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52 Movies: Week 53 - Tony Takitani

[Sorry, I missed one. --Ed.]

What a lovely little film this is. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, and clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, this minimalist gem carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.

The opening ten minutes provide the backstory for our oddly-named protagonist. Takitani Shozaburo is a Japanese jazz trombone player who was captured in China during World War II. After the war he returns to Japan, marries, and the following year the couple has a son. The boy’s mother dies soon after he is born, and Shozaburo gives him the Americanized name Tony, liking the sound of it.

Tony’s father continues to travel as a musician, and Tony grows up basically alone; among other things his Western name is a hindrance to the development of friendships. But he likes to draw, and eventually becomes an accomplished illustrator, one who excels at drawing cars and machines, but whose work shows little emotion despite its technical skill.

This prelude to Tony’s story is told largely via voiceover narration and a series of brief visual vignettes, during which the camera remains mostly static within each scene, but pans from scene to scene directly from left-to-right like in a slide show. These movements mark the passage of time, as in the technique in older films of having calendar pages flip or be blown off by the wind. At first this technique may seem a little forced and perhaps distracting, but as you settle in with it and the film progresses it becomes quite fitting and natural to the way in which director Jun Ichikawa tells the story.

After this prelude we see Tony as a successful technical artist, still alone in early middle age. One day he meets a pretty young client, and after a time he asks her out. They go on a few dates, seemingly hitting it off, and Tony proposes. Surprisingly, the girl, Eiko, agrees to think about it, and eventually says yes. They marry, but not long afterwards, and despite their apparent happiness, Tony finds out something disturbing about his new bride: she buys an “alarming number” of designer clothes.

Eventually Tony and Eiko talk about this obsession of Eiko’s, and she agrees to cut back. But an obsession is an obsession, this one takes a tragic turn, and again Tony finds himself faced with the possibility of being alone. His attempts to deal with this make up the remainder of the story.

The overall feel of this film is that of a fable, or even a sort of visual poem. Dialogue is sparse – most of the story is told by the conjunction of the narration and the visuals, and the narration itself has the matter-of-fact quality of a folktale. Issey Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father, and who is better known in Japan as a comedian and comic actor, captures both Tony’s lonely world-weariness and his hope perfectly. It’s a quietly wonderful performance. And Rie Miyazawa, who plays both Eiko and another girl, Hisako, that Tony meets later in the film, plays both of these quite different girls so well that only the credits give away the fact that it’s the same actress.

The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is sparse too – all solo piano, made up of haunting melancholy themes for the most part, but punctuated occasionally by the more upbeat, almost jazzy moments that accompany the film’s brighter scenes.

On a surface level, then, the whole thing seems very simple. But the excellent understated performances, the uncomplicated storytelling, and the visual poetry combine in a way which makes Tony Takitani deeper and richer than it appears. And the gentle touch of irony with which the film ends is perfect. Ultimately what we have here is a jewel of small beauty -- a fine poetic meditation on life and loneliness, love and memory.


—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 52 - About A Boy

No man is an island. – Jon Bon Jovi

This quote is the theme of the movie, discussed in voice-over by the main character at the very beginning, and then again at the very end. Will Freeman considers himself “an island”; completely self-sufficient, and in need of no other islanders to share with him his realm. To be perfectly honest I have never really liked living with other people, so was very much drawn to this movie from the opening scene back in 2002 when I was fourteen years younger. Now, such an island seems a little bleak.

It is always odd revisiting a film after many years have passed. Especially when it is one you felt at the time seemed to speak to you. There is a reason I have never re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that the enjoyment my 13-year-old self had reading it would be much diminished as a wiser adult. But I digress. When I first saw About a Boy I was surprised that:

  • Hugh Grant seemed to be playing a real person, and not the fluttering eye lidded floppy haired fop from so many of his previous films.

  • A “rom com” (romantic comedy) could have a little depth, make me think, appear to exist in a world I might recognize.

I am happy that watching it again so many years later it does still retain much of its inherent charm. I probably do not relate to Will as much as I did back then, but the movie was enjoyable and went by quickly. I kept thinking, “is this really going to make me laugh” and then during one scene I was suddenly laugh/crying and getting the insides of my glasses wet with my tears!

Grant plays Will Freeman, who lives a life that is certainly enviable in many respects: no wife, no kids, no job, money to live comfortably, ability to meet beautiful single women. But I suppose Will finds himself a little lacking in that final category and begins to date divorced single mothers. Then he attends a SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together) self-help group meeting, pretending to be the father of a two-year-old son named Ned. Through some oddity involving a date with a woman there who knows the mother of our titular “boy” Will eventually befriends the 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult, who lately plays Beast in the X-Men films, and used to date Jennifer Lawrence).

I must sheepishly admit that I did like the Hugh Grant persona to some degree in those previous films, especially Four Weddings and a Funeral, regardless of how annoying his typical character back then was. About a Boy seems to be the point in his career when he either got a better agent, or simply made a conscious decision that he should try to act rather than simply react to the actors around him.

Marcus’s mother (“was clearly insane, and appeared to be wearing a yeti”- Will) Fiona (Toni Collette) is a vegetarian, neo-hippie, and quite depressed. All three of these conditions help to make his school-life more difficult than your average already difficult middle-school experience. His solid brown shoes, sweaters knitted by his mother, and occasional singing of mid-70s lite-rock hits during class without realizing it does not endear him to his fellow students. Marcus provides the viewer with a second occasional voice-over, helping to explain the action.

About a Boy began as a book by Nick Hornby, who is a favorite author of mine. He also wrote High Fidelity which was adapted into a fine movie starring John Cusack. The filmmakers who adapted High Fidelity moved the action from London to Chicago, but this time with About a Boy we stay in the UK. Both have music as a recurring theme, and the soundtrack to About a Boy was written and performed by Badly Drawn Boy, who is some sort of lite-rockish, neo-folk English singer who always wears a knit hat. At the time it came out I found his music endearing, and enjoyed how it strung the movie together. All these years later it reminds me of Jack Johnson, and I was more impressed with the U2 and Roberta Flack songs included. Redo the sound and ditch Badly Drawn Boy! As a matter of fact, both he and Jack Johnson can end their careers and do the world a favor! Uh oh, another digression.

Nick Hornby, if you’ve never read him, is what I would categorize as a very smart contemporary writer. His books are not very long, and they all speak with what I suppose is his voice. They tend to be written in first-person narrative, wherein you easily hear the main character and understand all his (or her) quirks and motivations. Hornby has also gained some success writing screenplays lately. I believe he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Brooklyn (a tremendous movie, and an even better book). With all of that said, Hornby did not write the screenplay for About a Boy.

I am discussing other things besides the movie because I feel I have already given away too much of the plot along with one very funny line. Will and Marcus befriend each other. Will understands what a boy needs more than Fiona does. Through their friendship Will becomes more open to the idea that his island does not have to be a population of simply one. That said, it is not the typical romantic comedy which has Will and Fiona carrying on at the end. It is more about the man and the boy and their friendship. And yes, I do know that John Donne said “no man is an island”, not Jon Bon Jovi.

This is probably the first romantic comedy reviewed in the series. A movie to enjoy that is not in any way cerebral, or taxing. I feel like a commoner introducing silly nonsense to a group of smart people. However, very much recommended, good acting by all parties! In 2018 let’s do “52 Rom Coms”! It made me chuckle out loud just to type that. 

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 —Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.

52 Movies: Week 51 - Four Movies: Two Horses, a Queen, and an Artist

This post is made up of four short reviews of movies that are only related in the flow of my own stream of consciousness. I was thinking about the first film one day and one thing led to another, and this was the result.


I first stumbled on the movie Dark Horse (2016) when I was looking for The Dark Horse. I had seen a trailer for the latter on the DVD of another movie, and it looked like it might be good. The description of Dark Horse looked interesting too, so I put it on my Netflix queue. By the time it arrived, I had it in my mind that it was a movie about an actual event, but in reality, it is a documentary.

Jan Vokes is a barmaid in a small Welsh mining town. Her father bred parakeets, and she followed in his footsteps, breeding other animals among which I think were greyhounds. I wish I could remember exactly, but I don't have easy access to the film now. In any case, she had a background in breeding animals, and when she overheard Howard Davis, a well-to-do patron of the bar, talking about his unprofitable foray into horse racing, she decided to give it try.

When she told her husband, Brian, what she intended to do, he said something to the effect that she was daft, but he also said that when Janet put her mind to something, you could be sure that she would do it. (I had to laugh at that, because I have heard my husband say the exact same thing many times.) Then, despite the fact that Davis had sworn to never get involved with horses again, she convinced him to help, and persuaded 100 locals to join a syndicate in which they would contribute £10 a week toward the expense of breeding and racing a horse.

Despite the fact that they had so few resources and had to go to the bargain end of the stud book to achieve their goals, the syndicate succeeded in breeding a winner. Dream Alliance gained increasing respect from the racing community who originally snubbed the syndicate, and in the end won the Welsh Grand National.

Louise Osmond, the director of the film, did a wonderful job of interviewing the members of the syndicate and telling the story in a delightful way. Godfrey Cheshire at RogertEbert.com described the film as crying out, “to be a Mike Leigh film starring Jim Broadbent and other members of the director's stock company,” and this is as accurate a description of the film as you could find.

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The Dark Horse (2014) begins with a large Maori man wearing a large quilt, wandering through the streets of a New Zealand town muttering to himself. He turns into a second-hand shop, and when he sees a chessboard on the counter, he immediately snaps into a more understandable monologue and begins playing chess. He is still obviously disturbed and the proprietors call the police who take him into custody and back to a facility for the mentally ill.

The Dark Horse is based (to what degree I don't know) on the life of Genesis Potini, a man who had in his youth had a reputation as an up-and-coming chess master. His severe manic-depression, however, put an end to his early promise. The story of the film begins as he is released into the custody of his brother, Akiri, who is the only person willing to have Genesis in his home.

Akiri is not the ideal custodian of a mentally ill person as he is the leader of a gang, the Outcasts, and his home is the place where the gang hangs out. Besides the Outcasts, Gen has to deal with his resentful nephew Manu, who has had to give up his room for his uncle. Manu is, understandably, a troubled young man who is torn by his desire to make his father happy by joining the gang, and his desire for a different kind of life.

Gen, seeing a poster advertising the Eastern Knights, a chess club for underprivileged youth led by an old friend, offers his services as a teacher for the group. The friend isn't at all thrilled with Gen's offer, but is finally convinced to see how things go. Needless to say, it isn't all smooth sailing, but the story of the Eastern Knights, the relationship between Gen and Manu, and Gen's struggle to stay on top of his illness make for a compelling film.

Week51-queen chessboard

I also enjoyed the French chess movie, Queen to Play (2011). Sandra Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a woman who cleans rooms in a pastoral hotel in the Corsican countryside. One day a couple tells her to go ahead and clean their room while they are sitting on the balcony playing chess. As she cleans, she watches the beautiful couple—the woman in her slip--on the balcony, intent on their game and one another, and feels a growing hunger. After the couple leaves the hotel, Hélène finds that the woman has left the slip behind in the bed, and she takes it home and begins to wear it, a sort of talisman of the life that she wants to lead.

Hoping to be able to play chess with her husband, Hélène buys him an electronic chess set for his birthday, but he is completely baffled by the gift. He does try to learn, but the complexity of the game is too much for him, so she tries to teach herself to play.

Hélène has another job cleaning the beautiful home of a reclusive and irascible Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline). She finds that he owns a chess set, and asks him to play with her. He declines, but she is persistent. She even offers to work for free if he will, and he says they will try once. When he sees how serious she is about the game, and how much it means to her, he agrees to teach her.

The picture at the top of this section comes from a NPR review by Ella Taylor that describes Queen to Play as not-too-terrible, but I think it's a good deal better than that, and that Ms. Taylor has some kind of an ax to grind, particularly with Kevin Kline. I hesitated to link to the site, but I liked the picture.

Roger Ebert, on the other hand, says this about the film:

I wonder if someone who doesn't love chess as much as I do would like “Queen to Play” as much as I did. Such a person could enjoy the transformation of a Corsican maid into strong chess player. They might read it as a story of female empowerment, of a woman asserting herself in her marriage and in her job. That would be fair enough.

But what I enjoyed was the way the film summons up the pure obsessive passion that chess stirs in some people.

I live with a bit of that in my husband, but, since I can't grasp the spatial aspect of the game, I'm not a chess enthusiast myself.


The last film is about yet another French housekeeper who has a an inner passion, and that passion is for painting. Like The Dark Horse, Séraphine (2009) is a movie about the life of a real person, a person who is also mentally ill. Séraphine Louis (played by Yolande Moreau) was born in Arcy (Oise), France in1864. She was very poor and and seems to have had a rather limited intelligence. She used the money from her work cleaning houses to buy the materials to paint the pictures which she secretly worked on at night.

Séraphine's work was accidentally discovered by art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who was a neighbor of one of her employers. He was very impressed by her work, which he exhibited, and her paintings became very popular. Some of them are quite beautiful, but as you can see from the above picture, many of them had a rather disturbing quality, and they came by it honestly. Séraphine was very ill and ended her life in an institution where she was unable to paint.

This is a good movie but it is very sad and very disturbing. I would only cautiously recommend it. In fact, I'm not even sure that I want to include it in this post, except that it ties in so well with what's gone before. And then it shows that even the most unlikely people can have deeply hidden talents. Her works are still exhibited.

As I think about these four movies, I realize that the one thing that they all have in common is this discovery of gifts in unexpected places: the barmaid who breeds a race horse, the manic-depressive who mentors children, the chambermaid who plays tournament chess, and the housemaid who creates masterpieces. It's odd that I never noticed that until now.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 50 - La Sapienza


I believe that La Sapienza, a 2014 film written and directed by Eugène Green, has not been widely seen. I forget how it came about that I heard of it; probably there was some approving notice in the local press when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. In any case, and box office returns notwithstanding, it is a film very much worth seeing.

We are introduced to a middle-aged couple, Alexandre and Aliénor, he an architect and she a psychoanalyst. They are both professionally successful, but beset by problems: their marriage has grown cold and dry, and he, in particular, has come to regret the path his professional life has followed, for though he has won many accolades he has neglected the guiding ideals that had inspired him to become an architect in the first place. He decides to travel to Italy to rekindle that early love of his subject, and she goes along.

It soon transpires that they cross paths with a young brother and sister, Goffredo and Lavinia. She is ill with a strange malady, and he, it so happens, is about to begin his university studies in architecture. Thus we get a natural shuffling: Aliénor elects to remain with Lavinia as she recovers in order that Goffredo can accompany Alexandre on his architectural tour. From this point, the film jumps back and forth between the two women and the two men, following their developing friendships, and, subterraneously, re-aligning and healing the original relationships.

The architectural tour, devoted especially to the works of Borromini, takes the two men to Turin and then, for the bulk of the film, to Rome. My friends, I know of no film more apt to delight the heart of a lover of the Eternal City! The camera lingers lovingly over details as it gently slides across a facade, or is content to gaze raptly at the intricate symmetries of a church ceiling. Rome, and its many beauties, is no mere setting, but becomes itself a subject of the film. It is truly glorious. Even were there nothing else going on in the film, the devoted attention it lavishes on these architectural gems would be enough to recommend it.


But there is more going on. As the two women get to know one another, Aliénor explores with Lavinia her hopes for the future and the nature of her illness. Meanwhile the two men, ostensibly the master and the student, through a series of encounters and conversations find their roles gradually reversed, the older learning from the younger how to recover his lost passion for his art. Those, at least, are two of the main arcs of the story, but to leave it there would be to oversimplify.

On the surface La Sapienza is about how the friendships and experiences of the characters change them for the better, for the film believes strongly in truth and beauty as spiritual curatives. But having pondered it at some length (and watched it twice), I believe that one of its leading convictions, sunk into numerous aspects of both story and presentation, is that spiritual realities manifest themselves in physical things, or, put the other way, that tangible things possess an inner reality. This is true of buildings as of bodies. It's a rather Catholic idea, consonant with a sacramental imagination, but the film itself does not stress any particular religious connection. (Indeed, all we know of the religious convictions of the lead characters is that one is a syncretist and another an atheist.) It is nonetheless an amazingly rich theme to explore, and one rarely encountered at the cinema.

At this point I should note the most obvious thing that will strike the average viewer of La Sapienza: it is weird. I choose the word advisedly, intending to catch the resonance with the old sense of 'uncanny', as well as the modern sense of 'unusual'. Green has adopted a daring formal technique: almost always the actors speak directly into the camera, as if addressing the viewer, even when actually addressing one another. The conversations have a studied quality, each line having a little more silence around it than we’re accustomed to. Furthermore the actors often adopt a highly artificial acting style, with stiff movements, vacant facial expressions, flat tone. Even the blocking is deliberate: characters who are unfriendly to one another, for instance, stand angled away from one another, while characters who love one another stand face to face. So strange is the cumulative effect of these unconventional rules that I confess I found the experience of watching it curiously unnerving.

Here is a short excerpt of a conversation between Alexandre and Goffredo, illustrating, in part, what I mean:


At first I was puzzled by the purpose of these odd formal strategies, but upon reflection I believe they are related to the idea I discussed above: that inner realities are conveyed by means of external signs. In this film what we see on the characters' faces, and in their postures, and what we hear in their voices, are their souls, without disguise or polite veil. The face looks hard because the heart is hard. The eyes are bright and open because the soul is alive and beautiful. They smile because they feel genuinely happy. They walk stiffly, or easily, because their souls are bound, or free. The drama we see is the interior drama. And this revelation of the inner world by the outer is transposed in the film also to the architectural masterpieces, palaces of space and light, in which we see only the surface but are drawn to the spirit.

I hope, but doubt, that these notes adequately convey what I found so alluring about the film. If I have made it sound dull or didactic, this is just because while writing I've been trying to work out in my own mind what I think it is doing.

All told, I found it to be a fascinating and surprisingly touching film. It is rare to find a movie that has such great confidence in beauty and goodness, and one that is so wholly oriented toward light. It may seem perversely odd at first, on account of its unfamiliar and apparently bizarre conventions, but as it proceeds it slowly excavates an interior space until the viewer, without quite knowing how, finds himself in a realm of mystery.

—Craig Burrell blogs now and then at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives near Toronto.

52 Movies: Week 49 - Topsy Turvy

As a child I involuntarily acquired a familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan from my grandmother’s record collection (which consisted almost wholly of their operettas and Strauss waltzes — the popular music of her parents’ generation) and from the occasional televising of a performance. These were the days when a household had a single screen, and the children got to watch whatever the adults decided should be on it. In 2005, for the World Expo in Aichi, the commissioner of the Belgian pavilion published a lavish volume on the history of Japanese–Belgian relations (economic, diplomatic and cultural). I revised the essays in the book, more than one of which was about the 19th-century craze for Japanese arts and crafts (which can be seen in Van Gogh’s imitations of Hiroshige, or Monet’s more oblique debt to Hokusai).

Not long after this I first saw Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on television. I have rewatched it five or six times since, and regret having become aware of it too late to see it on a big screen. The film covers a period of about a year in the mid-1880s when Gilbert and Sullivan came close to ending their flagging artistic collaboration, but triumphantly got it back on track with The Mikado. So many influences on our appreciation are personal that I do not know whether anyone else would respond with quite the enthusiasm that I did — a reluctant Gilbert and Sullivan buff, with an unsought depth of knowledge about the Victorian enthusiasm for Japan. The film certainly seems not to have done very well at the box-office, where according to Wikipedia it recouped not much more than 6 of the 20 million dollars that it cost to make.

I really cannot imagine why it had so little success at the box office, as I would count Topsy-Turvy among the cleverest, best written, best acted, and most beautifully produced films of the last twenty years. The sets and costumes are unimpeachable. It does rather pack in the novelties of the time – telephones, fountain pens, ice-cream cones, indoor plumbing – but in an entertaining enough manner. I think I’m right in saying that it won Oscars for costumes and make-up; if it didn’t it certainly deserved to. And of course, it is filled throughout with songs from the works.

As fair warning, I will mention that two scenes do always irk me. One is of Sullivan in a Parisian brothel, which takes a good deal longer than is necessary to convey whatever artistic point its inclusion requires (similarly, in Mr Turner, a film that is a stunning exploration of light and colour, Leigh has an uncomfortable sex scene that goes on long after its point is made, for no clear reason — certainly not for titillation). Luckily, once the brothel scene starts you miss nothing by skipping straight to the beginning of the next chapter on the DVD. The other is a group of leading actors from the company (the bass, tenor and baritone who in the final production of The Mikado have the roles of the Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) dining together and discussing news from the Sudan (the contemporary events that provide the plot for the 1966 blockbuster Khartoum). They speak with a crude and dismissive racism that rings false. Racist assumptions may have been characteristic of many attitudes of the period, but the dialogue in this scene strikes me more as a modern liberal trying to sound like an imperialistic jingo (see how unenlightened they were!) than something respectable people at the time would actually have been likely to say over dinner in a public restaurant. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these minor irritations, but in the balance of the film as a whole they certainly detract little from it.

 —Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Movies: Week 48 - Diên Biên Phú

Diên Biên Phú is a two-hour war film by the French director Pierre Schoendoerffer, released in 1992. It tells the story of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the decisive defeat of French forces in Vietnam that led to the French abandonment of its client state and former colony, and indirectly to American involvement in the ensuing civil war between Communists and nationalists. There’s a contemporary newsreel regarding the battle at this link. In Schoendoerffer’s film, three plotlines intertwine: the course of the battle itself, a famous violinist rehearsing and performing her farewell concert in the opera house in Hanoi (the capital of French Indochina), and vignettes of an American reporter trying to gain not just the latest information but also an understanding of the background to events. Exposition of context is provided in the scenes in which the American interviews or interacts with a range of figures — soldiers and nationalists, smugglers and opium dealers. He’s the outsider whose need to learn about the situation justifies explanations that for the other characters would be redundant.

The scenes of the battle are unlike any others I have seen. It is in one respect a very unusual sort of war film, quite possibly unique: the director had himself been present at the battle, as a cameraman for the French army’s film service. He saw it as his duty to document the event, but when defeat came he destroyed his cameras and his reels of film, so that nothing he had shot might be of use to the enemy. Almost forty years later he directed a film that would, in a sense, recreate his lost recordings from memory. One of the characters, played by his own son, is even a cameraman for the army film service. Battlefield scenes, whether of combat, or care of the wounded, or of an army chaplain’s field mass, bear witness to his memory of events. If the American journalist is a pretext for exposition, the battlefield scenes are essentially documentary reconstructions. Diên Biên Phú doesn’t fall readily into either of the two typical types of war drama, the glorifying and the anti-militarist, as it shows the anguish and suffering of the soldiers in the firing line quite bluntly and at some length, while also showing astonishing and admirable acts of courage.

Finally, there is the music. If the camera seeks accurately to recreate what Schoendoerffer saw on the battlefield, the haunting score adds an entirely different emotional layer to the experience. The first time I saw the film was on television – it happened to be on, and although I had never heard of the film before I had vaguely heard of the battle. As soon as possible after seeing it, for the first time in my life, I sought out and acquired the soundtrack. I have done the same for two other films since: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The composer, Georges Delerue, is apparently very famous, although I had to Google him. Apparently he scored another war film set in Vietnam, Platoon, but I haven’t seen that.

The clip below, from about an hour in, combines all three strands, cutting between the opera house in Hanoi, where the American journalist is in the audience, and the battlefield, where an artillery lieutenant defies an order to spike his guns, instead using them to cover the retreat of his comrades. Although rather low resolution (perhaps best watched on a mobile phone?), it captures many of the beauties of the film. The cinematography is far more stunning than it might suggest. The clip also contains the only explicit cinematic reference I have ever noticed to Newton’s laws of motion (the artilleryman’s “la loi du vieil Isaac”).

It is not a film to be watched for plot, although it does have one, but for the camerawork, the composition of the shots, the music, the vignettes of the sights and sounds of French Indochina in the 1950s, and above all the testimony to the hard-fought defeat in which three quarters of those who surrendered died in captivity.

Dien Bien Phu (Schoendoerffer) par henrisalvador

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Movies: Week 47 - I Know Where I'm Going


Originally, I had meant to write about another movie, but after talking about Wendy Hiller on the My Fair Lady post, I decided to write about my favorite Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I'm Going. The movie was filmed in black and white during the last months of World War II. The writers/directors/producers of the movie were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were also responsible for two other films in this series, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and One of Our Aircraft is Missing; and for the film based on Rumer Godden's novel, Black Narcissus.

Joan Webster is a young woman who from her earliest days has known what she wants from life. When she was five, she asked Father Christmas for silk stockings. She didn't get them, but that didn't stop her from keeping her eyes on her goal, and that goal was to have all the finer things in life. Now at 25, Joan is about to achieve her dreams.

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Joan invites her father to an upscale restaurant to tell him that she is engaged to an older man, Robert Bellinger, the owner of Consolidated Chemical Industries. She explains that she is leaving on a train that evening to go to the Hebrides, where she will marry Bellinger on his island, Kiloran. When Joan arrives at the train, we see that Bellinger has arranged everything for her: a private coach, an elaborate itinerary, and a lovely wedding dress. Asleep in her berth, Joan dreams of her wedding—her wedding to Consolidated Chemical Industries. You can see this rather amusing wedding beginning at 3:13 on this video.

Arriving on the Isle of Mull, she finds for the first time in her life that she has met an obstacle that she can't overcome by force of will. The fog will not permit her to get to Kiloran. At the dock, she meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a young naval office with eight days of leave which he wants to spend on the Isle of Kiloran. Since they can't cross that day, and it's too late to go anywhere else, he takes her with him to the home of a friend, Mrs. Catriona (pronounced Catrina) Potts, who arrives dripping wet from hunting on the moor with a brace of rabbits, and a warm welcome for Torquil; and happy to have some female company because she, “hasn't heard any intelligent female nonsense for months.” Catriona is pretty much an image of the spirit of the islands. Life is difficult and they don't have much, but they would rather live the way they do than move elsewhere and give up the things that are really important to them.


Before they go to bed, Torquil tells Joan that if she counts the beams in her room, she will get her wish. He says it will only work on the first night in the house, and only if she believes. So Joan does count the beams and makes her wish in the form of a little prayer, “Please, Lord, don't let the wind drop, and let it blow away the fog.” And her prayer is answered, but in the way of so many fables, it isn't answered in the way she intended. Not only does the wind not drop, it strengthens into a gale.

For the next several days as the weather continues to be a problem, we are immersed in the culture of the Hebrides. We meet the people who live on the Isle of Mull and visit the ruins of an old castle, go to dinner at a grand house in Achnacroish and hear the old woman who lives there describe their wonderful balls, and attend a ceilidh celebrating the diamond wedding anniversary of a local couple, where Joan and Torquil dance away the night.

The outcome of the movie is very predictable. From almost the first moment of the movie, we have an idea of what is going to happen, and from the moment Torquil appears, we know who it is going to happen with. I'm not too worried about spoilers because I know that you know where this movie is going.

I Know Where I'm Going is a romance, but it is the best kind of romance. While there is a definite physical attraction between Joan and Torquil, there is more than that. There is an attraction to each other as people, and the relationship is full of respect and courtesy. What is more, it's not a romance that concerns two individuals isolated in their own little world, but it takes place in a community where that relationship has a place.

I know 2

All the actors play their parts very well. Wendy Hiller gives a wonderful performance. I love her face. While she doesn't have a traditional kind of beauty, she has something more. I think it's character. Nancy Price, who plays Mrs. Crozier of Achnacroish, draws the viewer completely in with her description of the big local Highland dance. There's also an appearance by 12 year old Petula Clark.

While I was trying to find a way to watch the film without waiting for a DVD (It's available on DVD from Netflix, and streaming from Amazon), I found a half hour 1994 video called I Know Where I'm Going Revisited. It begins with Martin Scorsese saying that he had just seen this film for the first time and discovered a classic. It has a lot of interesting information, but the cinematography was designed by the demons in the eighth circle of hell. Some of it is pure torture to watch.

 While the Isle of Mull is a real place, Kiloran is not, or at least, the real island isn't named Kiloran, but Colonsay. The characters in the movie never actually reach Kiloran, so it's more or less a prop in the film. From the above video I learned that many visitors still (at least in 1994) go to the Isle of Mull to visit the places in the film. The Castle of Moy which plays a part in the film is still standing, and unless things have changed in the last 22 years, you can still visit a call box along the road which Torquil uses to make reservations at the hotel where Joan will have a big room, and he will have a small one. The hotel is under new management but people still go there because they want to stay in hotel where Joan and Torquil stayed. It makes me want to get a passport.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 45 - My Fair Lady

It occurred to me that we're approaching the end of the year and we haven't had a musical in this series, so I decided to include one.

I'm not a big fan of musicals. There was a time when I would just have said flatly that I don't like them, or at very most that there were a few that I didn't mind. As a teenager dragged to see The Sound of Music with the family, I recall somewhat grudgingly admitting that I had enjoyed it. I remember a conversation from my 20s, in which I disparaged musicals to a female acquaintance, saying that I found it ridiculous to think of people walking down the street and suddenly starting to sing and dance. She replied that she thought it would be wonderful if people walking down the street suddenly started to sing and dance. Well, I could see the appeal of that, though it didn't give me much liking for the actual thing.

I didn't really change my mind until I saw My Fair Lady for the first time about fifteen years or so ago. I think I rented it as a family movie, expecting to be a little bored, but finding to my surprise that it was delightful. I was actually somewhat familiar with the songs, as my parents had an LP of songs from the Broadway show (I think this was before 1964 when the movie came out), and I liked them, but had not (as far as I can remember) heard them since my early teens. Hearing them in the context of the movie made me realize just how very good they are. That may have been the beginning of my learning to appreciate and love popular songs apart from the rock and folk traditions. 

But I think what really won me over in My Fair Lady was the script (called the "book" in theater, right?). It's brilliant and witty, and I remember thinking as I watched it that this was awfully good writing for Hollywood. Well, of course, it wasn't Hollywood's work at all. The musical is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and most of the dialog in the movie is Shaw's. 

You probably know the basic story. Come to that, there's a good chance you know the movie better than I do. But in case you don't: Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is a student of dialects, claiming that he can place a Londoner's birthplace within a few blocks (or something like that) by listening to him or her talk. He meets a cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), and makes a bet with a Colonel Pickering that he can enable her to pass for a duchess by training her to speak like one. And so the project begins. Eliza moves in, and Higgins goes to work on her. Much frustration ensues, until finally one day...By George, I think she's got it.

Hepburn's singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Of course you really need to hear the way the way she was saying it before to get the full effect. (There are other clips on YouTube, but you get the idea.)

And then it's one thing to have the right voice, and another to know what to say with it, and the gap between the two produces what is to me not only the funniest bit in this film, but a truly classic moment of comedy, on a par with, say, Groucho Marx's mirror scene.

I don't think it will be a big shock to anyone, or a big spoiler, if I tell you that (Crusty Old Bachelor) Higgins and (Lovely Young Woman) Eliza begin to fall for each other in a very reluctant way. Hearing the songs years ago without knowing how they fit into the story, I made some assumptions based on a rough idea of the story, and  was surprised to discover that several of them are not what I thought. Specifically, I assumed "On the Street Where You Live" and "Get Me to the Church" on time were by Higgins and about Eliza. But they aren't. There are a couple of amusing subplots which involve those songs and some ancillary characters such as Eliza's disreputable father, Alfred P. Doolittle, who describes himself as one of the undeserving poor ("and I means to go on being undeserving") and a young man (played by future Sherlock, Jeremy Brett) who falls in love with Eliza. And then there's Higgins's aristocratic mother, both shrewd and kind.

A charming story, brilliant dialog, great music, and Audrey Hepburn: how could anyone fail to like it? 

52 Movies

We need eight more to get to 52. I have four that I want to write about (three of which I've seen in the last three days at the Fairhope Film Festival). Stu and Rob have said they would do one more each. That leaves us needing two. I can fill those in if needed from my vast store of experience, but if there was a film you really wanted to write about but haven't gotten around to, here's your chance.

52 Movies: Week 44 - Stations of the Cross


The opening scene of Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) sets the stage: a group of teenagers sit around a long table, books open before them, and a young priest speaks to them about their upcoming reception of the sacrament of Confirmation. He is articulate and winsome as he encourages them to stand firm in their faith, to embrace their identities as "soldiers of brotherly love" and ambassadors for Christ in the world. He proposes that during this final week before Confirmation they each should choose something to sacrifice to the Lord, offering it willingly and with stout hearts for the good of others.

Well and good, you might say, but his exhortation strikes several ominous notes as well. It becomes evident that he, and these young people, belong to a schismatic Catholic group -- called the Society of St Paul in the film, but clearly based on the Society of St Pius X inasmuch as it rejects Vatican II and the authority of the reigning pontiff. It is also clear that the priest strongly disapproves of contemporary popular culture, especially the "satanic rhythms" of popular music, which he believes will corrupt the souls of his students. In other words, this is a group of Catholics that sees itself as the last faithful remnant, surrounded by perils on every side.

The film unfolds over the course of the week preceding Confirmation, and as it progresses we follow one of the young students in particular: Maria (played wonderfully by Lea van Acken). She is devout, taking her priest's instruction very much to heart. But she is troubled as well, shy and lonely, and her family situation is difficult: she has an angry and dominating mother, a sullen and mute father (whom one infers has been slowly beaten into submission by his wife), and an ill younger brother. The sole light in her life is her family's au pair, Bernadette, a young woman a few years older than Maria who lives with them and helps with the younger children.


Over the course of the week, for a variety of reasons, tensions within the family escalate, and, at the same time, Maria begins to decline. We see her, step by step, in a series of carefully conceived scenes, falling prey to self-doubt, loneliness, sin, and sickness, and the film, step by step, turns from a sensitive character study into a tragedy.

But we knew that it would. The film's title announces its structure: it is divided into fourteen sections, each preceded by a title-card naming one of the Stations of the Cross: "Jesus Carries His Cross", "Jesus Meets His Mother", and so on. In each "station" the connection between what happens to Maria and what happened to Christ is sometimes clear and sometimes less so, but the overall arc is clear enough. We know how this story goes.

Structuring the action of the film in parallel to Christ's Passion is a compelling enough formal idea, but the director, Dietrich Brüggemann, has greatly enhanced his film by investing the individual "stations" with a strong formal element as well. To wit: each of the fourteen parts of the film is filmed in a single, unbroken shot, and all but a few of these shots are static. The camera does not move, pan, or zoom. One might think this would be dull, but in fact the effect is electric: every detail on screen, every entrance and departure, becomes something to notice. The filmmaking is stripped down to its most basic elements, and we become more, not less, aware of the filmmaker's craft. I cannot emphasize too strongly how effective I found this technique. This was especially so on those few occasions on which the camera did move. There are three. I'll not reveal the details, but only say that simply by breaking the film's established rules they become moments of high drama.


How to interpret the film? Is it a critique of religion? Of Catholicism in particular? A portrait of a saint? Or is it exploring a more general set of problems to which the religious setting is merely incidental? I'd answer a tentative 'yes' to each, with the caveat that whatever interpretation I try seems to be complicated by some detail or other.

I can imagine, for instance, a Catholic watching the film and concluding that it's anti-religious in general, or at least anti-Catholic in particular. After all, Maria's unwavering faith is a necessary part of her decline and crisis, entering both as motive and means. But there are other factors at work too, such as her volatile relationship with her mother, and the family's self-isolation from the surrounding society. And the plausibility of an anti-Catholic reading is strongly undermined by the filmmaker's apparent affirmation, at the film's climax, that their beliefs are in fact true.

But neither do I think that the opposite interpretation -- that the religious setting is incidental -- is plausible. It's simply too deeply woven into every detail for that to work.

Instead, I think that, despite its formal elegance, the film occupies a messy middle-ground in which a combination of personal, social, psychological, and spiritual elements combine to turn religion toxic. Exactly what those elements are, and in what proportion they matter to the outcome, is unclear. There is much to ponder.

The neat complexity of the film is summed up in the last of the fourteen stations, a wordless scene in which Maria's life seems to be regarded with a mixture of both affirmation and interrogation. It could hardly end any other way.

For what it is worth, the film played at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, where it won the award for best screenplay. The film is in German, with some admixture of French.


This trailer for the film contains more cuts than the the film itself:



—Craig Burrell blogs now and then at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives near Toronto.

52 Movies: Week 43 - Grandma


In Grandma Lily Tomlin plays the title character Elle Reid. Elle is a lesbian, poet, academic, mother, grandmother, widow (of a wife), who was formerly married to a man and is enlisted by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) to help her gather up $630 for an abortion. I am not callous enough to think, “This sounds like the perfect movie to review for Mac’s blog!” But after watching it I thought that it was; it was sort of wonderful in ways I will try to explain.

For starters Lily Tomlin is really just amazing. I looked her up on Wikipedia and she is currently 77 years old, which probably made her 75 or so when the movie was filmed. Other than looking older and a tad shrunken she is just the same as she has always been. Someone with the ability to make the audience consistently interested, no matter the genre. This is of course one of those quirky little independent films with dramatic themes, along with comedy. The comedy of being human, I suppose. As it was finishing up I thought that its themes could be: the brokenness of all humans, and how when we are at our best we are doing all we can to help others (and especially family members) through the toils of life. Feeling the need to get an abortion is not a laughing matter, and the movie does not treat it jokingly.

Grandma is less than 90 minutes, and is a film that takes place in one day, dealing with the quest described above. Although there is humor mainly in the crankiness and straightforwardness of the main character, the director uses these minutes wisely and you learn quite a bit about Elle and her life. Despite the nature of the plot, the subject matter is treated with sensitivity and compassion. I thought of my uncle who I used to spend a lot of time with when I lived in South Florida. I would go over to his house complaining about this person, or that person, some who were members of our own family. He would say to me, “He (or she) is doing the best that they can.” What do we do with people that we are inextricably tied to, but something about their personality, or something they have done which has made us feel wronged makes it so hard to be nice to them? In some cases to even speak to, or be around them? That is part of what Grandma is about.

Considering its slight length I cannot say too much about the actual plot without giving away most of it. If you really are considering watching, then stop reading now.

Elle has just broken up callously, with a much younger woman named Olivia (Judy Greer) when Sage comes calling with her sad little request. We immediately do not like Elle because of her dominant personality and the meanness with which she treats the sweeter Olivia. As the movie plays out we learn about: Elle’s wife Violet of 38 years who passed away less than two years ago; Sage’s mother, who both she and her grandmother are afraid of; Elle’s ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott), and the grudge he still holds towards her. But Elle is doing everything she can to support and help her granddaughter, and in doing so she is also helping herself get through her own crisis. The scene with Sam Elliott was so good I almost skipped back to the beginning of it to watch a second time – another great actor! [Note: It is the next day and I just re-watched the scene. Just as good as the first time.]

Suddenly there was a scene featuring Elizabeth Pena and I thought, “Isn’t she dead?” Sadly, she is. This is how I backed up to at least 2014 as when the movie was filmed. Marcia Gay Harden plays Judy, Sage’s mother, and Elle’s daughter.

Well, I enjoyed the movie a lot, and felt quite moved at its conclusion. So there you go. I know that the subject matter is anathema to regular readers of Mac’s blog, but that’s okay. That’s life and we’re all a little uncomfortable about something. As humans we toil through our existence, looking for answers and for people who can help us to find them. I love movies that seem like real people in real situations. It’s nice to be reminded that Hollywood can occasionally reach this lofty goal. Grandma is a really good movie.


Lily Tomlin and Sam Elliott. May they make movies forever!

--Stu Moore is a friend of this blog’s proprietor, and hopes that everyone excuses his liberal leanings.

52 Movies: Week 42 - Duel

Most likely this is going to be the only film discussed in this series which was originally an ABC Movie of the Week, i.e. made specifically for network TV. It was broadcast in 1971, and whereas most similar works are immediately forgotten, this one has lived on. I actually saw it on its original broadcast—a bit surprising because I didn’t see a whole lot of TV at that time—and never forgot it. So when we first subscribed to Netflix, and I spent some time searching for things that were too obscure to have been available in video rental stores, this was one of them. I found it and put it on my list, but it went into the “not currently available but one day it might be” category, and I more or less forgot about it until it surfaced at the top of the list a few weeks ago. At that point, and being, I suppose, a bit jaded by the sheer quantity of movies available now, I considered removing it, but decided to give it a shot anyway.

I’m glad I did. It is actually better than I thought in 1971, watching it on a tiny black-and-white screen. It is in fact quite good, not just good in comparison to other made-for-TV movies. And I’m sure that part of what sets it apart is that it was directed by a very young Steven Spielberg. At this point in his career he had only done television work, and it was Duel that opened the way for his first “real” movie, The Sugarland Express (which I have not seen).

In general I’m not much of a Spielberg fan. Sure, his films are well made and generally enjoyable, but to my taste—which I have to point out is based on limited acquaintance—they tend to strike me as entertaining, but not a great deal more. Glancing down the list of titles in his filmography, I don’t see anything that affected me deeply or lastingly, except for moments of intense cinematic thrill, like certain scenes in Jurassic Park (for instance: “Clever girl!”).

And you could write off Duel as an intense cinematic thrill. But there’s something to be said for that, and Duel does it extremely well. Moreover, I would argue that without any obvious explicit attempt to produce philosophical resonance, the film does have some.

It opens with a black screen. We hear the sound of a car starting, light comes in through what we realize is an opening garage door, and for the next five minutes we see things entirely from the point of view of the car’s driver, Dave Mann (Dennis Weaver), as he exits his driveway, makes his way through Los Angeles (I think), and out onto a two-lane highway in the dry hills of rural southern California. The camera shifts away from Mann’s viewpoint, and we see his car, a red Plymouth Valiant, and Mann himself, a pretty ordinary-looking fellow, listening to talk shows on AM radio. Some of the talk turns out to be pretty relevant to Mann, such as a guy complaining that he is not the head of his household.

He gets behind a dirty old tanker truck with “FLAMMABLE” in big letters across the tank. Impatiently, he passes the truck—when he shouldn’t, apparently, as there is a solid yellow line between the lanes. In a minute the truck comes roaring past him, but soon he finds himself stuck behind it again, breathing its dirty exhaust. So he passes again.

And now the battle begins. This truck is driven by a killer. At this point we’re only fifteen minutes or so into the film, and for the next hour and fifteen minutes we watch as the driver of the truck attempts to use it to kill Mann.

That’s about as much as you need to know about the plot. Suffice to say that the rest of the film is intense, grueling, and brilliantly executed. I distinctly remember being totally captivated by it on TV, and at the end thinking “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that on TV before.” And in my opinion it still very much works, 45 years later, even more so on a bigger and sharper screen and in color, though this time I knew how it would turn out.

One of the things that really struck me is that it doesn’t seem at all dated cinematically. Sure, the quality of the cinematography is of its time, and the general milieu of characters and culture (the story does not all take place on the road) are in many ways far from the present day. (Watching older movies, especially of the thriller sort, makes one realize how many turns of plot involved the need to find a telephone, or could only happen because the mobile phone did not exist.) But the technique—angles, cutting, etc.--gives the chase a gripping realism that I don’t think could be much improved upon today.

Dennis Weaver may be remembered by people of a certain age (or nostalgists) as Chester in Gunsmoke, and I think people at the time (I was one) were surprised by the intensity and effectiveness of this performance. And if you’re wondering about the truck driver, well, I guess it’s not giving away too much to say that we never see his face. That’s part of what generates that resonance I mentioned: Mann’s enemy (get it?) seems to be the truck itself, an embodiment of death, attacking and pursuing without warning or much justification. As Mann says, “Well, you never know. You just never know.”


Not what you want to see in your rear-view mirror.

The script is by Richard Matheson, from one of his own short stories. You may recognize his name: he wrote a lot of sci-fi/fantasy books, short stories, and screenplays, including some Twilight Zone episodes and the novel I Am Legend. Spielberg was/is a great admirer of his.

The DVD includes a lengthy interview with Spielberg in which he describes how the film came to be made and goes into a lot of detail about how it was done, what he had to do to achieve those effects, and so forth, and although I don’t usually enjoy those how-it-was-made features I found this one fascinating

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 41 - Deepwater Horizon

Here is something I do not think we have had heretofore in this series, a current movie review. So here goes.

Note: Deepwater Horizon was not filmed on the continent of Asia, and I did not have to read subtitles while watching.

We were on our way to the Eastern Shore Center where I intended to go see The Girl on the Train with my stepdaughter. It seemed like it would probably be dark and dreary, but I like Emily Blunt and have not read the book so thought that maybe it would be a suitable “thriller” for a Saturday afternoon. However, I decided to ask which movie she would like to see and the answer was interestingly Deepwater Horizon. It turns out that, a) she had written some sort of paper on the event recently in high school; and b) there is an actor named Dylan O’Brien in the movie whom she likes. I agreed this was an acceptable alternative.

My memory of this event in 2010 was that an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing a handful of people and causing a leak several miles underwater of oil, which spewed out into the gulf for over two months. Since I live in Mobile, Alabama it was considered local news, with oil washing up on the beaches of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Apparently there was too much pressure to cap it, and I do not even remember how it eventually stopped. The movie doesn’t go into that at all, it is about the people on board, the explosion, how that happened and how those who were able to save themselves did.

Just to let everyone know, it is pretty intense. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, and I don’t know what he actually did on the Deepwater Horizon but apparently it was important. His boss is Kurt Russell, who goes by the name “Mister Jimmy”. Wahlberg’s wife is Kate Hudson (Felicia), who is Kurt Russell’s stepdaughter in real life, but in the movie she is only the wife of one of his men. At the end (spoiler alert) she does give Mister Jimmy a hug, which is fun since you know their real statuses. Dylan O’Brien has a pretty small part, but since he is a “name” for teen-age girls I got the impression that he was one of the young workers who had an occasional line of dialogue. I asked Sofie afterward and she stated that I was correct. At a point before the explosion he states, “I’m going to take a leak”. This never happens because all hell breaks loose shortly after his statement. At the end of the movie I was wondering about his bladder since I think he lived.

I’m being funny about it all but it’s a good movie and I enjoyed it. I don’t usually go for this type of heavy action, explosions, everyone running for safety kind of movie because it wears me out (and it did), and especially so knowing that this did really happen and it was quite horrific. What made it even more horrific for me was thinking back on when it happened and how 98% of the coverage and thus the concern by all of us watching the news was the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. While that was awful and outrageous and sad, it kept us away from the human tragedy of eleven people losing their lives because the BP administrators were too cheap to have a $125,000.00 “cement test” done near the beginning of the film. I don’t really know what this test is, but had it been administered as Mister Jimmy wanted it to be, then none of the rest would have happened and we would all be blissfully unaware of the existence of the Deepwater Horizon which would probably still be out in the gulf. If the events were anything as shown in the movie it is a miracle that only eleven people lost their lives.

I almost forgot to mention that one of those BP executive guys, the main one who makes the call to move forward when things appear to not be working as they should, is John Malkovich! He has a silly Cajun accent, and seems to be wearing front teeth prostheses of some kind, but there he is as usual the bad guy. That was fun, just like the Kurt Russell/Kate Hudson hug.

So Deepwater Horizon is a well-made and serviceable real life action film which does its double duty of entertaining the audience while humanizing the people aboard the vessel, teaching those of us watching who knew little about the event except that it was the largest oil spill in United States history.

Now if only Dylan O’Brien had had more of a role in the plot, and not been covered with mud and oil the entire movie!

[My favorite cheesy Hollywood line: Mark Wahlberg is getting ready to do something heroic and shouts out, “My wife is Felicia and my daughter is Sydney and I WILL see them again!”]

Week41-Deepwater Horizon-Stu_html_m2e6d11b8

 —Stu Moore was pretty sure he met Lee Harvey Oswald during the famous visit to Spring Hill College, until he realized he had not yet been born.

52 Movies: Week 40 - Cries and Whispers

Red for blood. Red for love. Red for the heart. Red for suffering. But not, in this film, for joy.

The story is that long before he made Cries and Whispers in 1972, Bergman had “a vision of a large red room, with three women in white whispering together.” And that he wanted to know who they were, and what the whispering was about. (The Swedish title in fact puts “Whispers” first: Whispers and Cries, which doesn’t affect my perception of it, but perhaps did Bergman's.)

It turned out that the three were two sisters, Karin and Maria, and their servant, Anna. And what they were whispering about was, among other things, a third sister, Agnes—and yes, you should think agnus, “lamb,” when you hear her name. Agnes is in the next room, in bed, dying of cancer. The three sisters are wealthy and the setting is the family estate. Somewhat improbably, but very effectively, most of the rooms we see have wall coverings of deep, intense red.


Karin, Anna, Maria

Bergman brought together three of his most notable leading ladies for this tour de force: Liv Ullman (Maria), Ingrid Thulin (Karin), and Harriet Anderson (Agnes). These three are of course great beauties, though Thulin is made to look severe and Anderson is not exactly at her most photogenic as a terminal cancer patient. The stocky, plain Anna is Kari Sylwan, who was not primarily an actress—Wikipedia says she was a dancer and choreographer, which you would not think of when you see her.

Maria and Karin are a bit of a reprise of the two sisters in The Silence (1963) with Thulin playing a somewhat similar woman in both works. Karin is stern, cold, and anti-sexual, perhaps only because she has a loathsome husband. Maria is vain, flighty, and an unfaithful wife to a dull husband. We learn a good deal about them in flashbacks. We don’t know a great deal about Agnes apart from her current situation, except a brief but immeasurably important diary entry. We don’t learn a lot about Anna, at least not in the way of external facts, but what we do learn—that she had a daughter who died in childhood—is significant. We don’t know much about the husbands, but we certainly get the measure of them. The only other male character, if I remember correctly, is a clergyman who puts in a brief but important appearance.

As is often the case with Bergman, to summarize the plot might leave you thinking that this is really not very much of a story. But that would be very misleading. What’s important is not so much the action as the emotional plot. What’s important is the relationship between Karin and Maria, between Anna and Agnes, and between Anna and Karin+Maria. And it is a very dramatic story indeed. I’m not much for “relationship” stories in which nothing much actually happens, but this is an enormous exception to the rule, because Bergman’s vision is so profound, and because he works it out so effectively.

Karin and Maria mean well toward their sister, or at least want to mean well, or at least want to seem to mean well. But they are too closed in, too self-centered, to give her much. This is brought home in a strange, disturbing, and powerful scene which takes place after Agnes dies. Agnes wants their love, and in extremis wants simple physical comfort—warmth, touch, even if they cannot alleviate the pain. And Anna is the only one who can or will give it to her, which she does. These scenes are startling, even a bit disturbing, in a way that I will let you see for yourself.

Anna, being the most generous and most capable of love, is, not surprisingly, treated badly. Karin and Maria are cold to her, seeing her, as is all too often the case with wealthy people and their servants, as of no consequence, hardly even a person in the full sense, certainly not deserving to be treated fully as one. And I think I’ve said enough to give you an idea of how the film’s themes connect with Christianity.

I write these reviews with the assumption that my readers have not seen the film I’m talking about, and so I don’t want to say much more about this one, though there is a lot that might be said. But its ideas are not in themselves especially new or striking, and to discuss them apart from the experience of seeing the film would make them seem thin and abstract, which would be even more of a distortion than might be the case with any work of art, because this one is so very fleshly. Or maybe I should say fleshly and bloodly—all that red. (I should warn you that there is a wrenching and fairly direct scene of self-inflicted violence.)

I first saw Cries and Whispers when it was released in 1973. I was powerfully moved by it, almost to the point of tears. I was only twenty-five years old, and I’m a little surprised now that it had such an effect on me. One insight that I took from it at the time was the possibility that moments of love and joy in even a tragic and pain-filled life are every bit as real, significant, and in a sense permanent as the long stretches of sorrow. I clung to that at the time, and for long afterward. I was not a Christian then, but I think it helped to move me in that direction, with some inchoate notion that life might be redeemable.

I didn’t see it again until perhaps six or seven years ago, and it didn’t have the same effect. I was a little disappointed, in fact, and I remember thinking “Well, that’s good, but not quite what I thought it was; not one of Bergman’s best.” Then I watched it again a few weeks ago thinking that I might write about it, and...well, I don’t know what was wrong with me six or seven years ago—maybe I was just distracted or something—but I was right the first time, back in ‘73. Now I’d say that this is one of Bergman’s very finest works, and as you know if you read this blog very often, that means I think it’s one of the very finest movies ever made.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 39 - Coming Home


When I read Zhang Yimou's name, the first thing I think about is pageantry and majesty; Flying Daggers, and Red Lanterns; beautiful balletic battles and rich fabric; and color, color, color--and also poisonous family relationships, best exemplified in Curse of the Golden Flower.

And then there are Zhang's other movies: parochial, quiet, and filled with loving relationships. Coming Home is one of these. It is a small, gray movie, mostly shot in one neighborhood, and revolving around a family of three It is, however, very beautiful. While it lacks the physical beauty of the movies above, it has a deep interior beauty.

The movie begins in the daughter, Dan Dan's, ballet school where she is trying out for the lead role in the ballet, Red Detachment of Women. She and her mother, Feng Wanyu, a teacher, are called to the school office where they hear that Yu's husband, Lu Yanshi, has escaped from the labor camp where he has been imprisoned for 10 years for crimes against the Cultural Revolution. Yu and Dan Dan are asked it they have seen him, and warned that they must turn him in if they do. Dan Dan, who was only three when her father left, is all compliance, but Yu is not so sure. Why, she wonders, did he escape? Had they done something to him to make him decide he had to leave?

It seems that the reason that he left the camp was that he wanted so badly to see his wife and daughter. He goes to the house and hides in the attic. He has an encounter with his daughter on the stairs, and she tells him that she doesn't want to know him and that he must leave.

Lu is not willing to leave, though, until he sees Yu. He knocks on the door, and Yu, who has heard noises in the attic and knows who it must be, locks the door against him. Then they both stand on their own sides of the door, hands on the doorknob, locked in an intense stillness that is reminiscent of the Song of Solomon.

My lover put his hand in through the opening:
my innermost being trembled because of him.
I rose to open for my lover,
my hands dripping myrrh:
upon the handles of the lock.
I opened for my lover--
but my lover had turned and gone!

But Lu has slipped a note under the door, asking Yu to meet him at the boat dock the next morning. Yu arrives for the meeting and when she finally sees Lu waving to her from a different level, she finds that the police, having been informed by Dan Dan, are there waiting for him, and in a very painful scene the couple is once again separated.

Three years later, the Cultural Revolution ends and Lu comes home. He is met by Dan Dan who is no longer dancing, or living with her mother. Puzzled as to why this is so, and why Yu did not come to meet him, he goes to the house where he finds little notes all over the room reminding Yu of things she needs to do. Sadly, one of the notes reads, “Don't lock the door.” When she comes in, she does not recognize him. In fact, she believes him to be an enemy and insists that he leave. He does so and the chairwoman of the Communist Party in the neighborhood (a very sympathetic neighbor) arranges for him to live in a small room across the street.

Yu is suffering from a selective form of amnesia, and the doctor suggests to Lu that experiencing things that they used to do together might jog her memory. Lu tries everything that he can think of. When the letter that Lu wrote when he left camp saying that he will be home on the 5th arrives belatedly, Wu is beside herself waiting for the day of his arrival. Lu arranges to take her to the dock, and walks down the plank with the arriving passengers, but she looks right past him, and never sees him.

This search for Lu at the docks repeats itself month after month on the 5th and Lu's patience and persistence seem unending. He sits in his room across the street, and watches her lit window, awaiting any opportunity to awaken her memory. Even in his failure to make his wife recognize him, he finds ways to bring the family together in unusual ways, even bringing about a reconciliation between mother and daughter. As he steadfastly watches over his wife and daughter, we see him grow in a sacrificial love in which Lu's focus gradually changes from achieving the relationship he wants to serving those he loves.

Gong Li, who excellently portrays Feng Wanyu in the film, has been in quite a few Zhang Yimou movies including her role as the empress in Curse of the Golden Flower. The more I think about Coming Home and Curse of the Golden Flower in juxtaposition to each other, the more I see that they are opposite to each other in almost every way. The characters in Curse... live in a world of wealth, beauty, power, and hatred. Those in Coming Home live lives that are more-or-less controlled by the Communist Party. Everything is drab and shabby, but filled with love. It's interesting to me that Zhang Yimou has chosen to make films in two such disparate genres.

Today, I watched another Zhang Yimou film, The Flowers of War starring Christian Bale and thought it was pretty much all right. I can't remember that I've ever had such a tepid reaction to a Zhang movie before. Although all the characters in the movie except Bale were either Chinese or Japanese, it had a very American tone, and was mostly in English. His next movie, which will be released in the U.S. Next year, The Great Wall, stars Matt Damon along with Willem Dafoe and and an actor I don't know, Pedro Pascal, from Game of Thrones. It will be entirely in English. I'm not too sure I'm happy about the direction Zhang's career seems to be taking, but it might be better than I think.

Red Detachment of Women, by the way, is ballet that seems to be as famous in China as Swan Lake or The Nutcracker is here. It was the ballet that was performed for Nixon when he visited China.


—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 38 - Ushpizin


When the Children of Israel left Egypt, the Lord had them stay in Succoth – temporary dwellings. As a reminder of the miracles that happened to them in the desert, during the Exodus, The Children of Israel are commanded, each year, to leave their homes and dwell in Succoth for seven days. They are also commanded to make blessings on the Four Species: date-palm branches, myrtle, willow, and citron.

Ushpizin: Aramaic word for guests. During the Festival of Succoth, it is customary to host guests in the Succah.

This is the opening screen from the Israeli movie, Ushpizin. I had watched it several years ago, and remembered that I had really liked it, and thought it might be a good movie to write about. I remembered it as a pleasant, mostly lighthearted comedy—a movie for relaxing, not especially for thinking. When I watched it again last night, I was really surprised. Ushpizin does fit the definition of comedy in which a comedy is a drama with a happy ending, and it does contain its share of comedic moments, but it also deals with profound spiritual truth.

Early in the movie, we hear a scholar in the yeshiva reading this :

When the evil urge provokes one to anger, at the moment, good wants to descend from above. The evil urge wants to ruin that. Thus, one should always guard himself against anger, not to ruin the good that Heaven wants to bestow.

When he finishes reading, he lifts his head and says in an awed voice, “Oh man, you have to keep your eyes wide open. We're all being constantly tested.” The rest of this film serves to illustrate this truth.

As the film begins, Moshe Bellanga is in the marketplace where men are shopping for the Four Species used for the feast. Moshe enters a room where men are evaluating citrons. They dismiss Moshe to a table where he can find cheap citrons, because they are busy admiring the diamond, a perfect citron which can be sold for 1,000 shekels. Moshe walks to the table and examines the wonder, but in the end, he cannot even afford a 25 shekel citron.

Meanwhile, Moshe's wife, Malli is at home, hiding from the rent-collector and hoping that Moshe will be home soon with some money, but she is going to be disappointed. The men who dole out money at the yeshiva have decided that Moshe will get nothing. I'm not too clear about why they would give him money, or why they chose not to, but at any rate, Malli attributes part of this decision to the fact that he is too good, too accepting. Moshe and Malli are very much in love with one another, but their marriage is under a great strain. They have no money for the rent, no money to buy the Four Species, no succah, and worst of all, no child.

At this point, Moshe leaves and Malli stays at home. They both begin to pray, and their prayer is deep, and very personal. Their prayer is the very heart of this movie because it is the prayer of every believer. “Father I love you, I just want to do Your Will. Everything is falling apart. I don't understand. What am I doing wrong? What do You want me to do? I can't bear this any longer.” Moshe's prayer is reminiscent of that of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but while we are aware that Tevye is speaking to us as well as to God, we know that Moshe's attention is all for God, every bit of his being is concentrated in it. It is like the prayer of Job. Malli's prayer, on the other hand, is the prayer of a beloved daughter talking with her Father.

They pray for a miracle, and lo and behold the miracle happens. As soon as Moshe finishes his prayers, a friend approaches him and tells him where he can get a beautiful succah that has been abandoned by its owner who has bought a new one. And Malli, fearful to answer a knock on the door, finds an envelope pushed under the door from an anonymous benefactor containing $1000. When Moshe returns, there is great rejoicing and dancing and singing in the kitchen.

Now the stage is set for the celebration of the Feast of Booths. They have everything they need including the diamond, which Moshe has bought because a perfect citron is said to bring a male child. There is only one thing lacking to make the feast perfect and that is ushpizin, holy guests to share the feast. Needless to say, the guests arrive—two escaped prisoners, one of whom is a friend of Moshe's from the old days.


And all this is just the beginning of the movie.

From this point on, although there are ups and downs in the story, everything gradually falls apart, and throughout Moshe prays and seeks the will of God. He approaches his relationship with God as a sort of bargaining. “You ask me to do this-I do it-You bless me.” In the end he finds that what God wants from him is the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.

Shuli Rand and Michal Batsheva Rand, who play Moshe and Malli in the film are both wonderful. Michal is especially good whether she is singing contemporary Jewish praise songs (which sound exactly like contemporary Christian praise songs) in the kitchen, serving dinner to her unconventional ushpizin, or praying that her Father will make the rent-collector go away. She had never acted before making this film, and only took the role because her husband, a Hasidic Jew and author of the screenplay, insisted for modesty's sake that she play his wife.

When I wrote about The All-of-a-Kind Family books for the 52 Authors series, I mentioned that after reading about the Feast of Booths, I always wanted my father to build us a succah. Well, that's not going to happen, but I was very glad to have a chance to peek into one and see how the holiday is celebrated—and in Jerusalem at that. The movie was filmed on location in Jerusalem and realizing that we are seeing the real life of this community adds to the enjoyment of the film.

Right before I watched Ushpizin last night, I had been reading what Dante had to say about interpreting the passage, “When from the land of Egypt Israel came,” in literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical ways, so it was a happy coincidence to see the film begin with that phrase, and think about the movie in the light of those kinds of interpretations.

I got a bit of this information here and here. These are two short Wikipedia articles about the film and Rand and have some additional information that might interest you.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 37 - Six by The Three Stooges

Like many comedians of their era The Three Stooges got their start in vaudeville, and like their contemporaries The Marx Brothers and The Ritz Brothers they came from immigrant Jewish families. Moe and Shemp Howard (Moses and Samuel Horwitz) and Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg) were part of a popular act called Ted Healy and his Stooges, a vaudeville team that began doing film work in 1930. Fed up with Healy’s demanding ways Shemp broke off from the team to go solo, and was replaced by younger Horwitz brother Jerome, who showed up at his audition with long curly hair and a handlebar moustache. One commentator said that he looked like a chubby General Custer. He shaved his head, and eventually the moustache, and became “Curley.”

The Stooges appeared in several films with Healy through 1934, when their contract with MGM expired. Healy and the Stooges parted company, and the Stooges, now officially renamed “The Three Stooges,” signed with Columbia Pictures to do short films, and remained with Columbia for over 20 years.


Unlike most of the other comedians of their day The Stooges never made the leap from shorts into feature films until near the end of their careers. Moe, the leader and manager of the group, always felt that their brand of comedy would not work as well in a longer form. It is probably for this reason, and also for the fact that their comedic style was more lowbrow than some of the other acts of the era, that despite their popularity they never got the critical appreciation that others got. This is unfortunate, as at their best, they could be as funny as anyone.

In my opinion, the key to their humor is the natural comedic talent of Curley (later ‘Curly). Moe was funny as a pseudo-tough guy, and Larry, who basically went along and got in the way, sticking up for Curly from time to time, generally got the worst of things for his efforts. But Curly, the vacuous child-man, with his faces, mannerisms and odd noises, was the one who really held the thing together; I think he deserves to go down as one of the great film comics. His timing and ability to improvise were both top notch, as was his talent for physical comedy. He’s always doing something in character even when the camera’s focused elsewhere.

The Stooges often get an undeserved bad rap for the raucousness of their comedy, as if it were all face slapping, eye poking, and pie throwing. But such really isn’t the case. While they were never exactly subtle, there is a fair amount of wit, both verbal and physical in their best films.

I’ve watched the Three Stooges since I was little, and I can remember my Dad (who was a big fan) and I watching them together in the mornings before school – kindergarten and first grade even! I’ve seen some of their films literally dozens of times, and they still make me laugh. I probably have ten or so favorites, with another larger group as a second tier, but I’ve limited my picks here to six that I consider among the best. They run from 15 to 18 minutes each, about the length of a feature film, which seems appropriate, and I’m listing them in chronological order.

Men in Black (1934) – A spoof of a popular Clark Gable film of the era called Men in White, the boys play a trio of doctors who wreak havoc at a hospital. Only their third release, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film. This early film of theirs approaches the anarchic style of comedy that the Marx Brothers were famous for, and also includes a relatively high quotient of verbal jokes

Disorder in the Court (1936) – The Stooges play witnesses at a murder trial, the defendant being a dancer at the club where they are musicians. Featured is a very funny musical number, a classic scene, bits of which have appeared in various commercials over the years. Curly is especially good in this one, especially in his turn in the witness box.

A Plumbing We Will Go (1940) – Fleeing the police, the boys escape in a plumbers’ truck, and are taken for the real thing by a society matron. They, of course, wreck the house. Some good sight gags here (Curly trapping himself in a cage of pipes is a famous one), but the show is almost stolen by what is the best non-Stooge performance in all of their films: the big-eyed black comedian Dudley Dickerson plays the cook, who experiences the Stooges’ plumbing expertise first hand when water begins appearing in his kitchen in unusual places, uttering the famous line, “This house has sho’ gone crazy!”


An Ache in Every Stake (1941) – The Stooges play ice men, who have to deliver a block of ice up a long flight of stairs (it melts on the way up). In the process, they ruin a businessman’s birthday cake, but inadvertently end up as the cooks at his dinner party. Highlights include Curly stuffing a turkey and “shaving the ice.”

Dizzy Pilots (1943) – The Stooges play the Wrong Brothers, airplane inventors who’ve been given a draft extension to complete their waterproof plane. If it fails, they have to join the army. Their attempts to get the plane done in time don’t work out quite right. And neither does boot camp. This one features one of my all-time favorite short Curly routines – his attempt to do the manual of arms in boot camp.

Micro-Phonies (1945) – Curly is mistaken for an opera singer at a radio station, and the Stooges, seeing a quick buck, agree to have him sing at a matron’s musical party (with the help of an opera record). Curly had had a stroke early that year, and the effects caused him to slow down both his speech and his physical gestures, and he retired soon after this short was made. He’s very good in this one though, and it remains one of their most memorable efforts.

I imagine that all of these are available online at various places, including You Tube. Enjoy!

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 36 - A Simple Plan

What would you do if you found, way out in the woods, a wrecked airplane containing a dead drug runner and four million dollars? Who would you be hurting if you just took the money home? The dead man had no moral right to the money, nor, probably, did anyone else involved in acquiring it. No one else need ever know that you’d found it, and if anyone ever did come looking for the money there would be nothing to connect it to you. And you could surely put it to good use. Probably to better use than the police.

Well, should you ever find yourself faced with that temptation, and would benefit from a very effective cautionary tale to keep you from making a very big mistake, this movie is it. “Morality tale” is not usually much of a compliment, but this one is extremely effective. It’s a morality tale without preaching, an excellent instance of the show-don’t-tell approach to storytelling.

It’s not one person who finds the plane and the money, but three, and as you might guess that causes problems. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) are out in the snowy Minnesota woods one winter afternoon when one of them throws a snowball at an odd snow-covered shape, which knocks off some of the snow, revealing the plane. When they find the money it doesn’t take Jacob and Lou very long to persuade Hank, the most seemingly responsible of the three, that the three of them should hold on to it rather than notify the police. They’ll hide it, hang on to it for a while, then split it up and spend it very slowly and carefully: a simple plan.

But of course things begin to go wrong almost immediately. They make mistakes. They panic. The relentless logic of evil operates, and they do bad things, then dig their hole deeper in trying to conceal those. Someone comes looking for the money. Worse things are done. The walls close in, and finally Hank can see only one way out.

I’ve only seen this movie once, and perhaps on a second viewing I might find something to quibble with. I suppose I could make the broad criticism that after all the course of events portrayed is really a little far-fetched. But apart from that it really seems pretty close to perfect, in that every element of it is precisely appropriate and effective as a part of the whole: acting, script, cinematography.

I’ll enlist Roger Ebert in support of my claims:

"A Simple Plan" is one of the year's [1998] best films for a lot of reasons, including its ability to involve the audience almost breathlessly...

The performances can be described only as flawless: I could not see a single error of tone or feeling. Paxton, Thornton, Fonda and Briscoe don't reach, don't strain and don't signal. They simply embody their characters, in performances based on a clear emotional logic that carries us along from the beginning to the end....

You can read Ebert’s entire review here, it’s a bit spoiler-ish, though it doesn’t give away anything essential. The Fonda he mentions, by the way, is Bridget, as Hank's wife, a very important part of the story.

A Simple Plan is also a thriller, and I found it a very intense one. That’s one reason I haven’t seen it again, though I plan to.

Here is a clip from the scene where the men have just discovered the money and Lou and Jacob are trying to talk Hank into keeping it. Jacob is the one with the glasses, Lou with the beard, Hank with the black jacket. Jacob, as you may gather from this scene, is a bit simple-minded, a trait which is very important to the story in several ways.


The production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, said “We created a muted black-and-white color scheme to suggest a morality tale, the choices given between right and wrong.” Indeed.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 36 - The Burmese Harp

The Burmese Harp, a 1956 movie directed by Kon Ichikawa, is considered a classic antiwar film, but as some reviewers have noted it’s more than that because it dwells on what we do when great suffering happens, how we keep our humanity. I somehow missed it when it arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s, and only got around to seeing it a few months ago. Its gorgeously shot images in black and white will stay with you. As will the music, especially the song “There’s No Place Like Home,” sung repeatedly in the film. A few reviews I’ve read say there’s too sentimental a treatment of some aspects of the film, especially the music. I agree somewhat, but it’s pretty powerful nonetheless.

The story, based on a children’s book, is about a platoon of Japanese soldiers in Burma in the first days after Japan’s surrender. Their captain, a man who was a music teacher in civilian life, has taught the men choral singing as a way of keeping up their morale. One of the platoon members, named Mizushima, has taught himself to play a Burmese harp to accompany them, and he is the one chosen by the captain to seek out another company of Japanese soldiers who are holed up on a high mountain to tell them to surrender and not die meaninglessly. They refuse, and are then shelled by British forces, leaving them all dead except for Mizushima. Found and nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, he then takes the monk’s robes to wear as a disguise as he makes his way back to his platoon in the POW camp. On the way, he comes across scores of dead bodies of Japanese soldiers. He stops and buries or burns many of them, but the task is too great to do all and he continues on his way, spiritually overwhelmed. When he arrives at the camp, he’s eager to meet up again with his platoon, but after watching a Catholic priest and some nurses sing a hymn at the grave of a Japanese soldier, turns away and all the horrors of the dead he has seen play over in his mind. It is at this point that he determines to stay in Burma, become a Buddhist priest, and make it his life’s work to bury all the dead.

Most of the dialogue in the movie is that of other members of the platoon; Mizushima says very little and his interior monologue is carried mostly by images. A few stills might give an idea of the movie’s beauty and emotional pull. The first shows Mizushima after he’s burned and buried some of the dead he first comes across:

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This one shows some Burmese men watching Mizushima burying the dead before they begin to help him -- one of the scenes that captures a sense of great vastness:

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This last is of Mizushima standing outside the British POW camp watching his fellow platoon members as they plead with him to come back to Japan with them:

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You can watch a five-minute clip of that scene here; I think it’s one of the most moving in the film.

—Marianne lives in New Zealand

52 Movies: Week 35 - Red Beard

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When I sat down to watch Red Beard, I had no intention of writing about it since this will make the fourth film by Akira Kurosawa in this series.I changed my mind. It wasn't just because I enjoyed the movie; it was because it was so unlike the Kurosawa movies that I had already seen.

It didn't start that way. As the movie opens, we see a man with topknot, kimono and sword walking into what seems a rundown village. This is a black and white movie set in the 19th century, and this scene is reminiscent of the earlier samurai movies. Soon, though, we find this is something different.

The young man, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto, has just completed his medical training and is expecting that he will soon follow in the footsteps of his very successful father. He is arriving for what he thinks is a visit at a government-run clinic in a poor suburb of Edo (Tokyo). He is surprised when he is eagerly welcomed by the doctor who has been working at the clinic for three years who can't wait to get his replacement, Dr. Yasumoto, settled in. The departing doctor gives Yasumoto a very disheartening tour of the small, inadequate facility. The waiting room is packed wall-to-wall with sick patients awaiting treatment. The current patients are lying in a room where their mats are laid out like floor tiles with no space in between. But worst of all, Yasumoto hears, is that he will be constantly watched by Dr. Kyojô Niide, Red Beard (Toshirô Mifune).

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Yasumoto is filled with resentment as he begins his internship at the clinic. He resists Dr. Niide's authority, refusing to even put aside his sword and wear the uniform of the clinic doctors. As the story progresses, however, we see his transformation through a series of encounters with the patients of the clinic, and his increasing appreciation of and respect for Red Beard.

Even before his arrival at the clinic, Yasumoto has had another disappointment when he was betrayed by his fiance, so he isn't exactly a stranger to suffering; however, in treating these indigent patients, Yasumoto comes face-to-face with suffering in away that he had never experienced before. For the first time he watches as a woman undergoes excruciatingly painful surgery without anesthetics. He sits with a man who is dying in agony. He also witnesses the death of Sahachi, a permanent resident of the hospital who spends all his time making objects to sell in order to buy things for the other patients. In Sahachi's final hours Yasumoto learns the tragic story of his life.

There is one patient who is not poor, and who is not bodily, but mentally ill. She is kept in a small house on the clinic property and watched over day and night by a female employee of the clinic. Only Red Beard is allowed to treat this patient. She is called The Mantis, and during an encounter with Yasumoto, we find out why.

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The most touching of all these vignettes it the story of Otoyo, a twelve-year-old whom Yasumoto rescues from a brothel. Otoyo has never known kindness and is completely withdrawn into her own little world until Yasumoto takes over her care. Eventually, she begins to improve and in her turn, offers help to another child in desperate straits.

Of all the Kurosawa films that I have seen, this is the most realistic. The characters and situations in Red Beard are characters and situations that are familiar to us. The acting for the most part is not exaggerated. It could very well have taken place in the United States with only a few costume and set changes. In a way it reminded me of old Dr. Kildare movies with Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore, although I don't really remember much about those movies and I'm sure Red Beard is much better.

Robert Reineke, the author of this very interesting website, says that in many ways Red Beard was a turning point for Kurosawa.


Although they likely didn’t know it at the time, Red Beard marks the end of an era. It’s the end of Kurosawa’s most productive period where he directed 23 movies in 22 years; he would end up directing only seven films over the last 28 years of his career. It’s Kurosawa’s last black and white film. It was the end of a contract with Toho Studios who was finding it increasingly difficult to fund Kurosawa’s films due to their cost since television was changing the Japanese film industry, even though Kurosawa’s films were proven money winners. And it would be Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune.

Reineke's review of the film is very good, but replete with spoilers. I would not advise reading it before watching the movie.

The 52 Movies series has become for me an elementary education in Asian films. The more I watch these Japanese movies, the more curious I am about them, and I really wish that I could take a class in the history of Japanese film. Maybe I can find a book.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 34 - Tokyo Story

This is a long movie in which very little happens, which as a rule is precisely not my cup of tea. But it's really good--generally considered a classic, in fact, and consistently places very high in polls of critics and filmmakers. It's by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and was made in 1953. I'm always a little surprised that so many good movies were being made in Japan so soon after the war.

I wrote about it once before, something over three years ago. I decided to include it in this series because it's so good, and because I've changed my view of it somewhat since then. Here's what I said then:

It's a really fine film, but it's so slow and so modest in scope and means that I couldn't help being a little impatient with it. It's widely considered to be the best work of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Late Spring I wrote about a while back. And my reaction to this one is very similar: I admired it more than I liked it, and I think much of my problem is simply cultural: the characters remained somewhat foreign-seeming to me, to a degree that prevented my feeling as engaged by them and their situations as I might have had it been a European movie (I can't really imagine it as an American one).

I had thought at the time that I might want to see it again sometime. A year or two passed and one day I noticed that it was going to be shown on Turner Classic Movies (yes, we still have that AT&T U-verse service that we hardly use--I don't want to talk about it). So I recorded it and watched it again. And this time I liked it much better. On this second viewing, I didn't feel that the characters and the style of acting were as foreign and as hard to read as they had been. It wasn't only that, though. It was also the same effect that one can experience with any art, and which I find especially frequent with music: it may just take more than one hearing or viewing or reading for it to sink in, for me to really hear or see it, to be touched by it. 

As I said in that earlier brief note, the plot could not be much simpler. An old couple, Shukichi, the husband, and Tomi, the wife,  (who are about my age)  travel from their small city (Onomichi) to visit their adult son, daughter, and daughter-in-law in Tokyo. The children are busy with their own cares: the son is a doctor, with children of his own, and the daughter runs a beauty shop. The daughter-in-law is the widow of a son who was killed in the war. Another son works in Osaka, which is on the way to (and from, obviously) Tokyo, and they visit him briefly, but I'm not sure this is even shown.

When they arrive in Tokyo, the couple find that their children don't really have time or energy to for them. Only the widowed daughter-in-law, perhaps because she is not married, or perhaps because she is just that kind of person, seems genuinely happy to see them and willing to spend time with them. In general, though, the visit is not a success, and the couple return to Onomichi. 

There is only one really significant single event, and on the assumption that you haven't seen the film I'll leave it for you to experience. I also won't give you a link to Roger Ebert's review, because it does include that information. But as I'm too busy and distracted to write a real appreciation of this film, the kind of appreciation it deserves, I'm going to quote a couple of paragraphs of Ebert on the movie's craftsmanship:

 "Tokyo Story" opens with the distant putt-putt of a ship's engine, and bittersweet music evokes a radio heard long ago and far away. There are exterior shots of a neighborhood. If we know Ozu, we know the boat will not figure in the plot, that the music will never be used to underline or comment on the emotions, that the neighborhood may be the one where the story takes place, but it doesn't matter. Ozu uses "pillow shots" like the pillow words in Japanese poetry, separating his scenes with brief, evocative images from everyday life. He likes trains, clouds, smoke, clothes hanging on a line, empty streets, small architectural details, banners blowing in the wind (he painted most of the banners in his movies himself).

His visual strategy is as simple (therefore as profound) as possible. His camera is not always precisely three feet above the floor (the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat), but it usually is. "The reason for the low camera position," the writer Donald Richie explains, "is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." So we are better able to appreciate a composition because Ozu lets us notice its lines and weights and tones -- which always reflect his exact feeling about the scene.

 And I'll leave it to you to discover the richness of the simple, subtle portraits of these people which Ozu gives us. The trailer will give you some idea. It appears to be the original trailer. The film itself is visually crisper and brighter than this.


I now very much want to see Late Spring again. I think it may be as good or nearly so. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 33 - Kwaidan

Kwaidan is a 1964 Japanese anthology film by director Masaki Kobayashi, based on four Japanese folk tales as transcribed by late 19th century American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn stayed in Japan after a visit there in 1890, taking a Japanese bride and assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo, the name by which he is still primarily known in Japan. The title, pronounced Ki-dan, (with the ‘w’ silent) comes from a Japanese word meaning “strange stories” or “weird tales.” Although only two of the four are technically “ghost stories,” the film has the reputation of being one of the best ghost films ever made. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965 and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that same year.

When it was filmed it was at that time the most expensive Japanese movie ever. Almost the whole thing was shot in a Nissan automobile warehouse, a former airplane hangar, because the studio buildings were not big enough to hold the huge, hand-made and hand-painted sets. The film thus seldom looks “real,” but this is intentional. According to those who have commented on the film, Kobayashi was trying for a semi-artificial, stylized look that has roots in Japanese art and theatre, creating a world that walks the line between realistic and fantastic.

What is almost immediately striking about the film is the use of colors. They are not only phenomenally rich and deep, but they are used in such a way as to give the whole endeavor an otherworldly quality. This, and the highly stylized sets and backdrops strongly communicate the idea that you’re watching the playing out of myths and legends, not stories of the “real world.” This was Kobayashi’s first color film, and one gets the sense that he really wanted to go for broke and make the colors a major aspect of the film. I believe it was only his second period film as well, as his previous work had been mainly contemporary dramas.

To go along with the stylized visuals Kobayashi chose as his musical composer the great Japanese modernist Toru Takemitsu. What’s fascinating about this collaboration is that Takemitsu’s score, albeit “modern” in many ways, fits perfectly with the ancient subject matter. The music includes a large number of sound effects, some strictly musical, some not, like the breaking of sticks and the creaking of floors. It adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, but is in no way distracting or obstreperous, so that after a time it becomes so much a part of the filmic experience that you almost forget it’s there.

Kwaidan runs a bit over three hours, and includes an intermission. As it’s an anthology film, one with no framing device, it can easily be watched in sections. The first two stories run approximately 50 minutes each, the third lasts about an hour, and the final one about 20 minutes.

The opening tale, “The Black Hair,” is the probably the creepiest of the four, and comes closest to what Westerners would consider a traditional ghost story. The second one, “The Woman of the Snow,” with its marvelous snowstorm sequence and highly stylized sky full of eyes, stars and comets, is more like a dark fairy tale than a ghost story. It features Yuki-onna, a well-known figure in Japanese folklore. It’s astounding to consider the effort it must have taken both to create the sets for this sequence and to film it.

The third story, “Hoichi the Earless,” is the longest and cinematically most ambitious. It includes a full sea-battle, and two large “outdoor” sets – a monastery and a ruined palace or temple, all, it seems, filmed indoors. Its story about a renowned minstrel called upon to play and sing for a supernatural retinue has its roots in Japanese medieval history. The final short segment, “In a Cup of Tea,” concerns a man who keeps seeing another man’s face in his cup of water, and becoming increasingly unnerved in the process. It’s a somewhat comic story, with a pointedly ambiguous ending, which serves as a fine way to close the film.

As these stories are based on folktales, they do not necessarily have any sort of direct lesson or moral to impart, although two of the four involve consequences of the breaking of vows (a theme of course prominent in folktales the world over). These aren’t parables, however – there’s more Grimm here than Aesop.

The best way to enjoy Kwaidan is to let yourself be carried along by the sounds and the visuals in an impressionistic, as opposed to an analytic, way. In some ways the stories do not “make sense” in a Western manner, as we’re dealing here with the folklore of a very different culture. Above all it’s a work of true beauty, such that some critics consider it one of the most beautiful films of all time. I’m inclined to agree, as some of the imagery will stay with you long after the film is over.


—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 32 - Akira Kurosawa's Dreams


Previous to watching Akira Kurosawa's Dreams I had seen four movies directed by Kurosawa: Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and I Live in Fear. All of these movies were made early in his career, between 1950 and 1961. The first three are jidaigeki films (from which Jedi warriors), period dramas set in the Samurai period. I Live in Fear is the story of a man who, after living through World War II, is obsessed with idea that there will be further nuclear war and who is desperately trying to move his family to a place in Brazil that he thinks will be safe. All of these films are very serious. Where there is humor if there is any, it is a sort of comic relief, and we need it. There is no humor that I can remember in I Live in Fear. All these films employ to some extent that over-exaggerated style of acting that we have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams on the other hand, was made in 1990, only eight years before Kurosawa's death, and while it incorporates elements of the older films, for the most part it is very different. I don't remember where I came across the film. I must have been looking around Netflix when it caught my eye, and I put it on my DVD list. Wikipedia cites The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa by Stephen Prince as saying that this film is based on dreams that Kurosawa said he had had repeatedly. There are eight dreams in which the main character is Kurosawa. They vary in style and mood from the very serious to the whimsical. They also vary in quality.

It may be the uneven merit of the different dreams that accounts for the wide disparity of opinion on the film. The Rotten Tomatoes website gave it a Tomatometer rating of 55%, and looking around the web, that seems about right. Vincent Canby in a New York Times review on August 24, 1990, used terms like, sublime, astonishingly beautiful, and pure screen enchantment to describe the film. He also said, “For Kurosawa, the present is not haunted by the past. Instead, it's crowded by an accumulation of other present times that include the future. The job is keeping them in order, like unruly foxes,” which I think is accurate, although I'm not sure I entirely get what he means.

On the other hand, Hal Hinson writing for the Washington Post (September 14, 1990), opined, “By titling his new film 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams,' the Japanese master has engaged in a little false advertising. 'Pontifications' might have served as a more accurate header. Or better yet, 'Sermons.'" His description is at least partially true. The dreams are a bit, sometimes quite a bit, heavy-handed on the topics of nuclear radiation, and the environment. Of course, this isn't unusual in Japanese films, and it's quite understandable. It occurs to me that the Japanese are preoccupied with these topics in much the same way that we in the United States are preoccupied with race.

And then, while the dreams are more than sermons, they only resemble dreams in certain ways. For one thing, for the most part they aren't really finished. They may end like dreams, and leave you with that same feeling that you get when you are in the middle of what I think of as a story dream, and you wake up wondering, and really wanting to know what happened next. And then things happen that would not happen in real life. However, they are more coherent than any dream I can ever remember having. While mysterious things happen, Kurosawa, never finds himself suddenly in a different place or with different people, and the story never changes in mid-stream.

For the most part, I really enjoyed the film. I liked some of the dreams very much indeed, and one not at all. I think that most viewers, even those who most liked the film would feel the same, although their choices of the best and worst might differ. Some of them are quite short, and others fairly long. Some are very beautiful, and others rather hideous. I'll give a brief introduction to each one.

The first three dreams draw heavily on Japanese tradition and folklore.

Sunshine through the Rain

Unfortunately, this first dream is in my opinion the best. I kept waiting for another to match it in beauty and mystery, but none did, although there were a few that I liked almost as well. I was disappointed, but now you won't be, having been forewarned, but then, you may not agree this is the best.

In this dream, Kurosawa or “I” as the billing reads, is a small boy, about five. His mother warns him not to go out in the woods because the sun is shining through the rain. Foxes, which play a large part in Japanese folklore, like to have their wedding processions in this kind of weather and they don't like to be seen. Needless to say, the boy loses no time running out into the woods to see what he can see, and the procession that he sees is both beautiful and mysterious. Unfortunately, his curiosity leads to more serious consequences than he expects.

The Peach Orchard

This dream takes place on Hinamatsuri or Doll's Day , when Japanese families display dolls of the emperor and empress and others on a platform made of a series of steps, and have a special tea ceremony. In the dream, Kurosawa is about seven and his sister is having a celebration of the day with four of her friends. He sees a sixth girl, dressed in pink, who lures him outside where he finds the dolls come to life in the former peach orchard. This dream is also very beautiful, and I liked it almost as well as the first.

The Blizzard

Now grown, Kurosawa leads two other men on an exhausting and dangerous trek through a blizzard on a mountain. When they have reached the end of their endurance, they meet a Yuki-onna , a Japanese Snow Woman. What happens next confuses me, and if any of you watch the movie, I would love to hear what you think.

The Tunnel

We find Kurosawa walking down a deserted, unlovely road in the evening twilight when he is accosted by a mysterious, glowing dog running out of a tunnel. The dog never touches him, but as he exits the tunnel at the other end, he meets the ghost of man who had been under his command during the war, and who had died in his arms. In this dream, Kurosawa is man coming to grips with his past.


I love this one. This is the whimsical one. Kurosawa with his paints and canvas under his arm (he was a painter) strolls through a museum exhibit of paintings by Van Gogh and finds himself inside The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing. After consulting with the women, he crosses the bridge and finds Van Gogh in a hay field, head wrapped in a bandage, played by Martin Scorsese. A review of the movie on the website Open Culture said that it wasn't so much Scorsese playing Van Gogh as Van Gogh playing Scorcese. It is in any case humorous. Kurosawa wanders further afield through one Van Gogh painting after another in scenes that will be recognizable even to those who aren't particularly interested in art. He gets deeper and deeper into the paintings until he is walking on the very strokes of the paint. There's no story here, just a look an appreciation of Van Gogh's work. And it's fun.


Mount Fuji in Red

Crowds of people are running away from an abstract Mount Fuji from which flames are erupting. Is it a volcanic eruption? No, there are six nuclear plants exploding and there is no place to go. It's a warning and since the film was made 21 years before the Fukushima disaster, it seems to have been an apt warning. It is not, however, a good film.

The Weeping Demon

This one is painful to watch. Following on the theme of nuclear and environmental destruction, Kurosawa finds himself in a desert with giant dandelions, talking to ragged man with a horn on his head. This dream reminds me of the nuclear disaster sci-fi movies of the 50s, especially The Amazing Colossal Man. The only thing I can really remember about the movie, though, is that he was out in the desert and there were enormous dandelions.

The ragged man is a demon and he tells Kurosawa about the aftermath of the great disaster, and the people in the desert that used to be men, but are now demons. There is one scene that is reminiscent of a sort of Japanese Hieronymus Bosch. It is also reminiscent in a way of Kurosawa's earlier movies and has that over-emotive acting.

Village of the Watermills

In a complete change of atmosphere, Kurosawa finds himself in a beautiful little village built around a stream filled with watermills. At first, I thought this was just a movie set, but it was filmed at the Daio Wasabi Farm, which you can tour and where you can get, oh wonder of wonders, wasabi ice cream, and don't you wish we could all just go now. Anyway, it is very beautiful.

Here we see a great deal of the preachiness that Hinson talks about in his review as a 103 year old man tells Kurosawa about the wonderful, simple life that the villagers live. They don't have electricity, and they don't have a lot of inessential things, and they respect the environment. Now, all these things are very good things, and I agree with him in essence, but it's not always so simple. Still, it's very lovely and the movie ends with a joyful funeral procession for an old women who lived a good life. It is full of music and dancing and color, and brings us full circle from the quiet and somber wedding procession of the foxes.


A painting by Kurosawa

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 31 - True Grit

My stepdaughter has recently become interested in movies not starring teeny-boppers. I think it began with wanting me to watch movies with her at night, and her knowing I will not watch just anything. We started by making our way through all of the Quentin Tarantino films, and now we are sporadically (not by date) going through the Coen Brothers oeuvre. I told her that Fargo and No Country For Old Men were probably the top two. She liked the former a lot, but not so much the latter. She picked True Grit last night as our next one, and I was okay with that. I had fond memories of seeing it a few times and had though it enjoyable. What I did not think would happen during this third viewing is that I would feel it is every bit as good as the two previously mentioned films, and in some ways better.

I went to see True Grit in our downtown independent movie theatre here in Mobile. Often times before a movie begins the owner will come out and say a little something about it. What he said about this one is that we would quickly notice that the people in the film did not use contractions when they spoke. He informed us that there was a time in America when the English language used was more “proper” than it is today. I did not know that. Nor do I know if it is true. However, he was correct, and it’s fun to watch the movie and see when and who might fall out of this and say “don’t” (for instance) instead of “do not”.

Suffice to say that the dialogue in True Grit is quite engaging. I laughed so much at what the three main characters were saying that I probably missed much of it. So it is a good movie to re-watch. For one thing, this version of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) speaks in such a low guttural tone that you really need to become used to his cadence to really understand him. The Mattie Ross character is played by a young girl named Hailee Steinfeld, and she is just outstanding. Matt Damon holds his own as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Bridges and Steinfeld were both nominated for Academy Awards, and deservedly so.

I should probably mention what most I’m sure already know, that this is a remake of a 1969 film starring John Wayne. Wayne won his only Oscar in his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. I know I have seen the older movie, but I have little memory of it. John Wayne movies are all kind of lumped together in my mind – his own character being bigger than any singular one of any movie he made. At the time of the release of their movie the Coen Brothers stated that their version would more correctly follow the book, written by Charles Portis. The book is written from the viewpoint of the Mattie Ross character, which is how this newer movie version is told.

Mattie travels from Yell County, Arkansas up to Fort Smith in order to collect her father’s body and seek to catch the man who killed him. She is only fourteen, but quite precocious and smart; she will not be taken advantage of by adults seeking to treat her like a child. There is a scene involving Mattie and a shop owner that is just priceless. He is haggling with her, letting her know what he will and will not do involving two ponies, a horse, and other goods which I can’t recall. At the beginning of the scene he is almost not paying attention to her. But as the parley continues he is more and more drawn in, and shocked that a young girl can be so bold to challenge him. This lets us know what to expect from Mattie Ross for the remainder of the movie.

I said I don’t really remember what John Wayne was like in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, but I have the idea that other than the eye patch there probably is not much in common between these two characters. I’m a big fan of Jeff Bridges and sometimes have to defend his acting from naysayers who seem to think he is playing the same slightly different version of one character for the past twenty years. The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart, and now True Grit. Well, I suppose there is a little similarity in these characters, but his Rooster Cogburn was really quite a singular achievement. The voice he uses which I already alluded to; the way he seems to peer with his one eye in so many scenes; his casual ease with Mattie as he tells her stories; his quick wit when arguing with LaBoeuf. He is so pathetic and at the same time so heroic that he really wins you over. I thought Bridges should have traded in his Oscar from Crazy Heart and earned it instead for this role. He is something else!

Week31-True Grit-Stu_html_5474aea3

I’m trying to not give away too much of the story, but in its set-up the viewer is already going to have an idea of how it all turns out. As far as I know the original might be quite memorable for some of you, and perhaps ends in much the same way. I don’t remember at all. Suffice to say that it is the familiar “there and back again” theme without an unwilling hobbit being drawn along. The main characters must either catch or kill the man who they are chasing into the Oklahoma Territory, and they do so at risk to themselves.

The main storyline takes place around 1878, post-Civil War period. Wikipedia states that it was filmed mostly outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is beautiful. The acting is great, the story is interesting, the dialogue is first rate, there is very little offensive (it is a Western so expect dead bodies). True Grit is a great Coen Brothers movie that fans of theirs might not think about when droning on about their wonderful films. Watch it!

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.

52 Movies: Week 30 - A Majority of One

It's hard to figure out how to start this post because I am writing about a movie that is bad in so many ways. Most of the characters are very stiff. The leading man is an Englishman playing the part of Japanese and the leading woman is an American playing the part of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Neither of these portrayals works 100% of the time. The Japanese houseboy, played by Marc Marno, who you will think is Bobby Darin, is an outrageous parody along the lines of Jose Jimenez, or more like Jerry Lewis in Still Laughing. (I'm not against all ethnic humour; I just think these are insulting and over-the-top). In so many ways the movie just does not work.

So, I've been asking myself why this is one of my favorite movies--one of the few that I own?

Well, one thing is that it is in places hysterically funny. There's one line from the movie (which I will not divulge) that regularly comes up in family conversations. And then, the stars of the movie are Alec Guinness and Rosalind Russell, and despite the fact that their accents are occasionally a bit jarring and that Alec Guinness just looks a bit strange, the chemistry between the two is wonderful. I'm not talking about romance, although there is that, it's more like the feeling you get when you meet someone with whom you can really communicate. They really hear what you are saying. They understand your jokes. They care about the things you care about.


As good as Alec Guiness is, the star of this movie is Rosalind Russell. Her character, Bertha Jacoby is wise; she is funny; and she knows who she is, and what her place is in this world. All my adult life I have wished that I knew some wise, older woman who I could go to for advice, and I have never found anyone to fill that role. I think this woman might. And as ably as Ms. Russell portrays the serious side of Bertha Jacoby, she truly excels in the humorous side. Her comedic timing is impeccable--from the few scenes that approach slapstick to the more numerous scenes where the humor is more subtle.


Bertha is a widow whose son was killed by the Japanese in World War II. She lives alone in an apartment in New York City, where she appears to be very content. As the movie begins, we find her awaiting the visit of her daughter, Alice, and son-in-law, Jerry, who is a member of the U. S. Foreign Service. She knows they have an announcement to make, and she is sure that the announcement is the one that every mother of a young married person awaits—but she is far off the mark. She finds that Jerry has been assigned to the U. S. Embassy in Japan to help with negotiations for a trade agreement with that country. Still bitter over the death of her son, she cannot at first accept the situation at all.

Gradually, however, she comes to see that this is an advantageous position for Jerry. She accepts the fact that they are going to what she sees as an enemy land, and then receives a further surprise. Alice wants her mother to come with them. Neither Jerry nor her mother thinks that Bertha could be happy in Japan, but gradually their objections are overcome and off to Japan they all go.

Once aboard the ocean liner, they meet Mr. Koichi Asano, a Japanese businessman who will be taking part in the negotiations that Jerry will be helping to conduct. Mr. Asano attempts to befriend Mrs. Jacoby, but she is very cold. Eventually, though, after finding out a bit more about Mr. Asano and his life, she comes to see him as an individual who could be a friend, rather than as an embodiment of the enemy who killed her son.

A Majority of One was released in 1962, and was based on a Broadway hit starring Gertrude Berg, and Cedric Hardwicke that opened in 1959. I would guess that at this time there were still many people in the United States who had the same feelings toward the Japanese as Mrs. Jacoby did. Perhaps, this was considered a daring movie. I don't know. It dealt with racial prejudice—although not the sort that we are most accustomed to—in a time when that was not a popular topic. It does not however, sink under the weight of the topic, or become so preachy as to be tedious. The story, not the lesson, always drives the movie.

One thing I really enjoy about the movie is the discussions where Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby compare their different cultural/religious traditions. There is a certain amount of similarity which comes, I think, from the fact that we are all human and the tools that we have to express our traditions are the same for us all: beauty, nature, our inward desires and search for meaning—many similar things. Different cultures and religions inform these basic similarities, but it's natural that we would come to some common expressions of what is most important to us. The movie doesn't downplay the differences, however. In fact there is one scene where Mr. Asano talks about how difficult those differences can be.


It would seem that Mrs. Berg, who won the Tony Award for best actress in the role of Bertha Jacoby, would have been perfect for the movie version, but Jack Warner did not want her, and offered the role to Rosalind Russell, who was shocked. This exchange is found on the TMC website

"You've been drinking," she told Warner according to her 1977 autobiography Life Is a Banquet. "What would I be doing playing this Jewish lady from Brooklyn? I'm a little Irish girl from Waterbury, Connecticut. Use Gertrude Berg, it's her part," she said.

"We'll never use Gertrude Berg," replied Warner. "She made a picture over at Paramount years ago, and it was a disaster."

"But that has nothing to do with this," said Russell. "You'd be crazy to put me in that part, and I'd be crazy to take it."

However, when Jack Warner suggested that she could possibly co-star with Sir Alec Guinness, Russell reconsidered. "Well, that's another cup of chicken soup," she told him. "I'll think about that little item."

Earlier, I mentioned the stiffness of some of the characters, and, indeed, there is a sort of stiffness in several of the scenes, and I wonder if that can be attributed to the fact that the movie is derived from a play. In fact, it frequently has the feel of a play. I can think of certain scenes in the movie that were probably staged in the exact same way as those in the theater.

Unfortunately, this movie is difficult to find. It is occasionally on TMC, and probably elsewhere on cable. If you want to watch it soon, though, you will probably have to buy it, or you can come to my house or go wrest my other copy from my granddaughter in San Juan.


—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 29 - Out of the Past

Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, introducing this film, says it’s his favorite film noir, and one of the best. I agree. In preparation for writing this note, I’ve just watched it for the third time, and liked it even better. I’d have to say now that it’s one of my favorite movies, period.

I think any reasonable critic would agree that it’s at very least among the best of its kind. To pick a personal favorite from a list including other excellent examples (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, et.al.), is partly a matter of subjective preferences. The noir plot generally has near its center a bad romance, a man who is tough and perhaps somewhat shady, but usually fundamentally decent, and a beautiful but treacherous woman.

If you’re going to be emotionally involved in the story, you have to find that couple convincing and at least somewhat appealing. And for me that’s one of the things that distinguish Out of the Past from others: the couple are played by Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and both of them are to me both convincing and appealing. I’ve liked Mitchum for as long as I can remember watching movies. (If I saw Thunder Road soon after it was first released, which I think I must have, I was only ten or eleven.) As far as I can remember Out of the Past was the first time I’d seen Greer. What can I say except that she’s very beautiful, and in a way that happens to hit the mark for me? I’d certainly fall in love with her if I were sitting in a dim cantina in Acapulco and she walked in out of the sun.


But that gets ahead of the story. The second thing that makes Out of the Past so powerful for me is the cinematography, which seems to me superior to most similar films of its time. This is especially striking in the opening. We’re given a number of beautiful scenes of the Sierra Nevadas, then a road sign that sets the stage: Los Angeles that way, Lake Tahoe and Reno the other way, and just one mile away, Bridgeport.

Week29-Out of the Past title card


Corruption this way, corruption that way. Or you could stop and hide in Bridgeport.

We see a man in a dark hat and a dark coat driving a dark car into Bridgeport. It’s a nice-looking little town, and in fact a real town, in which these scenes were filmed. The man isn't Mitchum’s character, but someone out of his past, Joe Stefano. Stefano is looking for Mitchum’s character, who is introduced first as Jeff Bailey but is actually named Jeff Markham, and who runs a garage in Bridgeport. (If you wonder why it’s called “Mono Motor Service”, it’s because Bridgeport is in Mono County.)


Stefano arrives at the garage.

These opening scenes are bright and crisp. It’s winter and the trees are bare, but the sun is bright, and lines are sharp. The town is quiet. Stefano arrives at Bailey’s garage, and learns from a deaf-mute boy who works there (referred to only as “the kid”, as far as I remember) that Bailey is not there. There is a bit here that I hadn’t noticed until I watched the opening again just now. We don’t yet know who these people are. But as Stefano is talking to the kid, a police car comes down the otherwise empty street. Stefano watches it come, which is natural. But then he turns to watch it go, with an interest which is not quite so natural. And the kid notices this, and doesn’t like it. We learn soon enough that his suspicion is justified.

Stefano walks across the street to Marny’s Cafe. Marny, friendly and chatty, tells us, and Stefano, a lot, and in passing utters a line that prefigures much of what is to come “Seems like everything people oughta know they don’t wanna hear.”


Big-city guy Stefano signals his disrupting presence in Bridgeport by cranking up loud jazz on the jukebox as soon as he sets foot in Marny's Cafe.

The kid has gone off into the mountains in search of Bailey, who is out fishing with a lovely local girl, Ann (Virginia Huston). If the town is pleasant, the fishing scene is idyllic, the winter sun glittering on the lake.


Talking about clouds, and the future, not realizing that this is noir.

There is a romantic conversation, and a brief kiss. Ann looks off into the distance. Over her shoulder Jeff sees the kid, who is signing to Jeff, and the idyll is disturbed.

Jeff: We’d better go.
Ann: Something the matter?
Jeff: Maybe not.

Not maybe, but maybe not: the perfect note for Jeff’s fatalistic but not hopeless attitude. And those two examples of the dialog illustrate another aspect of the film’s quality: the dialog is for the most part excellent, plain but with resonances, clever but not ostentatiously so, and happily lacking in the overdone wisecracks, labored slang, and macho posturing one often finds in crime dramas of this period. Well, okay, there is some macho posturing, but it's not exaggerated.  

Stefano is a hoodlum who works for a gambler and “operator,” presumably of criminal enterprises, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Bailey/Markham had also worked for Sterling in the past, but there are clear indications that the parting was not a friendly one, and presumably has something to do with the fact that Markham has changed his name. Stefano seems friendly but there’s an undertone of menace in the conversation, not least as a result of the fact that Stefano has found Jeff at all. (How this came about is never quite explained.) Sterling wants to hire Jeff again. He agrees to meet with Stirling in Lake Tahoe the next morning. We assume there is an implied threat here, that Jeff was hiding from Sterling, and that now that he’s been found must deal with the situation.

The next scene takes place at night, and from this point the film gets literally and figuratively darker. Jeff asks Ann to accompany him on the all-night drive to Tahoe (only 78 miles according to the signpost in that opening scene, but maybe the mountain roads made for slow going). He wants to tell her the truth about his past.


Night drive to Tahoe.

In a lengthy flashback we learn of his previous life as a private detective hired by Sterling to locate Kathie Moffat (Greer), the girlfriend who had shot him and stolen $40,000.

I’ll stop the plot summary at this point. I’ve gone into this detail, and included these stills, in an effort to communicate how well-crafted the movie is. The story gets pretty complicated from here on, and I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you it's not a light-hearted one.

If you want to see a clip, go here. I didn't include it here because it goes further in the story than I wanted to, although it's not a major spoiler.

Kirk Douglas gives an excellent performance as Sterling—affable, smooth, and ruthless.


There's something crocodilian about that grin.

Sterling is involved with miscellaneous other shady types, including Rhonda Fleming as a femme at least as fatale as Kathie. The most potent thing about Kathie for me is that she taps something in men—or at least in this man—which makes us, against all evidence, suppose that a really beautiful woman is also good.  (There is a great riff about this in one of John Le Carre's books, but I'm not sure which one.) Ann is perhaps a bit too sweet; I learn from poking around on the internet that Virginia Huston was somewhat typecast as the good girl in this sort of film, and you can see why. 

The kid is a poignant figure. At the end of the movie we are back with him in Bridgeport. It's another bright day, but things have changed. There's an ambiguous bit at the end which fans of the film don't seem to be entirely agreed upon. Roger Ebert thinks it's just ambiguous, and I tend to agree.


I like this movie so much that I may buy a copy. That's very high praise for me, as I own fewer than a couple of dozen movies, and a lot of those are Bergman. If there's a noir film that you think is better, please let me know. And of course if you like the genre and haven't seen Out of the Past, do so at your earliest convenience.

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 28 - Poetry

Mija lives in a modest apartment in South Korea. She supports herself and her sullen, uncooperative grandson, Jongwook, by caring for an old, physically incapacitated man. She is the sort of person who slips unobtrusively in and out of the lives of others without making much of an impression—except for one thing. She is always dressed very nicely, and it is this that others notice about her.

She has not been feeling well lately. She's worried about her heart. However, when she goes to see the doctor, he is less concerned with her physical condition than he is with the fact that she is losing words—not forgetting them, but momentarily unable to recall the names of common things. So, he arranges for further tests.

Leaving the hospital, Mija finds herself in the middle of a tragedy. The body of a teenage suicide, Heejin, is being taken out of an ambulance. Her mother, grief-stricken and hysterical, is staggering through the parking lot.

Soon Mija's own life is shaken by two devastating revelations. First, she finds that she is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. Second, she finds that Heejin killed herself because she had been repeatedly raped by six boys at her school, and Jongwook is one of the boys. Worse, the fathers of the other five boys have consulted an attorney about how they can save the reputations of their sons. The attorney believes that the poor farming family can be bought off for 30,000 Won, and they want her to pay a sixth, 5,000 Won. This far exceeds her ability to pay, and also, she is increasingly haunted by the death of this young girl, the devastation of her family, and the guilt of her grandson. However, it is hard for Mija to even consider going against the decisions of these men, and it doesn't occur to them that she would.

Mija is a woman without a voice. I don't think that I would have understood the full import of this had I not worked with Korean students and ministers at the seminary where I worked for eight years. Many older Korean men just do not seem to think that women are capable outside the home. (The younger students did not seem to be like this at all.) One older Korean student really did not want to work with me. He wanted to deal exclusively with my boss, but my boss kept sending him back to me, which was not entirely comfortable. And then, there was a woman who was about 40, and you could tell by the way that she dealt with people that she had come from a culture where women were very apologetic and meek in their relations with people in authority. And so I wonder how this plays out in South Korea itself. Mija says to someone on the phone that she has to put up with Jongwook's behavior because he is the head of the house—a boy of about 16 or 17.

Until now she has really only expressed herself in her clothing, but knowing that before very long she will not be able to be heard at all, Mija looks for a way to say what she has to say, and she finds it in a poetry class. She takes the class very seriously and works hard to find poetic inspiration, but it seems to elude her. Slowly, though, through Heejin's funeral (Catholic), her meeting with Heejin's mother, her attendance at a local poetry group, and the beauty of nature, she finds her voice and writes her poem, both on paper, and in her own life.


When I sent Maclin the post for Two Lives, he said that it sounded like a “good but painful-to-watch movie.” I'd say that that is a pretty good description of Poetry also. Jeong-hie Yun is excellent and we are always aware of the conflict and the desire that fill Mija. Some of the choices that she makes disturb us, but this isn't our story, it's Mija's, and by her lights, they are the right ones.

Among other awards, Poetry the award for Best Screenplay at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 27 - Babe


In early 1996, my husband and I had been married for a couple of months, and were visiting Canberra for his PhD study. He was working and I was more or less at leisure for a couple of weeks, though feeling unwell, since we were expecting our first child. One day, I went to the movies to see the US/Australian movie “Babe” about a little piglet and how he finds his place on the farm. He decides to try herding sheep. (Wikipedia entry--contains plot spoilers.)

I think it was just the hormones, but this movie had me in tears of joy. It really is a delightful story, and is right up there with “Molokai” as a favourite. The ending still moves me.

Here is the trailer. 


The movie was filmed in the southern highlands of New South Wales, and the lead roles were Farmer Hoggett (US actor James Cromwell) and his wife Mrs. Esme Hoggett (Australian actress, Magda Szubanski). The leading actors for the voices of the animal characters were Hugo Weaving (Rex), Miriam Margolyes (Fly) and Christine Cavanaugh (Babe). The actors in this were all excellent, as was the direction (Chris Noonan). The animal characters are really good too.

I agree with the critic who said that the well-trained animals, good animation, and intelligent script make this such a good story. It is set in no particular time, although it has an old-fashioned, mid-20th century feel to it. It's also not set in any particular place, although filmed in NSW. None of the characters are Australian. Most speak with American or English accents. It is perhaps trying to appeal to all English-speakers and I think it succeeds at this.

It had been years since I last saw it, but I was happy to discover that watching it again confirmed that it really is as good as I remember. It is a joyful, beautiful thing and I feel confident in recommending it to you all as a great family movie. It deserves to be a family classic. That said, there are some themes which the youngest family members might feel worried about, for example, the threat of certain animals becoming dinner for the farmer and his wife, or the scene where a sheep, “Maa,” has blood at her neck after an attack from wild dogs, so it's perhaps best to view it first before showing it to the very little ones. Also, some youngsters may not realise that meat is from animals! This can be traumatic for some of them. There is nothing too disturbing though, as far as I can tell.

It can be rented for a couple of dollars on Amazon Prime, if you have that, but I'm convinced it's worth buying the DVD. It shouldn't be too hard to rent, at least, wherever you are.

It's a simple movie, so there isn't much more to say, except that the first time I saw it, I wanted to turn right around and go to the next showing, and that's not common for me. For some reason, I didn't do this. Maybe I had to be somewhere. When you're feeling low, grab a cup of tea, and watch this movie about the winsome little pig, “Babe.”


—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas

52 Movies: Week 26 - Shotgun Stories

About once a month or so I browse the new release section of my local video store. Most of these stores have gone the way of the dinosaur, but this one is part of a national chain, Family Video, and seems to be doing quite well. I’ve stumbled across some interesting films there, mostly indie releases, and Shotgun Stories was one of these. Picking it up and reading the description, the name of the producer caught my eye. It was David Gordon Green, whose own film Snow Angels I had watched and liked. On the strength of that, and on the appeal of the synopsis, I took it home. I did not really know what to expect from a film from a first-time director and a cast of (to me) unknowns, but I ended up being very pleasantly surprised.

The story concerns two sets of half-brothers and the escalating feud that develops between them when the eldest son of the older set insults their newly deceased father at his funeral. This man had been an abusive drinker in his first family, but after leaving them cleaned himself up, got religion, and became a moderately successful farmer, fathering four more sons with his new wife. The original three Hayes boys, Son, Boy, and Kid (their impersonal names seem to reflect their father’s lack of interest in them) have been raised by their mother, a bitter, spiteful woman who transferred her animosity towards her ex-husband and his new family onto her sons. At one point in the story after a particularly hurtful incident, Son comes to tell his mother what has happened. She has no response, to which he says "You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it's come to this."  That could sum up the theme of the story which, as one reviewer has said, brings classical, even Biblical drama down to the scale of small town life. Point being, it’s all ultimately human, whether the antagonists are Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, or the two sets of Hayes brothers.

The film runs for only an hour and a half or so, but takes its time in a somewhat Malick-esque fashion. Wide, lingering landscape shots set the tone, and sometimes serve as links between the dramatic scenes. The dialogue is minimalist, but no less rich and telling for that. And despite the title, the violence is sporadic and brief, realistic, but not in a graphic or gory way. Oddly enough, this serves to make it more painful-looking when it does occur. The acting is all top notch, despite the largely unknown cast, but Michael Shannon is a standout as the eldest brother. He manages to communicate his character’s inner moral confusion with minimal speechmaking and facial expression, doing it all in a way that makes it all seem completely realistic. I don’t know any other actor currently working who’s able to make this minimalist approach work like Shannon does. When he’s in a scene you don’t want to take your eyes off him, because he’s able to communicate so much while seemingly using so little.

Much credit also must be given to first time director Nichols, who took a miniscule budget and made one of the best films of 2007. Seldom has a first time director, coming out of nowhere, demonstrated such maturity and confidence. The film is morally quite serious, and in no sense can be reduced to simply a “revenge picture.” As such, despite its rather simple plot, it’s a film which grows upon repeat viewings, and which can thus prompt a fair amount of discussion, especially for the viewer who’s interested in the human side of such dramas.


Jeff Nichols has gone on to direct three additional films, all of them very good – Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. And he’s only 37, which means that he made Shotgun Stories when he was still in his 20’s. An auspicious beginning, I’d say.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 25 - Jean de Florette

Jean de Florette came out in France in 1986, and by 1987 in England everyone was talking about it. It was the must-see film of that year, and very rightly so, I think. It was the last year of my PhD research at London University, and I saw it in a London movie theatre with a friend. At the time I was locked into the struggle to complete my PhD, and impracticality versus worldliness was on my mind. I told my friend that the movie dramatized the defeat of the romantic, unworldly ‘Jean’ by the down to earth, farming Soubeyrans. My friend did not agree, arguing that the younger Soubeyran, Ugolin, also has a dream, of planting carnations on the land which Jean inherits. Certainly the movie is about the battle to possess this rich soil which Ugolin covets for his carnation project, but which the urbanite, tax-collector Jean has inherited from his mother.

Jean does not know he is in a battle with Ugolin Subeyran, or with Ugolin’s wicked uncle, César Subeyran. This ignorance on his part underlies much of the tragic irony of the movie, as we witness repeated scenes of lies, hypocrisy and double-entendre on Ugolin and César’s part, and of misunderstanding and false confidence on the part of the outsider, Jean. The Soubeyrans lie not only to Jean but withhold essential information from the villagers about him. So the hunchback Jean, his wife and their little girl are utterly isolated by this stream of bare faced lies and misinformation.

The basic lie told by the Soubeyrans in fact concerns a stream! Ugolin needs water for his planned carnation crops, and there is not sufficient on his own property. There is an old abandoned stream on Jean’s property. Ugolin and his uncle deliberately block the stream, and conceal its existence from Jean. Jean has arrived with his own romantic project, of escaping city life and breeding rabbits on his property. Without water, his hopes literally shrivel, his plants dying of thirst and his rabbits starving for lack of feed. Jean is destroyed by his increasingly heroic efforts to create a water source on his land.

The great irony of the film is that Jean has come to the French countryside in search of authenticity. Ugolin has never heard of that, and wonders if it is a plant which he will grow.

I remember, and I imagine most people, remember Jean de Florette for the wrenching performance as the hunchback by Gerard Depardieu. Its almost as tragic as the film itself to think of the fantastic promise of the young Depardieu, who displayed outstanding talents as an actor, and of his latter days when he has become famous for demeaning, drunken antics. Watching the film for a second time, after thirty years, though, I was struck by the wonderful, fox-like performance of Yves Montand as César Soubeyran, wicked through to the marrow, and of his weaker and more conflicted nephew, played by Daniel Auteil. All three of the main actors give brilliant performances in their roles.

The character played by Jean de Florette has been a staple of French comedy since Molière: he is the romantic idealist, whose ideas about how to live in the world come from textbooks, manuals and mathematical formulae. The comedy occurs when the rubber of the mathematical formulae hits the road of real life. So the city-dweller versus the earthy-peasants theme is a basic motif of French comic drama, and there is absolutely no doubt that the peasants have the upper hand, because their grasping nature leads them to grasp reality more firmly. Based on a novel by Maurice Pagnol, Jean de Florette is clearly no comedy because what happens to Jean is the stuff of tears, not of humour. But nor is the movie exactly a tragedy, because Jean lacks any tragic grandeur.


The movie has a direct religious theme from the start. The news that the land the Soubeyrans covet has slipped from their grasp comes to them in a letter from a priest’s housekeeper, who states that the man who has inherited the land, Jean Crespin is ‘a hunchback by the will of God’. In a great, unforgettable and climactic scene, when rain comes but falls on the other side of the mountain, not on his own crops, Jean cries out to ‘God’, demanding to know if he is ‘up there’ and if so how he could inflict such injustice on a hunchback. At the end of the movie, the exultant Soubeyrans perform an inverted ‘baptism’ of themselves in the gushing spring, blackening or blaspheming the sacrament. Jean de Florette is thus about the most typical of French theological questions, the absence of God. It may have been the last great burst of French Jansenism before the culture lapsed into secularism.


—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.