Movie Review – Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Written by Joseph Stein
Directed by Norman Jewison

By this time in his career, Norman Jewison had become dismayed over the political climate in the United States. It was clear that the government was meeting the multiple cultural uprisings and movements with hostility and brutality. He decided to move his family to England, which is where his subsequent few productions were based. Having gained considerable clout for his work on In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair, Jewison was offered to direct a film adaptation of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. The themes of Fiddler seem right in Jewison’s wheelhouse, but it was his first musical, so that aspect of the film remained to be seen until its release. The result is one of Jewison’s best pictures.

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Movie Review – Casino

Casino (1995)
Written by Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi
Directed by Martin Scorsese

After the success of Goodfellas, both with audiences and critics, it was reasonably sure Scorsese & author Nicholas Pileggi would collaborate again on something. Five years later, they told another true story of organized crime and its deleterious effects on people’s lives in Casino. Like Goodfellas, the movie focuses on an outsider to the Italian Cosa Nostra, a Jewish man with a remarkable ability to gamble and win big. Unlike Goodfellas, Casino feels more epic in scope. These people deal with amounts of money that are far beyond what Henry Hill ever got his hands on. The story is also more balanced with its three central cast members in a way that Goodfellas never really did.

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Movie Review – The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Martin Scorsese

It’s absolutely fascinating to see two artists who have delivered masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) so spectacularly bomb a film. I think it’s especially interesting because this was such a passion project for Martin Scorsese. He first read Niko Kazantzakis’s novel while filming Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman in 1972. In turn, Scorsese gave the book to Schrader, and the two planned to make this as the follow-up to The King of Comedy. Right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups and Catholic morality organizations started letter writing to complain about the production, and Paramount pulled back. 

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Movie Review – Education

Education (2020)
Written by Steve McQueen & Alistair Siddons
Directed by Steve McQueen

During the 1970s, it was discovered that some London councils were secretly following an unwritten policy to push Black children out of mainstream schools and into “subnormal” schools that were underfunded and poorly staffed. This practice was exposed by Bernard Coard, an education activist from Grenada who worked as a teacher in England. He found that this policy had a long-term effect of making children “neurotic about their race and culture.” This was yet another in a long line of exposure of systemic racism in Western culture directed at Black minds & bodies.

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Movie Review – Mangrove

Mangrove (2020)
Written by Steve McQueen & Alastair Siddons
Directed by Steve McQueen

The summer of 2020 was a season marked by the continued spread of COVID-19 and a massive civil unrest movement that came out of a reaction to the state-sanctioned murders of a growing number of Black people in America. What followed in major cities across the country were all-out police riots with hordes of uniformed officers revealing what brutal thugs they indeed were. The media narrative pushed was that there were riots, but in hundreds of videos released across social media, anyone could see that these attacks from police were made on peaceful demonstrators who were being very direct about their thought on law enforcement in America. Steve McQueen reminds us that this is not merely an American phenomenon or even something specific to our point in history. Police and the justice system are inherently racist, and they cannot be engaged in good faith.

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Movie Review – Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Written by Robert Bolt
Directed by David Lean

Coming off the meteoric success of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean desired to make a film more romantic & relationship-centered, a counter to Lawrence’s epic war themes. However, Hollywood now saw him as a filmmaker of sprawling bombastic movies. Doctor Zhivago, based on the worldwide bestseller by Boris Pasternak. Originally, Omar Sharif signed on with the expectation of playing Pasha, while Lean wanted Peter O’Toole as the lead again. O’Toole opted out, and so Lean asked Sharif to play the lead part. On December 22, 1965, just in time for Christmas, Doctor Zhivago was released in theaters and became one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time.

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Movie Review – Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock (2020)
Written Steve McQueen & Courttia Newland
Directed by Steve McQueen

I fell in love with director Steve McQueen’s work when I saw his first feature film, Hunger, a decade ago. The way he told the story of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who took part in a prisoner hunger strike and died standing up for his beliefs, was told beautifully. As someone who knew nothing about Bobby Sands beforehand, I was in tears during the beautiful final scene. McQueen hasn’t disappointed me since, and I consider every film he’s directed to be one of the best of that year’s releases. So, in 2020, a year that has been unconventional in every possible aspect, McQueen has done something unconventional with his filmmaking as well, releasing the Small Axe Anthology.

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Movie Review – Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Written by Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean

In the 19th century, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle gave a series of lectures positing the great man theory. This belief is that history is simply the impact of a series of great men who were highly influential and better than the ordinary person. This was attributed to some innate superiority or divine providence. This has become a well-deserved point of contention in modern history discourse as it’s become clear that white men did a very efficient job of suppressing the accounts and perspective of women, black people, and other non-white, LGBTQ+ people that lived alongside them. T.E. Lawrence was definitely seen as a great man, but David Lean’s controversial film about the historical figure explores that the myths and stories did not match the reality.

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Movie Review – Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot (2000)
Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry

In 1984 in the United Kingdom, the Thatcher government led an effort to shut down coal mines and oppose strikes as a means of union breaking. This led to violent clashes between striking miners and police to protect the corporation’s property and help get scabs into the mines. These strikes were declared illegal by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and by 1985, the unions had been weakened to the point that they took concessions that were much less than they had been fighting for. This is the background of Billy Elliot, an unexpected time and place to set this story. When I first saw this film around 2001, I did not expect to be introduced to this conflict, and it is a pretty great thematic element for Billy’s story.

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Movie Review – Gladiator

Gladiator (2000)
Written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson
Directed by Ridley Scott

I am not a fan of Ridley Scott, a statement I’m sure I’ve made multiple times on this blog. I have certainly said it out loud plenty of times. I think he is a fantastic production designer, building worlds in intricate detail. But he is not a consistently strong storyteller or director of human beings. Filmmakers with prolific careers often reveal their personal views for their work, especially if they make big-budget Hollywood pictures. In Scott’s work, I see themes centered around a disdain for how humanity is crushed by institutions and the military’s glorification. In this film, Blackhawk Down, and others, he romanticizes and mythologizes the warrior figure in a personally uncomfortable way.

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