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): ***

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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

Platoon

platoon 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 86

Year: 1986

Writer/Director: Oliver Stone

Star: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

Studio: Orion Pictures

Music: Georges Delerue

“Platoon” is a horrifying, gut-wrenching film that leaves you dazed, depressed and conflicted. It’s also a masterpiece. I write that hoping that I don’t have to watch it again anytime soon.

The film begins in 1967 and centers on a young soldier named Chris (Charlie Sheen) arriving in Vietnam to fight for his country. As he and the other recruits land, they pass a pile of body bags about to be sent back to America. The metaphor is not lost on us.

Instead of wasting time and exposition on setting up the war, the infantry and our location, writer/director Oliver Stone simply cuts to Chris walking, hobbling and crawling his way through the jungles, immediately in over his head. He’s attacked by fire ants, leeches, mosquitoes and has several encounters with poisonous snakes during the film. We learn the most about his personality through annoying letters he writes to his Grandmother that are recited in voice-over narration. Stone seems to be trying to get his thesis about the war and how it changes men out through the voice-over, but ultimately it’s unnecessary and the conclusions Chris draws at the finale aren’t anything a smart viewer won’t come to on his own.

platoon 2The movie is at its most tense when Stone drops us into a situation and lets the viewer play catch-up while the characters soldier on. He is honest and ingenious in doing this since real soldiers (I’m guessing) don’t know much about the situations they are getting themselves into before the fact and, ultimately, just want to get through it alive. By doing this, Stone layers the suspense brilliantly. For example, even if they can shoot the soldiers, then there’s some sort of fire-bombing happening, but even if they live through that there’s the fact that they lost their platoon, etc. It’s relentless and all the more real because of it.

I also have to say how wonderfully Stone shoots anarchy. At this point we’ve been force-fed “shaky cam” so long that, no matter what the movie and the circumstance, if anything is supposed to be a bit hard-to-follow or suspenseful, the shaky cam comes out. This is even if the sequence is completely at odds stylistically with everything else in the film. I’m looking at you, “Harry Potter.” And don’t even get me started on goddamn “Battle: Los Angeles.” Yes, shaking the camera disorients the viewer, but you know what else it does? It pisses us the hell off. Have you ever heard someone walk out of a movie and say, “That scene where the camera went all wobbly was just the best!” No. They say, “I need to go vomit my popcorn up in the bathroom, be right back.”

In “Platoon” Stone holds the camera steady, paying close attention to the lighting, the frame and the camera’s point-of-view. The sequence that begins when Chris and a fellow soldier are in a fox-hole and strain as they (and we) watch the fog and listen for any hint that the enemy might be close is a masterpiece in sustained suspense. The characters (and, as an extension, we) don’t know where we are, but by keeping the camera steady and the location visible, there’s even more apprehension. The Viet Cong could be anywhere in the frame, and Stone has fun teasing us that way.

platoon 3Okay, “fun” isn’t the right word. Nothing about the movie is “fun.” This is an action movie where the action feels like a punch to the gut. At first, keeping Chris’ character two-dimensional felt like a blow against the movie, but it’s actually one of the only instances where it ultimately works in the film’s favor. Because we only know the basics about Chris, we can’t quite anticipate his behavior in any given situation. When he loses it for a moment and begins shooting the ground where a one-legged man is standing, we are horrified, but it still feels in character.

That scene and the ones that immediately follow, culminating in Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes shooting a civilian and almost murdering a child, are so gut-wrenching you can barely watch them. Stone doesn’t shy away from the ugliness, nor does he show it off, he merely shows it as it is.

Barnes is a fascinating villain. He’s horribly scarred, been shot many times, and some of the men think he simply can’t be killed. He does abhorrent things early and often, and we know that he was never a good man. But, and this is a big however, we can understand how his time in Vietnam has twisted him further into becoming the monster he is. Stone creates another character, Bunny (Kevin Dillon), who is likeable enough at first but quickly begins to show signs that he could easily turn into another Barnes. This is what the war…the jungle…the men…the world does to these soldiers. In showing the men as simply and matter-of-factly as possible, Stone has inferred just how complex the war really is, so much more than the bang-bang-you’re-dead of most war movies.

It is also worth noting that, although the movie is super-violent, there is not a lot of gore. Even when it happens, it’s quickly cut away from, instead showing us the men’s reaction to what is going on. More than that, the Viet Cong soldiers remain a shadowy menace throughout. We never get very good looks at them, which, again, makes them even more menacing. Stone strikes the perfect (yes, perfect) balance of what to show and what to leave to the audience’s imagination, a lesson directors need to remind themselves of today.

“Platoon” doesn’t get into the politics of the Vietnam War, nor does it give any insight into the General’s battle plans or evasion tactics. So, in theory, it views the war neutrally, focusing instead on the men and their reaction to the chaos around them. And yet, if there was a film that makes a more convincing anti-war case, I have yet to see it.

My Score (out of 5): *****

12 Angry Men

12 angry men 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 87

Release: April 13, 1957

Writer: Reginald Rose

Director: Sidney Lumet

Star: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman

Music: Kenyon Hopkins

Studio: United Artists

“12 Angry Men” exists in that minute gray area between logic and emotion—the place where men (and women) develop their personal set of morals and emotions. Learning the answers to the questions raised within the confines of that claustrophobic jury room about the guilt of the accused would be anticlimactic, and writer Reginald Rose wisely chose to steer clear of them.

The 12 men in the title are jurors assigned to a murder case. The person on trial is a young (I think) Latino man accused of stabbing his father to death after being hit in the face one too many times. The judge seems bored as he instructs the jury of the weight of their situation, almost as if he is late for a lunch date. The men walk into a cramped, hot jury room without a working fan and windows that all but refuse to open. They seem to have collectively come to a logical conclusion already.

The first vote is 11-1 in favor of guilt, with Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) as the only hold-out. But at first Fonda doesn’t even seem so sure of himself, only asking that the other men at least spend a little time looking at the case before making such a weighty decision too quickly. Fair enough, some suppose, though others are in a rush to get out of the heat on the hottest day of the year.

12 angry men 2It is important to note that Rose goes out of his way to ensure that all of the jurors are smart, free-thinking individuals. No one in the room asks stupid questions for the sake of the audience, and those who speak loudest and most eloquently are not always those who should be listened to. In fact, for the first act of the film Rose and director Sidney Lumet seem to go out of their way to be as unbiased as possible. But as the second act begins, Rose makes the creative choice to follow Fonda’s character into the bathroom instead of staying with the majority of characters. It’s a small moment, sure, but by doing this they show their support of Fonda’s character and his point-of-view in the surroundings. “Here is your hero,” they tell the audience, as if we didn’t already know. The movie would have been much stronger without this scene and this idea of how and what to think.

Fonda soon becomes a crusader for the accused, insisting that there is reasonable doubt in the case. At first he seems completely insane, but uses both logic and emotion to win over the other jury members. There is no precise moment where Lumet shows us that the tides have turned in favor of Fonda, and because of that there is an added layer of tension in the room. Up until the final reel, Fonda’s case seems lost because the viewer feels that two jury members will never change their vote, causing a hung jury and the boy’s subsequent conviction upon retrial.

Slowly but surely, the jurors go through every single piece of evidence in the case, from the testimony of the two eye-witnesses to the knife to the L-train, and amazingly there seem to be slight holes in each bit of evidence. One by one the jury is won over and soon Fonda seems more like the voice of reason as opposed to the lone, crazed crusader.

The movie was released in 1957 and, while its handling of race relations would seem overly clumsy or heavy-handed today, it’s fascinating to view the film as a portrait of a past time’s view of other races. I mentioned earlier that the accused is Latino, but he could just as easily be any other minority in America. The jurors never say exactly what race the boy is, instead referring to him as “one of them.” And it’s surprising to see how much racism several of the jurors get away with by saying it in passing.

12 angry men 3For most of the movie, Lumet is wonderfully understated in his visual style. Watching the film again, I was struck by how long several of the takes are. These are not showy, Hitchcockian long takes, but simply shots that focus on one or two characters as they try (and often fail) to communicate with one another. Lumet does go out of his way to show off once, though, and it’s a great moment. As one of the jurors begins a horrendous, racist rant against the accused and all of “his kind”, the camera slowly pulls back from the table to the corner of the room, supporting the viewer’s desire to remove himself from the scene. Then, one by one, the other jury members stand and turn away from the racist juror, mimicking the move of the camera.

The acting is wholly superb. Next to Fonda, many of the faces are familiar from episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and other B-films from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of the cast underplays their parts, and as a result their work is much more impactful than if they would have shot for the rafters. Look in particular at the work of Jack Klugman as the juror with a past in the slums and E.G. Marshall, who quietly continues to insist that logic must be supported in all aspects of the case and eventually becomes the most even-minded person in the room.

Despite all this, the movie does not convince me that the jurors came to the right decision. The climax of the film shows the lone hold-out babbling against the kid, listing desperately all of the evidence that seemed so damning earlier in the day. He finally stops and admits that he will change his vote…but his speech oddly convinced me that he might have been right. Sure, the jurors managed to poke minute holes into every major piece of evidence against the accused, but the chances of every single bit of that happening is impossible.

I’d buy that the boy lost the knife he bought and that he forgot the films he was watching because he was too emotional over the death of his father. I’d buy that the woman lying in bed across the street didn’t get her glasses on in time. I’d buy that the man didn’t get to the door in time to see the boy running down the stairs. I’d buy that he didn’t quite hear the boy’s voice threatening his father. I’d buy that you can find multiple examples of a knife in any given neighborhood. But all of those things together? I don’t think so.

Ah well, it’s nicer to imagine that the men came to the right decision. That their walk down the court steps and into the wet but cool evening was more triumph than tragedy.

And maybe I’m just cynical.

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

Bringing Up Baby

bringing up baby 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 88

Release: Feb 16,1938

Writer: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde

Director: Howard Hawks

Star: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

“Bringing Up Baby” is one of those great, one-of-a-kind movies that captures comedy lightning in a bottle in every sense. If I had to brand it, I would say it’s a “Screwball Comedy,” but it’s so much more realistic than the Marx Brothers comedies. And yet I can’t class it with the more sophisticated comedies George Cukor directed…its tone is somewhere in the middle. It makes logical sense on its own terms, but those terms aren’t anywhere near reality. Its brand of humor is certainly polarizing—but I personally consider it the best comedy I’ve ever seen.

To describe the plot would be madness. It involves a one-million dollar grant David (Cary Grant) wishes to receive for his museum, and how his chance meeting with the eccentric Susan (Katherine Hepburn) keeps muddying those prospects. It also involves a Brontosaurus’ intercostal clavicle, two leopards, mistaken identity, a dandy trick with making olives disappear and numerous recitations of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

bringing up baby 2All through the film Grant and Hepburn circle one another in an odd dance, delivering some of the best dialogue ever committed to film at a rapid fire pace that brings lingering laugh after lingering laugh. Alone, David is a wet blanket of a character under the domineering thumb of his fiancé. And when Susan is by herself, her babblings seem more insane than anything else. But when the two meet, the chemistry is palpable. As great as the direction and script are, if Grant and Hepburn did not immediately come across as two people so frustrated with one another they cannot see that they are meant to be together, then the movie would have imploded. The movie is funny, but it is also a romance where the viewer grows to care deeply about over as the film develops, and the moment Susan realizes she’s head over heels for David is one of those pitch-perfect moments in all of cinema.

Grant’s performance at first seems to be a variation on the one he gave in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” where he slowly went cuckoo after realizing his dear old aunts were killing people, but he does it with such gusto that he gets away with it. But even as I write that I remember, despite what was going on in that film, that Grant remained very romantic with his leading lady, especially at the beginning. Here he seems to have dropped every ounce of sexual charisma he usually brings to his romantic comedies, plasters on a pair of glasses and acts completely dorky and asexual until the final scene.

Hepburn is harder to define—looking at the film the wrong way, her character can be grating and her performance even moreso—but I cannot help but fall in love with her. Susan has such a gusto for life, and in the second act when she does everything possible to help David because she loves him (of course everything keeps getting more and more screwed up) and you really love her for it.

bringing up baby 3Something about the way they interact with one another just…works. Simple as that. It would be easy to overanalyze their scenes together and talk about tiny beats and small moments, but why? When magic like this happens, you shouldn’t question it. I’d rank Susan and David’s chemistry here as second only to my beloved Nick and Nora in the “Thin Man” movies, and that isn’t fair since those two have six movies to impress with.

The entire film has this timeless quality to it that many of the screwball comedies of the late thirties and forties just don’t have. Portions of “The Philadelphia Story” have aged horribly, and movies like “His Girl Friday,” “Topper” and “Libeled Lady” are still funny and great films, but it helps when they are taken within context of when they were made. “Bringing Up Baby” seems taken out of time entirely…probably because the movie deals with reality on its own terms. If you can buy that there can be such a thing as a domesticated leopard named “Baby” in New England that makes friends with a terrier and will only be calm when sung to, then this is the movie for you. If not…well…there’s just no talking to you.

I’d say that the movie seems cartoonish in places (and I mean that as a compliment), but whenever it gets too loopy for its own good, Hepburn and Grant’s chemistry grounds it. The dialogue is so fast-paced, so quippy and so witty it would be an injustice to reproduce it here. It’s all about the delivery and the way it informs David and Susan as characters. Needless to say, the script juggles at least a dozen balls with ease, complicating things wonderfully and wrapping things up even better.

This is Howard Hawks’ only film on the AFI Top 100, and that’s a huge injustice to one of the best, most versatile directors of his or any time. How is it possible that “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” did not make the list? Or “His Girl Friday”? There are other classics, such as the original “Scarface,” “The Big Sleep,” “Rio Bravo” and the original “The Thing.” The connective thread of his best work is a complete devotion to getting his characters just right before having fun with the concepts and premises.

And if he hadn’t done that here, “Bringing Up Baby” would have been disastrous. But he did. I can’t help but watch the final scene of the film, where Susan teeters back and forth on a high ladder in glee after finding out David loves her, with a huge grin on my face. Like the earlier scene where she realizes she loves him, here is another “just perfect” moment in cinema. I believe in them as a couple, crazy as they may be and crazy as the circumstances they encounter are.

When I was writing my first book, I couldn’t help but give this movie several shout-outs. When I’m in a bad mood, this is the movie I turn to. “Bringing Up Baby” makes me completely, utterly, irrevocably…happy. Simple as that. And what more can you possibly ask for? Taken on those terms alone, it’s perfect.

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

The Sixth Sense

sixthAFI Top 100 Ranking: 89

Release: August 6, 1999

Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Star: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto

Music: James Newton Howard

Company: Buena Vista Pictures

Oh, what I would give to go back and watch “The Sixth Sense” for the first time again. I can only imagine the astonishment of a viewer discovering the film, knowing absolutely nothing about the premise or the now-infamous twist. I went to the movie opening weekend and can still remember the gasps and “Holy Shits” being screamed in the theatre during the closing minutes of the movie – some of them coming from me.

Reexamining the film today, it’s shocking to see how little the twist actually matters to the story itself. If the movie would have faded to black after Haley Joel Osment’s character Cole confesses to his mother (Toni Collette) that he can see dead people and has a message for her from her own mother, “The Sixth Sense” would still be one of the best thrillers of all time. But those final moments make the movie transcendent.

sixth 2Setting the twist aside, the movie works beautifully as both a drama and a supernatural thriller, and of course those two components are closely connected. Hell, we don’t know ghosts are involved until 45 minutes into the film. Until then, Shyamalan takes great pain to create a complete world for Osment and Collette to inhabit and, just as interestingly, a void of a world for Bruce Willis’ child therapist Malcolm. Shyamalan paints in all the edges. At first, Osment just seems like an odd, troubled child, and (almost) everything supernatural that happens around him could easily be explained away. Everything except several passages of Latin that he has memorized and that he somehow knows that his teacher was tortured for his stutter in his youth.

Even more important than Cole’s relationship to Malcolm is Cole’s relationship with his mother Lynn. There’s a moment early in the movie that tells us everything about those characters and how they relate to one another. Cole walks in from school, and Lynn kneels in front of him, smiles and tells him how she won the lottery, quit her jobs (yes, plural) and swam in the fountain. Cole grins and tells his mother how he was picked first for kickball, made the winning play and was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates. Both are lying, of course, but something about the lies gives both characters the strength to go on. There’s a moment later in the movie, just as beautiful, when Lynn races across the parking lot of a local Acme while pushing her son, who puts his hands up as if he on a rollercoaster. Both of their lives are trainwrecks, but they will always be there for one another, and that element informs everything Cole does in the movie.

When the supernatural is finally introduced after a shattering, now much-parodied, scene of Osment admitting that he sees dead people, the movie doesn’t change its tone or pacing. Yes, we can now see the ghosts Osment has been speaking of, but we are more interested in how Willis’ character can help Osment with his gift/curse. Shyamalan uses the ghosts as a nice way to keep viewers alert with several nice boo-scares, though. My favorite is when Osment is in a hallway and, out of nowhere, a teenage boy walks through the end of the hallway into the library. It’s a scare he would closely repeat in “Signs,” but works better here. There is gore, but it’s never gratuitous. In fact, the most stomach-churning moment doesn’t even involve ghosts, but when we watch a video tape of a Mother poisoning her daughter’s soup with Pine-Sol.

The scenes between Willis and his wife are the only time the film cracks a bit. Once you know Willis is dead and haunting his wife (Olivia Williams), you can’t help but pay attention to everything in the scene except Willis and how he interacts with his environment. Even though I have seem the movie several times before and know that it doesn’t cheat, that didn’t stop me from missing whole passages of dialogue because I was seeing whether or not Bruce Willis moved a chair when he sat down. Shyamalan goes to such great lengths to make it flawless that he inserts off-screen giggling behind Willis on the soundtrack in the half-second Williams (probably accidentally) looks at her husband in a crowded restaurant.

That can’t be helped. Shyamalan’s script is razor sharp throughout, ensuring that we understand that Cole is a gifted child who is much smarter than older children his age, but never letting us forget that he is, in fact, a kid. This is underlined in a scene where Willis loses his senses for a moment in front of Osment, and Osment responds by saying “You said the ‘s’ word.” Looking at it as a whole, and seeing just how much trouble Shyamalan went through not only to hide his secrets but also make it seem like he had no secrets to hide, and you have something very special. Shyamalan always seems to write best when he focuses on smaller casts. Between this film, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” he has made three masterpieces, and all of them have very small casts, and his recent back-to-basics work with the excellent “The Visit” and “Split” support this.

As a visual director, Shyamalan is unmatched. He keeps showing us unexpected angles and new ways to approach even the most normal scene. “The Sixth Sense” looks and feels like one of producer Val Lewton’s best horror efforts from the ‘40s, with a sense of tension palpable throughout and the more chilling sights just out of view. Sure, he uses red a little (okay, a lot) too much in the film for added impact, but that is forgivable.

sixth 3The acting throughout is nothing short of amazing. Osment’s face seems to hold all the pain of a man three times his age, and Willis is one of those actors who can hold his own with a child actor. Collette was the standout for me here. I remember the other two performances as being great, but Collette manages to create a fully-understandable, completely relatable three-dimensional character in (comparatively) little screen time.

And then there’s that ending. As I said earlier, the film would still be a classic without the twist, but the dimension that it adds to what we’ve seen before is palpable. Did Cole know that Malcolm was a ghost? If so, why did he talk to him? Does that matter? And Shyamalan takes his time after the revelation to give not only Malcolm the peace the character deserves, but also his long-suffering wife. After “The Sixth Sense,” almost every thriller or supernatural drama has had some sort of surprise, some to great effect (“The Others”, Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”) and others notsomuch (everything else). “The Sixth Sense” is still the best of the bunch and remains one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, mostly because it knows that the best way to take our breath away is make us care about the characters we are about to see go through hell.

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

Swing Time

swing time 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 90

Release: September 4, 1936

Writer: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott (adaptation), Erwin Gelsey (story)

Director: George Stevens

Star: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore

Cinematography: David Abel

Music: Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields

Ugh, why can’t they just shut up and dance?

“Swing Time” is preposterous, stupid, at times unwatchable…and yet its dance numbers are some kind of perfect. Though they look effortless, I’m sure endless hours were spent creating these three-and-four minute magical sequences. If only a fraction of that time had been spent on the screenplay…

The plot…well…I think I understood a little bit of it. Fred Astaire portrays a gambler/dancer named Lucky, who misses out on his wedding because his brothers convince him his pants aren’t up to snuff (seriously). His fiancé tells him that she won’t marry him unless he goes to New York City and make $30,000 (seriously), so Lucky goes and meets Penny (Ginger Rogers). From there things get muddy.

swing time 2The characters change their motivations and come to decisions that make The Idiot Plot from romantic comedies seem inspired. The Lucky character is originally portrayed as a gullible pushover in the first two reels, but is suddenly ballsy enough to begin betting big bucks and telling off the wrong people once he gets to New York. He also basically destroys Penny’s life a piece at a time for a half hour after he meets her, and then suddenly we are supposed to believe they are a dancing team? I’d say looking anywhere below the surface would reveal huge plot holes, but they are often right there onscreen.

Penny and Lucky’s romance is one of the most convoluted in any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. He’s engaged to another woman but apparently can’t simply cut it off even though he’s falling in love with Penny, but then again she doesn’t seem to like him at all, except for the fact that she lets him follow her around everywhere. I finally threw up my hands and gave up trying to keep track during a beautifully shot sequence in the woods just north of the City, where Astaire and his father (Victor Moore) talk about the plot. The father doesn’t want Lucky gambling because he might win the $30,000 (because the fiancé will figure that out by telepathy, apparently) and he wants Lucky to stay with Penny, but then Lucky pleads with his Father to not let him get near Penny. I don’t know why, either. The father seems to be rooting for them to get together, but later, when they are about to kiss, throws a snowball at them to stop them. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. Oh, and in the background of all this Penny has another handsome suitor (who’s a nice guy to boot) champing at the bit to marry her.

If none of that made sense, it’s because of the plot, not my writing.

If the romance doesn’t make sense, then plot mechanics make even less. Lucky has a phenomenal dance number on the “reopening” night of a popular nightclub, but later when he and Penny lose control of the orchestra (seriously) they throw their hands up that they are finished, apparently forgetting that the audience would surely clamor for more of their dancing after seeing Lucky’s first performance that night, and then it would be quite simple to find another place to dance in. They are, after all, in New York City. By the final scene, the writers seem to give up entirely and just have the characters all simultaneously cackle until the movie fades to black.

Sections like those are nearly unwatchable, filmed with tepid dialogue in boring medium shots with actors apparently unaware of what the word “subtlety” means (Astaire’s shocked face is so overdone it might as well have come from a silent film).

Ah, but when “Swing Time” lets its characters sing and dance, everything else falls away. There’s more emotion in half a minute of Astaire and Rogers dancing than all the excess trash surrounding it. There are rarely cuts during the musical numbers, and the film is all the better for it, because it gives the scenes a grandeur and reality missing from the rest of the movie. Their final dance number, “Never Gonna Dance” is breathtaking. Here we can see the pain they feel at their imminent separation and the idea that they may never be able to dance with one another again. It’s as sensual as if they were making love to one another.

swing time 3Astaire has a “solo” number, “Bojangles of Harlem” (in unfortunate blackface) that is filled with the kind of creativity and high energy modern musicals have long forgotten. At one point he’s leading a line of twenty dancers in what appears to be a waltz effortlessly. Later in the number, he dances before three of his shadows, perfectly in sync at first until the real Astaire begins to out-dance the shadows. Moments like that can leave you cheering.

If not for the dancing, “Swing Time” would have been long forgotten. Sure, there are a few things about the film outside the dance that are passable, but those are details, not the meat and bones. The aforementioned scene in the snow is kind of wonderful to look at, and makes me wish more romantic comedies filmed in the snow. The club has some great set design going for it, with a staircase that goes on for an eternity and a floor finished with a great painting of the city. Its tables all appear to use cling wrap as tablecloths, but the less said about that the better.

The director, George Stevens, gives the musical numbers a lush, full quality missing from everywhere else. Stevens is a great actor’s director (he had recently directed “Alice Adams,” which is quite possibly Katherine Hepburn’s best performance in a career of best performances), so it’s shocking to see the abysmal acting moments coming from almost the entire cast. The exception is Rogers, who never quite gets bogged down in her character’s stupidity and remains elegant and appealing throughout. I just don’t understand why Stevens couldn’t have taken the time the actors needed to create interesting characters, or why he didn’t insist on a comprehensible, witty script instead of the dreadful thing he shot.

My Score (out of five): **