film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Golden Coach (1953)

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My apologies first for a couple things – I tried to do a liveblogging of the Oscars, but I was having some extreme technical difficulties and had to scrap that. I am both surprised and delighted that Parasite won Best Picture – I’m so used to the Academy going for a “safe” picture that this was a complete shock.  (Roommate Russ has a friend who’s tied into the Korean food scene, and celebrated the win by purchasing about a weeks’ worth of the makings of ram-don.)

I also have been contending with both yet another job change and the preparations for a trip, so I’ve also dragged my feet on writing up this review for Renoir’s The Golden Coach.  Apologies for that delay, and for what may be another period of sparse reviews next week; I’ll be traveling, but may try to get something up while i’m roaming the world.  Things should get a bit more back to normal in early March.

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Speaking of travel, though – the main characters of this film are a traveling troupe of actors (how’s that for a segue?….), an Italian troupe of commedia dell’arte actors come to try their luck in 18th Century Peru.  The innkeeper who’s sponsoring them is not the most honest sort – the theater he promised them is in disrepair and is actually being used to house the town’s goats – but the troupe is desperate, and digs in for an extended stay, all pitching in to clean up the theater before proceeding.

But they have an idea. In the cargo hold of the ship they used for their passage was a magnificent golden coach, meant for the Viceroy of the city where they were bound (Duncan Lamont). Everyone in the troupe had their eye on it; one of the cast members, Camila (Anna Magnani), even slept in it, preferring its opulence to her spartan cabin.  Surely this suggested the Viceroy where they were bound was a man of means, and if they won his approval it might help their cause. The troupe tries to win the viceroy’s endorsement early on, as well as the endorsement of bullfighter Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), a locally-admired hero.  Both Ramon and the Viceroy seem to take a great shine to the troupe, making frequent visits to their performances – but quickly it becomes clear that they’re more entranced with Camilla herself.  The Viceroy even promises to give Camilla the Golden Coach as a token of affection. However, Camilla already has a boyfriend, Felipe (Paul Campbell), a soldier who’s been traveling with the group and serving as a bodyguard. But – Felipe’s broke at the moment, and Camilla starts to reconsider…

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I have a soft spot for commedia, thanks to working with a director  back in the day who was himself fond of the genre.  Commedia was a sort of early improv comedy popular in Renaissance Europe, with a set of stock characters getting swapped in and out of various scenarios or sketch ideas. Actors in a commedia troupe would each specialize in a certain kind of character type – the villain, the foppish dandy, the pompous judge, the clever servant – and instead of memorizing lines and doing completely-scripted plays, they’d instead memorize plots and sketches and scenarios, improvising the actual dialogue anew each night.  It’s a theatrical form that went on to influence not only improv comedy, but vaudeville and other scripted farce (when I described commedia to Roommate Russ, he said “that sounds kind of like the Marx Brothers,” and he’s absolutely right).

So I was already on board with this when I saw that we’d be working with commedia.  Happily, as well, the business of the film includes some bits that would have absolutely worked in a commedia performance – like a sequence when the Viceroy is trying to keep Camilla and his previous girlfriend in separate rooms in his mansion, while simultaneously trying to meet with his advisers and is frantically running from room to room conducting damage control.  Two similar sequences see Felipe, Ramon, and the Viceroy all come to pay a visit to Camilla, each one narrowly missing the others as they wander room-to-room in search of the unaware Camilla.

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But what really caught my attention was Camilla the character. Magnani has the film’s standout performance – she’s acting rings around the others – but that’s only part of what drew me in. The character Camilla holds in the troupe is “Columbina”, a character who’s usually the spunky servant girl.  Columbina is usually depicted as being clever, witty, and practical – the saucy best friend to the romantic lead, the one who usually sees the truth of the tangled situation and is able to call bullshit out for what it is.  In the unfolding story of The Golden Coach, Camilla starts out true to a Columbina herself; when the Viceroy gushes to her that he admires the freedom that her poverty gives her, she retorts that “you wouldn’t be saying that if you were ever really poor.”  But as the competing romantic entanglements surround her, Camilla starts to lose that sense of discretion, and starts making some fairly foolish choices, causing more and more problems for herself and others – just like what happens to the lovers in a commedia.

The company’s leader enigmatically advises her a couple times that as an actress, she is only “really herself” when she is on stage.  Indeed, as the Columbina, Camilla is more assured, more certain of what she wants; the more the “real life” of the film starts to resemble a commedia, the more Camilla loses Columbina’s sense of discernment, but when she steps on stage she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do.  It’s an intriguing meta-commentary on the plot that I didn’t really see in full until the very last moments of the film – and didn’t completely get for another couple days still.

 

Best Pictures of 2020, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Extra Credit Reviews – 2020 Oscar Nominees Round 3

(sigh)

So, here’s the thing. There is one film that I really, really feel was snubbed this year, and  the fact that it is not one of the nominees I’ve been watching has left a bitter taste in my mouth.  So I’m going to try very hard to remember my bias as I review these last three films.  But all things being equal – I still feel that Jordan Peele’s Us should have taken one of the spots on this year’s list, and admit that a couple of the films I’ve seen don’t measure up to that.

So…yeah, something to bear in mind.

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This is probably going to be a controversial take, but….overall my reaction to this was a shrug and a “Meh”.

Look, this is not a pan. Empirically, I respect and recognize the talent of everyone involved. DeNiro is excellent as always as mafia insider Frank Sheeran; as is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russel Bufalino.  Scorcese’s direction is, as ever, spot-on, with this tale of aging mafioso (literally).

But….honestly, it’s familiar ground for all of them, and I’m not a person who was ever all that into Scorcese’s Mafioso Tales anyway.  I acknowledge the quality of The Godfather, I acknowledge the quality of Goodfellas.  But those have always been empirical acknowledgements of quality as opposed to being stories that have grabbed me around the shoulders and shaken me up.  So this just felt like everyone was treading very familiar ground (except for Ray Romano, who has a fun bit as a mob lawyer).

So was it bad?  No.  But did I dig it?  ….again, no.

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So this was….serviceable?

I dunno, guys.  Again, it wasn’t bad – Damon and Bale have great chemistry.  But…sport racing never really was anything I gave a wet slap about in the first place, and while they did passing well with the human-interest background story involved in this biopic, it’s still the same kind of human-interest story I’ve seen before, where you have a guy who’s talented but hard to control and another guy who’s charming but determined and they have to learn to work together and overcome the obstacles that the corporate suits are throwing in their path.

Again, was it bad?  No.  But did I dig it?  No.  I think overall my take is like that old adage that “for the people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.”  Not sold on it having been nominated for Best Picture, if I have to be honest.

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Now this is something else again.  Still not my favorite of this year’s crop, but at least I get its nomination.  And I did find myself affected by it afterward; the film ends with a title card from Sam Mendes dedicating it to his grandfather, “for telling us the stories.”

Thing is, that dedication comes after a harrowing hour-and-change of chaos and desperation and death and war and violence.  The whole thing is nearly in real time – so when someone dies, you see that in real time as well.  And you see a charge in real time.

Those are the kinds of stories that Sam Mendes’ grandfather was telling him.

And that brought me up short – my grandparents and father have no such similar stories they could have told.  My paternal grandfather was a veteran, but he was in the Seabees construction corps in Guam, and I don’t think he saw combat. My maternal grandfather was a metalurgist, and during the Second World War he was serving by doing scientific research.  Similarly, my own father “served” during the Vietnam War by designing subs under a military contract.

You hear of veterans telling their kids and grandkids “war stories” and it sounds like something quaint and charming, grandpa spinning yarns about his derring-do. But no – war stories are horrifying.  Even for civilians – Roommate Russ and I discussed this afterward, and he mentioned that his grandmother was a teenager in Germany during the Third Reich and told him many, many stories about what it was like because “she didn’t want us to come anywhere near that kind of bullshit.”

I’m grateful, for my father and grandfathers’ sakes, that they didn’t see direct combat.  But only in seeing this film was it driven home to me what I may have lost in terms of a visceral understanding of war by their not having that in their pasts.  Not to the point that I’d have wished it on them, of course, but I’ve realized there was a gap in my knowledge, and this film told me why.

….Right.  So that’s all nine of this year’s films (my previous reviews are here and here).

I’ve come down to three close favorites – the mind-blowing Parasite, the fairytale One Upon A Time In Hollywood, and – surprisingly, Jojo Rabbit. I wasn’t expecting to like that last one, but Taika Waititi saw something in the story and brought it out in a way that caught me. In my initial review, I forgot to mention Roman Griffin Davis, the brilliant child actor who plays Jojo –  amazingly, this is his first-ever film, and he does amazingly with the role. Taika Waititi also takes a concept that sounded like it could have gone so wrong and ends up handling it well.

I mean, likely none of those three will win (unless we are living in an age of miracles).  But I’ve noticed recently that the films tend to prefer for Best Picture tend to take Best Screenplay instead.  Jojo Rabbit and Little Women are both up for Best Adapted screenplay, and Parasite is up for Best Original screenplay – and I would have no objection to any of those three taking home a statuette.

Tomorrow I’ll be liveblogging the Oscar ceremony again (as I did last year).  Drop on by.  And for extra fun, Roommate Russ is posting his own take on the Best Picture nominees on his blog if you want to compare-and-contrast.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

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The early 1950s seem to have been a self-reflective time for Hollywood; this is now the fourth movie since 1950 that’s about moviemaking itself, coming after All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ In The Rain. This time it’s a profile of a producer who’s been something of a bastard – but knows how to get great work done, to the professional benefit of those he’s hurt.

We actually meet three of those people first – esteemed movie director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is hard at work shooting his latest picture, actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) is in her trailer studying her lines, and Pulitzer-winner James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) is drafting his latest screenplay. They are each interrupted by a phone call from someone named John Shields, and each of them seems to take great delight in blowing him off (Bartlow specifically asks if Shields is paying for the call; when assured he is, Bartlow says he’ll accept the call, only to bellow “Drop Dead!” at Shields before slamming down the phone).

Nevertheless, the trio still drops by Shield’s headquarters that evening, where Lorrison impishly etches some graffiti on the wall before they file into a meeting with Shield’s second-in-command Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon).  Pebbel makes his pitch – all three of them had once worked with Shields, and all three were now Hollywood royalty. Shields himself had become something of a pariah, however; a reputation so tarnished that he can no longer get the funding for his next picture. However, if Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow were attached to the picture, it would attract more investors. Shields was hoping if, just this once, the three could set aside their respective grudges against Shields, and work with him once more? All three instantly refuse – prompting Pebbel to ask each one what the heck Shields had done to piss them off in the first place.

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Their stories, in a series of flashbacks, make up most of the film and serve as our own introduction to Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). Shields was the son of a silent-film producer, seeking to break into the business on his own.  He meets Amiel in the B-movie “poverty row” trenches, working on low-budget horror fare like “Doom Of The Cat Men”.  At first they make a formidable team – Amiel has real talent as a director, but no talent for selling himself. Shields, however, has the attitude and skill for fast-talk needed to persuade studio heads to give them the budget, staff, and talent they need for their pictures – and the confidence needed to bring a passion project of Amiel’s to the studio head.

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Lorrison meets him a bit later, slumming as a bit-part extra and drinking away her money. But Lorrison’s father was a silent-film star whom Shields idolized, and he’s determined to give her a break – casting her in his latest picture, getting her off the booze, and giving her a crash-course in acting to catch her up.  He also gives into a obvious crush she starts developing towards him.  Bartlow’s contact with Shields comes later still – he’s a college history professor in Virginia who’s written a popular historic-fiction novel, and Shields buys the film rights, luring Bartlow to Hollywood to write the screenplay. Bartlow’s not interested – but Bartlow’s wife Rosemary is, dazzled by the opportunity travel and meet the Hollywood cognoscenti.  But when Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) keeps dragging Bartlow away from his typewriter to go sightseeing, Shields finally steps in, absconding with Shields to his own lake house – alone – so Bartlow can focus on his work. To keep Rosemary busy, he introduces her to Hollywood-Hunk “Gaucho” Ribera (Gilbert Roland), suggesting they start keeping company…

Each one of their stories ends with Shields double-crossing them in one way or another, leaving each with a very understandably dirty taste in their mouths.  But Pebbel points out – in each case – that while Shields may have done their personal lives major damage, professionally they were doing pretty darn good, weren’t they?  So…maybe they could cut Shields some slack?

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That’s a bit that rubbed me the wrong way, actually. Shields is pretty unpleasant – selfish, conniving, and egotistical, both personally and professionally. The fact that the people Shields has wronged are now in better places doesn’t justify what he did to them – in fact, they may be where they are despite Shields’ influence. But that’s part of what ultimately fascinated director Vincente Minnelli – he’d spent the previous year in Hollywood, just sort of poking around and exploring the studio culture. He noticed how the most power-hungry filmmakers were nevertheless inspired by a fervent love of film, and inspired both bitter hatred and high admiration, often from the same people.

He was also tickled by some of moviemaking’s more ridiculous moments; one of my favorite scenes in The Bad And The Beautiful comes during a costume fitting for the “Doom Of The Cat Men” production, with a studio costumer trying to squeeze a team of burly extras into cheap size-small cat suits as Shields and Amiel dolefully look on.

The script and the film often dive into some of the nuts-and-bolts behind the artifice, managing to make things like delivering a print to a screening or having to set up camera angles not just credible, but interesting.  The real nuts and bolts of this story, however, are still the three stories of discord between Shields and each of his previous collaborators – and their ultimate response to his invitation.

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….This particular review comes with a sad footnote.  I am writing this on February 6, 2020 – but I watched the film on February 5th of 2020, late that afternoon.  I even had the fleeting thought halfway through that Kirk Douglas’ son Michael looks uncannily like his father.  Just a few minutes after the film ended, Michael Douglas made the public announcement that his father had just passed away, at the age of 103.  The Movie Crash Course extends its sympathies to the Douglas family.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

High Noon (1952)

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I thought I knew what this was about – Western film, sheriff facing off against bad guys in a shootout on Main Street at noon, yadda yadda yadda.  ….Not so fast.  I mean, yes, there is a shootout at noon, and it is a western. But the vast majority of the film leading up to that shootout gives it a fascinating context.

Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, retiring as marshal of the small New Mexico town of Hadleyville. We meet him at the courthouse – but under happy circumstances, where he is being married to Amy (Grace Kelly), a pacifist who has convinced him to give up his post out of respect for her Quaker faith.  His replacement isn’t due until the following day, but the town fathers convince him that they can manage alright on their own for just one day, and encourage him to head off for his honeymoon with Amy.  But right before they leave, the local train station master hurries in with news – the outlaw Frank Miller, a criminal Kane captured and sent off to prison, has just been pardoned in Texas, and is on his way back to Hadleyville that day. In fact, Miller’s gang is all hanging around the station right now, for Miller is due on the noon train.

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Amy and Kane’s friends all convince him to get going while the getting’s good – in fact,  an indignant Amy warns him that if he doesn’t leave with her now, she’ll leave on the noon train herself. But Kane’s sense of duty is too strong, and he re-assumes his post for just one more day.

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That’s all just setup, though. Most of the film concerns Kane trying to gather a posse to stand with him against Miller’s gang – as most of the town, for one reason or another, turns down his requests. One man (Lloyd Bridges) refuses out of pride, since he wasn’t appointed Kane’s replacement. Another (Harry Morgan) flat-out hides when Kane comes to the door, urging his wife to tell Kane he’s not available. Kane even interrupts a service at the local church to plead for help.  But come noon, as Amy starts boarding the train out of town and the rest of Hadleyville cowers indoors, Kane is left to face down the Miller gang alone.

The actual gun fight is exciting and all, but brief – the real drama comes with Kane’s desperate lengths to enlist help, and the reasons he is turned down. The scene in the church is most telling and gripping – he actually has seven or eight volunteers who leap to their feet when he first makes his case. But then a couple naysayers stand up with arguments – didn’t Kane already put Miller away once, and shouldn’t this be his fight?  Don’t they pay taxes so that Kane can take this on so they don’t have to?  Isn’t this gonna be, y’know, dangerous?  There are even those who say Kane should stand down and save himself, and they’ll take care of Miller.  Just…later, maybe.  Everyone comes up with thoughtful, reasoned arguments for why they’re abandoning him, but – abandoning him they are.

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It’s an especially pertinent scene today – as pertinent as it was in 1952.  Screenwriter Carl Foreman was under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee as he was working on the script, and was told he would be called to testify right in the middle of shooting for High Noon.  His Hollywood friends were sympathetic, but started holding him at arms’ length.  His producer and longtime collaborator Stanley Kramer was urging him to plead the Fifth Amendment before HUAC and save himself.  But Foreman rankled at effectively pleading guilty, and was getting frustrated at how easily everyone else was caving in to HUAC.  Even though he swore up and down to Kramer that his script for High Noon “wasn’t political”, a lot of the actions of Hadleyville’s citizens were inspired by the actions of Foreman’s friends.  I’m by now well aware of the play The Crucible being a parable of the McCarthy era in politics; it was really clear to me that High Noon was another one.

The politics didn’t affect its reception – supporters of HUAC interpreted the film their own way, seeing the heroic Will Kane as a stand-in for Joseph McCarthy standing up to the Miller-gang Communists.  One notable exception was John Wayne, who scoffed that the film was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen”.  Ironically, when Gary Cooper was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and found he was unable to attend, he expressly asked John Wayne to accept on his behalf if he won.  And Cooper won, so John Wayne was compelled to take the stand and speak favorably about Cooper’s performance in the very film Wayne hated.

Today that would be something like, maybe, if Spike Lee had tapped Clint Eastwood to accept the Best Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman on his behalf.  So it’s notable, too, that Wayne did indeed give a gracious speech about Cooper’s performance, and even closed with a flattering joke about wishing he’d played the lead in High Noon himself.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ikiru (1952)

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Early on in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, there’s a scene familiar to those who’ve tried to deal with bureaucracy – a group of women from a poor Tokyo neighborhood have come to city hall to get a cesspool cleaned up and turned into a playground.  But the men they speak to keep sending them on to different departments – first public affairs sends them to public works, then they get sent to the sanitation office, then public sanitation, then pest control, then the parks department, then the parks infrastructure department, then back to public affairs again, where the frustrated women finally give up in frustration at the bureaucrats mindlessly paying hot-potato with their request.  Our story, however, is about one such bureaucrat, and how he tries to snap out of that state – and why.

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a career civil servant with stomach cancer.  That’s not a spoiler; the film opens with a shot of his x-ray, and a narrator intoning that he’ll likely be dead within a year – but adds that really, he’s kind of dead already.  He had a little more spunk early in his career, when he and his wife were a happy couple with a young son, but his wife died early, and Mr. Watanabe threw himself into his work, doing whatever it took to keep his job going – and what has kept his job going for 30 years is simply pushing papers, stamping each one carefully to confirm that he’s received it before passing it on.

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The shock of discovering his cancer wakes him up to the realization that he hasn’t had that much of a life.  He never remarried; he still lives with his grown son and daughter-in-law, but they think he’s a boring fogey and don’t really talk to him; he just goes to work and goes home, and doesn’t really do anything else.  First he goes on an all-night bender, egged on by a broke writer he meets in a bar one night, and then starts hanging out with Toyo (Miki Odagiri), a pretty clerk from his office.  That is, Toyo was in his office – she’s decided to quit because the job is boring as hell, and comes to his house to get his signature on her resignation form. But she’s spunky and lively and cute, and Watanabe clings to her joie de vivre, taking her out to cafes and amusement parks and pachinko parlors and basically showing her a fun time so he can live vicariously.  Toyo loves the attention at first, but grows uneasy at his devotion.  She has a new job, after all, and he has his old job at the office still.  Why is he spending so much time with her?  Isn’t there anything else he could be doing?

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Yes, Watanabe realizes, there is. He does still have his job, and there must be something he could do with it – one last thing he can do so he can say he accomplished something in his life.  In fact, didn’t some women stop by who needed help getting a playground built?….

So, if this were a more conventional Hollywood film, the final act of the movie would be a montage of Watanabe storming through the various offices at city hall, going to greater and greater lengths to argue more and more passionately in favor of the park, all while getting weaker and weaker, with the final few scenes pairing the park’s construction with his final hospitalization.  But Kurosawa does something a little more different – and more poignant.  We do get scenes of Watanabe doggedly pursuing the park’s construction, but they come as flashbacks, stories told by the guests at Watanabe’s wake.  The park’s been built, the various bureaucrats have congratulated themselves for it – but the locals, for some reason, keep giving Watanabe all the credit.  Watanabe was acting really obsessive about this park, his colleagues all say – that’s even the spot where he died, slumped over in one of the swings.  What was up with that?

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Only through their conversation do they finally realize – along with us – just how committed Watanabe was to this final legacy, and how he was using it to come to terms with his own mortality.  Drunkenly, they all resolve to do better, to devote themselves to the public just as Watanabe did.  Whether they’ll keep those drunken promises the next day at work, well….that’s anyone’s guess.

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So, this is a hell of a film to watch when you’re in the throes of a job hunt, like me, and you’re having something of a middle-aged reckoning (at this writing, I am about a month away from my 50th birthday).  I knew the basic plot, but that wake-scene curveball towards the end lead to some profound thoughts – Mr. Watanabe’s impact might not have been recognized by everyone.  Other people took the credit for his work, and most didn’t know or understand what he was up to.  His cancer diagnosis was a mystery to everyone until after his death, so his motivations were completely misinterpreted.  But he didn’t care – he was doing it to satisfy himself  with the accomplishment.  An iconic clip reveals exactly what Watanabe was doing in that swing just before he died – he was swinging in it, singing a song about the brevity of life, and looking radiantly content.  Even if someone else claims the credit – and even if time completely erases any memory of how the park got there anyway – it’s there, and it’s there because he did something to better the world while he was alive in it.  That’s the point, I learned, and its something I’m thinking about deeply.

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In a unique coincidence, I saw Ikiru the same day that I saw the series finale for the TV show The Good Place – another work that has dealt with similar themes of how to live a good life and how much good we are capable of putting into the world.  ….There are even some scenes about how the minutia of bureaucracy can tie us all up in knots.  But like Ikiru, it also argues that even the tiniest bit of good we can do is worth striving for, even if it takes all we have.