Schindler’s List (1993)
  • Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
  • Written by: Steven Zaillian. Based on Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally.
  • Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Ezra Dagon, Malgoscha Gebel.
  • Rated: R.

Last weekend I saw four movies: The Graduate, The Queen, Schindler’s List, and The Green Mile, in that order. I first reviewed The Queen. It was a straightforward biopic with little to object to and little to offer beyond its running time. But it was a pleasant experience, and my review came easily. Next I reviewed The Graduate. My opinion wasn’t as solidly formed as with The Queen, but I was quite sure about what I was going to say and how I would analyze the movie. I got around to reviewing The Green Mile and found it easy enough to review. It was a film that pretended to bear great emotion but, upon observation, found little. These reviews were all straightforward, perhaps because they contained just as much criticism as they did praise, if not more. I have saved Schindler’s List for last, partly because it is the one that I am least afraid will leave me, and partly because I was scared of writing this review.

Schindler's List promotional posterIt is needless to say the film is a masterpiece. I can count on two hands the number of films that are more affecting, more moving, and more gripping. Steven Spielberg displays a gift not seen in his other films, not even in the pure awe of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the epic apocalypse of Saving Private Ryan, nor in the shadowy depths of Jaws. His pacing is deliberate, his camera is steady, and the smart decision to convert the film to black and white gives it an innately haunting sense of time and place. Here Spielberg trusts that what we are seeing on camera makes the movie and that no shiny embellishments are needed.

If I must accredit Spielberg, so must I praise John Williams. His score is the sole departure from pure observation, an outsider’s perspective. It is tragic and beautiful. Every note carries the burden that the subjects carry. For Schindler’s List contains subjects, not characters, per say. We are not given their motives, but we are given their actions. We can never understand all of their emotions, but we can draw conclusions from what is presented before us. The material is cold and observant, but Spielberg and Williams know this and use it to draw us closer to the tragedy.

It seems unfair to call Schindler’s List a tragedy. It earns its R rating with graphic depictions of genocide and senseless gory. The benefit of seeing the film far outweighs these teenage taboos, but that’s another argument altogether. Schindler’s List is a Holocaust film, but scribe Steven Zaillian makes it bearable by focusing on one thousand survivors.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a fresh new businessmen, among the recently arrived in Kraków, the heart of Nazi Germany. He whines and dines his way through booze, gambling, and women with the hopes of someday returning to his hometown with a triumphant smile and a caravan weighed down by money. When Schindler sees Jews being forced into the infamous Kraków Ghetto, he has a eureka moment. Aided by accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), he sets up a mess kit factory employing Kraków Jews. Why? They’re cheap and he carries no apparent prejudice, at least when it comes to money. The pair are a roaring success, and soon their factory is admired by Nazi officials and Jews who hear of the fair treatment alike.

Enter Amon Goeth. As played by Ralph Fiennes, he appears to have a head cold in early scenes, riding through the ghetto with an air of indifference. So the emperor surveys his subjects. Goeth stops to hire a maid, the prettiest, not the most experienced, when a female German engineer approaches him in a panic. She babbles about tearing down the foundations and restructuring the building. He orders her shot, then tells his men to do exactly as she said. Goeth is like no other villain you’ve seen before: he is not your average psychopath, but his violence is not justified. Why does he get out of bed to take potshots at Jews first thing in the morning? Does he hate them, or at this point does he derive some pleasure from the killing, or perhaps just the power associated with it? No matter, Fiennes’ performance is riveting and utterly terrifying.

Neeson’s delivers a performance profound enough to match and occasionally better Fiennes. Schindler is destined to save over a thousand Jews, shipping them throughout Europe in secret to safety in his fake factories. He must employ bribery and deception with his life very much at stake. Neeson’s evolution from a glistening-eyed businessman to a savior shedding tears in his final scene is unimaginably impressive. We are not told when a switch occurs, but it may perhaps be the scene of the girl in the red coat. I mentioned the film is in black and white, save an unnecessary prologue and epilogue and a girl in a - red - coat. She walks through the ghetto, a symbol of hope to all who see her. We follow her as she crawls under her bed, and her coat is once again black and white. She is an icon on the streets, but she is just a girl. When Schindler next see the girl in the red coat, the coat signifies blood.

Schindler is racked by guilt and regret even in the epitome of his generosity. In his final scene, we see him evaluate his car, a ring, everything he owns and counts the number of lives he could’ve saved by selling them. This film points the finger at us. Who are we to watch him torn apart when we ourselves have sold nothing? I admire a film that implicates its audience, like the novel of The Hunger Games has recently done so boldly. In Schindler’s List, the accusation is subtle, but nevertheless present. For every Oskar Schindler, there are millions of others who stood aside and let terror reign. ☆☆☆

The Green Mile (1999)
  • Directed by: Frank Darabont.
  • Written by: Frank Darabont. Based on The Green Mile by Stephen King.
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, Doug Hutchison, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter, James Cromwell, Barry Pepper, Patricia Clarkson, Bonnie Hunt, Dabbs Greer, Eve Brent, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Sinise, Graham Greene, Jeffrey DeMunn, Bill McKinney.
  • Rated: R.

The Green Mile comes from Frank Darabont and Stephen King, the filmmaker and author who brought us the definitive prison film, The Shawshank Redemption. The two films couldn’t be less alike. Darabont inhabits The Shawshank Redemption with a dark, gothic aura and focuses on life turned upside down behind prison walls. The Green Mile focuses not on prison inmates but on their guards. Indeed, we are only introduced to four inmates in the latter, and one of them is so broad and repulsive a caricature that we can hardly believe them. Darabont has not so much as painted a distinctive time and place but sketched one. What’s more, we’re acutely aware that the story of the bland prison guards are far less interesting than those they must guard.

The Green Mile promotional posterIt is possible a great film about prison guards exists or could exist. But these characters aren’t given any dimension or attributes beyond the innate goodness all but one of them possesses. I complained of another Tom Hanks film, Apollo 13, that the characters were given a single defining attribute to return to in moments of cheap character “development”. Here we barely get that. Hanks is Paul, a guard on death row, who’s played as an old man by Dabbs Greer. The Green Mile utilizes a  Titanic-style “an old person tells the story of their life or the most important events of their life while on death’s door” format. It’s rather unnecessary and the trope suffers from overuse, but I digress. Hanks brings his signature warmth to Paul, but his stalwart coworkers, as played by David Morse, Barry Pepper, and Bill McKinney, are limp and tasteless. James Cromwell, as the warden, fares a little better. But then again, he’s James Cromwell.

There is one other guard, the sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), who would’ve been dismissed for what can only be described as cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners if not for the fondness of the governor’s wife, who happens to be Percy’s aunt. Despite Hutchison’s game performance, he, like the other characters, are plagued by an over the top Southern twang. Evidently Darabont thought everything would be funnier and more profound if all of the characters had fake, knowingly Southern accents.

Yes, I said ‘funny’. Much of The Green Mile's first hour is filled with the interactions between guards and prisoners, often stretched out and played for laughs. In these scenes the otherwise passable score becomes stilted in its attempt to be jaunty and cheerful. The muted halls of The Shawshank Redemption, too, are here replaced with a death row so bright that I wondered whether the director got his start in commercials. Thankfully, this humor and good cheer is largely abandoned as the film wears on, but one of the inmates is intended for comic relief but is later revealed to have committed unspeakable acts.

These inmates are much more interesting than their captors. Graham Greene has a small role in the beginning of the film as a quiet, wistful murderer. Michael Jeter gives us a character so sad and destitute but polite and friendly towards the guards that we are sorry when we see him go. And see him go we must. The film contains numerous executions, one so gruesome we want to close our eyes away from the screen but find we cannot. There are two other inmates of great consequence. Wild Bill (Sam Rockwell) is a yee-hawing loose cannon who delights the guards with his wily tactics, overacting, and urine, among other such weapons. Rockwell is a gifted actor, but he’s a nauseating caricature.

The film’s key character is John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). He’s a gross perpetuation of the magical black man stereotype - a low status man with no apparent past or history with a special power aimed to influence and change the lives of the white men around him. Coffey is afraid of the dark, most likely innocent of the crime he accused of, and possessing of an extraordinary gift. He is imbued with a mystical energy force, or something like that, allowing him to cure illness, wounds, and even return the dead to life. The last of these demonstrations of Coffey’s power effectively remove the stakes from the film and create a possible plot hole near the end. Still, Michael Clarke Duncan is so good and there are scenes of such power that even the most profusely offended audience member cannot help but be in awe.

The ending of The Green Mile is the most troubling for me. I shall not reveal it, but I will say that it leaves Paul alone, depressed, and punished for his actions in the film. We know that he is a good character who could not do the impossible to help God’s gift to mankind. But is Stephen King’s God really so merciless as to punish Paul for not having the courage? Maybe, but we may have a more troubling theological issue if that’s so.

There are five things I treasure above all in films: great storytelling, great characters, great artistry, truth, and hope. The Green Mile could’ve been a great story, but is shaky as is. Its characters are unmemorable stereotypes. Darabont doesn’t display any of the visual flair of The Shawshank Redemption here. The film is not truthful; it is little more than a fairy tale. But the most devastating component of The Green Mile is that it leaves us without hope. ☆☆

The Graduate (1967)
  • Directed by: Mike Nichols.
  • Written by: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Based on The Graduate by Charles Webb.
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry, Brian Avery.
  • Rated: R.

If only I could grade a film in parts. The first half of The Graduate is a funny, tragic, and perceptive look at life, but the second half is not. Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has returned from college in a daze. His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) are pushing at him to relax, but not for too long, because he has a long future ahead of him - at graduate school, then into the workforce! His parents’ friends have nothing but praise for this strapping all-American lad with a bright future.

The Graduate promotional posterBenjamin’s parents have thrown a party for him upon his triumphant return from college. This is their party, not Benjamin’s; we are reminded a bit of the dinner party everyone’s parents have thrown at least once, forcing their children to tell a countless parade of their parents’ friends how old they are and what sports they play and that, yes, they like school. Benjamin retreats to his room, but his quiet time is rudely interrupted by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), “the most attractive of all [his] parents’ friends,” who convinces Benjamin to drive her home. Benjamin later learns she was forced to marry a man (Murray Hamilton) she didn’t love.

He’s asked to come in with her because she doesn’t like being alone in a dark house. Then she gives him a drink (he’s just twenty, but nobody seems to care), assures him she’s not trying to seduce him, and has him follow her upstairs to the bedroom. He starts to leave, but is interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Robinson. This is a marvelously well-done sequence. The dialogue is crackling with wit and there are a plethora of great lines. I particularly liked the running gag in which Mr. Robinson starts to pour Benjamin scotch, asks if he prefers scotch or bourbon, is answered with bourbon, and absentmindedly continues to pour Benjamin scotch.

Though nothing became of Mrs. Robinson’s initial attempt to seduce him, Benjamin eventually succumbs to an affair. The movie’s pool scenes remind me of two people who are floating aimlessly. They are both pressured to start swimming, to find pleasure and purpose; Benjamin is pressured externally by his parents and Mrs. Robinson is pressured internally. Instead, they jump off the diving board in an attempt to feel something. But they quickly learn that they have nothing in common. The affair doesn’t give Benjamin clarity in his life, and it doesn’t breathe life into Mrs. Robinson. Soon their relationship is another broken one that will never be fixed, and they are floating once again.

And in this portrait, The Graduate is ingenious. Mike Nichols is deliberate in his pacing; there are really only five or six major scenes or sequences in an hour long portion of the movie. He’s backed by great writing that’s able to convey the tragic, dramatic aspects of the film but also convince us it’s a memorable comedy. His characterizations are astute, aided by Hoffman and Bancroft’s fine work. Hoffman is  nervous and unsure; the film’s comedic epitome is his decision to do the affair. His anxiety is so palpable that we ourselves are almost convinced that it is impossible for him to book a hotel room without arousing suspicion, for surely some government agency will come to arrest him. Bancroft is blunt and abrasive in playing Mrs. Robinson, who has the misfortune of seeming like a glamorous character but being quite the opposite.

Then comes the second half. Enter Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross), on vacation from Berkeley. Benjamin is urged by his father and Elaine’s to ask her out on a date, which he does reluctantly, as Mrs. Robinson has told him that he isn’t Elaine’s class and will never ask her out on a date. (Ouch.) Hoffman plays these scenes strangely. Despite the stakes, he isn’t his usual nervous self - in fact, his character seems almost drunken. Benjamin takes Elaine to a strip club. He has a funny line in the scene, but it’s against character. Then the duo get fast food and miraculously fall in love. I’m always critical of movies that can’t bother to devote more than one date to establishing everlasting love, but never mind. How Benjamin falls for Elaine is beyond me. As played by Katharine Ross, she’s bland and inarticulate.

Elaine eventually returns to college. Benjamin decides one day that he’ll follow her, stalk her, and propose to her. Miraculously, Elaine seems like she might be up for it. This turn of events is so surreal, so poorly plotted that I briefly wondered whether I had accidentally pressed a button on my remote and flipped the channel. But no, this strange love story continues with a youth in revolt comedic flair that some might call a bonus but I call an afterthought. Worst of all, the film’s most interesting character, Mrs. Robinson, is almost completely sidelined by this turn of events.

The film’s Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack has been talked about almost as much as the film itself. There are really only two Simon & Garfunkel on the soundtrack, but never mind. One of these is great, the other is not. “Mrs. Robinson” is a deservedly iconic song that perfectly fits the film’s ironic sense of humor. But “The Sounds of Silence” is more pensive and creates for jarring tonal disparity. What’s more, it’s repeated three times throughout the film. A strange, withdrawn song like that is hard to listen to for such a long time. ☆☆½

The Queen (2006)
  • Directed by: Stephen Frears.
  • Written by: Peter Morgan.
  • Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Sylvia Syms, Helen McCrory, Mark Bazeley, Roger Allam, Robin Soans.
  • Rated: PG-13.

The Queen is a good film that should’ve been a great one. Director Stephen Frears offers a tantalizing look inside the British monarchy and the offices of the Prime Minister, but the film never becomes riveting. Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) is conservative and old-fashioned. Her style clashes with the newly-elected PM Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), whose victory promises England a modernist upheaval. The film opens with their initial meeting and establishes their mood which, if not icy, is awkward and reluctant. Though the film follows no formula or structure, by the end of the film we have an arc: the two have a newfound understanding for each other.

The Queen promotional posterThis opening also establishes the other major players. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is the Queen’s patrician husband. He’s paralleled by Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory), Blair’s wife who openly mocks the monarchy and at one point suggests she would like to see it demolished. Alex Jennings portrays Prince Charles, whose motives and views change according with the daily paper’s polls, though Jennings never achieves the oily son model of, say, Guy Pearce in The King’s Speech. The elderly Queen Mother is portrayed in a warm performance by Sylvia Syms. The cast is rounded out by another parallel set: Roger Allam is Robin Janvrin, the Queen’s meek secretary who acts as more of a secretary than an adviser; Mark Bazeley is Alastair Campbell, the snide and cynical spin doctor who relishes in manipulating the public at Blair’s gain and the monarchy’s expense.

These characters’ lives are turned upside down, but not in the way Blair would want. The disgraced and controversial Princess Diana dies in Paris. This is a remarkable sequence. The Queen is uneven, but when Frears is good, he’s really good. Shots of motorcycle-wielding paparazzi chasing the limo are intercut with flashes of television shots of Diana. Blair and the Queen are awakened. The Queen is saddened by the news but sees the death as a private affair. Blair correctly reads the public barometer and coins the term “the people’s princess.”

The second and third acts of The Queen follow Blair’s rise and the Queen’s fall from public favor. Screenwriter Peter Morgan gives his subject the chance to justify her actions in well-publicized scandals - namely, her refusal to fly the flag at half mast over Buckingham Palace. The Queen sites royal custom, which dictates that the flag denotes her presence, but Blair realizes it now stands for a nation’s mourning and desperation to find a scapegoat.

As intriguing as The Queen is, Peter Morgan never finds enough conflict. The supposed war waged between the Queen and the Prime Minister are a cycle of the Prime Minister suggesting an image repair move over the phone, the Queen hanging up outraged, and members of the royal family exchanging quips about Blair, Diana, and modern government. James Cromwell and Syvlia Syms are talented actors who play their parts well, but they’re largely relegated to saying lines with the underlying message “things were better in the old days!” Morgan focuses primarily on the Queen, not on Blair, and as such sequences involving the royal family are much more interesting and perceptive than scenes in the government or Blair household. Indeed, at one point Helen McCrory has the cringe-worthy task of observing that Blair might be fond of the Queen because of the similarities between the sovereign and Blair’s mother.

This attempt to psychoanalyze the Prime Minister in such a simple fashion is just one curious banality found in the dialogue of a script with a strong structure. After awhile, Blair transforms artificially from a powerful figure at odds with the monarchy into the Queen’s biggest fan and only defender. This move effectively sucks the life out of the character and dries up what conflict remains between monarchy and government in the film’s third act. Michael Sheen is an absolute chameleon, but he’s woefully miscast in a role that requires him to be kind, intelligent, positive - and somewhat antagonistic.

What makes The Queen so riveting is Helen Mirren’s portrayal. Her portrayal is near pitch perfect. It is respectful to Elizabeth II and to the stature of her office, but it is never an imitation. Her performance walks a fine land between grandiose and subtle, embodying a woman who realizes her ideals are suddenly and surprisingly not equivalent to those of her people’s. There are two scenes of great note for Mirren. A scene in which she peruses the notes left for Diana at Buckingham Palace is sad and poignant; the look on Mirren’s face when a child gives her flowers is unforgettable. But what I’ll call the Stag Scene is one of the most endearing cinematic moments of all time. I shan’t spoil it, but I’ll just say that you’d be hard-pressed to find a moment as radiant or as beautiful. ☆☆☆

Apollo 13 (1995)
  • Directed by: Ron Howard.
  • Written by: William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert. Based on Lost Moon by Jim Lovell.
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, Loren Dean, Clint Howard, Jean Speegle Howard.
  • Rated: PG.

Apollo 13 seems like a great idea for a movie. It’s dramatic, suspenseful, and tied to our nation’s history. For some reason, some consider true stories more effective and intrinsically better than works of pure fiction. Author John Green has provided perhaps the best counter to this sentiment, warning readers of his book The Fault in Our Stars that his work is fictional, and that speculating on whether or not the events occurred or not in real life demeans the ideal that a fictional story can mean something. But much of Apollo 13’s emotional heft is overridden by clichés and shallow characterizations.

Apollo 13 promotional poster

The film concerns a group of astronauts hoping to reach the moon in the Apollo 13 shuttle. The very first scene shows the crew watching the Apollo 11 astronauts waltz across the moon. They are enraptured with a mixture of envy and excitement. This is veteran Jim Lovell’s (Tom Hanks) last shot at the moon. His crew consists of jovial Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and the more serious Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). At the last minute, Mattingly’s test results come back, and his forecast is cloudy with a chance of measles. He’s replaced by the less experienced Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz, the mission commander in Houston.

These characters are given archetypes or defining characteristics to reference in moments of faux character development. Lovell has a loving wife (Kathleen Quinlan) and children to worry about him back home. Haise’s wife is pregnant. Swigert is a bachelor who forgot to file his taxes. Along with typecasting, this makes the characters easy to identify with and construct a story around, but skilled as their actors are, none of them can really manage to create a three-dimensional human being.

After a brief introduction to the characters, we see the launch. This is a magnificent scene, a triumph of special effects and cinematography. The visual effects in the film are as remarkable as any superhero extravaganza in recent years, but they are so well-serving to the film that you don’t realize you’re watching special effects. The launch is a triumph, and we spend a few minutes of giddy anticipation in space.

Then, of course, something goes wrong. Jack flips a switch and there’s an explosion. Suddenly, the film becomes a race against time to get the astronauts back home alive. The script is well-plotted and easy to follow, but much of the dialogue is Houston jargon or meaningless conversation between the astronauts. Still, the film is engaging and thrilling. The frantic portrayal of NASA, the close encounters with death the men experience, they’re all interwoven with suspense and hold-your-breath moments.

There are a few great scenes that find emotional footings within the far-flung rescue mission. Kathleen Quinlan, as Lovell’s wife, shares a heart-wrenching scene with Lovell’s son, and any scene involving Jean Speegle Howard, as Lovell’s elderly mother, is both warm and funny. The now-iconic scene in which the astronauts sail around the moon they’ll never land on is pensive and nuanced. But as a whole, Apollo 13 is a film of parts, not of a whole. In looking back, I realize now that the film’s attempts to form an emotional connection are cheap and weak. It’s a beautifully crafted, well-acted film with a story worth telling. But as told by Ron Howard, it’s hollow. ☆☆½