Favorite Films of 2022

It was another strange year at the cinemas, but there was a lot to appreciate.

Here’s a list of some films I enjoyed in 2022 and you might too. I’ll probably be releasing some other capsule reviews at the beginning of the new year. Let me know what you think!

No Bears

Of late I’ve been considering the films that leave an inexorable impact on me. Certainly, they entertain and compel us in some fashion as a viewer, but oftentimes the best, most daring projects utilize the medium of film in some unprecedented way – using its limitations and reflexivities to birth something new and meaningful into the world. I can think of few recent films fitting this category better than No Bears.

German director Werner Herzog always likened the filmmaker to a resourceful vagabond able to pick locks and prepared to spend a night in jail if it means getting the right shot. At least in his estimation, there’s such a thing as good trouble. Director Jafar Panahi takes this to his own extreme as he’s had his own well-documented run-ins with his home country of Iran, which has previously forbidden him from shooting movies. Given Panahi’s mentorship with the revered Abbas Kiarostami, it’s difficult not to draw a line between their work. In something like Close-Up (1990) we are dealing with the almost imperceptible dividing lines between filmed fiction and reality – that which is staged and fanciful and what we might term documentary. 

It does seem like Panahi is somehow dabbling in a fiction willed into reality. But it’s more unnerving than we can imagine even if he’s well aware of the ground he’s treading. His “fictionalized” version of himself struggles to direct a movie remotely across the border in Turkey, while he must remain in the country, dealing with woeful internet connections and kerfuffles with the local populous. We recognize a world around him divvied up and made insufferable by boundaries, borders, rules, and traditions so much so that words and reason seem arbitrary and even religious rites and oaths lack any kind of inerrancy.

He’s currently under arrest by the Iranian government and the dark irony is bracingly apparent. There’s both a bravery and a brazen cavalierness to it all. No Bears contends with both the cultural hypocrisies and the ethics of such a tradition as moviemaking. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be captured and held captive by a camera. Sometimes the camera captures nothing – only the innocuous and the quotidian – still, that doesn’t stop it from being feared. 

Decision to Leave

Decision to Leave is a transfixing tale meditating on the voyeuristic nature of both love and murder. But it’s not just about these themes; it’s about how romance and murder are cut together and potentially become inseparable within this indecipherable realm of the police procedural. It’s certainly not a film without precedent when it comes to the subject matter. It focuses on a detective (Hae il Park) investigating a crime with his primary suspect being the Chinese wife (Tang Wei) of a Korean businessman — a man who recently died in a climbing accident.

It works in the same spirals as Hithcock’s Vertigo as we watch the detective become more infatuated with this enigmatic cipher of a lady. His vocational obligations of interrogation and surveillance fluidly become a personal obsession. It walks this nervy tightrope between bleak romantic drama and dark noir while utilizing exquisite cuts between the past and the present with a precision fluidity bringing to mind something like Antonioni’s Passenger. We are obviously in able hands as our protagonist struggles to stabilize after being sent reeling by the effects of this mesmerizing woman.

Director Park Chan-wook taps into a great many elements that have made fatal noir romances a lasting pillar of crime cinema including entries like Memories of Murder and even Gone Girl. But I became particularly fascinated with how it dealt with this cross-cultural relationship. Somehow Tang Wei perfectly modulates her performance between the innocent heroine and perceived aggressor, and the space is muddied by all the ambiguities that come with interactions totally lost in translation. It weaves together a genuinely tragic romance on an emotional plane full of pathos with a mystery thriller ratcheted up by immense tension.

But there’s also a poeticism to the movie going beyond mere visual aesthetics. These motifs probably deserve further consideration – I’m thinking especially of the juxtaposition of imagery between the mountain and the sea – even as the film itself has much to offer a ready audience. The subsequent ending exhibits the fated doom deeply entrenched in the noir tradition. Otherwise, on a broader scale, Korean cinema continues to offer the world stage numerous dark, surreptitious delights. This entry just happens to be a canny hybrid of all of Park Chan-wook’s earlier predilections ready for consumption.


You will not find anything spurious or mean-spirited here. In its place is a tableau built out of an intricate array of personal observations. Charlotte Wells has effectively harnessed one of the most powerful attributes of film: its capacity to capture time in a bottle both refracted through our memories and the frames of celluloid space. Many of us are familiar with home movies. Our fathers may have captured them or we gathered our friends together to make some two-bit swashbucklers (even Speilberg’s Fabelmans is deeply indebted to them).

But I was also reminded of this year’s 3 Minutes A Lengthening. Because Wells has dealt with time in a similar manner. In honing in on a moment — this seemingly mundane weekend between a father and his daughter — the director has collapsed a relationship down to its essence in a way most of us can intuitively understand. For many of us, time has probably gotten away with us, and we look back on childhood with warmth if not a glassy-eyed longing. 

Paul Mescal leads the father-daughter tandem with a kind of composure that feels ageless and still constantly unfathomable. He is a man caught between fatherhood and a life he seemingly lost as he navigates his own insecurities through meditation and Tai Chi. What makes it work is how present he seems in the moment. He’s not a perfect father by any means, but he seems like a genuine one – he desires to be available to his daughter. However, the bountiful shared history only works if he has an able foil, and Frankie Corio has a lucid precociousness we see in all the finest child stars – exuding naturalism directors can only dream of.

Because her point of view is so crucial to this piece. Rather like a mundane Fallen Idol (1948), it is through her eyes that we must both mediate between past memories and the present. We appreciate her childlike gaze and also the ruminations of her older avatar. In truth, we are all navigating this in between amidst the past and present, the living and the dead. It might seem drastic but surely this is what movies are for – allowing us to grapple with these very things in the most poetic way possible.  

The Fabelmans 

It’s easy for films about a filmmaker’s own experiences to come off a bit narcissistic, but what better way is there to write what you know? In the case of Steven Spielberg, he feels like a generally beloved figure and so this act of self-reflection feels as much like a gift to the audience as it is a visual autobiography. In other words, I doubt many will begrudge him for taking the opportunity. Many have pointed out that Spielberg’s films always have some semblance of divorce and fractured families at their core.

Upon watching The Fabelmans, my mind drifted to the interview Speilberg did with James Lipton for the Actor’s Studio. Lipton connected how in Close Encounters of a Third Kind, humanity communicates with the aliens by making music on their computers – subconsciously Spielberg seems to be tapping into his childhood: His father the kind, pragmatic computer scientist, his mother the free-spirited artist. An entire oeuvre of movies would not exist without their influence and Michelle Wiliams and Paul Dano bring them to us with tender aplomb.

Late-period Spielberg has given us great period pieces like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. For me, these lack the immediacy of his earlier works, and yet, again, I hardly begrudge him because there’s still a wide-eyed joy to each new project. He hasn’t lost that fervor and that’s even more evident when tackling his own family, though he’s now a more seamless technician than ever. In recreating many of his real childhood films, we recognize all the seeds of ingenuity, and it’s possible to see the invention plucked out of necessity.

Whether it’s crashing trains or school bullies, movies gave Spielberg a conduit to take control and gain mastery over what he could not fully comprehend. He’s warned, “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth, but it can also leave you lonely.” It’s a heady portent even as he watches his parents’ relationship disintegrate in front of his eyes and through celluloid (It felt like a far more heart-wrenching version of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

Still, for any cinephiles or budding directors, it’s easy to see this man (or boy) as a kindred spirit. It’s like a code – carbon dating his childhood by the movies he watches – and sure enough, we see him enthralled by John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). What’s more, in an inspired piece of casting, the old master makes a cameo. It depicts another piece of mythology deeply steeped in Spielbergian lore. As they say, the rest was history. Jaws, E.T., Indy, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and so many more. What a lineage to celebrate. I feel like I know him better than ever before because he has done something far from self-aggrandizing; he has let us in with a level of profound transparency.

Banshees of Inisherin 

I recall watching a documentary called Godspeed about an American priest who was transplanted to Ireland as his new parish. It was a culture shock because outside of the hustle and bustle of the big city or even comfortable western suburbia, he was forced to live a very different sort of life – one of very close proximity. They always say you can’t pick your family, but in a tiny society like this, you can’t well pick your friends either. That story focused on how such a lifestyle forces you to be known by those around you.

Somehow Martin McDonough deals in some dark inverse of this. What if the person you know most in the world – the one you call your dearest companion and drinking buddy – now wants nothing to do with ya’? What are you supposed to do and how do you react in these circumstances? Banshees of Inisherin is a fable and a character study relying mightily on the written wit of McDonaugh’s bleak quill, and the quibbling, deeply heartfelt performances of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

The panoramas of Ireland are right out of a storybook like we expect them, but this is a harsh, acerbic tale, which also happens to be astutely funny. I’ve not always been a ready audience for the Irishman’s work, but somehow I appreciated this far more than I expected. Sometimes being kind is far more potent than leaving a creative legacy – sometimes that is the legacy – and yet McDonough doesn’t stop there. He leaves his feuding rivals to their own devices. And we are left to pick up the pieces (including a ghastly array of severed fingers).

My own first name is Irish Gaelic and with that comes a modicum amount of pride. It feels alive and pulsing with all sorts of history I cannot begin to articulate. Because McDonough and the majority of his cast have Ireland in their blood, somehow it adds profound layers to this story. It’s as if they understand the intimacy and pain of this landscape in almost unknowable ways. Their world is full of rich lineage and a fierce sense of identity which is as much about community as it is about strife and civil discord. It really does feel like a constant battle. 

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio

It plays like the anti-Disney version of Pinocchio, and it’s more than vindicated in its creative choices. There’s nothing sanitized or streamlined about any of its contours and though I have not seen the Robert Zemeckis version, the source material does seem to fit Del Toro more intuitively. It feels like it can be an earthier more generous version of the tale without saccharine sentiment. The beloved story is placed against the backdrop of 1930s fascism and this measured creative decision evokes something of Jojo Rabbit if not Fellini’s Amarcord, even as Pinocchio is generally a narrative of childish disobedience and ultimate redemption.

Pinocchio is created by Gepetto out of the tragedy of the war and although he’s a beloved creation, he’s a seemingly horrid little boy. To be a fully animated, living, breathing human being is to know the fallibility of the human frame and the depths of death and tragedy. It’s no coincidence Gepetto spends much of the movie toiling away to rebuild the crucifix for the local church. Here is a symbol of the need for absolution even as Pinocchio’s ever-growing nose is a glaring reminder of how often he falters.  

As a child, I abhorred, not the Disney film, but Carlo Collodi’s original children’s book because Pinocchio is such a reprehensible tyke. Del Torro gets that right and his world is fanciful, but not while totally disregarding danger and ugliness. Because this is what the world of fairy tales was made for beyond tangible history and Mussolini. Fantasy sets up parameters for a space outside of our own that nevertheless deals with the most unspeakable and difficult issues that children know to be true so that within this context of safety, they might come to terms with them.

While there’s a talking cricket (Ewan MacGregor), a scowling monkey (Cate Blanchett), half-dead bunnies, and a warty behemoth of a leviathan, what really speaks to us are themes of friendship, fatherhood, and ultimately, sacrifice. As best as I can understand, this is the eucatastrophe Tolkien speaks about where all sad things become untrue. 

Hit The Road

Hit The Road is probably the most genuinely funny movie I’ve seen and part of this is because of the dubious undercurrent. This unease goes unspoken for much of the story, but we recognize it’s there as something that has precipitated this entire journey. I found myself giggling all the way through because each of these characters feels so fully realized with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies we can appreciate even as they feel perfectly calibrated to gripe and annoy one another to no end.

The grousing father with his cast. A chatterbox son who elicits headaches. A mother with maternal instincts constantly worrying about her kids. And an older brother holding onto angst about his future. It’s true these are the markers of a family on a long road trip. But while it’s convenient to provide a comp like Little Miss Sunshine, Panahi is of his own mind and goes off toward a destination of his own design. 

 Rarely do I feel this genuine sense of danger while watching modern films, but whether it’s Tom Cruise’s stellar real-world feats in Top Gun or the societal backdrop of Hit The Road’s Iran, there’s a sense of unease – as if this film in its very conception is a marvelous act of daring expression. Later, the little boy recounts a scene out of the Batman movie where the Scarecrow uses “fear gas.” He’s disregarded by the adults because he doesn’t realize the real weight of his older brother going away.

Again, so much of this is ambiguous and these choices are important. There’s also the decision to shoot another crucial scene from a pronounced distance so our main players feel like mere comic specks on the canvass, but the humor is never far removed from heartbreak. I can’t get the image of the mother driving and singing at the top of her lungs with a forced smile on her face because it’s her only armor against tears. This movie melds both emotions so exquisitely; all that’s left is to marvel at the impact and be totally disarmed. 

Saint Omer

There’s a necessity to Saint Omer’s opening sequences following a literature professor (Kayije Kagame) as she recounts to her class France’s post-war history of shaming female collaborators by shaving their heads for all to see. She makes particular mention of Marguerite Duras’s writing of Hiroshima, Mon Amour – how the author was able to turn these memories of ignominy into a kind of “state of grace.” These moments might feel like a digression, but as the story builds, they become the groundwork for the entire narrative placed before us by director Alice Diop.

Saint Omer has to be one of the most moving courtroom dramas I’ve witnessed in some time. It forgoes using the courtroom premise to build a contentious ever twisting thriller. Movies like this are often won in their grandstanding moments on the stand. Here there’s a completely different approach; this is mostly an understated character piece. 

A French-Sengalese mother and grad student (Guslagie Malanga) is up on the stand for abandoning her 15-month-old baby. Her child eventually washed up on the beach dead. Given the gruesome circumstances, she offers measured, unblinking responses to every line of questioning. Her top almost blends into the wood paneling behind her. We watch as both her shortcomings and her tragedy are laid bare before us and slowly churned through by the pragmatic nature of the courts. The results are imprinted with all sorts of responses, both explicit and implicit, coming from witnesses, judges, jurors, and most stirringly the defendant’s lawyer. “We are all chimera,” she says.

As the proceedings march on, Rama, our literature professor and entry point, grows increasingly affected. She too is Sengalese, also in an interracial relationship, and she identifies deeply with this woman on trial, both for her relational shortcomings and the little indignities she faces. Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” feels like the perfect summation for me in ways that can barely be articulated. This movie is slow, even plodding to my sensibilities, and yet I’m still trying to come to terms with it.

After Yang

Kogonada’s Columbus was a revelatory experience for me because not only did his exquisite work with The Criterion Collection translate to a gorgeous visual aesthetic, he seemed to make the movie I always wanted but had yet to receive. John Cho headlined a picture, and it was a movie about substantive issues. After Yang is a moving follow-up as the director takes a short story and turns it into grounds for how we consider issues of family and grief by way of Yasujiro Ozu.

In his future, Kogonada has created a definition of family in this multicultural world of ours, represented not by rigid uniformity but by vibrant individualism still bonded together by the human qualities of parenthood and care. I know it well and watching After Yang there’s an immediate kinship of a daughter who is grafted into this family like trees brought together by nature. It is natural, and it’s the way we’re often given to explain what adoption looks like. 

Although After Yang is ostensibly about a young girl coping with her feelings after her family’s beloved robot shuts down, again, like Columbus, Kogonada is able to explore so much more. Her father (Colin Farrell) is able to reach back into the android’s memories and recognize his own shortcomings, which also come with startling epiphanies. It might be a mundane conversation they share over tea out of a Werner Herzog documentary or the wide-eyed wonder in which this technosapien (Justin Min) interfaces with the world.

Ironically, media often considers tales where it is the technology pulling us out of our rooted place in our world and society, if not totally undermining it altogether. But perhaps it also has the capacity to bring us closer, whether it’s to our spouses or our children. After Yang is ultimately a hopeful exploration and one worth further consideration. Science fiction such as this requires a resolute belief in the beautiful necessity of human relationships. I want more of it. 

Apollo 10 and ½: A Space Age Childhood

Ever since the early days, Richard Linklater has been intrigued by the capabilities of rotoscoped forms of animation. It certainly gives Apollo 10 and ½ a very distinct visual aesthetic. But what makes the film truly gratifying are the wafts of nostalgia visible throughout its frames. Backed by a Wonder Years-style voiceover from Jack Black, we’re able to fall back into the ’60s of Linklater’s childhood while being inundated with all the pop cultural touchstones and everyday realities that came with life in 1969. NASA and the upcoming moon landing seem to be on everyone’s minds even as siblings and families concern themselves with school or the new records to add to their personal collections (be it The Monkees or Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream). 

I’m a sucker for these trips down memory lane, and not just because I like to wear rose-colored glasses. It has to do more with mimesis and getting to see a fully embodied representation of a time and era I can never know firsthand because I never lived through its banalities as well as its major cultural events. In fact, the rotoscope images accentuate this aura by giving us footage, TV shows, and even record albums we’ve seen before as secondhand artifacts, and still somehow through this animated mediation, they are rejuvenated before our eyes.

Linklater has always been noted for his interest in the mundane, in conversation, and in the depiction of passages in time. These are some of the joys of Apollo 10 and ½, but it’s also given to the flights of fancy that boyish imagination and space exploration seem to condone. We’ve seen many similar meditations from filmmakers even in 2022 alone. Rarely have they seemed totally self-indulgent. Somehow this is another one that feels real, honest, and intimate. 


There’s no way for EO to be viewed outside the cultural purview of Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, another tale about a donkey who bears the burdens of life. It occurs to me there are two kinds of people who undertake such a project. You’re either so full of the brash vainglory of youth, you have no fear or deference to your forefathers. The other option is you’re so along in years, you need not worry about what others think. You go ahead and make the movie anyway because Balthazar was a poignant film well worth paying homage to. 

At 82, Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski fits firmly into the latter category, and I’m so thankful we have this film from him. The longer it goes, the more entrancing it becomes with the four-legged EO as our ready conduit of both the anthropological world around him and also the tranquil, sometimes utter bleakness of nature. The comic inflections of social structures, soccer pitches, and what have you, feel adjacent to some of the great comedies of some of his Czech New Wave brethren. I’m thinking of Fireman’s Ball or even Closely Watched Trains, and yet this is a film made decades later.

He does feel like the last of a catalytic generation and while there is some melancholy that comes with this, it’s also a stirring testament to the labyrinthian journeying that comes with filmmaking. Somehow this donkey represents the road traveled quite well, and it’s far from a Balthazar redux. Skolimowski has enough experience and humanity to make EO stand on his own feet in deeply moving ways.  

Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977): Sci-Fi, Spielberg, and Truffaut

close encounters of the third kind 1.png

Close Encounters is built on a mystery and Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws starts off in a jarring fashion challenging us to stay with him. Because he quickly throws us into the action and suggests this is a sci-fi tale on a global scale.

Bob Balaban, a cartographer-turned-French translator, speaks for all of us trying to figure out what’s going on, yelling out against whirring old WWII fighter engines, “I don’t understand!” Two lines of juxtaposed dialogue are all we need. The planes were reported missing in 1945. But they look brand new! It takes a moment to tease out the dramatic situation, but there we are. The question is how did this happen? As this is a Spielberg creation, we must point our gaze heavenward or more precisely to the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Francois Truffaut somehow feels like a special piece of casting. The Nouvelle Vague director and hero of Spielberg is cast as Lacombe, a French scientist leading a surprisingly cooperative international team.

It’s not simply because this is the only film he acted in that he didn’t also direct. It has to do with his temperament and the subject matter. There’s something serene and utterly profound about Truffaut. He’s deeply human and engaged and yet feels implacable even as everyone else — the Americans especially — seem frantic and harried. He’s a calming force in a literal maelstrom.

Because Spielberg immediately sets the picture up as not only a national but a global storyline with implications for the entire world. It’s not just higher-ups and government officials covertly working on the issue. Extraterrestrial life would mean potential hysteria, especially for the common man. In this regard, he introduces a few stand-ins.

One is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). He loves to tinker, isn’t a particularly devoted father or husband, and he’s a staunch believer his kiddos should grow up with the quality entertainment he had as a kid like Pinocchio, instead of vacuous putt-putt games.

If we are to be honest, Dreyfuss can be a perfectly genial hero in something like American Graffiti or even Jaws, but within this narrative, reflected by his family life, he often comes off whiny and obnoxious, and it hurts his rapport with the audience.

In this particular instance, there’s some difficulty in feeling a true human connection with him even as we are drawn and fascinated by what forces he might have witnessed because that is the million-dollar mystery propelling the picture and keeping humanity agog with visions of UFOs and the great unknown of outer space.

Yes, we are planted in the ’70s so if you want to blame his wife (Terri Garr) for not being a particular understanding or his children for being exasperating you can, but today it just makes him out to be a selfish dolt. This isn’t the same whimsy of some of his cinematic predecessors; it just feels like immaturity.

Sadly, without a substantial protagonist, a Hollywood blockbuster like this can feel intermittently detached and impersonal. It’s not based on lack of effort by the director or the actor. We simply don’t like the man.

It’s much more agreeable to stick with the sci-fi elements because this is where the film really has its deepest successes. Special effects hardly feel like a detriment. They are simple and practical casting just enough of a spell to hold up. But they are not there to do all the heavy lifting.

The first encounter happens when Roy is driving down a country road in his truck only to be ambushed by the most spellbinding sight he’s ever witnessed in his life. It’s greater than any Aurora Borealis and sends his car into a state of zero gravity. The only indication he has after the fact of what he’s just seen is a burning sunburn across the side of his face.

From that point on Roy is doggedly firm in his resolve. It’s almost a primordial urge. He has to see the beautiful lights again, he has to understand them, he needs everyone to appreciate them as much as he does.

One person who does is a single mother, Jillian Guiller, whose little boy Barry has some transcendental encounters in the evening hours, drawn to forces outside of himself — the same forces pulling Roy to something unnameable. In fact, they are the same forces Lacombe is so intent on learning more about. It leads his team traipsing around Mexico, India, Mongolia, etc. all on the trail of this great unexplainable mystery.

For Roy, unadulterated obsession sets in. He can’t get the image out of his head. His wife is frightened. His kids think he’s crazy, and they have every right to. He drags all the family out to stare at the sky. He loses his job. He starts shoveling dirt through the kitchen window with the whole neighborhood watching the spectacle.

With his wife driving off in a tizzy, trying to rescue her family from a maniacal husband who needs mental health, he goes back inside. They fail to see the final destination, the symbol so many people have subconsciously remembered. It’s a clue of where our story must travel.

That leads us to a family road trip — at least one my family took while I was in high school. One of the stops was Devil’s Tower, christened the first National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Like Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest — which I coincidentally saw on the same vacation — Devil’s Tower is an iconic American symbol. Natural and still somehow mystifying even otherwordly. The perfect seat for our finale.

It’s a mesmerizing experience sitting atop Devil’s Tower taking in the bright lights, the musical patterns of communication putting John Williams’ talents to the best possible use. Though it would be lying to say it didn’t verge on monotony in patches, at its very best, Spielberg has an unabashed appreciation for the wide-eyed spectacle and his stroke of genius is taking a very concrete relic and making it so integral to this encounter.

There’s something totem-like, it is a monolith in its own right, and suggests something as ancient as time itself. His other choice is to make the creatures on the other end the most amiable beings imaginable. Years of watching The Thing from Another World and Body Snatchers taught a different paradigm, but Spielberg is an optimist at heart. It shows through and through as the story is carried away by the exponential magic of the final climactic moments.

In many regards, it is a taste. For those still capable of awe where special effects or time or comprehension don’t get in the way of enjoyment, those final moments can indeed be spellbinding. It’s true their trance-like grip reached out to me. The only regret is some of the momentary distractions leading us on this road. It takes a whole lot of roadblocks and digressions to finally get us to our close encounter.

There’s something else nagging inside me. Dreyfuss fulfilled his unerring obsession like an angelic pioneer sent off to the great unknown. He reached the apex as he conceived it. There is nothing more for him to do. Still, one must wonder how exactly are the wife and kids doing at his sister-in-laws? It seems Spielberg has conveniently left the problematic issues of earth behind for the extraterrestrial. Too bad we are not afforded the same luxury.

4/5 Stars


Note: I viewed the Director’s Cut although there is also the previous theatrical cut and the special edition featuring an extended “mothership” scene.

Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg


Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars

That Man from Rio (1964)

our man from rio 1

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.

our man from rio 4

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.

our man from rio 2

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)


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)

theshining3Stanley 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