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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.
Even the funniest movies eventually stop making me laugh after I've
watched them enough times that the humor no longer surprises me. A joke
never has the same effect when you know the punch line in advance. But
every once in a blue moon, a comedy comes along that is so thoughtful
and meaningful in addition to being funny that after seeing it a dozen
times and laughing less often, I start noticing its depth and insight.
For me, no movie has so perfectly united hilarity with profundity as
"Groundhog Day," which happens to be my favorite movie of all time.
Superficially, this film belongs roughly in the same genre as "All of Me" and "Liar Liar," comedies in which a character becomes the victim of some weird supernatural fate and must adapt to the insane logic of the situation. But Steve Martin and Jim Carrey are geniuses of physical comedy, whereas Bill Murray specializes in understatement. I can't imagine any other approach having worked for this film, where the world is going crazy around Phil the weatherman, Murray's hard-edged character who keeps his emotions bottled up. What makes the initial scenes in which he first discovers his fate so hilarious is the mounting panic in his demeanor even as he tries to act like everything's normal. All he can think of to say is, "I may be having a problem." Uh, no kidding. Throughout the rest of the film, he'll deliver similarly muted lines to describe his situation, like "My years are not advancing as fast as you might think." It's striking that a man who has all the time in the world would choose his words so carefully, but it reflects a well-conceived screenplay.
In this comedy, the laughs are reinforced by repetition. The absurdity of Phil discovering that he's repeating the same day is funny enough, but every time that alarm clock goes off, and the radio starts playing, "I Got You Babe," and Phil goes through the same motions and meets the same people and then goes out into the street to be accosted by the same annoying high school buddy ("Phiiiil?"), I laugh again because I'm reminded how funny it was the first time around. People who didn't like this film (I've met one or two) emphasize how annoying it is that everything gets repeated. I sort of understand that complaint, since jokes repeated over and over usually fail miserably. "Groundhog Day," however, works uniquely well because the situation gets increasingly absurd and Phil gets increasingly desperate with each day that fails to pass.
The film would have fizzled out quickly had it spent the entire hour-and-a-half showing Phil meeting the same people and doing the same things time and again. The fact that "Groundhog Day" avoids this fate is one of its more striking qualities, since most high-concept comedies of this sort fall apart in the third act. "Groundhog Day" is a rare example of one that completely follows through with its premise, leading from the initial situation logically to the ending. Only the Jeopardy scene feels like a skit that could have appeared anywhere. But this scene actually is placed wisely: it occurs when Phil is becoming increasingly bored and lethargic, and it is used to separate two hilarious scenes where he gives nutty television reports.
It is in the middle, centering on Phil's attempts to seduce Rita, when the film reveals itself to be more than just a comedy. The underlying implication of these scenes is that Phil's powers are less important than he thinks they are. He probably could have done the same things (such as his exploits with Nancy) under ordinary circumstances, without the hocus pocus. In the end, his powers don't matter, because Rita is too smart and sees right through him. She may not understand the full supernatural implications of what he's doing, but she senses that he's somehow manipulating the situation. Phil may think he's a god, but he isn't all-powerful.
Phil's character development is convincing largely because we can so easily believe the situation would force him to look inward. Because he loves such a sincere woman as Rita, the only way he can finally impress her is by genuinely changing himself rather than faking it. The change he undergoes isn't an implausible leap, for he maintains many of the same basic character traits he had at the beginning, even though he becomes kinder and more caring. Earlier, Rita says that egocentrism is Phil's "defining characteristic," and, indeed, he doesn't stop being egocentric at the end; he merely learns to channel the egocentrism in a positive direction.
I have trouble imagining any other actor having pulled this off. Murray is not the only comic actor to have proved himself capable of dramatic depth, but he's one of the few who can so seamlessly combine his humorous and serious side into the same character. And he's a master at conveying complex emotions through an apparent deadpan. When his delivery sounds stilted in this film, the effect is intentional, for he's playing a man whose life has become a script.
Though this film has a serious message, it is still quintessentially a comedy. But it's a comedy that uses psychological exploration of a fascinating character to make its point. After the laughter has worn down, "Groundhog Day" turns out to be one of the richest and deepest films I've ever seen.
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.
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.
The surprise ending to "The Sixth Sense" has gotten so much attention
that it threatens to overshadow the film. I occasionally hear people
say things like the following: "The 'twist' was so obvious that I
figured it out in the first five minutes!" Some of those people may
even be telling the truth. There's no way to know. But there's a lot of
condescension in such remarks, an implication that anyone who didn't
figure it out must be a really dumb sucker. At least in my case I have
an excuse. When I first saw this film back in early 2000, I knew
nothing about it other than that it was about the relationship between
a psychiatrist played by Bruce Willis and a child with some sort of
psychic power. I didn't even know what that psychic power was, and an
early scene led me to think it was telepathy. In short, I had no idea
even what the movie's subject was until about the middle of the film,
so I was completely adrift as to solving the movie's mystery.
Still, to anyone who did figure the secret out quickly, I have this to say: you may be smarter than I am, but that does not make this a bad movie. Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep the ending to "Psycho" from leaking out. Many people who watch that film today figure the twist out (probably because it has been imitated in countless thrillers since then), but the film is still a classic that holds up well today. Surprise endings are, ultimately, just clever contrivances, extra layerings on the cake. They do not constitute the difference between a good movie and a bad movie. A movie must work on its own terms before springing a surprise.
Nevertheless, there can be no denying that the twist in "The Sixth Sense" is particularly clever. It's no virtue if a twist is impossible to predict. It is just as important that the twist be logical as that it be surprising. Plenty of thrillers feature twists that are arbitrary, where the plot fails to provide enough hints. Even a clever thriller like "Fight Club" requires a bit of a stretch to accept the ending. What makes "The Sixth Sense" impressive is that it never cheats by suggesting that earlier scenes were imaginary. Everything we see is real, and only our assumptions fool us. If, however, you weren't fooled, all the better: just because you figure out the magician's trick does not make it a bad trick.
Consider what appears to be happening in the film. Willis plays a psychiatrist who has received accolades for helping children with problems. We see a romantic evening with him and his wife at home. Then he gets into an ugly, violent confrontation with a former patient. Willis believes he has failed, and he wants to make amends by helping a new child (Haley Joel Osment) who appears to be having the same problems (and perhaps the same abilities) that his former patient once displayed. But just as he thinks he's making progress with Osment, his marriage seems to be falling apart. His wife isn't talking to him, and is beginning to see another man.
However these events may be reinterpreted by what is revealed later, the movie is effective because it works on this basic level. In a key scene, Willis asks Osment what he wants most, and Osment answers, "I don't want to be scared anymore." It is not always clear that Osment is really facing a mortal threat. But because the movie establishes that he is undergoing a scary experience, by the time the movie reveals what it is that is frightening him, we have our emotions invested in the character, and the terror is very real to us. This is a step that most horror films neglect, the recognition that the most powerful fear may be the fear of fear itself.
When I was a teenager, I assumed that all good horror films had to have an R rating. Even as an adult, I was surprised that a movie as frightening as "The Sixth Sense" received only a PG-13. In hindsight, however, most of my favorite horror films, whatever their rating, have relatively little violence. Like all good horror films, "The Sixth Sense" allows the suspense to build and does not rely on either excessive violence or cheap scares. The ending adds an additional level of intrigue, but it is not necessary to one's enjoyment during the first viewing. Still, if you have not seen the film by now and remain woefully ignorant of the surprise lurking in its plot, I urge you, before someone ruins it for you, go and watch the movie!
"The Believer" contains rare insights into Jewish identity, and it's a
shame that the film was withheld from mainstream audiences due to
ongoing controversy. But it deals with an ugly subject, and it handles
that subject in an ambiguous way that makes many people, including many
Jews, uncomfortable. Make no mistake about it, though: the film is
uncompromisingly pro-Jewish, and the director, himself a Jew, has said
that he became more religious because of his work on the film.
Ironically, the film is likely to resonate the most with Jews, though
it also contains universal themes familiar to anyone who has ever
struggled with faith.
The idea of a white supremacist who's secretly Jewish is not new to me. I've long known about Frank Collin, who caused a national controversy in the 1970s when he planned to have his neo-Nazi group march in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. It was later discovered that Collin's father was not only Jewish but a Holocaust survivor. This case is so bizarre that it leads one to assume the guy was simply insane. While there may be some truth to that assumption, it isn't a satisfactory explanation. What would possibly lead a Jew to join a group that believes in the inherent evil of all Jews? What is such a person thinking? How does such a person live with himself, rationalize his own actions?
What "The Believer" accomplishes is to go inside the head of one such person and provide a compelling, believable explanation for how such a person could exist. The film is based loosely on a 1960s incident in which a high-ranking member of the KKK was discovered to be Jewish. The movie updates the story to modern times and depicts the young man, Danny, as a skinhead rather than a Klansman. His characterization is speculative but reveals a deep understanding of human nature.
What's truly bizarre about this story is that Danny never abandons his Jewish roots entirely. After attending a neo-fascist meeting, he goes home to his family, whom he treats with respect. He even performs Jewish rituals in private. Yet he terrorizes a Jewish kid on the subway, tells his neo-Nazi buddies that he wants to assassinate a prominent Jewish diplomat, and spouts what sounds on the surface like typical white supremacist ideology. But he's not, as we might suspect, a hypocrite saying things he doesn't believe, or a two-faced lunatic. His philosophy is surprisingly coherent. Sure, he's a walking contradiction, but so are many other people who have a love-hate relationship with their religious background.
His anti-Semitic beliefs all revolve around a single idea: he thinks Jews are too weak and passive. Sometimes he adopts a macho outlook, since he doesn't want to be associated with a people stereotyped as brainy intellectuals. On a deeper level, he dislikes the persecution theme in Jewish history and culture. But is this theme a sign of weakness or strength? Danny isn't sure. He eventually decides that Jews gain strength from their persecution; they seem to grow stronger the worse they're treated, and the biggest threat to their survival is not those who want to destroy them but those who don't care. This is a far more Jewish idea than an anti-Semitic one. Several Jewish holidays, including Passover, Purim, and Chanukah, commemorate events where Jews grew strong after periods of persecution. Many Jews today believe that assimilation into the culture is a greater danger than genocide, because it could signal the disappearance of Jews as a distinct people. As Irving Kristol once remarked, "The problem is that they don't want to persecute us, they want to marry us."
The implication is that Danny actually admires Judaism, and that his anti-Semitism is his own warped way of affirming his Jewish identity in a world where, he fears, Jews are increasingly seen as irrelevant--not loved or hated but simply ignored. His ambivalent feelings escalate as the movie progresses. When he has his neo-Nazi buddies deface a synagogue, he can't bring himself to damage the Torah scroll, and he secretly takes it home with him. His intimate knowledge of Jewish beliefs and practices looks strange to his fellow skinheads, to say the least. He tells them that he studies these things in order to know the enemy, pointing out that Eichmann did the same thing. Do they buy this explanation? Apparently they do, but Danny's girlfriend is a little smarter than that, and she finds herself strangely drawn to the religion he's running away from.
Like "American History X," this movie contains disturbing scenes where the protagonist articulately expresses his bigoted ideas. There are other intelligent characters who argue back, but not everything he spouts gets answered, so I can understand why this movie makes some viewers uncomfortable. In one particularly distasteful scene, Danny mocks Holocaust survivors, and while they do answer him eloquently for the most part, his raising of the old "sheep to the slaughter" canard is left open.
Nevertheless, this a powerful and compelling film, with a lead performance by Ryan Gosling that manages to rival Ed Norton's Oscar-nominated performance in "American History X." We see early on that Danny is capable of doing appalling things, but his moral conflicts are then presented so persuasively that we cannot help but empathize with him. The climax is painfully ambiguous. Those who are looking for easy answers may want to skip this film. But they will be missing out on what is easily the most authentic and profound exploration of Jewish self-hatred ever portrayed on screen.
I enjoyed this movie immensely. But, like "The Phantom Menace," I've had a
very hard time viewing it objectively. There was so much anticipation
leading up to its release, I simply enjoyed the experience of being there.
Having read all four books in the series a few times each, I am overly
familiar with the events in the story. As I watched the movie, my
thought was "How well will the next part of the story be translated to the
screen?" rather than "How entertaining is this film overall?" I have
answering the latter question because I was already entertained by
a wonderful story dramatized, so I'll never know how I'd have reacted had
seen this movie without having read the books.
Critics talk about how incredibly faithful the movie is to the book, and perhaps I'd have had an easier time detaching the two in my mind had the movie set off on its own course. Indeed, many classic children's movies, like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Mary Poppins," are so successful partly because they're so different from the books that inspired them. But these are exceptions; in my experience, most children's movies reveal their weaknesses in how they diverge from the books upon which they're based. And much of what makes the Harry Potter phenomenon unique is that it is the first time in ages that a children's book, without a movie accompanying it, has generated this much popularity. According to an article I read a year ago, the universe of Harry Potter has become as real in the minds of youngsters and adults as that of a popular movie series like Star Wars. Therefore, it will be very hard for any film based upon it to compete with it. In the minds of die-hard fans, any changes made to the story will be seen as desecrating the fantasy world that Rowling created. That's why it's easy to understand why the filmmakers were so reluctant to change anything.
As a faithful rendering of the book squeezed into a two-and-a-half hour period, the movie is beautifully done. I don't have a single complaint about any of the actors, who successfully bring to life, with the aid of costume design and special effects, the many colorful characters from the book. My favorite character, the giant Hagrid, is played by Robbie Coltrane, and I say with no exaggeration that he is exactly how I imagined him while reading the book. It's as if they took the image in my mind and transferred it to the screen. While I had my own personal image of Snape (for some reason, I always imagined him as the head villain from another Chris Columbus film, "Adventures in Babysitting"), Alan Rickman is perfect in the role. I usually expect to have words of criticism for some performances, but I just don't. The remaining adult actors, including Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, are as good as they possibly could be, and the kids do an excellent job of holding their own against these veterans. Some have criticized Daniel Radcliffe for appearing too subdued in the title role, but that's exactly how the character is portrayed in the book: modest, unassuming, and laid-back. The kids who play Harry's two best friends are flawless.
I had a lot of worries about the fact that it was being directed by Chris Columbus, whose entire directorial career so far has consisted of over-the-top slapstick films. I was pleasantly surprised that he did not direct the Harry Potter film in this way. Except for brief moments like the children's delayed reaction to a giant three-headed dog they encounter and Harry's swallowing the quaffle ball, there is nothing here to remind us that this film is directed by the same person who gave us films like "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire." Indeed, I think Columbus may have gone just a tad bit too far in trying not to make the film seem cartoony. I would have liked to see a little more emotion on the actors' faces at certain times. Overall, however, his restraint works nicely in giving the film the kind of believability the book possesses.
But much is left out. Harry's caretaker Uncle Vernon, a prominent character in the book, is given less attention in the movie than some of the bit characters. The gently satirical aspects of Hogwarts School aren't in the movie at all. We never see the ghostly history teacher who died several years back but kept on teaching. Lines like the following--"Professor McGonagall watched [her students] turn a mouse into a snuffbox--points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers"--find no equivalent in the movie. The movie does include platform nine-and-three-quarters, though the way the kids disappear into the wall isn't as mysterious as I had visualized, and the sorting hat is there, minus the great poem explaining the differences between the four schools.
Not that I'm blaming the movie for omitting some details. Some things from the book would not have translated easily to the screen, and it would have been very difficult to stick everything in. Had Columbus done so and allowed the film to be as long as necessary (eight hours, maybe?), like a BBC miniseries, the film might have been a masterpiece, but few kids would ever have had the patience or attention span to sit through it.
The problem is that the amusing details are much of what make Harry Potter such a special story. A whole universe is created in Rowling's series, in which a magical society exists within our own ordinary "muggle" world and is kept secret by a bureaucracy with its own rules, history and politics. The way magic is treated in her books, not as something medieval but as very similar to the way our own contemporary world works, is a large part of their charm. Take away these details, and you're left with a fairly conventional tale of a young wizard fighting an evil sorcerer.
Although the audience I was with broke into applause as soon as the movie ended (something I've never seen happen before, though I don't go to the theater that often), some people have complained about the movie dragging at certain points. I didn't have that problem, but, as I said, I wasn't really trying to get involved in the movie's story. After thinking about it, it does seem like parts of the movie fail to convey a sense of urgency. Why should this be? I never felt that way when reading the books, and this is without a doubt the very same story.
The answer, I think, is that the books portray much of Harry's anxiety in trying to succeed in school (for if he's kicked out, he'll go straight back to his horrible uncle) and fit in with the kids there. The movie doesn't tap into these anxieties enough, so why should we care whether he wins the Quidditch match (other than that he survives in one piece) and gets through the school year? The only real suspense in the movie after he arrives at Hogwarts comes from the story of Lord Voldemort returning, which in the book is almost secondary. Harry's adventures getting along in the school are fun and interesting, but as they are presented to us in the film, there isn't enough tying them all together.
What we have here is a serviceable dramatization of a wonderful children's series, but it doesn't entirely succeed in standing on its own. Perhaps it should have diverged from the book just a little, to compensate for the difficulties in translating some of the book's delights to the screen. In its current form, it's almost like a preview of the book. Its lack of fullness, and its dependence on the book, might actually increase the popularity and endurance of Rowling's series by making those who see the film yearn for more, which they can get from the real thing.
If there's anything this movie proves, it is the difficulty in
separating the series from the demands of fans. This is clear just from
hearing some of the comments. "Why didn't they identify the names on
the Marauder's Map?" "Why wasn't the second Quidditch game shown?" "Why
wasn't there more of Crookshanks the Cat?" By focusing on what the film
didn't have, fans fail to look at the film on its own terms. I think
this is by far the best Harry Potter movie yet.
The only way to satisfy fans would be to include everything from the book, which would require a miniseries. Since that isn't what these films are, the story has to be abridged. The first two films tried to fit everything they could within a reasonable slot of time. The result was a set of films that felt cluttered yet incomplete. Had they continued with this strategy for this movie, based on a much longer book, it would surely have been over three hours long.
The virtue of the latest film is that it makes a real attempt to adapt the story, not just marching in lockstep with the book's events. The screenplay is sparing, leaving out or simplifying loads of details not directly relevant to the plot. But it captures much of the book's delight and humor. The first two films fell short in this regard, because they lacked the guts to tinker with the details, even though that was the key to condensing the story while staying true to its spirit.
The movie is still faithful to the book, of course. Many of the scenes are exactly as I had imagined them. When it deviates, it does so based on an understanding of the story and characters. This is evident in the way they show, for example, the Knight Bus; Hermione's overstuffed schedule; and the introduction of the Marauder's Map, a scene that captures the twins' mischievous personalities. The changes are clever and funny, and they help compensate for the movie's loss in other areas.
Certainly this has something to do with the new director. Columbus's approach was to stick to the books as literally as possible, often draining them of their subtlety. For instance, where the books only hint that Dumbledore can see through the invisibility cloak, the earlier movies make it unmistakable. The new director never condescends to the audience in that way. This is a children's movie, but it is also a fantasy-thriller that we can take seriously, because not everything is spelled out for us. We're given a chance to think.
But part of what makes the movie work is the book itself. The story is gripping from start to finish, because the threat looming over the school is established early on. Harry's personal life is sharply intertwined with the plot. We feel for him as we watch his disastrous (but hilarious) attempts to escape his uncle and aunt, and his humiliating reaction to the dementors. The story avoids common devices such as the talking killer or deus ex machina, which the other books have in abundance. The ending is nicely bittersweet and ambiguous. The plot is so complicated, however, that the book spends several chapters explaining it all. The movie wisely includes only very little of this, allowing the plot twists to become understood as the story progresses. I was surprised to see certain events that were in the movie but not the book lend support to an important theory some fans have had about what is to be revealed at the end of the series. Of course, it is well-hidden and won't give anything away for those who aren't looking for the clues.
I was so satisfied with the film that it almost seems trivial to mention the flaws, but there are some. The portrayal of Fudge's assistant as the standard hunchbacked dimwit is out of place here, as it would be in anything other than a cartoon or spoof. The most serious misstep, though, is the casting of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. Gambon's face seems frozen in a perpetual nonexpression, and his voice lacks resonance. He compares poorly to the late Richard Harris, whose line readings had gravity, and who played the character with a twinkle in his eyes. It is a pure mystery to me why this actor was chosen as a replacement, especially considering the fine performances from other members of the cast. Even the children are in top form here.
Those complaints aside, this is the movie I was hoping they would make when the series began. If it doesn't live up to the book, so what? What's important is that it lives up to its potential as a movie. Fans who want a carbon-copy of the book are looking in the wrong place, because they're never going to get it here. This is probably the best example of a Harry Potter movie that we're ever likely to see.
I have enjoyed most of the computer-animated films made so far, ranging
from Pixar films like "Toy Story" and "The Incredibles" to DreamWorks
films like "Shrek." But "Finding Nemo" is the one that remains
unparalleled, not because of its comedy or creativity, both of which
are equaled in the "Toy Story" movies and in "Monsters Inc.," but
because it truly, more than any of the previous computer-animated
features, reinvents the genre of the children's animated film.
Humor in traditional animation is usually based on broad slapstick and physical exaggeration. There are occasional nods to this brand of humor in "Finding Nemo," as when a flock of seagulls ram into a boat and we see their beaks crowing on the other side of the sail. But such sequences only call attention to how far this movie generally departs from old cartoon conventions. Instead, the movie invests its world of sentient animals with a surprisingly scientific texture. All of the animals are based on real species. The fish tank is constructed out of real devices. There is a strong sense of locale, as Marlin (Albert Brooks) travels across the Pacific to Australia, where even the animals speak with an Australian accent. In a scene that I'm sure Gary Larson of "Far Side" fame loved, a pelican discusses with a group of fish the intricate details of dentistry. The fact that the animals talk and understand what's going on is treated as though it were a natural feature of the world. The realism is so striking that by the end of the film, you'll almost believe it possible for fish to plot an escape from a tank.
Far from making the film pedantic, this approach results in an intelligent but still entertaining picture. Most of the humor is based on parodies of human behavior: repentant sharks start a club that's like Alcoholics Anonymous, a school of fish act like obnoxious DJs while forming themselves into spectacular patterns, and a four-year-old girl behaves like most kids that age, oblivious and destructive. The manner in which Marlin finds his way to his son is so inventive that we can forgive the film for the number of coincidences involved.
The story employs the same basic formula used in "Toy Story," in which two characters, one uptight and the other clueless, are thrown together as they're forced to journey through a world populated by creatures that are a lot more knowing than the humans realize. This movie, however, creates a unique character in Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a fish with short-term memory loss. To give a cartoon character a real human disorder is risky, to say the least, and I'm glad the filmmakers didn't lose the nerve to include this ingenious device, which not only generates some of the film's biggest laughs, but reinforces the character interaction that is so central to the story. This is in fact the only Pixar film to feature true character development. In the course of his voyage, Marlin learns to be more adventurous, getting parenting tips from a surfer-dude turtle voiced by the film's director Andrew Stanton, while his son Nemo learns to be self-reliant.
Of course, none of the sharks, jellyfish, whales, gulls, pelicans, lobsters, and humans that Marlin encounters along the way really mean any harm. They're just doing what they do. As Nigel the Pelican tells Nemo at one point, "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat." That's perhaps the film's most interesting insight, that there are no true villains, just creatures that act according to their nature, and a few that transcend it.
The real question that "The Naked Gun" poses is not why it's one of the
funniest spoofs ever made, but why virtually no subsequent movie in
this genre has been any good at all. I used to adore this sort of movie
when I was a kid--"Airplane," "Top Secret," and the six-episode "Police
Squad" show, which became the basis for the "Naked Gun" series, were
among the funniest films I knew. When I first saw "The Naked Gun" in
the theater when I was eleven, I was in uncontrollable laughter for the
first few minutes. That was my standard of great humor at the time.
But the following decades gave us a variety of similar spoof films, some of which involved one or more of the Zucker-Abrams-Nielsen team, and none of these films were even remotely in the league of their predecessors. These included "Hot Shots," "Loaded Weapon 1," "Jane Austen's Mafia," "Spy Hard," "Wrongfully Accused," and "Scary Movie." These films would typically feature some funny stuff, but you'd walk away indifferently, wondering what the overall point was. Seeing a ponytailed Leslie Nielsen imitating John Travolta's dance sequence in "Pulp Fiction" is funny for a second, but there's nothing enduring about such humor. An entire movie filled with such scenes doesn't amount to much. What's the big deal about such jokes, anyway? There's nothing intrinsically funny about making references to other films, even if you do it in a silly way. At what point did the genre go wrong and become such a dreary, uninspired affair? Is it that I've just outgrown this sort of humor?
I have another theory. When I first watched "The Naked Gun" at age eleven, I had not seen many of the movies it was spoofing, such as the early James Bond pictures. I was vaguely familiar with some of the clichés it was making fun of, but many of the political and sexual jokes went right over my head. And the celebrity cameos meant nothing to me. So what was it about the film that appealed to me so much, that made me laugh till my sides hurt?
The answer is simple: it was the film's utter silliness. Think of the scene at the beginning when we discover that Ayatollah Khomeini secretly sports a mohawk underneath his turban. Or the opening credits where the police car goes on the sidewalk, inside buildings, on a roller coaster, and so on. None of this makes any sense, of course; it's just an exercise in pure absurdity. I loved "The Naked Gun" for pretty much the same reason I loved the Three Stooges or Bugs Bunny cartoons. Even as an adult, I appreciate unsubtle cartoon humor when it is handled effectively. As long as it makes me laugh, who cares that it's not "sophisticated"? For example, the scene where Lt. Drebin breaks into a building and tries to be as quiet as possible, but then inadvertently sets off a player piano, is masterfully filmed.
Thus, "The Naked Gun" is farce as much as it is satire. As I grew older, I would gain a greater appreciation for the one-liners, like "You take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan." To be sure, many of these jokes are dumb. They're supposed to be. That's the whole point. What I understood even at age eleven was that the movie was essentially playing games with the audience. When Lt. Drebin looks in a drawer and says "bingo," I knew immediately that the drawer would reveal a bingo board. I was used to this sort of humor, because I'd seen it in the earlier Zucker-Abrams films, where the jokes had a definite logic to them, and trying to predict them in advance was part of the fun. They have far more to do with audience anticipation than with trying to make us laugh at bad puns.
The modern spoof films have forgotten all this. They've forgotten that making a good spoof requires a measure of invention, even if much of the plot is ripped off from elsewhere. Car chases may not be original, but "The Naked Gun" is, as far as I know, the first film in which the chase is conducted by a student driver. This type of cleverness is largely absent from the modern spoofs, which assume that they have no reason to be creative when their ideas are based broadly on other films. They've forgotten that the most effective way to make fun of a cliché is by coming up with an ingenious twist. Even the characters in films like these matter, and Lt. Drebin is crafted in the grand tradition of other inept lawmen like Inspector Clousseau. This is what gives the film its own personal stamp that makes it more than an exercise in movie references.
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