Saturday, December 17, 2011

Apocalypse Now


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 30
Year: 1979
Writer: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola w/ Michael Herr (adaptation), Joseph Conrad (novel)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall

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.

“Apocalypse Now” is a grand, angry, flawed film that goes deep and cerebral just when you expect it to get even louder and more bombastic. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to try just about anything to underline a point or create a sense of dread, and the audaciousness of the filmmakers leaves a huge impact on the viewer. It’s big in every sense of the word.

We first meet Captain Ben Willard in his bedroom while he’s having a slight nervous breakdown after his experiences in the Vietnam War. He’s brought into a room of higher-ups and given a super-secret mission to cross the Vietnam border into Cambodia and find a Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has apparently gone insane, murdered a bunch of people and is now regarded by the natives as a god among men. Willard must kill him.

Screenwriters John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola (also the director) transport Joseph Conrad’s novel from Africa to Vietnam, and though it follows the general beats of the book, it transcends it to become its own being. I mention this because I really dislike Conrad’s work—which is racist and barely makes dime-store insights into human suffering—and wonder why it’s consistently in print and taught in colleges when there are so many other, worthier, works from that timeframe that merit exposure and revisiting.

But I must admit that the structure and premise of the original is a good one, and it was a smart move to keep that, as the build-up to the introduction of Kurtz is at once menacing and tantalizing. Willard goes through a dossier of his life and decisions, trying desperately to make sense of who this guy is and what made him go crazy (or has he simply regained his sanity in an insane world?), and develops a deep respect for him before he even meets him.

Willard is sent up a river with four other soldiers for support, and every time they make a stop or take a detour the result seems to be a classic sequence. The best is still where we are introduced to surfing fanatic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who invades an outpost simply because he wants to surf the beach (the waves break both ways). Here is the iconic “March of the Valkyries” action sequence, which retains all of its original power because you can tell there are no miniatures or trick shots used. Shit is really blowing up and these helicopters are really flying in formation. This realism makes the sequence epic, and that’s true about everything in the film. When the boat moves under a downed plane, or we see helicopters still smoldering in trees, we know that the actors are interacting with scale models, and the results are very impactful. It all “feels” bigger than other war films and makes you believe the actors and their predicament more as a result.

There’s also the sequence where Willard and another soldier go hunting for mangos and appear to be ants among the gigantic foliage surrounding them (hello metaphor!). And the sequence where the ship’s chief is impaled. And the bombing of the bridge. Each set-piece is excellent, long enough to resonate but short enough to not be too much of a distraction from the journey to Kurtz. The one sequence that doesn’t work is the detour with the Playboy Playmates, who eventually cause a riot thanks to their thrusting and boobies. It’s the only time where we expect the riot as soon as the women appear, and Milius and Coppola do not try to reverse our expectations.

Just who the hell is this Kurtz? What do we expect? Big budget action movies have taught us that war movies invariably end with lots of explosions and blood, but all of a sudden the boat reaches Kurtz’s home, which is a Buddhist temple. There’s a beautiful scene where all the natives of the town seem to have created a gate by standing on small ships in front of the temple, and they slowly part for Willard’s ship. And suddenly the movie goes cerebral. It’s a ballsier move than the viewer expects, that’s for sure, and I love the way the film underscores that, while Kurtz is a god among these people, his life is still very empty. It’s as if he’s seen or felt something he’s still coming to terms with, and just describing pieces of it to those nearby alters their lives completely.

This thinking-man’s third act underlines the major flaw with the film, which is that I just don’t care if Willard lives or dies. I want to see him get to Kurtz, sure, but that’s more because I want to meet Kurtz, not because I have some emotional investment in Willard. He’s a broken, horrible person, and the voiceover work that is written by Michael Herr seems to underscore this while still trying to make him human. It’s futile. I cared more about his shipmates than I did him, and when he does take Kurtz’s life at the climax, you feel as if Willard did not “deserve” to do it. A stronger man should have done it. But as I write this, I must say the fault is in the writing, not Sheen’s performance, which is aces.

Look at the AFI Top 100’s other serious meditation of the Vietnam War, “Platoon.” There I grew to care a lot for Chris and was deeply invested in whether or not he lived or died. It’s just not so for Willard. I think that “Apocalypse Now” is a better work of art than “Platoon,” but I also think the latter is a better film, if that makes any sort of sense.

The movie is long, and feels that way, and Coppola uses the epic nature of the war to create an intimate portrait of the enigma that is Kurtz. Brando’s performance isn’t a “performance”—he’s reciting the lines without much inflection either way and lets the lighting be the emotion his face lacks. The dialogue is great (“There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.”), but Milius and Coppola will not give us any answers. Is he God? The devil? A man who has stared into the abyss and come back? Not come back? A little of everything? How seriously are we supposed to take his words?

Whether or not Kurtz represents God or Satan, Vietnam itself is hell, no question about it. It strips the men who are within its borders (both American and Vietnamese) from who they really are, leaving a shell filled with fury and confusing. There’s no future for Willard—he’s been too warped by his experience. “Apocalypse Now” is unafraid to stare this sad fact in the face, uncompromisingly. It’s a transcendent experience with deep flaws that bring you back to earth shaken.

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Sound of Music


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 40
Year: 1965
Writer: Ernest Lehmen (adaptation), Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II (music), Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse (book and libretto), Maria von Trapp (autobiography)
Director: Robert Wise
Star: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker

“The Sound of Music” is not the type of movie you can approach with cynicism, and since we currently live in an age of cynics, that’s difficult. If you sit down with the film expecting to want to punch the children in their smiling faces and root for the Nazis to find them, then that’s what you’ll feel. I sat down with a (relatively) open mind and found that within a half hour the movie had me under its spell.

I think it all comes down to how easy it is to fall in love with Julie Andrews. She plays nun-in-training Maria in Austria, who is sent to be a governess to seven rambunctious children who have recently lost their mother. She arrives at the huge (huge!) estate to find the children’s father Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) has become so withdrawn from grief that he runs the household and children like he runs the ships he captains in the navy. Of course, Maria breaks through to the children and falls for the father. Plus…Nazis!

The opening number, where Maria spins on a hill singing, has been parodied so many times that it’s lost much of its power, and the fact that she walks through a random stream she finds at the top of the hill that we know wasn’t there a second ago in the helicopter shots can bring on the chuckles. So can the second scene, where nuns complain about Maria by singing about how she sings in the Abbey (uh, hypocrite alert). But then Maria has a fun number called “Confidence” which is basically her just running toward her destiny, and I found myself starting to be won over.

The moment I just gave in and realized I sorta loved the movie is about the 40 minute mark, when Maria kneels down to pray on her first night in the von Trapp house. Andrews exudes charisma and humor here, and I accepted the movie on its own terms. It’s corny but utterly unapologetic about it – and that’s why it works. If any of the characters stopped and winked at the audience for even a moment, it would implode. But they don’t. Not even Plummer.

The plot is well-structured and the emotional arcs of the major characters resonate. I expected nothing less from screenwriter Ernest Lehmen in his adaptation. He’s got four movies (this, “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) in the AFI Top 100 (sure, I loathed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, but I’m trying to make a point here!), and wrote three others that easily could have been (“Sabrina,” “The King and I” and “Sweet Smell of Success”). He’s a master of structure (“North By Northwest”), creating appealing characters (“Sabrina”), and adapting near-impossible works (“West Side Story”). This guy is one of the greats in the industry and you can’t really call yourself a screenwriter unless you’ve read one or more of his scripts.

Sure, this is a three hour movie. There’s going to be some fat that could have been trimmed (how many times can you reprise a song?), and there are some character beats that feel false or are missing. For example, aside from the eldest daughter, we don’t get to know any of the children in any real way. Also, I highly doubt that the Mother Superior would recommend that Maria return to break up a happy couple and then sing a showstopper about it. And yet, when it works, it works beautifully. Lehmen does such a good job developing most of the characters (aside from those six pesky kids, but who’s counting?), that he pulls off a major tonal shift to suspense for the climax without altering the fabric of the film itself.

Then there is the music. Aside from “The Wizard of Oz,” has there ever been a movie whose music has so permeated our collective consciousness? I’d list the film’s standards, but then I’d be listing every song. Okay, I could deal without “The Lonely Goatherd,” and those damned puppets, but other than that there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. My personal favorite? “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with a close second going to “Do-Re-Me.”

The songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein is, of course, rightfully legendary. Both did great work with other collaborators, but together something just clicked between them both in their music and the content of the shows they chose to score. “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “State Fair,” “Allegro,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Cinderella,” “Flower Drum Song”…the films created that are based on these shows (save for “Allegro,” which has never been adapted) vary in quality, but it’s never because of the music that they falter.

The choreography throughout “The Sound of Music” is simple and elegant. Look at the way the gazebo is used in “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” with the eldest daughter jumping from one bench to another in a circle to show her joy at first love. Understated works for the film—if the kids were dance prodigies as well as singing ones, I don’t think it would have worked.

But then again, much of “The Sound of Music” should not work in the slightest, but for some reason does. The youngsters would drive me to insert Twizzlers in my ears in another movie. If Maria were played by anyone other than Julie Andrews I would strangle myself. And so on and so forth. But it really did manage to break through and emotionally involve me in its story and characters, which surprised me.

I suppose it’s easier to poke fun at the twirling and the nuns and the guitar case, but if you can set your skepticism aside, you might discover that this is a really good movie after all.

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Blade Runner


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 97
Year: 1982
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples (adaptation), Philip K. Dick (novel)
Director: Ridley Scott
Star: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young

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 (where 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 DVD 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 movie’s look has rightly become a touchtone 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, who 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.

There 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.

The entire thing comes to a head in an old apartment building called the Bradbury (obviously named as an homage to Ray Bradbury, who I’m betting could have written a much more insightful and emotionally complete version of this story). 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 DVD contains 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.

The Last Picture Show


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 95
Year: 1971
Writer: Larry McMurty, Peter Bogdanovich
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Star: Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman

“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.

All 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.

Bogdanovich 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’m going to echo what I said earlier in my “Taxi Driver” article: 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): *****

Friday, December 9, 2011

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 73
Year: 1969
Writer: William Goldman
Director: George Roy Hill
Star: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

“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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Saving Private Ryan


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 71
Year: 1998
Writer: Robert Rodat
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon

I hate “shaky-cam.” It’s overused so often in film and television and almost never adds anything to what it is supposed to be supporting. Instead, all the viewer gets is a headache and a cranky demeanor from having to put up with it. By the time I saw it show up in “Harry Potter” and that very unfortunate James Bond movie, I realized that we weren’t getting rid of it anytime soon, and I wanted to weep. And now I have just finished watching “Saving Private Ryan,” and realize that shaky-cam can be powerful and brilliantly-executed. Everyone else is just doing it wrong.

Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski give us a perfect portrait of chaos (hello phrase I never thought I’d write) in the movie’s first twenty minutes, portraying the Normandy Invasion how (I assume) it must have felt to be there. And yet, the shaky-cam actually adds to the scene, because even though it’s difficult to get our bearings, Spielberg and Kaminski still clearly show us everything we need to see, while only giving us hints and glimpses of other horrors to underline their impact.

The rest of “Saving Private Ryan” follows a group of soldiers led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) assigned to find a paratrooper named James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers have all died in battle, and the Generals in Washington want to bring him home alive, citing President Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, who lost five sons in the Civil War.

Screenwriter Robert Rodat presents us with a fantastic concept, full of moral ambiguities and ethical questions that the film touches on time and again. After all, is this one man’s life worth the lives of the eight men sent to find him? What if Ryan doesn’t want to abandon his men when he’s found? It’s a seemingly straightforward idea, but after two soldiers are dead and the other men find themselves in a seemingly unwinnable situation, things get much grayer.

But as much praise as I have for what Rodat accomplished with his screenplay, I also must admit that it seems like he was afraid to go all the way into the gray area, which is a shame. When Miller lies dying during the film’s resolution, his dying words are a plead for Ryan to “earn it.” Rodat then gives the viewer a handy-dandy frame story of an elderly Ryan at a cemetery asking his wife if he led a good life. Totally unnecessary. It is almost as if Rodat is hand-feeding the audience their happy ending with manufactured sentimentality that would have been better left on the cutting room floor or, even smarter, deleted out of Final Draft.

There are other odd tonal shifts in the film that feel like they are from a different movie. At one point Miller recruits an interpreter (Jeremy Davies) who has no experience in battle. Spielberg stages the scene like a farce, with Davies dropping his typewriter and knocking things over in a screwball-comedy fashion. And another scene, where the group finally discover where Ryan is, is a weirdly unfunny exchange where Miller tries to communicate with a man who has gone deaf because he was too close to an explosion.

To be fair, these are flaws that are pretty minor in the overall scheme of things. When the movie is good, it’s really fucking great. The dialogue between the men is well-written and gives the guys an extra layer of depth missing from most war films. A sequence where a German murders one of the men by slowly, terrifyingly slowly, stabbing him in the chest while comforting him is one of the most unsettling murders ever put on screen.

Hanks is just aces as the heart of the film, portraying a man who is closer to a nervous breakdown than he wants to admit to himself. His hands tremble and he tries to stay emotionally disconnected from the situation despite how he really feels about the assignment. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Damon, who communicates his “But why me?” attitude well.

The film’s final war scene is just as well-executed, in an entirely different fashion, from the one that opens it. Here the men are hidden in various points of a crumbled city protecting a bridge at all costs. They are outmanned, outgunned and their plan needs about ten things to happen by chance to go right. Here we know exactly where all the men are, what they must do and where the enemy need to be and, unlike the madness of the first 20 minutes, this underlines and enhances the suspense. There is still the element of surprise, as there must be in these types of action set-pieces, but knowing where the enemy troops are in relation to our main characters makes the sequence even stronger. Yes, the opening is great because of the staged anarchy, but I’d still take sequences like the climax any day because they have more coherency and, as a result, more impact.

I must admit, I’m not a big fan of the John Williams score. Perhaps the smarter thing to do would be to not have any music at all, because the score we hear is pretty cookie cutter and would have served better on an episode of “The West Wing.” Williams has created magnificent scores out of battles before (look at his work for “The Patriot” or his “Duel of the Fates” from “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace”), but his work here is just a bit dry and expected.

“Saving Private Ryan” isn’t the kind of movie you “enjoy.” I doubt I’ll ever go to the AFI Library to borrow a movie and think “I’m in a ‘Saving Private Ryan’ state of mind.” If I am, something major has gone wrong in my life. But it’s still an important movie that means something. It asks questions that there aren’t easy answers to and illustrates World War II in way you’ve never seen before on film. It’s a shame its biggest impact on the industry was the shaky-cam and not the subtle storytelling and ethical questions, but what can you do?

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bridge On the River Kwai


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 36
Year: 1957
Writer: Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman (adaptation), Pierre Boulle (novel)
Director: David Lean
Star: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is really two movies, one a masterpiece and one unnecessary. The masterpiece half follows the explosive relationship between a Japanese Colonel and his captive British Colonel over the building of a bridge on…*checks film title*…the River Kwai. The unnecessary half tracks a lying liar who has escaped the prison camp and must return to blow up the bridge.

Let’s start with the good half. A group of British soldiers have been captured and march into the Japanese prison camp in perfect formation while whistling a happy tune. Many of them have no shoes and are injured, but they still keep it up anyway. The scene reminded me of a moment from the original “Lord of the Flies” (made several years later in 1963) where the choirboys march across the beach after the plane crash, but it works better here. The group is led by the seemingly by-the-book Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness, amazing), and he immediately butts heads with the camp leader Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, just as amazing). Saito needs the British soldiers to build the bridge, but Nicholson reminds him that, according to the Geneva Conventions (a copy of which he just happens to have on him), prisoners-of-war cannot be forced to do manual labor.

Saito needs the bridge built before a specific date or face committing ritual suicide, so he tosses Nicholson in a horrifying twist of the Greek Brazen Bull – a cramped metal box that slowly becomes scorching thanks to the hot sun. Days pass and both men refuse to give in…it’s an amazing battle of the wills. Finally Saito relents, and Nicholson oddly then chooses to go forward and build the bridge anyway (not just that, but build it as well as possible), claiming it will help with soldier morale. It slowly becomes apparent that Nicholson has gone mad.

This section of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is brilliant. There are beautiful, small touches, like the aforementioned fact that Nicholson just happens to have a copy of the Geneva Conventions on his person, and a small beat where we see Saito crying uncontrollably once he gives in. The writing couldn’t be better, and Guinness and Hayakawa are two of the best matched nemesis’ in the history of film. The film walks this amazing tightrope, because we understand who both of the characters are and yet every time they are onscreen they inevitably surprise us with their actions.

This is all so great that it almost makes you forgive the second story. A guy named Shears (William Holden) escapes from the same prison camp Nicholson is in, is rescued and pretends to be a Colonel for awhile to get better medical treatment. He’s soon caught and then blackmailed into going back into the jungle to blow up the bridge that Nicholson is building.

I get it, I do. Structurally, the idea of these two stories running parallel for awhile and then inevitably converging with the destruction of the bridge is very strong. But the Nicholson/Saito stuff is just so good that anything else just pales in comparison. It’s not that the Holden scenes are “bad,” they are well enough written and beautifully shot, but they just don’t have to be there. The movie would have worked just as well if we see Holden’s character escaping and then hear nothing from him until he and his band of soldiers arrive again to explode the bridge.

Perhaps a major part of it is that I just don’t like Shears’ character. Holden plays an asshole very well (see: “Sunset Blvd” and “Network”) but why are we supposed to care about this guy? He doesn’t care about anything other than getting home and getting laid, and his turn at heroism at the film’s climax doesn’t work. Watching the movie again, I was shocked to see that the major twist in the storyline (he stole a dead soldier’s identity!) was directly lifted in Don Draper’s character in “Mad Men.” Homage or unabashed rip-off? Hard to tell, especially since Shears is so similar to Draper’s character in general.

As I write that the entire storyline is unnecessary, I must admit that there is one great scene in Holden’s storyline. He and the other soldiers are bathing when several Japanese soldiers attack them. A bomb is set off, and literally thousands of birds take off from the jungle trees while a chase through the forest happens below. Seeing all those birds over the trees is an image I’ll never forget.

Of course, this is a David Lean movie, so there are plenty of similarly breathtaking images. He’d always had a great handle on the visual before this, just look at his Dickens’ adaptations “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” or the underrated, heartbreaking “Summertime,” but “The Bridge on the River Kwai” seems to be the tipping point in his career where everything went gigantic all the time. What’s amazing is that he’s one of the few directors who can give you grandeur without losing touch with his characters, and that’s why all his later films hold up much better than their VistaVision!/Cinemascope! contemporaries.

The film climaxes with the bridge exploding in a scene that is eerily reminiscent of the train crash in “The General,” and I must admit that Keaton did it better. I think it’s because Lean cuts to several vantage points during the crash, whereas Keaton just kept a single camera running. The editing, which was meant to underline the grandeur of the moment, actually manages to undercut it.

Despite my problems, I’d take a movie that reaches for so much and falters a bit over a movie that is content with just being “good” any day. And the problems with this film aren’t from laziness or tedium, they stem from the creators trying too hard. Even with the whole William Holden storyline pulling it back, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a great movie. There are too many moments of genius throughout to be anything but.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Taxi Driver


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 52
Year: 1976
Writer: Paul Schrader
Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd

You first realize something might be screwed up in Travis Bickle’s head when he doesn’t complain about the traffic. Everyone in New York City, even those who don’t drive or never take cabs, complains often and loudly about the traffic. If roads are indeed the veins and arteries of a city, then New York is consistently in the midst of the worst heart attack ever. And yet Travis doesn’t seem to mind. He people-watches during all his time in standstill traffic, and what he sees around him sickens him.

Travis (Robert De Niro) is the taxi driver in “Taxi Driver,” and the movie follows his slow, sick slide into psychosis. He tries to become romantically involved with a political activist (Cybill Shepherd), but is rebuffed after thinking it was a good idea to take her to a pornographic film. He then attempts to take a twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) under his wing, even though she insists she’s perfectly happy selling her body for money. All the while, he gets angrier and starts buying really, really big handguns.

Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese present Travis in a series of seemingly disconnected scenes that slowly build his character. The voice-over narration tips us off that Travis might be a little…uh…psychotic, and when we see his handwriting this is confirmed since it’s scrawled in that creepy child-like way we’ve all seen on A&E serial killer specials.

But the really interesting thing is that, if you delete the voiceover, Travis doesn’t seem all too crazy in the film’s early scenes. He’s good looking enough, and when he charms his way into coffee with Shepherd’s character Betsy, he makes a speech at the diner where he talks about connections between people. I realized that, if you just look at this scene apart from the rest of the movie, the dialogue could easily be spoken by Ryan Gosling in his newest romantic comedy and not miss a beat. But in “Taxi Driver” the dialogue slowly gets under our skin. We become nervous…not because we think Travis will hurt Betsy, but because we still strangely empathize with his character and don’t want him to make a fool of himself. Shrader’s dialogue and characterization is just aces throughout this scene and every other - smart and brutal but still human.

To a certain extent, we all sympathize with Travis because we’ve all felt lonely and abandoned. Scorsese obviously does – when Betsy breaks things off with him the camera literally pans away, unable to show Travis’ world shattering. That’s the reason it breaks our hearts a little bit when the bullets start flying. We care, damn it. Though they aren’t tonally similar, if you compare Travis with similar characters from “Fight Club” or “American Psycho,” you will see that those films choose to make their anti-heroes all gloss and surface instead of really digging in. But Schrader and Scorsese aren’t afraid.

Soon he’s got a Mohawk and is planning a political assassination before murdering a bunch of pimps. Is he trying to “rescue” the women from their clutches? Perhaps he’s telling himself that. But then there’s the thought that these men are “keeping” Travis from these women he could love in one form or another…and because of them he has been abandoned once more. Is it revenge? Or has he just lost his mind to the point where he wants to lash out? Perhaps all of the above? The line is beautifully blurred and works any way you look at it, which just makes the writing and direction even more brilliant.

Of course, none of that would work without the right leading man, and De Niro is perfect here. He works well as the everyman, but there’s a hidden savagery in his eyes that allow us to segue with his performance into his mania. Shepherd is wonderfully appealing in her small, memorable role, and it makes you wish she’d get a great role to play with again, instead of guest-starring on “$#!+ My Dad Says” and “The L Word.” Foster is fine as the young prostitute, but even then had a knowledge and tenacity that make you think she would have been able to figure something better out.

The violence that climaxes the film is still overwhelming and brutal, not because of its savagery (it’s gross, but we live in an age of “Hostel” and “300” so we’re used to it) but because we do still care about Travis. Iris is there too, but we don’t fear for her safety so much as are horrified about how she’ll react to Travis’ actions.

I’ve had several discussions at AFI about whether the final moments of the film are a dream or not. I believe they aren’t, and not just because I really just hate movies with pseudo-dream endings (sorry, “Shutter Island”). The movie works much better if taken literally. There’s dialogue in the letter from Iris’ parents that subtly implies that she’s caught in a new type of hell back in Smalltown, USA, that would not be there had this been a “happy ending dream.” Also, my mind honestly just can’t imagine the final moments in the cab between Travis and Betsy, so understated yet filled with meaning, to be anything less than real. In fact, it’s almost too real and honest.

As I said earlier, “Taxi Driver” presents us with small disconnected moments in Travis’ life more than the slow-build narrative we would normally expect. And, really, isn’t that how we view the lives of everyone around us? Our best friends, our husbands and wives, our lovers, our co-workers…we only see small or long chapters of their life apart from the whole. There is only so much one can know or understand, and there will always be questions that remain.

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ben-Hur


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 100
Year: 1959
Writer: Karl Tunberg (adaptation), Lew Wallace (novel)
Director: William Wyler
Star: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins

For a movie that clocks in at over three-and-a-half hours, I was surprised to find that “Ben-Hur” left several stones unturned in its sprawling, epic story. Huge sections of the title character’s life have been glossed over or take place completely off camera, and the result is a long film that still seems like it’s missing a lot of its major pieces.

We begin with the birth of Jesus, then flash forward a number of years to witness two old friends clashing over religion. Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jew, and Messala (Stephen Boyd) is now a high-ranking officer in the Roman army who expects Ben-Hur to sell out his people. Things spiral out of control after Ben-Hur’s sister accidentally drops part of a roof on a nearby General, and soon Ben-Hur finds himself a slave on a Roman war ship. He’s intent on vengeance against Messala, and soon his circumstances change and he finds himself with an opportunity to find out what happened to his family and how to avenge them.

There’s one hell of a lot more, of course, most notably a subplot connecting Ben-Hur’s journey with that of Christ’s. When Ben-Hur is being dragged away, Jesus gives him a sip of water, and the favor is returned when Jesus carries the cross. These bookend scenes are very touching.

As soon as the prologue fades, screenwriter Karl Tunberg makes an odd choice in beginning with Messala’s character and not introducing Ben-Hur until about a half hour in. These scenes would have been better spent developing Ben-Hur’s family so that we really feel something when he’s separated from them. Then there are endless scenes of talk, talk, talk delivered by a cast that is decent, but not overwhelmingly great. Heston is fine when he’s underplaying the role, which isn’t often, but can’t seem to pull off the inner torment of the film’s final act. Boyd doesn’t have much of a presence, such a shame because this could have been a gem of a role in the hands of the right actor (Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, John Gavin).

The movie has two enormous set pieces, a sea battle and a chariot race (which I’ll get to later). In the first, Ben-Hur is a slave who helps to row one of Rome’s great war ships, and has a chance to escape during battle thanks to a small kindness by a Roman General (Jack Hawkins). Ben-Hur then repays the favor by saving the General’s life. I’m sad to say the special effects of the sea battle have aged horrendously, and much of it is laughable now. The balls of fire launched from the ships at one another are obviously fireworks shot from one miniature ship to another, and as a result the scene doesn’t get any real tension.

It is around this point where Tunberg begins to play fast and loose with the storytelling. Blink and you’ll miss the part where Ben-Hur and the General form a father/son bond and Ben-Hur is adopted and becomes part of one of the richest, most renowned families in Rome. Also missing is the fact that Ben-Hur becomes one of the best chariot drivers in the world while hanging around with his adoptive daddy. These are huge developments and affect everything that follows, but apparently there just wasn’t time for it. I feel like this leaves a pretty big hole in the viewer’s understanding of its hero (especially the evolution of his feelings and sympathies with Romans), and wish the film had explored this.

Anyway, not only is Ben-Hur suddenly a great charioteer, so is Messala! What a coincidence. They race one another in the film’s high point. If the ship scene doesn’t hold together at all, the chariot race is even more impressive today, simply because we understand that these are real people in real danger where real accidents could have easily happened. The entire sequence is shot beautifully, filled with edge-of-your-seat tension and the bloody pay-off is shockingly brutal. Ben-Hur defeats Messala, who is also trampled by horses and dies. Wonderful! End of movie, right?

Nope, we’ve still got almost an hour to go. Turns out Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were in prison for years and became lepers and were let out and joined a leper colony which Ben-Hur’s main squeeze knew about but didn’t tell Ben-Hur about but then he found out anyway and almost went to see them but didn’t but then almost did again but didn’t and then got all broody and then oh wow there’s Jesus and now everyone is cured and they all live happily ever after * catches breath * Phew. There are sporadic, wonderful moments in this final hour, particularly the aforementioned scene where Ben-Hur gives Jesus a drink on his way to die, but it’s…just…too…much. The arc of the movie was set up to me Ben-Hur verses Messala, and with him dead there isn’t really a point to keep going. There had to be a way to dovetail the family’s leprosy and the encounter with Christ in with the battle between Messala, but Tunberg doesn’t seem interested.

Director William Wyler guides the film with a steady hand. He shows off when he must, but tries to keep the film intimate on the whole, more interested with the characters than the explosions. This worked for him often in his career of great movies. “The Best Years of Our Lives” is rightfully in the top 100, but there is also “Friendly Persuasion,” “Funny Girl,” “The Children’s Hour,” “The Letter,” “Jezebel” and many more. He’s possibly the most versatile director in the history of film, and I admire what he tried to do with this epic movie even if the actors held him back from succeeding.

I wonder if making the movie longer (gasp!) would have helped, but then part of me thinks somewhere in the three-and-a-half hour film is a crackerjack two-hour action drama. The movie is good, no doubts about that, but it’s uneven and stumbles when it had a real chance to soar. Ah well, the chariot race remains one of the greatest sequences ever filmed, and time has only made it more impressive. “Ben-Hur” needs to be seen if only for that.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Sunday, November 6, 2011

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 24
Year: 1982
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore

Note: As with all other films in this series, I’ve gone back to the original theatrical version for this article, not the re-release version.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” believes in humanity, and that’s what makes it a masterpiece. The kids who find E.T. don’t fear him, they try to help him. They form a friendship with him and sacrifice things for him. Heck, even the man we think is supposed to be the antagonist turns out to be one of the good guys, who just wants to help the little alien. In any other studio movie, E.T. would be captured, killed and dissected before the first reel ends and, by the end of the first act, mommy and daddy alien would be returning for vengeance. So, in many ways, this PG-rated film with no sex or violence or language stronger than “Penis breath!” is actually ballsier than all its contemporary counterparts.

The story is so simple and straightforward that you know it kept the film’s writer, Melissa Mathison, up nights struggling to make it seem as effortless as it does. When a young alien is accidentally abandoned on earth, he’s taken in by a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends. Elliott names him E.T. and begins a mission to get E.T. back home with his family. Like I said, the story is simple, but Mathison injects her script with much subtlety. She doesn’t spell everything out, and as a result you notice things on repeat viewings you haven’t seen before.

Take the almost telepathic connection between E.T. and Elliott. Where does it come from? Watching the film again, it seems like E.T. has a telepathic connection with his mother at the beginning of the film, and when he loses it with her, he creates one with the first boy he encounters: Elliott. Later, the connection is severed because E.T. is dying, but his family comes for him just in time, recreating their own connection when E.T. needs it the most.

Thomas is immediately likeable and sympathetic as Elliott. He’s too young to hang with his older brother’s friends and doesn’t appear to have any close friends of his own. When he first realizes E.T. can understand him, Elliott jumps around his room, showing the little alien anything and everything that is so important to his world (“and this, this is Lando Calirissian!”), and the moment feels so real. Of course this is how a young boy would introduce an alien to our world.

And then there are the flying bikes. I’m not going to even hypothesize why Elliott and, later, his brother and friends have to keep pedaling while flying if E.T. is pulling the strings, but it doesn’t matter. Seeing Elliott flying across the moon is, quite simply put, one of the best, most memorable moments in the history of film. Goosebumps. Lots of ‘em. And the scene where E.T. “dies” while Elliott screams for his friend remains like a fist to the viewer’s stomach, even when you know E.T. isn’t really dead.

Spielberg stages the scenes so that we rarely see adult faces (with the exception of Elliott’s mother, played by Dee Wallace). There’s a man (Peter Coyote) who has a lot of keys hanging from his belt who is looking for E.T. We expect he is the villain of the movie, and for the first two acts he does indeed seem to be, but once his face is shown, we realize that he’s not a villain. He’s a good man who wants to help Elliott and help E.T. I was surprised to see Mathison allowed Coyote’s character to be present for the finale to see E.T. off, but feel like it works.

The kids in the movie act like kids. They aren’t spouting off dialogue obviously written by someone much older trying to seem hip or cool. Let’s face it, kids (especially the ones in this movie) aren’t hip or cool when they are hanging out with their family. The interactions between the children feels very improvised in the best way possible; they talk over one another and argue even when they aren’t the focus of the scene. This is incredibly difficult to pull off and make feel natural, but Mathison does just that.

The first act of the movie is shot overdramatically. I’m not sure if “overdramatically” is a word, but if not, I’m creating it now. It’s not that we don’t see adult faces and that E.T. is mostly hidden for the first half hour of the film—those choices were wise and helped create atmosphere. I’m talking about the overuse of smoke, steam, dirt and dust in just about every scene. It’s great in the moment where Elliott has his first encounter with E.T. in the barn, but then the haze is in just about every other scene for no particular reason. There’s even a beat where Elliott puts a plate in the sink and turns on the water, only to have so much steam billow out you’d think you were walking over a subway grate in December. I know, I know. It’s not a huge complaint, but this movie has few flaws, and the haze’s incessant presence really did take me out of the movie.

There are so many things I love about “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.” It doesn’t age. The effects still work as well as they did when the film was first released. The acting. The direction. More than anything, it’s one of those very special movies that can put a smile on the face of the most cynical among us. It gives us “hope,” which is a word almost all Hollywood writers have long forgotten.

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

Addendum: As always, I avoided looking up awards, the film’s development history or critical reaction before writing the article. After posting, however, everything is fair game. I discovered that, for the 1983 Oscars, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Gandhi.” Also nominated that year were “The Verdict” and “Tootsie.” To this I must say, “Really, Academy voters? I mean, REALLY?”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 33
Year: 1975
Writer: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman (adaptation), Ken Kesey (novel)
Director: Milos Forman
Star: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of those movies you admire so much in the broad strokes. I hadn’t seen the movie in years, and my memory had forced all the odd edges and annoyances out of the picture, and I remembered the film as a masterpiece. I remembered the fantastic moment where Nurse Ratched demands her soiled hat back. I remembered the Chief speaking for the first time. I remembered Nicholson begging the other patients in the ward to raise their hands so he can watch baseball. And those scenes are still great. But, looking at the movie today, I can’t help but be a little let down.

Perhaps it’s because those aforementioned scenes (and many others) are so good, you want to like the rest of the movie more than it merits. Or perhaps it’s because the movie touches greatness so often you can’t help but notice its failures. Maybe I’ve just become more cynical. Maybe movies have just become more cynical. Maybe it’s a little of all of the above.

It all centers on McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, who is brilliant), who was in prison but gets a transfer to a mental institution to, ostensibly, relax and take it easy for a few months before he’s released. Little does he know that the ward is ruled with an iron fist by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, every bit as good as Nicholson). The movie becomes anti-establishment, with McMurphy fighting against “the man” and introducing the other patients to sex, drugs and alcohol.

McMurphy is such a defining character that we’ve stopped thinking of him as a “character” and simply believe that he is Nicholson. Most actors hate the word “effortless” to describe a performance because so much effort is put into any good one, but that word describes Nicholson in this film. And Fletcher’s quiet reserve serves as the perfect compliment to Nicholson’s unhinged nature. When the relationship becomes explosive, it’s resonant because the moment has been built and paced beautifully over the film.

The rest of the patients in the ward are portrayed well by a great slew of character actors, including Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick and Brad Dourif. They know when to go subtle and when to go over-the-top, and I feel like their performances are the real reason we find ourselves laughing “with” these characters, not laughing “at” them.

The highest compliment I can give the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman is that the dialogue doesn’t seem like dialogue. The entire movie has the feel of improvisation, which might be the toughest thing a writer can pull off successfully.

The best scene the movie comes when Nurse Ratched (and the audience) realizes that she’s lost control. No, not the late night orgy of booze and boobs, this comes earlier. They are having group counseling and McMurphy is livid because he’s realized he’ll have to remain an inmate until Ratched says he’s free to go. First, one of the patients simply asks why their bedrooms are locked during the day, and then another (played by Lassick) begins screaming for his cigarettes. Ratched remains stone-faced as the screaming turns into anarchy and the anarchy turns to violence…resulting in Lassick’s character, McMurphy and the Chief (Sampson) being taken to electroshock therapy. The scene is probably almost seven minutes and the direction, editing, acting and slow build of tension makes the entire thing crackle with energy. I look at those moments and think just how amazing the movie could be if every scene was as true as this one.

But then there are the problems.

First and foremost, it becomes clear that McMurphy believes (and the movie does as well) that he can cure these men through the use of masculinity. Just shove enough alcohol (never mind what side effects it might create for the drugs they are taking) in their mouths and enough breasts in their faces and they can recover. These men are mentally ill. The writers try (but don’t succeed) in side-stepping this by stating that most of the patients are there voluntarily, so obviously they aren’t crazy, right? Right? Yes, McMurphy metaphorically and mentally “frees” the Chief, but what of the others? The ones with real issues. Billy’s death is just as much McMurphy’s fault as Nurse Ratched’s, but it’s easier to overlook that because this is an anti-establishment story.

In fact, there’s an entirely different interpretation of the movie one could see, one where Ratched is the hero and McMurphy is the villain. She is, after all, just doing her job and he’s putting these guys in harm’s way every chance he gets. In this version, McMurphy gets what he deserves at the end and sanity is restored. I’d normally call a movie working just as well under several interpretations a great thing, but this movie is so obviously on McMurphy’s side, this can only be seen as a fault.

Also a major issue is the blatant misogynistic spin. Ratched has removed all semblances of femininity from herself, and as a result is called a “cunt” and “bitch” early and often by McMurphy. Her assistant barely has three lines. Dourif’s character has issues with his mother and ex-girlfriend, and Redfield’s character loathes his wife. The only women seen in a good light are the whores who go sailing with the boys and sneak the booze into the hospital.

And then there’s the little fact that the (I’m guessing) 40ish-year-old McMurphy was in prison because he raped a 15-year-old girl. This is actual dialogue: “She was very willing, if you know what I mean. I practically had to take to sewing my pants shut. Between you and me, she might have been 15 but, when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of you, I don't think it's crazy at all…and I don't think you do either.”

We’re supposed to cheer for this guy. The movie basically forgets this little exchange happened five minutes later, so I guess they figure we should as well?

These are all major, major problems that prevent the movie from working as it should. But it’s so much easier to forget. To forgive the movie for its issues. To just focus on Nicholson and Fletcher and cheer when the Chief breaks that window and embraces his newfound strength. Good luck with that.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 39
Year: 1964
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern (adaptation), Peter George (novel)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickins

The biggest joke in “Dr. Strangelove” is that is would have made one hell of a good thriller. In fact, it did. Ever see Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe”? Of course, until its third act, “Dr. Strangelove” plays its situation completely straight. No one winks at the audience. The actors twitch. A lot. But they never wink.

The plot involves a crazed General named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) implementing Wing Attack Plan R (for Robert), in which all the American nuclear bombers go incommunicado and attack Russia. Ripper’s aide (Peter Sellers) desperately struggles to learn a code that will bring communication back to the bombers. Meanwhile, the President (Sellers again) convenes all his important Generals and severe-looking friends in the War Room to try and prevent the disaster. Most notable among the attendees is General Turgidson (George C. Scott), who chews a lot of gum and isn’t beating himself up over this little slip up, and Dr. Strangelove himself (Sellers a third time), a former Nazi with a hand that has a mind of its own. Oh, and we’re also following one of the bombers piloted by King Kong (Slim Pickins) as it approaches its Russian target. Personally, I wish the Kong role was a fourth for Sellers, but what can you do?

Writers Stanley Kubrick (also the director) and Terry Southern are brilliant in the way they slowly build their jokes by grounding them first in reality and then logically escalating them a step at a time until we are lost in the hilarity of it all. One of the best gags is when Ripper’s aide desperately needs to make a call to the President. The red phone in Ripper’s office has been destroyed. So has the regular phone. Good thing there’s a pay-phone in the hallway. But, crap, Sellers doesn’t have enough change. Can he call the President collect? Nope. Does a nearby soldier have change? Of course not, why would a soldier carry coins into battle? Sellers finally begs the soldier to fire into a Coke machine, and then they get into the ethics of destroying property of the Coke-a-Cola corporation. The solider finally concedes, but if Sellers doesn’t get in contact with the President there will be hell to pay. And then there’s the beautiful visual gag of Coke spurting from the machine all over the soldier’s face. The entire affair is underlined by the suspense that, if Sellers doesn’t make that call, the entire world will be plunged into a nuclear winter. It’s brilliant.

There are many genuinely funny scenes just like this peppered all around “Dr. Strangelove,” but I must admit that some of these jokes and payoffs just don’t land as they once did. It’s a shame because other filmmakers have ripped off many of the jokes so often and in such a literal fashion that they can’t help but lose some of their power. Look at the moment where Scott’s character takes a personal call with his secretary/whore in the war room. How many variations on this moment have we seen in film and on television? Or the scene where the secretary/whore carries on a conversation on the phone between two men by screaming at one in the bathroom?

Ah well, when the movie is at its best, it’s still maniacally funny. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, it’s the War Room!” is right up there with “Nobody’s perfect” or “Show me the money!” in the echelon of all-time-best comedic one-liners.

Sellers is great in his three roles. Dr. Strangelove is, of course, the showiest, and I’m guessing whenever they show a clip of Sellers in the movie, this is the first character they focus on. But, for my money, his “straight man” performances as the President and Ripper’s aide Mandrake are even better. Mandrake is probably my favorite, but that’s because the character gets my favorite extended gag (the aforementioned Coke machine sequence) in the movie. Scott’s performance is purposefully over the top, as if he’s playing to the third tier of a theatre without realizing Kubrick is filming in close-up. The result is splendid.

I must say that I think there is a major structural error in the movie’s third act. As Kong rides the bomb down to the ground, screaming in glee the entire time, the movie reaches its maniacal high point. But then, for some unknown reason, we move back to the War Room for more talk and plans of moving into mines for a hundred years or so. The scene is funny, but why is it here? Why couldn’t this scene have been moves to before the bombing moment, that way we are on a high when the film cuts to the “We’ll Meet Again” and the montage of bombs going off. The scene feels unnecessary as it is, and hurts the pacing of the final act.

Of course I make my complaints in the full knowledge that this movie getting made at all was miraculous, and that Kubrick and Southern actually pulling off making a nuclear disaster funny was nearly impossible. “Dr. Strangelove” is one of those once-in-a-generation features that breaks all the rules in such a way that they can never be broken in the same way again.

It turns out Kubrick was very good at this “breaking the rules” thing – in addition to this movie he similarly rewrote what we thought we knew about film with “2001: A Space Odyssey” (also in the AFI Top 100), “Barry Lyndon” and “The Shining.” This will be my final Kubrick article for this series (I’ve previously written on “Spartacus,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and I must say that even though his work has never emotionally engaged me on a level Chaplin, Hitchcock, Wilder, Spielberg or Huston do, I really admire what his movies aspire to be and love his technical expertise. They are all imperfect, sure, but Kubrick is unafraid to take us places and do things with his films other directors would never attempt to try.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Midnight Cowboy


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 43
Year: 1969
Writer: Waldo Salt (adaptation), James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Director: John Schlesinger
Star: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight

When I finished watching “Midnight Cowboy” I was surprised by how little it moved me. It had two engaging characters at its forefront and a few genuinely engaging moments, but so much of its edge has dulled and so many of the things that (I presume) were once groundbreaking are now eye-rolling and cliché.

Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck, the “cowboy” of the title. And yes, his name couldn’t be more on-the-nose. He hops a bus from Texas to NYC with the intention of being a well-paid, well-laid hustler, but the Big Apple has other plans for him. These early sequences on the bus and on the streets of the city take their time and give you a real feel for Joe’s character. There’s also a very funny sequence where a woman picks up Joe off the street and sleeps with him. The apartment she’s in is swanky and rich, but by the end of the night he feels so bad for her that he ends up paying her. Whoops.

There seems to only be two versions of New York City in film: The fairy tale, perfectly-lit version where the moon is always in frame and trees on the street are lit with Christmas lights…and the version where it seems like the production designers have smeared their own feces everywhere just before the cameras rolled. Director John Schlesinger, his cinematographer Adam Holender and editor Hugh A. Robertson have gone out of their way to turn New York City into a dingy, dirty (dirty!) character all its own. The signs Joe steps near seem to mimic his state of mind, and every surface of every room is covered in grime. Anyway, the cutting to the city is fine and interesting while Joe is getting acclimated to the city, but as the film wears on, my nerves wore thin, to the point where a glowing sun electric billboard slowly fading out during an emotional low point caused me to laugh.

Into Joe’s world hobbles Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Not the Muppet, that’s Rizzo the Rat. Joe’s never seen anyone like Rizzo before, and though they butt heads early and often, Rizzo eventually invites Joe to share his shack of an apartment, where they live together and become inseparable. He also has one or more of the following illnesses, so feel free to mix and match: polio, tuberculosis, cancer and/or pneumonia. Like Voight, Hoffman is tremendous in the role, making the viewer really care about the poor guy’s plight without making him a stereotype.

The friendship between these two characters is the best thing about the film and, really, the one part of the movie that hasn’t aged. In a few short scenes, writer Waldo Salt establishes the characters perfectly and there’s a real evolution of feelings and friendship between the characters as the movie progresses that resonates without becoming trite or obvious. When Rizzo tearfully tells Joe that he can no longer walk, our hearts break for both of them. Today it’s much easier to read into the relationship’s homosexual undertones (especially considering the scene where Joe abandons Rizzo to be with a woman and then cannot get an erection) but, to me, there’s a real beauty to the simplicity of two men falling in love without “falling in love.” Ah well, it works just as well both ways, and the ability of the actors to toe the line without being more blatant makes the movie all the more interesting.

After writing that last paragraph, I really wish I could say the rest of the movie was as special as the main characters are, but almost everything else stumbles badly. First, there are those horrible “Screenwriting 101” flashbacks to Joe’s life back in Texas that allude to horrible memories with his grandmother and first love. Even worse is the fantasy sequence where Rizzo imagines himself a gambling king in Florida with a bunch of wheelchair-bound elderly women. Oy. How these moments made the final cut is beyond me, especially considering that they undercut and water down some fairly good sequences they are injected into. Look at the scene where Joe is desperate enough to hustle a young guy in the movie theatre for a real missed opportunity.

And don’t even get me started on the Andy Warhol-inspired psychedelic party Rizzo and Joe find themselves attending.

The movie implodes the moment Joe loads Rizzo on a bus to Florida for the film’s denouement. Even before the bus took off I would have bet any money that Rizzo wouldn’t make it to his final destination…and wouldn’t you know it? He dies miles before he reaches Miami. Such obvious writing that basically does everything but reach out of the screen and forcibly extract the tears from your eyes. How can you emotionally engage in something that tiresome? Yes, I know variations on this have been done thousands of times, in everything from “One Way Passage” to “Battlestar Galactica” to that bittersweet scene that closes “The Age of Innocence.” And yet those works earned their endings. Here the truer thing would have been to keep our characters in the city to face their endings head on.

What makes all this all the more frustrating is because there was so much potential, and every time the film touches greatness it’s undercut by such sloppy storytelling. “Midnight Cowboy” should have been a masterpiece and could have been one. If only…

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

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Goodfellas


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 92
Year: 1990
Writer: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi (adaptation), Nicholas Pileggi (book)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

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.

Henry 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.

Violence 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 butt 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): *****

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Deer Hunter


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 53
Year: 1978
Writer: Deric Washburn (screenplay), Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle (story)
Director: Michael Cimino
Star: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep

“The Deer Hunter” has some good things in it, but the overall effect I got out of it was indifference. When I realized that the three act structure of the film would follow a character named Michael (Robert De Niro) before his tour in the Vietnam, during the tour and then the emotional aftermath when he returns home, I thought it was refreshing and couldn’t wait to dive in. Then, as the movie rolled on (and on (and on))) I began to realize that the film’s messages (the ones that came out when it wasn’t trying to be overly ambiguous) were nothing we hadn’t seen told better in other films. Ultimately, the movie feels ambitious, but in the sense that it’s overindulgent, overlong and overcooked.

The film’s first act mostly focuses on a Russian Orthodox wedding attended by Michael, his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken), the woman they both love (Meryl Streep), the groom (John Savage) and assorted drunken people. And yes, for awhile it’s very enjoyable to get such a slice of small-town life and see the joy and exhilaration of the celebration. But twenty minutes would have been fine…instead we’ve got another thirty to watch.

The main male cast are drunk for the first hour and ten minutes of the movie. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. Writer Deric Washburn and director Michael Cimino try give us one of those “this is how men really behave” feelings here. But let’s be honest with ourselves, guys. This isn’t how dudes really act when they are drunk. The actions we see here and the guys’ behavior is how men wish we could act while they are drunk. Here the characters have deep, logical, insightful conversations with one another, can drive wonderfully under the influence, go hunting and actually see well enough to shoot a deer, shower each other with beer on a pool table and perfectly play the piano. In reality, these characters would probably burp, pee in the corner of a room and then pass out on the couch.

The film picks up immensely once the men get to Vietnam, reaching its high point with an incredibly tense Russian Roulette sequence and nail-biting escape and rescue. Cimino does an excellent job of staging the Russian Roulette game, surprising us by having the gun go off in shot angles we would not normally expect. And yet, even here I have reservations about how to story tackles the subject. In the first place, none of the main men die here. Yes, I know what happens to Nick later, but still, the scene would have been more powerful had one of the main characters actually shot himself here. And, in many ways, it would actually serve to further underline Nick’s PTSD and psychosis in the third act. The only characters that die are faceless characters. The movie also goes out of its way to not characterize any of the Vietnamese people, whatever side they are on. In “Platoon” this worked because they seemed more like a force…more like ghosts, but here the creators had every opportunity to take a few moments to give a little depth to them and avoided it. It’s a missed opportunity.

When the Michael character gets home, the movie slows down and acts like it’s giving us real insight into its characters and their situations. But just about everything every character does here is expected and pretty predictable. Of course Michael isn’t going to want a welcome home party. And of course he’s going to be emotionally distant from Streep’s character, who of course will latch onto him not only because she loves him, but because he is a connection to the other man she loves. And we know Michael is ultimately going to go back to get Nick, but he will not be successful.

I feel like, despite my complaints, there is insight here and there are very deep, well-acted scenes. It’s just that I’ve just seen much better interpretations of the subject matter than here. For example, “The Best Years Of Our Lives” done two generations before about WWII, is much more emotionally shattering and intuitive in its portrayal of the men coming home from the war, scarred both emotionally and physically. And for all the suspense and horror of the Russian Roulette scenes, “Platoon” is so much better at showing the real terror and uncertainty of the Vietnam war. And hell, if I want to see a bunch of guys under the influence and scared about going to war, I’ll watch “Hair.” It has a better soundtrack.

More than that, this is the first time I’ve been watching a movie on the AFI Top 100 and thought “well, the critics must have loved this.” Today it’s business as usual for studios to release films (“The Reader”) that seem tailor-made (“A Beautiful Mind”) to be nominated (“Million Dollar Baby”) for a bunch of Oscars (“The King’s Speech”), even though the content (“The Queen”) of the movies themselves (“Babel”) may not merit the attention (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) they receive. That’s how I felt watching “The Deer Hunter.” Ooh, there’s the scene they shot for Streep’s Oscar reel! Oh look, an ambiguous ending that is bittersweet! Oh look, guys crying!

Look, I understand what Cimino was trying to accomplish here and I have a lot respect for what he did pull off. “The Deer Hunter” isn’t a bad movie, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it could. It’s obvious and heavy-handed when it could have been subtle and impactful. It could have used a meat cleaver to chop off 45 minutes of fat. Sure, there were parts that were touching, and the performances of the leads are very good, but I also must say that I probably won’t remember most of the movie next month.

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Forrest Gump


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 76
Year: 1994
Writer: Eric Roth (adaptation), Winston Groom (novel)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Star: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise

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.

Just 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.

In 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. Recently he’s focused solely on completely CGI films like “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol.” I really wish he’ll return to live action soon, because an industry more concerned with 3-D and Transformers than story and substance needs him. Badly.

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): ****