Archie and believe that they could’ve been friends with childhood.  The movie reminds me a bit of Frances Ha, as they both black & white movies in New York about artists having to deal with failed expectations of greatness and having to adapt to growing older.  But this is a funny and unique movie and I recommend checking it out.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)


Title: The French Connection
Release Date: October 7, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions
Summary/Review:

In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes.  15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it.  But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo.  There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman).  In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.

Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).  I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension.  There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle.  All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him.  I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.

The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs.  Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child.  It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background.  Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it.  By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.

Rating: ***1/2

 

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