Thursday, April 19, 2018

CRACKER? Life is Beautiful (1997)

                Finally, a Holocaust comedy after all those depressing dramas.  “Life is Beautiful” is an Italian film that was directed and co-written by Roberto Begnini.  He also starred in it.  Begnini loosely based the movie on the book In the End, I Beat Hitler by Rubino Romeo Salmoni.  He also was inspired by his own father’s stories from WWII.  He was in the Italian army and switched sides when his country went over to the Allies.  Unfortunately, the elder Begnini was captured by the Germans and put in a labor camp.  He would tell his kids humorous stories to distract them.  The movie was a big hit and critically acclaimed.  It won the Grand Prix at Cannes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score, and Actor.  Begnini got the title from a phrase Leon Trotsky wrote in his journal the day he was assassinated.

                The movie opens in Italy in 1939.  Two guys in a car without brakes barge into a gathering to greet the king.  This establishes the movies low-brow humor.  One of the clowns is Guido Orefice (Begnini) who has come to town to get a job as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant.  He falls in love with his son’s elementary school teacher.  She is engaged to the local rich asshole, so he is going to have to be creative.  If pratfalls are your idea of creativity, then he is the man for you.  Spoiler alert:  the winning streak of charming buffoons over wealthy jerk continues.  Years later, the Orefice family is living a beautiful life when lil’ ole WWII comes along.  Because Guido and his son Giosue are Jewish, they are shipped to a concentration camp.  Dora (Nicolletta Braschi – Roberto’s wife) volunteers to join them.  He does not stop her!  She is put in a different part of the camp.  Guido sends her messages over the camp loudspeaker.  He convinces his son that the concentration camp is the elaborate setting for a game.  If his son does everything he says, he will earn points to win a tank.  Shenanigans ensue.  I bet you never thought you would hear the word “shenanigans” in a Holocaust movie review.  It’s that kind of movie.

                This is a really hard movie to judge.  I am certainly not against black humor and it has its place in cinema.  Obviously, it is unexpected in a Holocaust movie.  Perhaps the time was right for it.  God knows we have plenty of Holocaust movies that are depressing.  But depressingly accurate in depicting the horrors of the camps.  To his credit, Begnini took the approach that the movie would be like a fairy tale.  He did not try to compete with the serious Holocaust films.  The movie is best viewed as a fairy tale, otherwise you might gag a bit.

                Since the movie is a dramedy, it is something of a roller coaster ride.  Before it gets serious, the humor is head-shaking.  Is Begnini’s shtick the current state of comedy in Italy?  Since the film is a vehicle for Begnini, your enjoyment is directly related to your tolerance for his antics.  He is the Italian Robin Williams so factor that in when you decide whether to watch the movie.  To be honest, I am not a Williams fan so I was not enamored with Begnini’s performance.  In this respect, I disagree with the Academy’s choice of him as Best Actor.  Amazingly, he was only the second actor to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar (the other was Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet”).  Begnini beat out Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” and Edward Norton for “American X”.  How in Hell did that happen?  Did Beatty/Dunaway read the envelope?  I found his brand of hilarity set in a Holocaust situation to be jarring.  Plus, it just is not funny under any circumstances.  This is a problem for a movie that is more comedy than drama.  It does not really show how bad the camp is.  Begnini pulls his punches in this respect or the movie would have been even more whiplashing.  But if you are in for a centesimo, why not be in for a lira?  I suppose you would not make millions of lira if you took that bold approach.

       Will “Life is Beautiful” crack my Best War Movies list?  No, because it is my list and I don’t care what the critics or the Academy Awards have to say.  I also reserve the right to opine that Roberto Begnini is not funny and this movie is a misfire.  Is it too soon for a humorous Holocaust movie?  It will always be too soon.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

Private: "Why us?"  Color Sergeant: "Because were 'ere, lad, because were 'ere".

3.  What movie is this?

It was released to coincide with Operation Torch. It is based on an unproduced play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Shockingly, several writers adapted it, which flies in the face of multi- writers signaling problems. Many of the extras were Jewish refugees. It was filmed at the studio. The Production Code Administration had all direct references to sex removed from the script. (Note to current television writers, it is possible to be sexy without beating the audience over the head.) It won three Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay) and was nominated for Actor, Supporting Actor, Cinematography (how did it lose that one?), Editing, and Music.  There was only half-hearted talk of a sequel.  Times change.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CRACKER? The Pianist (2002)

       How many Holocaust movies are there?  Always at least one more.  Thank goodness most of them are above average.  “The Pianist” is considered to be one of the best.  It was nominated for Best Picture and won for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor.  It won the BAFTA for Best Picture.  It was awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  “The Pianist” was directed by Roman Polanski.  He put some of his own experiences into the autobiography by Wladyslaw Szpilman.  When he was a boy Polanski was in the Krakow Ghetto.  He barely escaped being sent to a concentration camp.  His mother died in Auschwitz and his father was taken to Mauthansen.  He escaped the liquidation of the ghetto and was sheltered by Polish Catholic families until he was forced to roam the countryside until the war ended.  After the war, he was reunited with his father.  Obviously the movie meant a lot to him.  He had the ghetto faithfully recreated on a backlot in Germany.   He auditioned 1,400 actors with no satisfaction.  Polanski decided to ask Adrian Brody to take the role.  Brody was all in.  He lost 31 pounds and gave up his apartment and car to get into character.  He also stopped watching TV.  Method acting.  The movie cost $35 million and made $120 million.

                The movie opens in Warsaw in 1939.  Szpilman (Brody) is playing piano for a radio station while artillery fire hits the building.  His family is optimistic because Great Britain and France have declared war.  They celebrate and decide to stay!  No this is not a comedy.  Queue German soldiers marching through the streets.  Star of David badges.  Bow to officers.  Walk in the gutter.  All preparatory to movement to the ghetto.  His family and others are walled in.  Wladyslaw plays piano in an upper class restaurant.  This is well below his talent, but it is surviving.  Things will get worse, of course.  In 1942 his family has a date with cattle cars, but a loathsome collaborator decides to pull Wladslaw out of line and assign him to a slave labor battalion.  He joins the resistance, but is living in a nice flat provided by some Polish friends when the uprising starts.  He is merely a spectator at the repression.  Eventually he is on the run.  He makes the acquaintance of a humane Nazi.  Capt. Hosenfeld saves Wladslaw’s life.

                I have seen a lot of Holocaust movies for this blog.  I am not particularly a fan of the subgenre, but some of the best war movies deal with the Holocaust.  My 100 Best War Movies will include several.  “The Pianist” will not be one of them.  I know I will probably catch Hell for this analysis, but I think “The Pianist” is very overrated as entertainment.  It is good as a reenactment of Szpilman’s war experience and the story is a significant one.  He was a famous pianist, he survived the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, and he had the remarkable relationship with a Nazi soldier.  The memoir was ripe for movie treatment.  Polanski handles the material deftly.  Brody is fine in the lead, but he certainly did not deserve the Best Actor Oscar.   It should have gone to Daniel Day-Lewis for “Gangs of New York”.   The problem is the script is not special.  I know I complain a lot about lack of historical accuracy, but some of the best war movies take reasonable liberties with the truth to make the movie stand out.  I am not suggesting that Polanski should have “enhanced” the story.  I like the idea that there was admirable fidelity to the truth.  I am saying that the script did not engage me.  There is little suspense, partly due to the fact that you know he will survive.  The movie has a habit of taking you to the edge and then fizzling.  For instance, Wladslaw is part of the resistance until the uprising.  Then he (and we) are merely bystanders.  There is little action in the movie other than Wladslaw bouncing around with a few close calls that are less than pants-pissing for the audience. There is a redundancy to his movements.  If I had not known it was nonfiction, I would have found it boring as opposed to questioning its realism.  The interplay between Szpilman and Hosenfeld is too hokey for fiction.  The movie avoids your stereotypical Nazi villains, but substitutes a suave, cultural Nazi savior.  As far as it being a Holocaust film, it is quite micro.  There is very little of the big picture.  It is sprinkled with horrors, but they are not sustained.  You won’t learn much about the Holocaust from this film.

                If you want to see a good movie about Wladslaw Szpilman, watch “The Pianist”.  But if you want to see an outstanding movie about the Holocaust, there are several better choices.  “Schindler’s List” may not equal it in historical accuracy, but it blends truth with fiction in a much more entertaining way.

GRADE  =  B-

Saturday, April 7, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? White Tiger (2012)

                “White Tiger” is a Russian movie that was the nation’s selection for the 85th Academy Awards. It did not make the cut.  It was produced, directed, and co-written by Karen Shakhnazarov (a male, by the way).  The source material was a novella by Ilya Boyashov.  The movie is set during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. 

                It is the summer of 1943 and a nearly dead tank driver is pulled out of a destroyed tank and taken to the hospital with 90% burns.  He makes an amazing recovery, but he has amnesia.  He is given the name Naydanev which means “found”.  He finds that he has the ability to speak to tanks.  He is the “tank whisperer”.  His goal (obsession) is to get even with a mystical German tank called the “White Tiger”.  He thinks this demon destroyed his tank, and a crap load of others.  Naydenev is supposedly given a super tank but to tell the truth it doesn’t look any different than a regular T-34.  He sets up an ambush, but the White Tiger escapes into a swamp.   Later, after it singlehandedly decimates a Soviet tank assault, it escapes into a fog.  Mother Nature seems to be a Nazi.  Eventually Naydenev gets his duel and a village takes the brunt of it.  The movie ends with Adolf Hitler ranting about war being the natural human state.

                The Russians have made some good war movies.  “9th Company” and “The Fortress of War” come to mind.  Unfortunately, “White Tiger” is not one of the better ones.  It starts with an intriguing premise.  But instead of going down the surer route of steering toward horror territory, it decides to get all metaphorical on us.  As best I can figure, the White Tiger represents war and Naydanev is the desire to end it.  I could be wrong and the screenwriters could have just been hacks.  I do know that by the end of the film, it is easier to make a case for Naydanev being bat s*** crazy than believe that he is some avenging angel.  The whole movie is perplexing.  I don't think intentionally.  It might have worked as a camp fest, but Shakhnazarov appears to have taken the material seriously.  For that reason, the combat is not over the top.  The White Tiger is pretty awesome, but not even close to invulnerable.  In fact, it does a lot of running away in the movie.  I can only imagine what the South Korean film industry could have done with the premise.  There is nothing about the movie that takes your mind off the script flaws.  Vertkov is not the Russian Brad Pitt.  The real star is the White Tiger.  We don’t get to see its interior, but Naydanev’s tank’s interior is appropriately gritty and cramped.  There is some POV from the interior and overall the cinematography is fine.  It could have been a much better movie.  Pity.  What a waste of a great title.