The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are out of money and looking for work. They meet an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) who is convinced there is gold they can find, but he initially discourages them from going even though he knows he could not go searching for gold on his own but would need a team to make that possible. He discourages them by telling them that gold is a curse, that once they find some they won’t ever be satisfied and will turn against each other, consumed by greed. He wants to go and he wants a team but he wants to make sure that they count the cost of their journey before they set off.

Dobbs and Curtin  talk amongst themselves and come to the conclusion that gold can be as much of a blessing as it is a curse, that they have to choose for themselves whether they will be in control of what they gain or will allow it to control them. Of course they’re right. The most fascinating thing about John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is that Howard knows they’re right too even though he says the opposite to them at the beginning. He’s been doing it for years and has never succumbed to the greed he talked about, and he shows no signs of ever doing that. It took several times of seeing the movie to really understand why he speaks of gold so conclusively as curse even though his own life shows otherwise.

The last time I watched the movie, at the very beginning I noticed some small clues into one of the two future members of Curtin’s team, that show greed and hypocrisy. I can’t say which one because they are hidden so well keeping the story always suspenseful, not knowing if any of the characters will turn on the others. What I can say is that Curtin noticed those characteristics of his prospective partner long before a first-time viewer can. That’s why he discourages both men from joining him. He knows that greed will take over and put everybody else involved at great risk.

We watch the character’s downfall very gradually. As we watch it happen, we are confronted with the question of how we as individuals would respond to a sudden opportunity for wealth. As we watch carefully multiple times to see the attitudes and beliefs of the character before his downfall, we can ask ourselves if we are in any way predisposed to the likely response to wealth that we see in this character. This kind of self-understanding in the end has nothing at all to do with wealth but everything to do with how we view others and ourselves. Are we living for the good of others or only for our own self-interest? Whether the character in the movie gained wealth or not, his greed would have eventually overtaken him. The questions that the movie forces us to ask about ourselves are then really about how we relate to others and how we relate to and use the money and resources we already have. The other characters in the movie find contentment  both with and without treasure but we know that the character who becomes controlled by greed will never reach the satisfaction he searches for through the whole movie. This principle makes the way for one of the most intense, thought-provoking, and entertaining movies of all time. It also is a principle that is unquestionably true for all people, giving us something to think about that is crucial for us all to process as it relates to our own lives.


List: Greatest Male Acting Performances

Last summer, I posted a list of what I think to be the 25 best female acting performances. It’s been five months since that list and I’ve neglected the men, so here are my picks for the best male acting performances of all time.


25. Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)



24. Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca (1942)



23. Peter O’Toole, The Ruling Class (1972)



22. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)



21. Peter O’Toole, Becket (1964)



20. Anthony Quinn, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)



19. Sal Mineo, Rebel without a Cause (1955)



18. Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights (1939)



17. Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot (1959)



16. George C. Scott, Patton (1970)



15. Peter Lorre, M (1931)



14. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous (1937)



13. Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)



12. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)



11. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988)



10. Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981)



9. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)



8. Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds (2009)



7. Jack Nicholson, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)



6. Yul Brynner, The King and I (1956)



5. Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)



4. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)



3. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)



2. Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)



1. Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator (1940)


Monsieur Vincent (1947)


Maurice Cloche’s biopic on St. Vincent de Paul is a movie about justice and the love of mankind. I wish that all professing Christians in America, especially those who are committed more to a cultural, right-wing politicized version of Christianity than to the the Christ of the Bible, would watch it. This film depicts a life that vividly shows what it really means to be a Christian. Vincent is surrounded by members of the 17th century French aristocracy. Though they are churchgoers and want to have the favor of their priest, their actions show that they have no real concern for any person outside of themselves. Vincent’s original plan for the priesthood fell very much in line with this mindset, but as his life took terrible unexpected turns including being sold into slavery, his view of other people changed dramatically with it.

Vincent’s first action as a priest that we see in the film is bringing the daughter of a woman who has just died from the Black Death to aristocrats seeking help for her. Naturally, they are worried about the contagious nature of the disease, but Vincent has gone to every precaution possible to avoid that potential. He wants to help this little girl. We learn quickly that the people around him aren’t really so worried about catching the disease as they claim, they’re only using that as an excuse. Their real issue is that they don’t like what having a peasant girl around them would do to their social status.

Vincent relentlessly worked for the poor, but even more than that he fought the structure of his society to try to teach others to love, to embrace the poor, to accept and extend help to all people wherever it is in their power to do so. He was the very definition of a pastor or shepherd, trying to lead a community of people in the path of the Good Shepherd, the path of love.

Pierre Fresnay shines in his wonderful portrayal as St. Vincent, appearing to be as driven by the desire for justice as Vincent himself was. He took this role very seriously, very reverently, showing the world that this his character was a man who deserves to be remembered and honored, whose legacy must be carried on in the world of his own day and in our world today.

Being the day after Martin Luther King Jr. day, I tried to find a film that would honor King but there were none with really enough to say about (King: A Film Record…Memphis to Montgomery is an excellent documentary that shows the events as they happen but doesn’t allow for much reflection on a blog like this and Selma is an excellent recent movie, but I’ve only seen it once which was not enough for me to write an appropriate review for the occasion). But as I looked back further to a movie before King’s work that deals with a time period three centuries before King’s own, I found a way to honor King’s great work through the similar work of another man. Both St. Vincent and Martin Luther King Jr. are people who changed their cultures because of their faith in a God who loves justice, because of their unwillingness to sit and watch as a privileged people oppresses a culturally weaker group. Monsieur Vincent is a confrontational movie for Christians within any group of privilege, encouraging them to get out of the safe little existence they have created for themselves and to follow in the footsteps of their Savior by extending love and justice to all people. As St. Vincent and Martin Luther King Jr. are both great historical examples of this, the film makes it personal. Personal about the life of Vincent, of course, but also personal to every viewer, challenging them to ask themselves what they really believe about life, about God, about themselves and to evaluate whether or not those beliefs are expressed in their actions toward other people.

List: The Best Original Movie Musicals


Last weekend, La La Land made history being the most winning movie ever at the Golden Globe Awards with seven wins, sweeping every category it was nominated for. I haven’t seen La La Land yet, but I love musicals and have already made a list of the best film adaptations of Broadway musicalsLa La Land looks to be more inspired by the classic original musicals, both from Hollywood and France. In saying original musicals, I mean that they did not originate on stage, yet the songs do not have to be original to the movie. So, here’s my list of the best original movie musicals.


10. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Best songs: “Chansons des Delphine” & “Daphne a Lancien


9.  Stormy Weather (1943)

Best songs: “Ain’t Misbehavin'” & “Stormy Weather”


8. Once (2007)

Best songs: “Falling Slowly” & “If You Want Me”


7. Moulin Rouge (2001)

Best songs: “Like a Virgin” & “Roxanne”


6. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Best songs: “The Boy Next Door” & “The Trolley Song”


5. The Lion King (1994)

Best songs: “Hakuna Matata” & “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”


4. Mary Poppins (1964)

Best songs: “A Spoonful of Sugar” & “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”


3. A Star Is Born (1954)

Best songs: “I Was Born in a Trunk” & “The Man that Got Away”


2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Best songs: “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi” & “Recit de Cassard


1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Best songs: “Make ’em Laugh,” “Moses Supposes,” & “Singin’ in the Rain”


The Right Stuff (1983 )


Philip Kaufman’s  TheRight Stuff is an important movie to watch or re-watch at this moment in history. I say this not just because of the cultural reasons of the recent death of John Glenn (played wonderfully in this film by John Glenn) and by the release of Hidden Figures, another film set during the beginning of America’s role in the space race, also involving John Glenn. I say it is important now because The Right Stuff deals so much with the history of the relationship between the USA and Russia over the last 50 years. It begins at a time when any tension between the two countries was hidden by their earlier long-lasting alliance, shows how the space race became a point of contention between the two countries, a competition that was the surface issue of many bigger problems about to be confronted. It was made in the 1980s when the fear of nuclear warfare between the two was nearing its end.

The Right Stuff is a film about astronauts. It’s about the talents, the sacrifices, the heroic actions, and the often misaligned priorities of those astronauts. It’s about the strained relationships with their families and the team they built among themselves. But it’s also a reflection of America and its relationship with the USSR. Russian astronauts and scientists  were important in America’s advancement in space technology. The relationship between American government officials and scientists with their Russian counterparts waver constantly from mutual respect and cooperation to defensiveness, deceit, and manipulation coming from both sides.

Made in 1983, the movie has the benefit of hindsight to honor the astronauts whose work was so important and at the same time find fault with both the USA and Russia for their inappropriate uses of the space race and the people involved with it for political gain. There is a remarkable scene where the members of the Mercury 7 have a press conference and handle themselves naturally, not seeing themselves or their work with nearly the same level of importance as the press and the governmental officials with them in the same room. While we see this, the “Hallelujah Chorus” is played on the soundtrack, playing only the moments where “king of kings and lord of lords” is sung. It is used in an extremely sarcastic way, not against the astronauts but against all the other people in the room who have expectations of America’s role in the space race of being their nation’s salvation from Russia and from other sources. The scene harshly criticizes the extreme nationalism found in America during the Cold War and the way that space race, but not the astronauts, fit into this.

This criticism of America in the past is appropriate now with the country’s present. How will it respond to Russian attacks? Has it learned from its passed mistakes, or will it again seek salvation through a few individuals that have no actual say in the country’s internal or foreign policies and through a perverse nationalistic and ethnocentric sense of superiority over other nations? Will it learn from its past mistakes, or will it again place inappropriate blame among its own minorities for problems that can really only be solved at the top? With the person chosen to lead the country, the negative answers to each of these questions seem a lot more likely, but the point of The Right Stuff is that in the midst of all these national security issues and internal moral failures, a few people related to those problems in the most indirect way possible do make a difference in a way that benefits their country simply because they do what they are gifted to do. They do it with much discipline, with great urgency, with willingness to sacrifice their personal needs and desires, and ultimately with success. When our country is faced with many of these same difficulties in the near future, which looks inevitable, it is up to the normal, everyday, hard-working Americans to do what they do with intelligence, sincerity, integrity, sacrifice and hope, because we too may have an impact on those larger national and global issues than we could possibly realize at this juncture.

List: The Movies of 2016

I emphasize classic movies on my blog and I don’t see very many movies at the time of their release, so my exposure to the movies of 2016 is very limited, but as a new year begins I want to share the movies I did watch last year, even though there are only 10 of them. I will place them in order from the poorest to the best, giving a grade to the quality of each movie.


10.  The Secret Life of Pets (D-)


Only the opening and closing scenes of The Secret Life of Pets have anything to do with a “secret life” of what goes on in the minds of its four-legged characters. This has the potential to be delightful, but the rest is just typical and meaningless anthropomorphic action. The “secret life” that we get through the rest of the movie is a dark, disturbing, and gross world that resembles mafia life and warfare but its heroes are cute, lovable dogs. This makes the way for a confused and unsettling experience since the movie displays no direction. If it’s supposed to be for kids (as of course it is), expect some pretty upset kids. If it’s supposed to be for adults, expect some depressed and confused adults after this mess.


9.  Zootopia (C-)


The hilarious DMV scene known from the trailer caused many people to want to watch Disney’s Zootopia. Unfortunately, it’s the only scene in the movie with any originality. The two main characters are boring and giving us no reason to care about them. The message of being yourself regardless of the expectations of the culture around you is handled in a heavy-handed way without a second of joy. The screenplay is a rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather, not the usual Disney homages to pop culture but just lazy uses of better movies hoping that this one could somehow become better by using them, but it never does.


8.  Captain Fantastic (B-)


Matt Ross assembled a wonderful cast of actors to portray a family living in the middle of nowhere, learning survival and completely isolated from the rest of the world until the death of the mother. The father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) takes his six children out of isolation to attend their mother’s funeral and to meet the desires she expressed in her will that her family has disregarded. The movie asks a very big moral question: Is the way Ben raises his children child abuse or just strange parenting? Most of the movie explores different sides of this question in an intriguing way but drags on too long to keep its value. After a beautiful concluding scene where the family has completed what they call “Operation Rescue Mom,” the movie continues unnecessarily for another  half hour. In that time, the big question is answered for us. It was much better when we were allowed to make up our own minds, but the final half hour ruins everything great that was accomplished in the movie’s first 90 minutes.

7.  The Jungle Book (B)


Neel Sethi gives one of the great child acting performances as Mowgli in the newest version of Kipling’s classic. Director Jon Favreau assembled a great team for some of the technical elements of the film (the sets, the score, and the cinematography are top-notch), but not consistently. Some of the animated animal characters look too real to justify giving them voiceover actors; Bill Murray does his best but can’t take away the awkwardness of hearing his voice while looking at a creature that should not be able to talk; the technical greatness of the movie is not consistent enough to encourage the suspension of belief required here. There is much to admire about Favreau’s Jungle Book, but the 1967 fully animated version is far superior.


6.  Finding Dory (B)


Finding Dory is both a sequel and a prequel to Finding Nemo (something only The Godfather Part II has done before). Its story includes both the relationship that Dory shares with Nemo and his dad after the journey of the 2003 film and Dory’s childhood with the development of her short-term memory loss. Dory’s memory disorder was the source of most of the humor in the original film but here it’s taken very seriously. In the sequel sections, we see Dory able to take care of herself and her friends (Nemo and his dad) despite the disorder which sometimes is hokey but usually charming thanks to the new friends she meets along the way, especially a hilarious octopus voiced by Ed O’Neil. Most of the humor in this movie comes from those new friends, not from Dory.


5.  Love & Friendship (B+)


Jane Austen’s lesser-known novel Lady Susan is the source material for the funniest movie I’ve seen this year. In every one of her novels, Austen created female characters that we love to hate; they’re divisive, prejudiced, and immoral but somehow lovable. What sets Lady Susan apart is that this type of character is the story’s main character, something unheard of elsewhere in Jane Austen’s literature. Wilt Stillman’s adaptation takes every opportunity to find humor in this situation. Cate Beckinsale, as Lady Susan, gives us all the charm necessary to accept such a nasty person as the hero of this story.


4.  The Fits (B+)


Anna Rose Holmer’s very small independent film The Fits shows very vividly how similar boxing and hip-hop dance are. On the surface this sounds very unbelievable and like a flimsy basis for a story. 11-year-old Royalty Highwalter gives a performance so urgent, so physical, and so emotive that as the movie progresses, we can see how much potential for  a story really does exist within this scenario. It is a story of endurance, of the power that comes from discipline, and of the relationship between athletics and the arts. Anna Rose Holmer and Royalty Highwalter take these themes so seriously that they invite us to do the same and to join Toni (Royalty’s character) in her extraordinary journey of finding herself.


3.  Morris from America (A-)


Writer/director Chad Hartigan gave us a very special movie mainly because of the wonderful way it depicts a great dad. Most movies about teens present the parents in a caricatured way that reflects reality in no way at all. This is even more sadly the case when Hollywood makes movies that involve African American families, satisfied with perpetuating stereotypes that should have been noticed and abandoned fifty years ago. But the father and son in Morris from America are real people, full of life, hurt, joy, fear, and hope for a future. Curtis (Craig Robinson in an Oscar-worthy performance, though he certainly will not be nominated) is the father whose love for and constant availability to his son Morris are so palpable that many viewers will wish they had had a father like him. This reaction is possible because we see the father’s own faults, limitations, hurt, and grief that drives his decisions. He’s far from a perfect man, but he is a perfect father for Morris.


2.  Hail, Caesar! (A)


A satire of blacklisting and other harmful results of McCarthyism, an indictment on repression similar to what happened in the era of McCarthyism that is alive and well in America today, an homage to classic Hollywood, and a parody of the most popular genres of 1950s cinema (the musical comedy, the western, and of course the sword and sandal/biblical epic that the title refers to). Hail Caesar is all of these things, contradictory as they can be. The Coen brothers create their most visually stimulating film to date and accomplishes all the things I listed with perfect balance through one of their best screenplays to date. Hail Caesar is goofy but profound, simple but elegant, hilarious but angering. Above all, it is utterly unique.


1.  Nuts! (A)


Also utterly unique is Penny Lane’s documentary on John R. Brinkley. Using a combination of animation and interview, Nuts tells the story of a man who became one of the wealthiest people in America through medicine and mass media. And it all started with a cure for impotence through goat’s testicles. The whole movie is as bizarre as the man’s initial claim to fame and takes us into a world too strange to be fictional. The less you know about Brinkley going in the better, because the story unfolds in ways so unexpected, with so much intelligence and empathy, that to say any more about it would risk ruining the experience.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)


The years of trouble and anxiety involved in the mother-daughter relationship between Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher is well known. It was captured in writing by Carrie Fisher and in her novel Postcards on the Edge and in her screenplay for the film of the same title which included spectacular acting performances by Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as fictionalized versions of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds respectively. All the trauma, conflict, addiction, and deep wounds involved in both lives could not be any less recognizable in the acting career of either woman. Carrie of course is best known for playing the heroic and charismatic Princess Leia, and Debbie is best known for her delightful musical comedies.

The loss of both women less than a day apart from each other has left a devastating gap in the movie world. Ironically but happily, the best way to honor both of them is through the pure escapism they brought so wonderfully to the world.

The greatest moment of Debbie Reynolds’ career is undoubtedly her role as Kathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain. Almost every time a list of the greatest movies is published by a group of critics or industry professionals, Singin’ in the Rain lands in the top ten. They always mention the historical importance of the film’s accurate portrayal of the difficulties involved in the movie industry’s change from silent movies to talkies, the process of making a movie in the late 1920s that this movie takes its audience through in an incredibly entertaining way, the wonderful use of songs made popular through the early movie musicals of the 20s and 30s, the dancing of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, especially in the “Gotta Dance” ballet sequence, and Jean Hagen’s role as Lina Lamont, perhaps the funniest character in movie history. All of these are obvious contributions to the greatness of Singin’ in the Rain, but Debbie Reynolds’ part of that greatness is not often talked about.

The skeleton of the love story in Singin’ in the Rain was already beyond cliche in 1952 and could only work if used as a small part of a far more structured and unique film and acted with so much charm that it just doesn’t matter how many times we’ve already seen this type of a romance. Both of these are definitely in tact. The story isn’t only so rich and so funny  that it can handle a cliched romance, but that romance is also infinitely more enjoyable here than any of the other hundreds of times it’s been done. That’s mostly because Debbie Reynolds knew how to work with Gene Kelly and make something great.

Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) finds himself in Kathy’s car when running from his adoring fans. The flirtation begins immediately, but Kathy tries very hard to restrain herself from giving into any of his advances scared of a relationship with a movie star and not expecting that she’ll ever see him again. So when she does see him again, she has to keep her facade of arrogance and resistance that wants nothing to do with him. While she is Don’s biggest fan in reality, she mocks him, questions his acting abilities, and humiliates him in order to maintain her facade. She is so utterly convincing in both her disdain and her attraction to Do, often in the very same scene, that she brings so much more to this character than the cliches could ever allow. Her singsongy announcement of their arrival at Sunset and Camden is the sound of a woman in love and a mischievous character willing to destroy the other person, even though the subject of both is the same person. In scenes like this, she is at her funniest and shows that thin line between love and hate in ways no other movie ever could.

Of course there is much more to be said about Singin’ in the Rain than I am doing here. I will hopefully write another article in the future dealing more with the movie as a whole. But for now this seemed to be a fitting tribute to an actress who though very much loved is often not given the attention she deserves for her brilliant comic timing and her ability to transform a cliche into complex character.