Saturday, February 11, 2012

One Last Furtive Look Around

12,717 minutes
212 hours
8.83 days

That’s the amount of time it takes to watch AFI’s 2007 list of the "100 greatest American films." Last night I watched the final film on the list, "Citizen Kane," up on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre. See? There's my ticket stub and everything. Of course, for me, just watching the movies was the tip of the iceberg. I have spent the last two years of my life devoted to watching, absorbing and discussing these films, and now that the final film has faded out and my final article has been written, I can safely say that it was time very well spent.

I started on the journey hoping to learn just as much about myself as a filmmaker as I would learn about the craft of filmmaking itself, and in that respect I also believe I succeeded. I hadn’t seen every movie on the list, and many of the ones I had seen had long since begun fading from my memory. For me, the most amazing thing that the American Film Institute represents is that it bridges the gap between honoring the past and what has made filmmaking America’s greatest, most influential art form while training the next generation of filmmakers…the ones who it will honor years from now. It’s a beautiful circle, one which I was honored to be a part of for two years and, hopefully, will one day be part of its legacy. I must also point out that my education at AFI was worth every penny, and has earned its reputation as the world's best film school thanks to its fantastic faculty, staff and selection of Fellows.

I write this because the thing that I believe more than anything else about filmmaking is that, to move the medium forward, you must first understand its history and what has made it work to this point. Filmmaking has always, and continues to, represent the most important and emotionally genuine aspects of our culture. If you do not make an honest attempt to study and invest yourself in the men and women who kept it alive through the decades, then you are an idiot. You can learn everything about how to write a scene, stage a scene, direct actors, work a camera, hold a boom mic, edit coverage…but without inherently understanding what makes the final product transcendent, you are doomed to failure.

So should everyone who wants to make movies watch the AFI Top 100? Of course.

But is the list really the Top 100 movies? Of course not.

In the first place, the list only covers American films and, really, any list of great films that lacks “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is incomplete. “Sight & Sound” does a survey of directors and critics every decade to find the top films from all over the world, but those lists are faulty as well.

That is because every list, no matter how many people have added or subtracted to it, is essentially subjective and must inherently evolve with time. Not just because new films are being released every week, but because we aren’t the same people, the same country, the same world as we were yesterday, or last week, or last year. I’m lucky enough to love every genre of film, but to others, genres like horror and science fiction could never be transcendent enough to be considered an art form. That thought is just ridiculous, of course—just because you don’t like something does not mean that it does not exist or deserve validation.

Before writing this epilogue, I examined my prologue…the first article setting down the ground rules of the project. I wrote that I would explore whether any given film from the list deserved classic status, inclusion and then, every few articles, I would offer up a suggestion for another film that could serve as a replacement. Whoops.

I don’t think what I wrote there was wrong-headed, because I understand where I was coming from, but that was before I actually started. Now that I’m finished watching all 100 films, I can say that each one deserves its classic status. Did I dislike some of the movies? Of course. Are there many movies that I believed should have been ranked instead of ones that actually made the final cut? Duh. And yet…and yet each film on the list is important. Is special. I might disagree with its inclusion, but I understand why each film was chosen. If I hadn’t watched every movie on this list, I would have been missing out on a significant part of our culture. It was an honor to watch every film…even “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Another decision I made early on was to watch each movie fresh. I would do absolutely no research on the film, filmmakers, the history of the project, its critical acclaim, its awards or its impact on society before watching the movie and writing my article. If possible, I wouldn’t even read the back of the DVD box. And I can legitimately write that my choice was exactly the right decision. It gave these films that mystique that would have been lost had I known all the nuts and bolts going in. I have been studying those nuts and bolts for the past two years at AFI and, frankly, wanted an escape to view the movies like they were meant to be seen: As their own entity. Had I known how the actors seemed to make tracks in virgin sand in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the magic would have been lost. Had I known Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh hated one another, I would have been watching for that on the screen instead of being swept away in their love story.

Reading critical analysis of the classics today is like reading a history lesson. “This scene is important because it is the first time this camera was used and this nod has significance because the filmmakers hated one another and were threatening to kill one another in their sleep.” It’s almost as if modern critics are using all the histories, intricacies, battles with studios, battles between cast and crew and censorships to qualify the movies as classics. Hell, 2/3 of the critical essays I read about these films (after seeing them, of course) were more about their making than the movies themselves. That’s not how it should be. The best movies are classics not because of the circumstances they are made…but because they are great movies. After being mired in so much talk, talk, talk about the “how,” it was refreshing to watch the movies purely and ask myself “why.”

Even though I know they aren’t the actual Top 100 films because there can never be a definitive list, the AFI list still has vital importance, because it represents 100 reasons to fall in love with film. It also represents a means to introduce you to hundreds of other important, great films (American and otherwise). Because I watched these movies I am now a huge fan of Chaplin, have tracked down most of Wilder’s movies, discovered a love for David Lean’s Dickens adaptations and his great “Summertime,” feel like I’ve finally understood what Stanley Kubrick’s appeal is…and that’s just from the top 25. Now I can’t imagine my life without “Modern Times” and “The Last Picture Show,” two films I had never seen two years ago.

Use this list as a launching point to discover other amazing movies, shorts, television, filmmakers. Expand your knowledge. Grow. And if you make it through these 100, promise me you’ll watch “East of Eden,” “Notorious,” “The Great Dictator,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Uninvited,” “Witness For the Prosecution,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Exorcist,” “Kill Bill,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Room With a View,” “Night of the Hunter,” “Superman,” “The Verdict,” “Remains of the Day,” “Alice Adams,” “Casino Royale,” “The Thin Man,” “A Star is Born,” “Horror of Dracula,” “The Color Purple” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Haunting,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Limelight,” “Touch of Evil,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Funny Face,” “The Untouchables”…and I’m sure that’s only scratching the surface.

What’s next? This isn’t the end. I want to dive into television next, but more on that later.

One final triumph: Through watching this list, I know for a fact that I became a better writer and filmmaker, consistently holding myself to a much higher standard than I did before I started.

Thanks for reading,
Robert Taylor
February 11, 2012

Citizen Kane

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 1
Year: 1941
Writer: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Director: Orson Welles
Star: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore

As a viewer, the more you invest yourself in “Citizen Kane,” the more rewarding the film becomes. On a level of pure entertainment, it is smart and rewarding…but there’s so much more to tear into. No matter how many times you see it, you pick up on new bits, question your old opinions and urgently try to put together just who the hell Charles Foster Kane really is. Of course the entire point is that there’s no way to truly know, but that doesn’t stop us from trying anyway.

The film is ostensibly all about Kane (Orson Welles, also the co-writer and director), but is really more about how his “friends” and “colleagues” interpreted him. No one, of course, really knows who a person is—even that person himself. Everything we think or speak about a person is tainted by our own sets of morals, opinions, rose-colored glasses, grudges, emotional attachments or detachments, likes, dislikes, failures, successes…the list could go on and on. But of course it is. Everyone’s got an angle. After Kane’s death, we watch “reliable” newsreel footage of his life and, after it finishes, its viewers complain that it needs a point-of-view. Yup, an angle. A Reporter (William Alland, never clearly seen during the movie) is sent to discover the truth behind the last thing Kane said: “Rosebud.” Of course, this Reporter has apparently never read his A.P. Stylebook, because he keeps referring to “rosebud” as Kane’s final words, not word, but that’s beside the point.

The Reporter reads the memoirs of Kane’s deceased guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris in flashbacks), Kane’s manager Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his former friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotton), his ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and his butler (Paul Raymond). How reliable are any of these people when speaking about the man who had such a huge impact on their lives? I’d say “not very.” Each seems to approach their story with their opinions long in place and tells the story more for themselves than for Kane.

The most trustworthy seems to be Bernstein, who provides us with the greatest, most insightful passage ever placed on film. Before he begins his recollections of Kane, he tells the Reporter this:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”

The dialogue from the script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles isn’t overly showy. Just the opposite, in fact. And Sloane doesn’t overact the moment and turn it into “his big scene.” In any modern movie this moment would be the equivalent of an actor’s “Oscar reel moment,” and they more often than not take you completely out of the film. And yet here it works so beautifully. Don’t we all have that girl on the dock somewhere in our lives? Entire movies (several of them on the top 100) are based on this idea, but all Mankiewicz and Welles needed was a simple paragraph of dialogue. I can never watch the scene without getting covered in goosebumps.

We watch the flashbacks on several levels. The first is the simple informational level—trying to understand what those being interviewed thought made Kane tick. The second is to see if they support or contradict what others say about him. The third is to carefully watch point-of-view and see how often it’s broken. And the fourth, of course, is to question everything we are being told and create our own opinions about just how polluted the stories really are.

The first two are what any viewer would do. The second two are part of the reason “Citizen Kane” has endured as a masterpiece. I have to admit, I hate it in flashbacks when point-of-view is entirely disregarded and, even though one person is telling his or her version of events, we enter omniscient perspective. Here it would be easy to call the point-of-view breaks a flaw, but it’s really not. It’s another layer of the onion. Because instead of seeing it as a structural problem, you can view this as insight into the character speaking and an extension of what he or she thought Kane’s life must have been like outside of their relationship. Or you could interpret it as the person telling stories he or she has heard dozens of times and now assumes it to be fact.

This goes hand-in-hand with the fourth, which is something every reporter or investigator must do in his research. And since the Reporter is a proxy for our perspective, Mankiewicz and Welles invite us to go as deep as we like into the film. Each flashback has its own perspective, its own tone…and its own measured reliability.

The first flashback comes from Thatcher’s memoirs, recounting the moment he took Kane from his parents to the moment Kane was forced to sign over the power of his empire. The tone here is one of flustered judgment. Thatcher actually breaks the fourth wall at several points when he turns to camera and rolls his eyes or drops his jaw at the things Kane has the audacity to do. This flashback is also the only one where Kane volunteers his opinion of himself, told to Thatcher as he signs over control of his empire:

Kane: “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Thatcher: “Don’t you think you are?”
Kane: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.”
Thatcher: “What would you have like to have been?”
Kane: “Everything you hate.”

Bernstein is in the room as well, but never mentions it during his recollection, something I found odd since it seemed like such a momentous way to sum up a life. Is Thatcher reliable here? I don’t think so. I think that he manufactured most of this conversation in his mind to make it more of a triumph for himself, especially that last little exchange.

As I wrote earlier, the most reliable perspective seems to come from Bernstein, though his stories are colored with sentimentality for the “good old days.” This is underlined by his first break in point-of-view, when Kane arrives at the Inquirer. We see it from Kane’s perspective with Jedediah, both full of hope for the future…Bernstein arrives moments later on a furniture truck. It’s obvious Bernstein feels that Kane was a great man, but is it to the point where he idolized him and stopped questioning his choices? The painting of Kane we see over Bernstein’s fireplace seems to support that theory.

The most substantive of the flashbacks (and also the most problematic) comes from Jedediah. He introduces himself as the closest thing Kane ever had to a friend, so when there are huge breaks in perspective during his memories we assume it is fine since he probably heard them from Kane himself. But how much to accept? Was Kane’s second wife Susan really as simple minded as she is introduced to be here? And did the face-off between Kane, his two loves and his rival for office really go down like that? The problem is that Jedidiah’s character seems more interested with moral codes and, from his perspective, the slow rot of Kane’s soul than with Kane’s actual personality. Jedidiah gives many speeches to Kane and assumes many moments of meaning…but he’s completely drunk in those scenes so how can he reliably remember what he says? The older Jedidiah probably just remembers, “That’s the night I really gave it to him!” and blurs the story accordingly, ironic considering what he claims to stand for.

Perhaps the one genuinely true moment in the flashbacks comes during Susan’s flashback. After she has made her opera debut to scathing reviews, she is screaming at her husband when he receives a letter from Jedidiah…one with a list of promises Kane made when he first took over the Inquirer. The list was introduced in Bernstein’s flashback, underlined in Jedidiah’s and paid off here. Susan has no reason to care about the importance of the note, so it comes off as perhaps the only fact in a story compromised from every angle.

Susan’s point-of-view seems fairly reliable, mostly because she doesn’t seem like the type of woman who is smart enough to weave tales like Jedidiah could. But I must make note of two fascinating moments where her reliability is called into question. The first is on a picnic where she finally stands up for herself to Kane, her face unwavering against him even after he has bullied and punched her. We see her face strong, but on the soundtrack is the sound of a woman crying desperately. Perhaps she’s lying that she was strong here when, in fact, she just disintegrated into the crying mess we see in every other scene? The second is when she is about to walk out on Kane and his final plea is that “You can’t do this to me.” Susan replies thusly:

“I see. So it's you who this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.”

I doubt Susan could have ever put two and two together like that. Is it something someone told her when she was telling the story after the fact…and now she’s adopted it into the story itself? I think so.

Finally is the butler. He’s being paid $1000 for his information, so of course he would embellish to make it more dramatic. Would Kane have really destroyed every object in his wife’s bedroom? Again, I think not.

Of course, there’s no way to tell whether or not I’m right or if I’m hopelessly wrong in my opinions and suspicions. And that’s the fantastic thing about “Citizen Kane”…no matter what perspective you come at the story from, you are guaranteed to be both right and wrong. Welles gives us two iconic visual metaphors for the man. In the first he’s speaking beneath a gigantic sign of his face, in essence dwarfed by his own legend. The second is when he walks past two facing mirrors and creates a thousand versions of himself. Both make you understand the man without knowing him, if that makes any sense.

Everything here is one shade of grey or another. Even the opening and closing, told from God’s point-of-view, are questionable. After all, no one actually hears Kane say “Rosebud.” We see a nurse enter seconds later, and the Butler claims he was there, but from our perspective he dies alone in an empty room. When he says the word, we see him through the snow of the globe he is holding. Did he really say it, or do we as an audience need a puzzle to solve and are given one, faulty and empty as it may be?

Much of what I’m written could be considered problematic for a lesser movie, but considering the work of those behind the camera, I’m guessing all of this was taken fully into consideration, and made that way because it made the story more fascinating. It’s not an “easy” movie…it’s one that is unafraid to challenge you every step of the way.

This unsolvable labyrinth of storytelling is supported by some of the most breathtaking, memorable visuals in the history of film. Moments that would be throwaway in any other movie are here given weight and heft thanks to Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland finding new angles and perspectives to shoot everything from. They even go so far as to shoot the entire movie in deep focus…that is, everything in every shot is fully in focus. Besides giving viewers so much more visual candy to play with, it underlines the message of the movie: “Look deeper.” Search the corners of every frame for clues and insights into this guy and what he stands for.

How can you forget the introduction to Susan’s character? The camera is outside a building, cranes up and onto the roof, through the sign, twists and moves down through the window to find her drunk and desperate below. And then there’s her opera debut, where the camera moves ever upward, past the hanging sets and sandbags to find two stagehands seemingly hundreds of feet over the stage, one of which holds his nose in judgment. And, of course, Xanadu itself, which appears equal parts science fiction, medieval castle, horror movie and doll’s house…but, most importantly…empty.

And then there is Welles.

It’s astounding to me that this is his only film in the AFI Top 100. Of course, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is overlooked simply because it was hacked up by RKO, but where is the definitive crime movie “Touch of Evil”? And then there’s “The Stranger,” “The Trial,” “The Lady From Shanghai,” “Chimes At Midnight” (unseen by me and most in America), “Othello”…all gifts to filmmaking from a filmmaker who so often had to edit his vision. This is the one time we got to see his vision unhurt by studios who thought they knew better. I also must note that his movie “Mr. Arkadin” (which, generously, is one of his lesser works) is a weird remake/revision of “Citizen Kane.” It focuses on a man trying to put together the facts of another man’s life, but in that film the man being researched is still alive and desperate to learn the truth about himself.

Yes, to me “Citizen Kane” was rightly placed at the top of AFI’s Best American Film list. It’s a movie so great that even its flaws have warped into its blessings. You could watch this movie a hundred times and still find new things to love about it. You could think you’ve finally discovered all its secrets and then discover something that makes you question everything. Now that’s what I call a masterpiece.

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

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Godfather / The Godfather Part II

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 2, 32
Year: 1972, 1974
Writer: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola (adaptations), Mario Puzo (novel)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan (“The Godfather”)
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton (“The Godfather Part II”)

The first miracle of “The Godfather” is not that we come to care deeply for its characters, but that we care about them in the first place. They are, after all, essentially horrible people who torture, murder and maim to ensure their power. And yet here is a story so well told on every level that the viewer cannot help but engage himself fully. I disagree with every decision Michael Corleone makes over the course of this movie, but I understand them and ultimately sympathize with him.

The film tells the story of the dying away of one generation of a mafia family bleeding into the maturation of the next. The central figure of the dying generation is Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Godfather of the title, and the at-first-unwilling man at the center of the new is his son Michael (Al Pacino). Both men have their own set of rules and morals and, as the film progresses, the two value sets begin to mix and corrupt one another. The screenplay is by Mario Puzo (based upon his novel) and the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola and it is ingenious in the way it invites us slowly but seductively into its world. We go in with our own opinions about the mafia, but as film progresses, it slowly argues for our sympathies and, by the halfway point, wins them.

Just look at the way Puzo and Coppola structure and pace the emotional arcs of the characters. The movie opens with the wedding reception of Don Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire). We see the “family” as just that—a family. Our first introduction to Michael is with his date Kay (Diane Keaton), who knows nothing about Michael’s history or mafia ties. Kay is our real eyes into the family, but more on her later. After Michael tells Kay the lengths his family goes to, he assures her: “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” This intrinsically puts us on Michael’s side and we remain there as he begins to fall back into the dirty work of the Corleone’s.

Even as he does that, we still understand and care. After all, the first thing he does is save his helpless father’s life after an assassination attempt. How can you not identify with that? He takes vengeance for the attack by killing two men. I don’t agree with it, but understand his anger and can only imagine how I would react if someone tried to harm my mother. He is exiled to Italy and only returns to America after his wife and brother Sonny (James Caan) have been murdered, and by that point the spiral into corruption is perfectly set-up. And we really liked his brother, who was gunned down “Bonnie and Clyde” style on his way to rescue his pregnant sister from her abusive husband.

This leads into another reason why the film works so perfectly: The world is completely closed. Martin Scorsese must have modeled his classic “Goodfellas” (also on AFI’s Top 100) on this same idea. Every character we meet and interact with (beside Kay and Michael’s first wife) is either a member of the Corleone family, a rival to their family or a person in awe of their power. With no voice of reason saying “Hey guys, maybe you shouldn’t murder a bunch of dons during a baptism because it’s in pretty bad taste and you might end up in hell for it,” we question the morality of it less. As stated previously, they have their own codes and values which are set up clearly in the very first scene, and on those terms “The Godfather” plays completely fairly.

Coppola has made a career of painting outside the lines, and his use of the large and talented acting ensemble here is rivaled only in his other work. Pacino is the heart of the movie and gives a fascinating, multi-layered performance, but those around him are just as mesmerizing. I’m also amazed that, after all the lampooning, Brando’s performance still holds up as well as it does.

But it’s the smaller performances I want to focus on. Though the movie is filled with memorable scene after memorable scene, one could argue that the two most iconic moments in the film are the horse head in the bed and the “Leave the gun. Bring the cannoli,” murder. Neither involve the main cast and the movie is better for it because it underlines that the mafia is, in fact, a complete world. The Corleone’s have their interests in everyone we meet, but they exist and are human beings as well. This “spreading the wealth” approach (sadly almost abandoned in current cinema) is a trademark of Coppola. Look at most of his major work and the first scene you think of won’t involve the film’s headliner. When I think of “Apocalypse Now,” I immediately think of Robert Duvall wanting to go surfing. When I think of the undervalued (and ripe for rediscovery) “The Cotton Club,” I think of the scene where of Fred Gwynne breaks Bob Hoskins’ gold watch. When I think of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” I think of Sadie Frost in that funereal dress, her face white with death.

Now more about Kay. As I wrote earlier, she is the fresh eyes that represent us, always just outside the Corleone family and never able or willing to take that final step, even after she marries Michael. She appears to be a strong woman from the beginning, and yet the final scene of the movie is her believing Michael’s lie that he had nothing to do with the death of his brother-in-law. Does it make her look gullible for buying into his lies and, by extension, his sins and corruption? Of course. But then again, haven’t we, as the viewers who have deemed this one of the masterpieces of all film, done the same thing?

"The Godfather Part II"

Here’s a Catch-22 if I’ve ever seen one: In devoting a third of “The Godfather Part II” to flashbacks that track the rise to power of Vito Corleone, writers Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed, insert in the film a flaw that can’t help but hurt the pacing and build of the other story they want to tell: Michael Corleone’s embracing of power in exchange for the final vestiges of his soul. And despite creating that problem, this sequel/prequel simply would not work without them. The movie needs to show Vito’s humanity (well, “humanity”) in direct juxtaposition with Michael’s inhumanity for the impact to be deeply felt.

Vito’s story begins with the murders of his father, brother and mother at the hands of one of Italy’s wicked dons. He travels to America, grows up to look a lot like Robert DeNiro and, frustrated with the mafia presence in his slice of New York City, decides to take things into his own hands.

Michael’s (Al Pacino again) story begins with a celebration of the first communion of his son. He’s still married to Kay (Diane Keaton), but things between them are icier of late. After an assassination attempt, Michael goes to great lengths to uncover the turncoat in his family while also securing a big business deal in Cuba and being investigated by the government. Phew. The suspects include his brother Fredo (John Cazale) and even his underboss Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall).

At some point in the movie, Pacino’s eyes completely drain of emotion and go dead, and they stay that way in virtually every other scene (the one exception is his fury at learning Kay had an abortion). How could this man we saw courting Kay and smiling widely at the wedding reception that opened the first film have turned into this soulless monster? If Kay is indeed our eyes into the world and the Corleone family, then she becomes just as suspicious and horrified of Michael as we do early on.

Vito sensed something in Michael that reminded him of himself, and yet the man we see before us has embraced all the unseemly horrors of the mafia and forgotten entirely the lessons and charity his father showed. After Sonny was murdered in the first film, Vito took the step to end the cycle of revenge instead of just wiping out everyone who had set their sights on his family. It seems Michael cannot comprehend this.

I write those statements not as a criticism, but in admiration that Puzo and Coppola could tell this story so unflinchingly. We inherently knew where this was heading from the middle of the first film, and the murders Michael oversaw at the climax of that film confirmed it, but here the two show just how far he’ll fall on this journey. There’s a beautiful, heartbreaking scene that takes place after the Corleone matriarch has passed, where Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) gets on her knees and begs Michael to see Fredo (the man who betrayed him) again. Michael seems touched and embraces his brother once more, and we dare to hope, even though his dead eyes tell us we should know better, that he can change. And then the movie climaxes with Fredo being shot while Michael watches.

This is all very Shakespearean, and Coppola wisely knows that even in the most dire of his tragedies, there must always be some form of light to distract us (even momentarily) from the descent into hell. This can sometimes be a supporting character who ultimately becomes a hero (“Macbeth”), a comic-relief character (think of Falstaff) or some really dark humor (Tamora eating her sons in a pie in “Titus”). Puzo and Coppola supply us with Vito, brought wonderfully to life by De Niro in a performance that doesn’t strive to mimic Brando’s work but instead capture the spirit. Vito isn’t exactly a saint, but in comparison to Michael he might as well be. He murders a don who is the bane of the community and steps into the role, genuinely trying to do good for those who need his help. Of course, in the end he returns to Italy to exact a really nasty revenge on the man who killed his family, but the next moment is of Vito and his family on a train, together and loved. It was revenge, yes, but the story ends with the hope that Vito would grow into the man we meet at the beginning of “The Godfather.”

The screenplay is excellent, with many wonderfully written scenes and enough callbacks to the original (both subtle and blatant) to give us real impact from these characters’ journeys. And yet neither mini-film could exist on its own. The false optimism at the end of Vito’s story would ring false, and Michael’s story would be too oppressive for us connect emotionally.

Watching the movies back to back, I can’t help but be a little let down by the scope of the movie. I’m sure the budget for this movie was much higher than the original thanks to all the praise and box office and Oscars and prestige and stuff, but I can’t help but feel all the add-ons are a little…off. The original seemed epic despite taking place mostly in dimly lit offices, restaurants and back-rooms. It went “big” only twice, with the wedding (which was juxtaposed with the intimacy of Vito’s office) and our first view of Michael in Italy. In Michael’s story there’s a communion party (a parallel to the wedding in the original), multiple parties in Cuba, a riot scene for good measure and Senate hearings. In Vito’s story there’s the arrival in America, the introduction of his neighborhood, a parade and other large street scenes. Perhaps the most telling example of this is that Michael’s office has a huge window that overlooks a lake. Where are my beloved Venetian blinds? I truly missed the intimacy of those smoke-filled rooms, and think many of those parties and parades could have been excised without losing much from the final product.

The heart of the movie comes when Fredo, thinking Michael has forgiven him, explains to Michael’s son how to fish. He tells about how his father took the boys fishing, and no one caught a bite except for him. The way he describes it…you inherently know it’s the proudest moment of his life, even though it was decades prior. For that small scene, our hearts break for Fredo and we completely understand what it must have been like for him in a family that included stronger, smarter men like Vito, Sonny and Michael. Without this scene, his death at the end means nothing and Michael’s descent is just that. But, because of this scene and because we like Kay so much, the film is a tragedy. The two movies connect so well in telling a complete story of how a good man can be corrupted absolutely, even with the best of intentions. It tells its story, manages to affect us even though we know it shouldn’t, and in the end resonates deeply. What more could you want?

My Score (out of five): “The Godfather” - *****
“The Godfather Part II” - ****

Friday, February 3, 2012


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 3
Year: 1942
Writer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch (adaptation), Murray Burnett, Joan Alison (play)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains

Everyone knows the old quote Howard Hawks used to describe a good movie: “Three great scenes. No bad ones.” “Casablanca” is a movie with a seemingly endless amount of great scenes and not a bad one anywhere to be found. I suppose that’s why it’s almost at the top of AFI’s list, and why it’s so easy to fall in love with. Here is a simple story, extremely well told, where every minute or two you smile with recognition as you see a classic moment and realize what made it so special and perfect in the first place.

We open in the title city, a place where everyone seems eternally stuck, hoping to escape to America away from Nazi forces. The only one who doesn’t seem to want to leave is Rick (Humphrey Bogart). He owns a bar where everyone finds themselves every night, good or bad, poor or rich. One night, Rick’s lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar…with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and it just happens that he’s enemy number one for Nazi officials, who are desperate to find a reason to arrest him and take him to a concentration camp before he can get to America. Though the movie isn’t a thriller, it involves one hell of a McGuffin: To get out of Casablanca, Ilsa and Laszlo need “letters of transit,” impossible to get, and Rick just happens to have what seems like the last two in the city.

It may seem as if the movie is purposely manipulative just by reading the synopsis, but it never seems forced or overwrought when you are watching it. That begins with the casting—has there ever been another movie where the cast is, as a whole, so uniformly perfect for their roles? Bogart, known for his tough guy roles, plays another one here…but we get to see him fall head over heels for Ilsa and lose her in flashback, so instead of just being a dick we understand his pain. And Bergman was never lovelier, and the way she plays the small intricacies of the love triangle she is at the center of would have been lost on a lesser actress. That lesser actress would have simply been making love to Rick with her eyes from moment one, but Bergman rightly plays it cooler. Henreid is great at playing the straight man, interesting enough to be the hinge the story moves on but not engaging enough for us to root that he sticks with Ilsa.

And then there’s the supporting cast, filled with character actors doing their very best to steal scenes. Claude Rains gives the performance of his long and celebrated career as the sort-of-bad/sort-of-good police captain who gets all the best zingers (he shuts down Rick’s bar because of gambling while being handed his roulette winnings). Conrad Veidt is menacing as the one genuinely bad guy in the movie (the Nazi insignia is the first hint), and then there’s S.Z. Sakall and Dooley Wilson as Rick’s trusted confidants and employees. The film throws a nice twist early when Peter Lorre shows up as an oily ne’er-do-well. We assume he’ll stick around to make trouble throughout the film, but then is grabbed and we learn later he’s murdered, a true shock considering we expect someone like Lorre to have more of a fundamental role. Though the love triangle is the film’s center, it’s a fuller, better movie because the supporting cast help to paint in the edges.

Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch’s screenplay takes variations on scenes that seem long familiar, shine then and reverse our expectations until they seem genuinely new. I want to cite examples, but I could literally pick any scene in the film. Okay, fine, let’s talk about the moment Ilsa finally caves and admits she still loves Rick. When she enters the scene Rick (and we) knows she just wants the letters of transit, they play a mind game and Rick tries to give her the cold shoulder once too often, so instead of trying to seduce him she pulls a gun on him.

Rick’s character arc is so very inspired. This woman he once loved who left him for reasons unknown has returned. Now he’s cold and can’t open up…and because of that won’t give her the letters. To finally do the right thing, he must admit to himself that he does still love her…but by doing that he’ll lose her forever. It’s a fantastic Catch-22 where, even though we know it’s an inevitable ending, it still affects us deeply. After an hour-and-a-half of bluntly stating that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone, he makes her get on that plane even though, let’s face it, there’s no real reason she couldn’t stay in Casablanca with him. But he knows it would kill her, and he’d rather die himself than see her suffer.

Director Michael Curtiz filmed the movie in a straightforward, understated style…and thank God for that. Yes, there are the shadows of a noir, but another director would have either exploited the thriller elements or emphasized the romance. That would have been a mistake. Curtiz simply let the film be what it was instead of forcing it to be a cookie-cutter studio picture, and the results give “Casablanca” all the more power. I must ask a silly question about the atmosphere he creates, though. Why is there a searchlight constantly searching the streets of the city? What are they looking for, exactly?

And then there’s the music. I prefer Max Steiner’s score in this film to his more lauded work on “Gone With the Wind”…there’s just something about the way he incorporates the song “As Time Goes By” into the score subtly while still creating several other themes that are just as timeless (seriously, I didn’t mean it as a pun). Then again, I’m always a pushover for the Henry Mancini style, where the entire score for a movie is built out of a single song (for example, “Moon River” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).

I also adore how this movie seems built on fate, both in the storytelling device of having Ilsa walk into Rick’s bar after all these years, and in how it seemed like all of these Hollywood workhorses (who had worked with just about everyone) finally came together for this specific project.

I would also like to note that you, dear reader, should be very proud of me for not inserting endless examples of the classic quotes from the movie, about ten of which have become so well-known they have become part of public consciousness. And, really, there were a ton of opportunities. Especially here, at the end of the article. But I’m not going to do it…but if I did, you know which one I’d choose.

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raging Bull

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 4
Year: 1980
Writer: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin (adaptation), Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage (book)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci

“Raging Bull” tells the story of a monster. The film is exceedingly powerful, raw and horrifying—unafraid to look unflinchingly into the eyes of a man portrayed to have no redemptive qualities. The movie may not flinch, but I sure did. Here is a masterpiece I genuinely hope I won’t have to watch again.

Jake LaMotta is a famous enough wrestler that even I, who know nothing about boxing, have heard of him. The film, adapted from his autobiography by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, is not a conventional biopic in any sense of the word. It tracks LaMotta’s rise to fame and fall into self-destruction, yes, but it isn’t interested in the wrestling as anything more than an insight into his character. What the film is interested in is LaMotta’s relationships with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), two (relatively) innocent people roped to him and incessantly suffering because of it.

From what we see, Jake doesn’t seem like a particularly smart man. He does terrible things to the people he claims to love and then takes punishment for it not from those he’s wronged, but from other boxers wailing on him in the ring. It’s a fascinating, sickening contradiction. He vents his rage (I honestly didn’t mean that to be a pun) against his opponents but also openly takes some of the worst beatings ever filmed…not for forgiveness but to feel even more sorry for himself. We’ve all met people like this—self defeated lugs who do horrible things, punish themselves and then expect you to forgive them because they are so pathetic, all the while beginning the circle once more. Over the course of the movie he spirals more and more out of control until he is left (deservedly) alone, jailed and obese. De Niro disappears into the role with his usual excellence—I’d say this is the bravest performance of his career because there is just nothing redeeming about the guy. At least we had sympathy for Travis Bickle.

Joey and Vickie, the two who suffer the most at Jake’s hands, are both fascinating. Vickie doesn’t seem all too interested in LaMotta when she first meets him, playing hard to get by not showing much emotion as to whether she likes him or not. Then she marries him. From this moment forward, he accuses her of cheating on him repeatedly (there’s never any evidence that she is) and there isn’t a scene she’s in after the first act where he’s not overcome with jealousy. There’s a flash-forward about halfway through the film to a scene in a hotel room before a match, and we finally understand just how much LaMotta has destroyed her. Her face is emotionless and she only answers questions with simple one-word responses, her eyes darting to her husband, hoping her answers haven’t enraged him somehow. She’s even afraid to order a cheeseburger here. During some of the fight scenes, director Martin Scorsese shows Vickie in the audience, watching her husband with an unreadable face. Is she hoping he wins, or praying his opponent murders him?

When the film begins, Joey seems to genuinely love his brother and thinks he knows how to handle Jake’s anger. They are both Italian Catholics, which of course is second only to Irish Catholics (I know this since I am one) in overwhelming guilt and familial bonds, even when they aren’t deserved. Joey tries to emulate Jake in a scene where he savagely beats a man who was speaking to Vickie, but realizes that’s not him. As the years pass, Jake gets more and more violent and unpredictable, causing Joey more frustration and danger.

Everything boils over in a authentically cringe-worthy (not a complaint since we’re supposed to feel that way) sequence where Jake accuses Joey of sleeping with his wife. When Joey leaves in frustration, Jake goes upstairs, berates and beats Vickie, then stomps across town to Joey’s house and physically assaults him in front of his children. This effectively ends Joey’s relationship to his brother, but Vickie (bruised face and all) returns to Jake later that night.

The sequence so unnerved me that, after it ended I realized I had made such tight fists with my hands that my fingernails had actually broken the skin in my palms. I had to turn off the movie for an hour, walk outside and stand in the sun. I should mention here that, while my family life never reached this level of drama, I was brought up in a household with an alcoholic father where things could escalate very quickly. Because of this, the movie touched certain nerves and got under my skin in certain ways most viewers would (hopefully) be immune to. That’s the reason I don’t want to see the movie again. Too many memories I’ve already dealt with and moved on from.

Anyway, now that I’ve finished oversharing, let’s get back to “Raging Bull.” Scorsese was right to shoot the film in stark black-and-white. It underlines the beauty of Vickie in the early sequences, but also emphasizes the revulsion of the fight scenes. Like in “Schindler’s List,” color would have undercut the power of the violence. The different fight sequences throughout the movie are jaw-droppingly staged and shot. I didn’t even realize until the sequence that showed an entire stadium of fans that the other fights only showed the first row or two of audience, instead draping the background in dark gray shadows and groups of lights. The fights are quite intense, and not just because of the generous use of blood and gore (when LaMotta breaks his opponent’s nose, I had to look away, and I never look away). Scorsese throws in some wild angles and the ring itself seems to alter in size from shot to shot.

To me, the heart of the movie is one of its last scenes. Years have passed, and Jake is doing bad stand-up comedy in New York when he fatefully sees Joey going into a convenience store. Jake follows Joey, doing everything humanly possible to make his brother talk to him again. When Joey reaches his car, Jake stops him from entering and physically forces Joey to hug him and will not let him leave until Joey promises to call him, even though they both know that won’t happen. Even all these years later, Jake still believes that the only way to get someone to love him is to force it upon him. He might be humbled, but he hasn’t changed. They never do.

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

Singin' in the Rain

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 5
Year: 1952
Writer: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Star: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds

The best musicals are the ones that are strong enough to exist without their musical numbers even though you can’t imagine the film without them. “Singin’ in the Rain” would function perfectly as a comedy were the songs and dances excised, and yet having them in there makes the film so much more fun. Watching this movie makes me wish it rained more in Los Angeles.

The film takes the essence of the Summer Stock “Let’s put on a show, folks!” musicals and transplants it to late ‘20s Hollywood. It is the end of the silent era. The show the folks are trying to put on is fictional studio Monumental Pictures’ first talkie. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, also the co-director with Stanley Donen) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) are the studio’s biggest stars and seem like the perfect team to launch the sound era…except that Lamont’s voice sounds like Eliza Doolittle’s before the singing lessons. Luckily, Don has recently fallen for ingénue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and she’s got a great singing voice that ultimately substitutes for Lina’s in the finished film.

Kelly, Reynolds and Donald O’Connor (as Kelly’s childhood best friend) form the trio at the center of the action. One would expect a love triangle, but the movie wisely avoids this unnecessary complication and instead just focuses on giving the audience as much time with these three very likeable actors as possible. They aren’t “characters,” per se, but simply extensions of the personalities we would expect from all the classic musicals. Aside from his job, how different is Kelly’s character here than his in “Summer Stock” or “An American in Paris”? And is Donald O’Connor really any different than his role in “Anything Goes” or from Danny Kaye’s character in “White Christmas”? But even as I write this, I’m not sure I mean this as a criticism. After all, you go to this type of film more for the actors’ charisma than original characters.

Kelly and Donan provide us with some excellent musical set-pieces, with O’Connor bringing down the house (literally) in “Make ‘em Laugh.” His physical comedy is spot on, and I rewound the DVD several times over the course of the number. However, I must say that the song is a blatant rip-off of “Be a Clown” from the Kelly/Judy Garland classic “The Pirate,” and that distracted me somewhat. And then there’s Kelly performing the title song in a rain-drenched street. Throughout the film, he shows an exuberance in his dancing that makes it appear much more effortless than it actually must have been. It’s probably my favorite musical piece from him, though “You Wonderful You” from “Summer Stock” (where his dancing partners were a creaky board and a newspaper) is right up there too.

Hagan comes damn near close to stealing the show as the dumb blonde who turns into the villain during the third act. She’s got many of the movie’s best lines, though I must note that the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is filled with genuine moments of wit and fun for all the characters. You actually feel a bit sorry for Lina during the first act, knowing she won’t have a career in a year or two, but after the monstrous things she does to Kathy’s character for no real reason (she believes she’s in a relationship with Don because the tabloids say so, even though Don is quick to remind her (and remind her (and remind her)) that it’s not true), it becomes fun to hate her.

There’s a lengthy musical interlude near the end of the second act where the movie literally stops to show a scene Don is planning to shoot for the movie. There are some tremendous moments in it, specifically a ballet between Kelly and a woman attached to a (literally) twelve-foot-long sheet of white cloth that floats around them, a character unto itself. And yet the scene doesn’t need to be there. It brings the movie to a halt and loses whatever tension there is leading into the climax.

I’ve always preferred the Kelly musicals to the Astaire ones (as evidenced by my article on fellow AFI Top 100 film “Swing Time”), but the truth is that I view most of the classic musicals as small pieces of one big whole. Yes, sometimes they transcended the genre, as with George Cukor’s “A Star is Born”, but there’s something I genuinely like about the familiarity of this genre. Sitting down with an MGM-style musical is the equivalent of enjoying a piece of cherry pie with lemonade on a summer day—there will be variations in taste and quality, but you know what to expect going in.

In a way, the songs in the movies don’t matter that much since they were oftentimes pounded into the screenplay randomly and made to fit even if it doesn’t feel quite right. Also because, more often than not, the songs are really great, especially if Cole Porter is writing them. Most of the movies are variations on the aforementioned “Let’s put on a show, folks” storyline, with few variations (three leads or four leads, location and the quality of the gags and dialogue) and are unafraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. What makes the films really succeed or fail is the mix-and-match of the leads and supporting cast. “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Pirate” and “White Christmas” work because of this, while the chemistry just isn’t there with “Anything Goes” or “Till the Clouds Roll By.” My favorite has always been Howard Hawks’ “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, which has her iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number.

“Singin’ in the Rain” is better than most of those films because the main cast really gels and because Hagan is such a stunner as the villain. But I’m guessing it’s so high on this list because the film really is a love letter to Hollywood without the usual cynicism or heartbreak. Executives, directors, screenwriters, actors…everyone in the industry can watch this movie and come out of it feeling better about him or herself.

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

Monday, January 30, 2012

Gone With The Wind

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 6
Year: 1939
Writer: Sidney Howard
Director: Victor Fleming
Star: Vivien Leigh, Clark Cable, Olivia de Havilland

I’m guessing that when “Gone With the Wind” was released in 1939, its final act meant something completely different than what we take away from it today. Our views of women and feminism have been so altered in the decades since Scarlett O’Hara first declared she’d “never be hungry again,” and yet the film perseveres. The best art appeals to every new generation in its own way and, though the movie is deeply flawed, the great things about it make it timeless…even if what take out of it has changed so much.

Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is one of three daughters born and raised on Tara Plantation. Life there…well…it’s very high school, but with slaves (more on them later). Everyone is posturing, gossiping and gasping at the slightest hint of someone who is unafraid to let his or her real opinions be known. Scarlett is the loveliest belle in the area, and because she seems to be able to get any man she wants, all the women hate her and imply that she’s a whore. She doesn’t want just anyone, though. Scarlett is in love with the boring Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but alas he’s married to the genuinely kind Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Then there’s the handsome rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who sets his eyes on Scarlett as soon as he sees her.

Then the Civil War happens.

Suddenly all the delicate pleasantries of the South are met with harsh reality, and most of the women and men who so easily judged Scarlett die or fall completely apart. She doesn’t. Throughout the movie’s epic running time, she proves time and again how she will persevere no matter what you throw in her path. She’s got gumption. Spunk. And she’s probably my favorite character in all of film history.

One of the many things I love about “Gone With the Wind” is Scarlett’s relationship with Melanie, who is beloved by everyone who meets her. It’s delicate and could have drowned in easy melodrama, especially since Scarlett is in love with Melanie’s husband. But they really do become best friends. Melanie represents the sympathy and humanity Scarlett sometimes lacks in her “It’s all about me!” mentality, while Scarlett brings Melanie down to earth when she gets too precious for her own good. It is never explicitly stated, but they seem to sense an inherent strength and resilience in one another, and respect each other because of that. We think of Scarlett’s strong moments—driving that cart through occupied territory and the image of her shooting the Yankee soldier in the face…but it’s easy to forget that Melanie was in the back of that cart keeping a baby alive even though she could barely stay conscious herself because of the pain, or that she appeared at the top of the stairs seconds after the shooting with a sword in hand.

The movie is, of course, gigantic. It never gets bigger than the long, harrowing passages in Atlanta right before the Yankee troops arrived. That shot of Scarlett seeking out a doctor and wading through what appears to be the entire Confederate army, all dead or injured, remains one of the great images ever put on film. Of course, whatever else is going on in the world…the movie is all about how that affects its heroine. And, really, isn’t that how we are when we are young? Major, gigantic things are happening in the world, but what does that have to do with meeeee!?

Speaking of that pesky Civil War, the film’s inherent racist tendencies are still unsettling. During the main titles, cards sentimentalize the South as a time of “Master and Slave,” and almost all of the black characters (except for one who tries to murder Scarlett when she rides through a shanty town) are easily dominated and…well…dim. Big Sam’s introduction at the beginning of the movie has some horrendous dialogue, and poor Butterfly McQueen as the mentally handicapped Prissy has to screech the line “I don’t knows nuthin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!” before getting slapped. The exception to this is Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), who is the brightest, most intelligent major character in the movie, even if her introduction yelling orders to Scarlett from an open window is pretty cringe-worthy. There are sweet moments, like when Scarlett gives her former slave Pork her father’s gold watch but, while I can understand downplaying the slavery issues because Scarlett genuinely doesn’t care about them, that doesn’t excuse breaking P.O.V. to show black characters acting like idiots simply to underline stereotypes.

The love triangle…er…square at the center of the film is really quite interesting. Scarlett “loves” Ashley, who may physically desire Scarlett (and like the fact that she’s after him incessantly), but she really loves Rhett. Rhett is in love with Scarlett but, as the film progresses, his bond with Melanie is built up to the point where we could realistically see a different version of the movie where he marries her and she “reforms” the rogue. Of course, Ashley is the most boring of the group, handsome but about as interesting as watching paint dry on a sunny day.

The performances here are really an embarrassment of riches. Leigh is perfect as Scarlett, simply perfect. You understand our frustration with her immaturity and yet cannot resist being swept away by her from the moment she is first introduced. It should also be noted it’s one hell of a lot of fun to see her do another variation on this southern belle character in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Gable doesn’t seem to be acting, which I mean as a compliment. Likewise, de Havilland is so good at being sweet and loving that you forget you are watching a character and simply watching a real person. McDaniel is also great, and seeing her laugh and blush when she shows Rhett her petticoat brings a smile to my face every time I see the movie.

Earlier I wrote about how the final act means something different today than when it was first released. I’m assuming at the time, the character of Scarlett could only get away with so much before being demeaned and showed up by a man. She’s resilient but, seriously, they didn’t want to see her walking into a sunset after all the stuff she pulled. Today, Scarlett represents a survivor who is smart in unexpected ways but refuses to mature until life forces her to. The entirety of the movie is life pushing her down before she stands up again and refuses to be defeated and, for me, the final act represents this happening again, but the woman who emerges this time is just that: a woman, not a girl. As much as she loves Rhett, he really doesn’t deserve her, and is much more immature and fragile (after their daughter dies, Mammy observes that God gives Scarlett the strength to stand up, but the tragedy breaks Rhett almost completely). She doesn’t need him. And Melanie, on her deathbed, saw Scarlett as a woman she could truly trust with the fates of her husband and, most importantly, her son. Melanie’s goodness has rubbed off on Scarlett, and she didn’t even realize it. So she’s free of her husband, free of the obsession with Ashley which dragged her down so often, has enough money to do whatever she wants, and is finally ready to approach her life as an adult, whatever tomorrow brings.

I love “Gone With the Wind,” with all of its wonderful melodrama, lavish colors and smart characterization. Recently, I watched Steven Spielberg’s new film “War Horse” and smiled to myself when I saw that the final scene incorporated those same deep oranges and yellows that we see here in the skies Scarlett so often stares into. Several people at AFI reacted badly, saying that the colors and heightened emotions were “exactly what is wrong with Hollywood.” Why? Yes, we live in an era of cynicism, but what’s wrong with emotions and sentimentality if they are deeply felt and come from a real place? “Gone With the Wind” is a movie unafraid to feel, and its core emotions still ring true no matter what era we look at them from.

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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 7
Year: 1962
Writer: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Director: David Lean
Star: Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif

I have spent the last 220-odd minutes with “Lawrence of Arabia,” and yet I don’t feel like I’ve really seen it. If there was ever a movie that did everything but reach out of your television, shake you and insist “You really should be watching me on a big screen,” this is it. There are images here that impress on the television, but you can only get their full impact if you see it up on a huge movie screen. I was bummed to see there were no revivals in Los Angeles anytime soon (to see this onscreen at the Egyptian Theatre must be quite an experience), and yet seeing it as I did helped me to appreciate many of the more subtle gestures in a film known for its grand ones.

The movie opens with, in my opinion, a misstep. T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) rides his motorcycle at dangerous speeds through the English countryside, swerves to miss pedestrians, crashes and dies. We then flash back to his being stationed in Arabia to, essentially, observe and report on Prince Faisal (Alex Guinness). He ends up leading a major section of Faisal’s army to battle against the Turks, first with cooperation of the British Army and later notsomuch. I was genuinely unaware of Lawrence and all of the events that happened here when I saw the film, so knowing he survived everything hurt the element of surprise and suspense, particularly in the second half.

That said, so much of the writing here is brilliant and, despite the sometimes confusing and intricate histories of Arabian sects and the British military’s motives, the film never feels like it is talking down to its audience. Lawrence is given two young men who would be nothing more than two-dimensional sidekicks in a lesser film, but here co-writers Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson find ways to use the characters (and their fates) to enhance Lawrence’s emotional journey. Two other characters are introduced (played by Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif) and, subtly, become the two halves of Lawrence’s conscience and the closest thing he has to friends.

Of course, all of this would be of little use if the central character was not someone we wanted to spend 220 minutes with. There are many reasons why I cannot believe that this movie, on this scale, got produced, but centering the film on someone like T.E. Lawrence is right at the top of the list. He’s genuinely eccentric in just about every way, develops a horrifying bloodlust, is severely egotistical…and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Just imagine if you had a token, stiff-jawed, shirt-torn action figure at the center of this story. He would be metaphorically eaten up by the desert locations around him by the end of the first half-hour. But, as majestic as Arabia is (and we’ll get to that in a paragraph or two), Lawrence is the real reason we remain engaged. O’Toole’s performance is stunning—we care about him but are a little afraid of him. He can pull off a magnificent scene where he must kill the man whose life he almost died saving and sell a scene where he humorously dances around in his new wardrobe with the same verve and energy. At no point in the film do we really “know” Lawrence, and that only adds to how fascinating he is. It’s astonishing…almost unbelievable…that he got away with so much and accomplished so many things, and yet the reality is that he did. Well, some version of reality. As with every other film on the top 100, I went out of my way to avoid historical context and other critical discussions until after finishing this writing, so I don’t know how true the film is to his real journey.

I think it’s safe to say that there has never been a movie that has eclipsed “Lawrence of Arabia” in terms of scope and epic nature, with apologies to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Avatar.” The locations, specifically in the first half of the movie, are so astoundingly created and shot that half the fun is wondering how they could realistically have been made. There are many scenes where a character (or a character on his camel) will walk into an untouched sea of desert, leaving a single line of tracks behind him. How could they have possibly set up for multiple takes? Other scenes involve the characters walking or riding through intense dust storms. How did the cameras continue to function, even with protection, through all of it? Everything here is just jaw-dropping, with images the viewer will never forget, which allow the movie to function as a poetic journey as much as a cerebral one.

There is little action, but when it happens, it really counts. Director David Lean stages a crackerjack train crash at the beginning of the second half where you convince yourself the train must be a miniature…until an army of Arabs race over dunes of sand and interact with it. It turns out Lean is a little fetishistic about trains. Here, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Summertime,” “Brief Encounter”…I’m sure there are more.

With O’Toole giving a performance for the ages, it’s only logical that the rest of the cast doesn’t quite live up to him. Sharif comes off best, and his exit from the film is an emotionally highlight. Quinn and Guinness struggle under some horrible make-up (Quinn in particular), while excellent character actor Claude Rains seems to have taken sedatives before every take. There’s also a journalist character (Arthur Kennedy) introduced in the second half who is superfluous, only serving as a way to get the main characters to say exposition in a fairly natural way.

And yet, even as I complain about “Lawrence of Arabia’s” shortcomings, I feel like they are mere quibbles in the scheme of things. This movie accomplishes more in one of its almost-four hours than most movies do in their entire running time. It’s the thinking man’s epic film, stands up on multiple viewings and making sure to fill every one of its 220 minutes with something fascinating. I only wish I could have seen it up on a big screen.

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Schindler's List

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 8
Year: 1993
Writer: Steven Zaillian (screenplay), Thomas Keneally (book)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

Of all the horrors, brutality and blood we witness in “Schindler’s List,” the moment that haunts me most is a small, easily overlooked one. A well-to-do Jewish family is being forced to leave their home for the Ghetto and, as they are led to a car to take them away, a young blonde girl screams hateful phrases after them. She can’t be more than 10, and this girl’s face is so full of revulsion…so filled with uncompromising disgust for these people she’s never met…it shook me deeply. She’s too young to understand why she is meant to hate the Jews, and yet the feeling seems have overwhelmed her entire being. The girl is never seen again, but that moment casts a long shadow through the rest of the movie. How can someone, let alone a group of human beings so large as the Nazis, hate like that?

The film takes on the Holocaust not by aiming its camera only at the horrors, but also at the hope. There are two men who stand at either end of the film. The first is businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who represents the goodness that can still be possible even in impossible situations. The other is Nazi official Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a psychopathic monster who shoots those incarcerated in his Death Camp from the balcony of his villa. Schindler always puts on a big show—gifting high-ranking Nazi officials with the best wines and caviar and always appearing to be in support of the movement—but secretly saves over a thousand lives by bringing the incarcerated to work at his factories. As the war wears on, he begins taking more desperate actions to keep them safe, all the while spending more and more money to buy off anyone who might sense what he is up to.

Steven Zaillian adapted the screenplay, and though I don’t like to use the word flawless (because, honestly, nothing is), I sincerely believe that the structure, dialogue and style of his work here is as close to perfection as any screenplay before or since. The movie is over three hours long, filled with dozens upon dozens of characters and yet, when I ask myself what could be changed to improve the story, nothing comes to mind. There have been hundreds of movies about the Holocaust made at varying levels of quality, from comedies (“The Great Dictator”) to melodramas (“Sophie’s Choice”) and everything in between. And yet, despite all this, Zaillian still manages to approach the film with a fresh eye, finding new and intriguing perspectives to view the world from. Another scene of great power comes when hundreds of Jews are loaded on a train and told to label their luggage so it can be returned to them at their destination. We follow the luggage into a warehouse, where we see dozens of workers opening the suitcases, retrieving everything inside and stacking it. The scene is ghastly and stomach churning to begin with, but then Zaillian moves the focus to one Jewish worker going through valuables when a Nazi solider drops a bag of teeth that have gold fillings in front of him. How can he possibly react to that?

Another masterstroke is the push/pull in the relationship between Schindler and Goeth. Goeth believes the two to be friends, and they often talk at length about the Jews, the war and what is to become of the people. A lesser screenwriter would have written in subtle dialogue assuring us “It’s okay, Schindler is sickened by all this. He’s a good guy,” but Zaillian believes we are smart enough to get it and does not talk down to us. He also sets up a pitch perfect scene where, after Schindler is arrested for kissing a Jewish woman at his birthday party, Goeth actually testifies that Schindler is harmless and a friend to the Nazis.

The film is (almost) completely shot in black-and-white, and that was the right choice. Something about seeing these images in color would have been too much. Color adds a level of beauty to anything, no matter how horrible (think of the red blood of the Hammer Horror films of the ‘70s), so the black-and-white underlines how bereft of life this world was. And when Spielberg does use color, it is to great effect. Take the small girl seen wearing the red coat. We see her about an hour into the film and, because she is in color (however muted that color is), we take note of her importance. Later in the movie, Schindler sees her body unearthed from one of the mass graves and taken for incineration. And that’s it. I’m guessing we see at least a hundred human beings murdered in terrifying, disgusting ways throughout the movie. The girl’s body appears just at the point when the violence threatens to become numbing and, to me, it represents a reminder to the viewer that every body we see was a soul. Someone of importance whose death was significant and should not be discounted no matter how hard it is for us to process it.

“Schindler’s List” is certainly a masterpiece, but I must point out the film’s climactic moment. War is about to end, the Jews will be freed, and Schindler must leave those he has saved. As he walks toward his car, he begins to break down. Though he saved so many, he cannot live with himself. He could have done more, he insists, saved more people…somehow. He points to his car, his Nazi badge, wishing he could have sold them, and cries uncontrollably in the arms of his friend…one of the thousand he rescued. The scene moves me beyond tears and is one of the great moments in all of film.

And now, as is becoming regular in these final few entries, a memory. During my last months at AFI, we were invited to the filming of a pilot for a new documentary show for Turner Classic Movies called “Master Class: The Art of Filmmaking.” The first episode would feature Steven Spielberg and John Williams discussing their careers and giving advice to the Fellows. I was lucky enough to be one of the few chosen to ask them a question…and for the life of me I do not remember. I remember that words were coming out of my mouth, and that cameras were rolling, but nothing more. I do remember that, as I sat down, Spielberg smiled and said “That’s a good question.” I’ve seen the show three times on television and, to this day, I still get too excited to process and remember what I said. This man helped inspire me (and, I’m certain, hundreds of others) to become a filmmaker and, for as long as I live and wherever my life and career takes me, I’ll never forget him telling me I asked a good question…even if I will probably never remember what it was.

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

Monday, January 23, 2012


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 9
Year: 1958
Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor (screenplay), Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac (novel)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

If “Rear Window” (my favorite Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Alfred Hitchcock as a director and “Notorious” (the best Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Hitchcock as a craftsman, then “Vertigo” tells us the most about Hitchcock as a man. If you have any familiarity with his body of work or his personal life, you’ll feel much insight into his personal obsessions and emotions after finishing the movie. Whereas so many of his other films are so polished, with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed, “Vertigo” is unafraid to be messy…to leave questions unanswered and emotional journeys unfinished. In an odd way, it’s the ultimate Hitchcock film but also his most atypical.

The story opens with a riveting chase sequence over the roofs of San Francisco. Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) almost tumbles over the edge of a building and, because he is so crippled with vertigo, accidentally allows his partner to fall to his death. This is the first time we see the much-imitated vertigo effect that has been used countless of times since whenever someone’s world goes wonky in a film or on television. It still works.

We fade to the future, and Scottie is shown about as emasculated as possible. His next scene is with his best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), and he’s wearing a corset (yes, you read that right) and faints after stepping up on a chair. There’s also some implication that he’s impotent, but that’s the only subtle thing in the scene. The rest of the long-winded scene is bad-exposition central. “Here, let me tell you what happened with me retiring from the police force, who I am, what vertigo is and why we aren’t married” isn’t explicitly stated by Scottie, but it might as well be dialogue.

The next scene isn’t much better, with Scottie’s old college friend Elster (Tom Helmore) explaining how he wants Scottie to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), because she disappears for hours at a time, both physically and mentally. Lots and lots of talking, but then Scottie begins his investigation and things pick up immediately. There are undertones that Madeline is being possessed by the ghost of an ancestor who committed suicide when she was young, and this “how realistically should we take this situation?” permeates the first hour of the film. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline, making fewer and fewer phone calls to Elster and they seem to fall for each other…until she “kills herself.”

Up until this point, “Vertigo” could be like any other Hitchcock movie, but then the really interesting stuff starts to happen. Scottie has a nervous break and, after recovering enough to be let out of an asylum, spies a woman named Judy (Novak again), and the obsession begins again. Judy seems almost identical to Madeline, and we quickly find out that’s because she is the same person. Instead of saving the twist for the final reel, screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor reveal that Judy was impersonating Madeline for Scottie so that Elster could get away with murdering his wife. It’s such a surprising place to make the reveal, but in doing so it gives the final act of the film added power. Judy really did fall in love with Scottie, you see, so things get complicated fast.

Because of this, we sympathize with Judy more than Scottie in the final act. Scottie becomes an animal, only interested in Judy because he wants to make her into Madeline, and Judy allows this to happen because she loves him so much. We sympathize somewhat with Scottie, knowing that the truth must be revealed and that it will break him once more, but watching him almost use every mental manipulation and abuse to get Judy to become Madeline just feels…wrong. There’s a scene in a dress shop that is particularly cringe inducing…in a good way.

You can’t watch these scenes without thinking of Hitchcock’s blondes. Grace Kelly was his ultimate blonde, and in a way every other actress who came after (Novak, Barbara Harris, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles, Doris Day…phew, I’m sure I forgot someone) was groomed specifically to be some version of Kelly. Scottie’s devastated lines to Judy in the final scene seem especially apt:

“Did he train you!? Did he rehearse you!? Did he tell you what to do and what to say!?”

If that line works on a macro level concerning the Master director’s obsessions, it is also perhaps the most emotionally raw and unhinged we see any hero in one of his films (I write “perhaps” because of Ingrid Bergman’s drunken tirade at the opening of “Notorious”). Scottie screams these lines, but he might as well be screaming them at himself—he has, in essence, become the same monster he demeans. As dark as the ending is (Judy commits suicide after mistaking a nun for a ghost) and as close as the writers allow Scottie to get to the edge, they still give us the smallest glimmer of hope in the final seconds. After Judy falls, Scottie follows her out on the ledge of the belltower—not to kill himself but to look out over the edge at his fallen love. His vertigo is cured.

“Vertigo” is one of those movies that has great ideas and emotional depth, but is imperfect. As excellent as Stewart is here diving into his obsession, he’s really just not that good of a match with Novak in the love scenes. The lazy writing at the beginning grates, but the atypical, powerful third act more than makes up for it.

Speaking of obsession, when I was in grade school I became obsessed with Hitchcock and his films. I would go to the library on weekends and rent ten movies, then watch them in bulk over the course of the week. At some point after I had gotten through all the library’s movies multiple times, I came across an old VHS copy of Hitchcock’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony. When I watched the ceremony I was swept away by the idea of the American Film Institute…and at one point Hitchcock turned to a selected group of Fellows from the Conservatory to impart knowledge on them. One of the clearest memories I have from childhood is running into the kitchen and telling her that one day soon I would be studying film at AFI. You want to know the best part about having dreams? Sometimes they come true.

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

The Wizard of Oz

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 10
Year: 1939
Writer: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay), L. Frank Baum (novel)
Director: Victor Fleming
Star: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton

At some point since 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” stopped being a movie and started becoming a shared American experience. Our memories of watching the movie have become just as important as the movie itself. It’s nearly impossible to sit down and view it with fresh eyes, especially when your mind keeps reminding you that one of your 150 favorite parts is only seconds away.

What I came away with most during this viewing is that the film is surprisingly vicious and subversive. Hell, the first song sung after Dorothy reaches Oz is “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” which goes into excessive detail about just how happy the Munchkins are that the Wicked Witch of the East came to an especially harsh end. Multiple people tell Dorothy that Auntie Em will have a heart attack when she figures out Dorothy has run away. Toto is threatened with death no less than six times. And the less said about those horrifying flying monkeys (they gave me nightmares when I was younger, how about you?) the better. But it’s all presented in such a fun, Technicolor, perky way that the movie gets away with it and parents seem to forget about the horrors until they introduce their kids to the film…and by that point it’s too late.

Everyone knows the story. Dorothy and her house are picked up by a twister and plopped down into the magical land of Oz, where she goes off to see the Wizard to hitch a ride home. The first reveal of Oz, which is the first shot in Technicolor, is a doozy. It follows Dororthy’s P.O.V. for a few seconds but then sweeps forward, ready to explore the world itself, and takes in what seems like the entire Munchkinland set before returning to Dorothy and Toto for her realization that she isn’t in Kansas anymore. Anyway, Dorothy picks up some friends along the way: a Scarecrow who is in need of some brains, a Tin Man who just wants a heart to call his own, and a Cowardly Lion looking for some courage. No one mentions the obvious solution: Kill the lion (he’s a coward so he won’t fight back), give his brains to the Scarecrow and heart to the Tin Man…but that would have probably been a little too dark for even this movie.

Judy Garland is perfect as Dorothy, old enough to carry off the singing and dancing and gravitas but young enough to pull off being a lonely young girl. The rest of the cast, filled with fun character actors chewing on their roles (literally in the case of Bert Lahr, who was chewing on his tail for most of the movie), seem to be having the times of their lives. It’s all over the top, but still heartfelt.

Every piece of music from the film has permeated our culture to the point where everyone seems to instinctively know every lyric to every song, even if it’s been years since he or she has seen the movie. Side note: could someone please explain to me what a “slitch” is? You know, from the lyric “the house began to pitch, and the kitchen took a slitch.” And it’s not just the songs—the instrumental music is just as well known. And it’s all still great. The lyrics are inventive, the melodies sweet and simple…how can you not be moved by the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the way director Victor Fleming stages it in the film?

Everyone remembers “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as perhaps the greatest song in all of film (AFI ranks it as the best song in all American Film), and who can’t completely relate to those lyrics in an honest, heartfelt way? What everyone forgets about the movie (myself included), is that Dorothy ends her journey by essentially saying she was wrong to sing the song. Right before she goes home, the Tin Man asks her what she learned from her adventures…and she says this:

“Well, I think that it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Um, excuse me? That’s what she got out of this adventure? That she shouldn’t dream big at all and certainly shouldn’t follow her dreams if she gets them? This bit of dialogue feels so tacked on and disingenuous it really threw me for a loop.

As a kid, the ending always felt like a bit of a bummer. She heads home for no real reason, the movie heads back to sepia tones and the fate of dear Toto is still very much up in the air. Looking at it as an adult, it’s still poignant and bittersweet, but her choice to go home represents something deeper than I think I could comprehend as a child.

After all, Dorothy only makes two decisions during the entire film. The first is to run away and the second is to go home. She is told to do every other thing in the film, and obeys because she is a (mostly) obedient Kansas girl. “Never take off the shoes!” “Follow the yellow brick road!” “Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West!” etc. Her first decision, to run away, is a very selfish one, based on her feeling like no one cares about her and what she wants. On the other hand, her decision to return home is a completely selfless one. It’s beyond her just missing her aunt and uncle—she takes upon herself the responsibility of being one of the family. She goes to ensure Auntie Em doesn’t have a heart attack. She goes because she knows it’s the right thing to do, not the easy thing to do. And, because of that, she takes her first step into adulthood.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a great film, but doubly special because most of us get to discover it many times throughout our lives and experience the story from a different perspective each time. First as a child, where we love the colors and the dance and the music. Then, often, as parents, where you can pick up on the sly adult winks you missed as a child (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”). Then as grandparents. And often many, many times in between. And it’s still just as special. The film doesn’t age…doesn’t get tired or repetitive on multiple viewings. What it does do is make us smile just about the whole way through, and in times like these a gift like that is priceless.

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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sophie's Choice

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 91
Year: 1982
Writer: Alan J. Pakula (adaptation), William Styron (novel)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Star: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Meryl.

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

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

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

My Score (out of 5): ***