Tag Archives: steven spielberg

What D’ya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Schindler’s List?

This long forgotten feature was set up to jot down thoughts on classic films that I was only just getting around to watching – my blindspot series if you will. And I set it up primarily because I hadn’t seen one film in particular: Schindler’s List.

Well I finally found the time to watch it and needless to say it’s worth all the praise and acclaim that has poured its way in the decade and a bit since its release.

Plot: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a German businessman who hires Jewish workers in his factories because they cost less. Horrified by the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, along with his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) he seeks to save the lives of as many of them as possible by employing them, thus making them essential to the German war effort. However, he must do so under the watchful eye of the merciless SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes)

One of the first things that struck me is that even though it was made in 1993, it feels like a much older film. Now that’s not in any way a criticism, but I felt like I was watching a film from the 1950s or 60s. It had a very classic feel to it, almost like a film noir at times, particularly in its use of chiaroscuro lighting.

However, the most overwhelming thing I took from it in terms of how it was shot, was that it looked very much like documentary footage a lot of the time. It was only after I watched the film did I find out this was deliberate on Spielberg’s part. The film was apparently influenced by Shoah, a 1985 French documentary about the Holocaust, and Spielberg stayed away from using techniques such as Steadicam or long shots that would have taken away from this documentary feel. Obviously the splash of colour on the little girl’s dress is an exception to this.

And this is one of the film’s biggest strengths. By making the whole thing look like a documentary, it seems to lend it even more credibility and gives it that little bit more emotional weight. These all seem like real people rather than just being based on them, which makes it all the more disturbing and heartbreaking seeing their struggles. Had Spielberg used more conventional filmmaking methods (ie. non-documentary) then it would probably have given the whole thing a little more gloss and the line between reality and fiction would have grown further apart.

Liam Neeson in Schindler's ListAs well as being a stunning film overall, Schindler’s List is littered with memorable scenes that will stick in your memory for a while afterwards and show Spielberg’s sometimes underrated genius as a director.

For example, seeing Nazi soldiers shooting Jewish people is something you’d probably expect to see in a film of this kind. However, here it plays out to classical music (Bach I think), creating a really disturbing counterpoint of what we see and what we hear. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking technique, but a no less effective one.

Another fascinating scene sees Ralph Fiennes’ character taking aim with a rifle from his mansion (which I think resembles the Bates motel in Psycho) and shooting Jewish workers in the concentration camp for no reason whatsoever, although by this point reason doesn’t really come into anything. He sees it as sport, something to pass the time and it’s shocking.

However, I think the most affecting scene for me was listening to all of the concentration camp prisoners talking about what might happen to them. They’ve heard whispers that they won’t actually be sent into the showers to clean themselves but that they’ll be gassed to death. Despite what they’ve heard, virtually all of them simply don’t believe it, purely because they say it wouldn’t make sense to kill them. Knowing what we know now, this is a real gut punch. They’re right, it doesn’t make sense; but none of it make sense. When we see them actually showered later on, it’s a wonderful moment when you think the worst is about to happen.

Schindler's ListIn terms of performances, it’s a pretty strong showing all round. Both Neeson are Fiennes were nominated for Oscars for their respective roles and it’s easy to see why. They’re both excellent, with Neeson in particular superb. A scene at the end of the film where he bursts into tears because he feels he hasn’t done enough to help people is wonderful yet heartbreaking. I also think that Ben Kingsley deserves a lot of credit as Itzhak Stern, Oskar’s Jewish accountant.

There really is very little to hold against Schindler’s List. Being a little picky, the actual ‘list’ part of the film actually comes very late on, and it doesn’t actually play that much of a part in the film’s plot. It would have been nice to see a little more of what happened during that whole process, whereas it gets glossed over a little. It also would have been nice had the film been in the German language. With Spielberg setting the film up to look like a documentary, it does take something away from it to hear them speaking English, although I do understand that having it in English means it plays to a wider audience and having subtitles would (unfortunately) alienate a chunk of its potential audience.

So I finally watched it, and I can now see why its so revered. As you’d expect, it’s not an easy watch, but it definitely a film that everyone should watch at some point. When it comes to films about World War II and the Holocaust, this is definitely the film against which all others should be measured.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Film Review: Lincoln

LincolnSteven Spielberg needed a big hit. He’s directed some decent pictures – Munich, The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can spring to mind, but he’s arguably not had a critically-acclaimed smash since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. That’s a long time. He’s also had a couple of duds – hello War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Pointless MacGuffin – so it was about time he showed us that he still has some of the old magic. By taking on Lincoln he’s tackling one of the most important periods of American history, one of their most revered political figures and the subject of racial inequality. Surely, that’s a recipe for success?

Lincoln, in some form, has been knocking around for a while (since 1999, in fact) and has undergone a fair few changes. It is adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of the 16th President of the United States and focuses on his efforts during January 1865 to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives, the Amendment that would effectively abolish slavery. Don’t go expecting any of Abe’s early life or anything regarding The Gettysburg Address; this is no biopic, but a snapshot of just a few weeks.

As you would expect of a film covering such subject matter, it is heavily political and many of the scenes are confined to within four walls and are primarily dialogue driven. Fortunately, playwright Tony Kushner (with whom Spielberg worked with on Munich) has produced a script that is detailed and thorough but also accessible, charming and full of wit. It requires you to pay attention throughout; a missed sideways glance or off-the-cuff remark can result in missing important information, but for those fully immersed in the story (and it’s very easy to be so), it’s incredibly rewarding. Some knowledge of the history of the time and of the American judicial system, however, would be beneficial. Although it the film never excludes those without such knowledge, those that do may get a little more out of it.

Throughout the film, we see Abe in his many guises: family man, raconteur, politician, all of which are as intriguing and beguiling as the next, and much of the credit for that must go to Daniel Day-Lewis. The role of Abraham Lincoln originally belonged to Liam Neeson, but when he pulled out Day-Lewis stepped in to fill his beard. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with a weariness you would expect of someone in his mid-fifties running the most powerful country in the world, his lanky frame and sunken shoulders heavy with countless burdens, both personal and political. From the opening titles, through the inevitable climax to the rather unnecessary denouement, Day-Lewis gives a masterful portrayal of Honest Abe, and without it the film would simply not be as effective as it is.

An equally impressive performance is that of Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, although the overacting Sally Fields and the tacked on Joseph Gordon-Levitt are a little light on character development.

Lincoln is Spielberg at his restrained best. Flanked by impressive cinematography (courtesy of DP Janusz Kaminsky) and a tight script (aside from the odd moment that descends a little too much into slapstick), Spielberg has put together a more personable film that it could otherwise have been and one that should ensure he remains one of Hollywood’s top properties.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What is… Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro, Italian for light-dark, is a lighting technique created by stark contrasts between light and shadow. It is used in almost all forms of art and was popularised by Renaissance painters to give depth to three-dimensional objects in their work. Caravaggio was one of the biggest proponents of the technique, as shown in an example of his work below, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is an example of chiaroscuro in Renaissance paintings

Fast-forward a bit from the Renaissance era and chiaroscuro is used to great effect in films, too. Nosferatu, the 1922 vampire flick, uses shadow very effectively, whilst it has become an integral part of some directors’ work, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to name but two. See below for a couple of examples…

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Small Roles… Big Performances Blogathon

This is a cracking Blogathon from Ruth over at Flixchatter that I’m hoping I can squeeze onto the end of. She’s had a hell of a response and there have been some great choices. The aim of the blogathon is to:

“Shine a spotlight on the ‘unsung heroes’ if you will, the overlooked performers who add so much richness & entertainment value to the film no matter how brief their appearance is, but yet they don’t get the credit they so deserve.”

Mine is a little offbeat but I hope it still fulfills the criteria. There were a few in consideration but I wanted to keep with Horror Movie Month and therefore decided to go with…

Bruce the shark – Jaws (1975)

There are few non-human characters who have had such an impact, not just in cinema, but in popular culture in general as Bruce. Named by the Jaws crew after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce was quite the diva. He had over 40 technicians working on him at Rolly Harper’s Motion Picture & Equipment Rental in Sun Valley, California and would be driven everywhere he went. His failure to work when asked also caused the film to go massively over budget and on his debut he sank to the bottom of the ocean. His hydraulic system also exploded. Weird how sharks have evolved.

However, despite the problems, Bruce helped Jaws become one of the most beloved and influential films of all time despite only actually appearing on screen a few times throughout the film. The thing with Bruce is that he doesn’t need to appear on screen, most of his best work is done when you can’t see him but know he’s there – now that’s acting! But when he does show up, you certainly remember it. From that initial mauling at the beach to the iconic moment when Brody’s tossing food into the sea to his devouring of Quint, Bruce is never on screen for long, but when he is, he makes it count.

Bruce has not worked since Jaws, mainly because he was blown to smithereens by an oxygen tank, and although others have tried to take on the mantle, no other sealife before or since has matched his performance. He’s the reason you were scared to get back in the water (only Kevin Costner has been involved in a scarier movie out on the ocean) and is now embedded into movie folklore until the end of time.

Just in case you needed reminding, here’s some of his best work…

Tagged , , , , , ,