Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List (1993) Director: Steven Spielberg

“Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.”

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★★★★★

Schindler’s List is a beautiful but harrowing and sobering holocaust film shot almost entirely in black and white. Amazingly, Spielberg was unsure about the project, and he tried several times to pass the film to other directors (like Roman Polanski, a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, who turned down this opportunity, but he later famously made his own holocaust film, The Pianist). Not only is Schindler’s List a lengthy and powerful film for ordinary audiences to watch, but also, as shooting was underway in Poland, Steven Spielberg was overwhelmed with emotions connected to his own Jewish heritage. It was a deeply gut-wrenching experience Apparently, Robin Williams called Spielberg regularly to tell him jokes and cheer him up during filming.

1993 was a monumental year for Steven Spielberg. He shot both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List at the same time. Both are excellent movies -some of the best of the era. Schindler’s List is based on a 1982 Thomas Keneally novel called “Schindler’s Ark.” The novel won the Book Prize.

“Stern, if this factory ever produces a shell that can actually be fired, I’ll be very unhappy.”

The story is based on the true account of Oskar Schindler, a factory businessman and member of the Nazi party who wound up saving over a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Schindler is played by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes plays the somewhat unbelievably brutal and sadistic Nazi S.S. Officer, Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley plays Schindler’s friend and accountant, Itzhak Stern. Both Neeson and Fiennes were relatively unknown prior to Schindler’s List. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Schindler is not merely a playboy businessman, but rather he becomes a sympathizer and savior of many victims of the holocaust. In fact, he risks his life, money, and credibility to save as many Jews from the gas chambers as possible. In one particularly memorable scene, as the ghetto is liquidated, one girl wearing a red coat appears (one of the only moments of color in the film). We later learn that she has been slaughtered in one of the camps.

“The list is an absolute good. The list is life.”

As the war ends, Schindler is forced to flee in hiding while consumed with regret and wishing he had done more. In reality, the real Schindler fled Germany for Argentina where he became a farmer, eventually going bankrupt and relying on funds from Jewish organizations to stay afloat. Amon Göth was later captured after the war and hanged, following the Nuremberg trials.

The closing scenes of the film are some of the most powerful. Many years later, we see huge lines of families visiting the grave of Oskar Schindler in Jerusalem to pay their respects by placing stones on his grave marker. Many of the true survivors from Oskar Schindler’s factory walk arm in arm with their actor counterparts at the end of the movie. The real Schindler died in 1974.

Moonlight

Moonlight (2016) Director: Barry Jenkins

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★★☆☆☆

Moonlight is a warped bildungsroman film told in three separate parts about a young black boy and his extraordinary struggles through adolescence and adulthood. The film was directed by Barry Jenkins, a rising African American film director. To date, Moonlight is his most memorable film.

The story is based on a somewhat autobiographical 2003 play entitled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a successful playwright and chair of the Yale School of Drama. It tells the “coming-of-age” story of Chiron (pronounced “shy-rone” -though phonetically spelled the same as Chiron, the wise centaur and teacher of Achilles in ancient Greek mythology). The setting of the film is outside Miami, Florida in a wholly African-American community. The story begins in Chiron’s youth. We meet his crack-addicted mother, and a friendly, good-natured drug dealer who cares for Chiron in his mother’s absence. The drug dealer calmly tells Chiron that it’s okay to be gay. In adolescence, Chiron is regularly picked on by a school bully. One shocking evening, he has an uncomfortable sexual encounter with his good friend, Kevin (or “Kev”). However, the following day, Kev is forced by the school bully to beat up Chiron. After he is insufferably knocked down and beaten, Chiron returns the next day, and he severely injures the bully by unexpectedly bashing a chair over his head. This lands Chiron in Juvenile Hall. Lastly, years later we catch-up with Chiron in adulthood. He has become a drug dealer. His mother is in rehab, and one day he gets a call to visit his old friend and nemesis, Kev, who is now a cook at a diner in Atlanta. They have not seen one another since the traumatic events from the second part of the film. They discuss life and Chiron shares that Kev is the only sexual experience he has ever had.

Moonlight was praised as a masterpiece upon its release by critics, though it did poorly financially (prior to winning awards). It won the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars, as well as the parallel award at the Golden Globes. During the annual Academy Awards celebration, a rare mix-up was made and La La Land was announced as the winner, but this was quickly revised. It was an embarrassing faux pas for the Academy.

Moonlight beat other films for Best Picture, including Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea.

Much of the praise for Moonlight seems to focus on “raising awareness” of social issues, like race and sexual identity. However, the movie is unfortunately light on artistic merits, and, is remarkably cliché and melodramatic. For example, why is the character of Chiron so unbelievably innocent, naive, silent, and unassuming? Also, how is it that a hardened drug dealer at the beginning of the film suddenly cares about a little boy and the ethics of his mother’s drug use? Many of the characters in Moonlight test the audience’s patience and verisimilitude. Lastly, and most importantly, the scenes of youthful eroticism in the film are jarring and distasteful, not progressive and empowering. As in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, early teenage sexuality in film is unnecessary, unpleasant, and it distracts from the film’s larger purpose (though in Moonlight the child-sexuality is apparently central to the plot of the film for some reason). Speaking of which, the plot of Moonlight is wandering, and the tone is dark, jaded, and hopeless. There is no cathartic moment: nothing gained, nothing lost. Just unending bleakness without the promise of redemption. I tend to prefer films that elevate the human spirit, or offer a glimpse of hope, rather than films that dig the audience into a dark pit and then abandon redemption in the end.

The narratological framework of the film is told in a brilliant way – the tripartite portrayal of three memorable moments in the life of Chiron. Apparently the director, Barry Jenkins, kept each of the three different actors apart to highlight the different stages of Chiron’s life. There are some remarkable scenes of unique cinematography (long, direct close-ups where we hear characters speaking before their mouth moves). However, unfortunately this film is perhaps a better tool for a college sociology class than a truly great film.

Grand Hotel (1932) Review

Grand Hotel (1932) Director: Edmund Goulding

“Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”

★★★★★

The wunderkind of MGM, Irving Thalberg, could seemingly do no wrong. The Best Picture winner in 1932, Grand Hotel offers a wonderfully glamorous picture, perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for Hollywood in the ’30s. It is curiously one of the only films to win the top award without being nominated in any other category. The film boasts an all-star cast of Greta Garbo as the dancer, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore -popular dubbed “the greatest cast ever assembled.” Director Edmund Goulding acquired the nickname “Lion Tamer” for his ability to deal with the many temperamental Hollywood stars, and Grand Hotel was no exception.

William A. Drake’s screenplay for Grand Hotel was based on his own play adaptation of a 1929 best-selling novel “Menschen im Hotel” (translated ‘People at the Hotel’) by Vicki Baum, a former Berlin hotel chambermaid. MGM purchased the movie rights for $35,000. The film premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles amid much fanfare.

Grand Hotel both opens and closes with the musings of Doctor Otternschlag (played by Lewis Stone), an injured veteran from the war, who states that at the Grand Hotel, it is “always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”

The Grand Hotel in Berlin is a ritzy, art-deco hotel from a long bygone era of class and sophistication. The plot of the film is episodic. We follow the stories of five central characters -the start of the film reveals their separate telephone conversations- including the Baron (played by John Barrymore), a broke aristocrat who has resorted to thieving; Mr. Kringelein (played by Lionel Barrymore), a dying man looking to finish his life by spending his savings, an industrial businessman named Director Preysing (played by Wallace Beery), and Flaemmchen (played by Joan Crawford) who is a stenographer. The Baron flirts with Flaemmchen but then falls in love with a ballerina dancer (played by Greta Garbo), much to the dismay of Flaemmchen, who works for Director Preysing. However, when the Baron tries to rob the industrialist Director, he is killed sending many into grief but the hotel quickly moves on. The Director goes to jail, Flaemmchen and Mr. Kringelein go to Paris. The ballerina goes to her next show, thinking the Baron will be on the train. The luxury and opulence continue onward unabated.

“I want (‘vant’) to be alone”
-Greta Garbo famously utters this line, perhaps as a nod to her famously reclusive lifestyle.

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Review

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Director: Lewis Milestone

“I saw him die. I didn’t know what it was like to die before!”

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★★★★★

One of the great war films of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front is both harrowing and haunting in its graphic depiction of trench warfare and the madness of the ‘Great War’ –a truly memorable film that remains with viewers long after watching. All Quiet on the Western Front is based on Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of the same name published in 1929 and later banned by the Nazis. Remarque gained experienced first-hand as a German soldier during World War I before he was severely injured with shrapnel wounds during which time he struggled to re-acclimate himself to civilian life, a key theme in the story. The film was made on a budget of $1.25 million for Universal Pictures, under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr., and shot on open ranchlands in California with over 2,000 extras featured.

A deservedly well-celebrated film, All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Best Picture. The film opens with a title reading:

“This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war…”

The plot begins in a small German town where young soldiers are headed off to war. In the schoolhouse, a German professor explains to his students the heroism of the warriors who go to fight and die for the homeland. All the boys rise up in a fit of rapture, elevated by their teacher’s jingoism. All the young men rush to enlist in the German Imperial Army, especially Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).

Together the boys are put through a grueling boot camp before being marched to the front lines on the Western front where they encounter a horrendous lack of food, clothing, shelter, and they face continual bombing from the French army. Their trenches are invaded by rats, forced into hand-to-hand combat, and find themselves routinely driven to the point of sheer insanity waiting for the explosions to stop.

During a moment of pause, while on temporary leave, they ask themselves how a war is started. Does a mountain in Germany get mad at a field in France? The boys have nothing against the Frenchmen personally. They bemoan the richness of the Kaiser and the manufacturers who get rich off the war. Paul then visits his wounded friend whose legs have been amputated. The boots of the dying are passed to the boots of the living –from one soldier to another.

In the next battle, Paul is trapped in a foxhole and stabs a Frenchman to death. The man slowly dies agonizingly throughout the night and in the morning Paul apologizes to the unknown man’s corpse. He rummages through the soldier’s things where he finds a photograph of the man’s two children and Paul weeps. Later Paul is hit with shrapnel (just like Erich Maria Remarque), and he is sent to the hospital before eventually going home on leave only to find that things are not the same. He returns to his old classroom to find the same jingoistic professor still whipping up more young children into a rage of nationalism to fight for Germany. Paul contradicts the professor and explains the horrible brutality of war. He is then shamefully castigated as a coward.

With no place to go, Paul returns to the front only to find two of his old comrades are still alive, the rest of the soldiers are baby-faced young boys aged sixteen. While greeting one of his comrades they are both hit by a bomb and his comrade dies. In despair, Paul wanders aimlessly out to the trench and rests at the Gatling gun. During a rare moment of calm, he notices a small butterfly resting amidst the carnage. While reaching down to pick it up, a French sniper shoots and kills Paul before he can grab hold of the butterfly.

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The film ends with scenes of a young troupe of soldiers as they silently march off to war –the boys appear tired, scared, and helpless. The effect is striking.

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