Blog Directory CineVerse: 2024

Silence speaks volumes about the power of belief

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Despite its enigmatic title, Silence has a lot to say about the mystery of faith and the religious and cultural differences that shape the world. This 2016 historical drama, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel, stars, and. Set in the 17th century, it follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests—Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have renounced his faith under torture. There, they witness severe persecution of Japanese Christians by the Tokugawa shogunate. Scorsese, driven by his Catholic background and passion for the novel since the 1980s, faced delays before finally bringing the project to fruition in 2016. The film received critical acclaim for its direction, cinematography, performances, thematic depth, and historical authenticity.

Click here to access a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Silence, conducted last week.

This is one of the most intellectually stimulating and spiritually intriguing films ever made, prompting us to perform a self-examination of our personal beliefs and to question who and what is right or wrong, evil or virtuous, wise or foolish in this narrative. The filmmakers literally use the motif of silence and voiceless quietude (with minimal music used) to underscore how God/Christ remains non-responsive. We often hear ambient sounds like the wind, crashing waves, or bird calls, which are used almost in mockery to these prayers. The sounds we don’t want to hear are the frequent wails and cries of pain of the tormented and imprisoned. We do briefly hear the voiced response of Christ, but it’s assumed that this is Rodrigues’ conscience speaking.

Curiously, the film doesn’t explain why Kichijiro betrays Rodrigues, commits apostasy, or continually asks forgiveness, forcing us to ponder his motivations and explore deeper themes woven into the film. Slant Magazine reviewer Jesse Cataldo wrote: “The mystery of Kichijiro’s true intentions is also key to the fact that the film never offers definitive answers or conclusions, rejecting the brutal actions of the story’s ostensible villains while carving out ample space for empathy and understanding, supplying even these persecutors with valid arguments worthy of abundant consideration.”

One could argue that Silence is, perhaps unsurprisingly considering Scorsese’s involvement, fairly balanced. We feel sympathy and empathy for these priests and the surreptitiously Christian villagers and the persecution and pain they endure, and religious viewers may also struggle with what they would do in their same situations: renounce their faith or endure a horrible death. But Silence shows both sides of the argument here via the words of the inquisitor, the interpreter, and Ferreira, the latter of whom survived by embracing Japanese spirituality and culture and abandoning his religion—although he was forced to do so to spare human lives. While it’s easy to view these Japanese authorities as villains, those who remember their history know that there were unconscionable acts of brutality and inhumanity practiced by Christian inquisitors in Spain and other parts of the world at this same time.

The last shot, of the dead priest cupping a crucifix secretly placed in his hands by his wife, is a fascinating final image, suggesting that Rodrigues—despite being compelled to commit blasphemy and adopt a traditional Japanese lifestyle—never truly lost his Christian faith.

Among the prominent themes explored in Silence is a personal crisis of faith, experienced in particular by three priests—Ferreira, Rodrigues, and Garupe. Their religious beliefs and personal convictions are severely tested by Japanese authorities, who wreak torture and death upon the exposed Christian peasants and the priests themselves. The film also cogitates deeply on disloyalty: Like Judas, Kichijiro betrays his friend and earlier turns his back on his family, watching them die.

Is there a God, and if so why is God silent? And what’s the whole point of religion? Here’s a picture unafraid to examine these impossible-to-answer questions. The film continually emphasizes that Christ and the God these characters place their faith in does not answer their prayers or deliver them from suffering or death. Critic Amy Nicholson posited: “Silence wrestles with questions that've butchered millions of believers and non-believers in the last two millennia: Is there a god, and if so, does he appreciate bloodshed? What's the point of hearing confessions in a language (Rodrigues) doesn't understand? What's the point of disappointing a desperate mother by explaining that, technically, her baptized baby won't be in paradise — or paradaisu — until it dies? What's the point of his parishioners getting themselves killed by refusing to step on an icon of Jesus, the Inquisitor's dreaded Trample Test?”

Blasphemy versus humanism, or the value of rigid, dogmatic religious fidelity versus flexible faith is front and center, too. Are these priests damned for having denounced their Christian deity, or would Jesus have condoned or mirrored their choice to end the suffering and killing of innocent peasants?

Silence further teaches us that deep-seated personal beliefs can be incredibly steadfast and intransigent. "Mountains and rivers can be moved but men's nature cannot be moved,” as Ferreira states. We also learn that the benefits of belief are not necessarily universal. Rodrigues tells the inquisitor: “We believe we have brought you the truth. The truth is universal. It's common to all countries at all times. That's why we call it the truth. If a doctrine weren't as true here in Japan as it is in Portugal, then we couldn't call it the truth.” The interpreter responds: “But everyone knows a tree which flourishes in one kind of earth may decay and die in another. It is the same with the tree of Christianity. The leaves decay here. The buds die. It is not the soil that has killed the buds.”

While the motivations for the Japanese authorities rejecting Christianity are not fully explored, the inquisitor suggests that spirituality is very personal and can also be a territorial issue wherein some peoples see an outside faith as threatening. The inquisitor relays a story about the daimyo and his four concubines, whom he had to drive away to regain peace. He says: “The daimyo is like Japan, and these concubines are Spain, Portugal, Holland, England. Each trying to gain the advantage against the other and destroy the house in the process.”

Similar works

  • Two earlier adaptations: the 1971 film Silence, and Os Olhos da Ásia, a Portuguese film from 1996
  • Horror films like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man
  • Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, which also involves a man commissioned to travel to a dangerous distant land to find a highly respected authority who has gone AWOL
  • Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), also concerned with spiritual characters grappling with challenges of faith and belief
  • Shogun, both the 2024 FX miniseries and the 1980 NBC miniseries
  • The Mission
  • Many films by Ingmar Bergman in which the spiritual faith of one or more characters is tested
  • Ugetsu
  • First Reformed

Other films by Martin Scorsese

  • Mean Streets
  • Taxi Driver
  • Raging Bull
  • The King of Comedy
  • After Hours
  • Goodfellas
  • Casino
  • The Departed
  • Hugo
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • The Irishman


Heaven-sent cinema

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Wings of Desire, a German film directed by Wim Wenders, written by Wenders and Peter Handke, and released in 1987, is renowned for its poetic and philosophical explorations of existence and the human experience. The narrative centers on two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, played by Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, respectively. These celestial beings drift through Berlin, quietly observing and providing solace to its residents. Damiel, however, becomes increasingly intrigued by the human experience, particularly after meeting Peter Falk (playing himself) and falling in love with Marion, a solitary trapeze artist portrayed by Solveig Dommartin. This growing fascination leads Damiel to abandon his immortality in favor of becoming human to fully experience life.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Wings of Desire, conducted last week.

The film is distinguished by its unique visual style, created by cinematographer Henri Alekan, which uses a mix of black-and-white and color cinematography to separate the viewpoints of, respectively, angels and humans. Wings of Desire serves as a time capsule visually showcasing West Berlin in the melancholy years immediately prior to the fall of communism and the reunification of Germany. The city itself is depicted as a character in the picture, a location with a rich sociocultural and historical legacy, divided by the Cold War yet brimming with countless personal stories and dreams.

The filmmakers establish fairly easy-to-follow rules for this universe: There are apparently angels everywhere there are human beings; the angels’ POV is monochromatic; these sometimes wingless seraphim can only observe or perhaps inspire optimism in the subjects they watch—they can’t alter lives or events; only children and previous angels can see these heavenly beings; and angels can choose mortality if they desire, in which case life becomes chromatic.

However, Wenders’ movie employs a meditative, esoteric, and lyrical narrative approach, lacking a conventional plot and primarily abandoning spoken dialogue in favor of verbalized thoughts and mental monologues. These private thoughts are spoken offscreen and expressed as stream-of-consciousness ruminations, wishes, doubts, laments, and hopes. The words we hear many of these smaller characters speak internally are sometimes easy to parse and understand, while other lines are deeply philosophical thoughts and poetically phrased observations for which we the viewer have no context or background.

This is a work that relies on mood, tone, emotional atmosphere, and the historically weighted geography of Germany to tell its story. It’s a film replete with deeper meanings that requires extra patience and a rejection of rationality. Consequently, Wings of Desire can be a more difficult cinematic text to decipher or analyze for some audiences. Per Roger Ebert: “Wings of Desire” doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge…The film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions. Some of them are asked in the film: ‘Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?’

Interestingly, while it can be called a spiritual film, this is not a religious text that espouses any particular religion or faith; in fact, God isn’t even mentioned.

Prominent themes include the nature of existence and what it means to be human. Wings of Desire delves deeply into existential themes and the unique perks of being alive in a corporeal body, underscored by Damiel's desire to engage in the sensory and emotional aspects of life.

Connection and alienation are also deeply explored. This film highlights the loneliness felt by both angels and humans, evident in Marion's life as a circus performer and Damiel's detachment from human life. Yet, Damiel can make connections with others—whether seen or unseen—which motivates him to want to become human.

Wings of Desire is, perhaps above all, a study of transcendence and wholeness. Damiel converts to the mortal world and bonds with Marion; the two join together as one and feel completeness as a result. Their personal experiences and separate emotional journeys across the landscape of Berlin symbolize the yearning that the divided German people felt at the time the film was made, when the city and the country were torn in two by the Cold War; just as Damiel and Marion desire unification, Germans longed for reunification as a free single nation and culture. Damiel and his black-and-white existence personify the craving East Germans felt, who, like Damiel, could only dream of the joys of living life in color, to its fullest, but without a voice or ability to affect change. Marion embodies West Germans: autonomous, admired, and ambitious yet feeling incomplete and lonesome for the company of others (East Germans) who share her passion for life, love, and happiness. Perhaps this is why the film ends with the words, “To be continued,” because Wenders and company were hopeful that German reunification would happen; it did within two to three years.

Additionally, the filmmakers examine the significance of world cinema and the extent to which art can help us transcend our troubles. Consider the closing title, which reads: “Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej”; these three names refer to the late filmmakers Yasujirō Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrei Tarkovsky, who greatly inspired Wenders. Slant Magazine reviewers Bill Weber and Ed Gonzalez wrote: “The grand theme of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ fantasy of angels in Berlin before the end of the Cold War, is storytelling in all its forms as a coping mechanism of the human race.

Similar works

  • The American remake City of Angels
  • Its sequel Faraway, So Close!
  • Movies and narratives featuring prominent angel or spiritual characters, including Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Horn Blows at Midnight, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Matter of Life and Death, Heaven Can Wait, Defending Your Life, Meet Joe Black, Michael, and Angels in America
  • The Adjustment Bureau
  • Arthouse films in which the main character interacts with numerous other characters and we hear their thoughts, including 8½
  • The third season of Twin Peaks, every episode of which ends with a visit to a club where an alternative music artist performs
  • Blue, another film hoping for the reunification of Europe

Other films by Wim Wenders

  • Paris, Texas
  • Until the End of the World
  • Faraway, So Close!
  • Buena Vista Social Club
  • Pina
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • Perfect Days


A comedic force that still blows us away today

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Is silent comedy genius Buster Keaton indirectly responsible for giving the world Mickey Mouse? Probably not, but his 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. certainly inspired Disney to create Steamboat Willie, released later that year, which marked the official debut of that then soon-to-be-world-famous cartoon rodent.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Steamboat Bill, Jr., conducted last week, click here.

Mickey aside, Steamboat Bill Jr. ranks high among Keaton’s filmography. Co-directed by Charles Reisner and Keaton himself, who also served as the producer, the feature tells the story of William "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Ernest Torrence), a gruff steamboat captain eagerly anticipating the arrival of his son (Keaton), whom he hasn't seen in years. He hopes his offspring will be a rugged man capable of helping him compete against a rival steamboat operator. However, Bill Jr. turns out to be a slight, effete college boy who is not cut out for the rough life of a steamboat operator. The film follows their relationship as Bill Jr. tries to prove himself to his father, culminating in a significant part of the plot where the former rescues the latter along with girlfriend Kitty (Marion Byron) during a fierce storm, showcasing Keaton's signature physical comedy.

Keaton was famous for playing a straight-faced, unflappable underdog character who remains composed and persistent despite chaotic situations. What set Keaton, known as “the Great Stone Face,” apart from his peers is that he utilized elaborate and hazardous stunt work, performing all of his stunts himself and often doubling for some of his actors. His films—Steamboat Bill, Jr. included—typically offer a well-balanced blend of action, comedy, romance, and historical epic elements. The brisk pacing of his action and stunts, combined with tight direction, ensures the stories in his features progress smoothly and engagingly.

The film includes one of the most famous scenes in cinema history, where the facade of a building falls around Keaton, who survives by standing perfectly in the window's precise spot. Research shows he used an authentic two-ton building façade and no photographic or magician’s deception to realize this, the most famous stunt of his career.

This shot is part of the movie’s standout scene: the cyclone sequence, which occurs over the final 14 minutes. Debatably, this extended final act of the film is more remarkable for its practical effects and risky physical feats than its amusing bits. Keaton, who meticulously planned and performed his own stunts, was suspended by a cable from a crane that flung him around as if he were flying for the cyclone scene. The dramatic sequence, featuring breakaway street sets and six powerful Liberty-motor wind machines, required an additional $25,000. This cost alone amounted to one-third of the film's entire budget, which was estimated to be between $300,000 and over $400,000. The scale and execution of the cyclone sequence were exceptional for its era, highlighting Keaton's dedication to authenticity and physical comedy.

TCM’s John Miller and Felicia Feaster remarked about Steamboat Bill, Jr.: “The film also highlights Keaton's mastery of composition. He favored the long shot for clarity, to firmly set the elements of the scene in the viewer's mind. Typically, such elements were the little guy (Keaton) set against the larger forces of machines (steamboat, locomotive, hot air balloon, etc.) or nature (cyclone, raging river, rock slide, etc.) in a realistic and defined setting. Keaton economically establishes the workings of the besetting forces, then places himself and the camera for maximum impact. It is by conscious design, not accident, that images from Keaton's films are so iconic. Keaton is always a figure in motion and he is best enjoyed that way, yet his compositions are so pleasing that stills and frame blow-ups from his movies also have power and resonance.”

Many of the sight gags and humorous bits still land with impressive comedic force today, although arguably we don’t start getting to the funny business until just before Keaton’s character enters the narrative, roughly six minutes into the runtime. Arguably, the film isn’t consistently laugh-worthy throughout, and there are stretches where a bit more levity could have been infused.

Viewed through a 2024 lens, the picture reveals the strong patriarchal values of the time, when male characters in movies were expected to throw a punch in protest, act manly and macho, and respect their fathers. The dynamics between Steamboat Bill and his offspring offer a cinematically exaggerated but still antiquatedly semi-accurate sociocultural depiction of familial relationships.

Like Chaplin, Lloyd, and other contemporary geniuses of silent comedy, Keaton regularly incorporated sight gags, slapstick, and humorous chases throughout his filmography. Both Keaton and Chaplin were not only stars but also writers and directors of their own films. Each portrayed underdog characters, with Keaton often donning a pork pie hat and Chaplin a bowler hat. They expanded the formula of simple silent films into more epic narratives, as seen in the expansive scope of Keaton’s The General and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Both were meticulous craftsmen, carefully planning and choreographing their scenes in advance. Their work heavily relied on perfect timing to achieve comedic and stunt success.

However, Keaton was a much more acrobatic comedian and physical risk-taker in his stunt work than Chaplin. The authenticity of the mise-en-scène is evident in Keaton films, with more realistic props, locations, backgrounds, and careful attention to period detail than movies by Chaplin and other peers that often used more stylized or abstract sets.

Roger Ebert always favored Keaton over Chaplin and Lloyd, opining: “The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster. I define courage as Hemingway did: "Grace under pressure." In films that combined comedy with extraordinary physical risks, Buster Keaton played a brave spirit who took the universe on its own terms, and gave no quarter… His films avoid the pathos and sentiment of the Chaplin pictures, and usually feature a jaunty young man who sees an objective and goes after it in the face of the most daunting obstacles. Buster survives tornadoes, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders and falls from great heights, and never pauses to take a bow: He has his eye on his goal. And his movies, seen as a group, are like a sustained act of optimism in the face of adversity; surprising how, without asking, he earns our admiration and tenderness.”

Similar works

  • Modern Times
  • The Keaton shorts One Week and The Boat, and his features Our Hospitality and The Navigator

Other feature films starring and directed by Buster Keaton

  • Three Ages
  • Our Hospitality
  • Sherlock Jr.
  • The Navigator
  • Seven Chances
  • Go West
  • Battling Butler
  • The General
  • College
  • The Cameraman


Oh, my--have you seen Omar?

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Since the terrible events of October 7, 2023, it’s difficult to try and examine the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of recent cinema. But one film that emerges as a touchstone on this topic is Omar, a Palestinian drama directed by Hany Abu-Assad (who is of both Arabic and Israeli descent, raised in Nazareth) that debuted in 2013 and earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This picture—starring Adam Bakri in the titular role along with Leem Lubany, Samer Bisharat, Waleed Zuaiter, and Eyad Hourani—aims to illuminate the Palestinian viewpoint on life amid occupation, delving into themes of love, betrayal, and resistance.

The storyline centers on Omar, a young Palestinian baker who regularly scales the West Bank separation wall to visit his love interest, Nadia, the sister of childhood friend Tarek. Engaged in resistance against the Israeli occupation, Omar and his companions face turmoil after a fatal attack on an Israeli soldier. Arrested and pressured into collaboration by Israeli authorities, Omar grapples with mounting suspicions among his inner circle. Caught between allegiance to his cause and safeguarding loved ones, the film chronicles Omar's journey navigating the intricate dynamics of trust, betrayal, and loyalty amid the ongoing conflict.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Omar, conducted last week, click here.

Omar lingers long in the imagination after the end credits roll because it consistently upends our expectations, throwing us curveballs and sliders. Consider how, each time Omar climbs over the barricade wall separating the territories, we anticipate that he’s perhaps on a dangerous mission; instead, he’s often simply attempting to visit his girlfriend. Or ponder our surprise when we learn (SPOILERS AHEAD) that Omar is to be released not once but twice from custody, not to mention the serious love triangle subplot that emerges toward the end involving a pregnancy we eventually learn is a lie or the cat-and-mouse games played between Amjad and Omar to save their skins or protect Nadia. Agent Rami isn’t the outright villain we thought he’d be, either, showing shades of humanity and compassion we didn’t see coming. And we don’t get any hot and heavy passion scene or sex sequence featuring Omar and Nadia.

The movie isn’t preachy or severely biased toward the Palestinian side. While we see how Omar is humiliated by Israeli police and tortured by Israeli interrogators, we also witness the three friends involved in a random and senseless act of killing an Israeli soldier. We also empathize a bit with agent Rami in a brief scene depicting a minor familial problem. Additionally, none of the major characters are motivated by religious beliefs or a faction like Hamas.

Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir wrote: “Abu-Assad never editorializes about the morality or usefulness of the idiotic scheme that Omar and his pals cook up to ambush and kill an Israeli soldier with a hunting rifle. It’s presented as almost a natural outgrowth of a situation of boredom and frustration… If you want an inspiring political essay about the plight of the Palestinian people, or the promise of a hopeful future, look elsewhere. “Omar” is a story about a place where ordinary people, decent enough on their own terms, destroy each other and themselves. When the cascade of violent climaxes comes, you’ll see it was there all along.”

Omar checks several genre and subgenre boxes, proving to be an effective spy thriller, love triangle romance, coming-of-age drama, and pseudo-documentary-of-sorts revealing everyday moments inside an occupied territory. Tonally, Omar can shift abruptly between tense, comical, disturbing, and tender. Per Critic Geoffrey Macnab: “Some of the sudden lurches in tone in Omar are disconcerting. The film combines gentle comedy and moments of lyricism with scenes of torture and violence. Such shifts are intentional. Abu-Assad is simply reflecting the ever-changing nature of his characters' daily lives in a fraught and strange environment in which betrayal has become endemic.”

You don’t need a PhD to parse the prominent subtexts at work: betrayal, suspicion, and mistrust. Each of the Palestinian friends in this story betrays or is suspected of betraying each other, which reaps devastating consequences on their relationships and the deaths of Omar and Tarek. Loyalties are in a constant state of scrutiny, with paranoia prevailing as characters navigate the repercussions of their choices and confront the looming specter of betrayal from those closest to them. The film also navigates the complex three-way relationship between Omar, Nadia, and Amjad, where loyalties and friendships are continually tested.

The consequences of occupation are also explored. The movie depicts the harsh realities endured by Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as the violent opposition inflicted upon Israeli soldiers. Additionally, the film shows the price humanity pays for prolonged conflict: Omar, Nadia, Amjad, Tarek, and their loved ones can’t live a normal or safe life amidst this ongoing violence and oppression.

Lastly, while shown more from the Palestinian point of view, the film deftly portrays how there are victims and casualties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ruminating on a vicious cycle of violence. It also offers no answers for how to solve this crisis or curb the violence that it creates. Each act of aggression triggers a chain reaction of retribution, perpetuating a destructive cycle of vengeance and reprisal that ensnares the characters and fuels the ongoing strife.

Similar works

  • The Battle of Algiers
  • Paradise Now
  • Bethlehem
  • The Attack
  • Private
  • Salt of This Sea
  • About Elly

Other films by Hany Abu-Assad

  • Rana's Wedding (2002)
  • Paradise Now (2005)
  • The Courier (2012)
  • The Idol (2015)
  • The Mountain Between Us (2017)
  • Huda's Salon (2021)


Coulda' been a contender? Waterfront is nothing less than a champion

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Seventy years since it first hit theaters, On the Waterfront has lost little of its impact as a timeless American classic. Helmed by Elia Kazan, the story centers on Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a Hoboken dockworker who finds himself ensnared in the nefarious dealings of union overlord Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Confronted with a moral quandary upon witnessing the murder of a colleague who intended to expose the union's corruption, Malloy must navigate the tug-of-war between his conscience and the union's coercion.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of On the Waterfront, conducted earlier this month, click here. To access the May episode of Cineversary, which celebrates this film’s 70th birthday, click here.

On the Waterfront is fully deserving of our attention in its 70th anniversary year for multiple reasons. First, the collective talent on display here is astounding. It’s almost impossible for this film to fail when you have stellar names attached like Brando, Cobb, Rod Steiger, Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, producer Sam Spiegel, and composer Leonard Bernstein. More importantly, the movie, along with previous recent movies by Kazan and his Actors Studio thespians like Brando, exemplified a new era of acting that was more emotionally plausible and realistic—a style that is both “physical and introspective and distinctly more nuanced, immediate, unpredictable—more truthful—than most acting that preceded it. It’s the style of poetic realism that informs the great performance,” according to Criterion Collection essayist Michael Almereyda. “Kazan virtually invented the style, and refined it in this film, and its power remains undeniable.”

Ponder, too, how Waterfront is a creative personal statement by a gifted but divisive filmmaker—a subtextually political film that is relevant to and revealing about Kazan’s life and beliefs. In 1952, he agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and name names of friends and colleagues affiliated with the Communist party, an extremely controversial move that haunted Kazan the rest of his life, but that he justified as the right thing to do at the time. He saw himself as personified in the character of Terry, who also felt torn and ultimately compelled to testify against oppressive forces to do, in his mind, the right thing. It’s ludicrous to many how these two things can be equitable, but Kazan nevertheless envisioned himself as a martyr-like outsider who was forced to make a difficult moral choice, like Terry. Many saw Kazan as ratting on friends who got blacklisted simply because of their political beliefs so that Kazan could continue to work in Hollywood—which he did successfully for years afterward.

This picture works as an effective amalgamation of docudrama, film noir, and topical social message movie. This was the era when noir was in full flourish, and social message films were building momentum thanks to the efforts of producers like Dore Schary at MGM and independent filmmaker Stanley Kramer, who made movies like Tea and Sympathy, Bad Day at Black Rock, Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, and Judgment at Nuremberg. On the Waterfront drew increased public awareness to the problem of corrupted unions and labor racketeering and also benefited from hitting theaters merely weeks following the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

There’s no denying Waterfront’s critical reputation and status as a statuette heavyweight. It became one of the most honored and decorated films in Oscar history, earning 12 Academy Award nominations and ultimately claiming eight Oscars, among them Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint, Best Director for Kazan, Best Screenplay for Schulberg, and Best Cinematography for Boris Kaufman. This film continues to be regarded as an exemplary, important, and inspirational American work, as well. In the American Film Institute’s top 100 American movies list from 1998, On the Waterfront ranked number eight; in the AFI’s 2007 ranking, it placed number 19. On the AFI’s best 100 movie quotes list, the following earned third place: “You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am." And Terry Malloy earns the #23 spot on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest heroes.

On the Waterfront is credited as a pioneering project in a few ways. It was in the vein of topical social problem/social message movies that were popular in the 1950s – which often drew from the look and verisimilitude of Italian neorealism as well as the visually expressive style of film noir. And it was inspired by a true story of a longshoreman who attempted to bring down a crooked union, as reported on by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Malcolm Johnson in the late 1940s. His articles and the later film brought to light the widespread influence of organized crime within labor unions, a theme that hadn't been thoroughly explored in mainstream cinema previously.

But what’s especially interesting is that the movie employed Kazan’s distinctive blend of “poetic realism” in telling its story. Kazan said: “I don’t think of myself as a realist…I think of myself as a poetic realist or ‘essentialist.’” Typically, poetic realism films, popularized in France in the 1930s, represented a type of reimagined reality, marked by stylized and studio-confined settings versus the raw authenticity seen in documentary-style social realism. But in Waterfront, Kazan and his collaborators chose to shoot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, showcasing real docks, alleys, tenements, rooftops, bars, and even longshoremen who play themselves as extras. They filmed during cold, wintry conditions—you can often see cold vapor breath trails spewing from the actors’ mouths—and used natural lighting, often eschewing a controlled, fabricated set or stage. Consider the ragged handheld camera shots when Terry stumbles his way back to work after being horribly beaten. Waterfront can often look and feel like real life while also playing as a stylized morality tale divorced from the real world.

“On the Waterfront earns its status as a masterwork and a classic by breaking free of strict realism to tell a story that is, finally and enduringly, a poetic fable,” per Criterion Collection essayist Michael Almereyda. Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety… On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member’s daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience.”

Creative decisions from Kazan—who also impresses with his direction of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Splendor in the Grass (1961)—help elevate On the Waterfront to the rank of masterwork. Recall how he shrewdly opted to have a ship whistle overpower Terry’s voice when he’s confessing to Edie his role in her brother’s death, suggesting that the impact of this admission and the emotions triggered by his words are more important than the words themselves. The director also cleverly used geography, landscape, and spatial dimensions to demonstrate moral hierarchy across the narrative. Ponder how the waterfront and docks are slightly above sea level, but Friendly’s ironically cramped shack headquarters is just below that, while Edie’s tenement is high above the street and Terry’s rooftop pigeon coop—enclosed within confining wire yet exposed to the great wide open—is at the highest level. Likewise, Kazan commonly employed two-shots or wider compositions in Waterfront to illustrate a character arrangement or power hierarchy, often carefully placing one character opposite another in dominant-subordinate respective positions.

Additionally, Kazan staged some crucial scenes outdoors that perhaps should have plausibly occurred indoors, such as Edie and Terry’s getting-acquainted scene in the park, Terry confessing his guilt to Father Berry outside the church, and Terry’s discovery of his dead brother hanging on a fence. The takeaway here is that Hoboken is not only an important character unto itself but also a witness to these important events, silently observing and absorbing the good and bad words and actions of its people and bearing the scars of the conflict and violence they create.

More significant historically is that Waterfront ushered in a new age of acting authenticity. Brando's portrayal of Malloy marked a sea change in film acting thanks to the performer’s approach to the role and his adherence to the method acting technique, which was characterized by deeply internalizing the character's emotions and delivering a more naturalistic performance. The offbeat choices he makes depicting this pugilistic lost soul, including his mannerisms, facial expressions, line deliveries, and physical gesticulations, inspired thespians of his generation and beyond.

Furthermore, reflect on how this film influenced many screen and stage works in the years following its release. Playwright Arthur Miller was inspired to write the play A View From the Bridge (1955), and Edge of the City (1957), starring John Cassavetes, was an obvious knockoff. Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and their brawny yet vulnerable boxer characters, drew heavy influence from Brando’s Malloy. The shy and inexperienced Adrian in Rocky also owes a debt to Saint and her personification of Edie. Martin Scorsese pays homage to Waterfront in Goodfellas (1990) in several shots, including the dead mobster hanging from a hook like Charley. Praising Waterfront, Scorsese commented: “The faces, the bodies, the way they moved…the voices, the way they sounded. They were like the people I saw every day. It was as if the world that I came from, that I knew, mattered.” Three movies released in India were inspired by or served as remakes of On the Waterfront: Kabzaa (1988), Ghulam (1998), and Sudhandhiram (2000). (Interestingly, the contender monologue drew from a predecessor, Force of Evil [1948], which also has a similar scene in the back of a taxicab.)

The casting of Brando proved pivotal, for obvious reasons if you pay close attention to his portrayal and compare it to acting styles of this time. Kazan said: “... what was extraordinary about his performance, I feel, is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read ‘Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?”

Roger Ebert believed “Brando cut through decades of screen mannerisms and provided a fresh, alert, quirky acting style that was not realism so much as a kind of heightened riff on reality…He became famous for his choices of physical gestures during crucial scenes…There's a moment when Terry goes for a walk in the park with Edie…She drops a glove. He picks it up, and instead of handing it back, he pulls it on over his own workers' hands. A small piece of business on the edge of the shot, but it provides texture…And look at the famous scene between Terry and his brother…it has been parodied endlessly (most memorably by Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”). But it still has its power to make us feel Terry's pain, and even the pain of Charley, who has been forced to pull a gun on his brother.”

Indeed, the latter sequence has rightfully been cited as a game-changer in cinema history. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice opined: “The scene of scenes, in which Terry reproaches his smarter brother (Steiger) for selling him out, is the most triumphant expression of failure in American movies.”

It’s striking how often Brando elects to, despite facing a character he’s talking or listening to, cast his eyeballs elsewhere, far off in the distance. No other actor in the film does this, which makes this idiosyncrasy stand out. Actors in the classic Hollywood period typically maintained eye contact or looked up at an opposite character’s forehead or hair when engaged in a dialogue, but not Brando.

Quick sidebar: It’s noteworthy that, early in his film career, Brando became known for playing martyr-like personalities who often take a serious physical beating yet defy the odds and fight back, as evidenced in this film as well as Viva Zapata! (1952), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), The Fugitive Kind (1960), The Appaloosa (1966), and The Chase (1966).

It makes sense that neither Cobb, Steiger, nor Malden picked up a win for their Best Supporting Actor nominations because they’re each so good that they likely canceled each other out among Oscar voters. Steiger is particularly memorable in his more mannered style contrasting with Brando—and it helps that the actors look like they could be related. And Cobb practically oozes steam from his pores when he reveals the hair-trigger rage that colors his character and stares with those fiery eyes. Malden’s Father Barry more than capably looks his part, commands a righteous indignation that’s crucial for this story, and deftly leverages the chemistry he created earlier with Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Making her film debut, Saint shines as the angelic-faced love interest and female voice of principle who helps convince Terry to do the right thing. Her slim and delicate physicality, sincerity, and naïveté juxtapose effectively with Terry’s burly presence and streetwise machismo. Everybody remembers the “coulda been a contender” line, but Edie has the most ethically impactful quote in the film: “Shouldn't everybody care about everybody else? Isn't everybody a part of everybody else?”

On the Waterfront continues to impart valuable life lessons seven decades onward. It certainly preaches the virtues of making the right ethical choice and listening to your conscience. Terry is caught in the middle between two opposing forces—the morally righteous duo of Father Barry and Edie on one side, and the cruel, manipulative thugs led by Johnny Friendly and his brother Charley on the other. He must decide whether to protect the evil status quo or expose them to aid the cause of their exploited workers.

Additionally, this is a cogitation on the corrupting nature of power. Johnny Friendly is depicted as having a tough childhood, but his lust for power has stripped him of any kindness, grace, or humility. Even his overlord, “Mr. Upstairs,” doesn’t hesitate to drop Johnny when his underling brings heat to their operation.

At its core, Waterfront is an affecting redemption story, as well. This is ultimately a yarn about a troubled young sinner who has a chance to do the right thing and redeem his self-respect, dignity, and soul. This theme ties in nicely with the backstory that Terry was a prizefighter, one who “coulda’ been a contender,” but lost his opportunity; this represents his second chance, the ability to fight the mob bosses and stand up for the little guy.

The film reminds us, too, that we are our brother’s keeper. It teaches us that human beings have a responsibility to help and protect others, especially those in duress. Edie expresses this in her question to Terry: “Shouldn't everybody care about everybody else?” Terry’s responses are telling: “What good does it do ya besides get ya in trouble? You wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you…Down here, it’s every man for himself.” Terry’s change of heart and brave stand against the mob demonstrate that even one determined man – small as he is against the might of the machine – can have a significant effect on the lives of many.

Sacrifice, martyrdom, and faith represent a powerful thematic triumvirate in Waterfront. Terry must risk his life by choosing to inform on the criminals and trust in the intangible power of faith—not religious belief, but personal conviction—espoused by Edie and Father Barry, which is in contrast to the very tangible allure of money and power wielded by Friendly. Joey paid the price earlier by being killed after informing, and he serves as a Christ-like figure when we see his body cradled in Edie’s hands. Other religious motifs and imagery are used throughout the film, including the shot of Father Barry ascending from the cargo hold with Dugan’s corpse like he’s rising to heaven, and Charlie’s body hanging slumped and dead on a hook, resembling a crucified Christ. Recall, too, how the near-dead Terry is resurrected to life by the priest’s inspiring words.

If you’re a fan of cinematic symbols and motifs, Waterfront’s got plenty. Among the signifiers prevalent are:
  • Pigeons, identified with Terry and vice versa. Terry wants to live free and simple like them, but they’re also vulnerable to the hawks he mentions to Edie; Terry can also be viewed as a “stool pigeon” by the mob.
  • Hooks, used by the longshoremen in their work but which signify the heavy, dangerous weights that hang over them literally and, in the form of Friendly’s thugs, figuratively. Hooks also play into the talon-like imagery of the hawks that endanger pigeons that Terry mentions.
  • The rooftop, standing as a sanctuary and retreat from the oppressive world below and a step closer to aspiring to new moral, religious, and personal heights that Terry, even subconsciously, yearns for. Joey was a past denizen of the rooftop and became a victim because of it.
  • The Hudson River, representing a demarcation line between the exploited workers and the majestic Manhattan skyline beyond—a line that they cannot cross due to their symbolic slavery.
  • Gloves, which are dropped and/or removed by Edie and Charlie, leaving exposed hands that epitomize their vulnerability. Terry playing with and putting on Edie’s dropped glove, while a subtle move, indicates an intimate, sexual, harmless as well as aggressive gesture.
Naysayers argue that viewers can’t quite reconcile the confusing ending of the film. Practical questions arise: Why does Terry have to be the first one to report to work in the final scene? What assurances do we have that the dockworkers will be protected going forward and that Friendly is finished? Why does he demand that the workers return to the job, but then tell them not to go back to work a few minutes later? And who is this “Mr. Upstairs” overlord character? DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “On the Waterfront segues directly from its Christ allegory to a strangely ambiguous finale. The battered Terry Malloy leads his miserable fellows to answer the whistle of the real big boss, apparently a shipping executive. Nothing has changed for the dockworkers as they disappear behind a pair of giant warehouse doors.”

Perhaps certain elements of Waterfront haven’t aged as gracefully viewed through the modern lens. Case in point: Malden’s Father Barry comes off as a bit too preachy to some tastes. The character and its performer could benefit from more nuance, internal conflict, and a greater range of emotions. Malden is primarily playing this priest in a one-note fashion, unswervingly virtuous, heavy-handed, and sanctimonious. One can respect that this is necessary for the character as written, but it’s hard to relate to a 1950s-era man of the cloth whose best efforts at appearing human and down to earth are to ask for a cigarette or a glass of beer. Then there’s the scene where Terry busts down Edie’s door, grabs her as she’s clad in a skimpy slip, and forces her to kiss him as she acquiesces to his passion—which doesn’t play so nicely today. While it’s only one short segment, Terry becomes a much less sympathetic character nowadays. Lastly, the brassy, emotional musical score by Bernstein, while superb in many sections, sometimes catches the ear as syrupy and prolonged.

Flaws aside, the biggest present this picture bestows on us in its 70th birthday year is its ability to inspire. Terry’s devolution then evolution from promising pugilist to conformist palooka to rebellious protester to witness for the prosecution to bare-knuckled boss-buster is a stirring flight path we follow and admire. His pluck, and Brando’s extraordinary embodiment and rendering of that underdog gumption and avenging angel resolve, light a fire in the viewer’s belly and help make Waterfront revisits reliably gratifying. Audiences love a good David versus Goliath story, and this film never disappoints on that level. It holds up surprisingly well for a 1950s-era film in the 2020s, primarily because corruption and pessimism never go out of style in the modern era. One of the best exchanges in the film is when Terry tells Edie that pigeons are faithful and “get married just like people,” which provokes Terry’s younger buddy Tommy to say “Better.” That cynical view of humanity in one simple word sums up how far we’ve fallen as a species and how much of a triumph Terry, the pigeon-like ex-prizefighter with a birdbrain but the heart of a champion, achieves by the conclusion of the narrative.


Cineversary podcast honors 70th birthday of On the Waterfront

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Michael Phillips and Stephen Rebello
In Cineversary podcast episode #70, host Erik Martin lights 70 birthday candles for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. Two esteemed guests join him this time around: Stephen Rebello, author of the forthcoming book A City Full of Hawks: On the Waterfront Seventy Years Later; and Michael Phillips, film critic for The Chicago Tribune. Together, they examine why this movie still matters seven decades later, what makes it a movie masterwork, salient themes, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to   


A cookie - and a film - full of arsenic

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Looking for a noir without the bullets or brutality but that still packs plenty of bang? Take a closer look at Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, produced by James Hill, penned by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and released in 1957. Drawing inspiration from Lehman's novelette, the film delves into the murky depths of journalism and publicity and the relentless machinations of a formidable newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, portrayed by Burt Lancaster, and the conniving endeavors of Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis, a sycophantic press agent yearning for Hunsecker's favor. As Falco maneuvers to curry favor with Hunsecker, he finds himself entangled in the columnist's personal vendetta, ensnared in a web of manipulation, deception, and ethical compromise.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

What makes Sweet Smell of Success distinctive, surprising, and memorable? It resembles a noir with its high contrast lighting scheme, caustic tone, pessimistic worldview, and fall-from-grace narrative, but doesn’t involve murder, detectives, wrong-man themes, or femme fatales like proper noir films do. Additionally, the characters, while often rotten, still smell sweet thanks to their complexity. The film presents personalities who are richly layered, flawed, and quotably articulate—especially Hunsecker, who emerges as a compelling antagonist whose manipulation and dominance propel much of the plot forward, and Falco, his obsequious acolyte.

Criterion Collection essayist Gary Giddens wrote, of Tony Curtis’ performance: “He refuses to play the part as cute or malleable, so that a perversely fantastic purity graces Sidney’s relentless grubbing…he secretes energy. We see him as a blackmailer, pimp, fixer, stooge, liar, and betrayer of everyone, but he bewitches the film with the agility of a magician or dancer.According to Roger Ebert, “Although Falco is in exile as the story opens, Hunsecker cannot quite banish him from his sight, because he needs him. How does the top dog know he rules unless the bottom dog slinks around?...The film stands as the record of one of the most convincing and closely observed symbiotic relationships in the movies. Hunsecker and Falco. You can't have one without the other.

No doubt about it, the screenplay is exceptional. Odets and Lehman crafted a narrative that’s celebrated particularly for its incisive and biting dialogue. The rapid exchanges between characters infuse the story with a palpable intensity and tension, drawing viewers deeper into the story's intricacies. Sample some of the great lines and exchanges in Sweet Smell of Success: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years.” “It’s a publicity man’s nature to be a liar. I wouldn’t hire you if you wasn’t a liar.” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “Match me, Sidney.” “Harvey, I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.” “Sidney, conjugate me a verb.” And: “Do you believe in capital punishment, Senator? A man has just been sentenced to death.”

The look perfectly captures The Big Apple in 1957, showcasing the nightclub scene, the prime period of jazz, and the fashions and styles of New Yorkers. Cinematographer James Wong Howe employs inventive techniques, such as low-angle shots and stark lighting, to enhance the film's noir aesthetic. These methods effectively evoke feelings of claustrophobia and moral decay, enriching the viewing experience.

It further feels like a time capsule zeitgeist movie thanks to the jazzy Elmer Bernstein score coupled with the music played by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, who also appear in the film as Steve Dallas’ band.

This is a rags-to-riches story offscreen. Initially met with mixed reviews, Sweet Smell of Success has since earned acclaim as a quintessential example of the film noir genre. Its enduring influence is evident in subsequent works that explore similar ideas of power dynamics, corruption, and betrayal within the entertainment industry.

There’s a hint of an incestuous relationship between Hunsecker and his sister Susan, making for an even more despicable characterization. The Hunsecker personality and his plot to smear sister Susan’s fiancé is loosely based on old-time columnist Walter Winchell. Fixated on the romance between his daughter Walda and her lover, Winchell, with the assistance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, exerted pressure on the boyfriend to leave the United States.  

Its fatalistic themes and cynical tone help the movie maintain an evergreen sheen in the modern age. Despite its 1957 vintage, the film's exploration of the downsides of fame, success, and ambition and its examination of the darker aspects of human nature resonates across generations.

Hubris and karma dominate as key themes. Like Icarus,  Falco flies too close to the sun in his ambitions to get to the top and be famous like Hunsecker. He makes a devil's bargain in agreeing to ruin the jazz musician boyfriend of Hunsucker’s sister, which also involves pimping his match girl part-time lover to a rival columnist – compromising any positive virtues he has left and metaphorically selling his soul.

Sweet Smell of Success spells out the corrupting nature of power and influence, certainly. Hunsecker demonstrates how absolute power corrupts absolutely, wielding the popularity of his newspaper column as a cudgel with which to beat down anyone he disfavors and control others. His ruthless arrogance, smug attitude, and lack of empathy, compassion, and human decency create one of the most formidable and loathsome bad guys in film history. In fact, Hunsecker places #35 on the AFI’s top 50 movie villains list. The film lays bare the grim underbelly of celebrity status and the media exposing the cutthroat world of entertainment and gossip where ambition reigns supreme.

Loyalty and betrayal are key subtextual signposts, as well. The characters in this morality play navigate their relationships in pursuit of personal gain. Falco sacrifices his friendship and romantic ties with Susan as he strives for success, while Hunsecker's controlling demeanor strains his bond with his sister.

Similar works

  • All About Eve
  • The Barefoot Contessa
  • Night and the City
  • The Hucksters
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Wall Street
  • Bombshell
  • Young Man With a Horn
  • Pete Kelly’s Blues
  • Broadway Thru a Keyhole

Other films by Alexander Mackendrick

  • The Ladykillers
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • Crash of Silence
  • Whisky Galore!


Love is colorblind

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Released in 2017, the controversially titled Gook is an independent film helmed and written by Justin Chon that provides a different ethnic POV on racial tension. Set amidst the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the narrative centers on Kamilla, an 11-year-old African-American girl (Simone Baker) who befriends Eli (played by Chon) and Daniel (comedian David So), two Korean-American brothers grappling with the challenges of running a struggling shoe store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. As the riots intensify, the characters confront their own biases and the intricate web of racial dynamics in their locale.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Gook is noteworthy on several fronts. First, the story occurs over a single day, giving us a snapshot of what it was like to be near the epicenter of a racial tinderbox. Second, for a film concerned with race matters, there are no consequential white characters. The conflicts that erupt in the story concern the non-white residents of this Los Angeles neighborhood (with three main ethnicities represented and their respective languages spoken), although every significant character is impacted to some extent by the verdict in the trial of four LAPD officers who had beaten Rodney King; on the day this film’s narrative is set, the four were acquitted in court, which triggered riots throughout parts of Los Angeles, including Koreatown. After the riots subsided, the death toll was 63, with 2,383 individuals injured, over 12,000 arrested, and property damage estimates exceeding $1 billion.

Third, the film was shot in monochrome, which is perhaps thematically appropriate considering its black-and-white racial subtext and the invocation of a bygone time (1992) when many TV sets, especially in poorer homes, were still devoid of color.

While the tone throughout is primarily tense, ominous, and pessimistic, Gook is graced with timely moments of levity and elation, as in the unexpected scenes when the shoe store is quickly converted into a poor man’s discotheque and Eli and Kamilla clown through a car wash. The movie seesaws between these tonalities, helping to relieve the pressure on audiences otherwise perturbed about three vulnerable characters we care about. Sadly, the film ends in tragedy and with no clear resolution for Eli and David.

Gook shows how, even when whites aren’t present, racism between minorities can exist and that it’s not simply a black-and-white issue. It’s fitting that this narrative occurs entirely on one day: April 29, 1992, the day of the Rodney King verdict and the first day of the L.A. riots that occurred in its wake. This is a microcosm story within that larger story about systemic racism and its consequences.

Possibly the most significant takeaway is that love is colorblind. Eli and Daniel, two South Koreans who are resented and harassed by Blacks and Latinos in their neighborhood, treat Kamilla, a Black girl, like family. She feels the same about them, preferring to spend more time at their store and among the brothers than at home or school. These three characters prove that love, harmony, and peace are possible in mixed neighborhoods and among different races. We also see how enamored and respectful Eli and Daniel are of Black culture; they both adopt a similar vernacular, Eli expresses how the Rodney King verdict was unfair, and Daniel aspires to be an R&B singer. While many characters are prejudiced against the Koreans, others, like their employee Jesus, aren’t.

This is also a “don’t judge a book by its cover” morality tale. Adjacent shop owner Mr. Kim incites Eli’s anger for accusing Kamilla of stealing and pointing a gun at her. Later, he becomes a more empathetic figure when he gives Daniel a ride and explains how he and Daniel’s father had a strong bond, shared military background, and business relationship. The presence of Mr. Kim helps bridge generational divides, as well: He’s old enough to be Daniel and Kim’s father and exhibits many of the traits and mindset they despise in the previous generation, yet they find common ground toward the end.

If you, like Eli, have ever felt like a stranger in your own community, this film will resonate with you. Film critic Alison Willmore wrote of Eli, “he’s an observant insider as well as an unwelcome outsider, wanting to belong to the neighborhood but forever seen as apart from it.”

Gook is also a rumination on discovering diamonds in the rough, teaching us that beauty and joy can be found in even the unlikeliest of places – including the dangerous neighborhood of Paramount, California, not far from South Central L.A. Consider how Kamilla wears a flower and bestows it upon Eli; how Eli, Daniel, and Kamilla spontaneously dance to the Hall & Oates’ hit Maneater; and the blissful scene involving Eli taking Kamilla on a ride through an auto carwash.

Similar works

  • Do the Right Thing
  • Clerks
  • Boyz in the Hood
  • Detroit
  • Kicks
  • Waves
  • La Haine
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Spa Night

Other films by Justin Chon

  • Man Up
  • Ms. Purple
  • Blue Bayou


Coming of age part 2

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Directed by Ted Demme, Beautiful Girls works about as well as you’d expect for a romcom from 1996, unfolding in a quaint Massachusetts town. At its core is Willie Conway, portrayed by Timothy Hutton, navigating the maze of love, connections, and the complexities of adulthood during a reunion of his high school days. Returning to his roots prompts Willie to ponder his journey, fostering renewed bonds and romantic interests, controversially with a 13-year-old neighbor, portrayed by Natalie Portman. The movie delves deep into the dynamics of male friendship, the hurdles of growing up, and the pursuit of personal contentment.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Beautiful Girls, conducted last week, click here.

While it was never going to set the cinematic world on fire, Beautiful Girls has a few facets in its favor. The cast is impressive, featuring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Natalie Portman, Uma Thurman Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, and Michael Rapaport. This is a pretty deep bench. The film also can be applauded for an assumed authentic depiction of small-town life and the characters that may populate this kind of blue collar hamlet. The plot doesn’t veer strongly into any sociopolitical statements about everyday Joes making do in hard times, as one might expect considering this setting, but the personalities and their situations and motivations seem plausible.

That being said, several elements haven’t aged gracefully. The subplot between Willie and Marty is groan-inducing now, in the post Me-Too era and considering 21st-century society’s intolerance of relationships or infatuations between an adult and a minor. The candid boys club talk in which they grade women’s appearances and engage in “tits and ass” banter also dates this film. So does the revenge plot involving Tommy’s friends striking back at his attackers. It’s also a black eye badge of dishonor that the movie was co-produced by Harvey Weinstein; Mira Savino, Uma Thurman, and Lauren Holly had accused Weinstein of inappropriate behavior, and Timothy Hutton himself was accused of rape years ago, although his name seems to have been cleared.

Thematically, this is a “coming of age part two” type of picture. Beautiful Girls is a treatise on how difficult it can be for men to commit to a mature relationship, be willing to settle down, and accept that their partner almost certainly will not be perfect. Willie is attracted to Andera and intrigued at the prospect of waiting several years for 13-year-old Marty, but Willie will likely end up with Tracy – a wonderful catch who may not check every box but who can undoubtedly make Willie happy if he takes his relationship blinders off. We hear Andera tell Willie in her final scene that he’ll see her again, but the audience never does, suggesting that Willie can find within Tracy what he was looking for in a woman like Andera. And Willie’s farewell to Marty at the conclusion telegraphs that he’s ready to “put away childish things,” say goodbye to fantasized romantic notions, and live in the now with a loving partner of his generation. Per Roger Ebert: “Somehow, doggedly, true love teaches its lesson, which is that you can fall in love with an ideal, but you can only be in love with a human being.”

Viewers can also admire how the movie examines how advancing age and maturity impact long-time friendships. We see how townies like Paul, Tommy, and Kev have become entrenched – if not stuck – in their geographical and emotional locations. Willie returns home for his class reunion and finds that he can still bond with the buddies he had left behind, but most of them have not progressed emotionally. Willie can look to his friend Mo as a possible role model for how to transition somewhat gracefully into marriage and fatherhood, although Willie is not sure he’s ready for that leap.

The title may suggest Beautiful girls, but the boys are not so beautiful. This film, even if inadvertently, offers portraits of toxic masculinity and showcases the often petty superficiality and small-town community acceptance of selfish and shallow males and “bro” culture. Nearly every female character proves to be smarter, more emotionally intelligent, and more sympathetic than their male counterparts.

Similar works

  • The Big Chill
  • Nobody’s Fool
  • About Last Night
  • Mystic Pizza
  • The Brothers McMullen
  • She’s the One
  • Feeling Minnesota
  • St. Elmo’s Fire

Other films by Ted Demme

  • Blow
  • Life
  • A Decade Under the Influence
  • The Ref


Seven at 70: Anyway you slice it, Seven Samurai is a crowning cinematic achievement

Saturday, April 20, 2024

They don’t come more epic or universally loved than Seven Samurai, the classic Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa and released in early 1954 by Toho Studios. The setup is straightforward but potent: A small farming village enlists a handful of samurai to defend it from bandits who return every harvest to steal their crops; the samurai, each with their unique skills and personalities, train the peasants and prepare them for the impending attack. But it’s the visual execution of this narrative, coupled with several unforgettable performances and woven with thought-provoking subtexts, that elevates Seven Samurai to the highest ranks of world cinema.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Seven Samurai, conducted earlier this month, click here. To hear the current Cineversary episode celebrating the 70th anniversary of Seven Samurai, click here.

Seven Samurai remains an evergreen picture and an eternally rewarding watch for several reasons, most of all because it’s a streamlined story that’s easily understood and can be appreciated universally. There’s a reason why this yarn continues to be remade by newer filmmakers: Because it continually appeals and satisfies across any language or cultural boundary and can be freshly adapted to many different genres, too, from westerns to science-fiction to anime to a Pixar family film. It’s nearly impossible not to become immediately captivated by the premise and central conflict, the plight of the farmers, and the camaraderie and respect between the samurai.

Yes, this is a long film that requires patience—it’s twice the runtime of most features and includes an intermission modern audiences may find archaic—and there are several different characters to keep track of (although really only a handful who are fleshed out enough for heavy dramatic lifting: Kikuchiyo, Kambei, and Katsushiro). But it doesn’t feel bloated, and no shot or scene is superfluous. Kurosawa is working in a long-form epic medium here but he demonstrates such superb skills in his storytelling, character introductions and development, compositions, editing, and action staging/fight choreography that there’s no way this movie can fail or disappoint.

Kurosawa uses the elongated running time to the benefit of the plot and its dramatis personae. The longer length permits us to get much better acquainted with the various farmers and ronin, provides breathing room for subplots like Katsuhiro’s romance with Shino and the reason behind Rikichi’s anger, and builds tension as we wait for the passing of the seasons and the inevitable return of the bandits. “Seven Samurai unrolls naturally and pleasurably, like a beautiful scroll or valuable rug, luxuriating in its elongation—it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven. Rather than try to ignore time, the film emphasizes its passage, underlining key scenes with a quiet but insistent drumbeat that could almost be a clock ticking off the inexorable seconds,” reflects critic Kenneth Turan.

The characters are audience-accessible, often given interesting personalities, intriguing backstories, or relatable motivations that help the viewer better understand and root for them. Critic James Berardinelli wrote: “An average samurai film focuses on a sword-wielding, superhero-type individual who battles his way through the story, often triumphing over a seemingly overwhelming host of foes. Seven Samurai offers us flawed protagonists, some of whom are not skilled fighters, and one of whom is often drunk, belligerent, and decidedly non-heroic in his approach.”

We think of Seven Samurai as an action drama. But it actually wields elements of many different genres, including romance, tragedy, and comedy. It’s a funnier film than you probably remember, consistently infusing humor across its 3½-hour story and adding a counterbalance of levity to the serious, somber, and suspenseful moments that predominate. The result? A more well-rounded entertainment emotionally. So many memorable lines hit the funny bone, like “Find hungry samurai, “Give your wives plenty of lovin' tonight, you hear?”, “Does any of you have a cute sister?” “Take a good look at your daughter – I mean your son,” and “You fool! Damn you! You call yourself a horse! For shame! Hey! Wait! Please! I apologize! Forgive me!” Mifune delivers an inspired performance with a range of emotions as Kikuchiyo, who provides needed comic relief in a film that otherwise could have suffered from solemnity.

Likewise, Mifune expresses an impressive dramatic range here and, despite his buffoonish behavior, lack of battle experience, vainglorious ambitions, and poor tactical choices that result in the deaths of others, demonstrates exceptional heroism. His impassioned monologue addressing the samurai is particularly moving, offering a counterargument to an emotionally and morally complicated situation where the audience and the samurai feel skeptical about the farmers. “There’s no creature on earth as wily as a farmer! Ask 'em for rice, barley, anything, and all they ever say is ‘We're out’…They kowtow and lie, playing innocent the whole time. You name it, they'll cheat you on it. After a battle, they’ll hunt down the losers with their spears. Farmers are misers, weasels, and crybabies! They're mean, stupid murderers!...But tell me this: who turned 'em into such monsters?...You samurai did! Damn you to hell! In war, you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill 'em if they resist…What the hell are farmers supposed to do!

It checks so many satisfying “all-time great” boxes and remains at or near the top of many “best movie” lists. It could be the best war film of all time. It’s a ripping adventure and a cinematic epic. Many consider it Kurosawa’s supreme work and the greatest Japanese film ever. And it has inspired almost too many filmmakers and later movies to count.

Among the Sight and Sound polls across the decades, Seven Samurai has ranked #3 in the 1982 critics poll, #9 in the 1992 and 2002 directors polls, #17 in the 2012 Sound critics poll, and #20 in the 2022 critics poll. Japan’s oldest film magazine Kinema Junpo voted it the best Japanese film ever made in 2009 and 1999. It earns the top slot in the 2018 BBC Culture poll of the 100 greatest foreign language films. And it placed tops in Empire Magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema (2010).

Reflect for a moment that this is the film primarily responsible for introducing the Japanese samurai character into Western pop culture in the 20th century. A plethora of samurai films and chanbara (meaning “sword fighting”) movies were produced in Japan and across the world following Seven Samurai.

Additionally, Seven Samurai has been reinterpreted cinematically numerous times, which speaks to its timeless qualities and ubiquitousness as a classic film text. Among the remakes are The Magnificent Seven from 1960 and 2016, Kill a Dragon (1967), The Invincible Six (1970), Sholay (a Bollywood film) (1975), Duel of the Seven Tigers (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983), Seven Warriors (1989), A Bug’s Life (1998), China Gate (1998), the Japanese anime series Samurai 7 (2004), and The Magnificent Eleven (2013). It has also been credited with influencing later Hollywood and spaghetti Westerns, from Once Upon a Time in the West to The Wild Bunch and The Last of the Mohicans.

Seven Samurai is one of the first movies to employ the plot device of enlisting and gathering heroes into a group to accomplish a mission, used in countless later films like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, The Blues Brothers, Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, Inglorious Basterds, and Justice League. Consider, too, how each of the seven samurai is separately introduced and given their own initial spotlight; it’s been argued that Seven Samurai started this trend. It’s also among the first films to use the action/adventure device of introducing a main protagonist in a dangerous side plot that isn’t related to the later main plot (think Raiders of the Lost Ark years later).

But the plaudits don’t stop there. We can also thank Seven Samurai’s climactic concluding battle scene in the rain and mud for inspiring so many similar sequences in films to come, including Chimes at Midnight, The Two Towers, Matrix Revolutions, John Wick, and countless others. Per the BFI: “Endlessly influential, the scene contrasts the insistent downward motion of the rain with the sideways movements of the bandits in a highly organized visual scheme which is paradoxically both frenzied and formal.”

Perhaps an argument can be made that the international success of Seven Samurai, with its extended runtime, encouraged Hollywood filmmakers to expand their canvases and create longer, more ambitious pictures, as evidenced by the lengthy epics released over the next several years, including The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Cleopatra. According to Kenneth Turan, Seven Samurai was the longest hit movie since Gone With the Wind (three hours, 58 minutes) 15 years earlier.

What’s also distinctive and perhaps innovative is that most of the character deaths are not glorified or exaggerated; some kills are depicted in stylized slow-motion, but no death is protracted or sentimentalized for dramatic emotional effect (although we do see the samurai mourn certain deaths, as when Katsushiro weeps at the shooting of Kyuzo). Deep Focus Review author Brian Eggert postulated: “In each case, death is clumsy and unforgiving and unsophisticated…Capturing the battle from numerous angles did not aestheticize his violence into graceful interplays of warrior and bandit, however; we feel each death, as Kurosawa remains dedicated to realism on all fronts.

This picture reveals much about its director. Kurosawa repeats patterns and symbols throughout Seven Samurai, with one common motif being circles, represented by groups that form in circular shapes and the round symbols on the flag signifying six of the samurai. The triangle on the flag stands for Kikuchyo, who aspires to be a circle but falls on the spectrum between farmer and samurai. The director also favors different shots of people grouped together; when a single individual is featured alone in a shot, it is often meant to suggest his or her detachment or emotional distance from the group he or she is compared to.

Perform a shot-by-shot analysis of Seven Samurai and you’ll notice the evident artistry and craftsmanship of a master filmmaker at work. Kurosawa often uses wide-angle, deep-focus lenses that compress foreground, middle ground, and background nicely into the same shot and which show action on all three planes that are in focus at all times—aiding in his epic visual scope. He also employs multiple cameras to show different angles, which was beneficial when editing together the magnificent action sequences. Notice film speed fluctuations, which sometimes occur within the same shot, such as the slow-motion death of the swordsman who challenges Kyûzô; this technique has been widely imitated by other filmmakers, from Arthur Penn to Sam Peckinpah to Sergio Leone. And observe how Kurosawa’s camera can, within the same continuous shot, pan in one direction to follow a character or group, and then suddenly pan in the opposite direction to keep pace with one or more new figures who have entered the frame. This crisscrossing movement ties into the film’s themes of human duality and contrasting forces.

Close-ups are used sparingly, with the director often preferring single uninterrupted medium or long shots to paint a broader canvas of heroes, villains, and conflict. Critic James Berardinelli noted that Kurosawa frames as many of the seven samurai within the same shot as he can as often as possible. Marvel, as well, at the tight and seamless editing, as well, and the masterful action choreography shots that are cut together perfectly. Note how Kurosawa preferred wipes as transitions between scenes, denoting the passing of time. The combination of these approaches, especially the careful framing of shots and juxtaposition of differing compositions via clever editing, raises Seven Samurai above standard action entertainment. Senses of Cinema essayist Patrick Crogan wrote: “Kurosawa’s dynamic camera, tracking fast-moving warriors and sweeping across battle scenes, is counterposed with static and close-up shots. Long takes are opposed to rapidly cut sequences from a number of camera angles. Like Eisenstein (another great action filmmaker), Kurosawa’s editing and camera direction work together to create spectacular visual impacts and elicit complex combinations of emotions and thoughts in the spectator.

Roger Ebert was equally enamored of the director’s talents. “Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa,” he opined. “One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots.”

One of the central theses of Seven Samurai is performing according to or in defiance of social roles and class structure. The film examines the extent to which our identity is predestined or predetermined by society and class and how diligence, determination, and fearlessness can help you break through these barriers, as demonstrated by Kikuchiyo ultimately meriting the rank of samurai, although he loses his life in the process.

Kikuchiyo is a surrogate for the audience, representing a common person who aspires to be something greater than he is, yet flawed and imperfect; he’s capable of showing a range of emotions, from anger to humor to impudence. He also embodies rebellion against social conventions and customs. Kikuchiyo is the fulcrum between the peasants and the samurai, exhibiting traits representational of each side and possibly being the most relatable and well-rounded character in the entire story. The fact that this farmer’s son transforms into a valorous samurai by the end of the story demonstrates that bushido, the honorable code of ethics by which a samurai lives, has less to do with class and social standing than personal character and integrity.

Why do the samurai take this job for virtually no pay? The same reason the bandits continue to attack even though they know the village is well-defended: They perform the duties they’ve been ascribed by their social caste. Yet this is a story about breaking with tradition. The peasants are forced to veer from their assumed path in life by fighting back; the samurai choose to break from their predicted pattern and defend the farmers despite not being fairly compensated; these two separate classes must deviate from the norm and work together as one to defeat the bandits.

The film also underscores the dangers and downsides of class division: farmers are forced to hire and also kill samurai; a peasant daughter and samurai must never mix or the girl loses her honor; and Kikuchiyo must conceal the shameful fact that he was the son of a farmer. Ironies about class division abound in Seven Samurai. The farmers, dependent on the seven ronin, have killed samurai in the past, and though the bandits are eventually defeated, the samurai have “lost”; the farmers prevail, but now they don’t want any armed samurai around because they represent a threat to their established order.

Another crucial message? The role of the individual in society. Before the film was made, Japan was occupied by Allied forces for several years; once the occupiers left, the country suffered a bit of an identity crisis. Traditions of rigid honor and duty and cultural precepts that view the individual as a cog in the machinery of society led them down the path to ruin in World War II. Westerners infused the notion of the value of the individual, which clashed with longstanding socialistic beliefs in each person’s duty to serve collective society.

Beginning with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s films increasingly emphasized a more flexible humanism ethos and an emphasis on individuality that was characteristic of Western culture. This film demonstrates the struggle between those two ideologies: Japanese traditionalism vs. Western modernism. It also examines the negative repercussions and ultimate futility of the previously dominant inflexible Japanese ethic of acting on social obligations and performing according to social expectations.

But while Seven Samurai values the role of the individual, it also stresses the importance of coordinated communal action. Kambei proves that only by cooperating constructively as a disciplined team with assigned roles can the samurai and the farmers defeat their adversaries. The samurai carefully train the peasants and enforce strict rules designed to prevent anyone from going rogue, abandoning their post, or behaving selfishly at the expense of the entire village. Ultimately, it is this well-organized collectivism and adherence to sound tactical strategy that ensures victory, although not everything goes according to plan and the group suffers more losses than expected.

Kambei’s defensive strategizing and military maneuvers comprise one of the fascinating facets of Seven Samurai. Among his pearls of wisdom: “This is the nature of war: By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you will destroy yourself”; “Every great castle needs a breach. Draw the enemy there and attack. You can’t win by defense alone”; and “There’s nothing heroic about selfishly grabbing for glory. Listen to me: War is not fought alone.” Kambei is a brilliant military tactician who favors a war of attrition. He gates off one village access point and floods another; leads an ambush on bandits in their lair to lessen their numbers; concentrates his forces around the majority of the homes at the expense of three vulnerable huts on the outskirts; initially allows one bandit into the village at a time so they can more easily kill their foes and systematically improve their odds; and, for the last battle, realizing his group’s limitations and dwindling stamina, permits all 13 final bandits inside the perimeter, saying it’s “better we fight it out till we’re spent.”

Another evident thematic takeaway is that war plays no favorites. Four of the seven ronin meet their demise following the conflict, including master swordsman Kyuzo (who, like Legolas in The Lord of the Rings films, serves as a superhero-like sidekick) and reckless but brave Kikuchiyo; the least experienced, Katsushiro, somehow survives, as does Kambei, the leader. Seven Samurai teaches us that violence and battle beget casualties, often unfairly and randomly.

The multi-natured complexity of human beings is under Kurosawa’s microscope, too. On its surface, Seven Samurai is a black-and-white morality tale about good versus evil, but this is an inaccurate characterization upon further scrutiny because there are many shades of gray at play. Kikuchiyo’s scolding of the samurai for their hypocritical views on the farmers reveals that there are two sides to every story and a duality within human nature that can seesaw between selflessness and selfishness, between virtue and vice. Katsushiro and Shino’s clandestine affair and one-night stand are denounced by some as immoral and improper but defended by others as a gesture of young love in a time of duress. Kikuchiyo leaves his post to steal a firearm – a brave yet irresponsible act that results in one less bandit but likely leads to several farmer deaths, including Yohei’s, because Kikuchiyo abandoned his post. And Rikichi, although deserving of our sympathies due to the abduction and eventual suicide of his wife, harbors an unexpressed rage (recall how Heihachi tries in vain to get Rickichi to talk about what’s bothering him) and expresses a bloodlust for torturous violence upon a captured enemy who begs for his life; but it’s not Rikichi who metes out the vengeance – the supposedly feeble and helpless old woman villager kills that bandit. These and other examples show how both the peasants and the samurai are capable of positive and negative acts.

Lastly, the ending of the film suggests a thematic changing of the guard. Kambei’s cryptic final lines reveal much: “In the end, we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” We see the three surviving samurai now physically distant from the villagers they defended and preparing to depart to an unknown future. This detached trio, with their concerned facial expressions and resigned body language, contrasts with the communal throng harvesting and singing happily in unison. The victory has made the samurai obsolete, and now they stand as an unspoken threat to the peaceful social order established by the farmers. Their assumed obsolescence means the peasants no longer have to fear the samurai’s oppositional force, the bandits. Flush with confidence and having earned experience from their triumph, the farmers can hopefully defend themselves from external threats going forward. This signifies hope that civilization is progressing into a new era, yet the tone at the conclusion of the film is elegiac as framed from the perspective of the departing samurai.

Seven Samurai’s most generous gift to birthday wishers on its 70th anniversary is also its greatest strength: its universality. It’s an ever-vibrant, easily comprehensible text that translates effortlessly across languages, cultures, and eras. It’s little surprise that this tale has been adapted so many times across the decades in several different countries and can be flexed to fit multiple genres. Yet, despite the simplicity and malleability of its narrative, the wealth of captivating characters and complex moral themes keep us enthralled whenever we revisit the movie. The broad brushstrokes continue to pop on this cinematic canvas – including the memorable character introductions, enthralling battle planning scenes, immersive combat sequences, and satisfying subplots involving Katsushiro and Rikichi. But the smaller fine touches matter, too: from the endearing way Kanbe rubs the stubbly crown of his head and the sheepish manner Kikuchiyo scratches the side of his face, to the actors’ breath vapors reminding us of the cold shooting conditions, to the gleeful shouts of the children who comprise Kikuchiyo’s fan club, to the fury with which the wind whips against Heihachi’s flag—a stalwart banner that, like the heroes represented in its markings, defies the elements and rouses the spirit through its elevated presence. Seven Samurai is many kinds of master paintings in one: a deep focus landscape, a portrait in triplicate, a still life of sorts depicting a restless group awaiting its enemies, and a real life capturing vivid action across multiple planes and perspectives. Among the esteemed gallery of Kurosawa works, this is the piece de resistance that occupies an entire wall within its own well-visited wing of the museum.


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