Classic Movie Review: Schindler’s List (1993)


Title: Schindler’s List
Release Date: December 15, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’ve been meaning to watch Schindler’s List since it was released but didn’t get around to it until now.  1993, the year of the film’s release, has long been a demarcation in my life from telling people name and getting puzzled looks to people responding “Oh, like Liam Neeson.”  More seriously and more important it is a film about the Holocaust and how some Jewish people in Poland were able to survive genocide.

Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a man of German heritage from Czechoslovakia, who travels to Krakow, Poland to make his fortune as a factory-owner.  Initially depicted as a dapper and conniving man, Schindler use his charm and bribes to influence Nazi leadership into letting him take control of an enamelware factory.  Schindler puts Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in charge of running the business, and for finding Jewish employees to work in the factory because they cost less.  Stern (who is a composite of several real-life people) is the quiet hero of the story finding some of the most vulnerable people in the Ghetto to be trained to work at the factory, thus saving their lives because they’re work is “essential.”

A great thing about this movie is that it is for most of its run it is never explicit about Schindler’s goals and where is loyalties lie.  The change from a man selfishly seeking to maximize personal profit to a man willing to put his life on the line to save thousands of Jewish people is subtle and gradual. When Krakow’s Jews are moved to Płaszów concentration camp, Schindler makes inroads through charm and bribery with the brutal commandant Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes).  In movie terms, Göth appears to be an over-the-top caricature but the real Göth was far worse, committing atrocities that Spielberg refused to commit to film.

When the Nazis decide to carry out the Final Solution, Schindler uses the last of his wealth to bribe Göth to allow him to transfer Jewish workers to a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia and then bribe Rudolf Höss when a train full of women is accidentally sent to Auschwitz.  The list of the title is the names of 1200 Jewish people Schindler and Stern save in this way. Schindler no longer hides from his employees that his goal is to save lives and even sees to it that the factory doesn’t produces working munitions. As Germany falls to the Allied Powers, Schindler plans to escape since he will be seen as a war profiteer and collaborator by the Russians.

In the movie’s weak spot, Schindler has a mental breakdown from the guilt over not being able to save more lives.  Apart from being hammy and out of character, this seen is objectionable because the very Jewish people who have lived through unimaginable atrocities have to comfort Schindler.  It’s a strange decision to once again make Schindler unsympathetic just as his redemption story comes to its conclusion.

No movie can tell the true story of the Holocaust because the enormity of its brutality and inhumanity cannot be captured on film. One of the most effective parts of Schindler’s List for me are several scenes scattered through the film where groups of Jewish people talk amongst themselves.  They share their fears and grief, but their are also a variety of responses to the Holocaust from resignation to their lot to the often-repeated belief that it can’t get worse.  That the very people suffering the worst indignities and privations of the Holocaust also can’t see its enormity is very chilling indeed.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Raging Bull (1980)


Title: Raging Bull
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions
Summary/Review:

Growing up, Raging Bull was the other Italian-American boxer movie, the one in black & white that wasn’t Rocky. I never had much desire to see Raging Bull until I saw it was #4 on the AFI List and #55 on the Sights and Sounds list.  The movie is based on the true-life story of midweight boxer Jake LaMotta who was active in the 1940s and 1950s. Robert De Niro, almost unrecognizable beneath the prosthetics, stars as LaMotta, while Joe Pesci stars as Joey, his younger brother and manager.  Cathy Moriarity makes a stunning debut as Vickie, Jake’s second wife.

The movie is basically 2 hours of concentrated toxic masculinity, and that doesn’t include the 10 minutes of scenes within the boxing ring.  Jake and Joey spend a lot of time hurling profanities at one another.  Then the already-married Jake creepily stalks down the 15-year-old Vickie, eventually marrying her.  (The early scenes where Jake, Joey, and Vickie are supposed to be 19, 16, and 15 are hard to swallow since the actors look far too adult, but they do age well into their roles).  The heart of the story then becomes LaMotta’s jealousy of Vickie, and his brutal abuse of her, on the unjustified belief that she is cheating on him.  Eventually he even turns against Joey in a scene that – a surprise to me – is the source of the oft-quoted line “You fuck my wife?!”

I guess I’m going on record as a Scorsese naysayer.  I can’t fault Raging Bull for it’s acting, cinematography, editing, and sound design, all of which are top notch.  The behavior of Lamotta and others are certainly true to life. But like Taxi Driver, I have no desire to watch stories about nonstop abuse, cruelty, violence, and unredeemable inhuman behavior.  I wouldn’t recommend watching Raging Bull without a good sense of what you’re getting into, and I certainty won’t watch it again.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Camille Claudel (1988)


Title: Camille Claudel
Release Date: December 7, 1988
Director: Bruno Nuytten
Production Company:  Gaumont
Summary/Review:

This French biopic tells the story of Camille Claudel, an innovative sculptor active from the 1880s to early 1900s.  In her lifetime, her art was overshadowed by her romance with Auguste Rodin. The film stars the stunning Isabelle Adjani as Claudel, a young woman with a passion for art that infuriates her mother.  Yet, her father dotes on her, and her brother Paul (Laurent Grévill), who would gain fame as a poet and diplomat, also offers her support.

Gérard Depardieu, at the peak of imperial period as France’s most celebrated actor, plays Rodin. Appropriately, Depardieu plays Rodin as the celebrity, overseeing large-scale commissions like “The Gates of Hell” with teams of apprentices working in factory-like settings.  It’s implied that Rodin has a creative block that prevents him from making his own work and finds inspiration in Claudel. Although their romance is depicted as a consensual romance, the film strongly indicates that women artists were expected to make themselves available for sex if they wished to get ahead.

Eventually, Claudel sours on Rodin, because she feels she’s not getting enough credit for her contributions, and because he refuses to break off his long-time relationship with Rose Beuret for a a monogamous relationship with her.  Claudel attempts to make her own way as an artist, but struggles against discrimination against women and abandonment by patrons and family.  Eventually she ends up living in a derelict workshop inhabited by multiple cats, paranoid that Rodin is orchestrating her demise.  The film concludes as she’s determined to be mentally ill and Paul has her committed to a psychiatric hospital where she will live out her life.

I don’t know enough about Camille Claudel’s life to judge the historical accuracy of this movie, but I sense that it is a melodramatic interpretation of a more complex story.  Nevertheless, the acting of Adjani and Depardieu and others makes it an excellent character study.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When They See Us (2019)


Title: When They See Us
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Harpo Films | Tribeca Productions | ARRAY | Participant Media
Summary/Review:

This Netflix miniseries dramatizes the stories of five teenage boys from Harlem who were accused and convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park, but would be exonerated for the crime over a decade later.  The film covers the same as the Ken Burns’ documentary Central Park Five but with a greater emphasis on the emotional impact on the boys and their families.  When they see is directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also responsible for the biopic Selma, the documentary 13th, and fantasy/adventure A Wrinkle in Time (which is quite a varied portfolio).  While the four parts tell a complete story, each part also works as a stand-alone film.

The first part focuses on the night of the incident.  The media portrayed them as part of a “wolf pack” of “superpredators” who went out “wilding,” commiting crimes for fun. The truth is that the 5 boys and others were caught up in spontaneous gathering of about 30 teenagers who mostly didn’t know one another and went to Central Park to horse around.  And yes, some of them did participate in assault, robbery, and vandalism, but by and large that was a small portion of the larger group.  Oddly, one of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is an overhead shot of the boys running into the park.  The five – Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron – were among those rounded up by the police. When the unconcious jogger is found, the police held them overnight without food or sleep, interogate them without parents present, and coerce them to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. The NYC District Attorney Sex Crimes Unit leader Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) works up a narrative from the skimpy evidence to place the boys at the scene of the crime.

The second part focuses on the trial.  The film only dramatizes one of the two trials.  We see the boys support one another as they resolutely refuse a plea bargain or anything but their full innocence.  There’s support among the families too, but also a lot of tension as what course of action to take and distrust of the other families’ children. Archival footage of Donald Trump condeming the Five is shown with a mother commenting that his fifteen minutes are almost up, perhaps too big of a wink for this movie.  Their lawyers are not up to snuff to take on the city’s prosecuter Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) despite the only evidence being coerced confessions that contradict one another. The five are all found guilty.

Part three focuses on the four younger members of the group – Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin – each of whom serve around 6-7 years in juvenile detention.  The film shows their transition from boys to adults through phone calls and visits with their families.  Then each is released and tries to return to their lives.  There are tensions with family members as they adjust to changes that happened during their imprisonment.  Worse, the law regarding what convicted felons and sex offenders can do leaves them very little opportunity to find work and housing, and require frequent check-ins.  One of them turns to crime to make ends meet and ends up back in prison.

The younger four are played by different actors as a child and as an adult – Kevin Richardson (Asante Black and Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares).  They all put in an excellent performance portraying their characters, but the major star of the miniseries is Jharrel Jerome who plays Korey Wise both as a teenager and an adult.  Wise was 16 at the time of the case and thus tried as an adult.  He was sent to prisons where the other prisoners and guards targeted him for severe abuse.  Wise requested transfers to other prisons farther from NYC and spent lots of time in solitary for his own safety.  In one prison, there’s even a white guard who is sympathetic to wise and treats him humanely.  Many of the most intense scenes of the film focus on Wise enduring long periods of time in solitude and having memories and daydreams. Flashbacks show his close relationship with his transgender older sister until their mother throws her out of the house.  One of the most beautiful sequences shows Wise imaging that instead of going to Central Park with the other boys that he took his girlfriend to Coney Island.

In 2001, Wise meets another prisoner named Matias Reyes (one he’d actually had a fight with in prison several years earlier).  Reyes admits that he had raped the Centeral Park jogger on his own.  His description of the attack and DNA evidence verifies his claim, and this leads to vacating the convictions of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise.

This movie is beautifully directed  and yet a brutal depection of a grave injustice. It is an important film to watch to get an understanding of the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system against black and brown people.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)


Title: Saving Mr. Banks
Release Date: November 29, 2013
Director: John Lee Hancock
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Ruby Films | Essential Media and Entertainment | BBC Films | Hopscotch Features
Summary/Review:

This movie dramatizes the two week period when author P.L. Travers travels from her home in London to Los Angeles to work on the Walt Disney Studios adaptation of her Mary Poppins’ books.  Since Travers is a British woman, Emma Thompson is, of course, cast to play her, while Walt Disney is obviously portrayed by American actor Tom Hanks.  I jest, they both do a great job, although its more of a challenge for Hanks because Disney is already well-known from his tv appearances.

Travers is cranky and dismissive of the whimsy and sentiment that is the cornerstone of the Disney empire, and basically hopes to sabotage the adaptation.  Disney comes off kind of creepy – a mansplainer who insists on calling her “Pam” when she asks to be called “Mrs. Travers” and acting as if Mary Poppins is his story as well.  Hanks’ Disney sees Travers standoffishness as a characteristic of her womanhood rather than recognizing her as a fellow artist who wants to protect her creation.

Working with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and music composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) stirs up memories of Travers childhood in a remote part of Australia when she was known by her birthname Helen “Ginty” Goff.  She is an imaginative child who looks up to her adventurous father (Colin Farrell) who takes greater interest in playing with her than his job as a bank manager.  It’s slowly revealed that he is an alcoholic and that he is in failing health.  An aunt who comes to help the family when he is bedridden is depicted as the firm and practical person who restores order to the household, and also the influence for Mary Poppins (albeit a surprisingly small part in this movie). Scenes in 1961 Los Angeles blend into flashbacks of the Australian outback in the early 1900s.

The movie is an excellent and emotionally-rewarding story.  It’s also largely lacking in historical accuracy.  But Hanks’ Disney states flatly that storytelling is creating the story we want to fix what happened in reality.

George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

It’s up to the audience to decide if that is the correct use of imagination and creativity, or if something is lost in the artifice.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Selma (2014)


TitleSelma
Release Date: 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Co: Cloud Eight Films, Celador Films, Harpo Films, Pathé, Plan B Entertainment
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Biography | Drama | History
Rating: ****

The story of the march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights for black Americans is dramatized in this excellent biographical film.  The film focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. after he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) are invited to Selma, AL to help with their campaign to register black voters.  In addition to the conflict with violent police and racist whites, the film captures the tensions between the SCLC and leaders of other groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), tensions within the SCLC leadership, tensions between King and President Lyndon Johnson, and tensions within King’s family.  The brilliant acting in this film draws out how all these competing tensions affected the historic people and their motivations and desires.  I was also impressed with the directing of the film, particularly in the unusual way the camera conversations among individuals.  There has been criticism of this film for not being historically accurate, but while not being the documentary truth of the period of time it depicts, I think it compresses real historical truths for dramatic effect.  For example, while Johnson may not have been has nakedly antagonistic to King’s plans in 1965, it is true that the President had conflicting goals and did not wish to move forward as swiftly as the Movement.  I hope people will go and see this film which is both a work of art and an introduction to an important event in American history.  And once you’ve seen Selma, check out the documentary Eyes on the Prize and the many excellent books about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Movie Review: The Damned United


Title: The Damned United
Release Date: 27 March 2009
Director: Tom Hooper
Production Co:   Columbia Pictures Corporation
Country:  United Kingdom
Language: English
Genre: Biopic / Sport
Rating: ***1/2

Summary/Review:

This movie is a highly-fictionalized account of the life of English football manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) who was able to lead clubs like Derby County and Nottingham Forest to win the First Division championship.  Central to this film is Clough’s short term as manager of Leeds United, one of the most successful clubs of the 1970s and one Clough had been critical of for their dirty style of play.  The film is set up to focus on Clough’s relationships with two different men.  One is Don Revie (the always great Colm Meaney) Clough’s predecessor as manager at Leeds United.  If the film is to be believed Revie’s slight of Clough at a FA Cup match early Clough’s career provided both the motivation for Clough’s success but also his hubris and ultimate failure at Leeds.  The other relationship is with Clough’s assistant coach Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) who has great skill at scouting players for the team.  The structure of the film with its historical inaccuracies comes off as melodramatic especially since the true story would make as good or better a film.  The Damned United is saved by brilliant acting performances by the Sheen as the mouthy and flashy Clough, Meaney, and especially Spall’s portrayal of the long-suffering Taylor.  I also enjoyed the gritty football action sequences that capture an era of sport long gone.

Movie Review: 24 Hour Party People


Title: 24 Hour Party People
Release Date: 5 April 2002
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Production Co: Baby Cow Productions
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Genre: Biopic / Comedy / Music
Rating: ***1/2

Summary/Review:

This surreal, comic film tells the story of the Manchester music scene from the mid-1970’s to early-1990’s.  Central to this story is Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) a TV news presenter who champions Manchester music scene by managing bands, starting a record label, and opening a night club.  History and legend are gleefully mixed together as Wilson narrates his own story, often breaking the fourth wall to comment on events from a later perspective.  Real people from Manchester bands appear in cameos sometimes commenting that the scenes in the movie aren’t how they remember them.  The effect can be overly cutesy at times but mostly is rollicking good fun and Coogan really carries the film.  Of central importance though is the music as bands like Joy Division (later New Order) and the Happy Mondays take center stage.

Movie Review: Finding Neverland (2004)


In 2019 I found some old Word documents with movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

TitleFinding Neverland
Release Date: October 29, 2004
Director: Marc Forster
Production Company: FilmColony
Summary/Review:

Good in a hokey way.  Totally rewrote the true Barrie story for dramatic effect, the real story may have been better.  Oh well, Hollywood, what can you do?  It’s refreshing that it is a love story about friendship rather than sex, though.

Rating: **1/2