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Female version of "Big" misses many opportunities, 15 January 2006
5/10

My appreciation for "Big" has grown over the years, no pun intended. It was better than other body switch movies (e.g. "Freaky Friday"), probably because there wasn't any "switch." Since it eliminated the part about an adult entering a child's body, it was able to stay focused and avoid the sitcom-level humor that plagued other movies in the genre. Ultimately, the movie had an interesting message: it argued that a child in a man's body would turn out to be a creative eccentric who thinks outside the box and charms everyone around him. This insight provided an intriguing reflection on the adult world and consequently made the film more than just a comedy.

"13 Going on 30" has a similar premise, this time involving a girl waking up in the body of an adult woman, a magazine editor. The newer movie has a chance to revisit some of the themes from "Big," perhaps with a touch of the gender issue. Unfortunately, it lacks the creativity and focus of the older film. The first problem is that Jennifer Garner's character finds herself in such a busy, frantic world that most of the people around her pay no attention to her uncharacteristically childish behavior and perspective. When that behavior does surface, it is either unremarkable (as when she inspires the attendants of a cocktail party to do a boring, generic dance number) or ludicrous (as when she does a childish redesigning of her magazine). The subplot about the competition at her workplace is shallow and trite, recycled from dozens of other films. Garner does a good job of imitating childlike mannerisms, but she's trapped in a plot that won't allow her the ingenuity and subtlety that helped Tom Hanks earn his first Oscar nomination.

But the movie borrows from yet another movie tradition, namely "It's a Wonderful Life." In that movie, a man doesn't appreciate the huge effect he has had on other people's lives until he gets to see a version of reality where he's literally absent. Many of the movies that have imitated this plot since then have been considerably less sensible. Instead of a character being completely erased from the alternate reality, small changes to a person's past have drastic consequences. Sometimes this premise works, as in "Back to the Future." Other times it doesn't, as in "Mr. Destiny," the 1990 comedy in which a single baseball game makes the difference between whether a kid grows up to be a nice but insecure ordinary fellow or a high-paid jerk. "13 Going on 30" has a similar plausibility problem, although not as extreme. I could believe that the girl's initiation into a clique of mean girls might permanently destroy her friendship with the boy next door. What I could not believe was that the event would make such a huge difference to her future personality.

"It's a Wonderful Life" has another important element that its imitators overlook. Almost the entire film is spent showing the protagonist's ordinary life. The alternate version of reality comes very late in the film, after we have gotten to know the character in great depth. In the modern films, the character's normal life is treated like a prologue, and most of the film consists of the fake reality. "13 Going on 30" spends no more than five minutes establishing the girl and her relationship with the boy next door. This lack of attention to the characters leads to a serious problem accepting some of the later events. When she, as the "adult," tries to rekindle her friendship with the boy, who's now a real adult who's forgotten about her, the whole center of their relationship has changed, because it's a relationship between an actual adult and a teenager who looks like one. (This material is handled too innocently to seem sick.) The problem is that we're aware that this isn't the actual reality but an alternate one. Their real relationship isn't anything like this, and it certainly would not be if it had been allowed to develop under normal circumstances when they were teenagers.

I don't care much what a movie chooses to imitate, so long as it does a good job of it. "13 Going on 30" too often resorts to clichés instead of going for genuine inspiration. Worse still, its attempt to draw from two different movie traditions leads to conflicts that undermine its plausibility and coherence. As "Big" revealed, what makes this sort of movie work is its simplicity. "13 Going on 30" is over-plotted because it lacks the discipline to deal with its underlying themes, and it thus falls short in both humor and insight.

21 Grams (2003)
221 out of 235 people found the following review useful:
First engrossing, then moving, 5 November 2005
9/10

Many movies in the modern era have experimented with fractured chronology, but most of the time this technique is used for entertainment purposes only. "21 Grams" is an intense and thoughtful film enriched by this technique, taken to an extreme I've never seen before. We're not talking "Pulp Fiction" here, where a small series of vignettes are arranged out of sequence. Every individual scene in "21 Grams" seems to be distributed almost at random anywhere in the film. You have to concentrate when seeing this film for the first time, because you'll have trouble figuring out what's going on, and even as a plot starts to emerge, some of the details won't be understandable until the very end. But it pays off: this isn't like "Memento" or "Mulholland Drive," where you may need multiple viewings to understand it all. By the end of this film, the story turns out to be quite straightforward. It's like seeing a gigantic jigsaw puzzle gradually pieced together.

Unlike many other films that use this sort of device, "21 Grams" is a character drama, not a psychological thriller. The story would still work if it were told in chronological order. Why the scenes are arranged as they are is not altogether clear, on the surface. I felt like I was watching a mystery, but after everything came together it became evident that none of the mystery was contained in the plot itself. This fact has led some critics to suggest that the scrambled scene arrangement is nothing more than a cute gimmick designed to make the film more engaging. But I believe that the device does serve a legitimate purpose, by drawing out the complexity of the characters and their situations.

Life is not good for the three principal characters, and it isn't getting better. Sean Penn plays a 40-something man with a failing heart, Naomi Watts plays a young woman facing great tragedy, and Benicio Del Toro plays an ex-con consumed by guilt. Penn and Watts come off as ordinary individuals reacting as anyone might under the circumstances, but Del Toro's character is particularly fascinating. He's been rehabilitated through religion, but he's still far from perfect. As a father, he has a scary presence that makes him seem borderline abusive at times. But he has developed a powerful conscience. Is he right to hate himself for what he did? The movie never answers that question. I just appreciated that the film resisted the temptation to make him into a caricature. He is neither hero nor villain. He is simply understandable on a very basic human level, as are the other two characters.

We have the feeling that Watts and Penn are wrong to condemn him as strongly as they do. They do not understand his situation, or that he's suffering just about as much as they are. On the other hand, we as viewers can perfectly understand where Watts is coming from. That's what makes the scrambled scene arrangement so effective: it never allows any one character to gain our total sympathy. By the time we've sorted out the plot threads, we've identified with all three characters on an emotional level while at the same time understanding their faults. These people are trapped in their own limited worlds, and with our omniscient viewpoint we can scarcely blame any one of them for their feelings or actions. We can see clearly what these characters cannot, which is that they are more victims of cruel fate than people who are truly guilty of anything.

What is the movie's message? That people shouldn't be so quick to judge others? That could be one interpretation, but what's nice about the film is that it doesn't hammer this lesson into us. It just tells a moving and stirring tale about complex characters, and viewers can take from it what they please. The title refers to a parapsychological belief about the weight of the human soul, and it's used in this film as a metaphor for the fragility of life. If life is fragile, then it's also precious, and people need not waste their time on vengeance.

58 out of 110 people found the following review useful:
Highly compelling, but not entirely convincing, 13 March 2006
7/10

The concept of a reformed neo-Nazi is so intriguing that it's a wonder there haven't been more movies on this topic. Once you see "American History X," however, you will understand why. The movie's racial themes are provocative and unsettling, far outside the comfort zone of the average viewer, and the movie additionally has the challenging task of explaining how a violent criminal changed his ways. Does the movie convincingly explain that transition? Not entirely.

It's an engrossing movie, nonetheless. It uses a device more common in literature than in the movies: inter-cutting between several story-lines. First we see Derek (Ed Norton) as a free man, newly released from prison, and having developed a conscience. Then we see earlier points in his life when he was a white supremacist, and finally the prison experience that changed him. The non-chronological approach is very effective, making the movie about as engaging as any thriller, even though the plot itself offers few surprises. Had the film followed a more conventional timeline, we'd have quickly grown impatient waiting for plot developments that were inevitable. With the way it's structured, our focus is on the process more than the outcome: How did a bright kid like Derek become a racist? And what turned him around?

The movie takes great pains to show how articulate the younger Derek is when he justifies his hatred of blacks by citing the statistics of black crime. (His more personal motive is that blacks murdered his father.) His arguments hit upon common politically conservative themes as he finds fault with affirmative action, glorification of criminals like Rodney King, and liberals who blame (white) society for the problems facing blacks. But Derek takes this reasoning a step further and argues that blacks have a "racial commitment to crime." Of course, by taking that step, he undermines his own arguments. For example, how does his harping about "personal responsibility" square with his belief in judging people for factors beyond their control, like their race? Responsibility requires choice. If race were the reason for black crime, then black criminals would be morally blameless. But no character points out such contradictions in Derek's views. When he debates a liberal teacher played by Elliot Gould, the gentle Gould character acts like a milquetoast, unable to provide a strong rebuttal. It's a powerful scene, and more than plausible: as in real life, people aren't always prepared with eloquent answers, even when confronted by someone with indefensible views.

Still, it's disconcerting that the film never fully addresses the "intellectual" side of his bigotry. The main impetus for Derek's change is internal: once he learns to respect himself, he starts respecting others--a nice thought, no doubt, but I'm not sure it would be a strong enough fulcrum for change in this character's racial views. Although some would assume that Derek is too intelligent to remain racist, I would assume he's too intelligent not to come up with yet more rationalizations.

There are other factors at work, too, including his treatment by white inmates and his befriending of a charming black inmate (Guy Torry). But all this seems to provide, at most, an emotional response to the earlier scenes. The movie made me realize how much the public attitude toward race has changed since the late 1960s, when optimistic films like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" confronted racism by creating immensely likable African-American characters and ignoring any other social and cultural tensions that might pose a barrier to interracial relationships. In AHX, almost all the black characters are gang members and criminals, and there seems to be an underlying cynicism in the film's reluctance to provide a clear-cut refutation to Derek's right-wing arguments. Implicitly, the movie argues that there's a cycle of hatred going on between white and black gangs, and that the white racists aren't solely to blame for this situation. Aside from his relationship with Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) and his prison friend, the basis for Derek's turnaround is largely negative: he realizes that he's no better than the black outlaws he so despises. That isn't exactly the most inspiring message about race relations.

My main reason for wanting to watch this movie in the first place was to understand better how an extremist hatemonger could change. But that turns out to be the least convincing aspect of the film. The root of the problem probably lies in the conception. The filmmakers started with the intelligent skinhead character, then they thought, "What sorts of events will lead this character to transform?" That's why the conclusion feels just a tad contrived. It's a good film, overall, but ironically where it's weak is in the very area that makes the story the most interesting.

31 out of 60 people found the following review useful:
Suffers from confusion of purpose, 28 November 2005
5/10

The best I can say about Adam Sandler's films is that I don't hate them. Unlike many of his detractors, I find his humor dull rather than obnoxious. But I do have one pet peeve regarding his habit of stealing jokes from recent films then executing them poorly. A case in point: I found the 2000 Farrelly Brothers comedy "Me, Myself, and Irene" forgettable overall, but it did feature an amusingly irreverent scene in which an African-American dwarf limo driver (Tony Cox, who has made a career out of playing characters like this) goes berserk after a white character played by Jim Carrey offhandedly uses the phrase "you people" (in reference to limo drivers, not blacks). Nobody handles material of that sort better than the Farrelly Brothers, and what makes the scene even funnier is that the entire plot hinges on those words carelessly escaping Carrey's lips. This event causes a chain reaction leading to an affair, a divorce, and finally a mental breakdown.

The opening scene of "Anger Management" features the same joke. Sandler's character utters the phrase "you people" in front of a black air marshal, who becomes enraged and zaps Sandler with a taser. The joke here is not in any way pivotal to the plot. It's just thrown redundantly into a sequence in which Sandler is accosted by the airplane crew, who misinterpret his behavior as disruptive.

Nevertheless, "Anger Management" represents a transition in Sandler's career. He attempts to tone down his persona of the immature man prone to violent outbursts. His character in this film, Dave Buznik, is much more normal and likable than the typical Sandler character. But that's what makes the premise so ironic: "Anger Management" is probably the first film in which Sandler plays a guy who doesn't need anger management. So what is Buznik doing being put in such a program? The way he's treated at the beginning on the airplane is inexplicable. It's like a comedy version of Kafka's "The Trial," where a guy is arrested and sentenced for no apparent reason. He acts perfectly sensible most of the time, and it's the world that's turned against him.

Sandler does ultimately resort to some of his traditional antics later in the film, like his run-in with an old bully in a sequence that manages to take potshots at both religion and fat people, reminding me once again how much better the Farrelly Brothers are at handling political incorrectness. But Buznik acts this way only because Jack Nicholson's character provokes, manipulates, and blackmails him. In fact, we begin to realize that Nicholson's purpose isn't to help Buznik control his anger, but quite the opposite--to make him stop holding in his emotions and start being more assertive. The program to which Buznik has been sentenced isn't so much anger management as nebbish management.

Although Sandler's jokes are as lame as usual, I did enjoy seeing Nicholson here, probably because he appears to be enjoying himself so much. Of all the celebrated American actors, Nicholson may be the one who looks the most comfortable in a comedy. After all, he has long infused his serious parts with a comic touch. I can't imagine any other actor successfully pulling off a character like Dr. Rydell, a hairy, snorty man, the kind of guy who laughs loudly at his own jokes and will talk for hours when everyone is dying to tell him to shut up but is too intimidated to say anything. Amazingly, Nicholson exudes these traits without losing his usual demented charm. He has a fingernails-on-the-blackboard effect only on Buznik, not on the audience.

If Nicholson's role doesn't work as well as Robert De Niro's overbearing CIA agent in "Meet the Parents," that can be blamed on the script, which lacks the focus to tell a real story. It seems to structure itself less like a comedy than like a thriller, with continual shifts in the plot as we are asked to ponder Dr. Rydell's true motives. But it's a bluff: the plot twists are just a cheap way of distracting us from the story's lack of content. The final revelation seems too labored for such lightweight material, and only calls attention to the shapeless quality of the earlier scenes.

86 out of 109 people found the following review useful:
You'll never want to fall asleep again, 24 October 2005
7/10

While I love horror films, I am not a big fan of the slasher genre, which has come to dominate and indeed practically to define horror since the late 1970s. While I do love the original "Psycho," most slasher films follow a different, and far more predictable, formula. The idea of a faceless killer going around stabbing teenagers just doesn't frighten me a whole lot, though some of these films do fill me with disgust--a rather different sort of emotion.

I am far more frightened by films that deal with distortions of reality, where it's hard for the characters to tell what's real and what's not. Admittedly, that genre isn't always so lofty either. Dreams are one of the most overused devices in the movies, having a whole set of clichés associated with them. We are all familiar with the common scene in which a character awakens from a nightmare by jerking awake in cold sweat. This convention is not only overused, it's blatantly unrealistic, for people waking up from dreams do not jerk awake in such a violent fashion. Moreover, these scenes are usually nothing more than little throwaway sequences designed to amuse or frighten the audience without advancing the plot.

What makes "Nightmare on Elm Street" so clever is how it creates an entirely new convention for representing dreams on screen. The dreaming scenes are filmed with an airy, murky quality, but so are many of the waking scenes, making it very difficult to tell whether a character is awake or asleep. Indeed, the movie never shows any character actually fall asleep, and as a result we are constantly on guard whenever characters so much as close their eyes for a moment. In crucial scenes, it is impossible to tell whether what we are seeing is real or happening only in a character's mind. But the movie ultimately suggests that the difference doesn't matter. The premise of the movie, in which a child-killer haunts teenager's dreams and has the capability of killing them while they're asleep, turns the whole "It was all just a dream" convention on its head: in this movie, the real world is safe, and the dream world is monstrously dangerous.

The movie finds a number of ways to explore this ambiguity, including a bathtub scene that invites comparisons with the shower scene in "Psycho" without being a cheap ripoff. My personal favorite scene, and one of the scariest I've ever seen in a movie, is the one where Nancy dozes off in the classroom while a student is standing up in front of the class reading a passage from Shakespeare. The way the scene transitions from the real classroom to a nightmarish version of it is brilliantly subtle.

The director, Wes Craven, understood that the anticipation of danger is usually more frightening than the final attack. There are some great visual shots to that effect, including one where Freddy's arms becomes unnaturally long in an alleyway, and another where the stairs literally turn into a gooey substance, in imitation of the common nightmare where it is hard to get away from a pursuer. The movie continually finds creative ways to tease the audience, never resorting to red herring, that tired old convention used in almost all other slasher films.

Despite the creativity in these scenes, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is still a formula movie, with relatively one-dimensional characters and no great performances. This was Johnny Depp's first role, as Heather Langenkamp's boyfriend, and although he does get a few neat lines of exposition (his speech about "dream skills"), his personality is not fleshed out, and there is no sense of the great actor Depp would go on to become.

Within the genre, however, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is a fine work. My main criticism isn't its failure to transcend the formula, but its confusing and obtuse ending, apparently put there in anticipation of sequels, but managing to create a mystery that the sequels were unable to clear up. The climactic confrontation between Freddy and Nancy is weakly handled. The crucial words she says to him are surprisingly clunky, and her father's muted behavior during that scene is almost inexplicable. It has led me to consider an alternative interpretation of the scene, but one that feels like a cop-out. The scene that follows, and where the movie ends, is anticlimactic and unnecessary. These clumsily-made final two scenes come close to ruining the movie, and it is a testament to the film's many good qualities that it still stands as an unusually effective horror film that invites repeat viewings.

4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
A hard film to judge, 9 November 2005
6/10

Stanley Kubrick made a career out of directing brilliant but unpleasant movies. The ultimate example is "A Clockwork Orange," which I saw for the first time just a few months ago. I found it astonishing, thought-provoking, and visually brilliant. But my experience watching the film was not in any way a pleasant one. The film chronicles the hideous crimes of a charmless psychopath, and ultimately how he is captured and subjected to an almost unimaginable series of tortures. I suppose some moviegoers might find those kinds of scenes entertaining, but I do not. Nevertheless, I consider it a great film, and a tremendously important one.

"A.I." is harder for me to justify. While not technically a Kubrick film, it is a Kubrick project that was finally directed by Steven Spielberg, following Kubrick's death. The result is a film that manages to combine the worst qualities of these two great filmmakers: it has Kubrick's obtuseness as well as Spielberg's sentimentality. The ending is deliberately designed to frustrate, to remove itself from any possible human reference point that we can easily relate to. At the same time, it's the sort of film that wants to be loved. There is even a teddy bear character that evokes mystery and awe more than cuteness. This awkward fusion of purposes left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

I feel unjustified for giving the film as low a rating as 6/10. I just so intensely disliked the film that I have great difficulty rating it any higher, despite its clever and thoughtful handling of the concept of artificial intelligence. No doubt Kubrick has covered this territory before, in "2001" with the character of Hal. But he seems to expand on it in this film, which features two android characters, a child robot played by Haley Joel Osment, and a robot gigolo (don't ask) played by Jude Law. The behavior of these characters is so subtle and complex that I was often left wondering what they were thinking and feeling, what the experience of being a robot was like, if such an experience is possible. I personally believe that there is something special about human subjective experience that cannot be duplicated by computer technology. But this movie presents the opposite view very compellingly, and without taking the standard route of making the androids seem human.

In this regard, Osment is spectacular: his performance in my opinion surpasses his Oscar-nominated one in "The Sixth Sense." There were moments when I looked at his eyes, his facial expressions, and I sensed an adult level of understanding and depth. Perhaps no child actor is better than Osment at acting creepy without being cute, as in one early scene when he startles his family with oddly forced laughter that doesn't seem to come with the appropriate emotions. He is playing a character who's supposed to pass for a child while not really being a child, and we slowly realize that he is in fact an alien intelligence with his own perspective and goals. Unlike a real child, he is not in the process of forming an identity. He already has one, and his only task is to fulfill his set desires and instincts, including his unbreakable attachment to his "mother" (Frances O'Connor) whom he is preprogrammed to love.

This setup is not very conducive to melodrama, yet that's much of what we get throughout the film, which tries to cast itself as a modern reinterpretation of "Pinocchio." Since Osment's character is not a real boy, we can never relate to him as one. His emotions are as artificial as his intelligence, and no enchantment or anything else will turn him into a real boy, because he simply isn't one. Yet the movie tries to manipulate our emotions so that we do see him as more human than he actually is. This approach leads the film to lose its focus in the second half and put forth one of the more perplexing and unsatisfying endings I've seen in a long time. I don't mind whether a film ends happily or sadly, but it should not try to force a weak solution to a hopeless situation, just to gain a few moments of cheap sentiment.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A mature if imperfect take on a comic book universe, 22 July 2006
6/10

Though flawed, "Batman Begins" is the best Batman film since the 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster. What fascinates me about the series is how many different possible interpretations there are. The Schumacher films seemed an attempt to recapture the campy innocence of the 1960s television show. Burton seemed more interested in the mythic undertones of the original comic strip.

Christopher Nolan, the director of "Batman Begins," has yet a different approach. He treats the story almost as if it weren't based on a comic strip at all, as if it were a straightforward thriller. The villains are presented in such a low-key manner that I practically forgot they were traditional comic book villains. There are no evil cackles in this world. The film is, indeed, a lot less action-oriented than most superhero films. The action scenes, which occur mostly toward the end, are rather bland and unmemorable. There simply aren't that many intense physical fights, because this version of the Batman character relies less on physical force than on psyching his enemies out.

The movie's best scenes are the early ones, where Bruce Wayne learns to control his own fear and use it to defeat his enemies. I like how the film explores the moral dilemmas underlying vigilantism, something none of the other Batman films even tried to do. They just took for granted that Batman's lifestyle was heroic. Here, learning how Bruce Wayne developed his secret persona, we realize that the issue is not so simple. He's shown as a young criminal recruited by a sinister vigilante organization that teaches him most of his fighting skills, but he eventually parts ways with them over their ruthless approach to justice.

The movie handles these themes very well at first. As I recall, the 1989 film implied that the Joker was the mugger who killed Wayne's parents. That movie then became a story of revenge, a common theme in fantasies. "Batman Begins" repudiates this idea and draws a distinction between revenge and justice, presenting the mugger as a desperate individual whose crime, though unforgivable, pales in comparison to those of the thugs running Gotham City.

Unfortunately, the later parts of the film shortchange these complex ideas as the story degenerates into a conventional struggle against villains who believe the end justifies the means. It might have been more interesting if Wayne would have faced some difficult moral choice. The movie teases us with gray areas but ultimately bows to the conventions of the genre.

The casting is, for the most part, superb. I particularly liked Michael Caine in the role of Alfred, and it was also fun seeing Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman in supporting roles. Still, the overall impact of these fine actors was not as strong as I would have expected, maybe because the characters they play aren't drawn as vividly as they could have been. As for Christian Bale, I consider him the best actor ever to play Batman, and I thought his presence would for sure make this film a winner. But I went away from the film uncertain of how I thought of his performance. He adopts a gruff, monosyllabic, Clint Eastwood sort of manner that is probably not recommended unless you actually are Clint Eastwood.

Among the newcomers, the most intriguing is Cillian Murphy, whose boyish looks and slight frame (he's actually shorter than Katie Holmes) kept me from realizing he was one of the main villains. Because his incarnation as the Scarecrow was presented as simply a tool he used to disorient his victims, I didn't even think of it as a dual identity. It wasn't until after I finished watching the film that I realized he was a traditional comic book villain. He had more the aura of an ominous henchman.

The movie's greatest flaw is Wayne's romance with the Katie Holmes character. There isn't much chemistry between the two, and the subplot feels tacked on. The Superman and Spider-Man movies worked in part because they convincingly established a conflict between the main character's superpowers and his ability to maintain a romantic relationship. While I'm not saying that the Batman movie had to repeat this formula, there was a notable lack of urgency in the romantic subplot. She's supposed to be a childhood friend, and the main thing standing between their romance is his seven-year disappearance when he was presumed dead. As soon as he returns, the film handles their relationship with a considerable lack of depth.

Despite the flaws, as origin stories go "Batman Begins" is far superior to the massively over-hyped Star Wars prequels. The movie's explanation of how Batman became Batman is well-done, and it's fun to see a version of the character who's more vulnerable than the one we're used to. It's only toward the end that the movie turns more conventional, and since the special effects are so under-emphasized, the ending fails to strike a chord at any level. But it's an impressive effort, and I'm hoping that the next film will rise above this one in the same way that "Spider-Man 2" did for its halfway decent but flawed predecessor.

28 out of 54 people found the following review useful:
A revolutionary comedy, 28 November 2006
9/10

Many years ago scientists created a robotic bee that got accepted into a real hive. The experiment raises a basic question: What was more notable? The device itself, or the fact that real bees accepted it as one of their own?

That's the sort of question that crossed my mind when I watched "Borat." Even though Sacha Baron Cohen dresses up as a fictional character, he takes this character out into the real world and films the reactions of people who assume he is for real. Part of the humor comes from the character himself, but equally important is the way that innocent bystanders are taken in by his antics. Out of this footage and some staged material, he spins a fictional story about Borat, a Kazakhstani journalist filming a documentary while traveling across the United States.

At first, I had trouble formulating an opinion about the film, for the simple reason that it was so unlike anything I'd ever seen before that I had no point of comparison. Sure I laughed a lot, sometimes to the point of tears (the rodeo scene is tops for me). But usually when I'm watching a movie, I measure the experience by comparing it to other films. Here, my mind came up blank, because "Borat" is one of the few truly unique comedies I've seen. Not only is it one of the funniest movies in years, containing some of the most intriguing satire about racism since "All in the Family," it takes comedy to an entirely new plane.

I admit that I was slow to become a fan of Cohen's show. That's partly because his Ali G character was just a variant on something we've all seen many times before, even if the "Candid Camera" element offered a fresh twist on the material. Borat, however, is a highly original creation. If this character were to appear in a conventional movie, he would still be strange. At the same time, there's little doubt that his routines wouldn't be half as interesting if they didn't involve the general public.

Borat is, to put it nicely, an ignorant buffoon. He has no social manner, thinking it acceptable to talk in graphic detail about sex and bodily functions no matter what the occasion. He's also a first-class bigot, putting down Jews, blacks, and women. Of all of Borat's traits, his garden-variety anti-Semitism has gotten the most press, because Cohen is in fact Jewish, and it's fascinating the way he gets people to accept his character and then to say things they wouldn't normally say to a reporter. In one of the more memorable bits from his show, Borat went into a redneck bar in Arizona and sang a song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well." How did the customers react? Why, by the third verse they were all clapping and whooping and singing along, making horn symbols with their hands on their foreheads. Is this comedy or investigative journalism?

In the movie, Borat continues these sorts of shenanigans. Because the approach is so unique, even the familiar gags have a certain freshness. For example, we're all familiar with the cliché where a character eats a seemingly innocent food and then is told it's something gross. But I bet you've never seen a film where the star actually pulls the prank--for real--on an unsuspecting politician.

Looking back on the movie now, I realize that there are some principles of comedy at work. One is that if you create a disgusting, vulgar character, you shouldn't try to soften him at the end. That's a principle that many Hollywood movies neglect ("Bad Santa" comes to mind). Maybe it's because Cohen is British, not American, that he understands this principle. British comedy has long had a better grasp at how to handle unpleasant characters. Instead of half-apologizing for the material as American comedies tend to do, the British know how to take such material to its limits. One of Cohen's conceits is that his characters are static, never for a moment realizing their own idiocy. That's comedy.

Perhaps what makes the offensive material easier to stomach is that Borat never shows any malice or ill intent. The man behind the character may be cruel, but the character himself is cheerful, friendly, and completely oblivious to the havoc he causes. He has horrible attitudes, but only because he doesn't know any better. The movie's purpose in springing this character on the public is to unmask the veneer of sophistication that so many Americans wear, to reveal the little prejudices we try so hard to cover up.

There's a danger of something like this becoming a one-joke routine. "Borat" avoids that fate because the character is so multifaceted, finding so many creative ways to offend, shock, irritate, or just weird people out. And the movie spares no one. It isn't just an exposure of redneck bigotry. It also targets urbane, condescending liberals. One of the most hilariously revealing moments occurs when Borat sabotages an etiquette coach, who proceeds to shrug off his dirty, uncouth behavior as due to "cultural differences."

Underlying the comedy are themes that some viewers might miss. Take the way that Borat is anti-gay but doesn't recognize his own homosexual behavior. He seems to oppose the idea of things without having a clue about their reality. He doesn't even recognize a guy wearing a yarmulke as Jewish. Only after the man's wife identifies as Jewish does he go berserk. (And not in a mean way: Borat is scared for his life!)

Don't worry about the "plot," in which Borat travels across the country with the intent of marrying Pamela Anderson (who I'm sure was in on the joke). It's mostly just a string-line for the gags, but along the way it satirizes various movie conventions, and the manner in which it incorporates the real-life "stunts" into the mix is rather brilliant. Comedy will never be the same again.

Brazil (1985)
119 out of 135 people found the following review useful:
Intriguing mixture of comedy and dystopia, 25 September 2006
9/10

One of the truest statements about originality in art comes from T.S. Eliot: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Terry Gilliam is one of cinema's mature poets. His "Brazil" features homages to numerous other films, ranging from "Modern Times" to "The Empire Strikes Back," and its plot is broadly similar to "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Yet the result is intriguingly fresh and creative.

The best adjective to describe the movie's tone is "whimsical." It's the type of sci-fi film with an almost childlike fascination with strange sights and happenings. Rarely has a film so pessimistic been this much fun. Many sci-fi films since "Brazil" have attempted a similar approach, usually with little success. The chief problem with most such films (e.g. "The Fifth Element") is that they get bogged down in plot at the expense of emotional resonance. "Brazil" avoids this fate: while the movie possesses psychological and thematic complexity, its plot is fairly simple, and the humor, quirky as it is, never relies on throwaway gags. Even the oddest moments have a certain poignance.

The story seems to take place in a fascist alternative world. It isn't "the future" exactly. The technology is weird-looking but hardly superior to anything in our world. Money transactions are sent through pipes in what looks sort of like a crude version of ATM. (One of the film's several nods to silent movies occurs after a character tries to stuff one of these pipes with wads of paper.) The pop culture references are positively retro, from the title song to scenes from the film "Casablanca."

The evil of the government in this film is driven not so much by cruelty as by bureaucratic incompetence, much of which is played for laughs. But some of the scenes look eerie today, in our post-9/11 world, and are good fodder for conspiracy theorists. Pay particular attention to the scene where the official boasts that the government is winning its war against "the terrorists." The movie is ambiguous as to whether there are any real terrorists, and we have a sneaking suspicion that the explosions are caused by the government itself. The plot is set in motion by a typographical error leading an innocent man to be arrested instead of a suspected terrorist. The movie is not about this man but about a meek government worker, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who's observing from the sidelines. Robert De Niro has a cameo as the wanted "terrorist" whose crime, from what we see, consists of doing home repairs without the proper paperwork.

I have noticed that most of the classic dystopian tales are fundamentally similar to one another. But "Brazil" approaches the genre in a uniquely psychological way. Sam Lowry is different from the standard protagonist who rebels against the government due to noble motives. He doesn't seem to have any larger goals than his own personal ones. He isn't trying to make the world a better place. He's only longing for a better life for himself, one more exciting and romantic than the humdrum existence he currently occupies, where he's beset by an overbearing mother, a pitiful boss, and a dull job. In the midst of this bureaucratic nightmare state, he cares only about such matters as getting his air conditioning fixed and stalking a female stranger who physically resembles his fantasy woman--or so he perceives. The woman, as played by Kim Greist, appears in his fantasies as a helpless damsel with long, flowing hair and a silky dress who sits in a cage while he battles a giant Samurai warrior. The real-life woman he pursues, also played by Greist, sports a butch haircut, drives a large truck, and has a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.

It's a testament to Pryce's performance that he commands our total sympathy the whole time. We feel for him and go along with the romantic adventure he attempts to create for himself. His nervous, stammering personality is one that would have been easy to overdo, yet Pryce strikes just the right note, especially as we begin questioning the character's sanity. At one point, another character tells him that "You're paranoid; you've got no sense of reality." But who wouldn't be paranoid in such a setting? The scene brings to mind the old joke that goes "You're not paranoid. Everyone really is out to get you." The movie inhabits such a whacky, surreal world full of strange people and sights that Sam Lowry almost seems sensible by comparison. Creating a character like this was a fresh, innovative twist on a genre that normally loses sight of human personalities.

8 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Hitchcock for kids, 10 July 2007
7/10

It's quite an experience watching a movie that you haven't seen since childhood. Your memories of the film are filtered through an innocent perspective you no longer possess, and as you watch the film again you're struck by how different it looks to you now, even as the memories flood back.

Some of my favorite films from childhood, like "The Neverending Story," have not stood up well as I've grown older. Others, I've found, have been enhanced by my adult perspective. "Cloak & Dagger" falls in the latter category. Interestingly, my overall opinion of the film has not changed. Back in 1984, I perceived it as a good but not great film. I still perceive it that way.

At age seven, I enjoyed how the movie blurred the line between fantasy and reality. That's one of the techniques that make for good children's movies, the recognition that a child's fantasy life can feel as real as anything else happening around him. And movies in which the child's fantasies literally come true seem like vindication to young viewers.

Henry Thomas of "E.T." fame plays a youngster mourning his mother's death by escaping into a fantasy world of adventure games. He has an imaginary friend called Jack Flack, a suave super-spy with a passing resemblance to the boy's father (Dabney Coleman, in a wonderful dual role). The father, a hardened Air Force pilot, loves his son but wants him to grow up, telling him that real heroes are those who put food on the table, not those who go around shooting people. That may seem a harsh thing to say to a child, but the boy does appear to be having psychological problems, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality even though he's old enough to know the difference. So when he witnesses the actual murder of an FBI agent, who slips him a video game cartridge right before dying, the boy is the last person anyone will believe. He knows the murderers will be after him next, but how will he get his dad to believe him soon enough to stay home from work the next day?

What's nice about the film is the seamless way it combines the conventions of adult thrillers and children's adventures. The child as the murder witness whom no one will believe is a setup that would have made Hitchcock proud. I'm sure the filmmakers realized the connection, for there are many nods to Hitchcock, including a visual allusion to "Vertigo" as the murder victim plummets down a long stairway, and a plot that combines elements of "Rear Window" and "North by Northwest." Like the latter, the movie greatly exploits its locale. Viewers who have been to San Antonio will recognize many of the places, including the River Walk, the setting for a unique chase scene.

Then there is the MacGuffin of the "Cloak & Dagger" cartridge itself, a special copy containing information important to the bad guys (whom the kid perceives to be spies, but who may simply be mobsters). The Atari game looks quite primitive today, and the scenes in which the boy calls upon his geek friend (William Forsythe) to crack the code will probably not impress those who take interest in computer espionage. But that hardly matters. The filmmakers understand, as Hitchcock did, that the MacGuffin is there only to move the plot along, and is not independently important.

As the boy evades the villains, Jack Flack keeps appearing and giving him kernels of advice. Although we realize that Flack won't say anything the boy doesn't already know, he helps the boy keep his calm and use his ingenuity to defeat some dangerous men, while gradually learning he doesn't need an imaginary friend. This isn't like "Home Alone" where the villains are portrayed as cartoon idiots. The movie takes its relatively uncomplicated plot seriously and manages to make some sense, without feeling manufactured. While it doesn't pretend to be realistic, it does grow out of the basic truth that adults don't take kids as seriously as they should.

The movie also confirms, once again, that Henry Thomas was one of the best child actors of all time. A lesser actor could have easily sunk this movie, as indeed Christina Nigra, playing the girl next door, almost does. She is cute, but can't act to save her life. Thomas never feels like he's acting, and as a result we almost can believe in the absurd events even when we watch the movie as adults, long having set aside our own childhood fantasies.


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