Sunday, December 28, 2014

Foreign Film Favorites 2014

The following list of films will stand comparison with any other list of top films for 2014.

Tia Morice and Paul Mercurio in Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom:  This film from Australia by famed director Baz Lurhmann is a charming romantic comedy about a championship ballroom dancer and his ugly duckling partner. The film stars Paul Mercurio and Tia Morice with a great supporting cast. Here's a link to a brief video clip, or see video box below.

Les Comperes: Renowned French stars Pierre Richard and Gerard Depardieu play two confirmed bachelors in search of a runaway teenager that they both believe to be their son by a youthful liason. The result is mayhem with a very touching ending.

Incantato: Director Pupi Avati won the Italian best director award for this  Poignant comedy set in the Rome and Bologna in the 1920s. Neri Marcore plays a shy and clumsy man devoted to the academic world. His lack of interest in women has become an increasing source of anxiety to his womanizing father (Giancarlo Giannini), a tailor for the Pope. He sends his son to teach in a high school in Bologna with the hopes that he will find a wife.

A Foreign Field: Two British war vets meet an American vet when all three return to Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This disparate band of survivors eventually finds common ground in the memory of what they lost on that fateful day in 1944. This British film has an acclaimed international cast including Alec Guinness, Leo McKern, Jeanne Moreau, Loren Bacall, John Randolph, and Geraldine Chaplin.

The Captain’s Paradise: This delightful British comedy stars Alec Guinness in one of his great comedy roles as a sea captain who finds the key to perfect happiness with a woman in each port. The film also stars Celia Johnson, a fine British actress best known for her role in “Brief Encounter,” and Yvonne De Carlo before she gained fame as Mrs. Herman Munster.

Dersu Uzala: An eccentric Mongolian frontiersman  is taken on as a guide by a Russian surveying crew in the early twentieth century. While the soldiers at first perceive Dersu as a naïve and comical relic of an uncivilized age, he quickly proves himself otherwise with displays of ingenuity and bravery. This Russian film made by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was the result of an arduous two year film making expedition into the far reaches of Siberia. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1975.

The Twilight Samurai: Renowned Japanese film director Yoji Yamada’s film is set in a changing Japan of the late nineteenth century. It takes a modern look at the traditional Japanese Samurai story. Hiroyuki Sanada, one of Japan’s leading film stars, plays a low ranking, poverty stricken samurai trying to support his family. However, he is caught in the shifting turmoil of the times and ordered to confront and kill a renowned renegade warrior. Made in 2002, “The Twilight Samurai” won twelve Japanese Film Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress.

Shall We Dance: A middle-aged workaholic’s dull life takes a funny turn when he signs up for a ballroom dance class just to meet the beautiful dance teacher. Bur when he finally muscles up the nerve for lessons, he winds up with a different instructor and her colorfully eccentric class of beginners. Now he’ll have to step lightly if he expects to keep his dancing  (considered socially improper for a Japanese man) from his family and friends. This film should not be confused with the Hollywood remake starring Richard Gere and Jenifer Lopez. ###

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Adoration of the Shepherds

"In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds."*

Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists. Mysterious not only because so little is known about his short life, but also because no other great painter’s work has led to so many questions of attribution and interpretation.

Giorgione was a “nickname” and contemporary documents refer to the painter as Zorzo da Castelfranco. Castelfranco is a walled town west of Treviso. about an hour away from Venice via modern commuter rail. We do not know how or when the young Giorgione arrived in Venice. In those days it is likely that he traveled down the Brenta to Padua and then on to Venice by canal. We do know that by the time of his death in 1510 at about the age of 33, he had become the favorite painter of the Venetian aristocracy.

The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning.

This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

Merry Christmas to all readers of the WB.


* M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas

The following description of the symbolic meaning of the popular Christmas carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is the best explanation I have seen.* It seems particularly appropriate this season when persecution of Christians has reached unprecedented proportions all over the World. Every day in many parts of the world there are killings, tortures, beatings, thefts, and imprisonments meted out to Christians. So far Christians in America have been spared such atrocities. At this time of year we usually just  have to deal with creche vandalism and attempts by politically correct fanatics to ban Christmas from the holiday season.

"Catholics in England were forbidden to practice their faith openly during the years from 1538 to 1829. This song was developed to communicate their gift of faith in coded lyrics. The 12 days run from December 25 (Christmas) to January 6 (Epiphany). The "True Love" refers to God.

A Partridge is the symbol of Christ. The partridge will feign injury to protect nestlings who are defenseless. A pear tree is the symbol of the salvation of humanity, just as the apple tree signifies human downfall.

Two Turtle doves symbolize the Old Testament sacrifice offered by even the poorest of people in Israel (with which Christ was "redeemed" by His parents at His presentation in the Temple).

Three French hens symbolize the gifts of the three Wise Men, as also the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Four calling birds represent the four major prophets and the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five golden rings represent the five Wounds of Christ (the reason for the change of melody at this point). The number five refers also to the five obligatory sacraments (Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, and the Anointing of the Sick), as well as to the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch.

Six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming are the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and also the seven works of Mercy.

Eight maids a-milking refer to the eight Beatitudes preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

Nine ladies dancing are the nine ranks of angel choirs, the Spirits who surround the Throne of God in the Book of Revelation.

Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.

Eleven pipers playing are the eleven surviving Apostles.

Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament; the twelve points of the Apostle's Creed, the twelve Apostles; the Twelve Tribes of Israel; and the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. Twelve is also the Scriptural number representing completeness."

So, the original "partridge on a pear tree" is Christ on the Cross. Here is a striking image from a mural in the Church of St. Clement in Rome depicting Christ on the Cross that is also the tree of life.

I do not want to raise the controversial issue of why Catholics were persecuted in sixteenth century England, a country loyal to that Faith for over a thousand years, but I would like to say a few words about persecution in our time.

For the past 250 years many people, especially intellectuals, have come to believe that Christianity is the great enemy of humankind. Many of these intellectuals were born, raised, and educated as Christians but some proverbial "bee up their ass" made them not only turn against their religious tradition, but also vehemently attack it. They believed that Christianity was a superstition that stood in the way of reason and progress.

Opponents of Christianity regarded it as the enemy of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. For them the destruction and downfall of Christianity would usher in a new age of peace and human advancement. Little did they understand that since its inception Christianity had been the bulwark against all the different kinds of barbarism. Although Hitler was a bitter opponent of Christianity because of its Jewish origins, critics still try to blame Christianity for the Holocaust. In Russia Joseph Stalin despised his Christian roots and under his rule Communists murdered over twenty million people to create their workers' paradise.

When you attack Christianity, you don't get peace and prosperity, you get anything from gang killings in our cities to ISIS, the Taliban, and Boko Haran. It would appear that these terrorists fear Christianity more than American military might. Jesus spent his life teaching and healing. He has always been called the Prince of Peace. At Mass today Catholics recited Psalm 72:

Justice shall flourish in his time,
and fullness of peace for ever.

Today, peace seems further away from ever but at Christmas we can still hope. Here's a link to a lovely video featuring Vince Gill and daughter singing "Let there be Peace on Earth."


*Note: I came across this interpretation some years ago and it seemed very plausible. As my friend David in England notes in the comment below, it is not the only interpretation of the symbolism of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol that still today remains shrouded in mystery.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dragnet: Best Christmas Show Ever

Last week I wrote about the realism of Dragnet, the pioneering police procedural of the fifties and sixties. This week I would like to highlight its famous Christmas show where Sgt. Joe Friday and partner Frank Smith try to recover a statue of the Baby Jesus taken from the crèche of a church on Christmas Eve.

The You Tube video is of good quality and takes just a little more than 25 minutes to view since the commercials have been omitted. The acting is superb, with especially good performances by two young boys. The camerawork and music are also first rate. To my mind it ranks right up there with the best Christmas shows of all time.

The credits indicate that the show was filmed in the Old Mission Plaza Church in Los Angeles, the dedication of which coincided with the founding of Los Angeles on September 4, 1781.

The episode was produced in 1953 when I was only 14 years old. I must have watched it then, and have never forgotten it. Today, it calls to mind a time and place long gone by.  Looking back I’d like to think that it had a profound effect in my own life. If you watch the episode, stay tuned for the surprising and moving ending. Here is the link to Dragnet: The Big Little Jesus, or just click on the box below. ###

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dragnet and Ferguson Protests

Last week the city of Ferguson erupted in violence and looting following the decision of a grand jury not to indict a white police officer for the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Coincidentally, my wife and I were watching a DVD collection of Dragnet, the pioneering police procedural TV show of the long ago fifties and sixties.

It could be argued that Dragnet was the best Police drama ever seen on TV. Without much violence and gore, it attained a level of realism rarely seen on TV since. Its credits always began with a notice that all the episodes were based on cases from the actual files of the Los Angeles Police Department, the LAPD.

Jack Webb, the show’s creator and star, played the role of Sergeant Joe Friday with a matter-of-factness that became his trademark. His constantly reiterated expression to talkative witnesses, “just the facts, Ma’am” became almost iconic. His down to earth partners, the portly Ben Alexander, and the laconic Harry Morgan, gave equally quiet and realistic portrayals of ordinary policemen who were just doing their jobs.

However, the most realistic part of the show was the succession of ordinary, even banal, criminals whose exploits provided the plot for each episode. There was nothing glamorous, sexy, or mysterious about these killers, robbers, muggers, and con men. Most of them were real bottom-dwellers from the dregs of society. Let me give three examples.

One episode concerned a teenage couple who murdered an old man with a hammer in order to steal a few lousy dollars. They were eventually tracked down to a tawdry motel, and showed no contrition or remorse when apprehended. These were not angst- ridden youngsters but just plain sociopaths.

Another episode dealt with the murder of a divorced secretary by a boy friend who strangled her and then broke her neck for good measure. Typically, we never see the dead woman or the actual murder. There is no pretty young woman being followed down a dark alley accompanied by ominous music. There is no semi-nude body covered with blood. We only hear of her death when Friday gets the call. Then, Friday and his partner just go about the tedious and dull business of interviewing witnesses until they manage to track down the middle-aged boy friend who after confessing only wonders how he might beat the rap.

Finally, in another episode Friday and his partner are working the Bunko division, an assignment that deals mainly with con men and their scams. In this case a group of men had devised a scheme to victimize the families of servicemen who had died overseas. Evil can’t get more banal than that group.

Dragnet stands in stark contrast to practical every other Police drama. “Columbo” reruns are still popular today but the show made no pretense of reality. The murderer is always a millionaire businessman or entertainer whose super intelligence and savior faire are no match for Peter Falk’s wily Detective Columbo. Modern Police dramas follow the same formula. I stopped watching Law and Order years ago when it became obvious that the killer was not the young Black or Hispanic man that everyone suspected, but the millionaire white business owner.

Even the sophisticated British crime dramas that are seen regularly on PBS always depict the crimes of the rich and famous. Given all the murders, you would think that England is probably the most dangerous country in the world today. You wonder how anyone could still be alive in some of those quaint English villages. Of course, the criminals are never Black or Asian immigrants. When they appear, they are always the victims of prejudice. How dare anyone think that a young Moslem man might be a terrorist?

Such fantasies might be laughable, but I suspect that the constant barrage of propaganda depicted in most Police dramas has a very serious effect. Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction has more power to influence. Since the days of Dragnet two whole generations have grown up and been educated by what they have seen on TV. They are now themselves the educators in most college classrooms. They really believe that all authority figures are suspect.

Their imaginary criminal class includes CEOs; Wall Streeters; businessmen (especially men); politicians from Red or conservative states; military men (the higher the rank the worse); Policemen, although rarely Policewomen; and, of course, Catholic clergy, especially Monsignors and Bishops.

I believe that this fantasy in the minds of the American educated class explains the protests that broke out all over the country after the Ferguson grand jury did not find enough evidence to bring a white police officer to trial, an officer that had been presumed guilty of murder from day one.

Brought up in a fantasy world created by the entertainment industry, the American elite really believes that all cops are “pigs.” They find it hard to believe that young Black men might be gangsters and sociopaths. Despite the video showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store and bullying the store manager, they prefer to visualize him in his high school graduation robes. They focus on the rare shooting of a black man by a white policeman, and fail to notice the incredibly high rate of black on black killings on the streets of cities like Chicago,

After ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos interviewed the Ferguson police office. When Yahoo news reported on the interview, it could hardly hide its disappointment at the failure to pin the officer to the wall and subject him to a virtual trial and conviction. The Yahoo story elicited more than a thousand comments. A sampling indicated that most ordinary people reacted favorably to the interview and the policeman’s comment that he was only doing his job.

The best comment on this whole affair came from a Milwaukee Police Chief who had had enough and urged the protestors to get real. It starts slow but watch to the end. Click on this link to view or view the video below.