Corack (1974)


Jon Voit has consistently been one of the finest actors around for the last 50 years. Not many would argue against that, but the film where I believe he has given his best performance of them all is in a very small, criminally under-seen movie. Conrack is based on the experiences of Pat Conroy about the end of his teaching career. After being fired from the Beuford School District, Conroy became a prolific author through a book in which he presented a composite of his experiences at the school district though slightly fictionalized and of course his great novel The Prince of Tides.

Jon Voit embodies the curiosity, the desire to learn, and most importantly the love that characterize every great teacher. Conroy takes a job at a school on a South Carolina delta island in 1969, an entirely black community that thought of itself as lucky to even have a school. But the school was so burdened by poverty and by the racism of those on the mainland that they couldn’t get any help from the state to educate their children. Conroy’s mission was just that, to educate. The movie never treats him as the generous, self-sacrificing, heroic white man that saves all the black children. That’s what a typical 1974 movie would do, but Conrack just lets him be a great teacher.

Being a great teacher, Conroy does have an immense positive impact on his kids and ultimately on the entire community, but it comes because of who the man really was, his sense of how to best fulfill the role of his vocation and the intimate connection between that sense of purpose and the kids of the island, not a contrived cinematic invention like The Blind Side or The Help that requires white people to save black people from their civil rights plights. There have been more than enough of those movies, but Conrack is so unusual in its ability to inspire by introducing us to a real group of people. He can only accomplish what he does because of the children, so he’s not praised any more than the kids are for their willingness to learn or the community is for its willingness to grow.

Just like the well-intentioned civil rights movies that are all about white characters (which this movie is thankfully not), there are far too many movies about educational systems that treat the teachers with hero worship, paying no attention to the flaws or the humanity of the teacher (like Dead Poets Society which will never admit that the suicide in the movie is actually the teacher’s fault or Music from the Heart that expects us to believe that a real person could be as harsh, condescending, and self-centered as Meryl Streep’s unfortunate portrayal of a real teacher—and a good teacher in real life—could have any kind of a positive impact on her students). But Conroy is a hippie and a goofball, something the rest of the North Carolina school district didn’t want anything to do with. The movie never sidesteps his flaws, it lets them speak for themselves.

Most of all the character we meet, as played by Jon Voit, is a real person, not in the common “based on a true story” sense but in the sense that Jon Voit’s portrayal of him is three-dimensional and fully realized. It may not be completely accurate to Pat Conroy’s life and experience, it’s not supposed to be, but it’s a real person. And through that one real person, we get to know the whole community. We get to know the kids who make a difference in his life. Of course he impacts they’re lives, he’s a great teacher, that’s what great teachers do. But most of what we get to see is the joy of how these kids impact him. After more than 30 years, I hope something comes about where people finally start watching this magnificent film. It occasionally appears on various streaming outlets, but seems to be removed as quickly as it’s added, so go to periodically, and check for Conrack to find a way to watch this masterpiece.


Les Misérables (2012)


In his writing, Victor Hugo harshly criticized a large portion of the church in France at his time, even if the subject matter was set before his time as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Les Misérables was set entirely within his lifetime telling a story that in many ways was the very real France he lived in where the church and the government had collided making an environment that promoted a type of Christianity without love. The 1980s musical based on Hugo’s novel has the two main characters that embody Hugo’s criticisms of the church and desire for real Christian love to reign in his culture. The songs are thread and repeated throughout the musical to develop Javert as the man of loveless religion and Jean Valjean as the man of grace.

In Tom Hooper’s masterful film version of the musical, Hugh Jackman gave his best performance to date as Jean Valjean. In the opening scene as he is about to be released from prison he sings the story we all know of being imprisoned some 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. It’s a duet with Javert as Jean shows himself to be a loving man doing what he needed to do for his family while Javert makes it known that no matter how long he’s out of prison Jean will never be free from Javert.

Russell Crowe also gave his best performance to date but five years later he’s still getting complaints for supposedly having ruined the movie with his singing. True, he doesn’t have a Broadway voice, but nobody in this movie really sings with a Broadway voice. Tom Hooper’s direction made sure every scene had an raw emotional candidness that apparently was off-putting to many viewers but the finished product is clearly Tom Hooper’s own vision of Les Misérables, and that vision requires extended close-ups and rough live singing because all of that helps bring to life the effects on all those around the personification of grace and the personification of loveless religion.

The best thing about Russell Crowe’s part in the movie is that his Javert is much less villainous than is commonly interpreted in many of the other film versions of Hugo’s novel and even the original stage musical. Russell Crowe’s Javert is bound by his idea of the law. He’s so bound to that he refuses to receive grace every time it is offered to him. He brings a character that is more tragic than villainous. He so deeply believes the lie that he’s serving God by doing what he thinks is his duty of convicting and imprisoning people for acts of survival that he cannot recognize what it really looks like to serve the God he thinks he’s serving though he’s shown it many times in the movie.

I don’t know of any movie that gives a better picture of what grace is than Tom Hooper’s version of Les Misérables. The contrast made between the two characters is not one of good vs. evil but of real good vs. supposed good. Javert’s inability to receive love is an inability to receive truth. His inability to receive love and truth makes it impossible for him to know what justice really is even though he is supposed to be a man of justice, a man of the law. His sense of justice is actually injustice that harms and even kills man people. His moral confusion contrasted with the real grace and love shown by Jean Valjean gives a beautiful picture of empathy and sacrifice, fighting for what is right, and of the truth that, as Jean Valjean sings at the end of the movie, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

Ikiru (1952)


Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a perfect movie for New Year’s Day. It’s all about a new start. The word “ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese. Kurosawa is known for his great samurai epics loaded with action and suspense where even the courtroom scenes in Rashomon and the dialogue, relationships, and personal growth in his medical drama Red Beard have a very fast pace about them. Ikiru couldn’t be more different than a usual Kurosawa film. Its story is told at a very slow pace and actually isn’t that much of a story at all. It’s more of a meditation on what it means to live.

The film opens with the x-ray picture of a stomach with a cancerous tumor. A voiceover narrator tells us that the stomach we’re looking at belongs to our protagonist. The protagonist is Watanabe played by Takashi Shimura. Watanabe has never lived. He worked, obsessed over money, believed that his work was for the benefit of his son, but his son didn’t appreciate it at all. His son was not ungrateful, he was unappreciative because his father gave him only material things and never invested in their relationship, what he really needed.

When given his diagnosis, Watanabe is told that he has no more than a year to live. He admits to a man he meets that he has wasted his life and wants to live but doesn’t know how. His new friend tries to help him live through expensive wine, parties, and strippers. Watanabe comes to see through his friend’s attempts that he is not the only one who doesn’t know how to live. He interrupts a party when the musician offers to take requests. Watanabe requests a song called “Life Is Brief.” We see Watanabe grieve as he accepts this reality not only for himself but confronts others to search their own lives as Watanabe’s health crisis has forced him to do. Through his eyes, he shows both a lost look of confusion not knowing how to live along with hope from a newfound desire to help others learn how to live, even though he doesn’t know how to do it himself yet.

Watanabe moves on in a pursuit of a new guide to teach him how to live. He ran into a girl who worked for him before the diagnosis. He hadn’t quit his job but his long absence was very puzzling to his co-workers. The girl tells him that everyone at work is excited for him not showing up at work since he was clearly a workaholic, they see it as his transformation. She’s right, but he can’t realize that transformation until she tells him. She teaches him how to have fun, enjoy life, to create, and to give willingly to others, giving what they really need instead of what is easy to give as Watanabe had previously done with his son. She encourages him to reconcile with his son, and she is the way he learns what it means to live.

After a bitter meeting with this girl that ends their friendship, he leaves a restaurant while all we hear is the sound of other patrons singing “Happy Birthday” to someone else. I don’t think this is an ironic contrast between the celebration of a birthday and the dejectedness of a man losing even more while already knowing his life is about to end as many think. Even though the relationship ended, she is the reason he knows how to live which is exactly what he leaves that restaurant to do. It is a birthday of sorts for him. The last hour of the movie takes place in flashback after Watanabe’s death, showing with absolute certainty that he did learn to live, that he did experience a new birth through that decision, and that he taught others to do the same. By the end of the movie, Watanabe has taught even those of us watching the movie 65 years after the film’s release, what it means to live.

Unforgiven (1992)


This is the 25th anniversary of Clint Eastwood’s best movie as an actor and a director. It’s remembered as a great western and a great revenge story. But much more than that Unforgiven is a great love story. The movie opens with a title card telling us about the life and death of Claudia, Bill Munny’s wife as we hear some of the beautiful music the film world has ever given us. Clint Eastwood plays Bill Munny, and through the rest of the movie we hear that beautiful piece, “Claudia’s Theme” written by Clint Eastwood whenever Will faces a moral dilemma.

Bill tells people that he’s not the person he used to be because Claudia cured him of drinking and wickedness. We know he was a notorious murder, and we know that he means it when he says he’s not the person he used to be. The beautiful love theme tells us how the memory of Claudia keeps him living in a way that would please her. It’s his only priority in life. Unforgiven is the first movie I know of to tell a love story from the perspective of how the romance continues after the death of one of the lovers. More recently, Up and another Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino have done this very well.

Bill is offered a job as a bounty hunter, something he hasn’t done for 10 years. He needs the money for his kids, and this offer isn’t like any of the acts of his past. A real injustice was done, and he’s hired to kill the offenders. The love theme tells us how he wrestles with the decision he has to make. He knows Claudia would not approve of killing people in cold blood out of drunken stupor as he used to, the music tells us that he senses her approval to get justice for the young woman who was hurt. His pursuit of justice is an act of love for Claudia continuing their romance several years after her death. When he meets the young woman he is defending and finds out that she’s a prostitute, she offers him a “free one.” His response to her is the movie’s most heartfelt moment that shows us how much goodness is in Bill Munny. His response expresses both his love for his wife that extends beyond the grave and his desire to give

His pursuit of justice is an act of love for Claudia continuing their romance several years after her death. When he meets the young woman he is defending and finds out that she’s a prostitute, she offers him a “free one.” His response to her is the movie’s most heartfelt moment that shows us how much goodness is in Bill Munny. His response expresses both his love for his wife that extends beyond the grave and his desire to give justice for the young woman. Through this whole scene, we hear the most dramatic performance of “Claudia’s Theme” throughout the whole film.

When Bill reaches his breaking point and turns from justice to revenge, we stop hearing “Claudia’s Theme.” We hear the film’s main film music, dark and forebodingly written by Lennie Niehaus. This involves some of the saddest moments the movies have ever produced, not so much because of the people Bill is killing but because we know what the title means. Bill fought between his past that haunted him and his wife that saved him for many years, and now the past is starting to win. He hasn’t learned to forgive himself for his past, and he allows it to stop haunting him and to become his present instead. That doesn’t mean that all the goodness is gone. We do get to hear “Claudia’s Theme” again, but it takes a lot of inner moral fights and forgiveness of others and of himself to keep make sure he continues to keep his love for Claudia alive.

Belle de jour (1967)


This is the 50th anniversary of a movie that does something that sounds impossible. Belle de jour tells a story about a prostitute that is both honest and clean. Catherine Deneuve (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) gave the best performance of her career as the prostitute known to her clients as “Belle de jour” (lady of the day) because she never worked at night. She’s married, and in the movie’s opening scene we see a nightmare of her husband finding out her secret and having her tied to a tree and beaten (the scene pictured above). And the dream, she tells her husband that it’s his fault too. We have no idea why it might be his fault, but we believe her.

In his usual surrealist way, director Luis Buñuel cuts back and forth between scenes of the present, dream sequences, and scenes of the past. We don’t always know which is which, but it’s never confusing. Whichever perspective we see the main character from, we learn something about her. It doesn’t matter much if it’s past, present, or a dream. All that matters is that we get to know why she does what she does, who she thinks she is, how she sees the world around her, and whose fault her behavior really is.

Belle de jour is a movie about a prostitute, but it’s not a movie about prostitution. It’s a story about abuse, power, slavery, and most of all guilt. One of the clear flashback scenes of the past shows her as a child with her father in a way that tells us that her father sexually abused her throughout her childhood. We see the effects of that play out not just in her “profession” but in her marriage and in how afraid she is of all men. When she first learns about the house of prostitution she works for, she doesn’t say a word but we know from her facial expressions everything she is thinking. She’s going to do it, not because anybody’s forcing her and not because she needs or wants the money badly enough. She does it because she believes she needs to be punished.

Her false sense of guilt over what her father did to her controls every decision she makes. Her husband doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t really try to. He tries to love her on his own terms without knowing what it means to love someone who’s been what she’s been through. She can’t see the past as anyone’s fault but her own. Her false guilt leads her a lifestyle that brings real guilt, and she can’t tell the difference. Because she feels that she needs to be punished, she gives herself over to unspeakable cruelty. This is exactly why I can say the movie is clean. The movie understands that sexual abuse, and in many cases prostitution, has nothing to do with sex. It’s about power and violence.

The things we see in Belle de jour are very difficult to watch. But they are a very candid and real picture of the devastation caused by sexual abuse and toxic masculinity. In the world we live in right now with new accusations of famous and powerful men every day, it’s necessary to enter the world of people who have endured the torment of sexual abuse. Watching Belle de jour can be a powerful but very uncomfortable starting point.

Now, Voyager (1942)


2017 is the 75th anniversary of the film that Bette Davis gave her greatest performance in. Like Whoopie Goldberg’s Celie in The Color Purple, Bette Davis’ character Charlotte is transformed from victimhood of years of abuse and deprivation of love and kindness into a confident woman who is able to experience the reality of goodness in the world and to be part of that goodness, giving of herself to others and healing the brokenness in others, helping them experience the same transformation she has gone through. The story of The Color Purple is overtly religious while Now, Voyager‘s is not, but the process we see in Now, Voyager is just as much of a spiritual transformation.

Charlotte’s existence is controlled by her mother. She makes no decisions on her own, has no friends of her own, and thinks of herself as incapable, ugly, stupid, and completely dependent on her mother because that is exactly how her mother has groomed her. The psychological abuse Charlotte endured is almost unbearable to watch at times, and we see enough flashbacks to know that it has been going on her whole life. But the story begins at a breaking point in Charlotte’s relationship with her mother where she meets a psychiatrist (Clause Raines from Casablanca and Notorious playing one of the rare upstanding characters of his career). He helps her see that there is more to herself than what she can see and that the only way to discover that is to have some separation from her mother.

After her psychological treatment, the doctor encourages her to travel apart from her mother. As she does that, the transformation becomes real. She has to fight with the lies she’s heard from her mother for so many years that she’s too ugly and stupid to be lovable. When a man expresses romantic interest in her, she has to learn to accept herself as worthy of that kind of love. She has to know that she is capable of giving any kind of love. As the transformation unfolds, Now, Voyager becomes one of the most romantic movies ever made, but since this man who she falls in love with is married, her transformation is complicated. She learns to love Jerry (Paul Heinried, also from Casablanca) through his daughter Tina whose experiences mirror her own.

The movie’s most famous scene includes the line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Her transformation is complete because she has been able to love another. Charlotte and Jerry both have too much respect for Jerry’s commitment to his wife to let their attraction to one another tear his family apart. That would be to ask for the moon. But they truly love each other in a way that allows Tina to escape the abuse she endured from her mother by becoming like the daughter of Jerry and Charlotte, even though it’s separate with Charlotte as her caretaker. That’s what it means for them to have the stars.

These characters experience spiritual transformations that make them able to receive and to give love. They are empowered to no longer be trapped by the effects of abuse they’ve experienced and to heal others through the love they’ve been shown. While Now, Voyager is one of the most romantic movies ever made, its view of love is much fuller than that. The expressions of love are life-giving and sacrificial. They empower others to be transformed as they have been.


The Immigrant (1917)


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest short length film. Like most of Chaplin’s movies, he balances on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy in The Immigrant. The film opens on a ship headed for the U.S. Its occupants are mostly Russian Jews seeking refuge from the oppression of the tzar. On the ship, Chaplin accomplishes some of his greatest physical comedy including the results of seasickness and a choreographed scene with a fish that must have inspired Monty Python’s obsession with fish slapping. But Chaplin does all this surrounded by grief, poverty, hunger, and desperation.

Chaplin’s character doesn’t seem to have the same amount of physical and emotional distress as those with him on the ship. The movie doesn’t explore why that is or give any of his (or anyone else’s) backstory. We just know that he’s surrounded by hurt and sees himself as a way to make things right. Chaplin’s characters are often unintentional heroes that do great things for other people but only by accident. His character in The Immigrant is no “little tramp.” This may be his only true heroic character.

Most of the movie is set on the ship. Through what happens on the ship, we see that the story is set in a time where immigrants are unfairly labeled “bad hombres” just like the world we live in in the U.S. right now. An older woman on the ship realizes she has lost the money that will make her able to enter the U.S. legally. Without that money, she gets sent back. Chaplin’s character has compassion on her and has a very funny scene where he tries to sneak money into her pocket without her knowing it. But an American guard on the ship sees and accuses him of being a pickpocket. When they reach the border, things just get worse.

Everywhere he goes, he’s treated like he doesn’t belong, like he’s ruining the country, and like he’s a “bad hombre.” Nobody is willing to show him the same compassion that he is so willing to give others. Chaplin’s usual characters would fight over this, but not this one. Chaplin’s immigrant character is always willing to fight, but only for other people that he sees being wronged. In less than a half hour, we see a story that vividly shows the themes of justice, compassion, and mercy, something so sadly missing from the America of its time.

It’s been 100 years since The Immigrant was made, and in the last few decade, much progress has been made to avoid the type of treatment of people seen in this movie. But ever since Donald Trump decided to “make America great again,” he’s shown that his vision of American greatness looks a lot the anger, oppression, deceit, and discriminatory behavior that marks how the American characters in this great Chaplin film treat immigrants. That is a very sad reality, yet Chaplin’s character offers such a contrast to all the harm by being a source of healing. So the movie shows us that we can fight against these cultural swings towards hatred and indifference by giving love and compassion.


Other Chaplin movies I’ve reviewed:

The Gold Rush (1925); Modern Times (1936); The Great Dictator (1940)