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): **

Sophie’s Choice

sophie 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 91

Release: December 8, 1982

Writer: Alan J. Pakula (adaptation), William Styron (novel)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Star: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Studio: Universal Pictures

Cinematography: Nestor Almendros

Music: Marvin Hamlisch

With apologies to the other depressing films on the AFI Top 100, “Sophie’s Choice” is by far the most miserable and bleak. It tells a sad, sad story in just about the saddest way possible. There’s no hint of redemption or hope to be found anywhere—the filmmakers make sure of this. I’m pretty sure that’s what they were going for, so on those terms the film is a success, but really, the only reason to sit through these two-and-a-half hours is Meryl Streep. Her iconic performance makes the movie necessary viewing, though I doubt many would want to sit through it twice.

The film opens as an idealistic young Southern writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) arrives in Brooklyn looking to write the great American novel. He moves into a pink house and becomes fast friends with his upstairs neighbors Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Streep). They seem very much in love, but their relationship is bittered by Nathan’s frequent outbursts and abusive behavior. Stingo immediately becomes enamored with Sophie, a Polish immigrant who lost both of her children in German concentration camps during World War II. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed from both of his friends’ lives, and then everything gets very heightened and tragic.

sophie 2Just who is Stingo? I kept going back to that question repeatedly throughout the film. It’s not that MacNicol gives a bad performance (he is, after all, a very good actor), it’s that the character is written so blandly that we get no insight into who he is. He witnesses conversations between Nathan and Sophie instead of involving himself in the conversation. He’s told horrifyingly tragic things, and yet we never see him react in any way other than widening his eyes. I would have loved to hear his opinion about everything that is going on, especially since screenwriter Alan J. Pakula (also the director) provides us with voiceover from Stingo. We never even get an idea of what his novel is about, other than that it concerns “the South” (that narrows it down). Since he’s the character we first see and it’s his voice narrating the story, one would assume that the film is “about” his journey. Nope. I understand that, in theory, his arc is that he begins with naïve aspirations and becomes slowly jaded by the sad realities around him, but I don’t see that anywhere. Hell, as the film ends, he sees his two best friends (one of them his first lover) dead in an embrace after committing mutual suicide, and he can’t even articulate a thought—he has to read it from a book of poetry.

The film is based on a novel, unread by me, which is heralded as a masterpiece by many. I’m guessing Stingo is the narrator there as well, and this could be the inherent problem. Look at classics like Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” or Berendt’s nonfiction piece “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Because they are ciphers who record the movements of more memorable characters and situations, the characters of Nick and John work on the page. But the film versions? The characters are ultimately unnecessary and snooze-worthy because film doesn’t need that extra translator. That is true here as well.

But then there’s Meryl.

sophie 3Pakula seems perfectly happy to do what so many directors have done since this film. He sets the camera up with a slow zoom-in and then jumps out of the way to let her do her thing. Streep is phenomenal, putting so many just-right details into the character and giving Sophie all the layers of complexity the character deserves. She is so good that she manages to land jokes about her character’s accent and shaky English that were so bad they should have never gotten into the script (example: “Is that your Cocksucker?” “I think you mean Seersucker.”). It has to be one of the most difficult characters ever put on film, and Streep simply disappears into her. It’s a “showy” performance, at least in that the character screams and cries, gets her head shaved and has to speak in several languages…but it’s the smaller beats that make you believe in her. Look at Sophie’s eyes every time Nathan walks through the door…always excited to see her love but also just a little horrified that he might be brutal to her again. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of her that the film has achieved “classic” status and is on this list.

It’s not that the rest of the film is “bad,” it’s just not on the same level as her performance (and how many other Streep vehicles could be summed up in the same way?). There are good moments throughout, as when Sophie is caught trying to steal a radio by the young daughter of a Nazi general. The girl talks about turning Sophie in, but the truth is that she just wants someone to talk to. The reveal of the house Sophie will work in while at the Concentration Camps is well-done—Pakula’s camera swoops up from the death, destruction and mud behind her, over a barbed-wire covered wall…and into the equivalent of paradise.

There’s one genuine moment of happiness, when the three friends are playing around together at Coney Island by going on rides together, and even that is undercut by voiceover reminding us that Sophie and Nathan are doomed. Ultimately, I think the sadness becomes too oppressive and I just had to stop investing myself. We get a very long flashback to Sophie’s time in the Concentration Camp, then get more abuse from Nathan, then learn Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been lying to everyone in his life for years, then Nathan threatens to kill Sophie and Stingo with a gun, then Sophie relates to us what the “choice” of the title really means, then there’s the mutual suicide…it’s as if Pakula is repeatedly punching the viewer in the face and demanding that we “cry, damn it, cry!” Somewhere in there it stopped feeling real and started feeling like manipulation, and once “Sophie’s Choice” crosses that line, everything except Streep’s performance no longer works.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Goodfellas

51rOnIjLqzLAFI Top 100 Ranking: 92

Release: September 19, 1990

Writer: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi (adaptation), Nicholas Pileggi (book)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Star: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus

For any film to be successful, it must transport the viewer into the world of the protagonist, however real or fanciful that may be. We think of this rule more for science fiction or horror films, but “Goodfellas” may just be the movie that gives its viewer the most immersive experience in film history. It’s not about the mafia, it is the mafia. Unflinchingly.

This is the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta as an adult, Christopher Serrone as a teenager), his life in the mafia and ultimate betrayal of those he once loved to spare himself. As a kid, he looked across the street at a store the mafia owned and, as soon as he can, he nabs a part-time job. One thing leads to another and, before we know it, Henry is exploding cars for his buddies and taking as much off the top as he wants. When we first see Henry as an adult, we are struck by his laugh. The only way I can describe it here is violent. That’s fitting.

goodfellas_primaryHenry describes, in voiceover, everything his does and the practices of his friends in the mafia in a straightforward way. It might be repugnant to the viewer, but to him it’s perfectly logical. We might not agree with it but, hey, if it works for him. And it does work for him for a very long while. He makes more money than one could imagine, marries a beauty (Lorraine Bracco), nabs several mistresses and treats his friends like “family,” and yes, I did mean that as a pun. Of course he’ll never really be an insider…he’ll never be “made”…because he’s only half Sicilian, but his charisma and sure business sense almost makes up for that blood shortcoming.

Life continues to get bigger and better for Henry. Sure, he goes to jail, but he’s treated like a king there and learns a new way to slice garlic that I really should try sometime. Yes, his wife holds a gun to his face because she knows he’s cheating on her, but she’s never actually going to leave him. They move into a house where everything is so expensive and over-the-top you just know it’s the ugliest place in the city. We also meet many of the people Henry works with, most notably Tommy (Joe Pesci) and James (Robert De Niro). And there’s food. Lots and lots of food. The rest of the world, meaning the large majority that has no connection to the mafia, doesn’t exist to him or his family.

Writers Martin Scorsese (also the director) and Nicholas Pileggi just dive right into the world and don’t look back. They have a lot of fun with the mythos of the mafia and what our expectations for this type of movie are. Early in the film Henry says Tommy is “funny” and Tommy goes on an almost violent tirade against him, but it was all just a gag…until Tommy does physically beat someone moments later. Tommy’s girlfriend boasts “He’s so jealous. He said if I even looked at another guy he’d kill me.” By this point the viewer is thinking “Sister, you don’t know the half of it.” One of the movie’s high points is when Henry’s wife Karen hangs out with all the other mafia wives and observes how similar they all are in their look and speech. It’s funny but, at the same time, very sad, especially since Karen becomes one of those women she mocks soon after.

hqdefaultViolence is always there in “Goodfellas.” It opens with a bloody man being stabbed savagely and shot repeatedly in a trunk, even though logic tells us that when so many gunshots are fired into the trunk of a car at least one would break through into the gas tank and explode the thing. Scorsese shows us Henry’s first encounter with mafia violence when a man comes to the store Henry works with a shot hand. He’s told moments later that he shouldn’t have wasted all those aprons he used to stop the man’s bleeding. When the violence comes, it’s usually in quick spurts that have all the more impact because of their briefness. These moments happen more and more often as the film develops.

Henry’s great life lasts for as long as it can…and then it’s over with the snap of someone’s fingers. It’s hard to imagine that Henry couldn’t have expected this (he always keeps a brick of cocaine on hand in his home for emergencies, after all), especially since no mention is made of what the retirement plan from the mafia was. But his sins come back to bite him in the ass during a brilliantly staged day where Henry drives back and forth to many of his friends’ and family’s homes in a haze of cocaine, all the while followed by a helicopter. We don’t feel bad for him when he finally loses everything. How can we? And his punishment…an endless life in the suburbs, seems more fitting than a bullet to the brain lesser filmmakers might have ended the film with.

Though Pesci’s unhinged performance is the best of the ensemble, the most interesting performance is indeed Liotta. Thank God for the voice-over, because it helps to steer us through the waves of Liotta’s character. When we first meet him he’s charming enough and handsome enough to get away with just about anything he wants to, and he seems to be channeling a lot of John Travolta’s charm, especially in the early scenes with Karen. But as he ages and gets oilier and less handsome, you begin to see the cracks. He needs that cocaine and those mistresses because they tell him lies that he’s the man he once was. Liotta goes big a few times, wonderfully over the top, but that only underlines as good as he is at underplaying the rest of his work.

Scorsese plays some camera tricks and, with his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, presents us with some tremendous long takes. Most of them work, though the many freeze-frames in the first act don’t hold up as well as the rest of the movie. Today they distract from instead of underlining what we see. However, that’s a small complaint when everything else around it is pitch-perfect.

Scorsese and Pileggi envelop the viewer so well into the world that you can’t help but lose control of your moral compass. I never “liked” Henry. Or Karen. Or Tommy. But I did find myself caring deeply for their world and involved in their fates. If a film’s creators can make me that invested in something so despicable, they’ve done the seemingly impossible, and the result is a masterpiece.

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

 

The French Connection

french connection 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 93

Release: October 9. 1971

Writer: Ernest Tidyman

Director: William Friedkin

Star: Gene Hackman, Roy Schneider, Alain Charnier

Music: Don Ellis

Cinematography: Owen Roizman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Watching “The French Connection” is the cinematic equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the chest. No other thriller, modern or otherwise, has struck such a fantastic balance between the bombastic and the painstakingly precise. Because of this, the tension in the film becomes almost unbearable for the viewer, to the point where you look down and realize you’ve fisted your hands so tightly that you have dug your nails deep into your palm.

The film opens in France with a man buying some bread and mounting an obscene amount of stone steps (shades of director William Friedkin’s at-the-time-yet-to-be-filmed “The Exorcist”) and being shot in the head by an assassin. Gradually we learn that this was all part of an intricate conspiracy to smuggle huge amounts of almost-pure heroin to New York City. The action shifts to America, where a narcotics detective named Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Russo (Roy Schneider) become involved.

french connection 2Friedkin, as he often does in his best work, turns the film’s setting into a character in the movie. Here New York a decaying, gray corpse of a city. The sky is always cloudy, the streets are nearly deserted (though the subway system is packed) and when Doyle’s obsession begins, the noises of the city gradually dissipate until the echo of his shoes on the pavement is all that we hear. Friedkin shoots France and Washington D.C. in stark contrast to this, further underlining that Doyle’s actions might be futile because the city is too far gone already.

Writer Ernest Tidyman and Friedkin focus all of their characterization efforts on Hackman’s Doyle, and even then they don’t try to turn him into a three-dimensional character; they create a blunt object that you fully believe will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. You are terrified of what would happen if you crossed him, and by the time he gets in that car to begin the landmark chase after an elevated train, you aren’t as worried for him as you are for the bystanders. Schneider’s sidekick has virtually no depth and doesn’t question Doyle’s insanity, making you wonder which one has more mental problems.

While the last paragraph might read as a criticism, I don’t mean it to be one. The creative team absolutely made the right decision to make “The French Connection” into a series of moments, large and small, rather than a character study. As interesting a guy as Doyle is, if the movie would have stopped for even a scene to attempt to understand him or empathize with him, then it would have imploded. After his classic introduction in his Santa suit, you might begin asking yourself questions about Hackman’s character, but by the time Schneider shows up at his apartment to find him handcuffed by his ankle to a bedpost, you stop asking and just go with it.

Newer movies have forgotten how to build tension. “The French Connection” reminded me just how explosive a film can be if paced with delicate precision. There is an almost-Hitchcockian sequence of calculated suspense where Hackman has pursued a villain down to an underground subway stop. The villain boards a train, and Doyle follows. But just before the doors close, the villain gets off the train, causing Doyle to follow suit. Back and forth the duo go, wandering about the platform pretending the other does not exist and getting on and off of subway cars until Doyle finally misses the train by a fraction of a second. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence filmed with as little dialogue as possible (there are wonderfully eerie, lengthy patches of the movie with no dialogue whatsoever) that ends in frustration and powerlessness for both the viewer and Doyle.

A little later, a woman pushing a baby carriage is savagely murdered by a sniper’s bullet meant for Doyle. The “hero” gives chase, and by this time both he and the viewer are so frustrated and angry that we want Doyle to get the bad guy by any means necessary.

french connection 3Those means turn into one of the greatest sequences ever filmed. Comparisons are often made to “Bullitt,” but for me it has more in common with the climax of “Strangers on a Train,” with a runaway subway car substituted for the gone-awry merry-go-round. The sniper gets onto an elevated train and takes the driver hostage. Hackman’s character stops the first car he can and pursues the train at obscene speeds through the crowded Brooklyn streets. The driver soon dies of a heart attack and the subway train continues to barrel down its line toward another stopped train. Both parallel sequences, the subway train and Hackman’s pursuit of it, are fantastic in and of themselves, but when intercut with one another makes it almost unwatchably suspenseful. All of this is made even more impressive in that you know for a fact that you are watching a real car weave through actual Brooklyn streets in pursuit of a real subway car…not some shit CGI replication on a computer. Put it all together and by the time a woman pushing a baby carriage got in the way of Hackman’s car I found myself gasping at a film for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

Friedkin plays a nasty (and by “nasty” I mean “fucking amazing”) trick on the audience in the moments following the chase by implying that another large-scale car chase is about to begin. The audience is so worn out by the last set-piece that we cannot fathom going through it again, but then Friedkin pulls back at the last moment. Again, this is how tension is built properly over the course of a motion picture, otherwise this little diversion would be nothing but wheel spinning.

Despite these big moments, some of the most memorable things about “The French Connection” are the little throwaway bits. In our introduction to New York City, Schneider’s character nonchalantly traps a possible drug lord by putting him in a phone booth and then shoving a desk against it. Then there’s the shot that contrasts Doyle eating shitty pizza and drinking coffee in the biting cold while the man he is following eats like a king inside a restaurant. Or how about Doyle mixing all of the narcotics he finds in a bar together with beer in a martini shaker while asking “Anyone want a milkshake?”

“The French Connection” is a near-perfect example of a movie knowing exactly what it is and what it needs to accomplish, then doing so without adding unnecessary dimension. It’s real, it’s terrifying and pretty damn brilliant as well.

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

Pulp Fiction

pulp fiction 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 94

Release: October 14, 1994

Writer: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Star: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman

Watching “Pulp Fiction” is like playing with a set of nesting dolls. Every time you open one up, another doll is found underneath, smaller but even more intricate. Though the movie takes place out of chronological order, it isn’t a puzzle. Each section of the movie can be enjoyed and understood on its own, but when put together, the pieces become transcendent.

There are three major plot threads, all of which connect to one another in varying degrees. The first follows two hit men (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, both great) as they try to get back a mysterious briefcase belonging to their evil boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). The second follows Travolta’s character Vincent as he takes Marsellus’ sexy, sexy wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner. Not a date, he insists. The third involves a wrestler named Butch (Bruce Willis) who is on the run from Marsellus but can’t leave town until he reclaims his father’s watch.

pulp fiction 3Each one of these storylines is hugely enjoyable and, as in all films from co-writer/director Quentin Tarantino, it’s the details that we linger on and remember after the film ends. His dialogue, which reads just half-an-inch above realism, is endlessly quotable, and I’ll do my best to not do any of it here, simply because it’s impossible to single only one or two speeches out. He takes his time setting up the characters and allowing the audience to get a feel for who he’s about to torture and maim, but in doing this he also weaves in plenty of little Easter eggs that will pay off later (or earlier, depending on the chronology) in the movie. In lesser hands, the set-ups and pay-offs would implode, but Tarantino’s (along with co-writer Roger Avary) writing is so crisp, so seductive, that you can’t help but invest wholeheartedly in it. Speaking of Easter eggs, another splendid thing about Tarantino films are the numerous references (Travolta dancing the twist) and homages (hello briefcase with unknown substance in it) to other films, making film buffs all the happier.

Tarantino and Avary takes their time setting things up and pays them off gradually, ensuring that what is happening makes sense in relation to the characters we’ve come to know. The even tone and pacing of the movie surprisingly bring an elevated level of suspense to the proceedings than would be present in a movie that had more quick-cutting and thumping music. This is true of all of Tarantino’s work—look at the “Kill Bill” movies and “Inglourious Basterds”—but is most prominent in this film. Look at the scene where the Willis character arrives at his apartment, knowing that someone is probably there waiting to kill him. Tarantino’s camera follows him as he parks two blocks away and walks through yards to go into his building through the back way. The scene is shockingly quiet, and as a result (it seems to build forever even though it can’t be more than a minute or two long) the suspense becomes almost unbearable. The diner stick-up that climaxes the film is similarly tense because Tarantino takes his time getting to his point, not seeming to care that the audience is in their seats going crazy with anticipation.

pulp fiction 2The cast, on the whole, is brilliant. The writers have made a point of ensuring that all of the leads and supporting characters come across as fully fleshed out individuals, and the actors more than rise to the occasion. Thurman doesn’t have as much screen time as the other leads (though she does get the showstopper moment thanks to an adrenaline shot) but makes every minute count, and when she’s explaining her failed TV pilot with the kind of glee a kid on the schoolyard would speak with, you can’t help but fall for her. Willis seems at first like an odd choice, especially considering Tarantino’s dialogue, but makes his forlorn attitude and quiet demeanor work for his character. Harvey Keitel comes onscreen as the cinematic equivalent of an 11 o’clock musical number, and nails every line of his professional clean-up character. Instead of letting the article degrade into a list of praise for every actor in the ensemble (which it easily could), I’ll move on.

I do have to admit that the use of the “n-word” throughout the film is way overdone and the one major thing about the screenplay that makes me grimace. It’s not that the characters use it, it’s that it’s used so often, and usually simply for shock value. It interrupts the flow of the movie. Sure, writers have been doing this for centuries…I’m currently re-reading Truman Capote’s work and constantly rolling my eyes at how often he uses “lesbian” and “faggot” simply to get a rise out of the reader…but the movie would have been stronger without it.

Tarantino’s visual style throughout is inventive without being too showy. The visual tricks he plays are usually subtle enough to not point themselves out to the casual viewer, like having a projection with older cars playing in the background while Willis is taking a cab-ride. His work with his editor, Sally Menke, is especially notable in how well it implies violence without having to show very much of it. Remember in “Reservoir Dogs” when a character lost his ear? Though we don’t see the act on camera, you remember seeing it. The same is true here with the moment Travolta pounds the needle into Thurman’s chest. I hadn’t seen the movie in a year or two, but I clearly remembered seeing the shot where the needle enters her chest. Watching the film this time, I was wrong. But Menke does such a great job of cutting around it that it feels like we have.

“Pulp Fiction” is a little over two-and-a-half hours, but feels like it’s just about the right length. The viewer feels exhilarated as the credits roll and immediately wants to see the movie again, partially to look again for all the little moments that connect the stories, but mostly because it’s just a damn great movie.

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

The Last Picture Show

last picture 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 95

Release: October 27, 1971

Writer: Larry McMurty, Peter Bogdanovich

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Star: Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman

Cinematography: Robert Surtees

“The Last Picture Show” was one of the films on the AFI Top 100 that I hadn’t watched before, and now here I sit in awe of it. How could I not have seen this film …experienced these feelings…known these characters? How easily it has entered into my consciousness, its world a familiar one I feel like I’ve always known.

The setting is a small Texas town that seems to only have one main road and three open establishments: a bar, a burger joint and an old movie house, all owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). We meet two best friends, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), and watch them come of age together. Sonny begins an affair with the wife (Cloris Leachman) of his football coach, while Duane struggles with his feelings for the town’s prettiest girl, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Things get complicated before they get more complicated.

last picture 2All I had heard about the film before seeing it was that it was a younger generation’s “Citizen Kane,” and you can certainly see similarities and inspiration drawn from the Welles’ film. As the credits roll, we see small snippets of scenes with the actors’ names, exactly the same as “Kane,” and then there’s the use of “deep focus” throughout. The moment where the inspiration is at its most obvious is when Sam sits at a pond and recounts just how in love he was with a woman years ago. Obviously, the scene comes from the businessman in “Kane” who clearly remembers a girl he saw once on a dock decades ago. That might well be the best written scene in all of film, and the one in “The Last Picture Show” is similarly moving and devastating, though in a different way.

However much co-writers Larry McMurty and Peter Bogdanovich (also the director) used “Kane” as an inspiration, that film was about the impossibilities of understanding a man. This film is about our inherent understanding of its characters. At different moments in our lives, we have been all these men and women, and we sympathize and understand their actions, however frustrating they may be. Leachman’s character is given a moment of rage near the end, after Sonny abandoned her for months, and the words are incredibly painful—we empathize so much with what she’s been through and how hurt she’s been. And yet we also sympathize with Sonny, who left her because he thought he was in love with a woman his age—and was too young to understand how to handle his feelings or the situation.

Even Jacy, who is portrayed as an enigma to the men who can’t help but fall in love with her, manages to get our sympathy. The boys at the center of the film never see their home lives explained or illustrated in any detail (they don’t need to be), but we get to know Jacy’s mother (Ellen Burstyn, nailing her small part), and there’s a small moment in the kitchen between them where the viewer goes “Ah, now I understand who this girl is.”

Bottoms is the heart of the film, wonderfully cast, and manages to emote the frustration of his situation without seeming like he’s pouting or waiting for a violin to play. Though he plays friends with Bridges, they look like they could be brothers, and the moment where they experience a movie together on the final night at the theater before it closes is just about perfect.

The town around Sonny is dying, and I don’t just mean that in a metaphorical way. Every shop aside from the three I mentioned above appears closed, and by the end of the movie the theater closes as well. Sonny has to work another job just to keep the bar open after he inherits it. We’ve all driven through towns like this, barely giving them a thought. What must it be like to live in that place, desolation around you, lonely and begging to hear anything other than your own thoughts, knowing you can never escape them. Sounds a lot like adolescence to me.

last picture show 3Bogdanovich shoots the film in black-and-white, which underscores the wretchedness of the place but also the beauty of his main actors. Shepherd is just about as lovely as any teenager I’ve ever seen, and I wish that she would go back to serious dramatic acting instead of settling for guest-starring roles on “Psych” and “$#!+ My Dad Says.”

There isn’t much of a plotline, per se, but I don’t think I realized that until I typed this sentence. “The Last Picture Show” is more about a collection of moments that build these wonderful characters for us and the ways those characters bounce off of each other in ways both expected and unexpected. We have a pretty good idea that the Burstyn character was the dame Sam was in love with, and when it’s confirmed there’s a lovely scene where she reminisces for a moment about how wonderful life was…right before she drives home to her horrible husband. McMurty and Bogdanovich ensure that each character gets the chance to become a complex, layered “person,” and that’s one of the reasons you remember the film as a state of mind as much as you remember the individual moments.

The biggest compliment I can give the film is that the characters linger in my mind like real people would. I wonder what will happen to them and where their lives will take them as they continue on their respective journeys, meeting one another from time to time and impacting each other in ways both obvious and subtle. When I wrote about the coming-of-age film “American Graffiti,” I mentioned that if the characters were real people, I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. Here, I’d love to eat a burger with Sonny and then watch “Red River” with him, Jacy and Duane, even if they are trying to get up her skirt the whole time.

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

Do The Right Thing

do the right thing 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 96

Writer: Spike Lee

Director: Spike Lee

Star: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis

Music: Bill Lee

Studio: Universal Pictures

Release: July 21, 1989

Why is everyone so gosh-darned angry?

Every character in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” is angry about something, but what makes this film so beautiful is that their surface anger masks undercurrents that are, for the most part, completely unrelated to what they scream and shout about. The film uses racism as a connective tissue to show the fractured souls of some of the inhabitants of a Brooklyn block during a summer heat wave, but in doing so makes (almost) no character judgments. It seeks not to condemn or exploit, but to comprehend. When the famous riot sequence begins, your stomach lurches because the film has succeeded in making the viewer understand all the characters’ points-of-view, even if you don’t agree with them.

do the right thing 3Most of the first two-thirds of the movie views the neighborhood in a series of vignettes. Though it is an ensemble piece, the story’s pivotal character is Mookie (Lee), who is a delivery boy at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a loud, proud Italian man with two sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) who bitches out Mookie but admits that he thinks of him as a son. This does not sit well at all with Pino (Turturro) whose jealously over Sal and his brother’s affection for Mookie is masked with racism. Mookie has had a child with his very, very loud girlfriend (Rosie Perez), who knows Mookie will never be there for her when she needs it but forgives him every time he shows up at her door.

There are others, of course. Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) sits at her window passing judgment over those who pass, specifically the drunk but affable Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Then there’s the aptly-named Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who is always hissing hatred over the (gasp!) small scuff on his Air Jordans or the lack of photos of black men on Sal’s walls, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who marches through the neighborhood showing off just how loud his boom box can go. A trio of men sit at a corner loathing the Asian family across the street for daring to open a supermarket in a black neighborhood when they always wanted to. Characters may love one another, but none seems to really like anyone else, and innocence and misunderstandings lead the elevated tensions throughout the day. All the while, the temperature just keeps going up and up.

“Do the Right Thing” seems to be directly inspired by one of Rod Serling’s masterpiece episodes of “The Twilight Zone” called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” In that episode, a cul-de-sac of families cracked over the day after being told that aliens are coming. People were singled out for being too “different” and every action was questioned and generalized into being suspicious. That episode ended similarly as well, with the entire block imploding in a riot against one another.

do the right thing 2There are so many questions in the film about why characters are the way they are and why they act the way they do. Why couldn’t Radio Raheem just have turned down that damn boom box? Why does Rosie Perez always forgive Mookie for disappearing for weeks at a time? What happened in Mother Sister’s past that makes her so unwilling to give Da Mayor any leeway in his actions? Then, of course, there is everyone’s actions at the climax, specifically why Mookie threw that trash can through Sal’s window and why the police put so much force into the arrest of Radio Raheem that they accidentally killed him. But please, stop me before I get started. Everyone is broken, and the film understands that.

Of course, Lee doesn’t want to give us easy answers to the question, and if he did that would be a lesser film. Much hullabaloo was made over whether Mookie made the right choice in throwing that trash can, but the real issue, of course, is the murder of Radio Raheem by the police, even if it was an accident. But then again, Radio Raheem was about to murder Sal, wasn’t he? But then again, Sal shouldn’t have destroyed the possession he prized as much as his life. But then again, Radio Raheem shouldn’t have gone into the Pizzeria looking for trouble. Around and around we go…

It should be noted that Lee makes a fascinating thematic choice in how he handles two pivotal characters in the lead-up to the climax. Through the film, we are led to believe that Pino and Buggin’ Out are ticking time bombs that will eventually cause the riot. At the midway point in the film Pino almost causes an incident when he attacks the mentally handicapped Smiley verbally and then physically. Buggin’ Out desperately tries to cause incidents throughout the film, first when his shoe is scuffed and later when he sees that Sal doesn’t have any photos of black men on his wall. When the riot begins, Da Mayor hurries Pino and his family away from the carnage and Pino stands impotent while anarchy reigns around him. Buggin’ Out cackles and screams when Radio Raheem is killed, but is cuffed and taken away in a police car before he can do any damage. By reversing our expectations for these two characters he makes a brave choice, one that pays off because it makes the actions of the other characters all the more powerful.

There is one thing that I loathe about the film, and that is the needless epilogue where Mookie confronts Sal and demands the money he is owed. The film, for me, ends when Smiley walks through the still-burning wreckage of Sal’s and pins a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to the wall. Lee paints Mookie in an almost sympathetic light in this final coda, which dilutes and reverses much of the power the audience felt during the riot. Worse yet, it doesn’t add in any new layers to any of the characters, instead merely underlining questions we were already left with. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” had the sense to leave the main characters in the midst of their riot instead of softening the impact by showing the characters pick up the pieces, and I oh-so-wish that Lee had followed suit.

Lee shot the film in a fractured visual style. Some shots, specifically the ones involving Da Mayor and Mother Sister, seem like they could have come out of a ‘40s Technicolor musical while other scenes and shots are purposely ugly. The style works fairly well for an ensemble film, with the approaches changing somewhat as we visit different characters. You can feel Lee trying to experiment with all of the crayons in the box throughout the movie, sometimes to greater effect than others.

None of us have the answers to the questions “Do the Right Thing” poses, and though I like to hope that race relations have significantly improved since the film’s release, the news reminds me every night that I am wrong. In the end, this is a film about rage. And that, sadly, is something the world still has much too much of, and I don’t see any signs of that ever changing.

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

Blade Runner

Blade Runner 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 97

Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples (adaptation), Philip K. Dick (novel)

Director: Ridley Scott

Music: Vangelis

Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth

Star: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release Date: June 25, 1982

Note: As with the other films on the AFI Top 100 which have alternate or extended editions, this article will be discussing the original theatrical version.

The world of “Blade Runner” is one of the greatest in film history. It takes place in near future Los Angeles (it rains every day instead of its current constantly sunny state) where skyscrapers are bursting with polluted fire and one layer of grime is piled on top of another, less stable, layer of dirt. The Tyrell Corporation at the center of everything is a fantastically designed, intricately created piece of architecture that you find yourself pausing your Blu-ray to drink in. There are so many details that are stuffed into every frame, my favorite being the light-up umbrellas, that at times you feel as if you’ve wandered into a Terry Gilliam movie. The film’s look has rightly become a touchstone for hundreds of futuristic worlds. It’s not a place you want to live, or visit, but one you must experience.

But the rest of “Blade Runner”? Meh.

Harrison Ford heads the movie as a detective named Deckard, who is assigned to track down four escaped Replicants and kill them. These Replicants are created by the aforementioned Tyrell Corporation, and seem human in almost every way. After a few years they even begin to develop emotions, which is one of the reasons they’ve been outlawed on earth. Rutger Hauer is the leader of the Replicants, which also includes Daryl Hannah. We also meet Tyrell himself (Joe Turkel), who has crafted a new Replicant named Rachel (Sean Young) who believes she is human.

Blade Runner 2There are “big” questions at play here, like what is the real measure of a man and what it truly means to be human. The writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, introduce these conceits and then pay them just enough attention to gloss them over and move on. I’m not asking for answers, obviously, but it would be nice to have them addressed and argued in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Instead the ideas are brought onstage and then forgotten about because…oh look! A big skyscraper with a Geisha projected on it!

Perhaps part of the problem is that I just don’t give a damn about any of the characters. Near the end of the second act, Hauer’s Replicant breaks into Tyrell’s home and threatens him, wanting to have a longer life and begging for answers to why he exists. The scene is directly inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but the difference is that in the novel, both men are monsters that we sympathize with and understand. Here we’ve barely seen the Replicant for more than five minutes and intensely dislike Tyrell already, so the scene has no drive. Who cares if the Replicant gets his answers and who cares if his creator dies?

Thank God director Ridley Scott cast Harrison Ford in the lead, because he lends gravitas to a role that is thinly written. At best. Just because a character is supposed to be cut off from his emotions does not mean that he can’t be interesting or engaging. Instead we get a character who visually looks like he’s really constipated. Then we’re given plenty of unnecessary voiceover that spoon-feeds us what he’s supposed to be feeling at any given moment (along with unnecessary exposition we could have figured out ourselves). Of course, then there are the none-too-subtle hints that Deckard may in fact be a Replicant, but really, who cares? If we aren’t invested in Deckard as a human being, why should it matter if he’s not what he seems and is unaware of it.

Deckard falls in love with Rachel, which in theory could have been very fascinating, especially since his mission in life is to destroy her kind. In reality, the romance is barely sketched and just when we get hints that it will become interesting, Rachel is yanked off-screen and doesn’t come back until the final scene.

blade runner 3The entire thing comes to a head Los Angeles’ iconic Bradbury building. First up is a legitimately cool fight scene between Deckard and Hannah’s Replicant, which I wish would have lasted longer. Then there’s a way-too-long cat-and-mouse game between Deckard and Hauer’s Replicant where we’re never quite sure of the logistics of the large apartment they are chasing one another through. Deckard climbs up toward the roof when he should be heading down the fire escape (why do people always do that!?), then drops his gun and doesn’t bother to go back for it (why do people always do that!?). The stuff on the roof has some impressive special effects, but how many variations on this scene have we seen, including several in the AFI Top 100 alone? For my money, the coolest is still the finale to “Batman,” (sorry, “Vertigo”) and this one doesn’t measure up.

I understand how much impact this film has had on science fiction of the last thirty years, and know that’s why it was placed on the Top 100, though I’d argue that Scott’s “Alien” would have been a better choice. But looking at it today, it seems like a simplistic take on ideas and concepts that have been told much better elsewhere. Television shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and films like “Dark City” and “Serenity” are obvious offspring of “Blade Runner,” and both eclipse it in terms of quality and depth. It’s an important film to see, and it opened the door to many wonderful stories, but it just doesn’t hold up.

My Score (out of 5): **1/2

Addendum: The discs contain five (five!) different variations on this film, and I do prefer the “Final Cut” to the original theatrical version. The deletion of the voiceover was a smart move, as was the abbreviated ending, but ultimately did not change my feelings for the film in a profound way.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

yankee doodle dandy photo 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 98

Writer: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph

Director: Michael Curtiz

Star: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston

Score: Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld

Songs: George M. Cohan

Cinematography: James Wong Howe

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: May 29, 1942

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a perfectly harmless musical portraying the life of a genius writer/composer/director/producer/actor/choreographer that is enjoyable, but never manages to give us much insight into why its subject, George M. Cohen, was such an unsinkable legend. The movie tricks the viewer into thinking he or she has witnessed something monumental thanks to the indelible performance of James Cagney as Cohen, but the everything is surface. I would have traded almost every elaborately staged musical number for a single quiet scene of Cohen speaking frankly about the creation of his music and why he has been so consistently inspired by America and its citizens.

The film opens with Cohen as an old-but-still-vivacious performer portraying FDR in a musical extravaganza before being summoned by the real FDR to the White House. Cohen arrive and decides to tell the President his life story. Sure, the President is overseeing America’s involvement in WWII at the time, but he’s got a few hours to kill. We cut to scenes of Cohen’s birth (the first thing he does is hold the American flag) and scenes of him as a young performer. He was part of a family acting troupe with his Father (Walter Houston), Mother (Rosemary DeCamp) and Sister (Jeanne Cagney) and learned to be stuck up because of his talent at a very young age.

These early sequences are some of the strongest in the film because they are in such a stark contrast to the humble version of the character we meet in the first moments. We begin to really dislike Cohen thanks to his bratty persona as a child. In one hilarious moment after Cohen has lost his parents a job because they weren’t giving him enough star credit (that’s not the funny part), Cohen’s father decides to discipline him. But, darn it, he can’t smack the kid in the face without making a bruise big enough to be noticeable on stage the next day. A jack to the jaw might hinder his singing. What to do?

yankee doodle dandy photo 2Cagney takes over the role with inspired vivacity, putting his all into dancing (not bad) and singing (not good, but he fakes it well) when necessary, and bouncing off the walls with energy in scenes where he does not sing. There is a beautiful early scene where he is so good at portraying an old man onstage that he meets his future wife when she comes to him seeking the advice of a seasoned performer about whether she should move to New York. His early cockiness is put to rest after he spends years pounding the pavement with good material only to discover no one in town will hire him because he has such a bad reputation. After a lucky encounter, he gets a show onstage and a producing partner and, faster than a screen wipe, he becomes a sensation.

As Cohen’s success becomes more established, the movie becomes less about the character’s life and more reliant on musical numbers. According to the film, Cohen only created one flop, a straight play with no national undertones, and on opening night he sent a wire to all the New York newspapers jokingly apologizing for the mistake and promising never to do it again. He loses all of his blood family, including his sister, but we don’t see how this affects his work or state of mind, though the movie does make time for a tearful goodbye to Cohen’s father on his death bed.

The real Cohen was alive when the film was produced and released, and that might be why the second half of the film portrays him so blandly and turns him into a two-dimensional hero. That might be why the film laughs off his one flop and does not linger on the tragedies in his family. Whatever the case, I wanted more and I wanted to see Cohen’s inner struggle balanced with his outer gaiety. Cagney is a fantastic dramatic actor and he could have easily handled darker scenes, but alas that did not happen.

Michael Curtiz never really made a point of showing off in his films, and the results were good (often great), craftsmen pieces with a nice emotional core thanks to his penchant for perfection in his casting choices. There are one or two technically accomplished moments in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” like where we catch-snippets of Cohen and his wife’s travels around the world by looking at the stamps on their traveling trunks, or when Curtis sums up nearly a decade of Cohen’s creative output by panning from show-name to show-name up in lights on Broadway. But mostly he keeps his camera steady and fixed on Cagney’s face and body, and he was smart to do it. Cagney is just aces here, emoting the quiet soul of his character (something not in any dialogue) and balancing it with his over-the-top public persona.

yankee doodle dandy photo 3Many of the musical numbers are, of course, still standards most people are familiar with, and all of them are hummable tunes to be sure, but the film often focuses on them for much too long. We don’t need to see the entire five-minute song with choreography when we can get everything we need from the performance from one chorus and a verse. We get two major songs and a whole slice of the plot from Cohen’s first major hit “Little Johnny Jones” and though it might not be 20 minutes long, it certainly feels that way.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” acts as the blue-print to almost every major bio-pic released on the market today. The movies are almost never very good, but the actors at the center are just so charismatic and embody their characters so well that the movie seems much better than it actually is. “Dandy,” I’m sorry to say, is no exception to that rule.

My score (out of 5): ***