Movie Project #39: Life is Beautiful [1997]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Life is Beautiful [1997]
Director: Roberto Benigni
Writers: Vincenzo Cerami (story), Roberto Benigni (story)
Country: Italy
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Running Time: 116 minutes

Life is Beautiful is a brave film in many ways. It starts off as a comedy about a man, Guido (Robert Benigni), who is so desperately trying to win the love of a beautiful school teacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife). He drums up a series of “coincidences” that leads him to falling off his bike into her arms, and he even infiltrates her school just to see her by posing as an Italian fascist inspector. His big speech to the students praises the superiority of the Italian race and their perfect earlobes and navels, all in jest, of course.

To Guido, everything is a joke. His sense of humor and comedic timing are what gets him through an increasingly hostile Italy in 1939. See, Guido is a Jewish man, and he is becoming a more and more frequent target of hate by the locals. His uncle, Eliseo (Giustino Durano), is already dealing with the newfound animosity, as his storefront is wrecked by some fascist vandals.

Yet Guido perseveres, putting on a smiling front and taking it all in stride. Eventually, he gets his girl (in the most epic fashion, riding a white horse spray painted in racial epithets), and things seem to be looking up.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Fast forward five years later. Guido and Dora are now married with a young child, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). They own a book store, and despite a crude sign announcing the owner is a Jew, they make the best of it. That is until the Nazis come into town, rounding up every Jew in the area, Guido and young Joshua included. Dora, after learning of their seizure, runs to the local train station, demanding to be brought on board with them. After some deliberation, she is allowed to board the packed train, which has the most horrific destination imaginable: a concentration camp.

Guido, bless his heart, continues to try to make the best of the situation. He spins this trip into a game for his young son, telling him that he will get a tank if he wins the game. Surely Guido knows the chances of this ending well are slim, but his outgoing demeanor tries to cheer up the spirits of those around him, especially his son.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Now, this is where the film grows bold in its delivery, and it has received a great deal of criticism for its approach. Guido is constantly cracking jokes (“Buttons and soap out of people? That’ll be the day!”) about a very sensitive and very real atrocity. Sometimes his attempts to be funny are just flat out obnoxious and inconsiderate, such as when he pretends to speak German just so he can jokingly translate orders from a Nazi officer. I get that Guido (and Benigni himself) is just trying to make the best of a horrible situation, but he really should know his limits.

Still, even with these potentially inappropriate moments, there is a great story underneath it all. This is a tale of the strength of a family, and the bond of love between father and son, and husband and wife. This is about a man who can find the beauty in life, even in the most dire situations. While Benigni can overstep the line past obnoxiousness, his Chaplin-esque antics are visually appealing. There is a certain type of charm to his character, and we could all learn something from his optimistic views.

8/10

Movie Project #39: Life is Beautiful [1997]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Life is Beautiful [1997]
Director: Roberto Benigni
Writers: Vincenzo Cerami (story), Roberto Benigni (story)
Country: Italy
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Running Time: 116 minutes

Life is Beautiful is a brave film in many ways. It starts off as a comedy about a man, Guido (Robert Benigni), who is so desperately trying to win the love of a beautiful school teacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife). He drums up a series of “coincidences” that leads him to falling off his bike into her arms, and he even infiltrates her school just to see her by posing as an Italian fascist inspector. His big speech to the students praises the superiority of the Italian race and their perfect earlobes and navels, all in jest, of course.

To Guido, everything is a joke. His sense of humor and comedic timing are what gets him through an increasingly hostile Italy in 1939. See, Guido is a Jewish man, and he is becoming a more and more frequent target of hate by the locals. His uncle, Eliseo (Giustino Durano), is already dealing with the newfound animosity, as his storefront is wrecked by some fascist vandals.

Yet Guido perseveres, putting on a smiling front and taking it all in stride. Eventually, he gets his girl (in the most epic fashion, riding a white horse spray painted in racial epithets), and things seem to be looking up.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Fast forward five years later. Guido and Dora are now married with a young child, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). They own a book store, and despite a crude sign announcing the owner is a Jew, they make the best of it. That is until the Nazis come into town, rounding up every Jew in the area, Guido and young Joshua included. Dora, after learning of their seizure, runs to the local train station, demanding to be brought on board with them. After some deliberation, she is allowed to board the packed train, which has the most horrific destination imaginable: a concentration camp.

Guido, bless his heart, continues to try to make the best of the situation. He spins this trip into a game for his young son, telling him that he will get a tank if he wins the game. Surely Guido knows the chances of this ending well are slim, but his outgoing demeanor tries to cheer up the spirits of those around him, especially his son.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Now, this is where the film grows bold in its delivery, and it has received a great deal of criticism for its approach. Guido is constantly cracking jokes (“Buttons and soap out of people? That’ll be the day!”) about a very sensitive and very real atrocity. Sometimes his attempts to be funny are just flat out obnoxious and inconsiderate, such as when he pretends to speak German just so he can jokingly translate orders from a Nazi officer. I get that Guido (and Benigni himself) is just trying to make the best of a horrible situation, but he really should know his limits.

Still, even with these potentially inappropriate moments, there is a great story underneath it all. This is a tale of the strength of a family, and the bond of love between father and son, and husband and wife. This is about a man who can find the beauty in life, even in the most dire situations. While Benigni can overstep the line past obnoxiousness, his Chaplin-esque antics are visually appealing. There is a certain type of charm to his character, and we could all learn something from his optimistic views.

8/10

Movie Project #31: To Be or Not to Be [1942]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

To Be or Not to Be [1942]
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel (original story), Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay), Ernst Lubitsch (uncredited)
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/War
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges
Running Time: 99 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen an Ernst Lubitsch film.

Accolades: One Oscar nomination (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), National Film Registry, #49 on AFI’s 100 Laughs

While watching To Be or Not to Be, I couldn’t help but be amazed that such a bold political satire (and spoof of the Nazis) was filmed and released during the thick of World War II in 1942. Here is a film that pulls no punches, even including multiple Hitlers, cracking jokes about a real-life horrifying situation. Yet most astonishingly, it remains tasteful.

The film takes place in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, and it follows a Polish theater company caught in the middle of it. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard, in what is tragically her last role), are the biggest names on the bill, but both have such out of control egos that they bicker back-and-forth more often than not. Their rocky relationship leads Maria to fall for a starstruck young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (a 23-year-old Robert Stack), who has been sending her flowers during her shows.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

Sobinski leaves Warsaw to join the fight against the Nazis, but he eventually returns on a top secret mission to find a possible spy. This traitor, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), attempts to recruit Maria to join the Nazi cause. At this point, the film gets more and more farcical, as the theatrical group becomes entangled between the two sides, with many of the actors posing as important members of the Nazi regime.

While it can get a bit tricky following the surprisingly complex plot, especially as there are multiple people playing both the “real” and “fake” versions of the same character, it all comes together quite nicely in the end. What I loved most about the film is how it combines so many different genres and ideals. Take a political satire, throw in a bit of screwball comedy, a dash of startlingly effective suspense, and some romance, and the end result is masterful.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

To Be or Not to Be represents a number of firsts for me. Not only is this my first Lubitsch (and certainly not the last), but it is also the first I have seen from either of its co-stars, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Benny is someone I have heard a lot about over the years, and his hammy, over-the-top performance in this is great fun. Lombard is the perfect counterpart, both stunning in appearance and quick with her tongue. They are both ripe with razor sharp dialogue, and each member of their theater group is given their chance to shine as well.

To Be or Not to Be is loaded with witty one-liners and a number of unforgettable scenes (“Heil me!”), and its influence is still felt today. The theater scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds bares more than a passing resemblance to its counterpart in this film. Bottom line, this is a hilarious yet suspenseful film, and it has made me eager to see more of the famous “Lubitsch touch.”

9/10

Movie Project #45: The Pianist [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Pianist [2002]

The Pianist [2002]
Director: Roman Polanski
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann and Frank Finlay
Running Time: 150 minutes

It’s always difficult to watch films about the Holocaust, and it’s especially challenging to write about them afterward. What can be said about one of the most horrifying events in all of mankind? Because of this, it has taken me ten long years to finally see The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s film based on the World War II memoir by Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Adrien Brody stars as Szpilman, and the film begins with a German bombing during one of his popular radio station performances. It doesn’t take long for Germany to defeat Poland, and they quickly begin pushing the Jews into ghettos with extremely poor living conditions. This only gets worse as the Germans linger in the country, with Jews being executed randomly, and many of them being sent to concentration camps.

The Pianist [2002]

Eventually Szpilman becomes separated from his family, and he is forced to live in hiding from the Nazis. He must rely on the hospitality of others, but this becomes increasingly difficult as the war goes on. Jews begin turning on each other, and the Nazis start wiping out entire areas for no reason. Soon many ghettos are looking like post-apocalyptic war zones.

This destruction makes for an exceedingly arduous viewing. The punishment is relentless, and quite frankly we do not need to see most of it. The devastation and tragedies just keep getting piled onto Szpilman with no end in sight. There is no humanity or compassion at all, except for a brief glimpse at the end. It’s harrowing to watch, a painful look at an absolutely darkest time.

The Pianist [2002]

The attention to detail in The Pianist is astounding, and this is to be expected given Polanski’s own Holocaust survival tale. This is an extremely well-crafted film, one brought together by Adrien Brody’s well-deserved Oscar-winning performance. Szpilman’s physical and mental deterioration over the years is hard to watch, but Brody’s dedication to the role is admirable.

While watching The Pianist, I wondered what separated Szpilman’s story from thousands of others during the Holocaust. Was it the fact that he was a well-known musician? Or perhaps that he received a rare moment of compassion as the Nazis left Warsaw? Ultimately, this question does not matter. At the end, this could have been the story of any number of survivors, and The Pianist is an exemplary portrait of this.

8/10

Movie Project #49 and #50: The Seventh Seal [1957] and Schindler’s List [1993]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

The Seventh Seal [1957, Ingmar Bergman]
The Seventh Seal [1957, Ingmar Bergman]
Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Bengt Ekerot.

Before watching this, I was slightly apprehensive that I would not like The Seventh Seal. I had heard remarks from others that it was “boring”, “pretentious” and “too slow”. I shouldn’t have listened to these criticisms, especially since I rather enjoyed Wild Strawberries, an earlier Bergman film in my project. The Seventh Seal digs deep into religious and philosophical themes, but this is accomplished in a way that is also thoroughly entertaining.

The basic concept is that a medievil knight (von Sydow) plays a game of chess against Death (Ekerot) in order to save his life. While they play, the knight and his squire Jöns (Björnstrand) travel across the land as the Black Death causes thousands to die around them. Along the way, they meet a fun-loving acting troupe (who bring some much-welcomed comic relief), and this newfound group sets off to find their way to safety. The knight struggles with the impending death all around him, including his own life, and begins to ask questions regarding faith, religion and the existence of God. The subject matter is heavy, and this is easily one of the more thought-provoking films I have seen recently. I feel I am only scratching the surface of this film’s true value, as subsequent viewings should bring new meaning to some of the discussions presented. Don’t let the modern criticisms deter you from seeing The Seventh Seal — it is still a rewarding film today, even if it is a tad slow. 8.5/10

Schindler's List [1992, Steven Spielberg]
Schindler’s List [1993, Steven Spielberg]
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

There was a reason this was the last movie I watched for this project. As much as I knew I *needed* to see Schindler’s List, I wasn’t exactly eager to because of the horrific subject matter. It still blows my mind that the Holocaust happened just seventy years ago, and it’s hard to fathom that something like that could even happen. Schindler’s List shows the atrocities of all of this, never batting an eye to the random acts of murder and disgusting violence. This film is very hard to watch for this reason, even though it is superbly made.

I loved Spielberg’s decision to make this black & white, as it feels more natural to the time period. This move also gave him the ability to masterfully use the color red twice during the film to signify a deeper meaning, and to show color scenes at the very beginning and end. The trio of Neeson, Fiennes and Kingsley are all imminently rewarding in their roles, with Fiennes playing one of the most despicable men in all of history to perfection. It is impossible not to hate this man and his disgusting behavior. The three hour runtime is never a burden, and the movie certainly did not feel anywhere near that long. While Schindler’s List is not something I would ever want to watch again, it is an exceptionally well-made film that documents one of the worst time periods in history. 9/10

This completes the project! It has been a wild ride, and I will be doing an extended wrap-up of the project next week. Happy New Year!

Movie Project #41 and #42: Once Upon a Time in the West [1968] and The Thin Red Line [1998]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]
Once Upon a Time in the West [1968, Sergio Leone]
Starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale.

My experience with Sergio Leone is limited. Out of his filmography, I have only seen The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, which I should probably watch again at some point. Once Upon a Time in the West bares a number of striking similarities to that epic — particularly its extended running time, masterful soundtrack and extraordinary cinematography. The opening scene alone, which has very little dialogue, captivated me from the start. Not much happened during this sequence, yet I was absolutely intrigued. The stunning shots of the wild west combined with extreme closeups of the characters’ faces were truly a thing of beauty.

It was also a lot of fun to see Henry Fonda play the villain, which is something I hadn’t seen him do before. Charles Bronson was excellent as his harmonica-playing adversary, and it was a real treat watching Claudia Cardinale as the dame caught up in the whole mess. While there was certainly a lot that I loved about the film, I was still a little turned off by the sheer longevity of it all. Leone sure loved to milk every scene as long as possible, and his attention to detail is extraordinary. I felt a little burned out by the end of the movie, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me. 8.5/10

The Thin Red Line [1998]
The Thin Red Line [1998, Terrence Malick]
Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte.

Terrence Malick, seemingly a favorite director amongst movie bloggers, is someone I know I should become more familiar with. The Thin Red Line is the first film I have seen from him, and I figured this would be a great place to start, given my interest in World War II. The movie tells the story of a group of U.S. soldiers during the Battle of Mount Austen. We are introduced to a large ensemble cast of soldiers, including the likes of Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte and more. This is a really impressive group of guys, but the fact that so many were introduced made it considerably more difficult to get to know them. Outside of a few major characters, including a fantastic turn by Nolte, we learn little about most of these soldiers. In a way, however, this is just the way war is. Men are sent to perform their duties, and new faces are brought in to replace those who have fallen.

The Thin Red Line moves along at a very methodical pace, and I can see how this would deter some viewers. I didn’t mind this at all, as it gave us a chance to see Malick’s stunning shots of Guadalcanal, a beautiful island now interrupted with violent warfare. One thing that did bother me, at least somewhat, was an over-reliance on philosphophical voiceovers. I don’t have a problem with these in general, but they happened too often for my liking. Still, there’s no question that TTRL is a visually astonishing film that offers a completely different (and refreshing) take on WWII compared to 1998’s other big film, Saving Private Ryan. 8/10

Movie Project #33 and #34: The Godfather: Part II [1974] and Casablanca [1942]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

The Godfather: Part II [1974, Francis Ford Coppola]
The Godfather: Part II [1974, Francis Ford Coppola]
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall.

As part of our traditional Thanksgiving movie marathon, my girlfriend and I opted to watch the first two Godfather films back to back, as well as a couple of other classics. I had seen the first Godfather before, but that was many years ago. The Godfather: Part II is a fantastic followup to the original, this time focusing on Michael Corleone as the new Don. Michael is an intriguing figure who clings to ideals that are starkly different from his deceased father, and many of his actions make him out to be a cold-hearted bastard. In fact, it was almost hard to watch the film at times simply because Michael was a complete asshole to everyone involved in his life. A phenomenal piece of acting from Al Pacino, but man, what a dick.

There is also a parallel storyline in Part II that shows the early life of Vito Corleone, this time played by Robert De Niro in one of his finest performances. I found this story to be the more fascinating of the two, as it showed Vito’s evolution from a young immigrant arriving on Ellis Island to his rise as the Godfather. The two unique storylines in the film are masterfully connected, culminating in an epic saga that never has a dull moment. Not enough can be said about the all-star cast (Pacino, De Niro, Duvall, Cazale, Keaton, etc.), and the ending is just as powerful as the original’s unforgettable conclusion. It’s not often that a sequel can be considered as good as its predecessor, and many even consider this to be the best of the trilogy. I still prefer the first film, mainly because I actually liked Brando’s Vito Corleone, but there is no mistaking that Part II is another masterpiece. 9/10

Casablanca [1942,  Michael Curtiz]
Casablanca [1942, Michael Curtiz]
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid.

I don’t know what is more shameful to admit: that I hadn’t seen Casablanca before this, or that I had never seen a Bogart film period. It’s easy to see why both Casablanca and Bogart are held in such high regard. The film is such a classic love story, and Bogart is just the man to play the cynical lead, Rick Blaine. Tough on the outside but broken hearted on the inside, Blaine is certainly a memorable character, and the chemistry between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (as Ilsa Lund) is off the charts. The love triangle between the two of them, and Ilsa’s current husband, Victor Laszlo (Henreid), is brilliant in that all three characters are immensely likable.

One can only imagine how difficult of a decision it would be for all parties involved in this triangle. Will Ilsa run away with her long lost flame? Will Rick help Ilsa and her current lover escape from the Nazis, even though there is clearly still a spark between the two of them? It’s one of those great moments in film where the story could result in a number of endings, but I was very pleased with the final conclusion. It took some major cojones to not go with the typical Hollywood ending, and for that I am very grateful. I liked the movie well enough after watching it, but I just gained a whole new appreciation of the film after sitting down to gather my thoughts and write about it. Simply wonderful. 9/10

The Saboteur [Xbox 360, 2009]

The Saboteur [Xbox 360, 2009]

The Saboteur
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Release Date: December 8, 2009

One of the most criminally overlooked games to come out in the last couple years.

The Saboteur is a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox adventure game that is set during World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, France. It also happens to be Pandemic’s last game before the studio was shut down for good. You play as Sean Devlin, an Irish racecar mechanic who gets cheated out of a race and subsequently becomes involved in a serious revenge plot against the Germans. The story revolves around a number of ethnic stereotypical characters, but this never becomes an issue since it is presented in an easygoing “adventure movie” narrative. Some liberties were taken with the realism factor, but it is all done in the name of making this a fun video game.

Other than the 1940’s France setting, which is really freakin’ cool, what sets this game apart from other sandbox titles is its style. The Saboteur utilizes both color and black & white to its full advantage. In areas of heavy Nazi occupance, the game’s world turns black and white. As Sean helps areas of the city fight back and resist the Germans, color slowly starts to seep back into the locales. This transformation is so simple, yet so utterly brilliant. I can’t think of any other games that do something like this, and it’s amazing that merely a different palette can evoke such power in a video game.
The Saboteur [Xbox 360, 2009]

Whether you want to play through the story missions or just blow up Nazi installations is entirely up to you. You have the freedom to do whatever you please, and you are given the entire city of Paris (as well as some of the countryside) to do it in. The game takes pride in the fact that you can play through guns-a-blazin’ or opt for a stealth route by sneaking around in Nazi gear. While this option is nice, it is much more fun to run around Rambo-style than it is to sneak past guards. The stealth mode is actually a lot more difficult than it should be, as the enemies are often way too quick to sniff you out and blow your cover. It’s possible to get through the game this way, but not really optimal.

In terms of pure gameplay, The Saboteur is a blast. The 1940s setting is perfectly encapsulated with music from the era, classic vehicles and old-style fashion. Devlin has free reign and can steal any car he wants, climb any building (with slick Uncharted-esque controls) and purchase weapon upgrades from a number of black market dealers. When you tack on the side missions and hundreds of “freeplay events” scattered around the game world, it could take a good 40 hours or so to 100% the game (it takes roughly 10 hours to complete just the story on its own). In a world like The Saboteur, it is easy to get sucked in and not want to leave.

It amazes me that this game flew under the radar when it was released in December 2009. I didn’t know anything about it until just recently myself. The Saboteur is an all-around fun game with a good amount of depth, and it excels partly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While the stealth features could have been polished up a bit, this is still one of the best sandbox games I have played. Definitely a steal at the $20 or so it runs for these days.

8/10