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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Liberty Heights (1999)

Sylvia’s father: “Shouldn’t you be getting out [of the car]?”

Ben: “It’s Sinatra [on the radio].  You don’t walk out on Frank, Sir.  It would be too disrespectful.”

Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999) is great example of a “Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?” film. It’s a movie about race and religion that’s either nostalgically revisionist and hopelessly naïve, or sharply reflective and refreshingly optimistic.  Set in Baltimore in 1954/1955, one can admire Levinson for exploring Jewish, WASP, and black stereotypes with a deft hand, or slam him for ignoring the racial rifts that would set American cities aflame in the Sixties.  I’ll give you the Glass Half Full review; you can check the Net for the Glass Half Empty ones (the World Socialist Website is particularly scathing).

Liberty Heights chronicles a year in the life of two brothers, Ben (Ben Foster) and Van (Adrien Brody) Kurtzman, who’ve grown up in the relatively insular Jewish neighborhood named in the title.  Van’s the cooler, more responsible older brother; Ben’s just graduating high school and looking for ways to establish his own identity.  Their father Nate (Joe Mantegna) is, incongruously, a pillar of the community who manages a burlesque hall in decline and runs the local numbers racket.  As a Glass Half Full reviewer, I commend Levinson for defying convention by giving us a functional family instead of a dysfunctional one.  The Kurtzman household, whatever its moments of crisis (e.g. Ben deciding to go trick-or-treating dressed as Adolph Hitler), is built on love and respect.  Movies such as Liberty Heights rescue genuine family values from their debasement in politicians’ and demagogues’ 5-second sound-bites.

Director Levinson would have been the same age as Ben in 1954.  Much of what makes his film work as well as it does is surely autobiographical.  There’s an amazing attention to period detail.  I’m a real sucker for those cruise-liners-on-wheels that were called cars back in the 50’s, but Liberty Heights is flawless in all its settings—inside the homes of the middle class and the rich, in the streets of the ghetto and in suburbia, at a Jewish Rosh Hashanah service, or with James Brown at the Royal Theatre.  Credit the unsung heroes: the Production Designer (Vincent Peranio), the Art Director (Alan E. Muraoka), the Costume Designer (Gloria Gresham), the Set Decorator (William A. Cimino).

The soundtrack, put together by Ennio Morricone’s son, Andrea, is flawless.  It’s a sign of the intelligence behind the whole film that, along with Frank Sinatra and and Nat King Cole and Elvis, the filmmakers chose Tom Waits to give the Burlesk Theater its bump-and-grind. Recreating the past doesn’t mean being a slave to it.

The Sixties often get front-page treatment as a time of radical change, but the mid-50’s were no slouch in that department either.  Joseph McCarthy’s powerful anti-communist witch hunt was finally being exposed for the travesty it was.  Young people were hit simultaneously by racial desegregation of the schools,  by television, by rock’n roll, and by the new consumer culture.  The melting pot stopped being a theory and became a reality.

That the stereotypes people clung to at that time now strike us as absurd (Jewish views of WASPS as Aryan-storm-troopers-in-waiting, whites’ views of blacks as sexual animals, mutual horror at the thought of interracial dating, WASP views of Jews as gatecrashers of the American Dream, the idea that every black in Baltimore must know Cab Calloway and every Jew must know Einstein ) shows how far we’ve come.  Not that we don’t still have a long way to go, but when was the last time you saw a sign at a public lake that said “No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed”?  Those signs were still up in Baltimore in 1954.  I had no idea.  It took ten years after the Holocaust to figure out that official anti-Semitism wasn’t a good idea??  I love Nate’s comment when he says, “They [the government] integrated the golf courses in ’51 and the schools in ’54—where’s their sense of priorities?” The way Ben and his friends react to the “No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds” sign typifies the film’s strengths.  Naturally there’s anger, but they express it through humor and irony.  “How do you think they came up with that order?” one of the boys asks.  “Must have been some meeting to come up with that order: ‘You know, I gotta tell you, the Jews bother me more than the dogs….’”  Humor is healing; Liberty Heightschooses it over the corrosiveness of bitterness every time.  Is that naïve?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

When Ben lets slip that he finds the new black girl in his homeroom class attractive, his mother’s (Bebe Neuwirth) reaction is “Just kill me now!!”  Ben and Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson) first connect through the 23rd Psalm, recited every morning in homeroom with the Pledge of Allegiance.  Ben finds Sylvia’s genuine reverence fascinating.  He breaks the ice, and suddenly finds his world a whole lot bigger. He discovers that for some people “regular” radio means Billie Holiday and Big Joe Turner instead of Frank.  And because Ben loves music, that’s a pretty cool discovery.  Meanwhile, his friends can’t see any possible basis for a relationship with a black girl that isn’t based on easy sex.  Nor is Sylvia’s father, a wealthy Baltimore doctor, thrilled to find a white boy in his daughter’s closet.

While Ben is bridging the racial divide, his brother Van is spinning through the socio-religious one.  He’s fallen madly in love with a cool blond beauty, Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy), from the other side of the tracks—the wealthy WASP side.  For Van and his buddies to crash a party on the other side of Fells Road, “Gentile turf,” is like running the Berlin Wall. The “rednecks” in this part of town are college preppies with too much money and a medieval mindset on Jewry.  But the times they are indeed a-changing and the boys head into unknown territory with a battle cry of “Get ready, folks!  The Jews are coming!”

This anti-Semitic Berlin Wall collapses as decisively as its namesake.  Ironically, Van’s real problem is the fact that the girl he worships is far less than she seems.  The dream girl with feet of clay.

There isn’t a weak piece of casting in the film, major or minor.  From Frania Rubinek as the traditional Jewish grandmother (“[Sampson] knocked the building down.  He killed the goyim.  End of story.”), to David Krumholtz as Van’s friend Yussel.  Yussel knows as little about Gentiles as they know about Jews.  He can’t understand why a supposedly wealthy Gentile family would put up with a (antique) wooden dining table and (Persian) throw rugs when they could buy a brand- new Formica table and put in wall-to-wall.  Despite his suspicions of those who live on the other side of Fells Road, he’s willing to dye his hair, change his name (“Call me Yeats”) and venture into the territory if there’s a chance of getting laid (“My father’s from Norway and my mother’s from Denmark.  They met in Sweden.  That sort of covers the whole Nordic spectrum” he tells a girl he’s chatting up.)

Joe Mantegna gives his usual flawless performance. A very honest man running a very illegal business.  Not as contradictory as it sounds.  This was just before the states started running their own lotteries.  It’s not the best of times for Nate.  In addition to rumors of the state lottery, the burlesque business is tanking, the IRS is getting suspicious, and a small-time hood, Little (“Don’t make me moody”) Melvin flukes a $100,000 win on a bonus numbers ticket.

Along with superb casting and flawless production values, Levinson’s skill as a director also shines through in the editing of Liberty Heights.  At one point, scenes of Ben and Sylvia at a James Brown concert at the Royal are intercut with those of Van and Dubbie at a huge outdoor party.  Not only do the visuals play narrative counterpoint, but the soundtracks overlap.  The effect is like watching a ballet with tango and apache interludes.  Elsewhere, a raucous Tom Waits dirge (can anyone else besides Tom Waits compose a raucous dirge?) drifts like smoke into a domestic scene.

Not only is this cinematic glass half full, it’s a great vintage to boot.

(Also highly recommended this month: Jay Scott’s movie reviews as collected in Great Scott!  Some amazing work.  Short and right on.  Virtuoso.  His reviews of James Cameron’s Aliens and Akira Kurasawa’s Ran are incredible.  Jay Scott died of AIDS in 1993.  Proceeds from the sale of Great Scott! go to the Canadian AIDS Foundation.)


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I don’t have much to add to my original review of this good-hearted film about the joys & tribulations of being Jewish in Boston in the mid-1950s.  Levinson mines the humor & angst in interracial dating, interfaith dating, inter-class dating, and the perils of trying to supplement a dying burlesque business with a numbers racket.  I can’t help thinking that if this movie were made today there would be more anger, less laughter, and graver consequences.  In short, more pain.

There’s so much that works here: the Rosh Hashanah new Cadillac tradition, Ben’s Adolph Hitler Halloween costume, Yussel’s dyed-blond-hair Nordic make-out scam, the girl-next-door striptease number to a Tom Waits song, the Jewish grandmother, the boyfriend-in-the-closet scene, the bitter & sweet love stories, James Brown at the Apollo, the “You-just-don’t-walk-out-on-Frank scene, Ben & Sylvia’s scandalous kiss, the final bathing breakthrough, etc.  As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of Liberty Heights, Baltimore has been awfully good to Barry Levinson.

One thought that did cross my mind was how the Jewish and black American veterans felt when they came back home after the war and discovered that nothing had changed for them when it came to racism and bigotry.  This theme was explored recently in Dee Rees’s Mudbound (2017).  That a local public swimming area could have had a “No Jews, dogs, or coloreds” sign in 1954 boggles the mind.  That’s just a year before I was born.

The casting of Liberty Heights is as close to perfection as it gets.  So many of the lead actors—Adrien Brodie, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Mantegna, Ben Foster, Orlando Jones, David Krumholtz, Vincent Guastaferro–have gone on to long and successful careers.  For whatever reasons, neither of the two actresses who played the love interests, Rebekah Johnson and Carolyn Murphy, made a career in films.  Nor did Carlton J. Smith, who played James Brown.  As of 2021, Barry Levinson continues to work in film and television.  Rain Man (1988) remains his only Oscar win, but he has picked up four Primetime Emmy awards.  He’s now in his fifth decade as director, producer, and writer.  I’ve unfortunately lost touch with his more recent work, so can’t make any recommendations along those lines.  I plan to check out his most recent film, The Survivor (2021).

Available on YouTube?   Yes, at
Also available for rental or purchase at iTunes & YouTube

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Comedy
Director: Barry Levinson
Actors: Adrien Brodie, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Mantegna, Ben Foster, Orlando Jones, David Krumholtz, Vincent Guastaferro, Rebekah Johnson, Carolyn Murphy
Year: 1999
Original Review: March 2002


The First Film Adaptation of Frankenstein Has Been Restored, and You Can Watch It Right Here

If you’ve been pining for a 10-minute silent film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, pine no more.  The Library of Congress has restored a 1910 Edison studios print rescued from oblivion by an avid collector.    And if the ending of the original story bummed you out, this version has a happy ending for all except the monster.  Who, as so often happens in these stories, dies for love.  Matthew Dessem’s article for Slate magazine provides some historical background to the movie’s recovery.

How a $15,000 Movie Rallied a New Generation of Black Auteurs

Several people involved in the making of Barry Jenkin’s ground-breaking Medicine for Melancholy (2008), along with other contemporary black filmmakers, discuss the impact of Jenkins’ film.  Filmmaker Terence Nance captures the essence of that influence when he says that seeing Medicine for Melancholy inspired him to say to himself, “O.K., I can do this.”

Medicine for Melancholy is available for rental or purchase through iTunes.

Roger Ebert reviews Iron Man (2008)

This is the way it’s done, people.  There’s more depth & insight in Ebert’s review of Iron Man than there are in some critics’ reviews of Citizen Kane.  Thank you, Mr. Ebert.

From the review:

“The art direction is inspired by the original Marvel artists. The movie doesn’t reproduce the drawings of Jack Kirbyand others, but it reproduces their feeling, a vision of out-scale enormity, seamless sleekness, secret laboratories made not of nuts and bolts but of…vistas.”

“Vistas.”  What a perfect word for the artistic worlds of Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, and Stan Lee.

The Anxious Moviegoer: n+1’s A.S. Hamrah and the film criticism of crisis

In this Nation book review of The Earth Dies Streaming, a collection of film reviews written for n+1 magazine by critic A.S.Hamrah, Max Nelson describes how Hamrah’s work stood out against that which was simply an extension of studios’ marketing departments.

From the article:

For the past decade, A.S. Hamrah has been the sharp-tongued, rain-lashed drifter of American movie criticism. The character he adopts in his film columns for n+1 wanders through New York’s crass multiplexes and anxious independent movie theaters with a kind of melancholy indignation….

 It keeps repelling Hamrah that movies not only acknowledge but also contribute to “the bloodshed and mayhem into which the world has fallen.” The drama that sustains The Earth Dies Streaming is that this sense of dire complicity becomes at the same time the well from which Hamrah gets his energy and momentum as a writer. The batch of earlier pieces in this collection almost all date from the early years of the Iraq War; a brilliant long essay from 2008 called “Jessica Biel’s Hand” surveys dozens of movies the war inspired. The rest—most of the book—were written between the start of the subprime-mortgage crisis and the first years of the Trump presidency.

Films Worth Talking About:

Fight Club, Magnolia, The Matrix, Star Wars – Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, 10 Things I Hate About You, Eyes Wide Shut, Office Space, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Boys Don’t Cry, Election, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, The Virgin Suicides, The Best Man, The Iron Giant, American Pie, all About My Mother, Galaxy Quest, Cruel Intentions, Being John Malkovich, Notting Hill, The Talented Mr. Ripley, American Beauty, Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead, Princess Mononoke, The War Zone, Topsy-Turvey, The Insider, The End of the Affair, The Boondock Saints, The Bone Collector, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Cider House Rules, Angela’s Ashes, Arlington Road, Sleepy Hollow, Titus, Stigmata, The Faculty, Stir of Echoes, [El mismo amor, la misma Lluvia], Fantasia 2000, October Sky, Double Jeopardy, Kikujiro, Bicentennial Man, Big Daddy, East is East, Music of the Heart, The General’s Daughter, Never Been Kissed, Peppermint Candy, The Haunting, Stuart Little, True Crime, The Other Sister, Butterfly, The Thirteenth Floor, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Ravenous, EdTV, Payback, Mystery Men, The Muse, idle Hands, Limbo, Audition, Ratcatcher, Beau Travail, Two Hands, Romance, Dick, Autumn Tale, Cookie’s Fortune, The Hurricane, Mansfield Park, Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Perfect Blue, After Life, The Straight Story, The Limey, A Moment of Innocence, Go, [Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels], Any Given Sunday, The Thomas Crowne Affair, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Bowfinger, [Girl, Interrupted], Pokémon: The First Movie, The Mummy, Superstar, Runaway Bride, Analyze This, The Wood, The Green Mile, Varsity Blues, Dogma, Summer of Sam,  She’s All That, Deep Blue Sea, Jawbreaker, Rosetta, eXistenZ, Blast from the Past, The Astronaut’s Wife, Message in a Bottle, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, The Ninth Gate, Entrapment, 8mm, The 13th Warrior, The World is Not Enough, Felicia’s Journey, Twin Falls Idaho, eXistenZ, Three Seasons, New Waterford Girl

The Bigger Picture

FilmsDiner(1982), Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990)

Music:  James Brown, “Please, Please, Please”, Live at the Apollo

Books:  Henry Finder, ed., The 50s: The Story of a Decade; William H. Young, The 1950s; Nick Yapp, gettiimages: 1950s

The Word on the Street

[NOTE: Many reviewers, even those who found a lot of positive things to say about Liberty Heights, had higher praise for two of Barry Levinson’s other ‘Baltimore’ films—Diner and Avalon.]

Because this is not the typical problem arises-conflict ensues-climax is reached-conclusion is found film, Levinson shows us that these people’s lives were a series of ups and downs, joys and losses, that summarize American middle-class youth in all ages in history. There connections between the different walks of life and the idea of growing up and discovering diversity around you is what makes this film universal and beautiful, all without handing you morals and themes on a silver platter. This film takes a wonderfully objective viewpoint that allows you to make meaning of it rather than spelling it out for you.   [ladder2thestars]

From time to time one comes across remarkable films like Liberty Heights where simple story is told in extraordinary manner. This film is about the Jewish Kurtzman family, but we follow the father and his two sons as three separate stories. Each one of them having their own struggle and challenges to face. What struck me as the most amazing part of the story was the easiness of it, how it flowed and gently tackled serious issues in the community of that time. It portrait itself in a realistic manner, where there were no real baddies or large showdown, just people going through life.   [SamRag]

It is the autumn of 1954 in Baltimore, and the Brown vs the Board of Education ruling is quickly bringing down racial barriers in this heretofore segregated city. “Liberty Heights” is told from the perspective of an insular Jewish family, primarily the family’s two high-school age brothers. Both are on journeys of self-discovery, the older brother with hostile WASP gentiles, the younger with African-Americans. Both fall for girls from opposing racial camps.
In “Liberty Heights”, Levinson again lovingly recreates 1950s Baltimore. You can tell he knows the lay of the land; it’s etched in his heart. Like his other three Baltimore movies “Liberty Heights” is a labor of love. Thankfully Levinson did not stop with his ‘Baltimore Trilogy’, this is the fourth outing. And I hope there is a fifth, sixth, seventh…   [gbheron]

Of all the many merits of this film mentioned by various reviewers it seems that the ‘mood’ of the cinematography doesn’t get mentioned. Perhaps the most powerful of these elements are the cars; drop dead gorgeous American beauties of the age that perfectly reflect the warm mood of celebration of life that pervades the rest of the era. For all their social and individual problems, the protagonists all get to cruise around in these incredible automobiles. The Cadillac takes centre stage but the movie abounds with reverential shots of great cars like Pontiac Catalinas, Kaiser, Oldsmobiles etc. focusing the photography and sound on their most seductive features like ‘rocket’ hood ornaments and almost unreally beautiful colors. The Director caught America of the 1950s ‘dead on’ when he makes frequent mention of their seductive influence on the generation.   [johndunbar-580-920543]

Again, only one character, a bit character who is announcing names at graduation, had a Baltimore accent. (I just don’t get Levinson; if you film in Baltimore, educate your actors to use local dialect.) Also, the film did not depict enough people smoking; everyone and anyone smoked cigarettes, especially in the 1950’s. I am frankly surprised the boys and their friends weren’t at least sneaking a smoke. However, the storyline was greatly thought out. It was shocking to others in 1964, when I hung around with my black neighbors just to play dodge ball or hopscotch; imagine in 1954, a black girl and a white boy being friends?! Well done, Barry!   [Petunia-2]

As a period piece on the 1950’s, this is outstanding. The costumes and props were perfect and the entire film had a genuine 50’s feeling to it. Levinson captured not only the images, but also the attitudes.   [FlickJunkie-2]

I enjoyed the movie but it was just chock full of offensive stereotypes. Jews are smart and love Cadillacs. WASPS are snooty and drink alot. But, worst of all, African Americans are shady and none too bright. Yes, the Black young woman is bright and beautiful but she’s right out of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a counter stereotype: rich, third generation college educated, high class. The main image of Blacks is about as offensive as could be. What is wrong with Barry Levinson? Has no one told him that racial stereotyping of Blacks does damage in this country even in 2000. The Black gangsters could just have easily been Jewish, Italian, Irish or French Canadian. Or just plain neutral. I am Jewish and didn’t like the stereotyping of Jews either, but they were not especially negative. The Black stereotypes were. I was offended and turned off. Is Levinson just clueless?   [Mikey-99]