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.

Moonraker

Moonraker (1979) Director: Lewis Gilbert

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★★☆☆☆

Moonraker is the eleventh Eon James Bond film, the fourth to star Roger Moore, and the third Bond film directed by Lewis Gilbert: You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979). Moonraker was the third Bond novel published by Ian Fleming, initially released in 1954. The producers originally intended to create For Your Eyes Only (as originally shown in the closing credits of the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me), however with the rise of the recent Star Wars mania, they decided to go with the space theme for James Bond.

At the outset of the film, a Moonraker space shuttle is hijacked in midair so M summons James Bond to investigate. While on the plane en route to England, Bond’s plane is also hijacked by Jaws, the towering henchman from the previous film, and the credits open with a dramatic skydiving scene. Immediately, we get a sense of how goofy this film will be when a midair Bond steals a parachute from the falling assassin, and instead Jaws falls, not to his death, but gently onto a comical circus tent. James Bond is then sent to California, to the headquarters of Drax Industries, the manufacturer the Moonraker the space shuttle. He meets the sinister head of the company, Hugo Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale -the role for which he is best known), along with his Samurai henchman, Chang (Toshiro Suga), and Dr. Holly Goodhead (played by Lois Chiles -the role for which she is best known). Bond tests the centrifuge chamber when Dr. Goodhead is called away and Chang disrupts the test, nearly killing Bond as he spins around in circles. That evening, Bond sleeps with Drax’s pilot who feeds him blueprint information of a glass vial made in Venice, so the next day when Bond goes hunting with Drax (for some reason) and Bond deliberately shoots a marksman out of a tree, and Drax sends his attack dogs after his pilot. In a dark scene for a Bond film, she is hunted and killed by the dogs.

Bond trails the lead to Venice where he, once again, encounters Dr. Goodhead, and he realizes she is a spy, as well. They learn that the glass vials are being designed to distribute toxic nerve gas, and we see a ridiculous gondola boat chase scene through Venice. Bond is attacked by Chang, but he kills Chang by tossing him through the clocktower at Saint Mark’s Square. In another ridiculous scene, Jaws falls in love with a woman he meets. Bond and Goodhead then follow Drax’s business to Rio de Janeiro -Bond travels even after being dismissed by MI6, as they were disappointed in Bond’s lack of information about the nerve gas vials. Bond survives various attacks by Jaws. Bond travels down the Amazon River to Drax’s base. The last portion of the film takes place at a large space station where Drax is apparently attempting to create a master race of humans -an act which offends Jaws so he turns on Drax. This is followed by an absurd space laser battle, and Bond launches Drax into space. Bond and Goodhead escape in a pod, as do Jaws and his new girlfriend, Dolly.

Moonraker was created with the astronomical budget (no pun intended) of $34M, approximately twice as much as budget for The Spy Who Loved Me. And the high budget worked, fat least from a financial perspective, because Moonraker became the highest grossing James Bond film up to that point, a feat that was only later upstaged when Goldeneye was released.

Whereas in the early days Sean Connery had sophistication and wit, Roger Moore’s James Bond of the ’70s was sort of like a silly uncle always making uncouth jokes with a face that seemed to say: “I didn’t do it.” Aside from being a visually impressive film, Moonraker is a pretty terrible movie. It is almost like a parody of the James Bond series. Roger Moore is starting to show his age, and the once dynamic and intense James Bond chase scenes feel slapstick and campy. Perhaps the biggest eye-roll of the movie comes when Jaws, the menacing and fearsome henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me, falls in love with an awkward young girl. The element of space travel is something new for Bond, but it is an obvious grab at the popularity of Star Wars at the time. Though I enjoyed it more than I thought I would watching it through this time around, Moonraker ranks among the worst of the James Bond movies for me.

The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) Director: Lewis Gilbert

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★★★★☆

The Spy Who Loved Me is the tenth Eon James Bond film, the third and by far the best of the Roger Moore Bond series. The title is derived from the Ian Fleming novel -apparently Fleming disliked this novel so much that he refused to release it in order to prevent it from being made into a film, so studio executives simply created a whole new plot but kept the title. They also wanted to re-introduce the infamous Blofeld character, after the somewhat lackluster villains in the previous two Roger Moore Bond films, but, once again, they were unable to acquire the rights for either Blofeld or SPECTRE due to ongoing issues with the copyright holder Kevin McClory. The Spy Who Loved Me is the first James Bond film made solely with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli as the producer, after his unfortunate falling out with Harry Saltzman. Previously, Saltzman and Broccoli were the dynamic duo who produced every prior James Bond film through their company Eon Productions, overseeing the franchise from a small-budget novelty film into a massive blockbuster series.

The Spy Who Loved Me opens with the mysterious disappearance of two submarines: one British and the other Soviet. The Soviets call up their best agent, Major Anya Amasova (a.k.a. Agent XXX, played by Barbara Bach -wife of Ringo Starr), and the British call up their best agent, James Bond (a.k.a. 007), who is predictably in bed with a woman in Austria, but when he gets the call he sports a vibrant yellow suit and starts skiing downhill away from a group of villains until he plunges off a massive cliff and opens a parachute revealing the British flag -the “Union Jack.” One of the skiing henchmen he kills is a rival agent -who turns out to be Amasova’s former lover at the beginning of the film. Bond then travels to Egypt to seek out recently stolen microfilm plans for a highly advanced submarine tracking system, where he meets up with Amasova. The two reluctantly join forces, realizing they have mutually shared objectives in this case. Bond also encounters a massive henchman who is seemingly indestructible with steel teeth named Jaws (played by Richard Kiel -a 7 foot 2 inch tall man who struggled with gigantism all his life until his death in 2014. He also reprised the role of Jaws in Moonraker). Bond and Amasova encounter Jaws in a train scene that contains strong echoes of From Russia With Love.

Both agents learn that the man behind the submarine attacks is a megalomaniacal billionaire named Karl Stromberg (played by Curd Jürgens). Stromberg brings the two scientists who developed the submarine tracking down to his submerged vessel “Atlantis” to thank them, but he demonstrates his power to them by shockingly dropping his secretary into the shark tank where she is killed for stealing information from Stromberg. He then allows the two scientists to escape but he blows up their helicopter shortly thereafter for some reason. 007 and XXX travel to Sardinia to investigate Stromberg’s secret base. Posing as a married couple, they infiltrate the base and learn that Stromberg has ofthe massive underwater base called “Atlantis.” They are captured, and Amasova learns that Bond killed her lover. She vows to kill Bond after the mission. Stromberg reveals his plan to use the two captured Soviet and British submarines to launch nuclear warheads from each, thus spawning a massive nuclear holocaust, while Stromberg remains secluded in his underwater lair, Atlantis. He hopes to create a new civilization under the sea. He takes Amasova as his prisoner down to the Atlantis, meanwhile Bond escapes his captivity and he frees the trapped British and Soviet submariners and they reprogram the submarines not to fire the nuclear warheads. Next, Bond goes to Atlantis to rescue Amasova -he encounters Jaws again and throws him into Stromberg lethal shark tank, but instead Jaws kills the shark and survives. Bond and Amasova leave in an escape pod together and Amasova decides against killing Bond. They are rescued by the British Royal Navy. Meanwhile, Jaws escapes the destroyed Atlantis and we see him swimming off into the ocean at the end.

The featured song at the outset of the film is performed by Carly Simon entitled “Nobody Does It Better” -a surprisingly apropos song. Interestingly enough, the cinematography for the film was done by Claude Renoir, son of the actor, Pierre Renoir, and the grandson of the famous Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my favorite Bond films, or at least my favorite from the Roger Moore era. The mystery and intrigue surrounding a villain who desires to build a submerged, deep-sea civilization is amusing and compelling all at once. Also, the introduction of Bond working together with an enemy, albeit reluctantly, and then falling in love with a rival Soviet spy is a new twist. The Spy Who Loved Me is a welcome departure from Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun.

Stagecoach (1939) Review

Stagecoach (1939) Director: John Ford

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★★★★★

Stagecoach brought about a revival in the Western genre, which had largely fallen out of favor in the late ’20s and ’30s. The Western is a mythic depiction of the Western country and prairie, a largely historically untrue heroic story of courage and goodness in an amoral land of savages and wilderness. It reaffirms the American cultural mythology of hard work and rugged individualism. In the late ’20s, after the end of the silent era, Westerns had lost popularity as a flood of “B Pictures” came in and brought about a kind of cheapness to the Western genre. John Ford’s previous silent Western was 3 Bad Men in 1926 (he also made the notable The Iron Horse in 1924). He didn’t return to making Westerns until he made Stagecoach in 1939.

The plot of the film is based on a short story called “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox, an American Western writer. Ford purchased the rights to the story shortly after its magazine publication in 1937. It tells the story of a group of strangers in the 1880s who each board a stagecoach for a dangerous trip from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The tight narrative keeps the Chaucerian purpose from wandering too far. Two riders (one a Cheyenne) approach an army camp from out of the vast and desolate terrain of Arizona/New Mexico. A telegraph arrives with only one word: “Geronimo,” the vicious Apache warlord. The scene casts a dark shadow over the film. Each character plays a classic Western trope, an archetype we think we understand, but in Stagecoach, not everything is as it seems. Each character has considerably greater depth than initial impressions allow. The rugged outlaw “Ringo the Kid” only ever killed to defend his family, the high society woman who gives birth to a child that the prostitute ends up being the best caregiver for, the shady gambler is actually descended from a high-class Southern family, the drunkard who is a doctor who winds up sobering up to deliver a baby and stand up to the Kid’s enemies; the pillar of the community banker winds up being an untrustworthy thief; the hard-nosed marshal changes his tune at the end of the film with the doctor by letting Ringo escape to his ranch in the name of true love.

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The film is a vision of a unified America – in which Americans of all classes and backgrounds with differing perspectives on the Civil War or morality – can join together against a common enemy and reach their destination. All characters are complex, none are above ill-repute. They are all a part of civilization with different reasons for embarking on the journey. It is a film of redemption, told by reframing the heroes of the Western genre. In the end, the U.S. cavalry overcomes their duty to return to Tonto and they rescue the stagecoach from impending doom against attacking Apaches, bolstering the American value of the “greater good” (i.e. the cavalry managed to overcome their social demands and limiting bureaucracy to defend those in need). Ringo kills his enemies in Lordsburg, and he is freed by the marshal with the doctor so that he may settle down with his paramour, the call-girl turned caregiving wife, while the banker is arrested for thievery. As Ringo rides off into the sunset, the doc says: “Well they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” In the end, only the timid salesman, whose name no one seems to remember (“Peacock”), is shot by an Apache arrow, and Hatfield, the son of a former Confederate judge is killed (moments before he attempted to mercy kill the high-class lady with his final bullet, thus sparing her of torture by the Indians). This notion of chivalry is another common theme in the film – each of the characters (men of all persuasions) greatly avow and respect chivalry toward women, the Confederate toward the high-class woman, and the outlaw for the prostitute.

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It was the first of many films shot by Ford in the “Monument Valley” in Arizona, close to the border with Utah. Ford had a difficult time re-introducing the “Western” genre which had gone out of fashion in the ’30s, and he was obstinate in his demand that John Wayne play the lead, who was largely unknown at the time despite acting in other movies. It was a request that Ford’s producers were not fond of. He also requested Claire Trevor, who was paid nearly five times as much as John Wayne for the film. Ford followed Stagecoach with Young Mr. Lincoln, also released in 1939, as well as The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 (read my review of the film here) and How Green Was My Valley in 1941 (read my review of the film here).

Stagecoach is surely one of the greatest movies ever made (a tag that can be given to a number of films made in the year 1939). Orson Welles claimed it was a textbook-perfect film. He preferred the “old masters” meaning John Ford, John Ford, John Ford. Ford’s style was simple, moving the camera sparingly, shooting only what was necessary. Dialogue is limited in the film, as Ford prefers to let the action tell the story, with long shots of panning the camera, or extended shots of actors’ faces. Gordon Douglas attempted an inferior remake of the film in the ’60s.