Hail, Caesar! (2016)

2017 #23
Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

4 out of 5

Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

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Schindler’s List (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #80

“Whoever saves one life,
saves the world entire.”

Country: USA
Language: English, Hebrew, German & Polish
Runtime: 195 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th December 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 18th February 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.2001

Stars
Liam Neeson (Darkman, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Iron Man 3)
Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Amistad, Lincoln)

Screenwriter
Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Moneyball)

Based on
Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novel (released in America as Schindler’s List) by Thomas Keneally.

The Story
In occupied Poland in the early days of World War 2, German businessman Oskar Schindler opens a factory supplying the German military, staffed by Jewish workers. As the Nazis begin to close the ghettos and ship Jews to concentration camps, Schindler uses his connections and profits to surreptitiously save as many as he can.

Our Hero
Oskar Schindler is a self-interested businessman, womaniser, and member of the Nazi Party. Initially employing Jews merely for financial reasons (they’re cheaper than Polish workers), his innate humanity begins to come to the fore.

Our Villain
Nazis! But in particular Amon Goeth, the sadistic commander of the Paszów labour camp, who’s fond of executing Jews at random, amongst other horrors. Nonetheless, Schindler has to deal with him to ensure the (relative) safety of his workforce.

Best Supporting Character
Schindler’s contact on the local Jewish Council, Itzhak Stern, who becomes essential to making his business a success, and facilitating his operation to save the workers.

Memorable Quote
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.” — Oskar Schindler

Memorable Scene
During the destruction of the ghetto, Schindler sees a little girl in a red coat (the one splash of colour in the body of the film), wandering alone through the devastation. Later, as the Nazis burn piles of the dead, corpses are ferried to the pyres on small wagons. On one, Schindler sees a small body in a red coat… (There’s a good piece on the psychology of why these scenes are so effective here.)

Technical Wizardry
Spielberg chose to shoot in black-and-white to match actual documentary footage of the era, which was how he ‘saw’ the events. It was also shot without storyboards, Steadicams, cranes, or zoom lenses, and about 40% was filmed using handheld cameras, to emphasise a documentary feel. For a similar level of realism, Spielberg originally intended to make the film entirely in German and Polish with English subtitles, but changed his mind because he thought he wouldn’t be able to accurately direct performances in foreign languages.

Making of
Acting as producer, Spielberg initially tried to attract another director because he felt he wasn’t capable of doing the story justice. Martin Scorsese turned it down because he felt it should be done by a Jewish director, and Roman Polanski rejected it because it was too personal (he lived in the Krakow ghetto, only escaping on the day of its liquidation, and his mother died at Auschwitz). Finally, there was Billy Wilder — depending which version you believe, he either wanted to direct but Spielberg was already prepping the shoot, or he actually convinced Spielberg to direct it. Ultimately, Spielberg waited ten years between acquiring the rights and making the film, when he finally felt capable of tackling it.

Awards
7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Costume Design, Sound, Makeup)
7 BAFTAs (Film, Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score)
6 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley), Costume Design, Make Up Artist, Production Design, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“If E.T. The Extraterrestrial is Steven Spielberg’s fantasy masterpiece, and Jurassic Park is his commercial masterpiece, then Schindler’s List is certainly his artistic masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary work of vision and passion that raises even the gifted Spielberg to a new level of artistry. And like all great works, it elevates everyone who views it.” — Dennis King, Tulsa World

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“It’s very, very hard-going and not an easy film to watch, but its importance is unparalleled. You sit there for three hours feeling uncomfortable – because these monstrosities really happened, because we live in a world where people are capable of these acts of inhumanity – and you still can’t even begin to imagine what it must have really been like, to live through that, to see your family and friends shot dead in the street or transported away en masse to the gas chambers. And yet, despite all that, you end the film feeling inspired. Someone made a difference.” — Millicent Murdoch, Millie’s Movie Reviews

Verdict

Schindler’s List wasn’t Spielberg’s first ‘serious’ film, but I think it shows a marked increase in quality over his good-but-flawed previous efforts, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Liam Neeson gives a commanding performance as the imperfect hero, while Ralph Fiennes finds what little humanity there is in Goeth (and there isn’t much) to pull him short of being an Evil Nazi caricature. The stark black-and-white cinematography acknowledges the incomprehensibly horrific events, while Spielberg’s divisive penchant for sentimentality seems well-matched to the tale, offering a measure of hope from humanity’s darkest days.

What’s in #81? What’s in #81?

I saw Spectre days after the eager-beavers but still before some people, so here are my spoiler-free thoughts

It’s been quite the year for spies on the big screen: mega-success for Kingsman, high praise for Mission: Impossible 5, comedy from Spy, the TV-ish thrills of Spooks, and you may’ve missed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — based on its box office, most people did. But now we come to the biggest of them all: Bond. James Bond.

Chances are, if you’re interested in a review of the 24th Bond movie you’ve already read one. Several, probably. Nonetheless, as both a blogger and a Bond fan who saw the series’ latest instalment this afternoon, I’m compelled to throw some of my initial spoiler-free thoughts out there. Plus, in places, commentary on those other reviews.

For starters, if you have read any other reviews, you’ll know it begins with a helluva pre-titles sequence; perhaps the only part of the film to have attracted unqualified universal praise. A big opening action scene has become one of the series’ most iconic elements, and Spectre contends (against stiff competition) to be considered the best yet. Too stiff, in my view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic opener, with one of the entire series’ best shots, but the very best of them all? That’s just hyperbole because it’s the newest.

It leads into the title sequence — another of the series’ most famed elements, of course. No details, because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to spoil it for me, but I thought it had some strong imagery without being amongst Daniel Kleinman’s very best work (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, Skyfall). Sam Smith’s insipid song is slightly less irritating in context.

Most reviews will also contain a version of one of these two comments: either, “they’ve finally brought back the classic Bond formula, but integrated into the Craig-era style — how wonderful”; or, “they’ve merely brought back the classic Bond formula, albeit in the Craig-era style — what a regression”. You only have to look at the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes (at the time of writing — these will surely change once US critics oust UK ones from the front page) to see this played out. It’s true that Spectre is much more like one’s idea of a “classic Bond film” than any of Craig’s previous films were, but it didn’t strike me quite so much as it clearly struck others. As to whether that’s a deliberate filmmaking choice which has succeeded beautifully, or a case of lazily falling back on (or being unable to escape) the series’ tropes… well, your mileage — and appreciation — will vary. Considering both Craig and Mendes have mentioned in multiple interviews that they were deliberately bringing back more of the familiar Bond elements (something Craig had been hoping to do gradually ever since Casino Royale jettisoned most of them; indeed, I believe he’s mentioned it regularly since that time, too), I think we must conclude it was a deliberate decision. So the question becomes: do you approve of that decision? If you didn’t like Bond pre-Craig, or think the time for such things has passed, then probably not; if you’re a fan of the series as a whole, however, it may be a welcome return for some recently-absent familiarities.

For all its modernism, there’s one aspect which the Craig era has always had in keeping with earlier Bonds: the casting of the villain. After the Brosnan era gave us Brit Sean Bean, Brit Jonathan Pryce, Brit Robert Carlyle, and Brit Toby Stephens (even if some of them were playing foreigners), Craig’s films have stuck to the older formula of casting a respected/famous European: Dane Mads Mikkelsen, Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, Spaniard Javier Bardem, and now German “European actor du jour” Christoph Waltz. The double Oscar winner is on fine form at times, but there aren’t quite enough of those times. Again, without aiming to spoil anything, I’d say he’s not so much underused as misused.

Action sequences are naturally fantastic, the best coming in the alps. Thomas Newman’s score is as bland and unmemorable as his work last time, while Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is strong, but not quite as striking as Roger Deakins’ in Skyfall. According to most reviews, M has the best line and biggest laugh. I have to say, I’m forced to guess which that line is, because neither of the two contenders I’d put forward provoked much response in my screening.

The real downside comes in a muddled third act, which suggests the Sony leaks were right: either this is the one they criticised for not being good enough, or it’s the written-during-production replacement. Either way, it feels off the ball. Further discussion next time…

I must also mention that Madeleine Swann’s name is a reference to Proust, because I believe it’s beholden on every reviewer to point this out to make sure you know they got the reference. Well, I did too. Now I want a cake. And if you’d like to watch someone eat a Madeleine, check out Blue is the Warmest Colour. (Too far?)

Oh, and I must get in a pun along the lines of, “what were you exSpectreing?”, or “we’ve been exSpectreing you, Mr Bond”. I guess mine should be, “I exSpectred something more.”

My spoilersome full review of Spectre is available here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

2015 #20
Wes Anderson | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 + 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15 / R

The Grand Budapest HotelThe latest from cult auteur Wes Anderson, which managed that rare feat of enduring from a March release to being an awards season contender, sees the peerless concierge of a magnificent mid-European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering a rich elderly guest (Tilda Swinton, caked in Oscar-winning prosthetics) and attempting to flee across the country to clear his name. More or less, anyway, because this is a Wes Anderson film and so it takes in all kinds of amusing asides, tangents, and recognisable cameos.

The film has the feel of an artisan confection: candy-coloured, precisely designed and constructed, sweetly enjoyable, but with a hidden bite. Something like that, anyway. There are many praises to sing along these lines. The visuals are the most obvious. As is apparent even from the trailer, the shot composition is tightly controlled, squared-off but using that formalism to its advantage in various ways. I don’t know if this is always Anderson’s style (this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but it was similarly employed in the other), but here it works in ways almost indefinable.

The performances are just as mannered, and equally as fantastic for similar reasons: they exist within very specific constraints, but then push at their boundaries. Fiennes displays a perhaps-surprising flair for comedy in the lead role. Apparently Johnny Depp was Anderson’s initial choice — thank goodness that didn’t happen! You can completely see Depp in the part, bringing his rote whimsy to it, but how much more entertaining it is to have Serious Actor Ralph Fiennes going somewhat against type, and playing the role beautifully too. A host of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles that display various degrees of individualistic eccentricity, and there’s no weak link, but Fiennes is the stand-out.

Not suspicious at allI suppose the kooky idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s brand of storytelling and filmmaking will rub some viewers up the wrong way, looking on it all as vacuous affectations signifying nothing. To each their own, but, whatever the merits (or not) of Anderson’s style as a kind of one-man genre played out across his oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a synthesis of contributing elements that creates a movie that’s ceaselessly inventive, surprising, amusing, and entirely entertaining.

5 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

2014 #78
Jonathan Liebesman | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Wrath of the TitansThe 2010 Clash of the Titans is primarily remembered for its bad early-3D post-conversion, but must’ve made enough money to greenlight this sequel. I deemed Clash passably entertaining and expected no more here. Sadly, Wrath can’t deliver even that.

A confused story connects workmanlike action sequences and mediocre CGI (the cyclops resemble Shrek characters). A romantic subplot consists solely of The Hero kissing The Female at the end. New ideas sporadically rear their head, but Liebesman can’t ring anything interesting from them. Clash’s strong points — creature design; retro-styled gods — are AWOL.

The end result is all bluster and no heart.

2 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

2011 #23
Louis Leterrier | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Clash of the TitansThe thoroughly blockbusterised remake of ’80s fantasy favourite Clash of the Titans came in for a sound critical drubbing on its release last year, much of it focused on the post-production cash-in 3D applied to the film. I didn’t watch it in 3D so won’t have much to say about that, but I found the film itself to be passably enjoyable.

Firstly, it’s brief — little more than 90 minutes before the credits roll. That can feel stingy in cinemas these days, where we have to pay so much for a ticket getting your money’s worth is important, but at home especially it’s suited for a quick bit of fun. Still, Titans could’ve done with more length to allow characters to grow — at times it feels like a genuinely epic tale reduced to a lengthy plot summary, speeding over the fine details in search of the next big plot beat.

There’s a fairly impressive cast — nearly everyone is famous or at least recognisable — and all of them are massively underused. Perseus’ team are dispatched in various fashions, but we don’t really care because their group dynamic has only been built a tiny bit. And I wanted to care, because there were actors I like and characters who had potential — even if most were built from band-of-warriors stereotypes — but the film didn’t do enough to allow me to. Every time it produces a good bit, it throws in some groan-inducing sentiment or cheesily pompous dialogue.

FiiightWhat the film is built to do is provide action sequences, though these are passable and rarely more. They’re fine while they’re happening, but pretty much forgotten after — none of it shows a great deal of inspiration. The history of film is littered with far worse examples, but that’s about the best I can say. I can see why it would be painful in 3D too: quite aside from the use of always-criticised post-conversion, and the apparent rush job on that, Letterier favours the modern action style of handheld jiggly shots and fast cuts, neither of which lend themselves to the 3D experience. Heck, even Michael Bay acquiesced to adapt his similar style when shooting Transformers 3 in 3D, so you know it must be true.

In fact, the action sequences would probably benefit from the expansion of character I mentioned before: caring about them would add jeopardy when their lives are in danger and some emotional impact when they snuff it. As it stands, Titans is an emotionally empty experience, much more so than, say, Inception, which was frequently criticised for similar shortcomings. In fairness, this is probably because critics thought Inception might deliver in such respects, while no one expected a pre-summer blockbuster like Titans to bother. And they were right to an extent, but while it’s never going to be an affecting human drama, it should bother more than it does.

The FerrymanDesign is probably the film’s strong point, particularly sequences that feature the three witches and the ferryman. Clearly these dark, borderline-horror-film settings are the design team’s strongpoint. Elsewhere, the gods have an appealingly retro lens-flared-silver-armour look about them — I don’t remember the ’80s original very well, but one could imagine this iteration of the gods being dropped in without anyone noticing.

The CGI is complaint free, as with most well-budgeted modern flicks, apart from one glaring exception: Medusa looks almost as fake as the Rock’s Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns, which you may remember was lambasted even at the time — “the time” now being ten years ago. Oh dear. Maybe the passing years and abundance of CGI has affected my critical faculties here — that is to say, maybe side by side this Medusa would look a lot better than the decade-old Scorpion King — but, in the context of the rest of the film, that level of distracting fake-ness sprang to mind.

I’m laying into it almost as much as anyone now, but in spite of all that I sort of quite liked Clash of the Titans. It’s massively flawed in many areas, but good bits occasionally shine through. Unlike most blockbusters of the past few years, which tend to be bloated affairs in need of a good chop down, it would actual benefit from being a bit longer — Dear Godssome plot elements could do with greater clarity, most of the characters could do with some depth.

It’s probably all the studio’s fault for forcing major last-minute changes and reshoots. While I wound up enjoying what we got, the other version — as detailed by CHUD.com — does sound more interesting.

3 out of 5