The Shawshank Redemption

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 72

Release: September 23, 1994

Writer: Frank Darabont (adaptation), Stephen King (novella)

Director: Frank Darabont

Star: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton

Music: Thomas Newman

Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Company: Columbia Pictures

Movies concerning slight-of-hand and tricking the audience, as a rule, keep the audience at arm’s length emotionally because we expect the reversals. We know there will be double crosses. We’re looking for clues that set up that seeming out-of-nowhere twist. One of the many special things about “The Shawshank Redemption” is that you don’t expect the revelations of the final act, and instead of contradicting emotions set up previously, it only serves to deepen our existing emotions regarding the main characters.

Those main characters are Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins). They meet in Shawshank Prison after Andy has been sentenced to two life terms for the murder of his wife and her lover. Red is in prison for murder as well, a murder he freely admits to having committed. Andy, on the other hand, quietly insists that he is innocent, a statement laughed at by the been-there-heard-that inmates at the prison. Over the course of several decades, Andy and Red develop as close a friendship as two people could.

Though Andy is the one who ultimately does all the magical hoo-ha at the end, it is Red who narrates the story, as it should be. It’s Red’s story. The “Redemption” of the title isn’t Andy’s, after all, it’s Red’s. The film purposely keeps Andy at arm’s length throughout the film, and Robbins’ understated performance underlines this. We feel as if we know Andy is a good man, but he’s still an enigma we can’t quite get a grasp upon. Red spends the entire movie, even after they become close, trying to understand who his friend is, and through this narration we come to understand so much about Red as a person.

Darabont, working from a novella written by Stephen King, takes his time setting up the world and these characters as three-dimensional beings trapped in what at first appears to be a limbo state. This goes for the prison guards and administrators as well. They might not physically be behind those cell doors, but they spend their days trapped in the same hellhole the men are. Darabont uses the small character moments to surprise us. Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) is horrendously abusive and a bad, bad man, but he still allows the men time to enjoy their beer on the roof. Heywood (William Sadler) would be the prison idiot in any other film, but here he develops a personality and a set of morals. He might be slow, but he still does what he thinks is right. Even though the movie is almost two-and-a-half hours in length, it doesn’t feel long, because these small reversals in scenes surprise us and hold our interest throughout.

Because the characters are well-written, and because the acting throughout is spot-on, we don’t notice all of the small clues and tiny bits of information Darabont is feeding us. The most explicit the screenplay gets in playing its hand is when Andy has a long moment with Red explaining how he’s created an alternate person out of thin air to keep the Warden’s (Bob Gunton) illegally obtained money safe. I’ve seen the movie several times and there are still small details and the briefest of exchanges I pick up on here and there that underline just how brilliantly Darabont structured his screenplay.

It’s not that the pay-off was so ingenious and so well set-up throughout the first two acts, though. It’s also that it represents everything the movie has been building toward and feels like an honest extension of the plot and characters we’ve come to regard as people. The rarest of motion pictures (the underrated “Thomas Crown Affair” remake) can pull that off and get away with it.

In addition to Robbins’ terrific, understated performance, I was surprised to see just how subtle Freeman is here. He doesn’t play Red as an angry man who hates himself for what he did, which would have been the obvious way to do it. His Red is more torn down and acquiescent, not at peace with his actions but at peace with the fact that he’s going to pay for it with for most of his life.

Behind the camera, Darabont’s work is tremendous. Everyone remembers the two shots that set up the prison: the first is from a helicopter and follows Andy’s bus toward the building before swooping around the imposing structure to follow the inmates walking across the yard toward the approaching vehicle. The second stares up the endless walls of the prison just before Andy walks in. But there is so much more. Darabont and his editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, allow the scenes to breath and the pace to remain steady throughout, even when it would be so simple to use quick-cutting.

Quibbles? A few small ones. The prologue showing Andy before his wife is murdered is needless, and since we can instinctually tell from early on that he’s innocent, why doesn’t Darabont actually show this in the prologue? There are other small point-of-view problems where we switch to Andy. Most of the time it’s fine because we imagine this is Red’s interpretation of certain moments and scenes that he assumes happened or was told to him, but in others there is no way Red would know. Oh, and it was pretty damn lucky that Andy got the cell on the end of the row, no? But again, these are quibbles.

It’s really a wonder this movie got made. Darabont was a first time director whose biggest credit was writing “The Blob” remake (which is really awesome, by the way). As far as I can tell, there’s three women in the entire film who are onscreen for about twenty seconds total. It’s two-and-a-half hours long. Freeman and Robbins weren’t marquee names. It’s a prison movie. The title is “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s meditative. There are no action scenes. And even though it’s based on a Stephen King story, it’s not scary enough to be marketed as a “Stephen King Movie.”

Thank God it did, though. “The Shawshank Redemption” works on a human level first and foremost, but it’s also one of the smartest and well-constructed films ever made. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully directed and perfectly acted. That’s the trifecta.

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


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 73

Release: October 24, 1969

Writer: William Goldman

Director: George Roy Hill

Star: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

Music: Burt Bacharach

Cinematography: Conrad Hall

Company: 20th Century Fox

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a fun buddy comedy that succeeds mostly because of the talent and chemistry of its two leads. For a film about two outlaws who are destined for death, it’s very pleasant. This is a good movie, but since it’s on the AFI Top 100, I was expecting something…more.

The two titles characters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) are bank and train robbers extraordinaire. Butch is great with the quips and Sundance lets his crackerjack pistol aim speak for itself. They are both sorta kinda in love with the same dame, a schoolteacher named Etta (Katherine Ross).

The screenwriter, William Goldman, does a great job at setting up the characters quickly and with humor. Sundance is set up when a cocksure poker player immediately cowers upon hearing who he’s playing against, and we learn everything we need to know about Butch in how he takes down a mutiny within his own group of thieves.

Both seem attracted to Etta, but in different ways. Sundance is the one who is in a “relationship” with her, and it’s all about the sex and physical attraction. But the next morning she goes to Butch, and they play around together like little children. The two men joke around about who really loves her, but this is never brought to a head. In the end, Etta removes herself from the situation—which is just fine since this is a “love story” about the two men. And no, I’m not going to describe it by using the word “bromance,” because that word makes me want to die inside.

This type of buddy comedy needs a really good, engaging villain to make it pop, and there’s none here. One day, while robbing a train (in an inspired bit, they find themselves dealing with the same banker they almost blew up earlier in the film, who ends up apologizing to them for reinforcing his safe), a posse of men arrives and begins chasing them. They never stop. We are told who some of the men in the posse may or may not be, but we don’t meet them and they never share any lines or significant moments with our leads.

Now, let me make myself clear, this is a fantastic idea for a villain and a great way to build consistent suspense and a sense of impending doom. In a straight drama. But this is a comedy, and the long sequences of the group following Butch and Sundance no matter what they do to make them lose the trail simply doesn’t create suspense, no matter how well shot or atmospheric they are. They seem like scenes from another film, and the entire tone of the project shifts until the boys bicker about jumping off a cliff together into the rapids below.

After that close call, they decide to go to Bolivia (with Etta in tow), and then there’s a very odd, out-of-place “montage” of photographs showing the threesome leaving the Wild West and heading to New York before moving south of the border. It feels like the montage of photographs goes on forever, though in reality it must be under two minutes. But still, two minutes of photographs? Really? I would have much rather watched a two-minute scene of Butch, Sundance and Etta completely out of place in NYC or, especially, at the amusement park on Coney Island having fun with one another. Was this done to save money? I would tend to think so normally, but this was a Paul Newman movie made at the peak of his stardom, so I doubt it.

Once they get to Bolivia, there are a lot of fun little scenes, most of them of Sundance complaining about the country. Butch tries to convince him that all of Bolivia can’t be like the run-down pit they first arrive at, and Sundance’s response is great: “How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot that we’re standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know.”

The film’s ending also seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Yes, Etta had mentioned something about them being doomed to die, but the climactic gun battle seems like something out of an earlier script draft before all the wise cracks and quips had been plugged in. It’s all very “the last five minutes of ‘Thelma and Louise.’” But at least Goldman and director George Roy Hill had the good sense to freeze frame on the two guys going off into battle one final time instead of going all “Bonnie and Clyde” on us, which would have really left a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.

I’m not a big fan of movies that pretend to be light and fun and then switch gears to become deep and tragic just to seem more meaningful than they are (I’m looking at you, “Moulin Rouge!”, with that exclamation point in your title and most depressing final act ever). The smarter thing to do would be to find a way to wrap your message into the fabric of the film without altering the tone completely. I’m not against killing off the two main characters at the end of a movie, but if Goldman and Hill were planning on it, they should have created a movie that better suited the ending.

Despite this, the movie still works, and that is because of Newman and Redford’s wonderful performances. No matter how much the tone of the piece changes, they keep the boat steady by making us believe in their friendship. Their personalities really do compliment one another well and there’s a fantastic give and take in their work together. This creative team really could have made a masterpiece together. Oh wait, they did. It’s called “The Sting.”

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

The Silence of the Lambs

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 74

Release: February 14, 1991
Writer: Ted Tally
Director: Jonathan Demme
Star: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine

Composer: Howard Shore

Cinematographer: Tak Tujimoto

Company: Orion Pictures

Clarice Starling’s quest to become an FBI agent and do good seems futile from the opening frames of “Silence of the Lambs.” The other agents-in-training tower over her and judge her with every lingering glance. Her hillbilly accent gives her speech much less authority than it should. Most importantly, the world around her seems to have rotted and spoiled from its core.

Yes, this is a horror movie, but the viewer would still expect certain scenes to be filmed with warmth or beauty, if only to counterbalance the darkness. Not here. The forest Starling (Jodie Foster) trains in as the film opens is gray, wet and ominous. The river agents fly over to investigate a corpse is brown with waste. Even the main titles are black and ugly. Every location these characters encounter seems devoid of anything alive or worth saving. As if dead forests and deteriorating buildings on the surface of the Earth weren’t enough, the monsters that inhabit the film live beneath that surface in isolated, cold caverns.

The film has two such monsters. The first we meet is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling is sent by the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to get Lecter to fill out useless profile forms. To get to Lecter’s cell, Starling descends flight after flight of stairs, then is escorted through a seemingly endless collection of barred doors and safety locks. When she finally gets to Lecter’s beyond-maximum security hallway, we notice that the other inmates are kept behind bars while Lecter is held behind Plexiglas. Holy crap.

The second is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). He seems to live in an unimpressive middle-class home, but underneath is a cavern that seems to reach endlessly out under the earth. He keeps his live victims at the bottom of a dry well and, a few rooms over, sews his dead victim’s skin into a sickening coat of flesh.

The hunt for Bill drives the story but Lecter is the one who lingers most in our minds. His speech is mannered and his persona is by turns cold and inviting. He’s an enigma, and in that way he interests us in the same way he is interested in Starling. Of course the real reason we grow to “enjoy” Lecter is because he is sympathetic to Starling. On the whole, he’s kind to her in a world of men who dismiss her, perhaps because she doesn’t cave in the same way so many others would when he calls her a generation away from white trash. Hopkins is perfect in the role and makes the delicate balance between gentleman and monster seem easy. After one of the other inmates throws semen on Starling, Lecter whispers to him until he goes mad(der) and swallows his own tongue. He’s not flirting with her in any sense of the word, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Lecter is male and Starling is female. The moment their fingers touch, albeit only for a second, is electrifying.

That Starling can hold her own with him is a testament to her character. Foster delicately balances Starling’s innocence with her inherent strength. After all, she’s only in training at the FBI, and writer Ted Tally shows that, though very smart, she isn’t a prodigy in her department. Tally and director Jonathan Demme get a lot of mileage out of a small moment in her training where she runs into a room and is about to cuff a faux-suspect but forgets to check behind the door she entered through first. During the final moments of the film, as she is desperately checking through the rooms of Bill’s underground lair, the audience is screaming for her to check behind the damn doors every time she enters a new level of hell.

Demme makes a very ballsy move by shooting the movie head-on. When Crawford is first introduced, he stares directly at the camera to read his lines. When Lecter asks to see Starling’s credentials he is staring through the glass directly at us (“Closer, please. Closer.”). We see the group of local police men staring at us as Starling tries to get them to leave the room. It’s unnerving, but hugely successful. We immediately feel for Starling, understand what she’s gone through her entire life and feel added suspense as she stares down these monsters. If the Crawford character did not look at the camera head-on, we would perhaps think much differently of the subplot where we wonder just what he wants with Starling. Is he aroused by her or does he see her as an equal? Glenn plays the beats of the character just right, and the ambiguity of their parting handshake speaks volumes as a result.

The movie makes another ballsy move in abandoning Starling for fifteen minutes during the second act, but here I’m more torn about its success. Tally and Demme instead follow a bunch of nameless officers after Lecter has escaped from his cell. The scene is well shot and the thrills are well choreographed, but since we care nothing about any of these characters it doesn’t resonate emotionally with the viewer. The pay-off of Lecter pulling off a mask of skin in the ambulance, almost makes it worth it. Almost.

Above all else, “Silence of the Lambs” is scary. I’ve focused almost exclusively on the characters and world, but the point of a horror movie is to scare the viewer, and this one does its job brilliantly. When Starling is in the Bill’s basement at the climax of the movie it only takes up about seven minutes of screen time, but after multiple viewings it still feels like a horrifying, suspenseful eternity. I always see the movie referred to as a “thriller,” perhaps because it sounds classier than “horror movie” and movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture should seem classy, but make no mistakes, this is a horror movie. To call it anything else demeans the rest of the genre, which is just as visceral and important as every other film genre. There is a notable lack of horror movies on the AFI Top 100 list (“The Sixth Sense,” “Jaws” and “Psycho” are the only others) and this is a horrible oversight that, frankly, angers me. When AFI created Top 10 lists for all of the major genres, “Horror” was not one of them. You always hear that the best horror and science fiction movies “transcend” their genre, as if there is some shame in those genres. Movies like “The Exorcist,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Shining,” “The Uninvited,” “Halloween” and “Rosemary’s Baby” have just as much artistic merit as any movie on this list, and to pretend they do not because they involve “cheap scares” is laughable.

The “cheap scares” in “Silence of the Lambs” are well earned and beautifully executed. They impact us because we care so much about Starling. They linger with us because they tap into those moments where we are by ourselves, on edge, and can’t figure out why. Who hasn’t been alone in the dark and felt like there was someone else there, watching us?

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

In the Heat of the Night

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 75

Release: August 2, 1967

Writer: Stirling Silliphant

Director: Norman Jewison

Star: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant

Music: Quincy Jones

Cinematography: Haskell Wexler

Company: United Artists

It’s not just that Virgil Tibbs is a black man. It’s that he’s a black man who represents sanity and logic in a small Southern town full of emotion and anger. The world seems to have passed right by Sparta, Mississippi without taking much notice, and its citizens are trying to convince themselves they aren’t angry about it. But, of course, they are.

While “In the Heat of the Night” goes through the motions of being a mystery, it’s not. There is no possible way a viewer can collect clues and deduce the real killer’s identity, no matter how many Agatha Christie novels he or she has read. It’s a character drama pitting two opposite character types against one another before having them team up for the greater good. Taken on those terms alone, the film is fairly successful, but falls short of true excellence simply because the Tibbs character is so much more interesting than the Sheriff he butts heads with.

Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested for murder near the beginning of the film partially because he is a stranger to Sparta but mostly because he’s a black man. From the moment he is introduced to the town’s Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger), we know that this isn’t going to be a fair fight. Sure, Tibbs is well-dressed in a suit while Gillespie is sweating through his tight police uniform, but it’s about so much more than that.

The writer, Stirling Silliphant, stacks the odds against Gillespie by making him so wrong-headed about every single thing he does during the first half of the movie. For a man with so much experience as a police officer, Gillespie seems to overlook every logical question one would ask about the murder. I know nothing about murder or investigating them (or at least that’s what I want you to think), but even I would know to check the wound to see if the killer was left or right handed. But no, for most of the movie Gillespie and his troupe of Andy Griffith-wannabe deputies are so overcome by racism that they can do nothing else but make idiotic decisions and then argue with the (obviously right) black man about everything that comes out of his mouth. In a horribly sloppy move, Gillespie’s character is denied any sort of character development until after he realizes Tibbs might know what he is talking about. All we know about him is that he can’t seem to stop chewing gum in the most annoying way possible at all times. Because of this, we have no reason to invest in the character until it’s too late.

Then again, even if Silliphant would have gone out of his way to weave a three-dimensional character for Steiger to inhabit, Gillespie would still be blown out of the water by his rival. Tibbs is just too strong of a character and Poitier is just too charismatic of an actor for anyone else to successfully steal the screen from him. He’s the rarest of actors, like Ian McShane or Laurence Fishburne, whose presence is so strong that viewers have a hard time looking away from him onscreen, no matter what is happening in a given scene.

Jewison inherently understands this and often just keeps his camera on Poitier no matter what is going on. Look at the moment where Poitier must inform the dead man’s widow (Lee Grant) that her husband has been murdered. Instead of cutting to Grant’s face as she gets the news, Jewison just stays on Poitier until the very end of the scene, finally lingering on Grant now that Poitier has left the room.

Jewison’s camera moves quite a bit in the movie, giving viewers long takes that move back and forth to whatever is most interesting. My favorite shot in the movie is a long take that follows Tibb’s hands as they explore a dead body, twisting muscles and exploring skin color as Tibbs tries to make sense of the death. His lack of editing also allows for some wonderful surprises. For instance, in the scene where a white man slaps Tibbs only to immediately be slapped back, the viewer would expect several cross-cuts to close-ups and medium shots for added impact. Instead, Jewison just holds the camera on the men, making Tibbs’ retaliation against the slap much more startling.

From the moment we discover Tibbs in a train station, we know where the story is heading. He will face a lot of racism and opposition from the sheriff and the rest of the town but his logic and insistence on the truth will finally win Gillespie over, allowing them to team up to catch the real killer. The story doesn’t veer at all from the team-up routine, so I began to focus more attention on the murder mystery. The investigation in kind doesn’t start until about an hour into the movie, and even then there are a bunch of sloppy inconsistencies. The police catch a suspect after a harrowing chase through the forest and banks of a river, and we can plainly see the suspect getting his hands in mud and dirt. But moments later when Tibbs checks under his fingernails all he finds is chalk. Huh, that’s odd.

Other details, mostly involving Tibbs and Gillespie, the movie gets just right. It’s fantastic to see the building fury on Gillespie’s face when he first realizes that Tibbs makes more money in a week than the sheriff makes in a month, and then he finds out that Tibbs is a police officer. Or when the men drive through a cotton field and you can see Gillespie relishing the opportunity to make a crack about slavery and trying to decide what the perfect words would be to make the most impact. Then there are weird beats, as when the title song randomly plays over the men’s drive through that cotton field despite it not being at night nor seeming too hot.

The movie does get much stronger once Gillespie develops a personality other than “I’m a racist and I hate you.” The quiet interaction between Steiger and Poitier in Gillespie’s home is a master course in understated acting, and their parting scene at the train station is more emotional than the movie deserves thanks to the fine acting. You have to wonder just how amazing the entire film would have been if the character tension and interplay from the final third of the movie was present throughout.

My Score (out of 5): ***

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): ****

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 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): ***