Tag: racism

American History X (1998)

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Although it is somewhat heavy handed, American History X has great performances and a shocking brutality that leaves a large impression on you.

The film is carried by Edward Norton, he portrays his character Derek Vinyard with real gusto and vitriol; what a howling, credibility defacing decision it was for Robert Benigni to trump Norton at the Oscars for his vexing role in the saccharine turd that is Life is Beautiful.

Vinyard is an intelligent young man from a middle-class suburban home, but he rapidly develops fervent fascist views after his father is murdered by a black gunman. Vinyard has clear leadership skills and he unfortunately channels them in all the wrong directions. His fierce oration makes him a notable figure in the Californian neo-Nazi movement, bringing him to the attention of veteran racist Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who is well cast as the creepy, manipulative leader. The influence of both Derek and Cameron mean that Derek’s younger brother, the rather more placid Danny (Edward Furlong), also harbours dangerous neo-Nazism, although not with the same zeal as his brother.

To its merit, the film is unrestrained in its depiction of violent racism. With their foolish understanding of Nazism, the swastika adorned skinheads have a palpable hatred of all things un-Aryan. No one’s hatred is greater than Vinyard’s, who commits a brutal act of street, or rather curb, justice that has since become infamous. So abhorrent is the scene that it entered my top 10 most painful scenes in cinema history.

It’s Vinyard’s act of violence that lands him in prison, where, perhaps predictably, he has a change of heart. I felt that the manner in which Vinyard changes is rather too pronounced and straight forward, the transformation of such an extreme psychology should have been more nuanced in its depiction – the shift of a psychological complex is one of subtle shades, not clearly defined, narrative friendly episodes.

However, I think a good argument can be had about Vinyard’s rapid change. Beneath all the extremism is a measured, intelligent man; he isn’t an ignorant, retrograde fool, he’s a subject one can work with.  After all, his realisation isn’t completely instantaneous, he integrates with the white thugs of his wing, which appears to be some variation of the Aryan Brotherhood, but their business practices are at odds with his strict principles. Combine this with his repeated and isolated work detail with the black Lamont (Guy Torry) (which I should think is an unlikely scenario for obvious reasons), and his sudden and considerable change of circumstance could have woken him up.

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There’s a whiff of stereotypical characterisation at times; the two principal black characters of the film Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) and the aforementioned Lamont are within the realm of the stock character, the latter particularly. They can both be deemed as Magical Negroes, a term that refers to black characters whose sole purpose is to serve the development of a white character. Sweeney is Derek’s former and Danny’s current high school teacher. He is a respected, righteous man with a seemingly infinite wisdom, disarming everyone with sagacious monologues and philosophical questions that are delivered with his deep, portentous voice. His character is heavily influenced by civil rights figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Lamont, the inmate who Vinyard has repeated laundry duty with, is portrayed by comedian Guy Torry. I haven’t seen his stand-up, but his manic, animated performance is certainly reminiscent of a Chris Rock gig. He’s a rather frivolous character that’s little more than narrative function that services Vinyard’s character development.

It’s not a surprise to find that director Tony Kaye’s career began in advertising. With repeated use of slow motion and a black and white palette for flashback scenes, Kaye’s visual flair has very much transferred to the silver screen. Considering History’s subject matter, I felt the film was sometimes stylish to a fault, particularly during a racial territorial dispute on a basketball court that’s constructed in a way through aesthetics and music that inclines the viewer to support the white men.

Other examples of ill-judgement were during its humorous moments concerning the obesely corpulent and repellent Seth (Ethan Suplee), particularly during a brutal assault on immigrant supermarket staff where he steals a large plastic burger, it’s not funny and is inappropriate in its placing.

Although its morality tale is heavy handed and simplistic, I must reiterate that American History X is a highly memorable film driven by an incendiary Edward Norton and an unrestrained, vicious intensity that few contemporary films strive for.

84% 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

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It is most certainly flawed, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is likely to make this harrowing chapter of history more accessible for some children.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas serves as an introduction for children to Nazism and the Holocaust. It covers a broad range of elements integral to Nazi Germany such as institutional racism, nationalism and indoctrination, albeit in a juvenile, contrived and ultimately implausible manner.

The film charts the relationship between Bruno (Asa Butterfield), a German 8-year-old and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy. Bruno is the son of Ralf (David Thewlis), the SS Commandant of a nearby concentration camp in which Shmuel lives, and Elsa (Vera Farmiga), who is largely ignorant of the Jewish persecution her husband is responsible for.

The inquisitive Bruno first meets the titular boy in striped pyjamas when he stumbles across the camp perimeter next to the woods that surround his house. The innocent Bruno is puzzled by Shmuel’s predicament, he doesn’t understand why soldiers are ‘taking their clothes away for no reason’ or why another inmate Pavel works in the camp after a career as a doctor. As he repeatedly visits Shmuel and develops a friendship with him, his confusion soon turns to indignation.

Clearly, their relationship is unrealistic. The abhorrent reality is that most children were killed immediately upon arrival at the camps, and even as a child who either somehow slipped through the net or was deemed useful, it is very unlikely that Shmuel could escape his oppressors’ eyeshot so many times to speak with Bruno.

The boys’ exchanges are contrived and awkward, they are not natural conversations but a vehicle for the screenwriters to teach their young viewers the basics of the Holocaust. Considering his age, Asa Butterfield is a decent young actor – he has the potential to be a star. Scanlon, however, was quite stilted.

One of my problems with the two boys’ relationship and indeed the whole cast are the English accents, it seriously affected the credibility of the characters.  Even Vera Farmiga, an American woman, gives her German character an English accent, which she does very well, incidentally. I’m sure the film’s adult cast members were more than capable of at least hints of German or Eastern European, but attempts to do so by Butterfield or Scanlon would have probably been risible.

The most villainous and unlikable character of the film is probably Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend), but he is also something of a caricature. With his chiselled jaw, blond hair, blue eyes and immaculate uniform, Kotler is the personification of the somewhat homoerotic Nazi dream of Aryan supremacy. The problem is that instead of him being a compelling example of a Nazi propaganda poster-boy, Friend’s character is an example of the cliched ‘Ve have vays ov making you talk’ Nazi stock-character.  And of course, Friend makes no attempt to Germanise his English accent, which meant I just couldn’t believe in him.

With implausible characters and relationships, some viewers may begin to lose hope as the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas descends into a sophomoric history lesson. However, the climax completely batters you with its shocking, powerful twist. Despite all of the preceding problems, the fittingly horrendous denouement will leave an impression on child and parent alike. Seldom have I seen a film picked up so greatly by its final minutes.

63%

Schindler’s List (1993)

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Schindler’s List is a masterful blend of direction, cinematography, scope, score and performances, resulting in an epic of overwhelming power that only a cynic would dismiss.

WWII and The Holocaust were events of mind bending statistics and proportions. Tens of thousands dead in single bombing raids, 20+ million Soviets dead, 15+ million Chinese dead, 6+ million Poles dead, 7+ million Germans dead, 11 million the victim of Nazi genocide – it just beggars belief. The European and Pacific theatres were so dreadful, so massive, that it’s impossible for one to fully process it emotionally.

Schindler’s List is one of the finest cinematic depictions of those dark years; a sweeping, brutal film that brings a remarkable story to the attention of millions of viewers. However, as with all historical films, it does not serve as the definitive source of information. It should be viewed not as a documentary but as a vivid gateway into the subject.

The film follows Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Sudeten German businessman who reaped the benefits of slave labour during WWII. A man of imposing presence and great magnetism, he effortlessly charms his way through Nazi circles with sumptuous feasts and the sheer force of his personality. His networking soon rewards him with an enamelware factory in Kraków using Jewish labour. At this point Schindler appears largely indifferent to the persecution all around him, or rather he avoids confronting the ugly truth of the Nazis’ approaching final solution.

He eventually becomes acquainted with Amon Göth, the callously evil commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp who is performed excellently by Ralph Fiennes. Göth was an incredibly violent man, a psychopath. The extent of his crimes were such that his sentencing was phrased as following: ‘Amon Göth himself killed, maimed and tortured a substantial, albeit unidentified, number of people.’ 

Göth’s violence is depicted with no expurgation, he shoots dozens of defenceless people and never shows even a modicum of remorse, so fanatical is his hatred for them. The film is starkly brutal, there is no cinematic sheen, the scores that are shot bleed profusely as they fall to the ground like rag dolls.

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Fiennes, whose face can be both that of a mild-mannered Englishman and sinister villain all at once, delivers a performance that’s nuanced and restrained yet hauntingly evil. Just like an inundated office worker, Göth complains to Oskar about the pressures of the job, which at the time is the exhumation of thousands of rotting corpses – ‘Can you believe this? As if I don’t have enough to do they come up with this? I have to find every rag buried up here and burn it.’ 

Like Adolf Eichmann, the logistics man responsible for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, Fiennes’ depiction of Amon Göth is another example of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’. It is a compelling depiction of one of the Third Reich’s most committed adherents, a man deeply entrenched in Nazi ideology that has lost almost all humanity.

The relationship between Schindler and Göth and his SS cronies is quite uneasy for the viewer, for Schindler enjoys pushing the boundaries, he thrives off being a renegade. In one scene he kisses a Jewish woman in the presence of a whole party of SS officials, who cannot believe what they are seeing.

As the film progresses and Schindler realises both the abhorrence of the situation and his power to do something about it, something of a good vs. evil dichotomy arises. Deriders may say this is a simplistic construct, but it isn’t, they are two complex characters. Their exchanges shows that Schindler is the strongest leader between him, he has personality and charm, whereas Göth only has ruthless barbarism, something Göth realises and struggles with.

The film has grand scope and many brilliant set pieces. A notable example is the famous ‘Red girl’ scene during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, it is very impressive logistically, there are countless extras who all need directing. Schindler, who is atop a hill witnessing the brutality below, is the camera’s point of view, following this little girl in a red coat (famously one of the few moments of colour in the film) as she navigates her way through all the murder and pillaging. The scale of the scenes at the Płaszów concentration camp is also considerable, particularly as great masses of prisoners, naked and completely dehumanised, are shuffled around like cattle for inspection.

Interestingly, Spielberg said that Schindler really did see a red girl walk down the street unharmed during the liquidation; Spielberg then said that her bright red coat represented the obviousness of the Holocaust and how the Allied governments were aware of what was happening yet didn’t take any decisive actions in stopping it. I am not one for finding grand metaphors in an item such as a red coat, I think the scene is most interesting as a re-enactment of Schindler’s account,  however I’m sure many would.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski said that the film was shot in black and white so it would look ‘timeless’. I think the colouring achieved the desired effect, and I also think the film’s visceral edge and authenticity was achieved through the hand-held, shaky cinematography that would later work so well in Saving Private Ryan (1998). 

A great film will almost always have a great score, and it is no different with Schindler’s List as Spielberg once again found a masterful auditory companion in John Williams, whose beautifully melancholy score, particularly the central violin melody, has become instantly recognisable to many people.

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The depiction of the mass exhumation at Chujowa Górka (pictured above) is set against the backdrop of Immolation (With Our Lives, We Give Life), the stirring operatic vocals and chords of which make the scene almost apocalyptic. There is also notable use of Hebrew music, such as the ebullient Yerushalaim Shel Zahav and the haunting Oyf’n Pripetshek/Nacht Aktion. Even the trailer leaves a huge impression through music. ‘Exodus’, a work by the celebrated Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, has a brooding subtlety that emphasises the trailer’s ominous ambiguity, making its two minutes and twelve seconds most moving and unsettling.

Despite massive universal acclaim, the film inevitably had its detractors, most notably Stanley Kubrick, who said:

The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’

Firstly, around 1200 were saved, not 600. Kubrick suggests that ‘Schindler’s List’ is somehow a sugar-coated account of the Holocaust, it certainly isn’t. It is a true story, Oskar Schindler really did save 1200 people, it isn’t a fanciful, maudlin figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. It is an emotionally affecting yet tactful depiction of both the systematic murder of scores of defenceless people and a complicated man’s remarkable act of humanity in the face of unimaginable suffering.

97%

 

Glory (1989)

Glory_Head_ExplodeAfter this appropriately nasty image, ‘Glory’ becomes awfully choreographed.

Ultimately rather average.

‘Glory’ charts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) appointment to the head of a coloured regiment through to his battles with institutional racism during the American Civil War.

As a result of familiarity and the majority of the characters being quite bland, I found Glory’s central theme of racism somewhat unremarkable. The flattest characters in the film were the troops of the coloured regiment, who should be central to the film. The problem is they’re not, which is an issue. ‘Glory’ is adapted from Robert Shaw’s letters to his mother, meaning the film is naturally focused on him. Consequently, the core subjects of the story are quite underdeveloped.

Morgan Freeman gives a very Morgan Freeman performance as John Rawlins, the measured, sensible and wise Sergeant Major, characteristics so typical of Freeman’s oeuvre. Denzel Washington is more interesting as Private Trip, an angry runaway slave who’s understandably embittered with the world and everyone in it. This anger manifests itself as bullying, he’s always provoking people who threaten that chip on his shoulder. His wrath is felt particularly by Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated, well dressed man whom Trip considers an uncle tom.

Trip is a decent character and convincingly played by Washington, he conveys that pain and anger well; his Oscar winning turn is probably the best performance of the film. However Trip is, like the rest of the film, still somewhat unremarkable and overly familiar. There is one scene where Trip remarks how the regiment is ‘the only family he’s ever had’, which is so clichéd and predictable you could see it coming a mile off.

What perhaps is worst about the film are the battle scenes. While there’s a grisly headshot at the beginning and it succeeds in depicting the disgraceful death of the suicidal battle charges, it ultimately does not convince or affect. There’s far too much choreography going on, whether its soldiers exuberantly throwing themselves about under cannon fire or the almost laughable scenes of contrived mêlée where the soldiers run about rifle butting each other like in some second-rate action film.

Mark Kermode spoke of how ‘Glory’ had ‘visceral war scenes’ that were ‘long before Saving Private Ryan’. Indeed, ‘Glory’ was before ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but the latter heralded a new level of brutal realism, after its awesome 169 minutes you feel completely battered and depressed. I am very surprised that Kermode would compare this tame piece of work with Spielberg’s stark WWII epic.

Despite my reservations, I wouldn’t say ‘Glory’ is a bad film, it goes along just fine. Although I thought there should’ve been more focus on the black characters, it is Shaw’s struggle to control and maintain his new regiment that’s probably the most interesting part of the film. Although a compassionate man, he realises that he is now an authority figure, he must nurture a veneer of unwavering stoicism and power so the men respect and obey him. This means he must adhere to the rules of the time, including the ugly, violent ones. I was most engaged when watching Shaw wrestle with the officialism and racism of his regiment, however the men he commanded were trite and boring.

While it may have been more profound in 1989, I felt that the film, although competent, was rather neutered and covered well-trodden ground.

 69%

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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A vast, multi-faceted, albeit slightly maudlin epic with a beautiful score, striking cinematography and gripping acting intensity.

A sprawling epic of three hours, ‘The Deer Hunter’ is a striking, moving film. It focuses on a group of working class men who live in Clairton, Pennsylvania; which whilst is an industrial town, is a pretty and tranquil part of the world. However, this is strictly the film’s depiction of Clairton; it was actually shot in various locations across Ohio.

These men have firm working class sentiments, they work in the steel factory together and, once their shifts are over, drop by the local bar to shoot pool and have a few drinks; this is the men’s comfortable existences, however their lives are soon to be turned upside down. The men are called to serve their country in Vietnam, where they are to be subjected to an array of abhorrence that will change them forever.

It is a striking film in every sense. John Williams’ score, the acoustic ‘Cavatina’, is blissful; it complements every scene it features in. Its sequences of natural beauty and Clairton life are starkly juxtaposed in the film’s second act: the infamous Russian roulette scene. It is acted with truly remarkable conviction; the actors must have forced themselves into an unpleasant place to produce such harrowing realism. The scene is so visceral and intense that it creates a disturbed silence amongst an audience; even its biggest critics would have to try very hard not to be affected by it.

Normally a critically acclaimed film, ‘The Deer Hunter’ hasn’t been devoid of criticism. It has been labelled melodramatic, and it does indeed have its maudlin moments, I agree, but it has also been accused of being ‘racist’. It may be a one sided account of the war and I appreciate it was released during sensitive times shortly after the conflict, but I do not agree.

Does a film have to cover every aspect of an event? Does it have to cover every perspective? Of course not. ‘The Deer Hunter’ reflects one case: one group of men and their exposure to a small group of sadistic belligerents. Some say the depiction of the Vietcong is racist, but to rational, informed people, I think it’s clear that film the isn’t suggesting that the entire Vietcong was like this. We realise that atrocities similar to those seen in the film are committed by both parties in times of war; to proclaim that the film is trying to tell us otherwise is false and preachy.

I concede that the majority of the Vietnamese are, to understate somewhat, portrayed unscrupulously, but the extent of one’s criticism should be that the characterisation is flat, certainly not racist. Additionally, there are pedants who moan about how there were no cases of Russian roulette documented over the course of the Vietnam War – it’s called artistic licence. If you’re so bothered by ‘The Deer Hunter’, if you yearn for fair portrayal, balance it out by watching Oliver Stone’s vitriolic ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, which is a scathing attack on the United States’ behaviour in Vietnam and their military and political ethos.

Returning to another popular comment; I do concede its melodrama, especially during a scene where the American National Anthem is sung in unison: far too gushing and ‘American’. However, overall, any flaw is completely pushed aside by its ensemble cast, its aural and visual impact and its ability to keep your attention for 180 minutes and leave a lasting impression on you.

87%

Django Unchained (2012)

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Tarantino delivers another provocative and hugely entertaining film.

I love the sense of occasion a Tarantino film has, he’s in the lucky position of being one of the most popular and controversial directors of the past twenty years. Some may find him self-indulgent, but the merits of his energetic, funny and flamboyant films are undeniable; it’s fantastic that he is able to make such edgy blockbusters.

‘Django’, which is effectively a ‘buddy film’, charts the relationship between German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave Schultz rescues. Together they endeavour to save Django’s wife from the notorious ‘Candie Land’, a vast plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The film has a great ensemble cast. Jamie Foxx makes the most of his character, who for the most part is a ‘man-with-no-name’ figure. He accomplishes Tarantino’s goal of ‘giving Black American males a Western hero’. DiCaprio successfully depicts Candie as a pompous pseudo-intellectual and at times a nasty piece of work, however the extent to which he brushes off barbed comments from Django surprised me, there were moments where I wondered if  he was menacing or authoritative enough.  Based on the great ‘Killer Joe’ (2012), I wondered how Matthew McConaughey would have performed the role, he could have steeped it in menace, but I doubt he could have achieved the risible ignorance of DiCaprio.

Christoph Waltz again showcases his talent here, but his character in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ gave him more scope to perform his ‘charming but deadly’ persona. Samuel L. Jackson completely transforms into the character of Stephen, who is Candie’s geriatric butler and the ultimate uncle tom. Jackson’s performance is my favourite, he’s both a tragic and very nasty figure. Tarantino himself appears in the later stages of the film with an Australian accent that ranges from being incoherent to not very Australian at all – thankfully it’s strictly a cameo.

There are laughs all the way through ‘Django’, a notable example being when slave owner ‘Big Daddy'(Don Johnson) attempts to explain to a slave how she should treat the newly liberated and somewhat respected Django – it completely ridicules the nonsensical, pernicious madness of racism.

I also found myself disregarding any form of moral compass and laughing heartily at the more cartoonish displays of violence. There is one particular scene that is a veritable bloodbath, seldom in the annals of celluloid has there been a moment more deserving of the term!

Some have criticised the film’s length, however I had little trouble with its 165 minute running time. There were indeed sections of the film, chiefly before and during the ‘Candie Land’ period, which could have been trimmed perhaps, however I was perfectly content.

The majority won’t be disappointed, the film has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film – he is the ultimate fan boy auteur. I can’t wait to see it again.

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