July 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Over the years I have taken a near exhaustive tour of samurai movies. I have a special affinity for these because in life I think of myself as a ronin--masterless and able to go out of my way to help if I see someone being exploited or beaten. Also willing to work for free or a handful of rice. Gate of Hell (1953) directed by Kinugasa Teinosuke is an unusual one because the moral valences are changed. The heroic samurai, who starts by loyally assisting his master in evading an overthrow, transforms into an obsessive lover whose relentlessness destroys the woman he thinks he adores--and whose moment of self-realization comes too late. Its a bleak movie, as these often are, but bleaker than most precisely because the hero is a villain.

Ida (2013), directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is an extremely spare black and white movie set in 1963, about a Polish novitiate who is informed that her parents were Jewish. She spends some time with a despairing aunt, a former hanging judge for the Communist regime, and together they track down the story of her murdered parents, killed during the war by the son of the man who hid them from the Nazis. The film spares you almost nothing: there is a scene over the hole in which the bodies were buried where the young woman asks the murderer, why am I not in here too? He answers, because you were a baby, and didn’t look Jewish, so I gave you to the priest. At the end, despite having met a young saxophonist, put on a dress, had sex, and entertained a proposal of marriage, the young woman goes back to the nunnery to take her vows--predictably, distressingly but rightly, because the world is a wasteland and nothing else makes sense.

L’hasard et la necessite by Jacques Monod (1970) is one of those short books, of which you might read five or ten in a lifetime, that put everything in a new perspective. Monod, a biochemist studying the chemical composition of life, realized how random are the chemical solutions, the enzymes, which make us work. He had a vision of evolution, that blind watchmaker, grabbing up handfuls of disorder and slapping them together into machines which can defy the Second Law for a while. I had thought about the fact that life defies entropy, but I hadn’t realized it is made of entropy.

Mud, (2012), directed by Jeff Nichols, is an almost first rate little noir which captivated me with its set up: Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive hiding in a boat which is stuck in a tree. Two unsupervised children, both excellent actors, find him and help him; the movie resonates with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Four Hundred Blows among others. There is a woman the fugitive loves, a mysterious ex-CIA foster father who wants to protect him, a bounty hunter after him, and a team of other excellent character actors, almost all original and strange, in the background. The movie is brought down a little by some moments of mawkishness, but is not ruined.