Forrest Gump

forrest gump 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 76

Release: July 6, 1994

Writer: Eric Roth (adaptation), Winston Groom (novel)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Star: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise

Music: Alan Silvestri

Cinematography: Don Burgess

Company: Paramount Pictures

There’s no way that “Forrest Gump” should work. If you told me to watch a heartwarming movie about a “simple” man who manages to be involved with almost every major event in American history from the 50s to the 80s and, in the process, reveal many of the underlying truths in our culture, I would have probably laughed in your face. And yet, here I sit, greatly admiring screenwriter Eric Roth and director Robert Zemeckis’ sprawling epic.

Perhaps one of the secrets of the movie is that it doesn’t frontload its political and moral messages. Instead, screenwriter Eric Roth engrains several simple, t-shirt-ready universal truths into the character of Forrest (played wonderfully by Tom Hanks), often from the lips of his beloved Mama (Sally Field), and repeats them often (“Stupid is as stupid Does,” “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”). Through those simple phrases we get perspective on defining American events, and a surprising insight.

Over the course of the movie, Forrest involves himself in the Vietnam War, begins the Watergate scandal, is one of the first investors in Apple Computers, almost becomes a member of the Black Panthers, helps to re-open American political relations to China and inspires John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I’m only scratching the surface here, there’s plenty more he gets himself mixed up in, mostly in quirky, original, memorable ways. Miracles happen early and often in Forrest’s life, beginning with the moment that he is running from bullies and his leg braces fall off. Instead of hobbling Forrest, when they fall off they free him, and he finds he can run faster than almost anyone else. Perhaps more miracles happen to him because he has a simpler mind and bigger heart than most, or maybe it’s because he’s smart enough to recognize them as miracles instead of just luck.

forrest gump 3Just reading that last sentence misrepresents the movie as corny, oversweetened dreck, but it’s really not. There’s plenty of dark content here, thanks to Forrest’s true love and his best friend. We like Jenny (played by Robin Wright as an adult) almost immediately upon meeting her, thanks to the fact that she’s the only person who will give Forrest the time of day. There’s a beautiful scene early on where Jenny and Forrest run into her drunk, pedophile father’s fields to hide from him and she wishes to be turned into a bird. Roth revisits that moment twice later, first when the adult Jenny breaks down when she sees the house again for the first time in decades and later when Forrest has the house demolished, and each time it’s powerful.

Though Forrest remains slow and steady in his beliefs throughout his life, Jenny’s journey is really one of uncertainty and self-hate. She sleeps with a bunch of abusive losers and does a lot of drugs. In one scene she screams at Forrest, “You don’t even know what love is!” and at this moment she is, at best, a stripper. And that isn’t even her low point.

Forrest’s best friend is Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), who he meets in Vietnam. Dan is bright and cheerful at first, but hates Forrest (and himself (and God (and everything else))) after Forrest rescues him from enemy bombing and he loses both of his legs. And yet it’s obvious he’s a good man, and at one point gets almost violently defensive when someone calls Forrest stupid. Sinise is one of the best character actors we have today, capable of revealing so much without seeming to do much at all, and this is one of his finest performances.

forrest gump 2In fact, I’m not exaggerating when I say that all of the performances here are aces. All the actors, from Fields to Hanks to Wright, understand the tone of the material and go for it. Director Zemeckis is a brilliant director because he understands the technical side of the medium as well as the human, storytelling side. He’s also a great chameleon, giving us great diversity in his movies (“Contact,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” “Back to the Future” “Romancing the Stone”) but remaining distinguished as a filmmaker. Watching the above films, you can always tell it’s Zemeckis behind the camera.

However, for as much works in the film, there are several things, both major and minor, which don’t. A small example is the random flashbacks to the actors as their ancestors (for example, we see Hanks as the head of the Ku Klux Klan and several generations of Sinise dying in battle. And for all the historical moments that are just right (Watergate), Forrest’s coining of the phrase “Shit Happens” and accidental creation of the smiley face t-shirt are badly done. Another problem is the shifts in character point-of-view that happen throughout and annoy, especially since it’s Forrest relating his own story in a voiceover is that is very omnipresent. James Cameron got away with shifting points-of-view in “Titanic” because he didn’t overdo the voice-over. Not so here. When the story shifts to Jenny snorting cocaine or contemplating suicide or, in general, breaking through the bottom of the barrel to find new lows, the film grinds to a halt.

Despite these new lows, we like Jenny and what an enigma she represents for Forrest…at least until the film’s last act. Here is where Roth’s screenplay goes off the rails and he begins to forcefully extract tears from the audience instead of allowing the story to crescendo into something transcendent. It turns out that Jenny has given birth to Forrest’s child and hidden the child from him for years. Why? No reason is given. And the only reason she’s bringing Forrest into the picture now is because she’s dying of AIDS. Suddenly, any sympathy I had for Jenny is gone. The introduction of the son is the only moment we see Hanks’ astounding performance falter a bit. Roth ignores an amazing opportunity to actually show Forrest become angry about something (a thing he has every right to be given the Lifetime-movie-of-the-week circumstances), and has Forrest immediately accept the situation and marry Jenny. The final moments of the movie show Forrest and his son waiting at the bus stop for Little Forrest’s first day of school, and it’s very charming, but it’s not earned.

In many ways, Roth took a second stab at this movie with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and I’m shocked he had no qualms about ripping himself off so freely. The results were horrible.

There are so many great things about “Forrest Gump,” and it almost reaches masterpiece status. If only it didn’t rely so much on bringing false tears to the audience. For a movie that is so honest and true for most of its running time, the tricks it tries to play on us in its final reels feels like biting into that gross piece of chocolate toffee cream at the back of a chocolate box.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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All the President’s Men

all the presidents men 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 77

Release: April 9, 1976

Writer: William Goldman (adaptation), Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (book)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Star: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards

Music: David Shire

Cinematography: Gordon Willis

Company: Warner Bros.

For most of its running time, “All the President’s Men” is a fascinating, absorbing portrait of the slow, sometimes-desperate uncovering of the truth behind the Watergate break-ins. It takes a “just the facts, m’am” approach to its subject, content with the thought that the clues, details and conspiracies will be enough to make the film worthwhile while pushing aside characterization and emotional arcs.

The film begins showing us the details of the break-in, with a guard at the Watergate offices discovering a door has been taped so it cannot lock and reporting it to the police. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a reporter for the “Washington Post,” is called to cover the arraignment of the men who broke in, and is surprised to find they have an expensive lawyer on their side, the kind no one would expect. Woodward presses and begins to realize things aren’t right.

Another reporter becomes involved named Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and though the movie gets thousands of the small details of journalism right, his first major interaction with Woodward feels wrong. Woodward has typed up his version of certain events, turns it into copy and then Bernstein immediately takes it away and starts to rewrite it, citing the fact that Woodward did not introduce the main person involved with the story until the third paragraph. I understand that Woodward’s character is meant to be a new reporter for the “Post,” but I don’t buy that. I have a Bachelor’s in News Journalism, and just about the first thing they teach us (aside from that the AP Stylebook is our bible) is to write news stories using the pyramid structure. There’s no way Woodward would have ever been hired in the first place if he didn’t know better and was burying leads like that in news stories. It’s a small moment, sure, but it took me completely out of the movie.

all the presidents men 3Woodward and Bernstein (fellow employees at the “Post” jokingly call them “Woodstein” and it sticks) don’t have a lot to go on at first, and watching the investigation take its first fleeting steps toward being viable is engaging because it feels so real. This is what real newspapermen do when following leads and trying to envision the facts of a story. They reach wildly through smoke and hope to catch something, making calls and using their names to get people to talk (though their job clams people up ten times as often). An entire scene is devoted to Woodstein cheering and using the fact that a secretary double-talked as a major breakthrough, even though nothing she said could ever be used in the paper.

From these shaky first steps, the duo continues punching water, making hundreds of calls (there’s a great long take of Redford juggling two calls that is both funny and gripping) and looking for something…anything…that can help them. Director Alan J. Pakula gives us a spectacular shot from God’s point-of-view that sums up their journey wonderfully. He begins close on Woodstein going through thousands of library request forms and then slowly pulling back and up, the tables and library around them creating a complex labyrinth.

We learn little about Woodward or Bernstein’s relationship outside of the investigation and even less about their personal lives. This is purposeful, and we do get to know them a bit through their personalities. Though Bernstein is better at the writing, Woodward is fantastic with interviewing and knows how to contort a question or ask just the right thing so that, even if the answer isn’t explicitly stated, it’s inferred. There are interesting, barely visible moments in the first half where Bernstein is visibly annoyed by Woodward’s questions, but as the movie progresses, Bernstein gets better at asking the right questions too. This movie gets another aspect of journalism exactly right in that many of the people being questioned just assume that the reporters know everything already and, as a result, tell the reporters much more than they knew in the first place and, sometimes, give a big breakthrough to the story in the process.

all the presidents men 2Despite the lack of character development, Hoffman and Redford shine. Redford, in particular, proves here definitively that he is one of the great actors in the history of film. Though his good looks sometimes work against him, here he simply disappears into the character, leaving no trace of the movie star we thought we knew. Also of special note is Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee, who convinces us early and often that he’s a grizzled editor who cares enough about the story to let the team follow it, even though more experienced reporters might have been better suited.

Pakula gives the movie the feel of a thriller even if we know the reveals and the ending, and for most of the movie the pace is taut and the events suspenseful. I’m surprised it flows as well as it does and kept me engaged as fully as it did, especially considering the lack of character development. Sadly, the movie is over two hours long, and by about the one-hour-and-forty-five minute mark the reversals and doors kicked open to reveal nothing become repetitive and the pace disappears. Things get a bit interesting again when Pakula begins to play up the conspiracy angle, with the reporters afraid their homes are bugged and are looking behind themselves all the time to make sure they are not being followed.

Then, suddenly, the movie ends. Structurally, it feels like we have reached the end of the second act, with high-ups in the government denying what Woodstein are writing and Woodward learning from his contact Deep Throat that his life is in danger. Then Bradlee gives him a motivational speech to end all motivational speeches…and the movie ends. There’s a little closure in the form of an AP teletype showing us headlines for the next three years, ending with Nixon resigning, but that’s it. It’s a non-ending that endlessly frustrated me, especially considering the care Pakula and writer William Goldman took in making sure all the details of the build-up were right. To make a bad metaphor, we see the dominos set up but aren’t given the opportunity to enjoy watching them knocked down.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Modern Times

modern times 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 78

Release: February 5, 1936

Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin

Star: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

Music: Charlie Chaplin

Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan, Roland Totheroh

Company: United Artists

Though it is the last of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films, “Modern Times” represents the best possible introduction for viewers into the art of the silent movie. It’s a sad fact that most of the public will dismiss all silents with nary a second thought, but here is the movie you can put on for them and, by the end, you will have convinced them to open their minds to the magic of Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau and the non-racist version of Griffith. You see, the movie tricks the viewer into thinking it is a sound film before the words all but disappear, and the best part is that you don’t even notice. In fact, when dialogue returns later, it is almost an annoyance. I adore how the movie was made in 1936, entitled “Modern Times,” and is actually one of the most successful throwbacks in all of cinema.

In my article on “American Graffiti” I noted how tired many of the plots and gags were because they had been imitated so many times since, and most of the major gags in “Modern Times” have also been re-used multiple times. The early moment of Chaplin needing to screw every bolt on a conveyor belt that keeps increasing speed was most famously re-done in “I Love Lucy,” I can think of a dozen films that use the broken-down house jokes (most memorably “Dick Tracy”) and Chaplin accidentally sinking a ship was re-done (badly) in “Sherlock Holmes.” And yet, unlike “Graffiti,” these jokes haven’t soured over time. Chaplin invests himself so fully into these moments that it becomes impossible to not be won over by his humor and charisma. He goes above and beyond to earn every one of the film’s belly laughs.

modern times 2Time has been kind to the movie, allowing the realism of Chaplin’s stunts to make them all the more awesome today. There is a scene near the mid-point of the movie where Chaplin is roller-skating while blindfolded (seriously) right near a huge hole in the floor that drops four stories. You gasp through your laughs at the thought that there is actually a hole in the floor (!) that Chaplin is skating perilously close to (!!!). Holy shit! And then there’s the moment Chaplin (famously…but then again, what sequence here hasn’t become famous?) is swallowed into the mechanics of the machine he has been working on all day, or when he dives into a lake only to realize it is only a foot deep. We can see Chaplin’s face and know it’s him, making the moments… well… real.

modern times 3The plot is surprisingly topical. Chaplin plays a man caught in the cogs of modern industrialization who has a nervous breakdown from being treated more like machine than man (at one point The Tramp is strapped to a machine that feeds him his lunch, but of course it malfunctions and begins stuffing his mouth with more food than he can eat—and a couple pieces of metal as well). He ends up in jail (where he takes cocaine!) and becomes a hero, but when he is released the country has gone deep into a depression and he finds himself unable to keep a job. After several attempts at getting back into jail, Chaplin meets a beautiful street Girl (Paulette Goddard) and, together, they try to build a life together. Chaplin wasn’t just writing the film for the comedy, he had ideas about the political climate of the time and got them across with subtle beauty throughout.

I was shocked at how well the plot held together and became more than just the expected gag after gag. Chaplin and Goddard have a believable love story and share a character arc that resonates long after the final, bittersweet moments. When the Girl introduces the Tramp to the ramshackle home she has built for him on the banks of a lake, your heart leaps. When the Tramp and the Girl finally (Finally!) seem to achieve stability and success only to have it shattered by her past, your heart breaks. There are so many moments where Chaplin could have stepped wrong, but he rarely does. Chaplin must have thought so long about if The Tramp would speak at all and knew that if he didn’t, the audience would have been let down. And The Tramp is indeed heard for the first and only time here, singing a nonsense song when he can’t remember the words to the wild applause of his audience. Perfect. Because really, what else could he have said or sang that would have worked any better?

The one place the film falls short is in the characterization of the Girl. Though she is first seen cutting bananas to throw to homeless children, Goddard never becomes more than the woman The Tramp loves. She eternally plays his straight man, and there are opportunities missed for her to display the same type of humor Chaplin does. I’m thinking specifically of the scenes in the department store and when she is showing Chaplin the house she built for him. Goddard was a great actress, and still manages to make you love her despite not being as lovably engaging as she could have been.

Despite its dark underlying issues, “Modern Times” had remained lightweight up until its final few moments, but for Chaplin to pull away from the expected happy ending and give us something completely unexpected yet perfectly realized makes this movie transcendent. More than that, the music that underscores those final moments—which would later be turned into the song “Smile”—is one of the greatest melodies of our time. In its own way, I’d dare to say the ending to “Modern Times” is just as emotional as the (more famous) finale to “City Lights.” Whereas “Lights” is a fairy tale, “Times” reminds us that life will never be one—but as long as we love one another all will not be lost. We’ll get by.

Score: *****

The Wild Bunch

wild bunch 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 79

Release: June 18, 1969

Writer: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Star: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan

Music: Jerry Fielding

Cinematography: Lucien Ballard

Company: Warner Bros. – Seven Arts

“The Wild Bunch” is violence.

Every scene deals with the build-up to violence, the act itself or the immediate aftermath. It does not judge the violence it presents or the men at the film’s center. These men are not heroes, and though they would be considered villains in any other Western, since the film does not present us with any heroic characters, they are all we have to identify with.

wild bunch 3William Holden plays Pike, the leader of the Bunch of the title, a group of outlaws who, for most of the movie, are attempting to steal and sell a stock of weapons (including a machine gun). Pike’s group is being shadowed by Robert Ryan’s Deke. Deke used to be a member of the group, but was caught and now must catch them to gain his freedom, otherwise he’ll be hanged. All this happens during an uncertain period in the American West, with the time of such outlaws coming to an end. At one point, one of the outlaws is dragged behind a modern car for hours. The metaphor isn’t subtle.

The film opens with one of the most astonishing action set-pieces I’ve ever seen. It’s a bank robbery orchestrated by Pike’s gang that turns out to be a set-up by Deke. Instead of playing it out like a chess game, everyone just starts blowing everyone else away. Dozens of bystanders in the town are murdered in the crossfire. Even the priest gets it. The blood and guts aren’t focused upon, instead quickly filmed and cut away from in order to create a mood of chaos, violence (of course) and destruction.

The movie never reaches this high again. From the set-piece, we know that the Wild Bunch are villains we really shouldn’t like (they kill women and children!) and that they are all going to be dead by the end of the movie. This isn’t the kind of film that would present such a gutsy opening and then redeem these guys—it simply informs us that it has set them on their path for death and we’re in for the ride. Another none-too-subtle metaphor: the first images of the movie are that of a group of scorpions being killed slowly by hundreds of fire ants.

The characters are well-developed considering that they are so unlikable. Instead of being characters we simply loathe, the gang are, for the most part, characters we find watchable, particularly Jaime Sanchez’s Angel, who tries to send a crate of guns to those rebelling against the warlord who has taken over his hometown (and the gang just happens to be in business with). Oddly enough, the least interesting characters in the group are the leads. I’m not even sure why Ernest Borgnine’s character was in the movie, and though Holden’s Pike is given flashbacks to pad his motivations and background, but they do little to turn him three-dimensional.

The most absorbing character in the movie is Ryan’s Deke, because he can’t have any motivations. He has to catch these men he’s worked with before, has to out-think them and has to ensure their deaths no matter how he feels about the whole thing. In any given scene, we’re never quite sure what he’s thinking or feeling, and that paradox makes him fascinating. One moment I missed from the movie is the group’s relationship to him. It’s implied Holden was his good friend, though something stated more explicitly in a movie where everything is stated explicitly and underlined for good measure would have been nice. Instead, they just treat him like a force of nature instead of a human being, which sounds cool when I type it but doesn’t work as well in execution.

Director/screenwriter Sam Peckinpah and his co-writer Walon Green seem to be intent on subverting as many Western genre conventions as possible, though in much more obvious ways than, say, “The Searchers.” The most obvious, already stated, is having the “heroes” be villains, but there are many others. Holden falls off his horse instead of mounting it like a pro. Many of the extra soldiers who are killed off are fifteen-year-old kids, not grizzled extras. Every woman in the movie is either a prostitute or canon fodder (or both).

wild bunch 2The tone of the movie is somber and brooding (in other words, perfect for a Western), though there are two major shifts that come out of nowhere. The first is when a Mexican soldier repeatedly accidentally fires off a machine gun and almost kills dozens of people and the second is when it seems like an entire town is simultaneously laughing at a single person. Where did these moments come from and why weren’t they cut out?

In addition to the opening bank heist, there are two other big set-pieces. The first involves stealing a train out from under the nose of Deke, who just happens to be on one of the train cars. There’s some nifty direction and tension built here before the train starts moving, but instead of gaining momentum (sorry about the analogy) as it builds to its climax, the sequence peters out as the train speeds up.

The third is the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink climax, which involves the aforementioned machine gun and the deaths of what seems like hundreds of extras. It’s not quite on the scale of when Rambo killed an entire country, but it’s up there.

But what do these beautifully staged scenes and sequences add up to in a film where the audience has no emotional stakes in the story or the characters’ fates? Not all that much. I’m a sucker for a well-done action flick, and I was never bored watching “The Wild Bunch” and became involved in the major set-pieces, but more for the technical mastery than because I cared about what was going on. It’s obvious that Walon and Peckinpah meant to reinvent and subvert the Western genre by bringing realism (I use that as a relative term) and legitimate, consequential violence to the world of O.K. Corrals and Stagecoaches, and that they do. But perhaps they took it a step too far and cut off the audience’s emotional response in the process. There are great things in this film, but in the end it’s merely good.

My Score (out of 5): ***

The Apartment

apartment 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 80

Release: June 15, 1960

Writer: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond

Director: Billy Wilder

Star: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle

Music: Adolph Deutsch

Company: United Artists

The apartment in “The Apartment” is nothing special. The air conditioner that may or may not work sits next to a relatively comfortable couch, but other than that, there are no bells or whistles to be found. The walls are paper thin, and the paper on those walls is slowly peeling off. You need a match to light the gas oven. There’s no closet space anywhere to be seen.

Upon first glance, you might also say that C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is nothing special. One of the seeming hundreds of drones working in an unfriendly office space, he’s not rich. Or overly handsome. Or has any family or close friends to speak of. But he’s ambitious in his own way. Baxter is more than willing to whore himself out to get that three-window office next to the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sure, he’s not technically a prostitute, but he’s more than willing to allow strangers into his apartment for hours at a time to have their own trysts in order to get ahead at work.

His fate is destined to cross with the wonderfully named Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator who works in the same building Baxter works in. She also happens to be having an affair with Mr. Sheldrake, who is married. Things begin to get very, very complex.

the apartment 2Most Billy Wilder movies seem to exist out of time and place, perhaps because they are so singular. It’s a shame, then, to see that sections of “The Apartment” have dated rather badly, and not just because the main characters’ jobs are antiquated. Perhaps it’s because so many of the film’s conceits have been copied so often since the film’s release. We sense a familiarity with so many of Wilder’s (along with his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond) conceits that we wish the pace would pick up. Anyone who’s seen a romantic comedy or a telenovella knows just about everywhere the story will go (with one exception), making the build-ups to the major reveals moot.

It’s not hard to figure out, for example, that the woman Mr. Sheldrake wants the apartment for is Miss Kubelik. Or that his secretary is his old flame. Or that he’ll fire her and she’ll tell his wife. For me, the worst offender is in the third act, but we’ll get there soon.

The one moment that still works viscerally is Miss Kubelik’s attempted suicide. The build-up to the moment is heartbreaking, and the long sequence where Baxter finds her in his bed, becomes increasingly alarmed and finally, desperately, goes to his doctor neighbor for help. We cringe when the doctor repeatedly, violently, slaps Miss Kubelik to get her to wake up.

Of course, one could (successfully) argue that the suicide-attempt and later intimation that Baxter is also suicidal are pretty out of line with the tone of other scenes in the movie, such as the one where Baxter is in what he thinks is a job interview and gets so excited he squirts an entire bottle of nose spray across the office.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on the movie because, honestly, there is a lot here to love. Even taking into consideration the tonal shifts and (sadly) dated nature of much of the movie, which adds a level of predictability that was not there upon first release, I still enjoyed it. Really.

the apartment 3Another touchstone of Wilder’s films is his careful characterization of his women. I’ve already written about my love for Betty and Norma in “Sunset Blvd.” and Phyllis in “Double Indemnity,” so you won’t be surprised to know that Miss Kubelik is no exception. She isn’t a fluff sexbomb who just wants a husband. She’s in love with Sheldrake, damn it, and has her eyes open about the amount of pain the relationship is going to cause her (“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”). Wilder is subtle about the way her relationship builds with Baxter, never giving us “big” moments or “easy” chemistry scenes together. We may hate parts of Miss Kubelik, but we still grow to love her, thanks also to MacLaine’s aces performance.

Lemmon is also very good as Baxter, though most of the shifts in tone stem from his few moments of overacting (singing while making spaghetti, the aforementioned nasal spray bottle). When his character gets drunk alone on Christmas Eve, Lemmon does not overdo his drunkenness, a blessing after seeing how far over the top he went in “The Days of Wine and Roses.”

Wilder uses the space and shadows of the apartment well as a contrast to the bright, over-stimulated office environment. His camera here is much more subtle than in many of his other films, and it suits the movie well. The black-and-white is stark and uninviting, underlined when Wilder purposely places us in locations (Broadway, the Chinese Restaurant) where we would normally expect warm, blazing colors.

Despite the intricacies of the screenplay and how well Wilder sets things up and pays them off (however predictable this may be today), for me the false ending of Miss Kubelik going back to Sheldrake (after she almost committed suicide, no less!) and Baxter getting that swanky job on the top floor doesn’t work. It feels like the token bad romantic comedy moment that sets up the sweeping ending more than anything else. Perhaps this is because Wilder has set up the journeys of both characters so well and strengthened them palpably over their time shared in the apartment…but it just doesn’t feel right. Ah well, at least we get this amazing closing line out of it: “Shut up and deal.”

Sure, “The Apartment” might seem a little ordinary today, like the title abode in the movie, but there’s still more than enough to recommend. Even though all the trappings here are familiar and have been copied hundreds of times, that does not mean that they have been done better than they were here.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Spartacus

spartacus 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 81

Release: October 7, 1960

Writer: Dalton Trumbo (adaptation), Howard Fast (novel)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Star: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov

Music: Alex North

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Company: Universal International

The problem with the “spectacle” films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when studios saw running time and Cinemascope as the answer to the problem of television, is that the actual spectacle lasts about twenty minutes or less in the films’ usually three-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. Over-actors fill the rest of the reels with overblown, stodgy dialogue while looking generally hilarious in bad costumes and worse hair styles. “Spartacus” separates itself by actually having something to say in those long passages between the crackerjack “spectacle” sequences.

Kirk Douglas is the title character, a slave who trains to be a gladiator before leading a revolution, first against his captors and later against all of Rome. He seeks freedom for himself and the ever-growing group of slaves that march through Italy toward a group of pirate ships on the coast. There’s more, of course – three hours of more.

The driving force is no more or less inventive than any other film of this type. It’s all about the execution. The “villains” of the film are genuinely engaging, three-dimensional characters who do not shy away from having ethical discussions.

First and foremost is Peter Ustinov as the owner of the Gladatorial school Spartacus trains at. Ustinov’s performance is the best in a film of great supporting performances, and he is so gleeful in his one-track-mind that he earns our love despite his unabashedly-underhanded behavior.

spartacus 2Next up is Charles Laughton, who could have easily walked through the role but injects his Roman Senator with a surprising amount of decency. In the film’s final moments, when he procures safe passage for Spartacus’ wife (Jean Simmons), he surprises both us and himself with the humanity he displays. Usually overlooked is John Gavin, who is just aces as a young, cocky Julius Caesar, whose loyalties are always in flux.

Laurence Olivier plays Crassus, who becomes the ultimate villain of the film even though he only has one scene with Spartacus, and even his motivations come off as more thought-provoking than evil, despite the fact that he crucifies 6,000 slaves and oversees the slaughter of thousands of others. Olivier is one of those rare actors who always seems to be thinking, even when he isn’t speaking in a scene, and the film’s writer, Dalton Trumbo, gives him some of the best dialogue in the movie.

Crassus’ villainy is oddly approached in the film. He’s the villain because the movie seems to insist that he has to be the villain, and some of his actions in the second and third act seem out of character with the intriguing, multi-dimensional person that had been set up before. It’s difficult, because the real thing Spartacus and his army fights here isn’t a person…it’s an idea: Slavery. All the Romans in the film keep slaves, and in theory are all just as evil as the next character. Of course they were never going to “beat” slavery or end the idea, so it needed a face, and that was where Olivier came in.

Alas, in comparison to these fascinating, great villains, Spartacus comes off as horribly two-dimensional. He wants freedom…he wants freedom now! Oh, and he loves his woman. You don’t get much more than that, but Douglas does well with what he’s given, and manages to give quite a good performance despite little dialogue of any depth or interesting characteristics.

Since this is a “spectacle” film the costumes are, unsurprisingly, atrocious and I highly doubt Roman women had the hairspray and conditioner to create such perfectly sculpted over-the-top hairstyles that they have here. Poor Simmons tries to act through horribly overdone make-up and over-touched hair, which almost always manages to be present even though she’s merely a slave. Then again, what else are we to expect?

Of course, there are things to treasure about movies of this type as well. Alex North’s brilliant score is both intimate and suitably epic when it needs to be, and its melodies linger long after the film ends. And there’s something so special about looking at those wide, beautifully shot scenes and sequences where you know you are actually looking at hundreds of soldiers slowly marching toward you. Needless to say, the bloody battle scenes do not disappoint, and the aftermath, where soldiers wander through what appears to be thousands of dead bodies, is rightly unsettling.

The writing is good, though shockingly unbalanced at times. It’s hard to believe the same writer crafted the carefully worded monologues about belief and the sloppy, horrible lines of exposition like “It’s Spartacus again? This time he dies!” And I have to wonder who allowed that atrocious voice-over at the beginning of the film that explains nothing that we need to know.

“Spartacus” doesn’t feel like a Kubrick film, though it has all the technical mastery one would expect from his work. The whole is much too emotional, and there’s too much heart here for it to be real Kubrick. I don’t mean this as a negative, I only mean to say that if I did not already know that he was involved going in, I would not have been able to tell you who was the director when walking out.

spartacus 3I have such mixed feelings about the false hope manufactured by the ending. Yes, the filmmakers should be given a lot of credit for ending the movie without your typical happy ending, and watching Spartacus slaughter his best friend (Tony Curtis) and then be crucified is a pretty ballsy move. And I did feel like having Laughton’s character freeing Simmons and the baby was a beautiful, touching beat…but then she found Spartacus up on that cross. Simmons holds up her baby and declares the child “free.” Well, yes, but so what? How is that supposed to make us feel better? The only reason she and the baby are free is because of Laughton. Every other person who was part of the rebellion is dead. Every. Other. Person. And slavery is still there, and would be there for another two-thousand years. Having the filmmakers try to make it feel like a positive when it really isn’t feels convoluted and doesn’t ring true.

“Spartacus” is a mixed bag, distinguished and great in some respects but tired and overblown in others. It’s the best “spectacle” film to come out of Hollywood in that time period, but is that really saying all that much? I’ll remember it more for the four brilliant performances at the center than anything else about it, but that alone is more than enough to make it worthwhile viewing.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

sunrise 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 82

Release: September 23, 1927

Writer: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer

Director: F.W. Murnau

Star: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss

Company: Fox Film Corporation

F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” identifies itself as a fable in the main titles, and in doing so allows itself to fully embrace melodrama and otherwise-ludicrous character beats. Its characters are purposely not well-defined, and the worlds presented here are as specific as they are vague. You embrace the film as you would embrace a well-written poem, the beats of beauty lingering long after it ends.

The story centers on two unnamed characters, a Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor), who were happy long ago. A Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) has drifted into their small town for a vacation, staying for weeks longer than she should in order to seduce the Man, which she does. One night as they hold one another next to a lake, she asks him to drown his Wife and run off with her to the city. The next day he takes his Wife out on the boat with the full intention of murdering her…but cannot. Across the lake they go into the city and rediscover their love for one another through a series of vignettes, but then as they make their return a storm begins that overturns their boat…

As I wrote earlier, all of this is hugely melodramatic. I write this being a fan of a good melodrama, and loathing that film critics have begun using the word as an all-encompassing criticism of any movie with elevated emotions. Look at much of the work of Douglas Sirk, William Friedkin or Brian DePalma for examples of melodrama done right, and if those names make you cringe, then melodrama isn’t for you. The melodrama in “Sunrise” is different and more shallow than the work of the above directors but, again, since the movie is more a fable than a coherent narrative, this is forgivable. And despite being so simply told with broad, melodramatic strokes, that does not mean it is not elegant. Early in the film, the man takes reeds from the lake shore to use as a floatation device after he drowns his wife and sinks his boat. I was struck by the power of a later moment, during the storm, when the Man desperately uses the reeds to save his Wife.

The one beat I still find suspect comes in the aftermath of the couple’s first boating incident. The Man has come very close to throwing his wife overboard and murdering her, but has had a change of heart. The Wife runs away from him once the boat reaches shore, but he catches up to her and apologizes profusely for an eternity (five minutes) while she bawls. After she finishes crying, all seems to be forgiven and the two begin touring the city without a thought that he almost pushed her overboard less than an hour before. The moment is reminiscent (in a bad way) of Maria immediately forgiving Tony for murdering her brother in “West Side Story,” but at least here we get a bit of breathing room before she gets over it.

sunrise 2The couple doesn’t reach the city until half-way through the film, but these passages are the most important and, ultimately, become the heart of “Sunrise.” They surprise us because they manage to convince us that this couple that we thought were beyond repair still deeply love one another. While there are broad moments of slapstick, it is the beautifully realized quiet moments that resonate most. There is a scene where they enter a church, watch another couple wed and, in their own way, renew their vows and re-commit themselves to one another. Later, they exit the church and walk into traffic, too busy gazing into each other’s eyes to notice the cars and trucks piling up around them. Even later, they dance the “Peasant’s Dance” together, at first begrudgingly but soon find themselves completely engaged with it.

The scenes that aim more for slapstick are less successful. I’m thinking here of the beautician scene where they both become playfully jealous of each other, and especially the scene in the restaurant at an amusement park. The Man ends up chasing a pig (!?) through the restaurant, the pig gets drunk on a spilled bottle of wine (I’m guessing the filmmakers greased the floor to make the pig slip and slide) and then the Man finds him. There are genuinely funny bits here, like where a bystander continues to fix a woman’s falling shoulder straps, but they take the focus off the couple and are unnecessary.

Visually, the film is endlessly inventive. My favorite image comes early, when the man tries to forget the Woman From the City. He sits on his bed and the image of the Woman appears behind him, holding him. He jerks away, only to meet another image of the Woman. Then a third appears. It’s an unforgettable moment, one of the finest in all of cinema. The sequence out on the lake where the Man contemplates murder is still unnerving thanks to the camera’s placement. We never see his face. It’s much superior to a similar sequence in the overrated “A Place In the Sun.” When the Woman and Man talk of the City, we are treated to quick swipes and lots of imaginative miniatures that just beg for rewinding and pausing. You know that Murnau is using a lot of tricks and visual gags throughout, but the movie is strong enough that they don’t matter. The viewer stops caring about how the visuals were created and instead just becomes lost in the splendor.

Murnau even surprises us with his dialogue titles. They are hardly necessary in the film, but when he uses them, he makes them count. When the word “DROWN” appears in one of the titles, it seems to become wet and warp.

sunrise 3And yet despite the visual splendor and inventiveness, the movie would not work if we didn’t believe the performances of O’Brien and Gaynor. Though they both overact (as all silent film stars were wont to do), there is a subtlety to their relationship that surprises. They have an easy chemistry with one another and make us fall in love with them in the second act. When Gaynor is lost on the lake and assumed dead, the viewer is devastated because we care just as much for their relationship as they do, and when she is found and weakly smiles at O’Brien, we are overjoyed. In a time when film emotions and romances are more spoken than felt, “Sunrise” is all about feeling. It still has the power to steal your heart, and how many movies that begin with a husband plotting the death of his wife can you say that about?

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Titanic

titanic 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 83

Year: 1997

Writer/Director: James Cameron

Star: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

Studio: Paramount & 20th Century Fox

Music: James Horner

Cinematography: Russell Carpenter

“Titanic” is proof that there is such a thing as good melodrama and that sentimentality can be deeply affecting when done well. Here is a film filled with tremendous special effects that remains grounded because we believe in its central love story.

Everyone knows the story of the “unsinkable” Titanic, and it has been filmed numerous times at varying levels of quality, ranging from overblown tedium in the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle to gripping realism in “A Night to Remember.” This version begins in the present, with an undersea explorer (Bill Paxton) searching for a fabled blue jewel called, rather obviously, the Heart of the Ocean. They don’t find the jewel, but do discover a charcoal drawing of a nude woman wearing it that is dated the night the ship sank. An elderly woman named Rose (played in the present by Gloria Stuart and by Kate Winslet in flashbacks), claims she is the woman in the photo and offers to tell her story.

titanic 3Rose boarded the Titanic trapped in a loveless relationship with her fiancé Cal (Billy Zane doing a great tip of the hat to Orson Welles) and, on the night she intended to commit suicide, was saved by a spirited wanderer named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is first-class, Jack is third-class, and yet first they form a friendship that leads to intense passion and romance. Even if you have not seen the film, you are familiar with the sight of Jack and Rose kissing on the front of the ship at sunset, and it is indeed one of the greatest romantic moments in all of film. What surprised me, visiting the film again after a decade, is how beautifully Cameron sets up this moment. One of the best moments in the film is a quiet one, without any of James Horner’s great music or any of the numerous impressive special effects, and that is the moment Jack and Rose discuss her attempted suicide. They dance around each other in their dialogue, Jack unafraid to speak his mind and Rose unsure of how to speak hers after a lifetime of suppressing her voice. Another splendid contrast between their lifestyles comes first when we see Jack attend a dinner in first class (Cal invites him as a “prize” for rescuing Rose) and later when we see Rose dance and drink cheap beer in third class. I cannot underline enough how easy and unforced the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet is here, and how quickly we accept their love despite the class difference between them.

A bit more hazy is the relationship between Cal and Rose. Yes, Cameron establishes early that, from Rose’s perspective, it’s just for the money. And yet, with the way Cal is characterized in the first half of the film, I cannot fathom him being attracted to Rose or choosing her as a mate.

As both a screenwriter and director, Cameron takes great pains to paint around the edges. He fills the screen with great character actors (most notably Kathy Bates as the unsinkable Molly Brown and Victor Garber as the soul-heavy ship designer) that make huge impressions in their few lines so that, when they either die or find salvation in the film’s second half, we feel something.

Structurally, “Titanic” is as close to perfection as any film I have seen. In the frame story, Cameron ingeniously shows us the exact circumstances under which the ship sank in a video Rose watches. Everything he introduces in the present is paid off in the past, and every character, subplot and idea he introduces before the iceberg is struck is paid off dramatically. Moments before the ship finally goes under, Rose suddenly realizes “Jack, this is where we first met!” and you can’t help but getting goosebumps. Yes, some of the dialogue is less than fantastic and a few modern beats (Rose flipping someone the bird) feel out of place, but these are easily forgivable.

TITANIC 3DFor me, the reason the disaster genre (and I’m not reducing “Titanic” to a mere “disaster” movie here because it’s much more than that) remains so viable when done well is because after characters encounter the impossible in their everyday lives and then have time to process what is going on and react to their probable deaths in very different, very “human” ways. In the last hour of “Titanic” we see acts of great humanity, but mostly we are shaken by the horrors. The third class is literally locked below deck until they die. The first class lifeboats refuse to return to pick up survivors. It’s sickening, and not only do we wonder how we would act in those situations, but the movie has made us care about these characters as human beings. The fact that not a single character we meet from the third class survives is heartbreaking, as is the fact that unlikable characters Cal and Rose’s mother get away so easily. It’s unfair, and all the more impactful because of it.

Cameron (who was also one of the three editors on the film) is amazingly skillful at making the sinking of the ship both sickening and gorgeous. The first reveal of the sinking ship, seen after an emergency flair is fired off, is beautiful, and the way Cameron comes up with new ways to show the Titanic going down is always inventive. It’s visceral, and the special effects throughout are flawless. In fact, I’d wager that the effects seen here could not be done better today, no matter how much technology has advanced since 1997.

Of course, all that would be moot if we didn’t care about the sinking on a human level. Though “A Night To Remember” is a great film, it lacks a soul thanks to its straightforward presentation. Ultimately, “Titanic” offers us the definitive version of the story because it touches our hearts while offering us plenty of suspense and eye candy that is only underlined by the inevitability of the circumstances.

As the movie draws to a close, the elderly Rose says the line, “He saved me…in every way a person can be saved.” After returning the Heart of the Ocean to the sea, Rose dies quietly in her sleep and we follow her soul down into the ruins of the sunken ship, but we see it anew. All of the dead passengers wait for her, including Jack, who kisses her on the grand staircase. In most other films, that dialogue and finale would be cheesy, but “Titanic” earns them. It’s the rarest of spectacles—an uncynical love story where the grand special effects never outshine the film’s soul.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Easy Rider

easy rider 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 84

Year: 1969

Writer: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern

Director: Dennis Hopper

Star: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs

The magic of “Easy Rider” is the ease (not a pun, I promise) with which it observes and explores a moment in our culture’s uncertain history. For most of its running time, the film astounds with its restrained, straightforward observations of America. It’s such a shame that the movie spirals off-base in its final act with sudden, heavy-handed biblical references and incomprehensible plot developments.

The movie opens with Peter Fonda’s Captain America (he has an American flag sewn onto the back of his jacket) and Dennis Hopper’s Billy exchanging cocaine for a lot of money. They roll the money, stick it into a plastic hose and then slide the hose into the gas tank of Captain America’s (awesome) motorcycle. It’s one of the more ingenious ways to hide thousands of dollars, right up there with the stamps in “Charade” and the painting in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (and this is probably the only time these movies will be compared to “Easy Rider”). The duo get on top of their bikes and begin a cross country journey that will end at Mardi Gras.

EASYRIDER-SPTI-14.tifHopper (also the director and co-writer) sets the first scene of the film next to an airport landing strip, and any conversation the characters have is drowned out completely by the sound of landing planes. Though the moment is annoying itself because it just lasts too damn long, it alerts the audience to the fact that, for most of the movie, dialogue is unnecessary and mostly negligible when spoken. And yes, the first half hour of the movie has only a few lines of dialogue as far as I can remember, and what is said is superfluous. It might as well be a silent picture you watch while playing some of your favorite tunes, and I mean that as a huge compliment.

As a director, Hopper (with his co-writers Fonda and Terry Southern) is content to show us the story with simple, haunting images of the American landscape shot from mercifully empty roads with some fantastic classic rock songs playing on the soundtrack. The guys are just being guys, doing tricks on their cycles and contemplating deep things while looking forlornly at the horizon. On my way to Los Angeles, I drove as much of Route 66 as is left drivable (which is probably less than half), and these scenes left me drooling and aching to get in my car and just start driving…it didn’t matter where. One could argue that this type of scene (the guys riding, breathtaking landscapes, rock and roll) is done much too much in the movie, but I couldn’t get enough of it. The repetitive nature of the moments made the film almost hypnotic.

The duo’s day in a commune (they are brought to it by a hitchhiker they pick up) is intriguing to see today…we watch the (almost entirely) young people desperately attempting to retreat to an innocent, back-to-the-basics lifestyle despite the weather and ground making it impossible to create a harvest. There’s an amazing 360 degree shot of the group circled for prayer and, as the camera slowly pans around, it makes the time to capture in every face in the circle and linger briefly. We have time to contemplate them, wonder how they got there and think about what their story might be.

We also wonder about Captain America and Billy, where they came from and how they got to know each other. They rarely speak to each other for more than a few lines, but then again, they don’t really need to. They work as non-characters—better at representing us as observers than themselves. Both are very good actors, but you won’t get that from this movie—the performances are almost nonexistent.

easy rider 3We are introduced to a slimy lawyer George (Jack Nicholson) when the two are arrested for riding in a parade without a permit. George joins them on their trek to Mardi Gras and there’s a beautiful image of George in a football helmet on the back of the motorcycle. There’s also a sweet scene of Captain America gently explaining to George how to smoke pot. While most of the movie would work as a silent movie, George’s hypothesis on how aliens have already invaded and are working amongst us must be heard to be believed.

Suddenly George dies, and the movie goes off the rails. He’s murdered by a bunch of thugs who mock and berate the trio in a diner (the scene works wonderfully at getting under the viewer’s skin and making you uncomfortable), and then is barely spoken of again. Captain America and Billy say he would have wanted them to finish their trek (instead of, you know, being taken to a mortuary and sent home to be buried), and they do just that. Wait…what?

And then Captain America turns into Jesus.

The metaphor is horrendous, ham-fisted and completely out of line with the rest of the movie that has led up to it. He, Billy and two hookers (one of which is Karen Black) have a really bad trip in New Orleans and we even hear church music playing loudly. There’s a scene where Captain America doesn’t quite say “This is my body, this is my blood,” but he might as well have.

By the time we reach the contrived, cringe-inducing ending that has both our leads killed off by a passing truck, the metaphor has gotten so heavy-handed you can’t help but roll your eyes.

Why couldn’t the movie have just kept observing? It could have gotten the same point across in a more subtle manner by making the diner scene the finale. We get that these men will never be accepted into normal society, we don’t need them literally blown away to underline that.

Many of the images and moments, mostly the smaller ones, linger beautifully after the film ends. This movie doesn’t ask us to swallow easy answers to life’s questions or judge those who are quickly judged. Despite its third-act implosion, I can’t help but love the trip.

My Score (out of 5): ****

A Night At the Opera

opera 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 85

Year: 1935

Writer: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, James Kevin McGuinness

Director: Sam Wood

Star: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx

Studio: MGM

Music: Herbert Stothart

Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad

There are many similarities between “A Night At the Opera” and “Duck Soup,” the other Marx Brothers movie on the AFI Top 100 list, and I think I’d prefer to talk about the Brothers in general when I cover “Duck Soup,” mostly because I think that’s a better representation of their humor.

The biggest difference between this film and all other previous Marx Brothers features is that this is the first example of “structure” within the series, thanks to a studio change from Paramount to MGM. “A Night At the Opera” hitches its gags and jokes on something resembling a plot, whereas “Duck Soup” dealt with a theme (politics) and then just let loose. Here there’s a romantic subplot between a male opera singer (Allan Jones) and a female opera singer (Kitty Carlisle) and several villains for the Brothers to gang up on. Jones seems to have taken up the mantle of Zeppo Marx (now gone from the series), in that he plays the pseudo-straight man in several scenes but also takes part in physical comedy when larger groups are needed.

opera 3The idea of having a “plot” in a Marx Brothers vehicle works both for and against it. Allowing the boys to hang their jokes on story developments makes some of their routines stronger, but at the same time the film’s best stuff takes place outside of the plot entirely. On the one hand, the movie feels like it’s heading somewhere (to opening night at the Opera House, to be precise) while “Duck Soup” and other earlier features drifted aimlessly into complete (albeit funny) anarchy for God-knows-how-long. On the other hand, though the romantic coupling is cute and disposable enough, it feels completely out-of-place and an unnecessary dose of sanity in an insane film.

The music here is a big improvement over the horrible, unfunny musical numbers in “Duck Soup,” but for the most part these are just as disposable. I’m not talking about the opera scenes, which work, especially when the Brothers sneak “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” into the orchestra’s reams of sheet music, but the two big expensive MGM musical numbers. What was the point of having them, especially when it’s much more fun to see Chico entertain children by playing the piano and Harpo at work on his harp?

Margaret Dumont is back here, playing (as she did in “Duck Soup”) the thankless role of the straight man to every Groucho joke. I really began to appreciate her here (though the role is smaller than in other films), because though she must appear serious and unamused in every scene, she’s really overacting just as much as the Brothers. She’s rolling every “r” and stretching every “t,” playing up every line as if she were an old theatre diva.

opera 2And what of the gags? Well, I’ve always been partial to Groucho, and he’s got some of his best zingers here. My favorite? While watching a disgusting performer onstage, he remarks to the audience: “How’d you like to feel how she looks?” And though no slapstick reaches the perfection of the mirror sequence in “Duck Soup,” seeing Harpo using the Opera backstage as a trapeze act to stay away from the police comes damn close. The overstuffed room scene has been copied so many times in lesser films and television that it can’t help but lose some of its power, but still remains quite funny.

Other moments don’t work. Here I’m thinking of the Brothers having their breakfast in Groucho’s hotel room. And the scene where Chico and Harpo discuss a singing contract, so famous for the “There ain’t no Sanity Clause” line, feels overlong and awkwardly edited today. The director, Sam Wood, seems to have originally intended to film the entire sequence in one take. But then maybe some of the jokes didn’t work, or maybe they were too dirty. Whatever the reason, there are sudden, awkward cuts to close-ups of Chico and Groucho saying unfunny filler lines before the film cuts back to the medium shot. It ruins the flow of the scene.

And yet, like “Duck Soup,” much more works here than doesn’t. To me, the Marx Brothers are the original version of the Muppets, and you embrace the scattershot style of their storytelling and humor the same way you would embrace an episode of “The Muppet Show.” I’m not sure why those who chose the AFI Top 100 felt the need to put two films on the list, especially because they are so interchangeable. That last sentence wasn’t meant to be a come-down on the films, but why not pick the one that best exemplified everything the Brothers were about and spotlight that one film?

…I’m talking about “Duck Soup.”

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2