Author Topic: 90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List  (Read 31767 times)


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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« on: April 23, 2009, 08:12:12 AM »
So I donít know who decided the correct way to do a verdict was discuss Film 1, discuss Film 2, Verdict. Admittedly, I like it a lot, and it has worked very well until now, but I want to do this slightly differently. Something with a little less structure.

Weíll see how I go. And if you can follow it. And if itís worth following.

Three Kings
Schindlerís List

First, I wanna touch on two things that are a perhaps a little obvious, but I still feel are important to this verdict.

First: The Holocaust, and/or, War.
Thereís a lot of war movies out there. Thereís three in this round alone. And thereíll be at least one in the next round. (Although, this counting method does rely on calling Schindlerís List a war movie, which itís blatantly not, so weíll move on.) There seems to be even more movies about the Holocaust. In the last six months or so weíve had The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Good.

And thereís a lot of good reason. The Holocaust has big emotions. Guilt, remorse, grief, pain; theyíre some of the biggest an actor gets to play, and theyíre some of the most powerful we experience as people. As weíve seen at this yearís Oscarís, itís pretty easy awards bait at the same time. Itís also a great chance to talk about Good and Evil without having to look at the stuff in the middle.

Except hereís the thing. First, itís the stuff in the middle, the moral greys between Good and Evil that are interesting. Itís easy to talk about Good and Evil, itís going deeper thatís difficult, and ultimately, more rewarding.

The other thing is, and I donít mean to be callous, but thatís inevitably how it will come out, I donít know I particularly care a lot. The Holocaust is before my time, and before even my parentís time. Iím at least two, if not three, generations, and more than half a century, removed. And maybe thatís a reason for me to care more, to continue to understand these messages, but at the same time, I donít have the societal guilt that these films almost need to function.

And now that Iíve made a whole lot of you think a whole lot less of me, thereís one more thing I want to touch on before I get into the verdict proper.

Last: The conditions under which one views.
As the above is pretty obvious, so is this. The way you experience a movie changes how it affects you, how much you like it, how fondly you think of it, how highly you regard it. Admittedly, if it does something that does not sit with your sensibilities, no amount of rewatching will change that until your sensibilities change. But certain things will make you think more or less of a movie.

Titus is a great example of this for me. I saw it at the cinema, on quite a large screen. So all those beautiful, powerful images, just totally worked for me. And while Iím sure Iíd still love it on the small screen, seeing it like that immediately pushed it into my top five films ever.

Similarly, I watched Three Kings and Schindlerís List under certain conditions that will have, inevitably, changed my response, if only slightly. Until I get the chance to watch it again, I cannot say the reason I found Three Kings to have such energy and adrenaline was actually the movie or the five cups of coffee. And was Schindlerís List really so touching, or was I slightly tender because Iíd just finished reading Gaimanís Sandman earlier that day?

In any case, that was how I viewed these movies. And now the verdict proper.

I. An unassuming double feature.
So these are a great double feature. Like Adam and Matty spoke about on the last After Hours, these are two films that I wouldnít immediately assume would go together. But they do. Really, really well.

Letís look at some of the similarities:

1.     Both feature highly stylized cinematography. One goes for black and white, the other is grainy, shot digitally (Iím assuming here - but I canít really believe that Three Kings wasnít shot digitally), but both use colour in very specific, very emotive ways.

2.     Both feature stories of men who seek to profit from war. Both then tell the stories of men who find themselves changing their original aims to protect people, both times at a significant monetary loss.

3.     Both feature brutal, uncompromising violence.

4.     Both are highly nuanced films, much more so than I was expecting when I put them in the player.

So I wasnít really expecting these ties before I began, but I definitely noticed them, and there were probably more that Iíve forgotten. And I think Iím gonna use these four things as a discussion about the movies, and where Iím going, and why Iím gonna make the choice I think Iím gonna make.

II. Highly stylized vision.
So. Why would these directors go to such stylized cinematography? Well, with Spielberg itís more obvious. As a teacher once told me, for most people, the only footage of the war and the Holocaust is in black and white. It was before colour technology was widely used. I do think thereís also symbolic reasons - something about Good and Evil/Black and White, and grey tones between the two. It also gives him the chance to have the little girl in the red coat.

Three Kings isnít working, I donít think, on the same symbolic level that Schindlerís List is. Itís more just a style thing, a specific look. But it works well. The gritty, grainy look suits this war, just as black and white suits the Holocaust. It places us in a time and a place, really effectively. And like the red coat, it also allows us to have the great moment where we see the bullet piercing the gut, letting green bile that is impossible flow out into the gut.

Which works better? Well, Spielbergís is more beautiful. Thatís certain. But Three Kings is perfect in itís own way. It couldnít have been beautiful like Kaminski could be in moments.

So, I guess I would have to say at this stage that I loved the way they both were shot, and I loved the look. I will also say, that the red coat is a manipulation. But itís not unwarranted. And it works well. Itís not heavy handed, and it creates a touching moment.

III. A side note - editing and length.
Three Kings does some really interesting stuff with itís edit. Iím specifically thinking of the scene where the muslim woman is shot. Itís pulled right down into slow motion, but not by filming at a higher frame rate. Itís steppy - we see each individual frame, paused to let us comprehend. Itís manipulative, sure, but it works with what the film has been doing to that point, and isnít manipulative. Itís indicative of a lot of how this film is edited - fast, full of energy, capturing something of this war, just like the cinematography.

As for Schindler, well, itís slower, but again, thatís more suited to the subject. The problem, I think, arises with the length. At three hours long, itís not an easy sit. At the same time, three of my top five movies are long movies (Titus, 170 odd minutes, Magnolia, 180 odd minutes, A Brighter Summer Day, 240 minutes). But I think I forgive length a lot more when I feel it is used appropriately. Or justified. Or something.

Schindlerís List doesnít need three hours to be successful. Sure it needs length. Length suits it. It gives it room to be slow, expansive, thorough. But there is stuff that can go. We donít need this movie, as it is, to be three hours. Two and a half, sure. Even pushing two hours and forty minutes. But there is stuff in there that I think could be lost without too much sacrifice at all.

IV. Men and money.
We are introduced to Oskar Schindler as a man who knows how to make business and social connections. He then manipulates a group of Jews into giving him money and a business so he can make a fortune from slave labour.

The introduction to our soldiers in Three Kings is different, due to different circumstances. But the second money enters the picture, they are totally fixated. They leave to steal Kuwaiti gold, irrespective of the people who own that gold, and the greater social situation, in which the absence of American forces is resulting in the severe maltreatment of the people.

Gradually, both realise that monetary concerns matter less than helping the people. For a while they continue to attempt both, making money and saving people, and in both, a moment is reached in which the money has to be sacrificed to ensure the safety of the people.

Admittedly, in both the situations are slightly different. In Schindlerís List, over 1000 Jews are saved. in Three Kings, less than 100 muslims. But Three Kings doesnít attempt to be Schindlerís List, and I suppose thatís why it works.

V. A side note - the minor players.
Itís worth noting that Three Kings treats itís minor players better. Theyíre more developed. We have a better sense of them. Even tho itís only simple things, like the guy who wants to be a hairdresser, itís a sense.

Schindlerís List doesnít have that. In the final scene, when we see the grave and the Schindler Jews, we see names from the movie proper. And we recognise them. But if you asked me to tell you which one was which before that final scene I couldnít do it. The names are arbitrary. And thatís what I think is a serious flaw here. You never really have a sense of any of the jews, except Ben Kingsley, and Helen, the maid. And seeing as thereís three hours here, I think we should know more. If this movie was more specific, I feel like it would just be absolutely devastating.

VI. Another side note - the actors.
I hate Ralph Fiennes. Donít ask why, cause I couldnít tell you. He just does. Heís my number one off-putting actor. That said, he is good here. As are the main players. Liam Neeson, is very strong (except for the monologue right at the end about saving more people - thatís awful, but Iím not gonna blame Neeson specifically over Spielberg or the writers). Kingsley is quiet but powerful. Iím not sure about the accents, but Iíll live.

As for Three Kings - well, theyíre all fine. Clooney and Ice Cube bring the goods. As does Wahlberg, until the scene when heís in shock (ďDid you see that film, goat?Ē).

VII. Good and Evil, greys, and nuanced moralities.
Iím gonna skip over violence, cause Iím already carrying on way too long. WAY too long. but I think there is great stuff here, and I wanna spend some time.

First, Three Kings. Itís the most nuanced war movie Iíve ever seen. I was expecting a ďRah Rah Yay America!Ē movie. This is not it. Itís manages to create a highly sophisticated examination of Middle Eastern politics, religion, family, war itself, all the big things, really. I think it really makes a huge effort to get into the nitty gritty, the small details. It makes it specific, and drives itís points home.

The scene in the village is powerful. Really powerful. The milk truck is amazing. The way the people rush in, scooping milk off the ground, out of the sand, so desperate for this small luxury, is so touching. Then the Iraqiís arrive, and then thereís the Mexican standoff. And through all of this, it created a tremendous sense of adrenaline, and more than that, I was made uncomfortable. Hugely uncomfortable. And as Iíve said, maybe it was the coffee, but I donít entirely attribute it to that.

After that, it loses some, but never all, of the nuance. It becomes a more straight action movie, especially by the time they rescue Wahlberg. But before that is possibly the single scene I have found it the hardest to watch. I wanna discuss it in full detail, so, obviously, spoilers.

As Wahlberg is being tortured, he is asked why he believes they are in the Gulf. ďStabilityĒ, he replies. His torturer then does something I didnít understand at first. He grabs his mouth. He forces a CD case in. His assistant is doing something in the background. I suddenly think, ďIs that oil?Ē, and just at that moment, the torturer says, ďHereís your stabilityĒ and pours the oil onto the CD case and down his throat.

Itís a scene I found harder to watch than certain scenes in Hunger. But itís what I love about this movie. It speaks so powerfully about the war, itís purpose, the American occupation. Itís a direct critique, and a powerful one, but itís not heavy handed, itís not pushed too far, itís the only really direct attack of the reasons the US went to war. But itís the scene that will probably stay with me the longest. So kudos to the director.

At the same time, it does suggest that good things have come out of the US being in the region, which is true, so thereís props there as well. And even tho there is a moment of forgiveness as such at the end, it never overwhelms what weíve seen before, and we have to walk away considering the moral greys of the situation in the Middle East.

As for Schindlerís List, well, itís hard to be grey with the Holocaust. Nazis bad, Jews good, right? And thatís how it plays out. But there is enough growth within Liam Neeson to add greys to this. He wants to make money. He is all concerned with making money. He gradually grows to be open to the idea that he is doing more than that. He secretly works to save more people. He subtly works against Goeth, actively attempting to improve the situation. He actively saves people at his own cost.

And itís that growth that gives it the greys it needs to make it more than just a Holocaust story. And yes, I finally get to it. I complain earlier about Holocaust stories, but I donít think you can do that with this film. It is so finely made, so moral, so layered, so nuanced, it rises above the problems that films like The Reader get weighed down by. And itís scenes like the following that do it.

First, there is a scene where a young woman comes to the factory. She has heard it is a haven of sorts. She asks for protection for her parents. Schindler bristles at this, and in the next shot, gets angry at Kingsley for allowing this to propagate. He then straight away asks for them to work at the factory. We see the young woman waiting outside, and she sees her parents arrive. Itís a beautiful moment.

I also liked the scene where Schindler suggests to Goeth that there is power in sparing a life when one expects to die. I liked the way Goeth went around sparing people, enjoying this new found ďpowerĒ. And I especially like that Schindler doesnít lie in this scene, but he manipulates Goeth beautifully.

Finally, the scene where Schindler flees. Itís a conflicted scene for me. As Iíve stated already, I hated the pining about being able to save more people. I thought that was really horribly handled. But the bit before that? The letter? The ring? I wept. Like a baby. And itís manipulative, yeah. I donít think itís entirely natural, Iím sure Spielberg uses his tricks to pull it out. But you give it to him, because heís done so well and it is a beautiful moment, and I think that if you had showed me that moment on itís own I still wouldíve wept, because thatís what that moment is.

I think Spielberg has done a remarkable job here. Itís a film that deserves the acclaim it receives, and if above Iíve made more complaints about it than Three Kings, I think itís because these flaws stand out more because the rest of the movie is of such great quality.

VIII. A verdict.
So there are my thoughts. And if youíre anything like me, youíll have read less than half of it. And if youíve read more than that, youíre a far better person than me.

I liked both of these, as youíll realise, a lot. I wouldnít have a problem putting either of these two through over the other four Iíve watched in round four. And right now, I donít know I can do it. This morning I was sure I was going to put Three Kings through, and I do like it a lot. Iím also sorely tempted to put Schindlerís List through on the off chance that GoodFellas beats Glengarry Glen Ross, cause I think Schindler is more likely to beat GF.

So for now, Iím not gonna post a verdict. Iím gonna wait and see what some others think. Right now Iím leaning one way more than the other. Someone convince me.

IX. The final verdict. Really this time.
Ok, so I have a verdict. I've thought long and hard about it, and using several criteria, there is one movie that comes out more and more above the other.

Which film surprised me more? Well, Schindler's List impressed me with how good it was. Three Kings actively surprised me.
Which film did I have more fun with? Three Kings, easy.
Which film is more nuanced? As well as Spielberg does creating a nuanced film with difficult material, it's Three Kings again.

And finally, if someone said to me, I have Three Kings and Schindler's List and time to watch only one. Which film should they watch? Well, even tho I think Schindler's List is perhaps more important, I'd say to go with Three Kings. And while I would be sad if Schindler's List was never seen again, I think Three Kings is the movie that I would like to see continue on.

So my vote goes to Three Kings.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2009, 09:53:54 PM by FifthCityMuse »


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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #1 on: April 23, 2009, 08:39:31 AM »
I've only read about 5 sentences of your verdict so far but I'm already enjoying this sooo much! I don't know if it's the coffee or your verdict either but I'm gonna hand you the credit :D. Seriously, great way to start a write-up.


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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #2 on: April 23, 2009, 08:51:58 AM »
Verdicts without verdicts=boo.
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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #3 on: April 23, 2009, 08:58:03 AM »
Really great write-up, FCM. It's been a few months since I watched Three Kings for the bracket but you totally reminded me of why I fell in love with it so much. I didn't expect the film to be at all nuanced either and was pleasantly surprised. Plus, it's just such a lot of fun, right? Like laugh-out-loud funny in parts. And that is so not what I expect from war films usually. This combination of being a really fun-to-watch movie and yet managing to provide such a layered portrayal of the situation is what makes this my favorite discovery from this bracket. I think the 4th round verdicts and those screenshots do a far better job than I ever could of articulating why I think this film is brilliant.

I haven't watched Schindler's List in years but have watched it multiple times and have to admit that I was always really moved by it. So I don't think your decision is easy. But the one I want to watch again and that I personally would want to move on is definitely Three Kings.


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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #4 on: April 23, 2009, 09:10:33 AM »
Yeah, I loved all the stuff they captured as well, and like I think everyone has said, this is so not what you expect when you start the movie. I did like it a whole lot.


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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #5 on: April 23, 2009, 10:05:47 AM »
Great stuff, FCM. I respect your decision not to dive into a verdict without also having an exit strategy in place.

Funny that you thought the oil/CD scene was one of the film's best - I think that's the one that usually gets called out for being too simplistic, manipulative and gratuitous, just like the red coat in SL... (to be fair to Spielberg, I think the red coat details is mentioned in the book as well, though I could be making that up).
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90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #6 on: April 23, 2009, 10:08:08 AM »
Interesting assessments of both films. Personally, I wouldn't wait to post a verdict though. I'd give the others who have reviews to write something to think about by giving one of the films an early lead.
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Re: 90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #7 on: April 23, 2009, 12:38:25 PM »
On paper, this seemed to be the strongest and most competitive matchup in all of round five, so I'm really glad you enjoyed both films, 'Muse.  I haven't seen Schindler's List recently enough to know which film I'm rooting for, but your thoughts on both films were great to read (except the implication that you generally don't read other verdicts all the way through :'().

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Re: 90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #8 on: April 23, 2009, 12:54:20 PM »
From wikipedia:

"Russell shot the film on Ektachrome slide photography stock, and used the bleach bypass process, both to reproduce "the odd color of the newspaper images [of the Gulf War]." Though the process produced a unique quality to the film, it was exceedingly difficult to develop, and many film labs would not provide insurance for the slide films if they did not develop properly."


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Re: 90s US Round 5: Three Kings vs. Schindler's List
« Reply #9 on: April 23, 2009, 12:54:36 PM »
I'm rooting for Three Kings because it probably isn't 4 hours long.