August 2014
This issue's contents Current issue Index Search


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Begin Again (2013), directed by John Carney, was charming but required a substantial suspension of disbelief. Drawn as a line chart, things start out pretty OK and become great, with a lack of significant conflict or setbacks. At the outset, an alcoholic, unhappy, just-fired music executive hears a singer songwriter performing shyly and quietly to a half-engaged crowd in a random bar, sees potential and immediately signs her--we know that happens every day. Then they make amazing music together, he puts his life back together, they both get their exes back and make a hit record. Its as simple as that. But the stars sell it and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Get On Up (2014), directed by Tate Taylor, the James Brown bio, had the other problem endemic to music movies: chaotic life, confused narrative. Nonetheless, it was electric and though I was never a big James Brown fan, I enjoyed the ride. Some moments are particularly memorable: Brown in a helicopter under fire in Vietnam, totally impervious to the incoming rounds while the rest of the band panics, because he is serenely confident he will not die in Vietnam.

I wanted to like The Burmese Harp(1956), directed by Kon Ichigawa, an overly simplistic and slow moving story of a Japanese soldier whose personal response to war in the Pacific is to become a Burmese monk and dedicate himself to burying the dead. War is hell, different people respond differently and some become simple and bright-burning, but I didn’t really live it.

I have been re-reading and reading books of Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995), The Gifts of the Jews (1998) and Desire of the Everlasting Hills (1999). He is an energetic and thought-provoking writer, who manages to come at everything simultaneously from the Catholic mainstream and from left field. On the one hand, he is a True Believer, who must accept that the books of the New Testament are all magically sacred and that no book rejected for inclusion (even those previously included or accepted by competing Christian faiths) can possibly have validity. He even (reluctantly) thinks the shroud of Turin must be genuine. On the other hand, his compassion, love for his sources, non-preachy intense and loving faith, are compelling, and his own translations of Biblical or Latin texts are always quirky and entertaining. I always read him with caution; he wants you to think he is an iconoclast but is really a spokesperson (or spokesmodel), like the vaguely Marxist professor who becomes the greatest defender of a white shoe college after receiving tenure.