Friday, December 30, 2016
July 2003, U.S.
Even before SEABISCUIT gets settled into its story of the legendary Thoroughbred race horse and how he came to unexpected success as a huge media sensation, the film begins with a portrait of America and its potential for greatness at the start of the 20th Century with the advent of the automobile and the progression of society surrounding it and other innovations in science and technology. It was truly the land of great opportunity and possibilities for those who were brave enough to take risks and put their best foot forward. This portrait of America is also told through some great sweeping cinematic shots of its colorful landscapes and horses racing across the terrain that would have made a man like John Ford proud.
Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, in a role that greatly echoes his character as Preston Tucker in Francis Ford Coppola's TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988), is a simple man starting out as a bicycle repairman and inevitably working his way over the years into retailing very fine automobiles and obtaining great wealth. America's greatness, however, was soon to come crashing down during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Through black and white still photographs, we get an unsettling look and feeling of how what was once so great could become so destitute. One family, in particular, suffers greatly as their once affluent household of riches becomes a life of living on the streets and scrounging for whatever money they can earn to eat. The oldest son of this family, Red Pollard (played by Toby Maguire) is a boy raised by his father on the great works of literature and poetry. He's also a boy with a gift as a skillful jockey. Such a gift however, cannot save his family from abandoning him in order that he can be raised by an employer with some money and a house. For those of us who can never truly know what it must have been like for families during such a harsh time in American history, even watching a young boy get torn apart from his parents in an act of desperation is truly gut-wrenching, even in a movie.
These two primary characters of the film, along with the lone cowboy and horse trainer Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper) shall inevitably come together to rise above their hard times and sorrows through their association with the horse known as Seabiscuit. The horse, like so many other underdogs of the movies, is an overlooked and undersized character that no one believes in, except those who have been just as badly beaten through life as he has. Not too unlike Robert Redford's character in THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998), Red's sensitivity (even through his constant anger) to Seabiscuit is apparent as he is not only able to tame the great animal, but inspire him, as well, when it comes to displaying his true spirit during the many big races they run together.
Like many sports dramas that propel our spirits to great heights, there's always "the big one" in the end that will determine everything. In SEABISCUIT, however, there are two. The first big race is a match race between only Seabiscuit and the reigning horse champion of America known as "War Admiral". Well, I'm sure you can guess who wins. Even after the big victory, though, the story is still not over. Both Seabiscuit and Red suffer serious injuries and must both bounce back together to overcome the physical challenges. They learn to walk again, ride again and win again...together. The film's final message being, I suppose, those that suffer together can ultimately fix each other, too (makes sense).
As an actor, Toby Maguire has always puzzled me. In one sense, he can repeatedly come off as a truly wimpy type of person (think Peter Parker before his Spider-Man powers!) with no balls or backbone. Is that simply the nature of his repeated roles or just the man's personality, in general. There's there's that other side of him that provokes one into thinking he's not the sort of person who want to mess around with. Does the Jekyll/Hyde persona make such a man more interesting or more confusing? I'm still not sure. Jeff Bridges, of course, soars as he always has throughout his great career in a mixture of emotional states and boundaries that include grieving father and inspirational mentor. Chris Cooper, unlike his brutal role in AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), is a far more sensitive creature who's personal suffering is unclear to us. He's a loner who prefers to spend his time on his own terms sleeping outdoors under the stars. Is he a man who suffered personal loss or is he simply trying to quietly survive the ravages of the Great Depression? We're never quite sure because the film doesn't clearly tell us. We simply accept him as a man who can help others heal, including a horse. And in the end, it's the horse who can help heal America.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Red Pollard (narrating): "You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn't. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too."
Sunday, December 18, 2016
(July 2001, U.S.)
Although not all of them are perfect by any means, I have a special fondness for heist films. It's one of the few cinematic situations where the criminals are genuinely the good guys that you want to root for. Typically, such criminals are not violent or dangerous to the lives of others. In many situations, they're stealing from those that can afford the loss, such as a corporate bank, museum, casino, etc. You want them to get away with it, and you can't help but be on the edge of your seat when things get tense during the actual heist process.
This particular heist film is directed by Frank Oz; yes, the Frank Oz who created many of our beloved muppets, voiced Yoda and directed many great comedies like DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988), WHAT ABOUT BOB? (1991) and IN & OUT (1997). A serious heist film is unlikely something you'd expect from someone who's made us laugh so much (not too unlike Woody Allen's 2005 film MATCH POINT). I suppose we can leave it up to a filmmaker trying something new for the first time to offer us something just a little different from the average heist film, and just as entertaining.
The ultimate payoff this time is an ancient French sceptre believed to be a valuable national treasure and being held under guard in the ultra-secure basement of the Montréal Customs House after being illegally smuggled into Canada inside the wooden leg of a piano. Our thief, or let's be completely honest, our hero in this film is Nick Wells (played by Robert DeNiro) who is a master safe cracker and owner of a popular jazz club and restaurant. Like so many other tales before it, his agreement to take place in the theft of this sceptre will be his last score before finally retiring to his simple life as a club owner and lover to his girlfriend Diane (played by Angela Bassett). The entire operation is being financed by Nick's fence Max (played by Marlon Brando in his final screen role - I'll get to him a little later). And of course, as always, there's a man on the inside who's key to whole success of the operation. Jack Teller (played by Edward Norton), is an ambitious thief who's employed by the Customs House by those who believe him to be a mentally disabled janitor named Brian. As Brian, Jack is almost completely dismissed as an insignificant presence inside the facility who's often permitted to wander, enter and exit as he pleases. This gives him the opportunity to have full layout of the land and its vital security issues that the team will have to crack in order to get their ultimate prize.
Now despite bringing some levels of originality into this film, Frank Oz is surely not exempt from adhering to the traditional textbook rules of the common heist film. Rule one: the thief almost always needs to penetrate his ultimate destination from underground, as Nick is forced to do from the sewer tunnel below the basement where the sceptre is kept. Rule two: there's at least one moment where it looks as though the thief will be caught in the act, as Nick is nearly forced to abort while hanging upside down from a steel beam and is surely expecting to be caught by security guards. Rule three: someone in the end is going to try and double cross the other person out of the score's final payoff, as Jack attempts to do to Nick just before they're about to make their escape with the sceptre in hand. Jack, being a ruthless thief who has seemingly considered everything about this score right down to the last detail, doesn't appear to have the common intelligence or foresight to actually check the carrying case that he's taken off of Nick to make sure the actual sceptre is in it until it's too late and he's on the run from the police. And so, rule four: the ol' "switcheroo"!
Marlon Brando, one of cinema's greatest actors, actually does quite well for this role, bringing an eccentric wit to his character of a wealthy (and seemingly gay) fence and financial front for the score...and this is coming from a man (me!) who swore that Brando should never get in front of the motion picture camera again after his disgusting debacle in the 1996 remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU!). DeNiro is sharp and solid, as always, and Norton continues to prove that he's versatile as a sympathetic simpleton, as well as a man you likely don't want to cross or piss off! In a world of so many heist films to choose from, THE SCORE manages to stand on its own during a traditional summer blockbuster season, even coming from a funny man like Frank Oz.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nick Wells: "How can I be sure you're okay?"
Diane: "I suppose I could fuck you."
Nick: "That would work."
Monday, December 5, 2016
(December 1993, U.S.)
It is my general habit before posting any of my films on this blog to watch the film again just to get a fresh perspective before expressing my thoughts and words. However, at this particular time in my life, I don't feel emotionally strong enough to handle a film as heavy and as tragic as Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST. Rest assured, however, I've seen the film enough times since its release to offer an accurate and faithful post that will accurately reflect my thoughts and feelings on the film.
This epic historical drama of the Holocaust, based on the original novel called SCHINDLER'S ARK by Thomas Keneally, tells the story of German businessman and profiteer Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) and the period of his life during World War II Europe in which he saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jewish prisoners by seeing to it that they were constantly kept under his employment. The film also stars Ben Kingsley as the Jewish accountant of Schindler, Itzhak Stern, and Ralph Fiennes as German SS Officer Amon Göth.
I think rather than continue with any specific plot points about a film that I believe has been seen by not only fans of Spielberg, but by anyone who truly believes in the art of cinema, I will rather reflect on moments of the film that personally touched or affected me in some way. While I take every film I write about to a personal level, I feel more than ever that it's the only real way to approach SCHINDLER'S LIST because it's how a film such as this affects us that makes it so important.
To begin with, the fact that the film is shot almost entirely in black and white is crucial because I cannot imagine this tale being told any other way. Color, in my opinion and many others, I'm sure, is a strong implication of life, spirit and joy. And while this film may end on a somewhat triumphant note, it's a bleak and grim telling of the most horrible period of 20th Century world history, so to tell it any other way would have been wrong.
One of the earliest moments to really catch my attention is, believe it or not, a very light moment in which Spielberg tries to extract a laugh from us within the film. During a montage of scenes when Schindler is interviewing secretaries, the bulk of them are beautiful girls who do not necessarily possess the required skills for the job. Still, Schindler cannot help but swoon over them. The last woman he interviews in unattractive, old enough to be his mother and types with great and efficient speed. The look on Schindler's face is that of disbelief and irritation. Spielberg, who is generally not known for his attempts at comedy (even he admits he's not always funny), may be seeking to lighten the burden on his audience, if for only a very brief moment, because he knows that our emotions are destined to be tried as we face the unspeakable evil and cruelty of the period.
In the film, there are endless Jewish prisoners, some that we come to know a little more than others, given their screen time (Itzhak Stern and the maid Helen Hirsch, being the best examples). The horrors that are bestowed upon them by the Nazis are almost countless and surely as countless as the hoards of people that are victims of it. Yet amidst the great mass of human beings all blended into a black and white tapestry of celluloid, there is the single little girl dressed in the red coat. Who is she and why does Spielberg choose to have her stand out among so many in one of the few moments of color in the film? Besides being a girl that Schindler himself notices among the massacres and then later sees when her body (again, identified by the red coat) is lying among many other corpses in a wagon, she is, perhaps, a symbol and a reminder of the colorful gift of life among so much death. I'm sure I'm likely a minority of this opinion, however. Spielberg himself confesses a very different approach in that she was supposed to symbolize the highest levels of the United States government knowing full well about the Holocaust's existence and choosing to do nothing about it. As he put it...
"It was as obvious as a little girl wearing a red coat, walking down the street, and yet nothing was done to bomb the German rail lines. Nothing was being done to slow down the annihilation of European Jewry. So that was my message in letting that scene be in color."
I'll have to take his word for it, but that still doesn't prevent me from forming my own feelings and interpretation as I've described above, whether they're agreed with or not.
Once again, keeping an optimistic tone in a world where there appears to be no optimism, there is a scene where a young Jewish boy and girl have chosen to be married, even as they live their lives as scared prisoners. They're married by a woman who confesses to not being a Rabbi, but will perform the ritual, nonetheless. As a typically cynical man myself, it's extraordinary that I can appreciate and even by touched by such an optimistic and hopeful institution as the vows of marriage taking place right smack in the middle of the refugee prison.
Throughout the film, we've come to understand early on that Oskar Schindler is a kind-hearted man who is deeply affected by the course of action being a member of Nazi Party is taking on his life and his business. There are numerous moments of mercy and sympathy that saves the lives of many of his workers, but it is the heat of the train and the hoses that I am constantly drawn to. Trapped like animals inside the train boxcars, prisoners are suffering in the scorching heat. In an almost trivial and nonchalant manner, Schindler urges Amon Göth to indulge him and spray the water hoses at the opening of the box cars to cool the prisoners off. By his facial expression, he appears to be treating the entire matter as if it were comical, but we know that his heart is in the right place to show mercy to the people. To be obvious about it in front of his SS superiors would surely mean trouble for him, even as he must sit there and listen to Amon Göth claim that his sympathy in itself is the worst kind of cruelty he can show these people. Again, it's a brief moment of light in a world of darkness.
Finally, there is the moment when the war has ended. The officers in Schindler's factory have been ordered to kill the remaining Jewish prisoners, but are convinced not to in order that they can return to their families as "men" instead of murderers. This is a poignant moment, indeed, but it's what follows later that just gets me in my most sensitive area. At the moment that Schindler bids a farewell to his surviving worker before fleeing as a member of the Nazi Party, his people present him with the engraved ring that quotes, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." Touched and deeply ashamed of who he has been in all of this, Schindler breaks down in their arms, claiming he could have done more to save more. Like laughter, crying can be contagious on film, and it's impossible not to feel for Oskar Schindler, regardless of his affiliation with unspeakable evil. By the time the film is nearing its end, black and white has converted to color and we are witness the actual Schindler Jews visiting Schindler's grave site in Jerusalem. The real people are accompanied by the actors who portrayed them in the film, each of them placing a stone on his grave (this moment just gets me every time!). What Spielberg must have undertaken to actually find these people after so long in order to bring their extraordinary tale to such an uplifting conclusion, is beyond me!
So what shall our final reflection and interpretation of SCHINDLER'S LIST be? How shall we, our children and our children's children come to view what is undoubtedly the most respected motion picture of Steven Spielberg's magical career? Shall we say that the big kid who loved aliens, archaeological adventures, Peter Pan and dinosaurs finally grew up with this one? No, I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned, he did that back in the 1980s with THE COLOR PURPLE and EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Shall we say that Spielberg finally comes to terms with his Jewish roots and faith, something he may have chosen to dismiss throughout most of his life prior to the making of the film? That, of course, is a reasonable assessment, as he has sought to make a film that is, by far, the most personal, intense and deeply uplifting piece of cinema he's ever offered us. Or shall we simply say, with immense gratitude, that the film finally tells a tale of the human spirit behind its will to survive during one of the darkest times of our own humanity that should never be forgotten? That is likely what I'll tell my own son when his time comes to watch SCHINDLER'S LIST. Perhaps I'll even show him the introduction by Spielberg himself that he recorded when NBC-TV premiered the film on February 23, 1997, uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, at Spielberg's request, in which he stated...
"I want you and especially parents to know that Schindler's List is more explicit and more graphic than anything you may have seen before on network television. I made the film for this and future generations so they would know and never forget that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and that history cannot be denied. I cannot be honest to that history or to the memory of its victims without depictions of violence and suffering...So tonight, in your homes, you will experience the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, a member of the Nazi Party, a womanizer and a war profiteer, who saved the lives of more than eleven hundred Jews."
I saw SCHINDLER'S LIST early in 1994 with some friends. When the film ended, the entire theater was like a morgue, not only in its dead silence, but in the feeling of sorrow that was in the air. My friends and I did not speak to each other for nearly twenty minutes. It wasn't until later in the restaurant, after ordering our beers and burgers, that we were finally able to break down our personal walls and discuss to great length, the motion picture we had just witnessed and would never forget. I cannot imagine that anyone other than Steven Spielberg could have done such a thing to our emotions. For that, I thank him!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Amon Göth: "This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that. That's cruel!"