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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Opening Shots: Shotgun Stories

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Through an open doorway we see a man without a shirt sitting on an unmade bed. In his hand is a white piece of paper. On his back is a spattering of circular, scarred-over wounds, like craters of flesh. Both membranes have stories inscribed on them. We just don't know what they are yet. Maybe we'll find out. Maybe we won't. The man, Son Hayes (Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon), reads the unfolded note, nods in acknowledgement, and looks up, as if to face himself in an off-screen mirror.

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There's nothing showy or spectacular about the first image of Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" (one of my ten "best favorite" movies of 2008), but it's a grabber nonetheless. The shot actually continues after an inter-title: The man tosses the note on the night table, stands, and moves to the dresser. He pulls a shirt out of a top drawer, then pauses and opens another one. Cut: Empty. He opens the next. Also empty. The one below it: Empty too. He turns his back to us and we see the welts on his back straight-on. Title: "Shotgun Stories." Quietly, effortlessly, we're caught up in the storytelling in a matter of seconds...

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