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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.
One of the early scenes in "Pulp Fiction" features two hit-men
discussing what a Big Mac is called in other countries. Their dialogue
is witty and entertaining, and it's also disarming, because it makes
these two thugs seem all too normal. If you didn't know better, you
might assume these were regular guys having chit-chat on their way to
work. Other than the comic payoff at the end of the scene, in which
they use parts of this conversation to taunt their victims, their talk
has no relevance to anything in the film, or to anything else, for that
matter. Yet without such scenes, "Pulp Fiction" wouldn't be "Pulp
Fiction." I get the sense that Tarantino put into the film whatever
struck his fancy, and somehow the final product is not only coherent
but wonderfully textured.
It's no wonder that fans spend so much time debating what was in the suitcase, reading far more into the story than Tarantino probably intended. The film is so intricately structured, with so many astonishing details, many of which you won't pick up on the first viewing, that it seems to cry out for some deeper explanation. But there is no deeper explanation. "Pulp Fiction," is, as the title indicates, purely an exercise in technique and style, albeit a brilliant and layered one. Containing numerous references to other films, it is like a great work of abstract art, or "art about art." It has all the characteristics we associate with great movies: fine writing, first-rate acting, unforgettable characters, and one of the most well-constructed narratives I've ever seen in a film. But to what end? The self-contained story does not seem to have bearing on anything but itself.
The movie becomes a bit easier to understand once you realize that it's essentially a black comedy dressed up as a crime drama. Each of the three main story threads begins with a situation that could easily form the subplot of any standard gangster movie. But something always goes wrong, some small unexpected accident that causes the whole situation to come tumbling down, leading the increasingly desperate characters to absurd measures. Tarantino's originality stems from his ability to focus on small details and follow them where they lead, even if they move the story away from conventional plot developments.
Perhaps no screenplay has ever found a better use for digressions. Indeed, the whole film seems to consist of digressions. No character ever says anything in a simple, straightforward manner. Jules could have simply told Yolanda, "Be cool and no one's going to get hurt," which is just the type of line you'd find in a generic, run-of-the-mill action flick. Instead, he goes off on a tangent about what Fonzie is like. Tarantino savors every word of his characters, finding a potential wisecrack in every statement and infusing the dialogue with clever pop culture references. But the lines aren't just witty; they are full of intelligent observations about human behavior. Think of Mia's statement to Vincent, "That's when you know you've found somebody special: when you can just shut the f--- up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence."
What is the movie's purpose exactly? I'm not sure, but it does deal a lot with the theme of power. Marsellus is the sort of character who looms over the entire film while being invisible most of the time. The whole point of the big date sequence, which happens to be my favorite section of the film, is the power that Marsellus has over his men without even being present. This power is what gets Vincent to act in ways you would not ordinarily expect from a dumb, stoned gangster faced with an attractive woman whose husband has gone away. The power theme also helps explain one of the more controversial aspects of the film, its liberal use of the N-word. In this film, the word isn't just used as an epithet to describe blacks: Jules, for instance, at one point applies the term to Vincent. It has more to do with power than with race. The powerful characters utter the word to express their dominance over weaker characters. Most of these gangsters are not racist in practice. Indeed, they are intermingled racially, and have achieved a level of equality that surpasses the habits of many law-abiding citizens in our society. They resort to racial epithets because it's a patter that establishes their separateness from the non-criminal world.
There's a nice moral progression to the stories. We presume that Vincent hesitates to sleep with Mia out of fear rather than loyalty. Later, Butch's act of heroism could be motivated by honor, but we're never sure. The film ends, however, with Jules making a clear moral choice. Thus, the movie seems to be exploring whether violent outlaws can act other than for self-preservation.
Still, it's hard to find much of a larger meaning tying together these eccentric set of stories. None of the stories are really "about" anything. They certainly are not about hit-men pontificating about burgers. Nor is the film really a satire or a farce, although it contains elements of both. At times, it feels like a tale that didn't need to be told, but for whatever reason this movie tells it and does a better job than most films of its kind, or of any other kind.
Because my mother is a huge Beatles fan, I saw this movie a lot when I
was a kid. It may look weak in comparison to "A Hard Day's Night,"
widely regarded as the "Citizen Kane" of rock musicals. But it's an
easier film for a kid to relate to. Instead of a realistic, ironic
mockumentary about the lives of rock stars, it's a harmless escapist
fantasy that has precious little to do with the real Beatles. These are
the Beatles of myth, the four asexual men who all live in the same
house, which is supposed to pass for an automated futuristic type of
home, at least to audiences in the 1960s. I suppose that as a kid I got
a kick out of the idea of having a vending machine in one's own home.
Somehow, I never asked myself what the advantage of that would be, and
the film never does, either.
Looking back on the film as an adult, I have a hard time determining what it is I liked about it. Certainly, I can't remember laughing at any of the jokes. In fact, I was vaguely aware that most of the jokes fall flat. (In contrast, the Monkees' TV show, modeled heavily on this movie, was often quite funny.) The superintendent who does a bad Cagney imitation and inexplicably begins every sentence with the words "So this is the famous...." left me staring at the screen blankly. This is quintessential British humor, revolving heavily around people's nonchalant reactions to bizarre events. It's a brand of humor that has great potential to be funny; here, it's just strange, probably because none of the ideas are all that inspired. The idea of a tiger who likes Beethoven might have sounded good on paper, I suppose, but it doesn't come together on screen. I suppose it could have been used as the setup for a funnier joke; instead, it's used as the punchline. At least I was able to "get" that joke when I was a kid. Many of the other jokes involve references that went over my head, such as the line "It's the brain drain: his brain's draining." Those sophisticated enough to know what the brain drain is are likely to be too old to appreciate such a pedestrian pun.
The Beatles themselves do not emerge in this film as talented comic actors, to put it mildly. Their line readings are wooden, their comic timing is off, and their apparent attempts at improvisation are pathetic, as in their continual "ho ho ho"ing throughout the film. The Beatles were supposed to have been very funny on stage and in interviews, but none of that ability translates to the screen. It may not have been their fault. The characters they play are given no identifiable traits, and as a result they come off as interchangeable, except for Ringo because of his role in the plot. Instead of giving them distinct comic personas to play, the film turns them into straight-men who are the victims of a zany, insane world that's conspiring against them. This is presumably what led the real Beatles to complain that the film reduced them to "extras in (their) own movie."
So why do I have so much affection for the film? Probably because I was just sort of enchanted by the events. The movie has a lot of the types of scenes that delight kids, like the aforementioned automated house, as well as a ton of weird gadgets. The various methods in which the Beatles attempt to remove the dreaded ring from Ringo's finger is the best aspect of the film, plot-wise. It may not make me laugh, but there still is a certain pleasure in watching these scenes. Besides, I've always liked movies about Thuggees. Along with "Gunga Din," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and a somewhat darker film from 1988, "The Deceivers," "Help!" convinced me that Thuggees were a real group existing in modern times. How disappointed I was when I grew up and eventually learned that the actual cult was destroyed by British forces in the early nineteenth century. "Temple of Doom" at least alludes to that fact, and bases its plot on the premise that the cult has secretly survived. "Help!" never explains how Thuggees could be around in the twentieth century; you just have to accept it.
But the most obvious reason why I still like this film is the wonderful music. It actually has a better soundtrack, in my opinion, than "A Hard Day's Night." Among the songs that "Help!" popularized are not just the hits like "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," "Ticket to Ride," "You've Got to Hide Your Love," and the title song, but also lesser known tracks like "The Night Before" and "Another Girl." The earlier film appropriately focused on their dance music. The songs from this film have a greater focus on harmony and musical virtuosity.
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.
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
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.
I expected to like this film. I enjoy movies about con artists, and it
looked to me like a return to the quirky types of roles Nicolas Cage
used to do back in the '80s. Ever since his rise to stardom, he's
frequently been cast in roles where--to me, at least--he has seemed
oddly out of place. This is probably because he has an air of
unconventionality to him, which often clashes with the tone of what
So when I heard that he was playing an agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive con man who discovers he has a teenage daughter, I was sure this film would be my cup of tea. It was getting good reviews, and it sounded like an interesting premise, one that cuts across genres. That, unfortunately, turns out to be the main problem. The film tries to do too many different things, and they cancel each other out.
We can start with Cage's character. He's shown as a socially inept individual with lots of tics and stammers, a man so fearful of the outside world that he has trouble leaving his own house. The notion that a guy like this could also be a seasoned con artist doesn't ring true. When we see him working, he seems marginally competent at best, and his scams aren't particularly clever or inspired. Maybe I'm spoiled after seeing "Catch Me If You Can," a movie that shows what true brilliance in this profession can look like. But even con artists of lesser skill usually know how to adapt to new situations, a trait this character does not appear to possess. On the contrary, the first scam we see him pull off, he nearly blows. How did this guy stay in the business for twenty years, with as much success as he's said to have had?
Not only is it hard for me to believe that he'd be capable of working in such a venue, he doesn't even seem the type who would want to. He has too much of a conscience, as becomes evident when he develops a relationship with his newfound teenage daughter, played by Alison Lohman. I realize the point is supposed to be that the Lohman character is bringing out feelings in him that he didn't know he had, but from the beginning he seems too moral for his own good. If he's irresponsible, it's not because he doesn't care, but because he's overly absorbed in his own problems. Some of his scenes with her are entertaining, but ultimately they don't go anywhere satisfying. All the film achieves in the end is plot manipulation.
Perhaps Cage was not the right choice for this role after all. I can think of several actors who might have done a better job. One that springs to mind is Bill Murray. He played a severely phobic character in "What About Bob?," and while his performance in that film was over-the-top, he has shown from his other work that he can reign in his comedic talent when he needs to. He's also good at playing conning types of characters, exhibiting a smoothness that Cage lacks. He would have been perfect for this role, as would have many other actors. It may not have saved the entire film, but it would at least have provided a more convincing starting point.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The body-switch genre is pretty lame when it's used as the basis for a
comedy, probably because the idea is just not that funny. Attempting to
transfer the same premise to a sci-fi action thriller, however, sounds
like a good starting point. And I have to admit that this film's
concept is quite clever: an FBI agent (John Travolta) goes undercover
through a surgical operation in which his own face is replaced with
that of a terrorist (Nicolas Cage) whom he recently apprehended. But
the killer wakes up from his coma, steals Travolta's original face, and
assumes his identity while the real man, who now resembles the killer,
rots away in prison.
A willing suspension of disbelief is in order. Once the two men switch places, each looks exactly like the other, with no visible scars. In any case, it seems to me that Nicolas Cage's face probably would not fit on John Travolta's head, though my theory is not likely to be tested anytime soon.
Contrary to what many critics claimed, the actors do little to imitate each other's styles. Only briefly in the film do we get to see Cage as the villain and Travolta as the good guy, even though we are told those represent the "real" characters. Once they make the switch, each actor is in familiar territory, with Travolta more or less reprising his hip gangster role from "Pulp Fiction" and "Get Shorty," and Cage playing another one of his brooding outcast characters. Had the film made Travolta the fugitive and Cage the hoodlum taking over his life, that would have been slightly atypical for these actors.
At least the prison scenes are a little creative, albeit inexplicable. Travolta (with Cage's face) is sent to a facility where convicts are kept under control through the use of electronic tracing, high-powered magnets, and other improbable technology. These scenes would have made more sense in a futuristic sci-fi film, which in fact was what the original script intended. The director John Woo changed the setting to the contemporary world, but left in the bizarre penitentiary without a word of explanation. Regardless of all that, there is little doubt that the plot will find a way for Travolta's character to outsmart this seemingly impenetrable system, because otherwise there'd be no movie. It might have made more sense if they'd established Travolta as some sort of electronics expert; here, the basis for his escape is just arbitrary.
The rest of the film runs along similarly obligatory lines. Travolta must find his way home, get his face back, and prove his innocence, all the while thwarting the plans of the killer who has taken over his life. The final segment of the film is a virtuoso sequence of gunfights, chase scenes, and big explosions. But there's nothing in the story you couldn't predict a thousand miles off. This is typical assembly-line Hollywood, where even an ingenious idea gets treated with one cliché after the other, until finally being warped beyond recognition, kind of like the two characters' faces in this film.
My first viewing of "Jump Tomorrow" was a rare instance when I knew I
was going to love a film as soon as I saw the first shot, which depicts
nothing more unusual than a bespectacled man being fitted into a suit.
From the man's stiff posture and timid face it is obvious that he's
very shy and passive. I immediately realized that I was seeing a good
actor who was able to suggest an entire personality while hardly doing
anything, indeed barely moving at all.
The name of the actor is Tunde Adebimpe, and I am astonished that he is not more famous. Apparently, this is one of the only films he's ever acted in, other than the short college film it's based on, in which he played the same character. Primarily, he's an animator rather than an actor. But the performance he gives in this film is nothing short of remarkable. And it is in the course of an extremely creative and quirky little movie that brings surprising life to an old formula.
The plot is simple: George, an American from a Nigerian immigrant family, is about to marry a childhood friend, and on the way to the wedding he falls for a Spanish woman, Alicia. If that premise sounds hopelessly familiar, the movie finds just about every possible way to make it seem fresh and original. While the beginning and end stick pretty closely to the conventions of the genre, the events in between manage to take some very interesting turns. The film is like one of those magical rooms that's much larger on the inside than on the outside.
When you hear the premise you might be led to assume, as I first did, that this is merely another ethnic comedy about someone who's expected to marry within the culture but ends up falling for someone of another ethnicity and at first the family objects, but eventually everyone comes around and learns a valuable lesson about cultural tolerance. While some of those films are enjoyable in their way, this patronizing approach is all too common in the movies, where the formula is always about whether some "exotic" culture is willing to adapt to Western norms that are inevitably deemed superior. Thankfully, "Jump Tomorrow" is not in that tradition at all. In fact, it deals surprisingly little with ethnicity, even though all the major characters are either non-white or non-American. By the middle of the film, you're likely to forget that it's even about an interracial relationship, because that point is never dwelt upon. George's family naturally expects him to marry the woman he grew up with, and the reason he's going along with their plans has nothing to do with some antiquated family betrothal custom: it is simply because he's such a passive and accepting individual.
Adebimpe plays the character to such perfection that some of the movie's laughs come simply from the nuances of his voice and gestures. His lines reflect an understanding of these subtle traits, as when he casually observes that "My face doesn't make sense without glasses." Comedy usually depends on frustrating a character's expectations, and "Jump Tomorrow" is no exception. I just don't believe I've ever seen in any other comedy a character quite like George, who wants nothing more than to blend in and be invisible, to avoid making waves. But he's inevitably humiliated in a hilarious sequence involving a woman named Heather Leather (the name still cracks me up), in an ill-advised scheme by his friend Gerard to make Alicia jealous. The event takes place at a hotel with a love motif and a variety of strange furniture, including a bathtub in the form of giant champagne glass. Without ever quite descending into surrealism, these scenes play like a tribute to several comic filmmakers from Blake Edwards to Woody Allen.
But George has a very basic dignity that grows on you as the film progresses. Gerard has his own problems, and indeed the movie's title refers to George's words when talking his friend out of suicide. Gerard calls it "the best talk-down speech I've ever heard," and I'd have to agree.
As in most romantic comedies, the rival love interest is a douche bag. But in "Jump Tomorrow," even this character is given so many quirky and eccentric traits that he seems an original creation. He's a British professor who practices taekwondo in the rain, gives Alicia an engagement ring made of bone, and refers to her family as "fascinating." We are tempted to wonder what she, a hopeless romantic, sees in him. That is a question we've all asked many times, both about movies and about real life.
At one point, Gerard gets into an argument with the professor over whether the French language is obsolete. This is one of many amusing scenes that deal with the theme of language differences. In an attempt to impress Alicia, George tries to learn Spanish by listening to travel audio-cassettes picked up at a local convenience store and by watching Spanish soap operas. Of course, he never gains more than a beginner's proficiency in the language, but in his fantasies he can speak the language fluently. The movie spoofs Spanish soaps in a handful of scenes in which he imagines himself as a character in one of these shows. Then there is Alicia's deaf-mute grandfather who takes an immediate liking to George, giving a wonderful performance without words and helping to highlight the movie's theme that commonality transcends language. "Jump Tomorrow" is a small masterpiece that I have made it my mission to make known to other movie lovers.
Lucas may have problems as a director and writer, but I've always
thought that those flaws are balanced by his great storytelling
ability. The problem with "The Phantom Menace" is that he simply has no
story to tell. The film merely adds an introductory chapter to a story
that has already been told, and stretches it out into a two-hour movie.
It is no accident that prequels of this kind are rare. They are very
difficult to make properly. And apparently he's just not a
sophisticated enough filmmaker to pull it off.
For one thing, this project is limited by the fact that anyone familiar with the first trilogy knows the story's outcome, and it therefore lacks some of the suspense associated with a gradually unfolding saga. More importantly, however, this situation leaves Lucas with very little freedom as a storyteller. It also encourages him to gloss over key events; because their outcome is a foregone conclusion, he forgets to bring them to life.
For example, we know there will eventually be a romance between Anakin and Padme. So Lucas has the two characters meet here and--surprise, surprise--they seem to like each other. Their developing friendship isn't portrayed that clearly, and their motivations for becoming close aren't explained. Because Lucas fails to make scenes like these believable, we can't help being conscious of how he's manipulating the plot in his effort to connect the two trilogies. Another good example of this problem is Anakin's portrayal as a potential Jedi. There doesn't appear to be anything about this kid remotely out of the ordinary, even though the other characters keep talking like there is. Our only reason for thinking he's special is that the plot requires it.
If the story fails to be engaging, it is because we never see the important events. Lucas makes a fatal error in not showing what's happening on Naboo, the small planet whose capture is the focus of the plot. Numerous atrocities are supposedly being committed against the planet's inhabitants, but we only know about this because the characters on screen refer to the events, usually rather woodenly.
The deadpan performances are a problem in themselves, but they only highlight our lack of involvement in the story. Think of Han Solo sweating in fear, then think of the emotional vacuums passing for characters in this film. Whenever any of the characters do express emotion, as in the scene where Anakin and his mom part, it still seems awfully restrained. Somehow, Lucas manages to keep the emotional reactions of his characters to a minimum, which gives the film an almost mechanical feel.
It's true that "A New Hope" never showed Alderaan's inhabitants, but we still could feel the tragedy of the planet's destruction through the horrified reactions of Princess Leia and Obi Wan. Moreover, there were many other involving events which we witnessed directly, such as the slaying of rebels at the beginning; the capture and torture of the princess; and the murder of Luke's foster parents. Furthermore, the major plot elements were intriguing in and of themselves. They weren't there merely to show us how they were to be linked to later events, which seems to be the case with the new film.
I suspect that Lucas was not as concerned in the first trilogy with what had to happen later in the story and was therefore able to focus his attention on the events at hand. The weakest segment was "Return of the Jedi," which had the task of bringing the story to an end. Only then did Lucas start to show signs of forcing plot points. In "The Phantom Menace," he gets so bogged down in the task of bringing his story from point A to point B that he ends up with only the bare bones of a plot, and none of it comes alive.
This is especially true of the characterization. In the old trilogy, characters like Yoda and Han reveal distinct personalities in their first few minutes on screen. This film goes for more than two hours and the characters, including the familiar ones, come off vague and nondescript. We aren't given much of a chance to experience their personalities in the way they interact. We must take Qui Gon's word for it when he describes Obi Wan as "headstrong." What's most odd is that the cartoons seem better developed than the humans. The scenes where Qui Gon negotiates with the birdlike slave-owner Watto are amusing and well-done--probably the movie's best scenes aside from the stunning action sequences--but they can't hold a candle to the constant interactions throughout the first trilogy.
One thing I cannot do is accuse the film of lacking creativity. The design of the creatures, the technologies, and the planets is impressive. Watching the film is sort of like reading a children's book that isn't very good but abounds with beautiful illustrations. There is certainly a "wow" factor in the movie's visuals, but the effect of it is short-lived.
I get irked when I hear fans talk as though the "Star Wars" movies were never about anything beyond special effects. While the inventive visuals are part of what made the originals so revolutionary, they're not what made the films so fun to watch. And in no way can they explain the trilogy's continuing popularity today. After all, many of the original effects look primitive by today's standards, and their novelty has certainly worn off. Only an enduring and compelling storyline could have allowed the first three films to become the classics they're almost universally acknowledged to be.
Is it possible to be obnoxious and funny at the same time? Yes, I
believe it is. But "Patch Adams" is just obnoxious while thinking
itself not merely funny, but noble as well. Robin Williams has played
this sort of character before, the compassionate rebel, in other films
based loosely on true stories, like "Good Morning Vietnam" and "The
Dead Poets Society." If this film doesn't work as well as the others,
it is because it oversimplifies what otherwise would be an attractive
theme, namely that doctors should strive to improve the quality of
their patients' lives rather than to postpone death. I wish there would
be a movie that expresses this idea in a nuanced and believable
fashion. Here, it's nothing but cheap shots at the establishment.
One of the major problems is that Patch Adams just isn't very funny, which undermines the whole point of what he's doing. I laughed during one scene involving a catatonic patient, but most of the time I just sat there looking about as stone-faced as the pretty medical student Patch flirts with. Considering how awkward and obtrusive most of Patch's "jokes" are, it's a wonder the movie never considers the possibility that the patients might not be amused; indeed, even the most irritable ones eventually succumb to his charms. If the real Patch Adams was truly like he's portrayed here, I doubt he'd have had any success with his "method." Perhaps the doctors who opposed his behavior actually had a point, and weren't simply the stuffy, anal-retentive stereotype this film shows them to be. This film seems to exist in a one-dimensional world where "comedy" automatically means dressing up as a clown and doing unsubtle slapstick, and where the only people who fail to appreciate such antics are those totally lacking in any sense of humor, not to mention humanity. In a particularly ironic scene, a fellow medical student played by the wonderful actor Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a heartfelt speech about the harm in Patch's failure to follow procedure. I actually found Hoffman's argument a lot more convincing than the movie wanted us to think.
In my experience, I've met a variety of medical professionals ranging from those who only seem concerned with the technical aspects of their profession to warm, funny individuals who care about their patients' feelings in addition to their health. The latter can be accomplished without acting obnoxious, arrogant, and immature like Patch Adams comes off in this film. I couldn't relate to the film because both sides seemed too extreme, and there wasn't the slightest hint that a broad middle ground exists. It was like having to choose between fascism and anarchy.
Eventually the film resorts to an implausible, manipulative plot device so as to give the Patch character a moment of doubt which the situation hardly merits. Or, at least, he's doubting the wrong thing. What he should be doubting is not whether humor itself has a legitimate place in the medical profession, but whether his particular brand of humor does. The movie's ideas are stronger than its execution, and at the end Patch gives an inspirational speech that actually impressed me. If only the rest of the film lived up to the strength of his words.
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