Classic Movie Review: Sophie’s Choice (1982)


Title: Sophie’s Choice
Release Date: December 10, 1982
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Keith Barish Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Sophie’s Choice many years ago and then read William Styron’s novel and loved them both. So I was happy to revisit this movie. It’s the story of a young aspiring writer, nicknamed Stingo (Peter MacNicol playing a character much like Styron), who moves from the South to Brooklyn. At his rooming house he meets and befriends the tempestuous couple upstairs of Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline).

While Stingo sees Sophie and Nathan as glamorous, they each have dark secrets. Sophie survived the Holocaust in Poland and over the course of the film reveals her shame over her actions there in long flashbacks. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic which manifests in extreme jealousy and abuse of Sophie. Most heartbreaking is that Sophie, because of her guilt over the past, seems to believe she deserves the abuse. The story ultimately leads to tragedy.

I remember watching this movie the first time and being utterly charmed by Nathan in his early scenes. This time I was more weary because I knew he was an abuser and it the patterns of abuse were more clear to see. Oddly enough, Kline’s portrayal of Nathan is very similar to his portrayal of Otto in the later film A Fish Called Wanda. We can laugh at Otto because he’s in a comedy, but since Nathan is in a drama, he is terrifying.

Meryl Streep’s performance is excellent, of course. She does a great job of portraying a person inexperienced with speaking English as well as the nuances of someone dealing with trauma. I was surprised that MacNicol portrays Stingo since it is very different from his later roles in things like Ghostbusters II and Ally McBeal. The one thing that bugs me about this movie is that when Stingo and Sophie have sex, Stingo narrates it like he’s in a frat boy comedy and he just made a great conquest. It really jars against the tone of the film and makes me wonder if Stingo learned anything from his experience.


Rating: ****

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: ****

Documentary Review: Night and Fog (1956) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Nanook of the North, New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston, No-No: A Dockumentary, and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

Title: Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard)
Release Date: 1956
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I wanted to watch and felt important to watch, but nevertheless didn’t want to see.  Made a decade after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, this is one of the first films to document the horrors of the Holocaust.  The structure of the film mirrors the experience of the people imprisoned in the camps.  It begins with their arrest and transport by train.  Arriving at the camps, the people are stripped of clothing and shaved of hair and humiliated in thousands of ways.  Daily camp life involves forced labor, frequent humiliation, and hunger due to meager rations. Then there is mass murder which this movie is unflinching in depicting.

The filmmakers intercut contemporary film of the abandoned concentration camps in color with black and white film and photographs taken during their time of use.  Jean Cayrol, a poet who survived the concentration camps, wrote the narration which is delivered by actor Michel Bouquet. The movie asks us to remember the full horror of the Holocaust and recognize that it can happen again.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Rose Under Fire
Publication Info: New York : Hyperion, [2013]
Summary/Review:

This World War II novel is in the same universe as Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity.  Maddie from Code Name Verity is a minor character in Rose Under Fire, and the incidents of that novel are alluded to.  The protagonist of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, an American pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary responsible for ferrying aircraft among Allied airbases.  The book is written as her journal with some letters and poems.

Initially the book is about her quotidian concerns regarding flying, the War, friendships, and men. After the liberation of Paris, she flies to France (and buzzes the Eiffel Tower). Return a plane to England, she sees a V-1 flying bomb and attempts to divert it with the wingtips of her plane. Flying off course, Rose is intercepted by German jets and forced to land behind enemy lines.  She is sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp exclusively for women.

While this is a young adult book, it does not shy away from describing the full extent of violence and deprivation the Nazis carried out in Ravensbrück.  It is challenging for children, and adults, to read but I also think it is beneficial.  Rose is able to find hope and survive through the family she makes with the other women at the camp.  These include Polish political prisoners known as the Rabbits because they were forced to endure Nazi medical experiments.  Rose also bonds with Russian military pilots known as the Night Witches.

The story is heartbreaking and devastating, but also hopeful.  I also appreciate that after Rose escapes from Germany, the novel still shows her dealing with her ongoing trauma. Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an excellent novel the deals with the horrors of World War II and the bravery of the women who participated in it.

Favorite Passages:

Hope—you think of hope as a bright thing, a strong thing, sustaining. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s simply this: lumps of stale bread stuck down your shirt. Stale gray bread eked out with ground fish bones, which you won’t eat because you’re going to give it away, and maybe you’ll get a message through to your friend. That’s all you need.

Hope is the most treacherous thing in the world. It lifts you and lets you plummet. But as long as you’re being lifted, you don’t worry about plummeting.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


Author: Markus Zusak
Title:  The Book Thief
Publication Info:   [New York, N.Y.] : Listening Library, 2006.
ISBN: 9780739348345

Summary/Review: 

This novel balances the line between heartwarming and heartbreaking, inevitably falling to the later, but never without giving up hope.  Boldly, Zusak has the book narrated by Death who proves to be sympathetic to humanity and tired of the work he’s given in the Second World War.  Central to the novel is Liesel, a German girl taken in by foster parents when her father is taken away for being a Communist.  Set in a fictional suburb of Munich near Dachau, the novel details day-to-day life in a way that’s familiar to a coming of age tale but also has the overlooming presences of things like the Hitler Youth and nights spent in air raid shelters.  Liesel finds comfort in books, and as the title suggests, purloins some books earning her nickname.  Her life is also changed when her foster parents the Hubbermanns (already at odds with the Nazi party) repay a promise by hiding a young Jewish man in their basement.  Zusak focuses on relationships, test of character, and hope while not dodging the tragedy and atrocity in their midst.  It sounds cheesy to describe it but it really is a wonderful, well-written novel.

Favorite Passages:

“They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thin, incessantly: ‘Get it done, get it done.’ So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”

Rating: ****

Recommended BooksSkeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies, and Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

Book Review: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank


Author:Anne Frank
Title: The Diary of a Young Girl
Publication Info: Anchor (1996) [Originally published in 1947]
ISBN:0385480334

Summary/Review:

Like many people I thought I knew everything about Anne Frank and her diary and probably like many people I never actually read it.  I did see the movie when I was a kid.  So, of course, I was in for a big surprise.  It is a diary and reads like it was written by a teenage girl concerned with her studies, her changing body, attraction to boys, and asserting independence from her parents.  She was also a teenage girl with a great talent for writing and one who was aware as she wrote that her diary would be published.  It’s fascinating how Anne Frank captures the personalities of the people she is in hiding with, the petty arguments, the greater political issues of the time, and the ordinary day-to-day life in an extraordinary situation.  Knowing what happens, there are a lot of moments of heartbreak.  When Anne accidentally incinerates her fountain pen and says it’s turned to ashes just as she hopes to be cremated one day, I shuddered.  There are several close calls where there hiding place is almost discovered and the relief of their escape is tempered by the knowledge that they would be caught in the end.  Anne hopes to become a writer and journalist, a dream she only achieves posthumously. I kept wishing that Anne Frank had survived the war and lived to tell her story and experience new stories as well.

If you’re like me and haven’t actually read this book, pick up a copy as soon as you can.  I think it’s especially worthwhile for teenagers to read as there is much to relate to and much to learn.
Rating: *****