Tuesday, January 29, 2013


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Mel Gibson's BRAVEHEART was an obvious choice for the Academy, given as how it was a big historical epic with exciting battle scenes not unlike 1959's winner BEN HUR; along with being a throw back to the "cast of thousands" kind of filmmaking that was so rarely done in the 90's, it was a personal triumph for Gibson as both director and star.  Like Kevin Costner's win for DANCES WITH WOLVES in 1990, Gibson's award seemed to be partly given to him just for being able to successfully complete a big budget pet project and turn it into a box office hit.  And while I personally enjoyed other films that year more, it's still a great looking and often thrilling film.

It all began when an eight year old Randall Wallace heard stories about famous thirteenth-century Scottish clansman William Wallace (no known relation to Randall) from his relatives, who mentioned statutes in Scotland that had been built in his honor.  Years later the adult Randall determined to write a film about William.  Research was not easy, but a reproduction of an old book, written by a poet named Blind Harry, provided some anecdotes about the famed clansman.  Eventually, he finished the script and got it to Gibson, who had just made his directoral debut in 1993 with THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE.  At first, Gibson wanted to only direct the film, thinking that he was too old to play William, but funding for the sure to be expensive film could only be green lit if he agreed to star as well.  Once that was settled, the film quickly came together: the rest of the cast was filled with mostly unknown British actors, and it was shot on locations in Ireland and Scotland, using thousands of extras, many of whom were Irish army reservists who's training came in handy for the battle scenes.  Although Gibson had to trim the film's violence to avoid an NC-17 rating, he was still able to keep its three hour length; the final budget for the film was over $70,000,000, and, after a somewhat slow opening weekend, it would go on to make around $75,000,000, making it a reasonable, if not spectacular, success.

Set in the thirteenth century, it tells the story of Scottish clansman William Wallace(Gibson): after his wife(Catherine McCormack)  is executed for attacking an English soldier who tried to rape her,  William leads a Scottish rebellion against the rule of King Edward I of England(Patrick McGoohan).  After a few successful battles against the English, he is eventually defeated by England's overwhelming forces and is put to death, although his memory lives on to inspire the Scottish people.

Mel Gibson

It's hard to believe that Mel Gibson was once known primarily for his charm and good looks instead of his excessive, alcohol fueled behavior, but that certainly was the case in the 1980's and 90's.  Also, as this film proves, he was a confident director (he would win an Oscar for his direction) who could handle both big battles and smaller scaled scenes with equal skill (cinematographer John Toll also won a well deserved Oscar for making the constantly overcast European locations look beautiful).  Although the film is too long and far from subtle, it mostly works as an exciting  action filled period piece that can certainly be held up favorably to the epics of past years, especially SPARTACUS, which has a slightly similar plot.
I've already mentioned the connections this film shares with Costner's DANCES WITH WOLVES, and here's another connection; just like Costner, Gibson seemed fully aware of his star persona and how best to utilize that on film.  He first rose to fame in action films like 1981's THE ROAD WARRIOR, so he seems right at home in the film's action scenes, yet he was also a sex symbol, so there are also plenty of romantic scenes too, in which his soft spoken sexuality and animal magnetism are winning.  (He seduces Sophie Marceau's princess Isabelle after only meeting her twice, and we completely understand her attraction!).  He also really nails the rousing speech he gives to his men before leading them into battle, which also gears the audience up for what is sure to be an epic fight.
And that fight, in which William leads his rag tag army to victory over the English, is the film's really outstanding moment. With skillful use of slow motion and editing, Gibson builds great tension as the two armies race towards each other like huge crashing waves, and he doesn't skimp on the bloody nature of battle, making it all the more realistic and powerful.  I also like that we completely understand how William's army can win against superior forces by using clever strategy and playing their opponents over confidence against them.   This probably ranks as one of the best epic battle scenes in movie history; if it has a flaw, it's that it comes at about the half way point in the film, and the later fight scenes just don't hold up to it.

The exciting battle scene begins

Some historians have criticized the film's inaccuracies, but, since this is a tale based on poems written years after the life of William Wallace, that doesn't bother me, especially since the film itself shows William's exploits being exaggerated as they pass from person to person; clearly this is intended to be a historical fairy tale.  So it makes perfect sense that William is an almost indestructible warrior, and that the complexities of the British political scene at that time can be boiled down to the evil English (Patrick  McGoohan makes a great slimy villain as King Edward) exploiting the noble Scotsmen. In many ways William Wallace is a lot like another near mythical character: Robin Hood, who both fight against injustice with a loyal army of rebels.  He even has a little John character in the towering Hamish (Brendan Gleeson). It is also not surprising that the film was popular in the US, given that its theme of a rebellious army standing up to English repression is similar to what the American colonies did a few centuries later.
I've already mentioned that I think the film is too long; this is especially true in the film's pleasant but pointless opening scenes in which we see William as a child.  Even worse are the torture sequences towards the film's end; Gibson indulges in heavy handed  Christ figure imagery as William is brutally tortured to death in an absurdly drawn out moment that becomes a kind of torture for the audience, although it is interesting in that it appears to be a dry run for Gibson's later and even more popular film, 2004's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  Still, one really gets the sense that BRAVEHEART was a special movie for Gibson, one that he hated to see end, so the film still works, overlong as it is.

The movie's most troubling flaw comes in the portrayal of the gay prince Edward (Peter Hanley), who shows every negative stereotype about gay men possible: he's narcissistic, weak and simpering.  Even worse, when the disgusted king Edward pushes the prince's lover out a window to his death, it's played for dark humor, implying that he had it coming!  Although the character's homosexuality does play a part in the plot, (his refusal to have sex with the Queen pushes her into William's arms) it feels more like an excuse to make his villainous character a  weakling.  It also didn't help that Gibson had already made homophobic comments in the press before making this film.   Not surprisingly, gay rights groups objected to the character, but for the most part, Gibson refused to apologize.  Personally, while I do find the Prince offensive, he's a minor enough character that I can just cringe when he's onscreen and then forget about him when he's gone, and  I still find myself enjoying the film  despite this stereotypical character, just as modern audiences can enjoy a film like 1956's THE SEARCHERS despite its essentially racist storyline.


While I think BRAVEHEART is an impressive achievement, it was not my favorite film of the year; for it's powerful portrayal of the serious topic of the death penalty, I think Tim Robbins's DEAD MAN WALKING  was a truly great film, one of the best Hollywood films made in the 90's, and therefore more worthy of a best picture award.  But I can understand why the Academy was more drawn towards Gibson's uplifting epic than Robbins's more controversial film, and so I don't begrudge their choice.

Friday, January 11, 2013



The Academy's choice for best film of 1994 marked one of the few times that the Academy agreed with the American public, giving the best picture award to Robert Zemeckis's oddball comedy drama FORREST GUMP, which was also the number one movie at the box office that year; the first time that the moviegoing public and the Academy agreed since 1979's KRAMER VS. KRAMER.  But the film's enormous success brought an inevitable backlash, with many criticizing its length and sappy tone.  It really seems to divide people between those for who find its story moving and those who walk out shaking their heads wondering what all the fuss was about.  Personally, I tend to fall into the latter group; I think Zemekis's movie is nice looking and mostly well acted, but its too long, its often feels pointless, and when it does have a point, it makes it through sledgehammer sentiment.  

The film began as a novel of the same name published in 1986.  Producer Wendy Finerman thought there was a movie in it, but it took many attempts by different writers before Eric Roth finally wrote a script she felt was worthy of the novel.  Director  Robert Zemeckis, a protege of Stephen Spielberg, was slated to direct; at first this may have seemed like an odd choice because he was known for special effect movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, but it proved  wise in that the experience he had using effects that showed interactions between humans and cartoons in the latter film would aid him in the scenes where Tom Hanks is blended in seamlessly with real archival footage of famous people in Forrest Gump.  Actors like Bill Murray and John Travolta were considered for the lead role before it went to Tom Hanks, hot off of winning an Oscar for best actor in 1993's PHILIDELPHIA.  The film was mostly shot in South Carolina (even the Viet Nam war scenes), and came in with a budget of around $55 million; it opened relatively slowly, and then built to an enormous hit, eventually making over $300 million dollars in the US alone.
Set in Alabama, the film tells the life story, mostly in flashback, of the dim witted Forrest Gump; born in the 1940's, Forrest's amazing life story includes fighting in Viet Nam, playing ping pong in China, and meeting famous people like John Kennedy and Elvis Presley.  All the while he pines for childhood friend Jenny(Robin Wright), who seems to appear and disappear from his life, until she finally marries him before dying of AIDS, leaving him alone with their son.

Tom Hanks

This is a film that is not subtle about going for big emotions almost from the start: from the heavy handed metaphor of a floating leaf landing on Forrest at the film's beginning to the painfully corny soundtrack by Alan Silvestri  (thankfully, the score is mostly thrown out when the film switches to Viet Nam, with classic rock songs taking its place, although even those are painfully obvious choices),  to Forrest's constant quoting of  little"pearls of wisdom" that he learned from his mother,  that sound like greeting card messages, not to mention  the fact that Forrest has two separate scenes in which he stands by a loved one's grave and tearfully talks to them.  The real make or break scene for the film, the one that judges just how much you'll enjoy the film, comes early on when Forrest, while he's still a child, is chased by some bullies on bikes.  Forced to wear metal leg braces because of a spinal condition, he suddenly breaks free of the braces and runs with almost super speed.  Forrest himself calls this a miracle, and whether or not you can believe such a thing happening will determine your feelings about the film.  To me the scene is absurd and laughable, and, while I find some other elements of the film successful, (the battle scene in Viet Nam is genuinely harrowing) my inability to be emotionally involved in a story where such miracles can occur hurts my overall enjoyment of the film.   To be fair, the fact that the film was so popular, with many viewers paying to see it more than once, meant that a significant part of the audience were indeed moved by the story and its characters, even if it mostly left me cold.
Tom Hanks, like classic movie stars Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, is an immediately endearing screen presence, one that an audience warms to and who can carry a film with ease.   Hanks won his first Oscar nomination when he played a 12 year old boy who magically ages into an adult in Penny Marshall's charming 1988 film BIG, and really, he seems to be playing the same lovable, naive  man child here, albiet one with a Southern accent.    However, in this film, Hanks's lovability is pushed to the limit, as his almost perfect character becomes an often maudlin figure.  Since the whole point of the Forrest character is that he never really changes, Hanks's performance hits the same note again and again. He seems to have only two reactions to what's going on: he gazes forward, dumbfounded, or  he does something impulsive and childlike.   Still, it's not a bad performance, in that Forrest is mostly engaging throughout, it's just that it feels that Hanks is limited by the character as he's written.  He did win a second best actor award for his performance, so obviously it has its fans. As for that Southern accent he uses, the story goes that Hanks based it on the real speaking voice of Michael Humphries, the child actor who plays the young Forrest; honestly,  I find it's odd cadences and monotone distracting and sometimes annoying, although I suppose it's authentic to the region and true to the character's limited intellect.

Gary Sinese

While I think Robin Wright as Jenny and Sally Field as Forrest's mother both give fine performances (Field doing what she could with an often dull, saintly character), my favorite performance in the film is given by Gary Sinese as the bitter handicapped war veteran LT Dan.  His cynical nature and anger help to cut through the rest of the film's treacle, and he and Hanks have  good chemistry.  In what may be the film's most effective moment, the enraged Dan tells Forrest that it was wrong for Forrest to have saved him after his legs were blown off.  The intensity of Sinese here is impressive, and he maintains it in many of his later scenes, only giving in to the film's sappiness towards the end.

One of the film's big flaws comes in its use of voice over narration; using such a technique is often a tricky one for films.  While great movies as diverse as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and GOOD FELLAS all use character narration, it can be a way for lazy screenwriters to simply tell the audience what they're watching or underline themes in an obvious way.  FORREST GUMP falls into both of those traps, with Forrest's almost constant narration spoon feeding emotion and exposition to the audience in a patronizing way, and again, I'm not a big fan of Hanks's accent.  I also don't enjoy the portion of the film in which Forrest decides to start running "for no particular reason", eventually running for so long that he gathers followers that join him (he grows a beard like Jesus, because, like I said, this is not a subtle film).  After a couple of mildly amusing jokes about how Forrest inadvertently gave good ideas to two of his followers, the sequence just peters out without any kind of climax: Forrest just decides to stop running and that's that.  In a film that runs well over two hours, why this pointless interlude did not wind up on the cutting room floor makes no sense to me.

 One of the keys to the film's huge box office success is that is was carefully written to avoid any specific politicizing in its historical overview; Forrest Gump, both the movie and the character, is a blank slate for the audience to write their own feelings on, so both conservatives and liberals can find something to like.  For example, when Forrest goes off to fight in Viet Nam, he accepts it without ever wondering about the rightness or wrongness of the war.  And when he becomes a war hero, he does it only by saving other soldiers and never fires a single shot; in other words, he's the kind of war hero that even the biggest anti war protestor can admire.
While the film's meaning is open to interpretation, I feel that it contrasts the lives of Forrest and Jenny to make its points: Forrest is always the same, from adulthood to childhood, Jenny is always trying something new, from folk singing to disco dancing.  Forrest is always lucky, good things happen to him almost by chance, Jenny is never lucky, and leads a sad life from childhood abuse by her father to an early death from AIDS.  The moral of the story seems to be that we should all be like Forrest; that we should never change, always do what our mother's tell us, and just accept whatever hand life deals us without complaint, trusting that God (the movie is quite religious) will guide us to our ultimate destiny.  The fact  that Forrest is not only lucky, but kind, brave and charitable, rams the point home.  Personally, I find this message troubling to say the least; while I'm open to the assertion that kindness is a greater virtue than intelligence, I still believe that it's important to do more than trust fate, and that analysis of one's life and the choices made in it are essential to a "full life".  Still, I will give the film credit for raising these issues in a thought provoking way, even when those issues are wrapped in a maudlin package like this film.


My mixed feelings about this movie are obvious, and, despite its huge popularity,  I don't think it was the best film of that year, not when fine films like Tim Burton's ED WOOD, Robert  Redford's QUIZ SHOW,  and Frank Darabont's SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION were all released.  Not to mention my personal favorite film of the year, Quentin Tarantino's violent, profane and wildly entertaining PULP FICTION, which I believe has proven to be a far more influential film than the overrated GUMP.

Friday, January 4, 2013



 Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST became the first (and so far only) film directly about the Holocaust during WWII to win best picture, and it's hard to imagine a more moving, powerful and uplifting film about that tragedy ever being made. Not only is it one of the Academy's best choices ever, its victory was a vindication for Spielberg (who also won for best director), and signified that the popular director had finally grown up and could make more serious films than his earlier popcorn entertainments.  Although he would often return to escapist mainstream movies after this one, he still clearly established himself as a serious artist.
Spielberg began his career in the earlier 1970's, working in television on shows like COLOMBO.  His TV work included the excellent 1971 thriller DUEL, which was considered good enough to eventually get a theatrical release.  His first theatrical film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS in 1974, but he didn't really arrive until 1975's JAWS became a massive thriller hit.  That was followed in 1977 by CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, another hit, and he was on his way to becoming the top  director in Hollywood.   Throughout the 1980's his name on a movie poster as a director or producer became a marketing point, usually promising a film with eye popping special effects and a childlike sense of wonder, and his films were popular with critics too.  Really, not since Alfred Hitchcock had a filmmaker had such a combination of critical acclaim and box office success.  But it seemed like there was a backlash against him in the Academy, who continually denied him awards for best picture or director, despite nominating him several times.  He was, it seemed, branded a boy wonder for whom fame had come too soon and too easily; he made JAWS before he was thirty, and then reaped box office gold with what were seen as children's films like 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and 1982's ET.  He appeared to be actively working against this image with 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE, his first serious adult film,  based on an acclaimed novel by Alice Walker.  But the Academy gave him what seemed like a stinging rebuke: the film was nominated for eleven Oscars and won none. 
The seed of his eventual path to Oscar glory began in 1982 when  Australian author Thomas Keneally published the book SCHINDLER'S ARK, based on the true story of Oscar Schindler.  Keneally stumbled on the idea for the book by pure chance, when he met the owner of a luggage store in Beverly Hills who was a holocaust survivor that had for years tried to interest writers in the story of Schindler.  Keneally was interested, later saying that Schindler intrigued  him because "you couldn't say when opportunism ended and altruism began" for Schindler.  After heavily researching the story, Keneally published the book to great praise.  It was quickly optioned by Universal, with Spielberg set to produce.  A number of directors were considered: Martin Scorsase turned it down because he felt it should be directed by someone Jewish. Roman Polanski, a holocaust survivor himself, said no because he felt it would bring back too many memories for him (in 2002 he would finally make his holocaust film, THE PIANIST).  And Sidney Lumet also said no, feeling that he had already done a film about the holocaust with 1964's THE PAWNBROKER.  So Spielberg finally decided to direct it himself, although it almost became famed old time director Billy Wilder's last film, but Spielberg talked him out of it. (Wilder, to his credit, attended the premiere of the film and freely admitted that he could not have done better).   Screenwriter Steven Zallian was recruited to write the script while Spielberg researched the story himself, traveling to Poland and speaking to many holocaust survivors.  The mostly unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson was cast for the title role when it was decided that a big star might be distracting to the audience. Ben Kingsley was also brought on to play the important role of Itzhak Stern, Shindler's Jewish factory manager.  And, in his Hollywood debut, Ralph Fiennes was cast to play Nazi leader  Amon Goeth.  The film was shot almost entirely in Poland, using many actual locations and thousands of extras.  It was shot almost entirely in black and white with mostly handheld cameras, both of which added to the film's realism.  Despite its depressing subject matter and "R" rating (a first for Spielberg), it got glowing reviews and made almost a hundred million dollars on a budget of around thirty five.

Liam Neeson

Beginning in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, it tells the story of Oscar Schindler (Neeson), a cynical German businessman who plans to make a fortune during the war by manufacturing war supplies using Jewish labor in his factory.  But, after witnessing the brutal killings of Jews during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he strives to save the lives of his workers by using bribes and lies to keep them out of the death camps, eventually spending almost all of his money.  He eventually saves around 1100 people.

Spielberg refused taking any salary for this film; instead he used the money to fund the Shoah Foundation, which preserves the written and spoken memories of people who have survived genocides.  He has also stated that this film and ET are the two movies he most wants to be remembered for.  That sense that this film was something special, that it was a chance to dramatize the real memories of holocaust survivors, and that it would looked at for years to come as a record of their stories, pervades every frame of the film.  The Oscar winning cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is crisp and beautifully lit, with a few splashes of color used effectively in some scenes.  The soundtrack by John Williams, featuring violin solos by Itzhak Perlman (which also won an Oscar), is lovely and moving.  And every performance, even from the most minor of  characters, feels authentic and real, as do all the sets and costumes. It really feels like history come to life.
The decision by Keneally and Spielberg to tell this story feels so right; here is an uplifting story in the middle of absolute horror, a movie full of sadness and terror, but that still has a genuinely happy ending.   And it's a tribute to the decency of a common man: Schindler was a war time profiteer who could have easily ignored what was going on and made a fortune, but he instead did the right thing and worked to save as many people as he could.
Liam Neeson is excellent as Schindler, who appears so commanding and calm when we first see him casually bribing waiters in a cafe to gain access to Nazi commanders.  With his charm and good looks, he believably plays a man who knows how to spread money around to further his interests, even if the day to day operations of his factory is of no concern to him.  And I love the relationship between him and his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Kingsley); Kingsley wonderfully plays Stern as a cautious man who only slowly comes to trust Oscar, fully realizing that Oscar could end his life at any minute if Itzhak displeases him. At one point Oscar lashes out at Stern because word has gotten out that his factory has become a safe haven for jews, but he eventually becomes proud of his more kindly reputation.  (In a nicely realized scene, Itzhak finally consents to share a drink with Oscar after turning him down several times before, showing his increased trust of the factory owner.) The turning point for Oscar comes when he sees the brutality of the German guards as they liquidate the Krakow ghetto, and his sunken, defeated expression as he watches is unforgettable. (The importance of this moment to him is underlined when a little girl's dress is shown with color, driving home the horror of innocence destroyed). From then on he realizes that he must do whatever  he can to save the lives of his workers, but he also is smart enough to know how to handle the Nazis, and he gains the trust of Nazi leader Amon Goeth even while fully realizing what a monster he is.
As Goeth, English actor Ralph Fiennes gives what is my favorite performance in the film;  he plays Goeth with a dead eyed stare like a shark and a soft spoken evil purr of a voice.  He can seem calm and soft spoken at one moment, and then have someone shot on a flimsy pretense in the next; a true sociopath, he looks down on the Jewish workers from his balcony armed with a rifle, like an angel of death, ready to shoot anyone not moving fast enough. (Even more chilling is how this behavior is based on real accounts of Goeth).  In one remarkable scene, he finds himself attracted to his pretty Jewish maid Helen (Embeth Davidtz), but is conflicted by his anti semitic brain washing ("you're not a person in the strictest sense of the word" he says to her).  His desire drives him to the brink of madness, and he blames Helen for leading him on and beats her severely.  Goeth's descent from kindness to brutality as Helen remains stoic is played with incredible intensity by Fiennes.  Although he has gone on to give many other excellent performances in the years following this film, none have been as memorable as this.

Ralph Fiennes

The movie moves from one impressive scene to another; at one point we see jewish people being shipped out by train as their luggage is ripped open and stripped of everything of value. Jewelry is taken as family photos are callously dumped on each other.  This leads to a chilling climax, a jeweler is given a pile of human teeth to take gold fillings from.  The blank expression of the jeweler as he regards the teeth is heartbreaking.  The use of violence in the film is brutal, ugly and often sudden, as it should be.  This is especially true in the aforementioned liquidation of Krakow sequence, in which armed guards storm through the ghetto, killing with impunity; in a horrid juxtaposition, one of the guards begins to play a classical tune on a piano while gunshots fill the air, adding to the madness of the scene.

The film also has an excellent attention for the details of life in the ghetto, like when Itzhak scratches his head so that the guards will think he has head lice and give him a wide berth.  Or when the women know that the Nazis are taking away sickly people, so they prick their fingers and smear blood on their cheeks to give themselves a more healthy complexion.

While the film was critically acclaimed, there was some debate about one of the film's late scenes: in it, after the war has ended and the factory is closed, Oscar breaks down in tears in front of his workers, guilt ridden over the fact that he could have saved more lives if he had just sold more of his material goods.  First of all,  this never happened; by all reports the real Oscar Schindler was not the kind of man to cry in front of a group of people like that.  Secondly, it underlines the character's nobility in such an obvious and heavy handed manner that it allows an otherwise serious minded film to sink into maudlin territory, literally trying to wring tears from the audience.  Is it possible that Spielberg hadn't grown up after all, that he was still hitting obvious notes?  While I understand the intellectual arguments against this scene,  it is so well acted by Neeson and the rest of the cast, and it provides some much needed uplift after so much sadness and darkness, that I find myself tearing up every time I see it.  I can understand that I'm being manipulated, but I can't lie, the manipulation works on me.  So I don't mind that scene, especially because it is swiftly followed by a wonderful climax in which the real life surviving Schindler Jews and the actors who portrayed them in the film pay tribute at Oscar Schindler's grave, which both strengthens the film's sense of realism and gives it a final, moving ending.


The power and excellence of this film is almost undeniable; while other fine films were made that year, like Robert Altman's SHORTCUTS and Wayne Wang's THE JOY LUCK CLUB, there is no denying that the Academy clearly made the right choice here, and that Spielberg's film will be remembered for years to come.  Along with Stanley Kramer's excellent 1961 film JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, it remains  the most powerful non documentary movie to deal with the holocaust.  It's hard to imagine a better use of film as both an art form and a dramatic historical record.