Movie Review: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)


Title: She’s Gotta Have It
Release Date: August 8, 1986
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

I watched She’s Gotta Have It way back in the 1980s and remember liking it, except for THAT SCENE (but we’ll get to that latter).  This was Spike Lee’s first feature film as director, shot in black & white (except for one brilliant burst of color mid-movie), and has more of an arthouse vibe to it than any of Lee’s later work.

The movie focuses on Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), an artist in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, and her romantic sexual relationships with three different men.  Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is presented as the “good guy” and I think the narrative wants the audience to believe that until the rug is pulled out from us later on.  Greer (John Canada Terrell) is a vain model.  Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) is a goofy sneakerhead and basically a Brooklyn hipster before his time.  Lee has also portrayed Mars in commercials and his own identity and the character’s are sometimes intermingled.

The movie basically does a good job of deconstructing the double standards of a woman who wants to be sexually active with more than one man.  In the documentary-style interviews with the men, they basically “self-own” themselves with their hypocritical views.  This movie is also sex positive in the way that it depicts how Nola is sexually fulfilled in different ways by each of the men.  Still though, this movie fumbles at times where it clearly feels it was written by a straight man. One of the worst is examples is a lesbian character portrayed by Raye Dowell acts like a male fantasy of a lesbian woman.

And now we come to the end of the movie for which I will have to discuss SPOILERS. Angry that Nola won’t choose to be only with him, Jamie brutally rapes her. Later Nola calls it a “near rape” which is an understatement at best. She decides to break it off with Mars and Greer and be exclusive with Jamie but also to be celibate for a time.  Now, it is not unrealistic for a seemingly “good guy” in a patriarchal society to become a rapist, nor is it unrealistic for a woman to internalize abuse and feel that she has to be the one to change her behavior but it does seem to send the wrong message that undercuts everything that came before.  In the final shot, Nola abruptly admits that her period of celibacy was short and she eventually broke it off with Jamie, which, good for her, but it also feels like this movie is trying to have it both ways.

Despite its flaws, She’s Gotta Have It, was a groundbreaking film.  It kicked off Spike Lee’s career, and was in the vanguard of movies by Black filmmakers that shook off the Hollywood stereotypes of Black stories in film.  The movie depicts Brooklyn as home to successful Black people pursuing their interests in careers and personal lives in a way that sadly hadn’t been seen in movies before.  It was also a big boost to independent movies at a time of major studio dominance, and the indies still flourish today because of it.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Circus (1928)


TitleThe Circus
Release Date: January 6, 1928
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

This Charlie Chaplin film comes in-between The Gold Rush and City Lights but is not as highly acclaimed as those two movies, and I can see why.  Chaplin’s Tramp stumbles into a circus and inadvertently becomes a comic star.  He also falls in love with the horse rider Merna (Merna Kennedy) who is brutally abused by the Ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia).  The arrival of a new tightrope walker, Rex (Harry Crocker), leads to a love triangle among the Tramp, Myrna, and Rex.  There are a number of good gags and stunts in the film, but overall the movie just feels thin.  It’s like a good short film got stretched to be a feature.  Still, Chaplin’s comedic brilliance is always worth a watch.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Next Stop Wonderland (1998)


Title: Next Stop Wonderland
Release Date: August 21, 1998
Director: Brad Anderson
Production Company: Robbins Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Next Stop Wonderland was released almost simultaneously with my move to Boston in 1998.  I remember walking across the Longfellow Bridge to Kendall Square Cinemas and then seeing that same great view of the city from the bridge in the opening shot of the movie.  The movie makes great use of Boston area locales, including MBTA subway trains, the New England Aquarium, and The Burren pub in Somerville which was my local watering hole for many years.  Almost all movies set in Boston involve mobsters, fanatic sports fans, and/or academics, so it’s great to have Next Stop Wonderland as Boston’s only romantic comedy.

So, I’m predisposed to enjoy this movie for many nostalgic reasons, but rewatching it for the first time in many years I also feel that it is just a really good romantic comedy.  The movie tells the parallel stories of two characters, Erin Castleton (90s indie movie queen Hope Davis) and Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant).  Erin is a registered nurse who’s live in boyfriend Sean (Philip Seymour Hoffman between The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights but not a huge star yet) leaves her at the beginning of the movie and whose mother places a personal ad in Erin’s name leading to a series of comically bad dates. Alan is a working class son of a plumber going to college to study marine biology and volunteering at the New England Aquarium in his spare time.

The movie has a slice-of-feel to it as the two leads go about their everyday lives while dealing with inappropriate relationships. Erin is briefly drawn to a Brazilian patient (José Zúñiga) while Alan is drawn in by advances of a younger student in his class (Cara Buono, looking very different than on Stranger Things).  A number of quirky, comical things happen along the way involving things ranging from kidnapped ballonfish to misattributed Ralph Waldo Emerson quotations.

SPOILER: Erin and Alan finally do meet at the end of the film, which is kind of expected.  What is an unexpected is that the ending is ambiguous.  They may fall in love, they may just be friends, or they may not ever meet again.  What I like about this movie on this watching is that it is really an introvert’s romance.  Both characters express a contentment with being alone that you don’t often see in the movies.  This could be another reason why this is one of my favorite movies of all-time.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune


Author: TJ Klune
Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Narrator: Daniel Henning
Publication Info: New York : Tor, 2020.
Summary/Review:

Linus Baker is an effective but unambitious caseworker in a large bureaucratic organization called the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.  Unexpectedly, he is singled out by Extremely Upper Management for a longer assignment to an orphanage on the remote Marsyas Island.  The home only has six magical children under the care of the eccentric Arthur Parnassus, but one of them is Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy”), the son of the Devil. (Yes, two of the main characters are named Linus and Lucy and thus prompt a Vince Guaraldi earworm). Other children at the orphanage include wyvern, a gnome, a forest sprite, a shapeshifter, and a gelatinous, tentacled child named Chauncey.

The story is fairly predictable.  Linus’ experience with the children and Arthur leads him to break out of his shell and become more of an advocate for magical children against widespread discrimination.  The children, in turn, learn to accept themselves and begin to form relationships with the nonmagical humans on the mainland.  What makes the book work though is just the wonderful characterization.  The children are so very childlike while also being fantastic and strange. It also has a same sex romance plot and the story can be read as an allegory for the treatment of LGBTQ people cis/het society.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Gertrud (1964)


Title: Gertrud
Release Date: 19 December 1964
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company: Palladium
Summary/Review: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Danish director of the classic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, completed his career with this film, adapted from a play The film betrays its stage origins with several long drawing room conversations.  In fact, Gertrud is famous for its long takes of up to ten minutes.

The titular Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is a former opera singer who announces early on in the film that she wants to divorce her husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a politician who is on the verge of being appointed as a cabinet minister.  She reviews her life and her future in ponderously long conversations with Gustav, her young lover Erland (Baard Owe),  and an ex-lover Gabriel (Ebbe Rode).

I’ve never found it especially profound for an actor to speak in flat tones while staring off into the distance, but it’s especially tedious when it’s done for nearly two hours.  Fortunately, I’m not alone in my dislike of this movie.  It was booed when released at Cannes, and an early reviewer stated “Not a film, but a two-hour study of sofas and pianos.” I guess this one of those movies that might be affecting to some, but I am not among them.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1954)


Title: A Star Is Born
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Transcona Enterprises
Summary/Review:

The second of four Hollywood movies entitled A Star is Born, stars Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, a vocalist in a traveling big band.  Her performance entrances fading movie star and alcoholic Norman Maine (James Mason) and he seeks her out to offer her a chance at a Hollywood career.  The svengali nature of his pursuit is very uncomfortable to watch and it’s enhanced by Mason being one of Classic Hollywood’s creepiest actors.  By the intermission, Esther is a star (given the stage name Vicki Lester). The second half of the movie deals with Norman’s deterioration as his career fades while Esther’s rises.  It’s a very honest depiction of alcoholism and depression, for the 50s.

The movie contains several song and dance set pieces that really allow Garland to shine.  But they don’t feel as if they support the movie’s plot so much as offer a distraction from it.  The one exception is when Esther recreates a big production number from her current film for Norman in their living room.  It’s really the only moment we get to see them having a sweet moment.  Otherwise A Star is Born is overlong, melodramatic, and a bit boring.

It’s a bit eerie how much the movie parallels Garland’s own troubled career.  Norman’s character is criticized for delaying production on his films but in real life Garland was delaying production of A Star is Born with her absences.  At the time this movie was made, Garland had been in show business for around 20 years and A Star is Born was supposed to be her big comeback.  She was only 32 years old.  That’s so messed up.

 

Rating:

Book Review: Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper


Author: Lana Harper
Title: Payback’s a Witch
Narrator: Jeremy Carlisle Parker
Publication Info: Berkley (2021)
Summary/Review:

There’s a lot going on in Payback’s a Witch: it’s a story about confronting one’s past, a comedy about a witchcraft competition and a revenge plot, and a sapphic romance!  Whew!  The story is set in the magical town of Thistle Grove, Illinois, home to four witching families and a brisk Halloween industry.  The novel is narrated by Emmy Harlow, a member of the least prominent of the four families, who has abandoned her magical powers and fled to  Chicago for better opportunities.

The novel begins with Emmy returning to Thistle Grove after a long absence to serve as the judge of a competition among the scions of the other three families to determine the next leader of the community.  Control of the town is typically held by the prosperous Blackmoore family, whose scion Gareth broke Emmy’s heart in their teen years.  Emmy’s best friend Linden Thorn and the alluring Talia Avramov, who’ve also been jilted by Gareth, team up for a revenge plot against the Blackmoores.  Emmy and Talia also begin stirring up a romance.

With hints of Harry Potter and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Payback’s a Witch is nonetheless an original concoction and wholly fun mix of comedy, romance and adventure.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Gone With the Wind (1939)


TitleGone With the Wind
Release Date: December 15, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I’m not really sure what I can say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t been said before.  For good or for ill, this film is steeped in our culture.  When I was a kid in the 70s & 80s, the annual broadcast of Gone With the Wind was a major event spread over multiple nights like a big new miniseries (and delightfully parodied on The Carol Burnett Show).  My mom and sister loved watching the movie, but I avoided it until I was a teenager and found that it was actually better than I imagined.

Still, even if my great-grandfather hadn’t served in the Civil War defending his home state of Pennsylvania, I would find it hard to love a movie whose opening text declares the slaveholder aristocracy to be a great, lost civilization and their insurrection to be a noble cause.  I decided that this movie really actually works as a satire of the South, since all the characters are universally awful in their narcissism, pettiness, duplicity, and greed.  Well, except Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) who seems to have found a happy place divorced from reality.

I can’t deny that this is a technically brilliant and beautifully shot film that was innovative for its time and still holds up (although it says something about our nation that so many of the American film industry’s milestone films – from The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer to Song of the South – are deeply racist).  I also can’t deny that Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable are terrific in their roles.  I quibble with the idea that the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler really deserved the epic treatment and nearly four hours of run time, but it did hold my attention.

I guess I did have a few things to say about Gone With the Wind.  I don’t think it really deserves the revered position it holds, but it is worth giving it a watch if you haven’t seen it yourself.  I don’t think I’ll watch it again.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Brief Encounter (1945)


Title: Brief Encounter
Release Date: 3 November 1945
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Eagle-Lion Distributors
Summary/Review:

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a married woman in her 30s, journeys by train to a nearby town every Thursday to do shopping and see a film at the cinema. On one occasion she is assisted by a charming doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in the refreshment room at the train station.  They meet again and form a bond, meeting week after week over lunch, films, or a drive through the countryside.  They never “consummate” their relationship but nevertheless the strong feelings toward one another cause great guilt and they decide to end their encounters.  Their final meeting is used as a framing device to start and the film, so this is not a big spoiler.

The movie is very restrained in a characteristically British way.  The acting is top notch and I really feel the conflicting emotions simmering beneath the surface of Laura and Alec. I also like that with many scenes set in the train station’s refreshment room that there is another entire story going on with the staff at the bar. It all makes for a well-structured and moving work of cinema.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Senso (1954)


Title: Senso
Release Date:  30 December 1954
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Lux Film
Summary/Review:

Set during the Third Italian War of Independence around 1866, Senso is a sweeping Technicolor melodrama, romance, and war film.  The story centers on Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) who enters into a tryst with Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (American actor Farley Granger dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno).  Initially Livia appears to be using her womanly guiles to support her revolutionary cousin Marchese Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), but she quickly gives into her passions and lusts (“senso” in Italian) and falls madly in love with Franz.

The “romance” of this movie is a hard sell for me since it’s clear from the beginning that Franz is a cad who is totally playing Livia for his own ends.  I hate to admit this, but the battle scenes near the end of the film were the most interesting part of the film for me.  Call me a philistine, but I found this movie to be pretentious dull.  If this is the type of film the Italian neorealists were reacting too, I can better understand the impetus of their movement.

Rating: **1/2