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): ***

Monday, January 9, 2012


Year: 1970
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 54
Writer: Ring Lardner Jr. (adaptation), Richard Hooker (novel)
Director: Robert Altman
Star: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt

When “M*A*S*H” began, I thought that its trio of main characters were cliché variations on high school bullies. By the end of the first act I believed them to be sociopaths. At the midpoint I realized they were plain ‘ole psychopaths and threw up my hands in frustration. I understand, in theory, why this film is supposed to be funny…but it’s not. It’s a black comedy that forgot to add in the comedy.

It tracks a trio of surgeons who operate about three miles from the front lines in the Korean War. They are Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Duke (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper (Elliot Gould)…and all are more or less interchangeable monsters from the start. I suspect that, in any given scene, the dialogue between the trio could be interchanged and no one would have noticed. I have no problems with bastards being at the center of a movie, but there’s a difference between rooting for the bad guy and what happens here.

Look, I get what screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and director Robert Altman were going for. Because of the genuinely horrifying things these guys see and must deal with every day, they have chosen to turn off their emotions so as not to deal with any of it. This might have been interesting if it had been handled in any sort of mature way (yes, this is a comedy, but the least you can ask of an Altman film is some insight into the human condition). But it isn’t, leaving the viewer to ask “So what? Who cares?” I don’t root for any of them. I don’t care about how they interact with one another or what is driving them.

The film also has a hugely troubling misogynist and homophobic bend to it.

The only major female character is Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman), who is introduced as strict head of Nursing for the company—a sort of Nurse Ratched. But it’s clear from the get-go that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of even developing into an antagonist for the surgeons because they begin to belittle her immediately. She gets the name Hot Lips after someone sneaks a microphone into her tent while she’s having sex, which is bad enough. But then the film becomes inhuman when the guys decide to find out if her carpet matches her blonde drapes, so they gather most of the men in the company to watch as they yank the tent up while she is showering. They all cackle and heckle while she screams, naked and horrified, in front of them. That was supposed to be…funny? I was cringing. And then, inexplicably, after she has sex with Duke for no apparent reason, she turns into a completely mindless cheerleader during the climactic football game. It’s not even the same character, and there is no transitory scene where she begins to root for them. The fact that the movie simply has her shack up with one of the surgeons and then appear brainless for the rest of the movie sickens me.

Then there’s a dentist in the unit (John Schuck) who is wants to kill himself. Apparently he got really drunk one night and couldn’t successfully bed one of the nurses, so he immediately thinks that he’s turned gay. The thought is so horrifying that he immediately asks the surgeons to help him commit suicide. Seriously.

Sutherland, Gould and Skerritt are all excellent actors who have done really good work elsewhere, but the screenplay does them no favors. They smartly choose to underplay their characters and nastiness, but I don’t identify with any of them.

Is any of this funny? Sure, there are fleeting, funny bits throughout. I liked a small moment where Hawkeye had a nurse scratch his nose mid-surgery, and there’s a random ingenious re-creation of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The aforementioned climactic football game was probably the best thing in the movie (I’m guessing because none of the surgeons play a major role in it), and I liked the way the M*A*S*H unit drugged the rival professional baseball player to get him off the field. But all these amount to are silly islands of humor in a vast ocean of nothingness.

I must also say that the film is very well-made. You can tell that there is one hell of a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, and the way Altman stages scenes and shoots the unit are well-done and memorable.

Honestly, I feel like “M*A*S*H” is one of those movies that meant a lot more in 1970 than it does today. Even though it takes place in the Korean War, it’s “about” the Vietnam War and its anti-war messages come through loud and clear. The film is obviously anti-establishment, and perhaps at the time these leading assholes came off in the same way McMurphy did in 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—as a rebel without a cause. But today? Despite the fact that we are in a recession and barely out of Iraq, it no longer feels topical. “Platoon” remains searing, as does “Apocalypse Now,” but this seems to have lost its voice somewhere along the way.

I am not a surgeon, nor have I ever been to war, but that shouldn’t matter. Since film became a legitimate medium, its most important, enduring goal is to take the viewer “into” the film and invest them in what they are seeing. To put “us” in “their” shoes. In 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” audiences were so invested they gasped when a bandit pointed his gun at the screen and fired. There’s never a dry eye in the house when the Blind Girl recognizes Chaplin in “City Lights,” and I dare you to listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and not get goosebumps all over your body. “M*A*S*H” gives us plenty of well-done shots of jeeps driving through mazes of tents, but they might as well be photographs. I don’t care at all about this story and these characters. A surprise assault could have bombed the hospital an hour in, leaving everyone dead, and I don’t think I would have been phased.

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

Saturday, January 7, 2012


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 69
Year: 1982
Writer: Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal (screenplay), Larry Gelbart, Don McGuire (story)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Star: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Charles Durning

“Tootsie” is a great comic film to begin with, filled with excellent performances and smart writing. But the filmmakers were interested in making something more than just a cross-dressing comedy. You’re watching discussions about sexism, sexual and gender identity, personal identification and emotional maturation…but you don’t really notice it because the film is just so damn good. Though the main character preaches, the movie doesn’t seem to, and though many of these topics have long since become softball subjects, the film is so well-told that it doesn’t matter. As soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it again.

Dustin Hoffman plays Michael, a great NYC actor who is so difficult to work with that his personality has blacklisted him with every producer and director in the city. He’s desperate. He’s also a fantastic acting teacher and no one apparently told him that he’d be a good director, but forget that. His solution to finding work is to create Dorothy, a spunky woman who is immediately cast on a horrible daytime soap opera. To his shock, Michael finds that Dorothy seems to have a mind and values of her own (“I think she’s smarter than me,” he admits at one point), and these values actually help him improve as a human being. To the studio’s shock, Dorothy becomes the new star of the show, her unwillingness to be a female cliché refreshing to all the women watching at home.

Also in play is Julie (Jessica Lange), an actress on the show who befriends Dorothy and is inspired by her new friend to blossom as a human being while her father (Charles Durning) begins to crush on his daughter’s new BFF. Michael finds himself attracted to Julie as a man, but she’s in a bad relationship with the soap’s director, played by Dabney Coleman, who does another fine version of his “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” character from “9 to 5.” Oh, and Sydney Pollack (who also directed) is excellent as Michael/Dorothy’s agent, who always seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

By this point we’ve all seen what we expect is every variation on the cross-dressing comedy there could possibly be. The formula seems to be quite limited, and though it has resulted in two masterpieces (this and “Some Like It Hot”), can you think of another version that is even halfway decent? And yet “Tootsie” finds a way to feel fresh and engaging despite the apparent limitations of its genre. A big key to this is that there is no “transformation” scene leading into the first appearance of Dorothy. There’s simply a cut from the male Hoffman to the female version walking down the street. By doing this, screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (best worst last name ever) immediately establish Dorothy as a distinct character from Michael and that we should approach her that way. When we later see Michael transforming into Dorothy, he remarks about her as if she’s a real person (“She would live alone!”) because she “feels” like a real person to us.

I cannot underline enough how excellent Hoffman is as Michael/Dorothy, simply because he doesn’t overdo it. These are two different people and he treats them as such. He doesn’t overplay the little winks and nudges to the audience, which makes them all the funnier when they come. It’s weird, because he’s almost passable as a fairly ugly woman, and it’s odd how quickly we become used to his southern high voice. And I love how the screenplay uses both of these things to make the movie even more multi-dimensional.

It would be easy for Hoffman to steal the show, but the supporting cast is all-around aces. Durning is quite genuine throughout and we really feel bad for the guy when he proposes to Dorothy. Bill Murray brings the right amount of cynicism and snark to his brief scenes, and I’m very happy to see the film doesn’t overdo his shtick, because any more would feel overboard. Teri Garr is suitably hysterical as a woman Michael uses early in the movie before maturing, but the interesting thing is that Garr doesn’t turn her into a dumb blonde. She’s hysterical, but not stupid.

And then there’s Lange, who must have been quelling chuckles in just about every scene with Hoffman, even the dramatic ones. Because she’s so genuine with Hoffman in drag, we create genuine feelings for the character, and when the chips fall and Dorothy is un-wigged at the climax, I was surprised at how invested I had become in the relationship. The final scene, involving Lange and Hoffman out of drag, is beautifully balanced, written brilliantly and surprisingly understated. It feels just right.

In case I haven’t mentioned this yet, in addition to everything else, the movie is fucking hilarious. I was in tears from laughter during the magazine photoshoot montage, and for every bit of slapstick there is a really smart line worth quoting. It’s a mix that could have gone horribly wrong, but because every part of the creative team rose to the occasion, it works. And the writers avoid plot holes (well, fudge plot holes) by turning them into jokes about Dorothy having to do her own make-up or getting no close-ups on her show (“I’d like to make her look a little more attractive, how far can you pull back?” “How do you feel about Cleveland?”).

Yeah, it’s not quite as good as “Some Like It Hot” (there is one quite obvious weak point in the way the film treats the soap’s lead actor), but how many comedies are? “Tootsie” is the type of movie that feels irresistible. It feels universal. And it feels deep, which you never would expect of a movie about a dude in a dress.

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