#81 Spartacus

1960 was a big year for film with the release of The Apartment (review to come next week) and Stanley Kubrick’s Roman epic Spartacus. It was such a big year that Spartacus didn’t even get a nomination for best picture, in spite of the fact that it now sits at #81 on the AFI list.

Spartacus came out the year after Ben Hur (which I previously reviewed) and the parallels are obvious – a really long (in this case 3 hours and 19 minutes) picturesque film set largely in Ancient Italy. The sets, costumes, make-up and shooting angles all look very similar between the two films. And they are both, at least in part, about an uprising fomented by a former slave.

Spartacus (the legendary Kirk Douglas) is born into slavery and sold to a mining operation at the age of 13. In adulthood, he rebels and bites a guard and is strung up as an example to the other miners. A visiting slaver, Bariatus (Peter Ustinov), is looking for potential gladiators takes a liking to him and buys him. The next hour of the film shows gladiators being trained and Spartacus falling in love with another slave, Varinia (Jean Simmons) after he declines her “services” when she is offered to him as a prostitute in a somewhat creepy scene where his captors are watching him.

Crassus (the also-legendary Lawrence Olivier), a senior Roman nobleman visits the gladiator camp with a friend and their wives and asks Batiatus to stage some fights to the death. He also purchases Varinia to take back to Rome. Spartacus is selected for the fight and loses his fight but the victor refuses to kill him and charges the viewing stage instead and is killed.

Later on, Spartacus starts a riot in the mesh hall by killing one of the guards after he is mocked and the gladiators overrun their captors and flee the camp. The gang of ex-slaves begins growing in numbers as they sack local towns and other freed slaves join them. He is reunited with Varinia, who escaped on the way to Rome and marries and impregnates her. Their plan is to head south to Cicilla and pay the pirates there to take them out of Italy. Rome learns of this plan and dispenses troops to attempt to kill them, led by Marcus Glabrus. The slave gang ambushes the Roman encampment and send Glabrus back as one of the few survivors.

Glabrus is exiled from Rome for failing to crush the uprising and Crassus, who had sponsored sending Glabrus resigns his Senate seat. Shortly after, however, the Senate fears that if the slave uprising is successful, it will inspire similar uprisings. Crassus offers to crush the uprising, but only if he is made commander over all Roman forces. He pays off the pirates in Cicilla to deprive Spartacus of his ships and then uses two legions to force him north to Rome.

The ex-slave army goes north to Rome and is crushed by the Roman legions with most of the ex-slaves killed. Spartacus is captured, but the other captives help him conceal his identity. Crassus finds Varinia and takes her back to Rome and attempts to woo her, as well as learn about why she loved Spartacus. Crassus figures out who Spartacus is and pits him against Antonious, his former slave who had joined Sparatcus’ uprising in a match to the death, with the winner to be crucified. Spartacus kills Antonious and is crucified. Varinia is snuck out of town by Batiatus and sees Spartacus hanging from his cross on the way out of town. They share one final moment together before she rides out of town.

I tried to condense the plot down and skipped a lot, but this is a LONG movie with a lot of twists and turns (I didn’t even mention Gracchus in my initial description, who is Crassus’ rival in the Senate and helps Batiatus and Varinia escape).

The scenes and shooting are absolutely stunning, similar to Ben Hur. The actors are obviously some of the best ever and it is obvious in their performances, although, amazingly, Peter Ustinov sort of steals the show among the giants that he is starring along side, portraying a complex, self-interested, conflicted and ultimately somewhat moral slaver.

What, for me, makes this a far better film that Ben Hur boils down to two things. First, the characters are much more imperfect and complex – no one is purely good or evil and decisions and motivations are not always clear. Second, this film has some powerful things to say politically and societally. There is clear commentary on the centrality of slavery to the ills of the Roman society which is an obvious allegory for America in the 1960s. There are also more subtle commentaries that critique Mccarthyism. There is even a commentary on gay rights and the nature of homosexuality in a clever scene between Crassus and Antonious where Crassus subtly describes the intrinsic nature and morality of homosexuality by talking about how some people like oysters and some people like snails, but that it is a matter of taste and not morals. I was pretty impressed by the level of discourse for a film from 60 years ago. Spartacus also is highly quotable and gives us many memorable lines that are still quoted today such as “I’m not an animal” and “I am Spartacus!”

I won’t lie, the epic style of 1960 can be a little tedious and the film is very long. But within that style, this film gives us beauty, a compelling story, interesting and complex characters and real, uncontrived commentary about issues pertinent then and today. What more can you ask for out of a film?

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 9/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 7/10

Total Score 36/40

Next up, we stay in 1960, but for a completely different kind of film with The Apartment.

#82 Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans

One of the most unique films on the list, the 1927 silent romance film Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans makes it at #82 on the AFI list.

The movie revolves around the owner of a financially struggling farm, plotting with his mistress, a “woman from the city” to drown his wife. He takes his wife out on the boat to drown her but decides not to at the last minute. His wife, scared, runs away as soon as they get ashore and hops on a passing train. The man follows her and what follows is a long reconciliation process between the two of them that rekindles their romance. A day in the city complete with flowers, a visit to the fair, drinks and dancing has them falling completely back in love. As they sail home, a storm descends on them and their boat is capsized. The man survives, believing his wife has drowned. A search party is unable to find her. Beside himself, he attacks the woman from the city, but as he is choking her, he learns that his wife has been found alive. The woman from the city leaves town and the last shot is the man and his wife staring lovingly at each other.

The film is unusual for a few reasons. None of the central characters are given names throughout the film. The film’s mood swings wildly – the beginning where they are plotting the murder is sordid and a bit morbid, the middle is downright whimsical and fun and the end is an emotional seesaw. The entire style of the film has a surreal feel to it – both their home and the scenes from the city seem not quite real, like an impressionist piece of art.

The film was one of the last of the silent era and has some evolved techniques, such as mobile cameras (versus the static angles of earlier films) and the using of backing sounds such as dubbed train whistles and car horns. It is sort of odd to think that this movie preceded a Night at the Opera (which was previously revised on this list) by almost 8 years as it feels of an entirely different era.

The movie is visually stunning – the sets are engrossing and Janet Gaynor is brilliant in expressing the changing emotions of the wife, not an easy task in a silent film.

Comparing this film to modern movies presents a bit of a challenge as the medium of silent film is so different – it is sort of like comparing abstract art to photography. Compared against other films of the silent era, I think it is less influential or substantial than other movies such as 1922’s Nosferatu (which, like Sunrise, was directed by F.W. Murnau) and less entertaining than Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Nor was it the breakthrough in film design that the then-and-now highly controversial Birth of a Nation (1915) was. Its plot is uneven and a bit odd – the sudden turn of the man from wanting to kill his wife to being madly in love and her rapid evolution from scared to loving seem implausible, to put it mildly. But as a singular piece of art, it is beautiful.

Sunrise was not on AFI’s 1997 list. I’m not sure it belongs on the current list, although it is an easy-to-watch, at-times charming and beautiful piece of history, 93 years after its making. As I work more deeply through this list, it appears that AFI highly valued the beautifully produced, perhaps more so than the profound in conceiving the list.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 5/10

Acting 8/10

Rewatch Value 5/10

Total Score 28/40

#83 Titanic

James Cameron’s epic (and I do mean, epic, as it cost a record-at-the-time $200 million to make and clocks in at 3 hours and 14 minutes) love story Titanic signs in at #83 on our list.

The film begins with a crew looking for a lost diamond necklace in the wreckage of the RMS Titanic in present-day. The crew’s lead, Brock Lovett (the late, great, Bill Paxton) uncovers a charcoal drawing of a woman, but no diamond, but gets a call from a woman who claims to be the woman in the picture and the original owner of the necklace. Most of the rest of the film is a flashback to her experience about the Titanic.

Jack Dawson (Leonardo Dicaprio) is a part time hustler and starving artist who wins his passage on board the RMS Titanic in a poker game.

Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a seemingly rich (although secretly going broke) aristocrat who is engaged to the wealthy Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).

Jack and Rose meet when Rose nearly commits suicide by jumping off the ship, depressed that she is to marry a man that she does not love and with her dislike for the upper class society of which she is part. Jack saves Rose and convinces her to come down and then convinces her family and friends that she had accidentally slipped and he had caught her.

Jack is invited to dinner as a thanks and then sneaks off with Rose for a “real party” which Cal finds out about and freaks out.

Rose sneaks off again to see Jack and the famous ledge scene happens followed by a kiss. Rose asks Jack to draw her in the nude, which he does. They narrowly escape one of Cal’s servants then sneak down to the cargo hold and have passionate sex in a car down there. Rose says she is going to join Jack when the ship docks. Cal’s people catch up with Jack, plant the diamond necklace on him and have him arrested for stealing.

The ship hits an iceberg and begins to sink….and oh does it take a long time to sink. Rose refuses to get on a lifeboat, telling Cal that she wants to be with Jack: “I’d rather be his whore than your wife”. She goes and finds Jack and cuts him loose and the two scramble for a way out. Cal finds them, and Cal and Jack convince Rose to get on a lifeboat, but she ultimately jumps off of it. Jack and Rose embrace and then Cal loses his mind and starts shooting at them, but misses. Later, her realizes that she has the diamond, since he gave her his coat, which is where they had planted the diamond on Jack.

Lots of panic, chaos and death ensue. Cal sneaks his way onto a lifeboat by grabbing a child. Rose and Jack ultimately wind up with Rose clinging to a piece of wreckage and Jack hanging on along side.

Jack is killed by the cold water but Rose survives. Cal looks for Rose the next day but she hides from him, not wanting him to know that she is alive. We flash forward and learn that Cal went on to marry another woman but committed suicide during the Great Depression.

Rose gives her name as “Rose Dawson” and arrives in New York. We learn that Rose later married but never told her husband about Jack. The last scene shows present-day Rose dropping the diamond into the water.

Let’s start with what I like very much about the film. It is visually stunning – from the costuming to the stages to the special effects, almost every moment of the film is absolutely beautiful. The film, despite primarily being a romance, actually does a good job weaving historical facts around the sinking of the ship (too few life boats, too small a rudder to avoid icebergs, poor execution on maximizing the lifeboats when evacuating, etc). DiCapprio is fantastic in the film. Winslet is adequate, but not that impressive. And the first two thirds of the very long film zip right along with solid pacing. Moments of the love story are quite touching. The soundtrack is fantastic. The nude drawing scene is incredibly sexy without being explicit.

Now for the things that I don’t like. The last third of the film is painfully slow, an ongoing and out-of-place view of carnage tacked on to a romantic drama, I was begging for that darn ship to sink by the end of the film. The character portrayals are painfully stereotypical – rich people are pompous assholes with no redeeming qualities, struggling artists are 100% noble and wonderful. The film could have been so much better if Jack had a dark side or some dark history or if Cal had some redeeming noble qualities that made Rose conflicted. Kathy Bates is totally wasted as a new money, noble Kathy Brown, who is an interesting and promising character who is barely used.

I remember the first time I saw this film, 23 years ago. I was 19, home from college and saw it with Caroline, a should-have-been girlfriend who never quite worked out. Life worked out fine for me (and hopefully for her too, I lost track of her about 20 years ago), but maybe my own failed romance made me a little more poisoned to the telling of a pure love story. But I think that there are better love stories that have been told in film (Annie Hall comes to mind) and even far better romances told against a backdrop of historical events (Forrest Gump comes to mind). As a purely visual work, it is stunning, but less so than Avatar or even Star Wars. In the end, this just feels like an overly simplistic romance set against the backdrop of some cool costumes and special effects.

So does Titanic deserve a spot on this list? I understand why it made the cut – beautiful epics have a special place in film makers hearts. But if I were stranded on a desert island with 100 films (a bit of a stretch of a construct, but you get the point), this wouldn’t be one of the 100 that I would take.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 5/10

Acting 9/10

Rewatch Value 6/10

Total Score 30/40

#84 Easy Rider

1969’s breakthrough Indy film Easy Rider clocks in at #84 on our list.

The story revolves around 2 bikers from LA (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) who make a big score with a cocaine deal and then travel the country in search of first Mardi Gras and then, a retirement spot in Florida with their money. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, spend time on a hippie commune, swim naked in a lake, follow a marching band parade and get arrested for “parading without a permit”, meet an alcoholic lawyer (Jack Nicholson) who rides with them, get refused service at a restaurant and at motels, get assaulted by locals and the lawyer killed, make it to Mardi Gras, pick up some hookers and spend the night partying and doing drugs and then ultimately leave town for Florida, only to get shot by some rednecks on the road.

There is a lot to unpack in this film. It basically follows a repeating sequence of scenes and songs from the road, followed by conversation at various stopping points, often campgrounds. The dialogue spans from the mundane, such as UFO’s and aliens, to the present, like how to smoke a joint, to the deep, like the meaning of freedom. The photography and editing is absolutely beautiful and captures the essence of different parts of the country in the 60s. The soundtrack is among the best I’ve ever heard and actually sparked a revolution in how music was used in films. And Fonda and Hopper are superb in the film, as is Nicholson. And the film feels utterly real – it is even reported that real drugs were used in the shooting. It is a heck of an accomplishment for a film with a reported $400K total production budget and became the inspiration for two generations of independent film that have followed.

This movie has something to say, in a real way, about freedom, counter culture and southern hatred of anything different. While these themes seem like old hat now, the film was jarring at the time and still has a very raw feel to it.

It is not without its flaws. A third of the way through the 96 minute film, I was struggling to get into it – it grips you slowly but does not pull you in immediately. The context of the film is a bit hard to follow – you don’t know much about the protagonists before the movie starts and it makes some of their actions and tendencies in the film confusing. The drug-induced scene at Mardi Gras, while artistically beautiful, is all over the place and seems disconnected from the rest of the film. And the ending, while impactful, seems sort of out of place and unearned. And the various antagonists are extremely one-dimensional and paper thin characters.

As a narrative, Easy Rider is uneven. As a piece of art, it is splendid. In an era where film making mostly consisted of big budget musicals and epics, this is endearing piece of counterculture. And it’s influence is broad – it largely launched independent cinema into what it is today and clearly inspired everything from El Mariachi to Reservoir Dogs.

I think Easy Rider likely belongs not the list sheerly for its influence on the last 50 years of cinema and its ability to create beautiful art on a shoestring budget. But it is far from a perfect film.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 6/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 7/10

Total Score 33/40

Next up, 1997’s Titanic. I’ll try to keep an open mind about a film that I recall hating at the time.

#85 A Night at the Opera

A brisk 91-minute comedy-musical, 1935’s A Night at the Opera is really just a showcase for the Marx brothers, in particular Groucho, and their comedy stylings.

Let me start by saying that the plot of this movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Otis Driftwood (played by Groucho) is some sort of high-society clown who helps a woman named Mrs. Claypool invest $200K in the opera (which, without doing a ton of inflation-calculator work, was a heck of a lot of money in 1935). The film starts out in Italy, with Mrs. Claypool helping New York opera kingpin Herman Gottlieb bring the sensational opera star Rudolfo Lassparri to New York by paying him $1,000 per night. Lassparri is in love with his co-star in Italy, Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) but she is in love with Riccardo Barone, a bit player in Italian Opera. Lassparri arranges for Rosa to accompany him to New York, but Riaccardo is to be left behind. He and two quirky stagehands (the other two Marx brothers) wind up stowing away in Driftwood’s luggage and lots of mayhem ensues on the way to New York. The stowaways are ultimately discovered after poorly impersonating three aviators who were on the ship, but they are not caught and they bunk up in Driftwood’s place in New York, where they continue to craftily elude the police (apparently from being charged with illegal immigration). Driftwood is fired from his role at the opera as it becomes apparent that he has been helping out the stowaways. Lassparri dumps Rosa as his co-lead after leaning that she is still in love with Riccardo. On opening night at the opera, Otis, Riccardo and the two stage hands (named Fiorellio and Tomasso) crash the party, cause lots of problems with the staging and ultimately kidnap Lassparri, leaving Gottlieb no choice but to put Riccardo out there with Rosa to finish the show. The movie ends with Riccardo and Rosa signing a contract with the opera, with Driftwood helping them negotiate the contract.

Got all that? As a story, it’s beyond absurd. But what saves this film is the Marx brothers. Groucho’s one-liners are hilarious, like a far superior version of Rodney Dangerfield. The slap-sticky stylings of Chico and Harpo remind me a lot of the best material that The Three Stooges did. It’s frankly shocking how well jokes from an 85 year old movie hold up in 2020. It is, in a word, hilarious and the movie zips right along, unlike a lot of films from that era.

Drawbacks? Sure. The plot makes no sense. The characters are sort of paper-thin without any complexity or nuance to the roles that they play. There are some big musical numbers in the middle of the film which seem completely out of place with both the pacing and the aesthetic of the rest of the film. The film definitely doesn’t cause you to think about anything deep or see the world differently. But the fact that I kept laughing, makes me forgive those facts. Lots of great comedies have these sorts of shortcomings, but they are still great because, they are, you know, really funny.

There are criminally few comedies on the AFI list and I can see why this one was included. A comedy that is still laugh-out-loud funny 85 years after it is made is worth honoring. I doubt that The Hangover (which, for the record, I adore) will have the same kind of resonance in 2094 that A Night at the Opera has today.

Production Quality 8/10

Screenplay 7/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 9/10

Total Score 34/40

Next up, 1969’s Easy Rider.

#86 Platoon

So, I obviously went on a bit of a hiatus from running through this list. I did a little work, explored some other hobbies and generally have kept pretty busy.

But, I’m back to the project now.

Next up on the list is Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam War drama, Platoon.

A young Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, an upper middle-class kid who volunteered for the Vietnam war and now finds himself deployed amongst a group of men who were drafted. The first 20 minutes of the film are basically what I would call scene-setting, portrayals of life in the jungles of Vietnam – ants biting his face, sleeping on the hard ground in the rain, that sort of thing.

Then, after the lookout who is supposed to relieve Taylor falls asleep, their platoon is ambushed. Taylor is blamed by some for not being on lookout (even though he wasn’t supposed to be at that time).

What follows is a slow acceptance of Taylor into the culture of the platoon, including lots of partying and weed smoking.

Then, one day, out on patrol, the platoon commits numerous atrocities, starting with shooting the livestock, beating a crippled boy to death, shooting an old woman and eventually torching the village. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berringer) is the ring leader in committing the war crimes and is confronted by Sergeant Elias (William Dafoe) over his behavior and the two get into a fight right at the scene of the village.

Afterwards, Taylor’s character narrates that “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore”.

Some time later, during an ambush in the forrest, Barnes shoots Elias while no one else is around. Elias somehow survives and is seen by the platoon from their evacuation helicopters being gunned down by the Vietcong.

Taylor confronts Barnes back at the camp and Barnes has a number of the film’s memorable lines in the scene including:

“There is the way it ought to be and the way it is” and “What do you know about death?”

The two fight and Barnes ultimate winds up with a knife to Taylor’s throat but decides not to kill him.

Later, the platoon is up in Cambodia fortifying a position from foxholes when they are overrun by Vietcong. In the fight that ensues, most of the platoon is killed and Barnes and Taylor encounter each other during the fight. Barnes tries to kill Taylor but a napalm strike kills him before he can. Taylor survives but is injured and sent home.

The film closes with Taylor narrating “we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves”.

There are several aspects of this film that are brilliant. It is extremely well cast – Sheen, Berringer and Dafoe are not actors with huge ranges but they are put in roles that play extremely well to their strengths. The camera work and editing are fantastic – you are really put on the ground in the middle of a war. The film does an excellent job putting you in the middle of atrocious situations and while it can feel a bit heavy-handed at times, it takes great pains to not be overly judgey about all of the characters thrust into the situations that the find themselves in.

The films main shortcoming is that the message is not new – “bad stuff happened in Vietnam” was hardly a groundbreaking message in 1986. And while this film preceeded the similarly situated Full Metal Jacket by a year, that film gave us much more three-dimensional characters and did a better job of giving an end-to-end view of living through the war while Platoon was very focused on the actually acts of war.

In total, this is a very good film, but not one that I will feel compelled to rewatch many times.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 9/10

Rewatch Value 5/10

Overall Score 32/40

Next up, something completely different – 1935’s Night at the Opera.

#87 12 Angry Men

1957’s courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men, starring a young Henry Fonda clocks in at #87 on our list.

The film opens with a judge giving instructions to a jury in a capital murder case. We see a brief shot of the defendant. The film then moves to the set where it spends almost all of its time, a jury deliberation room.

The details of the deliberation are too many and too long to lay out, but the basic synopsis of the case, as revealed to us through the jury deliberations are that an 18 year old boy, who has had a troubled upbringing and has previously been in trouble with the law, is accused of stabbing his father to death with a switchblade. There are two witnesses – one a woman who says she saw him commit the murder from her bedroom window 60 feet away and another an old man from the floor below who claims to have heard the defendant shout out that he is going to kill his father, then heard a thud, then saw the defendant run away down the stairs form his apartment door.

The deliberation starts with an 11 to 1 vote in favor of conviction with the juror played by Henry Fonda being the lone hold-out. The hold out juror successively picks apart the evidence. He shows that the knife used in the murder isn’t, in fact, as rare as the prosecution claimed. He show’s that the downstairs neighbor’s testimony is likely embellished due to his lack of mobility and background noise. That the kid’s story that he went to the movies but couldn’t immediately remember details of the film is plausible. That the woman’s eyewitness testimony is questionable since she wears glasses but likely wasn’t wearing them when she claimed to witness the murder.

As each part of evidence is picked apart, the jury slowly shifts. First to 10-2, then to 9-3, then to 8-4, then to 6-6, then to 9-3 for not guilty, briefly again back to 8-4 for not guilty, then 11-1 for not guilty and finally 12-0 for acquittal.

This film tackles a number of meaty social issues through the deliberation – personal biases about people socioeconomic status and where they are from, biases about immigrants (the accused is not an immigrant, but one of the jurors is) and questions about the effectiveness of jury trials (what happens if there isn’t a Henry Fonda character?)

The film is quite unique in terms of being essentially a single scene play on the big screen. The telling of a trial without actually showing the trial through the lenses of a jury deliberation is surprisingly compelling and allows us to simultaneously learn about the case and the jurors and their biases.

This film is exceptional. The issues raised in the film are as relevant today as they were 62 years ago. This should be a must-watch for anyone discussing criminal justice reform. I remember a cousin of mine telling me about being the lone hold out on a jury and this film seems to conform exceptionally ell too is experience. The screenplay is brilliantly laid out and revolutionary for the time. Henry Fonda is simply outstanding in the role, as are many of the supporting actors. Many of us struggle with watching films this old, but this was actually a very easy watch that held my interest throughout and was highly thought provoking. There are some heavy-hitting films from the 1950s, including one of my favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that we will be covering as we move up the list, but this movie has a case to make as the best film of that era. If you haven’t seen it, even if you aren’t into 1950s cinema in general, this is worth watching.

Production Quality 8/10

Screenplay 10/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 9/10

Overall Score 37/40

#88 Bringing Up Baby

Often considered the original romantic comedy, 1936’s Bringing Up Baby clocks in at #88 on the AFI list.

This was a hard one to summarize the action from, as there was so much happening in every scene and the gags are very visual, but here goes nothing:

At the Natural History, trying to assemble Brontosaurus bones.  They learn that the last bone that is needed has been discovered.  A zoologist (David) and his assistant, Alice Swallow, are going to get married but she encourages him to skip their honeymoon to finish his work.

Goes to meet a Mr. Peabody, who represents a wealthy philanthropist to try to raise money, but Mr. Peabody won’t talk business while golfing.  He runs into a young woman (Susan) who accidentally plays his ball and then proceeds to bang up his car in the parking lot, thinking it is hers.  She droves off with him clinging to the baseboard.

Later he goes to the restaurant to meet Mr. Peabody and trips on an olive that Susan Has dropped, ruining his hat.  She accuses David of following her and being fixated on her.  Lots of antics ensue – misplaced purses, torn suit jackets, torn dresses.  It is all pretty charming and funny.  He winds up missing up Mr. Peabody for dinner with all the craziness.

Susan learns he is engaged but takes him to see Mr. Peabody.She hits him the head with a rock while she is trying to throw a rock at his window to wake him up.

David tells Alice he never wants to see her again.

The next day he is trying to explain to Alice what happened the prior night, but it is confusing to her.  She says her brother brought her a live leopard, Baby, and asks David to come over.  He refuses.  She pretends the leopard is attacking her and he rushes over and learns she wasn’t attacked but the leopard is real.

She asks him to help her take the leopard to Connecticut but he refuses.  She has the leopard follow him down the street and he reluctantly agrees to make the trip.  She crashes into a wagon carrying chickens while she is distracted by the leopard.  The leopard eats a bunch of the chickens.

They stop at a small town to get meat for the leopard and while they are parked and Susan is having a conversation with a constable about being illegally parked, the leopard jumps to the next car.  She steals the car and takes off with David when he gets back with the meat.

They drop off the tiger in Connecticut and David takes a shower, but he can’t find clothes afterwards.  Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth come back while David is searching for clothes.  The dog takes the brontosaurus bone George has been carrying.

David learns that Aunt Elizabeth is the wealthy client that Mr. Peabody is representing and it is her million dollars that he has been trying to get.  He begs Susan not to tell her who he is as he has made a bad impression.  He learns the bone is gone.  They look for George, the dog, but he no longer has the bone.  George leads them to a buried boot rather than the bone.

George winds up meeting Major Applegate who has come for dinner.  Susan tells them his name is “Mr. Bone” and he is a hunter.  He keeps getting up at dinner to follow the dog, looking for the bone.

As dinner goes son, the barn keeper, Gogarty, a drunk, unknowingly lets the tiger out of the barn while looking for his booze.  Major Applegate is practicing his leopard calls and the leopard hears him and responds.  Gogarty sees the leopard and goes to get his gun and makes a ruckus.  Susan and David sneak off to find the leopard but  can’t.  Susan learns that the Leopard was intended for Aunt Elizabeth and she wonders why it hasn’t arrived.  David has already called the zoo to ask them to capture the leopard.

Major Applegate goes outside and does his leopard call again.  Baby comes, responding to the call.  Major Applegate gets Elizabeth to come back in the house without her seeing Baby.

Susan and David go looking for both George and Baby but wind up falling down a small cliff. They hear both Baby and George making noise.  They see them playing.  They try to cross the stream to get to them but it is too deep and George and Baby disappear.

While they are drying off, Susan tells George that Mr. Peabody is coming to see Aunt Elizabeth tonight.  George thinks this means the museum will never get the money.

At the circus in the small town they passed through, they are sending one of their leopards away after he mauled a trainer.  David and Susan see the leopard in the back of a truck and think it is Baby.

David distracts the guys by giving them confusing directions and Susan lets the Leopard out, so there are two leopards on the loose now.

Major Applegate is trying to hunt the leopard (we aren’t sure which one) but David and Susan stop him and explain that Aunt Elizabeth is expecting a tame leopard.  They split up to go look for the leopard, still not knowing there are two on the loose, one of which is dangerous.

Major Applegate finds the one from the zoo and attempts to catch it but it turns hostile and chases him away.

Susan and David argue and he tries to send Susan to go home but she breaks down in tears and he relents.  They find George and see a leopard on the roof of a neighbor (again, thinking it is Baby).  They try to sing to “Baby” but the leopard doesn’t respond.  David runs off to chase George.  The neighbors wake up and think Susan is crazy and force her into the house.  David is arrested after some passers-by think he is a peeping Tom.  They both wind up in jail next to each other.

They try to explain their story to the constable but he thinks they are lying to him.  Gogarty is brought to the same prison for drinking in a stolen car.  Aunt Elizabeth and Major Applegate arrive at the jail and the police think they are both con (wo)men and lock them up as well.  Susan pretends she is a mob asset and agrees to “talk” to the cops.  She says they are all part of “The Leopard Gang” and starts confessing to jewel heists and bank robberies.  While they are distracted, she sneaks out the window and steals a car.

Mr. Peabody and Alice show up together looking for Aunt Elizabeth and for David.  He vouches for Aunt Elizabeth and David and they are let out.

The guys from the zoo who lost the leopard show up at the police station to confess that they lost the leopard and George and Baby follow them in the door.  They figure out that there is a second leopard and that the leopard Susan is looking for is dangerous.

Susan catches the zoo leopard and drags it back to the jail.  George and Baby run into a cell to hide from the zoo leopard.  David forces the zoo leopard into a cell.  Alice ditches David and breaks the engagement.  Susan comes to see David at the zoo and brings the lost bone.  She also tells him that she has the $1 million for the museum.  She tells David she is in love with him.  David says he likes her too.  She falls off a ladder into the brontosaurus and collapses it.  They embrace and the film ends.

I had never seen the film before, but in watching it, you can see its extensive influence on the plot structure and devices of films as varied as There’s Something About Mary and Wu. The notion of the free-spirited, slightly crazy woman who turns the life and love of a slightly uptight guy upside is a classic plot line these days, but all those films own a debt of gratitude to Bringing Up Baby. It invented the genre. The gags are hilarious – mixing absurdity and sophistication. The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is fantastic. Grant is the perfect straight-man and Hepburn is a fantastic trouble-maker. I’m not really a fan of this genre of films, but this is a brilliant piece of art and there is so much going on in every scene and so many physical gags that are beautifully timed, that this is worth a second and a third watch.

Minor critiques:

  1. Like I’ve been finding with a lot of films from the Golden Era, the movie is very light on sharing the characters back stories and it gives the characters a certain lack of depth.
  2. Like most films in the genre this movie invented, the romantic comedy, there isn’t a lot of depth of message or bigger meaning in any of this
  3. The payoff at the end is a little weak – not even a kiss? There is so much romantic build-up to just end with one more sight gag.

Overall, when a movie is still entertaining and worth rewatching 81 years later, it’s hard not to think that it deserves to be on the top 100 list. Bringing Up Baby is just fun entertainment, even if it birthed a genre that has had as many terrible films as it has good films.

Production Quality 8/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 8/10

Overall Score 34/40

#89 The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan’s best work, 1999’s The Sixth Sense clocks in at #89 on our list.  The film is a highly efficient one hour and forty seven minutes.

Set in Phialdelphia, Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcom Crowe and his wife Anna, coming home from getting an award for his work for as a child psychiatrist when a young man, Vincent Gray, invades his home, blames him for not curing him of his visions of ghosts ten years ago and shoots Dr. Crowe as well as himself.

Cut ahead to the next fall, Dr. Crowe is going to visit a new patient, Cole Sear, who has similar symptoms to Vincent Gray.  He sees Cole outside his apartment and follows him to a church.  He tells Cole that he missed their appointment.  He talks with Cole and notices cuts on his arm.  

He comes home to find that Anna has already eaten dinner and gone to sleep.  He goes to the basement.

The next day, we see Cole and his single mother, Lynn having breakfast at their apartment.  She goes to fix a spot and comes back to find all the cabinets open.  Cole clearly lies and says he was looking for pop tarts.  Cole heads out to walk to school with Tommy, who is supposed to be his friend but actually bullies him.  

Cole comes home and his mother and Dr. Crowe are at the house.  His mother greets him and they tell stories about their day that represent their dreams.  She says she is going to make him pancakes and that he has an hour.  He walks back to see Dr. Crowe.

Cole and Dr. Crowe play a game where if Dr. Crowe gets thing right about Cole, Cole will come towards him and if he gets things wrong, Cole will walk away.  Dr. Crowe gets the first few right, but then gets a bunch wrong and Cole tells him he is a nice guy but that he can’t help him.

Dr. Crowe shows up late for his anniversary dinner.  He starts apologizing and says he is struggling to keep track of time and starts describing Cole, she pays the bill and says only “happy anniversary” and leaves.

Cut ahead to Malcolm and Cole walking together.  He tells Malcolm to stop looking at him.  He shares that he hates Tommy and thinks he is a freak.  Malcolm tells him he is not a freak.

Back at home, Lynn sees pictures with weird sparks of light in all the pictures of Cole.

At their next appointment, Cole and Malcolm are discussing Cole’s dad and his leaving.  He asks Cole to do some free association writing.  Cole says he has done it before and wrote upset words – we see Lynn finding his writing.  Malcolm asks Cole what he wants out of the sessions. Cole says he doesn’t want to be scared anymore.

Malcolm is in the basement, he hears a man from Anna’s store come by and invite her to the Amish country.  She decides not to go.  He sees him as trying to move in on her and mutters, “keep moving, cheese dick”.

Cole is in history class.  His teacher asks if anyone can guess what the school was before it was a school.  Cole says they hung people and his teacher says he is wrong and that used to be a court house.  He yells at the teacher for looking at him.  He calls him Stuttering Stanley, which used to be his nickname when he was younger, his teacher starts stuttering.  His teacher finally gets angry and says “stop, you freak!”.

Malcolm and Cole meet at what appears to be the school.  Cole says he doesn’t want to talk about anything.  Malcolm does a stupid magic trick to try to break the ice, but Cole isn’t having it.

Malcolm comes home and sees Anna watching their wedding video.  Later, while she is in the shower, he discovers she has a prescription for Zoloft and that the entrance to his basement office has been blocked off by books.

Cut ahead to a birthday party Cole and his mother is at.  A bunch of kids lock Cole in an attic.  His mother eventually discovers him passed out.

She takes him to the ER where the Doctor says he didn’t have a seizure but that Cole has concerning cuts and bruises.  The Doctor seems to accuse her of abusing him.  Dr. Crowe is there but remains quiet.

Malcolm sees Cole at the hospital.  He tries to tell him a bedtime story but it is terrible.  Cole asks Malcolm why he is sad.  Malcolm eventually shares the story of Vincent and how his wife is ignoring him and that Cole reminds him of Vincent.  Cole tells him his secret – “I see dead people”, “they only see what they want to see” and “they don’t know they are dead”.

Lynn brings Cole home.  She finds scratch marks on his sweater and his back.

Cole wakes up to use the bathroom and sees a female ghost in the kitchen who has slit her wrists.  He runs, scared back to his room.

Malcolm goes to see Cole in a school play.  Afterwards, they are walking and Cole see three people hanged in the hallway.   He asks Malcolm to make the visions go away.

At dinner Lynn tells Cole she found her grandmother’s bumble bee pendant in Cole’s drawer.  Cole denies taking it – Lynn gets mad and sends him to his room with no dinner.  Cole sees a kid who has blown his brains out offering to show him his dad’s gun.

Cut ahead to Anna making a sale at the jewelry shop.  She gives the guy from the shop a gift.  Malcolm throw a rock at the window and disappears.

Cole asks Malcolm what he wants and Malcolm tells him that he wants to be closer to his wife and that he is transferring him.  Cole asks him not to fail him.  Cole asks him if he believes him and Malcolm says he doesn’t know how to answer that.

Later that night, Malcolm is re-listening to Vincent Gray tapes and discovers that when he is out of the room, if he turns the volume way up, he can hear the ghosts.

He goes to see Cole in a church and tells him that he thinks the ghosts just want help and that Cole might be able to make them go away if he tries to help them.

Malcolm comes home to see Anna’s new sort-of boyfriend pulling away, he shouts out for him to stop, but he pulls off.

Back at Cole’s, he sees a girl that is throwing up.  Initially scared, he eventually goes and asks her if she wants help.

Cole goes to the girl’s (Kyra) wake and delivers a videotape to her father at her request.  The video shows her mother deliberately poisoning her food.  

Cole is the star of the school play, King Arthur.  Cole is talking to another dead woman when his teacher, Stanley (Cunningham) walks in.  Cole says he was just practicing his lines and thanks Stanley for the part.

Malcolm sees him afterwards and tells him he was great in the play.  Cole realizes that their work is done and they aren’t going to see each other anymore.  He tells Malcolm he should talk to his wife while she is sleeping.  Malcolm says they have said everything they needed to say and it was time for Cole to talk to people closer to him.

On the way home from the play, Cole and Lynn are caught in a traffic jam because of an accident.  Cole tells her he is ready to communicate with her and tell her his secrets.  Cole says that a woman on a bike died and that she is standing right outside his window.  When his mother freaks out, he relates a story about his grandmother that only she and her grandmother could know.

Malcolm comes home.  HIs wife is rewatching their wedding tape agin but has fallen asleep.  Anna talks in her sleep and says he misses him and asks why he left her.  Malcolm is confused – his wedding ring falls from her hand.  In that moment, he realizes that he died the night Vincent shot him.  A montage of the scenes with the hints are revealed.  He discovers he is still wearing the shirt, drenched in blood and with bullet holes from the night he died.  We flash back to see his death.  He tells Anna he can go now and that he needs to tell her that she was never second to his work.  In her sleep, Anna says goodnight.

I will admit, having been disappointed with what M. Night Shyamalan has done since this film (have you seen the nightmare of the The Last Airbender?), I’d become a bit jaded about his work, but on rewatch, this film is brilliant.  The characters are rich and well-developed.  Bruce Willis, who is a thoroughly under rated actor, is fantastic as are Haley Joel Osmond and Toni Colette.  The story is complete.  And while we all the clues were laid out, I didn’t have the ending figured out.  The last 15 minutes (the final scene between Lynn and Cole and the final scene between Malcolm and Anna) are absolutely perfect.  The camera work and angles are great.  The film is at once touching, scary and thought-provoking.  The pacing is also excellent – it isn’t a long film but a TON happens and it was actually challenging keeping up with notes on the movie as there is so much going on in even the very short scenes.

I do have some minor quibbles with it – Shyamalan seems to stretch the rules of his virtual world to further the story – Malcolm can break windows at the shop?  Cole’s grandmother can visit him even though she knows she is dead and isn’t in need of anything?  I’m also not sure what we are supposed to learn from this movie other than that Shyamalan, at his peak, is one heck of a story-teller.  Psychiatry itself is portrayed a bit unrealistically and I have some degree of concern about how the film’s portrayal might encourage people with actual delusions that theirs are real.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 7/10

Acting 9/10

Rewatch Value 8/10

Overall Score 35/40

This one deserves to be on the list.  It wasn’t around in 1997, so it obviously wasn’t on the original list.  The lower end of the top 100 seems like an appropriate spot for this very smart but slightly shallow film.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been less impressed with Shyamalan’s arc than with that of similarly-styled film-maker Jordan Peele, but Shyamalan’s best work is pretty damn good. Up next, 1938’s Bring Up Baby.

#90 Swing Time

1936’s Swing Time saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing the night away in a musical tale of romance.

Astaire plays “Lucky” Garnett, a member of a dancing troupe who is retiring to marry his fiancé Margaret. The opening scene has members of his troupe trick him into having his pants tailored while they gamble with him, causing him to miss his wedding. Margaret’s father is furious but says he will consent to the marriage if Lucky makes $25,000. He attempts to buy a ticket on a train to New York but his troupe-mates take all his money, as they had bet him that he wouldn’t get married. He jumps on the moving train and stows away and his friend Pop Cardetti comes with him.

Once in New York, Pop wants cigarettes, so Lucky gets change from a woman, Penny Carroll, to use the cigarette machine. The cigarette machine winds up dispensing multiple packs plus giving them a bunch of money back and Lucky goes back to Penny to try to get his lucky quarter back. As she attempts to brush him off, she drops her purse. Pop picks it up and steals the quarter. She accuses Lucky of stealing the quarter and grabs a cop, but he won’t help her. After learning that Pop stole the quarter, Lucky goes after Penny to try to give her her money back.

He follows her into a dance studio where she is an instructor. He asks the owner, for lessons from her. What follows is a funny sequence where he pretends to not know how to dance and Penny gets increasingly frustrated with him, ultimately telling him that no one could ever teach him how to dance. The owner overhears her and tells Penny she is fired, but Lucky shows how much he has “learned” by doing a stunning dancing duet with Penny. The owner is impressed and promises to get them a try out at a club called the Silver Sandal. Meanwhile, Pop has been hitting on the front desk lady, Mabel.

Lucky doesn’t have a tuxedo for the tryout – Pop tries to go out and win enough money to get him a tux but loses all his money. He brings back a drunk named Eric who has no money but has a tux and they gamble with him but loose. Lucky misses the tryout and Penny is furious with him. A week later, Lucky and Pop are “protesting” with signs outside of Penny’s hotel room about being unfairly treated. Mabel convinces Penny to talk to Lucky again, because Pop has made her hundreds of dollars gambling (the whole dialogue really makes little sense, but on we go). Lucky plays the piano and sings Penny “The Way You Look Tonight” – if you don’t know, Swing Time was the first time this iconic song was performed and it is absolutely exquisite – I can only imagine seeing and hearing it in a theater for the first time. Penny is enthralled and gives Lucky another chance.

They go to the Silver Sandal to try to show off their dance moves, but the club band leader and singer, Rikki Romero, refuses to sing because he is in love with Penny (he has proposed to her many times) and doesn’t want to see her dance with another man. The club owner lets Lucky know that Rikki won’t be singing there anymore anyhow as he has lost his contract to a competing club owner in a bet.

Lucky goes to the other owner’s club and plays roulette. He is up big and bets the club owner his stack against Ricki’s contract in a game of single card draw. Pop uses his magic skills to pull an Ace of Spades and they win Rikki’s contract, but Rikki still refuses to play for them because his contract doesn’t require him to. Lucky tricks him into playing and we finally see them dance.

Lucky is falling for Penny but doesn’t want to tell her about Margaret, so he asks Pop not to ever let him be alone with her. Lucky, Penny, Pop and Mabel head out to the country in the winter to a cottage called the “New Amsterdam”. Pop breaks his promise and leaves them alone. They almost kiss but Pop interrupts them. He lets slip that Lucky has a fiancé. When they are alone again, Penny refuses to kiss Lucky.

Cut ahead to re-opening night at the Silver Sandal. Rikki again proposes to Penny, but she refuses. Mabel tells Penny that she should go kiss Lucky as he is in love with her – she finds him in his dressing room and kisses him.

Next, we get to see Lucky’s performance at the Silver Sandal. His big number, Bojangles of Harlem, requires quite a bit of digital ink to discuss. Lucky comes out in blackface and performs a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. 83 years later, we’d all agree that a white guy dancing in blackface is a really, really bad idea. If you are not familiar, blackface was a common technique used by white performers in minstrel shows for centuries. It generally involved ugly racial stereotypes and was at once co-opting black culture for white enjoyment and denigrating black culture. It’s history is ugly, which is why no one does it anymore. People were not so enlightened in 1936. Having said all this and with the context of the time, what Fred Astaire does here is remarkable. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the most famous and successful African-American entertainer of the first half of the 20th century. John Bubbles was a mentor and teacher of Fred Astaire. There is no animus in Astaire’s performance here – this is clearly a case of him honoring Robinson and Bubbles, but there are some absolutely cringe-worthy elements here – Astaire comes out of a stage set with giant lips on it (a classically ugly black stereotype from minstrel shows) and…you know…he’s wearing blackface. I don’t know how to process all this in 2019 other than to say that while I don’t think anything but respect was intended, the scene does not age well at all.

Getting back to our plot, Margaret has shown up to see Lucky dance. After the show, Penny meets Margaret and runs away in an emotional huff. The competing club owner also shows up and tells Lucky he has learned that he cheated in the draw for Rikki’s contract. They redraw and Lucky loses.

Lucky and Penny talk. Penny asks if Margaret is a good dancer and Lucky tells her he will never dance again. Cue big musical number.

Lucky goes to see Margaret at her hotel. She tells him that she is not in love with him and isn’t going to marry him. Relieved, he shares that he is in love with Penny. Pop comes and tells Lucky than Penny is going to marry Rikki that afternoon.

Pop and Lucky go to try to break up the wedding. They use the “trouser cuff” trick that was used on Lucky in the first scene on Rikki. In a confusing closing scene with way too much laughter, Penny decides not to marry Rikki (I guess because of the trousers?) and is going to marry Lucky. Cue the closing number.

What I loved:

  • The dancing is absolutely splendid. Astaire and Rogers are individually brilliant and have amazing chemistry.
  • The Way You Look Tonight is probably the finest song of the 1930s – one that everyone still knows the words to today – and it was debuted here. I can’t over-emphasize how amazing it is to see it in its original context.
  • The chemistry between Astaire and Rogers really makes the romance work.
  • The movie is fun throughout, well-paced and never boring

What I didn’t like:

  • There are elements of the plot that just flat out make no sense. Absurdity is piled on top of absurdity – club owners selling singer’s contracts for card draws, Mabel convincing Penny to give Lucky a chance because Pop has successfully gambled her money, the whole closing sequence all seem ridiculous.
  • There isn’t much in the way of deeper meaning in any of this. Musicals can be deep – have you watched Phantom of the Opera (a dark look into mental illness and physical deformity) or Hamilton (an amazing history lesson)? This one falls flat here.
  • Other than Lucky and Penny, you don’t come to care one way or another about any of the other characters. Maybe it’s the screen writing, maybe it’s the acting, but it almost makes me wonder if the whole thing shouldn’t have just been musical numbers with Astaire and Rogers.

Overall assessment:

Production Quality 9/10

Screenplay 4/10

Acting 6/10

Rewatch Value 8/10

Overall Score 27/40

Should this be on the AFI Top 100 list? I feel like its inclusion is of the “we need to include a movie with Astaire and Rogers dancing because it is so unique” versus its actual qualities as a film. I really enjoyed watching it, but I’m not sure I would call this a masterpiece the way many other reviewers have. I have a feeling opinions would be quite varied depending on taste.

Up next, M Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense.

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