Saturday, January 30, 2010

New on Blu: "The Godfather"

There are few things I can imagine to be more daunting than trying, with any degree of success, to explain why The Godfather is a masterpiece—indeed, for my money, the single greatest of all motion pictures. We can explain it away with logic and comparison; it is, for example, one of the few times in motion picture history where an honest-to-God work of art was a certified box office smash (as were Gone with the Wind and E.T. and that’s about it). More than dollars and cents, however, it stands as one of the bellwether films; as with The Birth of A Nation and Citizen Kane before it, it was as a culmination of what cinema was at that moment—where it had come from, and what it could be. When it was released in 1972, The Godfather was part of the first flood of what became a golden age of American film, and it was one of the films that pointed the way for that movement; with every frame, it seems to shout, “Look what we’re capable of.” It took the new freedoms and complexities of its recent contemporaries (Bonnie and Clyde, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Last Picture Show) and—as some of those films had—put them to work in a classic American story, one that was set in our past but spoke to our present, and our future. In the years to come, the exciting and invigorating pictures wouldn’t be those of the experimental (and frequently unwatchable) cinema of Warhol or Brakhage; it was the work of the film brats who injected traditional genres with new energy and psychological intricacy, so that a detective picture (like Chinatown) or a cop film (like The French Connection) or a romantic comedy (like Annie Hall) or a caper movie (like Dog Day Afternoon) were no longer just those things. Yes, The Godfather is a gangster picture. But it’s so much more than that.

And for those who treasure it, there’s just something intangible about The Godfather. It is, for lack of a better word, perfect. It’s a perfect movie. It is classical narrative filmmaking at its absolute finest. The storytelling is clean and neat. The narrative is involving. The direction and design are flawless. The characters are fascinatingly personal, the actors playing them brilliant. It draws us in from its opening words (“I believe in America”), and for 175 minutes, it does not take a wrong step.

It begins with one of the great opening sequences in all of film. We are introduced to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the “godfather” of the Corleone crime family. It is 1945, the day of the wedding of his daughter Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo (Gianni Russo). The wedding, a joyous affair of song, wine, and food, is an all-day affair in the summer sun, but in the darkness of the Don’s office, he receives visitors. No Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. Slowly, we meet his family—not so much with proper introductions, but more as they cross into our field of vision, fellow guests at this magnificent affair. There is the consigliere and adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the charismatic hot-head Sonny (James Caan), the likable but disconnected Fredo (John Cazale), and the baby boy, Michael (Al Pacino). Michael is a college boy and war hero, the apple of his papa’s eye; he hopes great things for Michael, who brings a pretty WASP named Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to the wedding. It is apparently the first time she is made aware of what Don Vito does. “That’s my family, Kay,” he assures her. “It’s not me.”

In this sequence, we marvel at the skill of the exposition; the screenplay by director Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (who wrote the bestselling novel upon which it was based) lays out the rules and traditions entirely within the action of the day’s events. The Godfather is a long film, but there’s not a wasted moment—the picture’s economy is stunning, as evidenced by the scenes in the Don’s office, where every man who comes to visit him plays a role later in the film, beyond their function here as scene-setters.

So much of the movie is familiar, we forget how quickly it moves. The Don’s first order of business following the wedding (beyond directing Hagen on that famous errand to visit the head of a Hollywood studio) is to entertain the proposal of one Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), who hopes to engage the Corleone family in a partnership with his burgeoning drug trade. The Don doesn’t like “this business of drugs,” but when he turns “The Turk” down, he sets of a chain of events that culminates in an attempt on his own life. Michael has always kept the family business at arm’s length, but it has become personal—he volunteers to avenge his father’s death, in a public place, in a very forceful way.

Brando’s performance as Don Vito was seen by so many as the takeaway turn of the film, and has become such a fixture of American popular culture, that it’s easy to forget how magnificent Pacino is here. It’s a brilliant piece of work, a stunning progression from nice kid to ruthless criminal—for all intents and purposes, The Godfather is his story, not the titular character’s. He comes on bright-eyed and cheery, idealistic and hopeful, but this stuff is in his genes (watch the way he takes over that hospital room when he realizes what’s about to happen). At the beginning of the film, he’s so young he’s almost unrecognizable, his features soft within an almost babyish face. But as the story progresses, his character hardens—internally and externally. When McClusky (Sterling Hayden) clocks him in the grill, it tightens that boyish face; his jaw is wired shut, but his soul, too, has hardened. It’s a performance of tremendous control and progression; in sharp contrast to Pacino’s work of late, he only loses his temper once, in the very last scene, where he snaps, but only for a flash. “You know Mike, we was all proud of you, being the hero and all,” Clemenza tells him. “Your father too.” Brando’s excellent work lets us see that pride—and the pain of losing the boy to his unfortunate destiny, delivering one of his finest acting moments when Don Vito learns what Michael has done.

The cast is filled with justifiably celebrated acting. Robert Duvall is perhaps the most undervalued actor in the film, but he effortlessly projects a sense of calm and cool (watch how he is insulted and blown off by the studio head, but then departs by telling him, “By the way, I admire your pictures very much”). Caan is good-humored with a nice edge; you see why he would seem the heir apparent to his father’s position, and why that’s the wrong assumption. Shire and Cazale are both somewhat underused, but make tremendous impressions in their brief roles. But the writing is so good, even the supporting characters—McCluskey, Moe Green, Barzini, Luca Brasi—are so richly drawn, we know more about them in one scene than we do after entire movies with other characters.

Coppola’s direction is stylized without being imposing; for the most part, he prefers a well-prepared mood and tone to self-conscious camerawork. He keeps much of the action in long unbroken takes, and limits his camera movement to slow, effective push-ins, like Bonasera’s opening speech, Michael’s explanation of how they get Sollozzo and McCluskey, or that tremendous moment when he carries out that plan. The editing (by William Reynolds and Peter Zinner) is sharp as a tack; there is one powerful shock edit (at the end of the Italy section), and then there’s that closing scene. The flawless intercutting of the baptism and the bloodbath of Michael’s creation is the series’ most potent intermingling of faith, tradition, and cold-blooded brutality, to say nothing of the narrative power of Michael’s expression and the flat, dead way he says “I do.”

So much of The Godfather is iconic, it’s hard to even approach it with a clear head and a fresh perspective. Brando with the cat. Woltz’s rude awakening. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” That music. The fish in the bullet-proof vest. Sonny at the tollbooth. The don playing with his grandson. The door slamming on Kay. Michael in that Italian restaurant, gun under the table, passing the point of no return. And that final scene between Vito and Michael, conspiring and commiserating in the garden. Moviegoers engaged with The Godfather not only for its sympathetic characters and the thrills of its genre, but because it reflected an America they recognized as their own; as it broke box office records in 1973, the scandal of Watergate was seeping onto our newspapers. The film represented what we were starting to understand about our country—that far away from the light of the sun, men in darkened rooms wielded the real power. When Coppola first cuts from the shadows of Don Vito’s office to the bright wedding outside, it’s jarring (as it should be). Its pessimism resonated with us as well—it’s all good and well to hope for legitimacy, but the Corleone family is what it is. And so are we. “There just wasn’t enough time, Michael,” bemoans the father. “We’ll get there, Pop,” replies his son. “We’ll get there.”

"The Godfather," previously available on Blu-ray as part of a box set of the entire trilogy, makes its debut as a stand-alone Blu-ray release on Tuesday, February 2nd.

Friday, January 29, 2010

New on Blu: "Mystic River"

The first thing you notice in Mystic River is that the Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow logos are in black and white, and accompanied by dead silence. The black and white, to me, indicated a throwback to an earlier time in cinema, when genre pictures like crime dramas and murder mysteries were multi-layered with psychological ramifications and complicated motives. The silence sent a louder message: shut up and pay attention. (Isn’t it strange, how quiet an audience can get when there’s no sound?)

The film then proceeds into a prologue that is terrifying in its mere subtlety. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are three nice Irish kids who live in a Boston suburb. One quiet afternoon, between rounds of street hockey, they’re caught scrawling their names in wet cement by a man who seems to be a cop. He intimidates them, puts Dave in his car, and drives away. The man is not a cop, but a pedophile, and Dave is kept and abused for four days before escaping (as played out in a riveting series of fade-outs).

Thirty years later, the three men still reside in Boston. Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con, runs a corner store; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective for the State Police; Dave (Tim Robbins), who has understandably never been quite right since that afternoon, is a family man who seems an empty shell. One afternoon, he and his son come across the wet cement, where his name remains half-scrawled, a potent symbol of a life interrupted.

Then Jimmy’s daughter is killed (revealed in a masterful sequence of helicopter shots and police calls). The night she was murdered, Dave came home covered in a blood and sporting a bruised hand whose origin changes every time he’s asked about it. Sean’s partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) thinks Dave may have done it; even Dave’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden) has her suspicions. Sean’s not so sure, because somewhere deep inside both he and Jimmy lurks guilt over that fall afternoon that will remain with them until the day they die.

This is powerful stuff. If Mystic River had been the work of some hot, new, young auteur, everyone would have shouted its praises from the highest rooftop. But it was the 24th film by Clint Eastwood, 73 at the time and helming arguably his best picture to that point. Eastwood is a confident enough filmmaker to stay the hell out of the way; his story and his actors carry the film, and his greatest accomplishment is to let them do their job. Throughout its unhurried running time (137 minutes), Eastwood refuses to reach, and refuses to rush.

The picture is populated with so many good performances, from so many first-rate actors, that it’s like watching a master class in film acting. Penn’s is the standout; his tough talk and hard manner form a mask for real pain, and three scenes here contain some of his best work. Watch the scene where he finds out his daughter is dead—and, specifically, how quickly his fear turns to anger. Watch the scene where he sits on his back porch and talks to Robbins; he speaks so simply, and so plainly, that it breaks your heart. And watch his scene in the funeral home, which is as fine a piece of acting as you’re likely to see anytime soon.

God, this movie’s fantastic. It’s refreshing—a movie made by grown-ups, for grown-ups. The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) elegantly boils down the terse novel by Dennis Lahane (Gone Baby Gone) to its most basic and heartbreaking elements. It is so simple, and so quiet, but it is a tough sonofabitch—Eastwood’s camera stares through moments when most movies flinch. There’s no easy sentimentality here, and when the film arrives at its tragic conclusion, it is overwhelming not in its emotion (though there’s a surplus of that), but in its inevitability. When Sean tells Whitey that the dead girl is his friend’s daughter, Whitey remarks, “He’s in for a world of hurt.” He has no idea.

When Mystic River hit theaters in 2003, Eastwood was coming off a bit of a hit-and-miss patch as a filmmaker, with a string of films based on bestsellers (Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crime, Blood Work) meeting with unspectacular box office and critical notices. Mystic River marked the beginning of his most recent renaissance; he followed it with such critical and financial successes as Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Gran Torino. Seven years later, it remains a towering achievement in the Eastwood filmography—a quiet masterpiece, filled with tremendous performances and skillful filmmaking.

"Mystic River" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, February 2nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oh, No Way I'm Seeing That: "Valentine's Day"

Welcome to “Oh, No Way I’m Seeing That,” a regular feature in which we’ll take a look at a trailer for an upcoming film, and then examine exactly why there’s absolutely no way we’ll be seeing the advertised film. In this edition: Garry Marshall's mega-rom-com, "Valentine's Day".

In theory, this isn't a movie to dismiss outright, primarily because it's full of people I like. Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, Queen Latifah--these are all people who have been in good movies, though I'm fairly certain this isn't one of them. But I wouldn't see this one at gunpoint, for two reasons:

1) In its conception, advertising, and strategic February release, Warners is positioning it as a de facto sequel to He's Just Not That Into You, and good God that movie just sucked on toast.

2) It's directed by Garry Marshall, who hasn't directed a good movie in decades. Yes, he did Pretty Woman. You know what else he did? Exit to Eden, The Other Sister, Runaway Bride, Raising Helen, and Georgia Rule. There's a film festival from hell.

So yeah, let's all get together and skip this one. The Wolfman comes out the same day. Let's just go see that instead. Pinky promise?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sundance: "Toe to Toe"

Emily Abt’s Toe to Toe has got a lot of problems, but its primary difficulty is that it doesn’t seem to have any idea what it wants to be. A coming-of-age drama? A tale of high school rivalry? A Bend it Like Beckham rip-off? An examination of Muslim issues? An exploration of race and class in suburban D.C.? An indictment of teen sexuality? A big hip-hop dance-off? Only Abt knows, and she’s not telling. What comes across in the final product is a turgid melodrama, a narrative that is simultaneously hyper-busy and a total slog.

The focus is on two girls, both lacrosse players at a suburban D.C. high school. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is the black girl from the poor neighborhood, working hard on the field and in the classroom in hopes of getting into Princeton. Rich, white Jesse (Louisa Krause) is the new girl, but her bad-girl reputation arrives almost as quickly as she does. The girls make friends at first, hanging out and sharing lacrosse training montages, but the relationship goes sour in several predictable ways.

There are flashes of inspiration, and scenes here and there (like Tosha hanging out at home) with a nice, lived-in reality. But it’s all so familiar; these familial conflicts and “opposite sides of the tracks” contrasts and teens behaving badly scenarios have been done to death in other, better pictures. Abt’s screenplay (she wrote, produced, and directed) seems designed primarily to throw in a new subplot every ten minutes, which is presumably why we’ve got the business with the Muslim boyfriend or Jesse’s lesbian stalker or the racist message on Tosha’s locker or Jesse’s bad case of the clap, and when all else fails, Abt shuts the picture down for a few minutes so we can watch some people we don’t know dancing at a club.

The leads aren’t half bad. Martin conveys Tosha’s intelligence and stubbornness skillfully, giving the character dimensions that we suspect may not have been on the page. Krause (who appeared in The Babystiters a couple of years back) is even better, handling several difficult scenes and wild character swings gracefully.

But the whole enterprise has a made-for-TV-movie feel—the simplistic storytelling, the vanilla style, the on-the-nose dialogue, the unfortunate supporting performances—and by the time the story is taken over by the girls’ rivalry for the same boy, it’s operating at the level of an Afterschool Special (particularly in its puritanical notions of female sexuality). The final moments suggest what Abt was going for, and they’re good, but the picture hasn’t earned them. For most of its 104 interminable minutes (trust me, it feels longer), Toe to Toe is soapy bullshit.

"Toe to Toe" is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It opens in New York on February 26th.

Today's New DVDs- 1/26/10

Whip It: I don't mean to keep harping on it, but seriously-- this is the kind of movie home video is good for. Inexplicably ignored during its theatrical run, you now (as if by magic!) have the opportunity to see a really wonderful charmer of a movie. Go rent it, buy it, queue it, whatever it is that you do. Take my word for this one.

Soul Power: Sony didn't send us a screening copy of this one, so I can't tell you if the DVD and Blu-ray correct my main issue with this documentary on the 1974 Zaire concert that preceeded the "Rumble in the Jungle"--that issue being, not enough of the music. Bonus features? Deleted scenes? I'll let you know if I find out.

Surrogates: During this movie's very brief time in theaters, I was struck by how out-of-date it seemed; in the posters and trailers, it reminded me of that glut of futuristic movies from 1995 (Virtuosity, Johnny Mneumonic, Judge Dredd), specifically the ones that envisioned when the computers took over. Anyway, nothing in those trailers motivated me to see it, and nothing in the reviews I'm reading now has lead me to think that was the wrong call.

There's also like five new Rifftrax discs out today, but they didn't send us screening copies, so boo and no link for them. (Imagine all the sales they just lost!)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sundance: "Daddy Longlegs"

Seldom has a film worn its aspirations more clearly on its sleeve than Daddy Longlegs, which wants very badly to be the Cassavetes film he never made. It’s shot in an intimate, handheld style, using super-grainy, washed-out 16mm film stock (in sharp contrast to the slick HD and DV of most modern low-budget indies, this one kind of looks like hell) and leaving in clunky zooms and momentary lapses of focus—you know, to make it feel more “natural” and “captured.” The dialogue and scene construction often has an improvisational feel, with overlapping lines frequently muddying up the soundtrack; it’s more about atmosphere and feel than the telling of a specific story anyway. And star Ronald Bronstein is the kind of unconventional leading man that Cassavetes would have embraced; he’s a lived-in character actor in the Falk/Cassel/Gazzara mold.

Throwback pictures like this can be refreshing, particularly for cinephiles that get the references; I like and admire what brother directors Ben and Joshua Safdie are trying to do, even though I’m not sure whether it actually works. Like Cassavetes’ films, Daddy Longlegs is a picture that requires more patience than many viewers might be willing to give it.

Bronstein’s Lenny is a divorced father of two, barely scraping by as a movie theater projectionist. His wife has primary custody, but he gets his boys for two weeks out of the year, and the narrative spans those two weeks, give or take. You’ve met guys like Lenny before: to hear him tell it, he’s always the victim, always falling prey to bad timing and rotten luck and exterior forces conspiring against him, when the fact of the matter is, he’s the common denominator in all of his troubles—his lack of responsibility, and his dearth of good common sense.

The Safdies’ storytelling style and jittery, dirty Gotham aesthetic also calls to mind pictures like Born to Win and Panic in Needle Park, low-key portraits of losers and lowlifes always looking for a hustle. Lenny is very much part of that mold, and as played by Bronstein, he’s got the kind of loping affability that you can see right through—charming for about an hour, infuriating after that. Our tolerance for him, in film time, is about the same; by the second half of the picture, we’ve pretty much lost our patience with him and his steadily more horrifying behavior.

The rest of the performances are fairly uneven (though young brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo, as Lenny’s sons, are rather wonderful), and the Safdies take a couple of strange stylistic turns towards the end of the film. But Daddy Longlegs is clearly a very personal project; it begins with an extended dedication to their father, and it surely can’t be a coincidence that it’s a depiction of this man as seen through the eyes of his two impressionable sons. It’s played so close that there are some amazing moments, when it gets at the kind of candor and naturalism that those Cassavetes pictures sometimes did. They also frequently partook of self-indulgence and dead-end storytelling to get to those moments, and if the Safides brothers had figured out a way to circumvent that element of the formula, they might have really had something here.

"Daddy Longlegs" is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is also available now for Video-on-Demand viewing from several cable providers.

On DVD: "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore's Whip It is a thoroughly likable and endlessly entertaining picture, and its befuddling box office failure is one of the most depressing movie business stories in recent memory. It's a warm, funny charmer, and there's not a bad performance in the damn thing, so I'm not sure why people are staying away in droves. Maybe they think it's a biopic of Devo. Maybe it's that inexplicable Juno backlash (hey, it'd explain the similarly peculiar flopping of Jennifer's Body). Maybe they think it's just about roller derby, which is kind of like thinking that Hoosiers is just about basketball.

Ellen Page plays Bliss, a 17-year-old girl from Bodeen, Texas who is mostly unhappy and wildly unpopular, a situation not helped by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her insistence on entering Bliss into beauty pageants. But one day, while on a shopping trip in nearby Austin, she spots a brigade of tough girls on roller skates, distributing flyers for the local roller derby league. Fascinated, Bliss drags her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to a match and immediately decides that this is what she wants to do. She digs out her Barbie roller skates, lies about her age, and gets a spot on the "Hurl Scouts," where she's dubbed "Babe Ruthless," so as to better fit in with her similarly-monikered teammates, including Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself).

From its opening titles, which fill every inch of the screen, Whip It is an exuberant, confident debut. This doesn't feel like a bullshit vanity piece; Barrymore is a skilled, efficient director. The roller derby scenes are genuinely exciting and fun (and, as Roger Ebert noted, Barrymore's supporting role savvily puts her in the position of not asking anything of her actors that she doesn't do herself), but their infectious energy carries through the narrative, which has a gleeful momentum even as it is putting its heroine through some pretty familiar situations. Barrymore's direction (and the script by Shauna Cross, based on her novel) takes moments that are old hat and lets them breathe--watch, for example, the big blow-out fight between Bliss and her folks, and how after Bliss storms out, the camera holds on the parents. It's just a beat longer than usual, but there's years of history in that beat.

It also helps to have actors as skillful as Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern to make a moment like that play. Harden's best scene comes a bit later, actually; I won't spoil it, but there's something about the way that she lights a cigarette and tells her daughter "That's a lot to process" that's just perfect. Stern's performance is just wonderful (it's the kind of turn that makes you wonder why we're not seeing more of him these days), particularly an announcement to Harden near the film's climax which is so perfectly played that, yes, I may have misted up a little bit.

Page is an actress who got a bit of a rap, after last year's underrated Smart People, for "playing every role the same"; anyone who has seen her heartbreaking turn in An American Crime or her scary victim-turned-aggressor in Hard Candy knows better. Her work here is quiet and somewhat understated; early in the picture, she's so meek that you see how she could easily be a wallflower, but the joy of her "extra-curricular activities" transforms her into a fierce, confident, happy sort. It's a subtle shift, and Page carries it off with zeal. Among the rest of the solid cast, the biggest surprise is Jimmy Fallon, who is actually funny for once--as the league's play-by-play man, he oozes oily, unshaven charm. If the picture has a serious flaw, it's that it is occasionally too pushy in its "grrrrl power" punk-rock aesthetic--but that's mostly confined to the too-stylized closing credits sequence, and never feels are forced as in, say, the Barrymore-produced Charlie's Angels movies.

Formulas are funny; when a movie is limply done, then you can all but hear the gears of its formula grinding into place (as in the recent Couples Retreat). But when a movie has wit and enthusiasm, as Whip It does, you go right along with it, either not noticing or not caring that, yes, it will be important when so-and-so shows up to cheer on our heroine at the championship match. It may be a foregone conclusion, but it also feels like the natural progression of events, and besides, we want them to be there to cheer on plucky little Bliss. She deserves it, and we're cheering for her too.

Sorry, people. I'm not made of wood. Whip It made me unreasonably happy. It's a wonderful movie.

"Whip It" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 26th.

On DVD: "Soul Power"

I was grinning from ear to ear as Soul Power began, throwing us right in to a thrilling rendition of the title song by James Brown with the able support of his backing band, the JBs. The performance is from the Zaire '74 music festival, a three-day event intended to lead up to the "Rumble In The Jungle," the Don King-promoted title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Foreman ended up injuring himself in training mere days before the bout, but due to scheduling issues, the music festival had to go on as planned.

The fight--and some of the music--gets the full doc treatment in Leon Gast's wonderful, Oscar-winning When We Were Kings; if you haven't seen that film, close this window right now and go rent it. If you have, then some of these details will already be familiar. What we didn't know was how much of the music (which is used intermittently, primarily for transitions and punctuation, in Kings) was itself filmed. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's Soul Power is the story of that show.

It gives us exhaustive detail on how the festival was put together, using outside financing and local labor, with government cooperation that was tentative at best. The cameras catch the promoters in Zaire, constructing the stage and trying their best to get the elaborate show mounted with the help of their crew back in New York. Levy-Hinte spends too much time (over a third of the running time) on the run-up to the show, but we do see some terrific verité footage; there's a fascinating breakfast conversation between Ali and his trainer "Bundini" Brown (played by Jamie Foxx in Ali), as well as a fun pre-flight dinner party with the performers in New York. We also catch glimpses of the pre-show details: focusing lights, running sound checks, painting numbers on the concrete risers of the stadium location. These scenes are interesting, but there's too many of them; we're antsy for them to get on with it already.

Then, finally, the music starts, and it's all you can hope for: joyous, exuberant, and passionate. The gentle tones of Bill Withers' amazing voice is like a lullaby, while B.B. King does an electrifying rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone." African performer Big Black does a bongo number that absolutely brings the house down. The Spinners are tremendous, the Crusaders are phenomenal, and the James Brown footage is simply extraordinary. At their best, Brown and his band put on the tightest, most thrilling live show in the business, and their driving, dynamic performances of hits like "The Payback" and (especially) "Cold Sweat" are sensational. The photography and cutting of them is fairly standard and straightforward (especially considering when they were shot), but they do find some interesting shots, and what you're hearing is more important than what you're seeing anyway. Soul Power is fueled by the tremendous energy of the performances--these sequences are frenetic and alive.

The trouble is, there just aren't enough of them. Once the show starts, Levy-Hinte keeps cutting backstage, and while there are some good bits back there (the Spinners practicing their French greetings, B.B. King working out his set list), we'd rather see more of these folks on stage. The amount of actual performance footage in Soul Power is disappointing--we only get one song each from every performer but Brown, who does two in the film and one each during the opening and closing credits. That's a dearth of music for a performance movie. I'm not sure why the film went so much heavier on the documentary than on the music, but it's a lean mixture.

So that's my complaint, and who knows, maybe there will be a wonderful cache of deleted scenes waiting for me on the DVD. As it is, Soul Power will make an excellent second half of a double bill with When We Were Kings, and the performances that did make the cut are worth the trouble of seeking it out. At the end of its closing credits, an "in memory of" list scrolls by, and it's a long one; as we reflect on how many of these great talents we've lost, I'm thankful for this piece (tantalizingly brief though it may be) of what they left behind.

"Soul Power" is available Tuesday, January 26th on DVD and Blu-ray.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On DVD: "Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me"

Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me is the funniest stand-up special in many a moon, an uproariously enjoyable performance by one of our most gifted and irreverent comediennes. In this, her third full-length special, Sykes is in full command of her craft--biting, timely, smart, and very, very funny.

The special, originally aired on HBO, was shot in Washington D.C., which Sykes acknowledges early in the show; "You know, the last time I was here, I caused a little trouble," she notes with a grin, referring to her semi-notorious gig at Obama's first White House Correspondents' Dinner. From there she springboards into laugh-out-loud material about the new president ("How does he stay so cool? Is he still smokin' weed?"). She defends Michelle and floats some theories about their marriage (her thoughts on their level of intimacy are completely inappropriate--and crazy funny). She touches on the problems he's battled thus far: education, health care... and pirates ("I'll bet Barack thought Rahm Emmanuel was punkin' him when he told him about that"). Most intriguingly, she delves into some insightful (if absurd) material about what the Obama presidency has done to racial identity and imagery in America.

There's other political material as well; she talks about immigration (noting that given the choice, "there's a few Americans I would like to trade out!"), the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor, and, most significantly, the passage of Prop 8. The material that follows is the most significantly different from her previous specials, since, in the three years since Wanda Sykes: Sick and Tired, she met and married her partner Alex and came out as a lesbian (primarily, she said, as a response to Prop 8). She eases the audience in to the material about her sexuality, with only a fleeting joke a third of the way in (when talking about death and cremation, her response to where she'd want her ashes spread: "over Halle Berry"), followed by a couple of casual mentions of "my wife." Once she opens up about coming out, she does so with some very strong material, particularly an extended bit imagining what it would be like to "come out as black." Her discussions of gay issues could easily have veered into the kind of sketchy didacticism that frequently invades Margaret Cho's act. But she never lets the commentary take over the bits; she keeps the jokes coming fast enough that it doesn't feel like we're being preached to.

In some ways, though, the writing is secondary; even when the material is spottier (as when she talks about her new kids), she's such a naturally funny presence that you laugh anyway. Her years of working with Chris Rock are more evident than ever--she's got the same kind of bigger-than-life onstage personality, manifested in her take-no-prisoners confidence and fiery cadences. Her strangulated vocal delivery remains her greatest comic weapon, with her skillful use of profanity a close second; meanwhile, her descriptions of her fights with "Eshter" (the nickname she's given to her tummy roll--get it, Esther Rolle?) is legitimately reminiscent of Richard Pryor's dynamite bits about the battles within his own body. Her overall physicality is particularly striking in this special--she uses her entire body to score huge laughs, whether imitating Obama's walk (both before and after election), enacting a Babies-R-Us prank with her family, or doing an uproarious reenactment of how she got a charley horse when trying to exercise her kegel muscles. In those moments particularly, she can't help but laugh at her own silliness; she's clearly having a great time, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me is perhaps a bit overlong at 86 minutes; Wanda runs out of steam a bit towards the end (though her riff on Jamie Lee Curtis' yogurt commercials is an absolute scream). Her delivery is strong and her timing is outstanding, and though her latest special starts stronger than it finishes, it's still awfully funny stuff.

"Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me" hits DVD on Tuesday, February 2nd

Sundance: "The Shock Doctrine"

Left-leaning documentaries have become so commonplace these days, it takes a little something extra to stick out from the pack. Some movies pivot around the filmmakers’ specific personality (a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock); other directors (like Errol Morris) use a flashy, more cinematic style to draw the eye. In The Shock Doctrine, directors Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom go back to documentary basics: they frame their story of modern manipulation in a broad, well-researched historical context, relying heavily on period footage and expansive analysis to explain the patterns that have reappeared, over and over again, throughout modern history.

The film is based on the book by Naomi Klein, which proposes the thesis that over and over, governments around the world (including here in the United States) have engaged in “the systematic raiding of the public’s fear in the aftermath of a disaster.” The lines are drawn between shock therapy and torture and “economic torture,” between military coups and privatization of war, and, most significantly, between the economic theories of Dr. Milton Friedman and his “Chicago boys” and financial collapses the world over.

The fast-moving doc is packed with information; directors Whitecross and Winterbottom (who previously collaborated on The Road to Guantanamo) go back to the American-supported coups in Chile and Argentina, telling the shocking stories of those revolutions, before moving into the 1980s, in which “unabashed Friedmanites” Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan altered the economic layouts of their countries. In lecture footage, Klein takes on the simplistic history of the fall of the Iron Curtain (she calls conventional wisdom a “fairy tale”), specifically the shifting ground in Russia, which experienced “all shock, no therapy.” (On my notepad, from around this point in the movie: “Good Lord, in these international crises, we’re like always on the wrong side.”)

Of course, the more immediate and impassioned sections are the closing ones, dealing with “the shock of 9/11” (“a new economy built on fear,” intones the narrator) and Iraq, “the most privatized war in U.S. history.” Much of this information has been out for some time, in various forms, but it’s still stunning (particularly the stunning graphics illustrating the shift in Iraq’s contractor-to-soldier ratio during the Bush administration). The picture’s scope is admirable, and in its closing passages, the simultaneous tracking of torture, economics, and militarism begin to make more sense, even if—in this highly compressed format—some of the connections come across as a bit tenuous.

The film’s only serious issue is that it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It is based on Klein’s book, and she is frequently seen lecturing on salient points and sitting on the receiving end of interviews for the picture. But it’s narrated by some unidentified Brit. Klein is a brilliant, thoughtful political scientist—and she’s terrific on camera. Why not put her more front and center?

That complaint aside, The Shock Doctrine is a skillful, illuminating cinematic position paper, a well-made documentary that slams more information and anger into 82 minutes than most networks convey in a full 24-hour news cycle. And it’s not just a stern, worrisome warning; the ending holds out some hope. “We are becoming shock-resistant,” Klein declares. I hope she’s right.

"The Shock Doctrine" is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is also available Thursday, January 28 for Video-on-Demand viewing from several cable providers.

Sundance: "7 Days"

Daniel Grou’s 7 Days is an effective but difficult motion picture, the kind of film you admire while wondering who on earth it’s for. In its broad strokes, it sounds like a fairly typical revenge thriller, but there’s a twist: it takes the implications and consequences of its story seriously, and dares us to look them in the eye. Most viewers may have difficulty doing that. I’m not entirely sure I was up to the task.

It is the story of three men: Hervé Mercure (Rémy Girard), a police detective who has lost his wife; Bruno Hamel (Claude Legault), a surgeon who has just lost his young daughter; and Anthony Lemaire (Martin Dubrueil), the rapist and murderer who killed her. From the beginning, the tone is sad, mournful, elegiac—it’s all so muted, but still hard to watch. Mercure watches the security tape of his wife’s murder, over and over. Hamel and his wife (Fanny Mallette) send their girl off to school for the last time, and the shot of her, through the window, walking away, is held for such an agonizingly long time, we know they’re never going to see her again. Grou casually observes the couple as they realize she never made it to school, and the worst-case scenarios sink in. The camera moves in uncomfortably close as the good doctor is brought to his daughter’s body, and realizes the agony she died in.

Grou (working from a screenplay by Patrick Senécal, adapted from his novel) builds his story quietly and methodically, without grandstanding or ovexplaining; we’re discovering what’s happening while Dr. Hamel is, and then, in a strange point-of-view shift that somehow works, we discover his plan as the killer Lemaire does. It’s all so low-key and artful that when the violence comes, it catches us unawares.

But it does come. The doctor manages to steal the prison transport van that is moving Lemaire, and drives it to a remote house, where he chains Lemaire up and explains to him that he will spend the next seven days (ending on what would have been his daughter’s eighth birthday) torturing the now-nude killer. “It’s for Jasmine,” he explains. “I owe it to her.” There is, to put it mildly, some powerful imagery in these scenes, starting with the graphic scene of Hamel letting Lemaire have it with a piece of heavy chain. That’ll be around when the woozier audience members check out.

Some of this material is downright stomach-churning, resulting in an awkward mixture that might prevent the film from a crossover to U.S. audiences (it comes from Canada and is shot in French). Arthouse patrons will be turned off by the graphic brutality, gore, and, ahem, fluids (trust me, it gets much more intense than I’ve let on), while those unbothered (like the audience for so-called “torture porn” films) won’t make it past the deliberately-paced first act.

More troublesome is the disturbing, unexpected turn that the narrative takes around the 80-minute mark. I won’t give it away, except to say that while it makes logical sense (within the admittedly twisted logic of the main character), it pretty much drins off any remaining sympathy that we had for him—and respect that we might have maintained for his intelligence.

It is something of a surprise, then, when Grou manages to pull out such a delicate conclusion. With the tense closing scenes and perfectly chosen closing lines, he manages to pull us back from the brink—but just barely. 7 Days is a tough film to recommend; there is so much of it that’s problematic, but it’s so skillfully done, I can’t say that it’s not worth seeing. If you’ve got the stomach for it.

"7 Days" is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is also available now for Video-on-Demand viewing from several cable providers.

On DVD: "TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: The Marx Brothers"

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the Marx Brothers are the greatest of all the great comedy teams—better than Laurel & Hardy, better than Abbott & Costello, better than the Stooges. In their specific comic personas (honed and perfected over years of vaudeville and stage work—lest we forget, they were all pushing or past 40 by the time of their first film, The Cocoanuts), they offered their audience a little something of everything: Groucho gave them fast-talking wiseguy verbal comedy, Chico was a traditional con man dialect comic, and mute Harpo provided a healthy dose of Chaplin-style pantomime, slapstick, and (particularly in their later films) pathos. (Zeppo, the handsome youngest brother, only appears in their first five films, and then as a straight man, though a valuable one.) As a result, they’re funny on several different levels. In their best films, their distinct styles merge into a perfect bouillabaisse of madcap comic anarchy, a spot-on balance of broad and intellectual humor that works for viewers of all ages and experiences.

The trouble with TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: The Marx Brothers is that it is not a collection of their best films. As expected with a TCM collection, it is culled from the MGM vaults, and their best film from that era—A Night at the Opera—was already used in the last wave of TCM releases. The rest of their best are from the earlier, Paramount era, compiled in the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection; indeed, this TCM two-disc set is something of a bargain version of the earlier Marx Brothers Collection, which features all four of these films, plus A Night at the Opera, Go West, and The Big Store.

The four films that make the cut here are relatively weak sauce, with only A Day at the Races widely considered to be one of their best. Released in 1937, it was their second picture for MGM, where they were brought in and personally supervised by the studio’s “boy genius,” the tireless Irving Thalberg. The producer/studio head worked up a formula for the Marxes’ box office success (their no-rules, just-laughs Paramount films had met with steadily decreasing financial returns): engage female viewers and more casual moviegoers by amping up the love stories and production numbers, and soften the brothers’ characters by making them champions of the ingénues. The result was A Night at the Opera, the boys’ biggest financial success to date.

True to Hollywood thinking, they didn’t go messing about with a successful formula for the follow-up. Though the pre-production period was dampened by Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, the wheels were well in motion for A Day at the Races, which follows the broad strokes of Opera closely. Thalberg also saw to it that an important step in the screenwriting process was revisited; as with Opera, the script was taken on the road for a brief series of stage engagements, during which the brothers and their writers were able to tinker with the comic set pieces and try new variations. The result is a near-classic, too long and too beholden to its musical numbers, but filled with wonderful comic bits.

Chico plays Tony, loyal employee of Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan), the owner of the failing Standish Sanitarium. Evil Mr. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) wants to take the sanitarium over and convert it to a casino, giving Judy only 30 days to pay off her debt. In desperation, she and Tony decide to bring in the favorite doctor of Mrs. Upjohn (the great Margaret Dumont), the sanitarium’s richest (and most hypochondriac) patient: the wonderfully-named Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho). What she doesn’t know is that Hackenbush is a horse doctor, and though he’ll apparently make sly references to it if there’s a good joke to be had (when informed that his salary may be delayed, he retorts, “The last job I had, I had to take it out in trade—and this is no butcher shop. Not yet anyhow”). Meanwhile, Judy’s singing boyfriend Gil (Allan Jones) has spent his limited funds on a racehorse, hoping that will make them some money; they’ve got a good jockey, Stuffy (Harpo), but the horse is a dud.

The screenplay by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer is smoothly constructed, with exposition fairly painless and comic sequences well-prepared. Hackenbush’s welcome to the sanitarium has some robust laughs (“That looks like a horse pill to me.” “Oh, you’ve taken them before”), but the film’s most famous scene comes shortly after, when Hackenbush is pinpointed as a racetrack mark by con man Tony, who takes him to the cleaners for a horse tip, all the while sounding the sales call of “Get your ice cream, tootsie fruitsie ice cream.” Their interplay is uproarious (Chico: “One dollar and you’ll remember me your whole life.” Groucho: “That’s the most nauseating proposition I ever had”), and the sequence more than earns its reputation, though the scene that follows (in which Groucho works the phones and the intercom to frustrate and mislead the sanitarium’s manager) is unjustly forgotten. Other classic scenes include Groucho’s examination of Harpo (“Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped”) and the late-night rendezvous of Hackenbush and a slinky blonde (Esther Muir), whom the bad guys plan to put into a compromising position with the doctor for discovery by Mrs. Upjohn. That scene is a good old-fashioned door-slammer, with some of their broadest slapstick of the MGM era.

On the downside, the comic momentum is too frequently interrupted by the endless production numbers, particularly the snore-inducing “water carnival,” which stops the movie cold. Chico and Harpo’s piano and harp specialties are pretty enjoyable this time around (Harpo begins his by destroying Chico’s piano and hauling the harp out from inside), but all bets are off by the time they get to the unfortunate “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” number, which will have you lunging for the remote. The scene, which represents the kind of dopey race-baiting that they had sent up themselves in Duck Soup, finds Harpo stumbling into a makeshift ghetto near the brothers’ barn hideout; he plays his little flute and they start singing a song about how he’s Gabriel (?), leading to an enormous jitterbug dance number, and just when you think it can’t get worse, yep, in order to hide in the crowd, the boys slap on a little of the ol’ blackface. Ugh.

The film’s strict adherence to the Opera formula feels a tad restrictive (Allan Jones returns as the male lead; Harpo is again made immediately sympathetic by giving him an abusive employer; the “tootsie fruitsie ice cream” duet is awfully similar to the “party of the first part” contract negotiation; the climactic sequence in which they delay the start of a big race is a clear counterpart to the wrecking of the opera’s opening night) and though you can try not to think about it too much, the big win at the closing race is the result of about four levels of cheating. That’s just dithering, though; it’s erratic, and way too long and at 107 minutes, but A Day at the Races still sports some huge laughs and classic bits.

Due to the mastering of the discs (the second disc of this set maintains the Room Service/At the Circus flipper set-up from The Marx Brothers Collection), we now jump ahead nearly a decade, to the team’s penultimate picture, A Night in Casablanca. The boys had announced that the final film in their three-movie deal with MGM, 1941’s The Big Store (not included here, and we’re all better for it), was to be “their first farewell picture,” but five years later a reunion was put together—reportedly for the purpose (as with most of their later projects) of getting inveterate gambler Chico out of the red.

The plot is not connected to the Humphrey Bogart classic (though Warner Brothers was worried enough to fire off a pre-release missive, which resulted in a celebrated series of letters from Groucho). Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow, the new manager of a Casablanca hotel that has seen its last several managers die under mysterious circumstances. The deaths, it seems, are the result of a plot by Nazis in hiding to steal a treasure stashed somewhere in the hotel. Chico and Harpo are Corbaccio and Rusty, buddies and resourceful men-about-the-hotel, while Charles Drake and Lois Collier play the now-required dull romantic leads.

The project, assembled by independent producer David L. Loew, is considerably better than its less-than-stellar reputation (I’ll take it over their final film, Love Happy, any day of the week and twice on Sunday); whether it was lack of inspiration or genuine reunion enthusiasm, the picture plays like a bit of a greatest-hits curtain call, full of deliberate callbacks to themes and bits from their earlier films. Groucho plays a hotel manager (shades of Cocoanuts), Chico is briefly engaged as Groucho’s bodyguard (all four brothers worked as bodyguards for competing gangsters in Monkey Business), Harpo explains a plot to frame Groucho via some very funny charades to Chico (as in Races), and Harpo, as his brother’s “guinea pig,” engages in some inventive eating (as he did in A Night at the Opera and Room Service). The invaluable Sig Ruman, their foil in Opera and Races, returns as the villain (predictably, he is Harpo’s boss who beats up on him). And there are several truly funny scenes: Harpo’s memorable entrance, his swordfight with one of Ruman’s henchman, Groucho’s uproariously mean-spirited encounter with a would-be guest (He: “Sir, this woman is my wife. You ought to be ashamed.” Groucho: “If that woman is your wife, you should be ashamed”), and Groucho’s classic and quotable flirting with the femme fatale (“Oh, come now, you wouldn’t say no to a lady.” “I don’t know why, they always say no to me!”)

There’s a scene late in the film where the brothers try to sneakily unpack Ruman’s trunks while he packs them, and while there are laughs in it, the timing is way off and the pushy score keeps smothering the scene. Groucho brings off some good lines, but the frequency of his takes to camera feels like desperation. Harpo fares well too (an uncredited Frank Tashlin helped devise his gags), but poor Chico doesn’t get much to do. There’s no mistaking A Night in Casablanca for a classic; director Archie Mayo lets the pace run slack, and the bargain-basement production values are occasionally distracting (particularly at the climax). But it’s a treat for fans nonetheless.

Their 1938 film Room Service is also somewhat unfairly maligned; its detractors sniff that it’s “not really a Marx Brothers movie,” and they’re right—but what the hell, there’s plenty of great comedies that aren’t really Marx Brothers movies either. It does mark (as far as we know) the only occasion in which the boys performed material that hadn’t been written expressly for them; the film is based on the long-running hit Broadway comedy by Allen Boretz and John Murray, and was purchased by RKO with the notion of adapting it into a Marx vehicle. Brother Zeppo (now an agent) negotiated the loan from MGM; Morrie Ryskind (who co-wrote The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and A Night at the Opera) was brought in to rework the play into a Marx Brothers vehicle.

The story centers on the production of heavy drama called “Hail and Farewell,” being produced on a shoestring by fly-by-night producer Gordon Miller (Groucho). He’s been utilizing rooms and rehearsal space for the show at the White Way Hotel, managed by his brother-in-law Joe Gribble (Cliff Dunstan); Chico is the show’s director, Harry Binelli, and Harpo is Faker Englund, a resourceful actor. Two arrivals complicate Gordon’s scheme: the play’s starry-eyed author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), and Gribble’s irritable manager, Mr. Wagner (Donald MacBride), who wants to throw the whole lot of them out on the street.

It’s a funny script, and surprisingly adaptable—sure, it’s missing some of the usual scenes (a Groucho/Chico duet, the music specialties, the singing ingénues, etc), but those elements were starting to get stale and formulaic by this point anyway (as evidenced by their next film). It’s interesting to watch the boys trying their hand at a different type of material—the ingenious plot twists and clever turns of the original Boretz and Murray script require a more disciplined approach, and it’s a pleasure to watch the notoriously anything-goes performers take that notion out for a spin.

It wouldn’t have hurt if someone would have lit a fire under director William A. Seiter, who keeps the pace moving too slowly for it to truly catch fire as a great comedy; the cue pick-ups and multiple entrances and exits just aren’t fast enough for the screwball farce that you feel Room Service wanting to be. The supporting performances are pretty weak as well; MacBride is an awfully good foil, but Albertson (who later played Sam Wainwright in It’s a Wonderful Life) is just terrible, and up-and-comers Ann Miller and Lucille Ball are mostly wasted in their thin roles. However, the brothers Marx are on top of their game, and stagebound though it may be, Room Service is a pretty decent little comedy.

By the time the Marxes returned to MGM, the absence of Thalberg was being keenly felt in the preparations for their next picture; studio chair Louis B. Meyer never cared much for the brothers, and they were assigned mostly second-class talent for At the Circus. Try as they might, they couldn’t convince Meyer to let them road-test the material, even though that process had paid handsome dividends on their last two films. As a result, At the Circus is one of their most strained and least funny movies.

The couple in trouble this time is Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) and Julie Randall (Florence Rice); he’s a circus proprietor, she’s a performer, and Antonio (Chico) is his all-around go-to guy. Jeff plans to pay off his debt and own the circus outright, freeing him to marry Julie, and Antonio suggests Jeff brings in his lawyer pal J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to close the deal. But Jeff is robbed and the money is stolen, so the “legal beagle” and his intrepid assistant try to figure out which of the circus performers did the deed. Harpo plays Punchy, the assistant to Goliath the strongman (Nat Pendleton); Harpo is, shockingly, mistreated by his employer.

At the Circus’ biggest problem is the relative weakness of the comic bits. For example, Grouch and Chico’s big duet, the “badge scene,” doesn’t work because the premise doesn’t make any sense; Chico has been instructed not to let anyone on the train without a badge, and then Groucho (who he has summoned) arrives, and Chico thanks him for coming but won’t let him on the train without a badge, and that’s pretty much the bit. Chico isn’t being crafty or funny, he’s just being a moron, so the scene doesn’t play—their other great duets (like “tootsie fruitsie ice cream” or the “swordfish” scene in Horse Feathers) at least had a logic to them, tortured though it might have been. The same trouble invades the scene where the trio tries to get the circus midget to offer Groucho a potentially incriminating cigar, which Chico keeps screwing up by giving Groucho cigars of his own—the premise doesn’t hold water, because it’s just based on Chico being irritating.

That said, the scene has one great line (Groucho tells Chico, “I’ll bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork”), and there’s another wonderful moment later, when Grouch catches performer Eve Arden hiding the stolen money in her cleavage and then says, directly into camera, “There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.” Some of their music is fun as well; Chico’s piano number is particularly entertaining, and Groucho gets to sing one of his most (justifiably) famous novelty songs, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”

But there’s no motor to the comedy, and Kenny Baker may very well be the most smug and irritating of all their handsome romantic leads—Allan Jones wasn’t exactly an exhilarating screen presence, but at least you didn’t want to punch him, and at least he never had to sing a song as maddening as “Step Up and Take a Bow.” And speaking of terrible songs, you’d think the last thing they’d want to repeat from A Day at the Races is that horrible Gabriel bullshit, but lo and behold, here’s another number with Harpo leading the ghetto kids to the promised land (it may not be more enlightened than its predecessor, but at least it’s shorter).

The third act appearance of Margaret Dumont give the picture some much-needed juice, and though her and Groucho’s scenes may not have the same bite as their earlier flirtations, they still give the viewer some chuckles for old time’s sake. There’s also a couple of great sight gags late in the film, as a wide shot reveals Groucho counting out loud as Dumont enters an opulent dinner party for 400 (“98, 99, 400… Looks like they all showed up. No going back for second helpings”), and as a French orchestra is cast off into the sea. But then there’s a goofy climax, with cannons shooting people through the air unconvincingly and everyone cowering from a laughably tiny gorilla, and the whole thing kind of peters out. At the Circus is far from vintage Marx Brothers; it’s a shame they couldn’t have included its far superior follow-up Go West instead.

Cecilia Ager wrote (and Joe Adamson reprinted) of A Night in Casablanca that “the Marx Brothers have never been in a picture as wonderful as they are.” It’s a statement borne out by most of the films in TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: The Marx Brothers, which, while not the bottom of the brothers’ barrel (that distinction would go to The Big Store or Love Happy), are certainly not their best. And yet all of them at least have their moments, a throwaway gag here or a charming interaction there, that makes them worth a look, at least for fans. But I’m not sure where that positions this set—it’s not a good introduction to their humor, but true Marxists will already own the four pictures within, in the superior Marx Brothers Collection. Still, it’s like twenty bucks. There’s worse ways to spend it.

"TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: The Marx Brothers" hits DVD on Tuesday, February 2nd.