SCHINDLER’S LIST (1997) – Steven Spielberg’s sobering look at the Holocaust

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Schindler’s List — a clear-eyed, flawless look at the Holocaust — is a movie filled with infinite paradoxes.

The most obvious paradox is its true story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who ran factories that made unusable products in order to save the lives of the factory workers — 1,100 Jews who otherwise would have been sent to Nazi death camps.

The movie shows the man but never quite explains him. Schindler is a rich womanizer — what has he to gain from this astounding gesture? Spielberg answers that question, not by delving into Schindler’s character, but by showing the atrocity going on around Schindler.

That atrocity is best personified by Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi who runs the Krakow ghetto as well as a Jewish death camp. Goeth is the absolute evil among evils, a man playing God in the most lethal sense.

Goeth’s atrocities range from petty to tragic. In one scene, he considers raping one of his Jewish servants, but then he verbally ponders how tainted she would seem to him after the rape, and so he merely slaps her. In another instance, a Jewish woman tries to warn him of a mistake in one of the death camp’s physical details. Goeth shoots the woman, then tells an underling to correct the mistake.

Schindler’s List soberly examines the ethics between these two extremes. The Nazis want to have somebody, anybody, come begging to them. They play into the hands of Schindler, who acts as though he’s using the war to his own ends when what he’s really doing is saving Jewish lives.

Then there are the movie’s commercial paradoxes. In 1993, nobody would have expected Steven Spielberg, known mostly for escapist fare, to have made such a haunting movie. It looks as though a camera was just set down in the middle of the Holocaust to soberly record its brutality. The movie runs over three hours and is not a minute too long.

 

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) – It’s a treasure, all right!

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those great movies that has permeated the American consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen it, you might think you have, just because of all of its pop-culture touchstones.

“Fred C. Dobbs is nobody’s fool!” “Can you help a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” “I don’t need to show you no stinkin’ badge!” And most of all, Walter Huston dancing on top of a hill of gold (comedian Billy Crystal has worked that one to death).

But despite its parodied points, six decades later, the movie still surprises. It remains one of the best-ever filmic statements of man’s infinite capacity for greed. It has great performances and a thunderous pace. (Oscars went to Walter Huston for the former, and his son, director John Huston, for the latter.) And even the first 15 minutes, which is little more than exposition, is culturally fascinating. You’re listening to a bunch of street bums talk, and you think, even the bums were more literate than they are now.

The story takes place in 1925 Tampico and concerns a down-on-their-luck trio (Huston, Tim Holt, and Humphrey Bogart at his most fascinatingly unlikable). Huston is an old prospector who claims to have gone through several fortunes in gold. Bogart and Holt, with no job prospects, decide to go prospecting in Mexico, with the old man’s expertise at hand.

Turns out the old man knows even more about human nature than he does about prospecting. He spouts some dire philosophies about what gold can do to human nature, and Dobbs (Bogart) swears that could never happen to him and his buddy Curtin (Holt). Guess who turns out to be right. Dobbs at his most paranoid is not a pretty sight.

It’s a movie deserving of its classic status. And along with its other virtues, try playing “Spot the Star.” It’s not every movie that sports John Huston (as an American hounded by Dobbs), a young Robert Blake (selling lottery tickets), and “I Dream of Jeannie’s” Barton MacLane in the first ten minutes.

 

PONETTE (1997) – Heartbreaking children’s perspective on death

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The French import Ponette is one of the most devastatingly emotional movies I’ve ever seen.

It opens with a charming image: the 4-year-old title character sucking the open thumb of a broken arm encased in a cast. Sadly, that’s the last lighthearted image the movie conjures up for quite a while. It turns out that the cast is a result of a car accident that has killed Ponette’s mother.

Ponette’s father is of little help, having left Ponette with her unsympathetic cousins while he comes to terms with his grief. It is up to Ponette to deal with the blow as best as she can. She asks her cousins and their friends about death, and they try to help her with tortured theology pieced together from what they’ve been told by apathetic adults. And so Ponette tries this trick and that, hoping that eventually she’ll hit upon the right formula to bring her mother back.

Movies rarely seem to catch the way little children really talk and behave. This movie has it down pat, and it’s all the more heartbreaking for it. Without making it as explicit as a Hollywood production would, it’s obvious that these kids are having even more trouble than their parents in making sense of a senseless world.

And at the center of this story is Ponette, played by Victoire Thivisol in a performance that won her a film-festival award and universal raves. Her performance has nothing to do with the studied mannerisms and milkings of most child actors. Thivisol’s work here inspires many tears, but they are all earned.

The movie’s sole sore spot with reviewers has been its conclusion, which some people have tagged as compromisingly happy in a film that otherwise offers no easy answers. I prefer to think of the ending as hopeful. Yes, Ponette gets her mother back, but only for a short while, after which she must again cope with her grief. Ponette is smiling a little more by movie’s end, it’s true, but I was still crying as much as I was at the start.

A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) -A very early look at reality TV

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

In 1957, Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) has air time to fill. Her radio show, “A Face in the Crowd,” consists of folksy interviews with down-to-earth citizens. One day, Marcia enters a local jailhouse, where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loudmouth who has been arrested on disorderly conduct.

At first, Larry wants nothing to do with Marcia, but then he takes a good look at Marcia (who dubs Larry “‘Lonesome’ Rhodes”)  and softens up. The sheriff sweetens the deal by saying that he’ll let Lonesome loose if he’ll cooperate with Marcia.

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Lonesome pulls out his handy guitar and starts improvising some wild blues, and soon Marcia is satisfied that she got what she was looking for. Later, her boss is even more impressed with Lonesome and insists that Marcia track him down. In record time, Lonesome’s charisma turns him into a radio smash, with the local citizenry utterly charmed by Lonesome’s cracker-barrel wisdom.

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But this success ends up having some unfortunate side effects. Lonesome becomes convinced that every idea that pops out of his mouth is pure gold, and heaven help any broadcast executive who dares to suggest otherwise. And Marcia, at first bemused by this hayseed gone successful, realizes she has unloosed a genie she can’t get back in the bottle.

This movie is simply mesmerizing, not the least in the ways it predicts how Madison Avenue would mount ad campaigns that would congratulate TV viewers for being such geniuses in buying their products. The movie’s extended “Vitajex” sequence, in which Lonesome turns around the unsuccessful sales of an “energy pill,” is like a short lesson in modern advertising. The movie’s other eye-popping lesson comes when Lonesome teaches a U.S. Senator how to come across as more personable so that he can win over his TV viewers (this movie came out three years before the Kennedy/Nixon debates).

All of the movie’s performances are sharpened to a fine point. Tony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Kay Medford, and the rest of the cast are fairly dripping with cynicism but never overplay their hands. Patricia Neal is just as sensuous and winning as she was in The Day The Earth Stood Still and (surprisingly) for similar reasons, as an Everywoman who slowly realizes she’s in over her head.

As for Andy Griffith, he’s as far from likable old Sheriff Taylor as he could get. Lonesome Rhodes is someone with just enough intelligence that, when pushed in the wrong direction, grabs everything he can for himself and leaving unhappiness in his wake. (There might be a reason that Turner Classic Movies broadcast this movie on the same date as President Donald Trump’s inauguration.)

A Face in the Crowd doesn’t quite qualify as film noir — but it’s not for lack of trying.

A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) – Katharine Hepburn’s film debut

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The following is my entry in the 3rd Annual Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, being hosted May 12-14, 2016 by the blogger who is surely the biggest KH fan on the planet, MargaretPerry.org. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ insights into the movies and life of this legendary actress!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Bill of Divorcement always seems right on the verge of collapsing into sudsy soap opera. But the movie is always pulled back from the precipice by the sterling acting of John Barrymore and, in her sizzling film debut, Katharine Hepburn.

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The movie is based on a British stage play that was written as (to quote Wikipedia) “a reaction to a law passed in Britain in the early 1920’s that allowed insanity as grounds for a woman divorcing her husband.” In the case of this play-turned-movie, the unlucky fellow is Hilary (Barrymore), who has been committed to an asylum for the past 15 years after experiencing shell shock in World War I.

Hilary’s wife Meg (Billie Burke), having given up hope of Hilary regaining sanity, has taken up with Gray (Paul Cavanagh), had herself divorced from Hilary, and is now due to marry Gray on New Year’s Day. Meanwhile, Hilary and Meg’s daughter Sydney (Hepburn) is madly in love with Kit (David Manners), and as the story begins on Christmas Eve, Kit proposes to Sydney, who happily accepts.

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But darned if old Hilary doesn’t get better again, come home, and ruin everybody’s Christmas.

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First of all, Meg is beside herself and doesn’t begin to know how she’ll tell the truth to Hilary, who has not received the warm welcome home that he’d expected from his spouse. (Truth to tell, Meg’s dithering isn’t made easier to take by the fluttery Billie Burke, who is easily the weakest cast member here. And hindsight doesn’t help either, knowing you’re watching the future Wizard of Oz’s Good Witch of the North trying to portray a cuckolding wife.)

Secondly, Hilary’s return causes Sydney’s aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) to reveal to Sydney that it was a bit more than just shell shock that brought her daddy down; in fact, both Hilary and another family member had mental problems, so it’s possible that insanity runs in their family. This just might interfere with Kit’s plan to have Sydney birth a few dozen kids.

Other than Burke, the movie’s major debit is director George Cukor’s penchant for TV-style close-ups (20 years before TV became popular) of actors giving overly long speeches. Given all of this, you’d think you’d be laughing this movie off the screen. But we’d be forgetting that intangible element called “star power,” and Barrymore and Hepburn have it here in spades.

From his first entrance, Barrymore is thoroughly believable as a man who has just escaped after nearly two decades in an asylum. The sentence seems to have worn down his physical being. Barrymore walks through the entire movie resigned, with slumped shoulders, as though the memory of the asylum was a weight pressing down on him.

And Hepburn is simply dynamic. Sydney doesn’t make a point of telling us what a carefree, independent spirit she is; she simply is — is a force of nature — and it makes the sadness that occurs later in the movie that much more heartbreaking. It’s easy to see how Hepburn’s performance must have captured moviegoers’ attention and imagination.

Some movies go straight past the rational side of your brain and hit that primal spot where you’re still willing to respond to unabashed emotion — and when that response is earned, it’s a gratifying time at the movies. That’s what A Bill of Divorcement is.

 

Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart in PANIC ROOM (2002) – A thinking woman’s movie

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The following is my entry in The Girl Week Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 16-22, 2015 by the blog Dell on Movies. Click on the above banner, and read a variety of bloggers’ tributes to their favorite movie actresses and heroines!

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There’s an interesting book titled Brave Dames and Wimpettes, in which novelist Susan Isaacs posits that most modern movie heroines still use old feminine wiles instead of brainpower to get what they want. Urgently recommended viewing for Ms. Isaacs would be Panic Room, one of the best thrillers of the early 2000’s.

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The movie’s heroines are Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recent divorcee, and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart, essaying one of her first movie roles at the tender age of 11). They’ve just moved into a three-story Manhattan home of the kind to be found more easily in movies than in Manhattan. The prime draw of this house is its “panic room.” In the event of a burglary or similar emergency, the resident locks himself inside this room and uses its separate phone line to call the police.

On their very first night in the house, Meg and Sarah find out just how good to be true this room is, when three unruly burglars break in. It happens that the house’s previous owner left a few million dollars behind in the house, and wouldn’t you know it, the money’s in the same panic room where Meg and Sarah lock themselves. Oh, and for good measure, Meg didn’t have a chance to get the separate phone line hooked up.

Yeah, I know, this whole set-up could happen only in the movies. But before the thrills are unleashed, the movie takes the time to set up the relationship between Meg and Sarah, and it’s nicely done. Because we get to know them for a while, we have a stake in their peril.

And believe me, these are not two women who sit around screaming and waiting for some moronically written boogie-men to kill them. Simply because the marvelous screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) allows these women to think, they manage to stay one step ahead of the burglars, who eventually find themselves cowering as much as those wimpettes Isaacs writes about.

Except for some overly swooping camera movement at the beginning, David Fincher’s direction is as perfectly taut as you could hope to find in a thriller.

As for the lead actresses — what a wealth! With her interplay with Foster and her remarkable subtlety, even in 2002 it looked as though Kristen Stewart would be…well, the next Jodie Foster.

And what is there to say about Foster? I find her one of the most beautiful women in movies, simply because she makes intelligence sexy.

Watching a seeming no-brainer like Panic Room is like expecting an ice-cream cone and getting a dinner at Four Seasons.

THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet #Noirvember movie for Sat., Nov. 21: Lawrence Tierney in THE HOODLUM (1951)

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The name of this week’s The Gangsters All Here movie gets straight to the point. The movie is called The Hoodlum — a title so generic, it’s the movie equivalent of slapping a white-with-black-lettering label on a can of beans. But there’s nothing generic about the guy who plays the title role…

It's Lawrence Tierney!

It’s Lawrence Tierney!

The Hoodlum is directed by Max Nosseck, who directed Tierney in his breakout role in Dillinger (1945). But by the time of this movie, both Tierney’s and Nosseck’s careers had hit bottom — Tierney due to a lot of jail time earned by off-screen drinking and brawling, and Nosseck because he went from Dillinger right b;lkack to the B- and worse-type movies he’d previously been doing.

One could almost say that the bitterness of these two men burst forth in this movie and made it work. Tierney plays Vincent Lubeck, a career criminal whose career is so vast, it’s lovingly detailed in the movie’s prologue. Lubeck gets paroled due to a lucky break, but he still comes out of jail declaring that life has never given him a chance and will continue to not do so. So when Lubeck gets a good look at both (a) a loot-filled armored car that passes his way every day, and (b) his brother’s sob-sister-and-virginal girlfriend, what do you think are the chances that he’ll try to nab both?

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On a scale of 1 to 5 fannies, I give this movie a 4-½. Tierney sizzles from start to finish, and the movie is uncompromising in nearly every aspect of its subject matter (especially for 1951). I deduct a half-star only because the movie begins with that weariest of tropes, a plea to the jailhouse warden from the convict’s elderly mother. But if you stick with the movie right to the end, you’ll see that even this cliche gets turned on its head.
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