Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

Roger Ebert in review of Tree of Life five years ago.

It’s a Miserable Life!

First posted here in 2008.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

A fascinating look at It’s a Wonderful Life.


… premiered 72 years ago today.

Is there a sadder movie ever than this Disney classic?

Roger Ebert wrote an excellent review when Bambi was released yet again in 1988. He starts generally positive:

In the annals of the great heartbreaking moments in the movies, the death of Bambi’s mother ranks right up there with the chaining of Dumbo’s mother and the moment when E. T. seems certainly dead. These are movie moments that provide a rite of passage for children of a certain age: You send them in as kids, and they come out as sadder and wiser preteenagers.

And there are other moments in the movie almost as momentous. “Bambi” exists alone in the Disney canon. It is not an adventure and not a “cartoon,” but an animated feature that describes with surprising seriousness the birth and growth of a young deer. Everybody remembers the cute early moments when Bambi can’t find his footing and keeps tripping over his own shadow. Those scenes are among the most charming the Disney animators ever drew.

But then he questions the whole effort:

Hey, I don’t want to sound like an alarmist here, but if you really stop to think about it, “Bambi” is a parable of sexism, nihilism and despair, portraying absentee fathers and passive mothers in a world of death and violence. I know the movie’s a perennial clasic, seen by every generation, remembered long after other movies have been forgotten. But I am not sure it’s a good experience for children – especially young and impressionable ones.

I Used to Post Good Useful Movie Reviews

Here are two from February 7th and 8th eight years ago (2006).

Kings and Queen

NewMexiKen viewed the French film Kings and Queen (Rois et reine) last evening. I’m not even certain why I added it to my Netflix queue, but I’m glad I did. The film is in French with English subtitles; it runs about 150 minutes.

The movie is essentially about Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a beautiful 35-year-old art gallery manager and single mother. It details her past and present relationships with her eleven-year-old son, her dying father, her first (and dead) husband, and her second husband, the erratic and unstable Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric).

This is a film about relationships — with lovers, children, siblings, co-workers — and that relationships often are not what they seem. The movie is long enough that the viewer begins to think they know Nora and Ismaël — and the father and others — but not so.

The contrasting personalities of Nora and Ismaël are study enough to make the film interesting. Catherine Deneuve in a brief appearance as the psychiatrist, Mme. Vasset, is a bonus. “You’re very beautiful,”says Ismaël. “I’ve been told,” says Mme. Vasset.

Recommended for a contemplative evening, though the film is not without humor. (There are no ‘splosions or car chases.)


Yesterday PosterTonight NewMexiKen watched another outstanding foreign film that I had somehow added to my Netflix queue — Yesterday, a film I watched in Zulu with English subtitles.

As with many foreign films, the action here moves at an unhurried, less frentic pace than so much American film-making, where camera movement and split-second cut-aways resemble nothing more than 8mm home movies. In Yesterday, the camera stays on a subject long enough for the viewer to enter the character, to begin to understand (perhaps) and empathize (perhaps).*

Yesterday is the name of the lead character, a small-village Zulu woman of about 25, played by the beautiful actress Leleti Khumalo. Yesterday has a five-year-old daughter, Beauty, and a husband, John, working in the mines in Johannesburg. The movie opens with the mother and daughter walking (for more two hours we learn) so that Yesterday can visit the doctor. As the movie progresses, we learn that Yesterday is very sick — about half-way through the film we learn she is HIV positive.

What follows is an extraordinarily powerful story of sadness, friendship, fear, pain, courage and love — but never really anger. If there are saints on this planet (and I believe there are), then Yesterday is surely among them.

Not to be missed.

* (It’s interesting to contrast Yesterday, an African-made movie, with the otherwise excellent The Constant Gardener, a European film about Africa, where the camera movement is so rapid, that NewMexiKen actually felt nauseated.)

There are few moving cars in this film, so no car chases, and few men, too, so no ‘splosions.

NewMexiKen wouldn’t have missed this film, but I must say I am in need of a comedy. Fortunately, Wedding Crashers is due to arrive from Netflix tomorrow.

Gone With the Wind

… premiered in Atlanta 74 years ago tonight.


Hattie McDaniel, who won a supporting-actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, was not present in segregated Atlanta.

Martin Luther King, Jr., sang in the “negro boys choir” from his father’s church at the Gone with the Wind Ball the evening before the premiere.

The 2,000 tickets were $10 and up.

When the news of war is announced in the film, the audience in the theater rose to its feet with rebel yells.

Laurence Olivier reportedly proposed to Vivien Leigh on their flight from Atlanta to New York after the premiere. Their marriage lasted 20 years.

The Loew’s Grand Theater, where the premiere was shown, was destroyed by fire in 1978.

The film, however great as a motion picture, forever ruined America’s understanding of what the War of the Rebellion was all about.

William Randolph Hearst

… was born on this date in 1863. Was Hearst the model for Charles Foster Kane? Here is what Orson Welles had to say in 1975 (written to promote a book about Hearst and actress Marion Davies).

When Frederick Remington was dispatched to the Cuban front to provide the Hearst newspapers with sketches of our first small step into American imperialism, the noted artist complained by telegram that there wasn’t really enough shooting to keep him busy. “You make the pictures,” Hearst wired back, “I’ll make the war.” This can be recognized not only as the true voice of power but also as a line of dialogue from a movie. In fact, it is the only purely Hearstian element in Citizen Kane.

There are parallels, but these can be just as misleading as comparisons. If San Simeon hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary for the authors of the movie to invent it. Except for the telegram already noted and the crazy art collection (much too good to resist), In Kane everything was invented.

Let the incredulous take note of the facts.

William Randolph Hearst was born rich. He was the pampered son of an adoring mother. That is the decisive fact about him. Charles Foster Kane was born poor and was raised by a bank. There is no room here for details, but the differences between the real man and the character in the film are far greater than those between the shipowner and the newspaper tycoon.

And what of Susan Alexander? What indeed.

It was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story, but the man was not Hearst. Susan, Kane’s second wife, is not even based on the real-life soprano. Like most fictional characters, Susan’s resemblance to other fictional characters is quite startling. To Marion Davies she bears no resemblance at all.

Kane picked up Susan on a street corner—from nowhere—where the poor girl herself thought she belonged. Marion Davies was no dim shop-girl; she was a famous beauty who had her choice of rich, powerful and attractive beaux before Hearst sent his first bouquet to her stage door. That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them: they were pleasure domes indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations. Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape from it. The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than thirty years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.

Susan was forced into a singing career because Kane had been forced out of politics. She was pushed from one public disaster to another by the bitter frustration of the man who believed that because he had married her and raised her up out of obscurity she was his to use as he might will. There is hatred in that.

Hearst put up the money for many of the movies in which Marion Davies was starred and, more importantly, backed her with publicity. But this was less of a favor than might appear. That vast publicity machine was all too visible; and finally, instead of helping, it cast a shadow—a shadow of doubt. Could the star have existed without the machine? The question darkened an otherwise brilliant career.

As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow—the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane—I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person.