That Man from Rio (1964)

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That Man from Rio is a find. It’s a dazzling picture that’s as comedic as it is entertaining bursting with a Brazilian energy that brings to mind the Bossa Nova rhythms of Sergio Mendes somehow married with the world of James Bond. And it’s true, there’s without question a major debt to be paid to Dr. No and From Russia with Love.  It’s a good old-fashioned international thriller in the most delightful sense.

Jean-Pierre Belmondo is one of our intrepid albeit reluctant heroes–more of a Gilligan than a masterclass spy–a bungling Bond if you will.  In fact, Adrien is fresh off a stint in the air force with a week’s worth of leave. And he’s planning on some nice relaxing R & R with his best girl our spunky heroine Agnes (Francoise Dorleac). But that all quickly goes to hell.

Because he doesn’t know what’s going on while his train is rolling into the station. A mysterious statue belonging to the indigenous Maltak peoples of the Amazon Rainforest is purloined from its place at a Parisian museum in the wake of a silent murder. It’s in these opening moments that the film feels strikingly similar to the following year’s caper comedy How to Steal a Million starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.

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However, the story rapidly leaves behind the museum corridors for territory more at home in, if not Bond films, then certainly Tintin serials. Most memorably pulling from his adventures in South America as well as snatching some eerily similar plot points from Herge’s Prisoners of the Sun and Red Rackham’s Treasure.

Belmondo quickly is thrust into the ruckus as our comical and nevertheless compelling action hero who can be found riding a commandeered motorcycle through the Parisian streets in pursuit of his kidnapped girlfriend.

He’s more than once seen pitifully chasing after a car on foot and his being in the air force must explain why he’s utterly lacking in hand to hand combat skills, more often swinging wildly with blunt instruments and getting knocked to the ground for his efforts. There’s a bit of Indy in him with his own personal Portuguese Short Round, the local shoeshine boy and if rumor serves as fact it’s no surprise that Spielberg supposedly saw the film nine times in a flurry of infatuation. If the influences of Tintin can be seen in Rio, then the film undoubtedly inspired Raiders and its sequels, making it no surprise that Spielberg would produce a Tintin picture of his own.

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The madcap antics are in one sense reminiscent of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World also featuring trains, planes, and automobiles of every color and description. It too has an outlandish progression of events that nevertheless make for a thoroughly entertaining adventure.

The stolen statue and murder lead to kidnapping and a spur of the moment trip to Rio where Adrien somehow snags a ride on a flight so he can catch up to his girlfriend. But soon they’re both on the lamb, looking for the missing statue and trying to rescue Professor Catalan (Jean Servais), a friend of Agnes’s late father who as luck would have it, also winds up kidnapped. That’s about all you need to know to latch onto to the workings of the plot as they surge ever onward through crazy chase scenes, frantic escapes, bar fights, and whatever else you could possibly imagine.

Phillippe de Broca’s film right from its opening credits boasts gorgeous photography that positively pops making the most of Parisian streets and most certainly the luscious Brazilian locales that still somehow purport a grittiness. There’s the juxtaposition of the worn street corners that at times feel cavernous and somehow still manage to be quaint with a tropical affability thanks to the myriad locals and tourists who inhabit the world.

Having first become acquainted with Francoise Dorleac in The Young Girls of Rochefort opposite her sister Catherine Deneuve, it was easy to consider her the lesser star despite being slightly older. That’s how hindsight gives us an often contorted view of the past. After all, following her own tragic death in a car crash, her sister Catherine has gone on with an illustrious career that has kept her at the forefront of the public consciousness as one of France’s preeminent cinematic treasures.

But after seeing The Soft Skin and now Our Man in Rio with Cul de Sac still to see, it could easily be questioned whether or not Dorleac or Deneuve was a greater star early on as both were involved in some stellar projects. Umbrellas of Cherbourg probably still gives Deneuve the edge but a film like Rio and its star at the very least deserve a brighter spotlight.

Alongside Belmondo, Dorleac is his comic equal as they gallivant frantically every which way both pursuing and being pursued. And from both actors, there’s an obvious exercising of their comic chops that really becomes the core of this film even with its certain amount of intrigue. In truth, they both perform wonderfully and their work here serves as a light, refreshing change of pace. Do yourself a favor and enjoy it.

4/5 Stars

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

saving-private-ryan-1There’s something remarkably moving about the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I’ve only felt it a few times in my own lifetime whether it was family members recognizing names on the Vietnam Memorial tears in their eyes or walking over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.  It’s these types of memories that don’t leave us — even as outsiders — people who cannot understand these historical moments firsthand.

And that’s why Saving Private Ryan is a truly breathtaking, at times horrifying, and wholly visceral experience. Words cannot actually describe the visuals on the beaches of  Normandy at Omaha. The utter chaos, death, and tumult engulfing the scene — above and below the surface of the water.

The cast includes a number of memorable players including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, and even Nathan Fillion. And yet it’s not about any one man or even a singular act of valor. Even Private Ryan is only a starting point of a far more universal tale.

It’s also easy to say that this is a film cheapens life in the number of bodies that are blown to bits and slaughtered seemingly needlessly on screen. However, it’s even more difficult to acknowledge that in one sense life is cheap — transient to the extent that our bodies are not indestructible. We are fallible beings and breath so easily leaves our lungs and no time is this more evident than in the wake of war.

One sequence that springs to mind involves two surrendering men who, on first inspection, look German and sound German. The men under Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) command gun them down and they do it with smiles on their faces. This, after all, is the enemy, pure and simple. Except they were not “Nazis.” They weren’t even Germans, but Czechs (based on what they say). Men who historically had been captured by the Nazis and press-ganged into military service. And in the end, they get shot by Americans. Even the undertones of this scene point to the fact that their lives were so easily snuffed out, without even a second thought.

So, yes, life seems cheap in this film in the physical sense, even from just one example. But it is granted a great deal of depth and richness in many other ways. Families and brothers. Comrades and compatriots. Personal convictions and disillusionment in war revealed through the many characters we come to know. All of that bleeds out of this film along with the blood from the bodies.

In that sense, it’s all difficult to watch and Spielberg never intended this to be easy going.  I cannot speak for others but within the intense moments of bloodshed, the lulls in the action, and unrest within the ranks, there’s a solemnity developed.

War is at times the everyday. It’s indescribable and inscrutable. But Saving Private Ryan’s suggests that there are certain things that we hold onto. High and lofty things such as liberty and freedom that are often so easy to discount. They seem easily besmirched, dragged through the mud by all of our human inadequacies and evil. But perhaps that makes them even more important to hang on to, because just like life, these ideals are worth the fight, though they might so easily be lost. It doesn’t make the wrong right or cover up all the pain, even found within this film, but it latches on a tiny bit of good within a whole lot of messiness.

It goes back to the basic implications of the film’s main conceit — the task of saving one man — Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). It’s  representative of not only the entire war but each and every one of us as we traverse roads of tribulation. Every story, whether wartime or our own, deserves an ending with some type of salvation. Because Saving Private Ryan is imbued with so much more meaning. Our human experience is wrapped up in it. There is no greater love than a man giving his life for his friends. But imagine if you are dying for the freedom of others or even the preservation of someone who you hardly know? That’s what happens in this story.

That’s why when elderly James Ryan comes back to Normandy so many years later, there’s a gravity to the situation. This is by no means a corny piece of Hollywood drama. It’s the ultimate act of love that he has received and he can hardly comprehend it, just as we as an audience must grapple with it too. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is indubitably affecting not simply as a war drama but an epic human narrative. It pertains to all of us.

The profound and terrifying thing about this gift that he has received through the sacrifice of so many others is that he cannot “earn it.” Because, in this sense, life proves to be far from cheap. There is no way to earn that back. There is no way for us to live a wholly “good” life or be completely “good” people. The whole entirety of the film tells us otherwise. Still, we can live our life with a sense of freedom knowing that cannot be expected of us. A life of purpose is all that can be asked of us. It’s that kind of purpose that makes Saving Private Ryan continuously compelling.

5/5 Stars

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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I remember the first time seeing  E.T. and enjoying it immensely, though it never floored me. I felt the same thing this time around for no particularly justifiable reason. Good but, in my estimation, not great, whatever that means because those terms are equally murky. Still, the fact that there had been little change in some ways made me feel uneasy. What was I not seeing?

But then thinking about it more I latched on to this idea that made me appreciate E.T. far more than I had before. Like an epiphany, it came to me what this film really is. It’s a childlike fantasy full of personal notes from a director who just happens to be Steven Spielberg. That’s not much of a discovery, but the implications are great.

The story of young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his chance encounter and befriending of E.T. is rather like a boy and his dog story. Except both characters are going through almost parallel situations and Spielberg takes it to the literal extreme. They actually feel each other in a sense. They are perfectly empathetic towards one another.  With E.T. the motives are most obvious. His ultimate goal is to “phone home” so that he might be reunited with those that he calls family. For Elliott, it’s also about home. His home life is a bit fragmented with a father who is vaguely mentioned to be in Mexico (although that’s probably not the case) and siblings who quarrel like siblings usually do.

However, it also struck me how this family really does care about each other. Little Gerty –a beyond memorable Drew Barrymore–is the quintessential 5-year-old sister. First frightened of, then intrigued by and finally faithfully devoted to E.T. And the older brother Michael teases his siblings as has always been the case since the beginning of time but he too invests himself in this adventure. Certainly, it’s out of charity towards this visitor from outer space but it’s undoubtedly also an extension of the affection he has for his little brother.

It’s also peculiar that almost all the secondary characters are very ill-defined and the antagonistic forces attempting to impede E.T. and Elliott are even vaguer. At first, this felt wrong in some regards– a potential sign of poor storytelling. But once more I was brought back to the unmistakable idea that this film really is a boyhood dreamscape. This is Elliott’s story and if it’s Elliott’s story, it’s even more so Spielberg’s own meditation on adolescence and his own childhood. The narrative is even said to have been inspired by his own imaginary friend as a child and his own dealings with a split household. And there’s also a hint of the Wizard of Oz here. There’s no place like home.

Thus, what becomes undeniably important is this dynamic relationship between this boy and his newfound friend who just happens to be from outer space. It’s quite simple. It’s childlike really. And that is and forever will be the beauty and allure that comes from this film. Families can watch it. Kids can marvel at it. Parents can soak it up. Because just as it is about a family–dysfunctional as they may be in their suburban life–it is also for families.

There’s the sheer mayhem of the shrimpy kid grabbing a kiss from the pretty girl in class as hordes of frogs hop by. The iconic magic of Elliott and his friends soaring through the sky on their bicycles, John Williams’ score dancing majestically in the background again and again. Even the fact that this extra-terrestrial goes from death to life is strikingly analogous to the archetypal biblical narrative that permeates our culture. It’s all spectacularly remarkable but rather than be skeptical we acknowledge it with almost wide-eyed wonderment, accepting it, accepting these people that we meet. And watching E.T. ascend back into the atmosphere with true awe.

I find it fascinating that only a few years earlier Spielberg was inspired to put Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters. In E.T. I see his closest approximation of the French director’s own thematic elements. To put it in terms of homage. E.T. is Spielberg’s version of 400 Blows, granted featuring space aliens, Star Wars, cultural references and so on, but they’re not all that different. They really are about the same core issues. It takes until after 400 Blows for Antoine Doinel to find love and intimate relationship with his wife. For Elliot, it comes with family, his brother and sister, and mother, and of course, with E.T. This is what has a lasting impact on Elliott and I could guess, with Steven Spielberg as well. But the audience gets to be a part of it too, an equally important  piece in this trinity.

4.5/5 Stars

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge_of_Spies_poster.jpgSteven Spielberg is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock in many ways. True, he’s not as much of an audacious experimenter, but he most certainly knows the movie making craft. He understands suspense, good storytelling, and strong production values. Because he still is one of the most entertaining filmmakers to date, maintaining a grasp of all the integral details that make a Hollywood film interesting.

Hitchcock famously made two Cold War thrillers of his own in Torn Curtain and Topaz that were unfortunately rather disappointing. In this respect, Spielberg may have just bested the Master with his own espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. The secret is that he too grabs hold of an everyman story, utilizing one of his most magnetic collaborators Tom Hanks, but he also has an immense appreciation for the historical subtext. This is as much a historical drama as it is a human drama or a spy thriller. The fact that it functions on multiple levels gives it a greater degree of depth.

The film starts with a rather ordinary fellow (Mark Rylance) who we don’t know anything about, except he is rather old and likes to paint. Soon the FBI is on his tail and we quickly remember that this is 1958 — the Red Scare is real — the Cold War is freezing over. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are fresh on everyone’s mind as Rudolf Abel  (Rylance) is imprisoned on multiple accounts of conspiracy.

This is a big deal and the whole country is watching, nay, the whole world is watching including the Soviets. The job of defending Abel appears a thankless one and so the buck gets passed to an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Whereas everyone else sees this as a sorry position to be in, Donovan understands it’s a stellar opportunity to reflect the ideals that the American justice system are founded on. Not everyone is so keen with his ideals, especially when it involves a Communist. It is in these early scenes where we understand the fear of a nuclear threat is real. Yes, the Red Scare is real. You begin to understand how it could take root in the American public. After his face is seen in the papers, Donovan receives the ire of the public and it affects his family.

Meanwhile, no one knows it but the FBI is proceeding with a highly sensitive mission in Soviet airspace. Any slight screw-up and nuclear war seems inevitable. But of course, the long-remembered Gary Powers is shot down in a U2 plane taking recon footage and all of the sudden things have gotten a lot hotter.

The second leg of the narrative follows Donovan as he tries to broker a deal between the two superpowers for a prisoner swap. Both countries are intent on keeping  a lid on their national secrets. If Donovan’s task was just an exchange between Gary Powers and Abel it would be, shall we say, simple, but there has to be an added wrinkle. There always is. We get at least a taste of what the Berlin Wall truly did in creating a fissure between families and friends in Germany. However, crucial to this story, it also trapped an American  student named Frederic Pryor in the GDR. Now Donovan has two men to try and retrieve, one bargaining chip in Abel, and two powers he must deal with. The Soviet Union are the main priority along with Powers, but his contacts in the GDR are still miffed about not being recognized by the U.S. They are not about to be pushed around.

Really we can break Bridge of Spies down to just a few men, but these seemingly simple actions and interactions are blown up and magnified to the nth degree on a highly political scale. If this is actually, in essence, how this war played out in real time then it is almost a ludicrously crazy ordeal.

Still, as Spielberg always does, he reverts his story back to the human component and Donovan, the man who put his vocational talents to good use in ways that had global impact. Imagine, he was a civilian, a man who was hardly given any authority by his own government, and yet his fortitude was ultimately rewarded. Then, at the end of a hard day’s work, he returned quietly to his wife and kids with the jar of marmalade he had promised to bring home.

Spielberg does well to evoke nostalgia, with the coats and the ties, the hats and ’50s sensibilities. And though we can guess the outcome of this biography before we get there, that doesn’t make the historical climate or how we get there any less gripping. That’s where this story succeeds. Furthermore, Mark Rylance’s performance is thoroughly grounded and his scrupled man of honor truly reflects socialism with a human face, all the while wielding a droll sense of humor.

It’s easy to look at the past events of world history with a more tempered eye. We can see the rationale of Donovan, the blind paranoia of the American public, and the unyielding tensions on all fronts. The day and age may have changed, but just have a look around. There are still tensions rising to this day. We still need the common man to enact change, now as much as ever. It’s that type of sentiment that really separates Spielberg from Hitchcock. His every man comes with heart.

4/5 Stars

The Shining (1980)

Statheshining3nley Kubrick is not generally known as a horror film director. His impact was far broader than solely one genre. How is it then that he made one of the enduring canonical films in the horror genre? It’s been over 30 years and people are still talking about The Shining — still using it in every kind of parody and homage imaginable. Like a Hitchcock or a Spielberg, he’s one of those directors with an eye for what’s thrilling as far cinema is concerned, but perhaps more so Kubrick deals in complexities. Ambiguity is his friend as much as the beautifully shot interiors of The Shining. He builds and constructs the perfect scaffold to work off of, and it’s full of tension and shock value, but it leaves the audience with questions. I watched Nosferatu recently and what I came out of it with was a conviction that it was not your typical horror film — it seems to follow you and haunt your thoughts in a sense. The Shining is a little more like a modern horror with frightening images, and yet it shares that same quality. You cannot help but ruminate over it or think about what you just saw and what it really means. Truth be told, I don’t know what to think about the cryptic ending and, in all honesty, I don’t care too much, although it makes for interesting discussion.

theshining1This film found its source in Stephen King’s novel (which I have not read). For the life of me, I had never thought of the significance of the title, but Scatman Crother’s character explains it in the same way that his mama had before him. “Shining” is being able to talk without your mouths. The little boy Danny Torrance has such an ability, and it proves to be the entry point into this film’s conceit. Not only is he able to say things without talking, but he sees things, horrible things, that other’s cannot — rather like The Sixth Sense (1999).

His father Jack (Jack Nicholson) and mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) take him to a Colorado mountain getaway for 5 months of isolation, because it seems like a good deal. After all, Jack wants to get some work done on his book and he could use the unbroken solitude,  but of course, there’s an underlying tension that slowly builds as their time alone draws nearer. It’s done through the foreshadowing of cryptic images, violent tales of local folklore, and of course, a score that is constantly ringing in our ears. That’s the best way I can describe it. We know something is up.

So what does Room 237 mean? What about Grady and the bartender who serves Jack his drinks at the bar? They’re just as perplexing as Danny’s ability or the sudden change that seems to come over Jack. There are these perplexing moments that are difficult to account for whether it’s the initial introduction of the Chief (Scatman Crothers) and Danny, who he telepathically communicates with. Then, Jack Nicholson carries such a genial quality, and yet underlining all those Cheshire cat smiles is something deeply troubling.

theshining4Amidst the dreams and haunting images that blur the line between fantasy and reality, past and present, there is a strange fascination that develops for The Shining. Almost a morbid fascination, because we know something is wrong, but we keep watching anyway. We want to know what happens and furthermore, Kubrick’s visuals are often mesmerizing, although they remain indoors for the most part. His camera often trailing characters as if they are prey.

He pays his audience the final respect of not giving us everything and not tying up all the loose ends. We are left with images and photos ingrained in our mind’s eyes. Admittedly, Shelley Duvall is not an actress I usually pay great attention to, and certainly, this is Nicholson’s film along with Kubrick. He was made for such a twisted, layered role, that overflows with a certain level of affability and then becomes completely psychotic. It makes him far creepier than any villain clothed in black because Jack Torrance will openly kill you with a sing-song voice. That’s pure evil.

4/5/5 Stars

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

raidersof1I’m not one to rewatch movies too often — it’s simply not in my nature and I am still relatively young in my film affinity. That means there are still so many great titles to see and discover. But Raiders is one of the special films that I would gladly make room for every year at a couple times. Most of it has probably been said before, but to put it simply Spielberg’s collaboration with George Lucas is one of the greatest adventures put to film pure and simple. It takes inspiration from old action serials and there is something inherently classic about Indiana Jones and the world he inhabits. It is 1936, after all, and the perfect evil force in the Nazis is on the rise.

Raiders begins with an opening gambit that could standalone by itself with its introduction of Indy (Harrison Ford) as he tries to recover an ancient artifact. He dodges traps and outruns a boulder only to be thwarted by his old nemesis Belloq (Paul Freeman). That’s followed by one of the great cinematic panoramas as he makes a mad dance to his getaway plane where Jacques and his friendly pet snake Reggie are waiting. We don’t need much explanation because it just works.

raiderof2From then on we get a little more about Dr. Jones’s background as a professor in archaeology who is enlisted by two government men to impede the Nazis. Their goal is to recover the Ark of the Covenant because its supposed power would make their military might unstoppable. But most of us undoubtedly know that. Indy ends up tracking down the daughter of an old mentor who also happens to be his former flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). They’ve got something still burning because although it is extremely volatile, you can see they still secretly care for each other. After they are paid a visit by the Nazis, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) acts as their host and loyal guide in Cairo. That doesn’t stop Marion from getting kidnapped or Indy almost getting killed more than once. One of these times involved an iconic duel between a sword and a revolver (certainly not a fair fight).

raidersof3In fact, Raiders is made up of many of these memorable sequences that add up to something greater than their parts. It’s a full story surely, but it is built up from these varying vignettes. Indy gets thrown into a pit of snakes with Marion by his side. He nearly gets his head taken off by a chopper blade (you should have seen the other guy), and finally, he begins a high-speed chase for the ark on the back of a noble white steed. It gives him time to pull a few stunts on a truck as he whittles down the opposition single-handedly. The audience even gets an obligatory Wilhelm Scream once or twice.

What it all comes down to is tracking the Nazis to their island lair where they hope to test the great powers of the Ark. I’m not sure how biblical it all is, but it seems more like a Pandora’s box because far more trouble than good comes out of it when opened. But in his infinite wisdom Indy and Marion don’t do anything except keep their eyes shut. They’re tied up after all. And that’s how the raiders were stopped and Indy completed his treasure hunt. The Ark is in the hands of the government and they file it away with numerous other very important and highly secret artifacts. The perfect ending to a film that has humor, melodrama, supernatural power, and a good old-fashioned tale of good vs. evil.

It’s crazy to think that Tom Sellick was almost Indy if it were not for his commitment to  Magnum P.I. Because Harrison Ford, despite his many iconic roles, will forever be Indiana Jones, thanks to that hat, that whip, and that revolver. He’s an awesome adventurer-professor type. You don’t see that every day.

5/5 Stars

Review: Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's_List_movieWhat is there to say about Schindler’s List except that it is necessary viewing for its depiction of Shoah, suggesting that, literally, out of the ashes beauty and hope will rise. It would be rather callous to call Steven Spielberg’s film pure entertainment. True, he comes with a pedigree that includes such escapist classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. However, Schindler’s List is a far different creature and it is arguably his most significant film. It is so moving on a heart-wrenchingly beautiful level. Because great films are more than entertainment, pure and simple. They are affecting, tapping into some deep well inside of us that causes us to laugh, to cry, and have feelings.

Schindler’s List shows us the horrors of the Holocaust without dumbing them down. We see those getting shot. We see the naked bodies. We see the mass graves and the billowing ashes. It can be hard to watch. Abrasive in its content, but not in its form. The film itself is beautifully cast in black-in-white with the most moving of compositions by John Williams and poignant performances by many. But permeating through all of this is, of course, the tragedy, but with the tragedy comes the hope which is crucial to a story such as this.

Spielberg’s reference point is one man named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who not only was a war profiteer and womanizer but a member of a Nazi party. He’s not afraid of ingratiating himself with the right people to make a pretty penny off the imminent war because in his mind it’s all good business acumen. And aside from his affiliations, what’s not to like about him? He’s well-groomed, a gentleman, and charismatic. It still would be a far cry to call him a hero, at least not yet.

With his main motive still being money, he makes contact with a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who not only has the bookkeeping abilities he is looking for but also connections to the black market and Jewish investors. So as the ghettos in Poland fill up to the brim, Schindler is quick to capitalize, offering the Jews more practical resources in exchange for their money. They get something, but he’s the big winner. He begins to set up his factory for the production of pots and pans which proves to be a lucrative business, especially with most of the bigwigs on his side. At the same time, he takes on Jewish laborers since they’re cheap, and Stein is able to save them from a fate of a concentration camp or being shot.

Our primary villain, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is ordered to start a new camp and just like that the ghettos are closed and the Jews are forced out. He is a despicable creature and a sadist to the max, exemplified by the many people he shoots from his balcony in the mornings. There’s no provocation for it. He just does it because he can. He is not the type of man you can seemingly deal with normally, and yet being a man with immense charisma, Schindler does just that, all in the name of business.

But Schindler too sees the chaos, destruction, and killing that is going on. He can not try to underplay it now since he has seen it all firsthand. But there is a point in the film where his focus slowly evolves from a desire to make money to actually saving Jews from complete annihilation. The most obvious moment occurs after he sees the little girl in the red coat lying in a wagon, dead. Moments earlier he had seen her scampering through the streets, an innocent beacon of color amidst the chaos. What is the world coming to when a girl such as this can be killed for no apparent reason? It begs for a response from Schindler. He can no longer be a passive observer and so he does take action.

With the aid of the ever faithful Stern, Schindler is able to construct a list of over a 1,000 Jews to save from the concentration camps. As the war is going poorly for the Germans, Goeth is ordered to transfer his prisoners to Auschwitz, and although Schindler almost loses all his workers, he is able to save them by literally buying all their lives from Goeth. He spends his entire fortune to save them as well as ensuring that his armament plant does not actually make any working shells. It’s bad business, but it is all in the name of one of the greatest acts of humanity he could perform.

In one final word to the people, Schindler protects his Jews one last time, daring the Nazis working at his factory to kill them or go home to their families as men. They silently choose the latter, and he flees the camp as a war profiteer.  He breaks down looking at the few possessions he has left suggesting that more Jews could have been saved with them, but the Jews in front of him, represented by Stern, point out the great good he did. They bestow upon him a ring with the inscription: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

He is gone now and the story of Schindler’s Jews is not yet complete, because they do not know where to go, but they head out with purpose making their way towards the future. And it is in this moment that their story stops being a memory and breaks on into the present. It is a wonderfully powerful device from Spielberg that evokes an overwhelming flood of emotion. In a line of solidarity, the Schindler Jews walk forward toward the grave of Oskar Schindler. Nothing can quite explain the feelings pulsing through the body as we watch actors and their real-life counterparts laying stones on the grave of this man, much like the Israelites laying stones down in remembrance of what their God did for them.  In one final moment, Schindler’s wife lays one final stone and Liam Neeson lays downs a final rose and we see his imposing but solitary silhouette off in the distance. It’s magnificent, to say the least.

Out of the many scenes that become ingrained in the mind, there were two that especially resonated with me. One of them occurs when the children were trying to evade capture and imminent death. In such a life or death situation they willingly resolved to literally swim in the urine of the outhouse. Another scene that got an immense reaction from me was when all the naked women, with their hair now cut off, are herded into the showers. Both they and the audience think this is the end of their lives so it is almost a cruel trick when water begins flooding from the shower heads. I’m not sure the last time I have felt so much anxiety as an observer. It’s hard to discount.

There are so many great performances big and small, but Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are both superb. We always love a good anti-hero or at least a complex one, and Oskar Schindler fits that bill beautifully. Also, we love the same in our villain, and I must say although I absolutely despised Goeth for all his evil, I must admit that somehow I still felt sorry for him. He was only a cog in the machine, a lonely man who was really so insignificant, in spite of what he wanted to believe. He shoots Jews, beats them, and yet can have such a twisted and somehow intimate relationship with his Jewish maid Helen.

For over 20 years this film has been a beacon of hope and fragment of truth from a period of history that contains so much darkness. Hopefully, it can continue being that touchstone to the past so that there is never the danger that anyone would forget these catastrophic events, but also the heroes like Oskar Schindler who through their actions were able to do a great deal of good.

5/5 Stars

Review: Jaws (1975)

JAWS_Movie_posterAlfred Hitchcock once was quoted as saying, in typical Hitchcockian fashion, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” A young Steven Spielberg channeled this type of sentiment when he directed the smash hit and archetypal summer blockbuster Jaws in 1975. It’s still a cultural phenomenon and for good or for bad, it has forever instilled a fear of great white sharks in the general populous.

The film is a man-versus-beast type of story. It starts off on Fourth of July weekend on a New England resort town named Amity. After a girl is found the beach chewed up, it starts a frenzy. Well, not quite initially because although police chief and mainlander Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to shut down the beaches, the local mayor will have nothing of it. Really, the first half of Jaws is very much political, as the mayor attempts to do anything he can to keep the masses flocking to his town because Amity gets all their revenue from the summer months. Meanwhile, Brody has the beaches monitored, but that does not stop a young boy from getting attacked. Up until now, we have only seen the handiwork of the beast, but in a brief instant we can catch a glimpse of him and it is shocking.

The vacationers flee the shoreline, and Brody is left to answer to the boy’s mother since he did not close down the beaches. She holds him responsible. However, Brody’s hands are still tied, especially when local fishermen catch another shark that they assume is the culprit that has terrorizing the town. He is met by a young marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who also realizes the gravity of this shark problem. No one will take him seriously except Brody, and Hooper labels him the only other sane man on the island.

Because all the precautions that are taken cannot avoid still another shark attack from going down. And it is at this point that Brody and most certainly the Mayor, have to change things. At a tense news conference, they must walk a fine line in order to assuage the locals and the business owners. Ultimately, Brody convinces the mayor to let him go out with the salty veteran seaman named Quint (Robert Shaw) who agrees to take the shark down for a fee.

For most of us, the second half is what we all remember or at least equate with the film (probably for the iconic line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” It is this part of the story that breaks the adventure down to three men, our stars, going off on a mission to take on the terror of a great white (ie. “Bruce”). It feels very Captain Ahabesque, thanks to the addition of the grizzled fisherman Quint, but if he is a stabilizing force it soon becomes obvious that not even he is fully ready to take on this behemoth creature. It seems like no amount of barrels, harpoons, or even a “shark-proof” cage can humble it.

What we end with is utter destruction that spirals out of control. That’s what makes this shark such an intriguing foe because we certainly cannot really call it evil, but it certainly is an overpowering force of nature. Brody stands in for many of us who have an innate fear of the ocean and what lies underneath the surface. For all the plucky young adventurers they have a stand-in in Hooper. I am struck by how tense this film is even to this day, and Spielberg never seems to show is hand too early and he never gives us too much of the shark. Otherwise, it might look faker, and it would lose that heightened anticipation. Above all, John Williams lent a great deal of potency to Jaws, single-handedly, with his ominous score. Without his score, Jaws is nowhere as scary and certainly not as memorable.

5/5 Stars

Catch me if You Can (2002)

Catch_Me_If_You_CanDirected by Steve Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCapprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, the film chronicles the exploits of Frank Abagnale. As a boy int he 1960s he grew up with an American father and French mother but after they get a divorce Frank flees home for good. As his money runs out Frank begins to pull confidence scams and he goes so far as impersonating a Pan-Am airline pilot.

He slowly moves across the country and cashes forged checks adding up to millions of dollars. Soon the FBI catches wind of him and agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) begins to track Frank. By now Frank has masqueraded as a doctor and a lawyer while also finding time to get married. Hanratty starts to close in again and this time Frank heads to Europe where he uses more of his forged checks.

Frank has a run-in with the French authorities but Carl got him out of it only to have Frank escape once more into the U.S. This time he is caught for good and given a 12 year sentence despite his youth. But thanks to Carl, Frank is offered a job with the FBI to lend his talents to check fraud. And from that point on Frank’s life was relatively normal.

I really enjoyed this story line, DiCaprio is good, the soundtrack is great (Come Fly with Me!) and the title sequence is unique. All in all this is an entertaining cat and mouse game that is well worth the time.

4/5 Stars

Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana_Jones_and_the_Temple_of_Doom_Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, this is the second installment in the popular series. The film opens in China where Indy is trying to acquire a rare jewel but he runs into problems and must struggle for his life. He escapes with the help of his little friend Short Round and an annoyed night club singer tags along for the ride.

They finally find their way to a remote village which is fearful of a great evil. The trio is then welcomed at a grand palace. After an initial attempt on Indy’s life, they find a secret passage that leads to a temple where the Thuggee cult survives. They witness horrible tings and Indy attempts to recover the stone from the village. However, they are captured and Indy is turned into a mindless worshiper, while Short Round is forced to work and Willie is prepared for sacrifice.
Thanks to Short Round’s escape he is able to recover Indy as they fight to save Willie and get out alive. A harrowing mine car chase ends in another perilous situation for Indiana and his friends. In the final showdown he is able to prevail and as always there is a happy ending.
This is certainly the weakest of the original trilogy in my mind and coincidentally also the darkest. This film did however help bring to pass the PG-13 rating. I am partial to Short Round and Indiana Jones is all we have come to expect.
3.5/5 Stars