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I have yet to read one of the Harry Potter' books and maybe it's high time
I did because, based upon the movies made from them, I have a hard time
seeing exactly why they're so popular.
To be sure, the first movie (which, like the second, I saw as a chaperone for my young nieces) has a certain low-key charm, as the notion (and presentation) of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry contains enough wow-ee inventiveness to be sufficiently engaging. And, of course, the tried and true theme of the ugly-duckling transformed into a prince (or, closer still, the poor waif plucked from obscurity and ill-treatment to be lead into a life of wonder and personal distinction) that Harry's story represents is a surefire route to the capture of any child's imagination. It is accomplished, too, with sly Dickensian wit that can prove similarly entertaining to adults. As a stand-alone movie (and book, I guess), I can certainly see the appeal of Harry Potter.'
But as a SERIES?? It seems to endlessly repeat itself and its dramatic beats in each succeeding storyline. So, in this third movie we get yet again - an opening glimpse into Harry's home life with the cruel and spiteful Dursleys (whose overstated and unwarranted evil grew tiresome even before their exit from the *first* film); his re-acquaintance with friends Ron and Hermione on the train to Hogwarts; the preparations for the upcoming academic year; the maddeningly brief and perfunctory introduction to each of the whimsical wizardry classes for that year all populated with masterful British actors who get only the most token of screen time; Harry's ongoing (and boring) rivalry with the dreaded Malfoy (whose one-dimensionality bespeaks an artistic laziness); and the entire movie threaded through with an underlying evil and threat (either to Harry, the school in general, or both) which finally erupts into the inevitable rousing (or, would-be rousing) showdown at the end. Frankly, this last always stretches my credulity, as it becomes increasingly clear with each tale that not only is Hogwarts possibly the most dangerous place in the world for Harry to be, but that it is populated by a staff of `expert' wizards who are singularly ineffectual in combating any kind of outside threat. One gets the perverse sense that the school should actually be *run* by Harry and Hermione, rather than developing them from diamond-in-the-rough wunderkinds who only gradually come to expertise in their fledgling magical powers.
Now, don't get me wrong: as a kid, I too was taken with books written in series (starring the likes of Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, and the Great Brain) and demanded nothing more from them than that they provide the same types of stories and interactions that I loved so well the first time round. But J.K. Rowling's inflation of her books to near `War and Peace' lengths, as well as her insistence that each one represents a further step in the development of a larger artistic master plan strikes me as so much pretentious piffle. I don't begrudge kids their fun and ANYTHING that promotes reading on such a wide scale is to be cherished and encouraged. But let's call a spade a spade.
And, while we're at it, let's call Rowling a sell-out. If there's ANY work of literary fiction that could stand on its own, without a movie needed to popularize it among the masses, it's Harry Potter' (probably Lord of the Rings' too, but we won't go into that). Frankly, I think the beloved authoress let slip a grand opportunity to stick her tongue out (and finger up) to Hollywood by refusing to allow her books to be adapted into movies. She certainly doesn't need the money, the books don't need the exposure, and it would have provided her young readers a glimpse into true artistic integrity at work: an example that some things *don't* work best when the most money and advertising is thrown at them . . . that sometimes, the inner recesses of your imagination is the best place for beloved characters to reside.
And of course, had she done so, we as moviegoers wouldn't be subjected to productions so overly reverent to their source that the makers live in terror of leaving even the tiniest of details out. Why o why is it important for Potter fans who know everything that's going to happen anyway to be able to see Hollywood's representations of their private fantasies? Why o why is it important for us non-Hogwarts initiates to be force-fed every scene and character from the book in a compressed running time that gives none of it any room to breathe or create any resonance? It's the absolute worst of all worlds, and everybody loses. (Yes, even fans of the books who enjoy the movies because, whether they realize it or not, their own mental pictures of the characters and situations, formed when reading, are being reprogrammed and reconstituted by Hollywood. It's doubtful whether, having seen the movies, even the most die-hard reader can ever picture Harry as anyone other than Daniel Radcliff, or Professor Snape as Alan Rickman, etc.. . . Which maybe wouldn't even be an important point to bring up, except for the fact that the books had clearly done such an EXCELLENT job at capturing young imaginations, all on their ownsome. Now, even that accomplishment becomes suspect.)
But oops, I realize I haven't yet said anything about the newest movie, re-conceived by director Alfonso Cuaron, which has received buckets and buckets full of praise (and, truth be told, was the only reason I went at all). Well, yes, he is a better director than Chris Columbus, and the photography in certain scenes is much more dramatic than anything in the other two, but we're getting into some pretty minute distinctions. It's a Harry Potter' film, and so subject to all the same annoyances and inconsistencies mentioned above. See it if you must - but me, I'm heading for the library . . .
I was only a middling fan of the original Analyze This, so my expectations
for this second installment were practically nil. However, the first fifteen
minutes or so of this movie just blew me away I was rolling on the floor
laughing, and contemplating with glee all the various subplots that had been
set in motion. This was, I felt, going to be a great comedy surpassing its
predecessor by far.
And oh, how it could have! The original pretty much got by on the one-joke premise of a gangster seeing a shrink (already passé at the time, incidentally not only because [as so many have pointed out] HBO's The Sopranos had just recently introduced that same theme, but also because another *DE NIRO* movie had even mined this territory before; anyone remember the Bill Murray character from Mad Dog and Glory?). Crystal and DeNiro worked well together, there were no major gaffes, and the whole thing had a certain low-key charm but it was no big whoop.
By comparison, the opening of Analyze That promises a movie of so many different clever plot strands that the only seeming danger is that none of them will be developed completely. There's the fact that the DeNiro character has to pretend to be crazy in order to get out of prison (the ways DeNiro finds to do this are all admittedly over the top, but hilarious nonetheless); there's the fact that he's released into Crystal's custody and is forced to stay at the latter's house as a LIVE-IN (promising culture clashes abound); there's the corresponding fact that the cops, the Feds and even other gangsters have Crystal's house staked out and under scrutiny for just this very reason; then there's DeNiro's various ill-fated attempts to get jobs in the respectable 9-to-5 world that, as a gangster, he's been insulated from his entire life (seeing him as a pushy used-car salesman is a hoot: `Look at this trunk space, it's big enough to fit *two* bodies in there!'); then, when DeNiro's Paul Vitti character gets brought on as a `technical advisor' to a very Sopranos-like mob TV show, one begins to feel that this thing has inspiration enough for three or four different movies.
However, none of those movies made it to screen. For, as fast as any of the above-listed concepts are introduced, they are either dropped or relegated to the back-burner. What the film becomes instead, inexplicably and intolerably, is a third-rate hack job mob revenge film, with Vitti working to put the pieces together of who was trying to kill him in prison, and to hunt down and bring to justice the bad guys. This is all done without a trace of wit or intensity and, even if it was, what's it doing hogging center stage in a supposed *comedy*? For, one thing this movie clearly is not (after those hysterical first 15 minutes) is a comedy. It's not just that things are not funny, it's that the filmmakers literally don't seem to be trying for jokes; they seem to want to involve us completely with the action and intrigue elements of the story. Since these are not in any way interesting, novel or inventive (and would not be even if the movie had been done as a drama), there's simply nothing to hold your interest. Nothing.
Once the film reveals its hand, not even DeNiro and Crystal can save it (as they did the first one). Their relationship in this one is tangential at best: DeNiro is mostly on his own, pursuing his own agenda, while Crystal hangs back out of the way, alternately fuming or obsessing (a sub-strand about his father's recent death and his backlog of grief and resentment toward the old man, which could have provided yet another rich vein of material, is handled so shallowly and incompetently as to make Crystal's character particularly annoying and ineffectual).
It's a shame. This movie could truly have been a comic masterpiece. And, if not that (realizing that masterpieces are tough to pull off even with the best ideas in the world), then at least solidly decent. The fact that it falls so far off the charts after such a promising beginning is a big disappointment indeed. My recommendation: if this is ever on television, watch up until the first commercial break, then turn sharply away. And if you're in a rental mood and have got a DeNiro-Crystal jones going on, rent the first one. Even if you've already seen it, and can recite all the lines by heart it will still be a fresher and more invigorating experience than watching this.
I have never seen nor read the plays so I was prepared to say at the
that I can make no judgment upon them. But, since so many reviews on this
site have emphasized how well - even perfectly - this six-hour miniseries
caught their tone and spirit, I have to openly wonder how great they were
Basically, I agree with those who say that the AIDS-related theme breathes a nobility and importance into 'Angels' that it otherwise would not have, making it somehow *seem* profound and epic. Instead, I found it to be kind of a mess, peopled at the center with unlikable and inexplicable characters: by the third hour, I was fast-forwarding past any scene that had either Louis, Harper or Joe Pitt in it. These are just poorly written and developed characters, whose neediness and co-dependence make them strident and one-note, rather than recognizably human. The storyline with Roy Cohn was a little bit more interesting, and I was impressed with Pacino's performance, but even that devolved quickly into cliché: the powerful man brought low by suffering, with no new spin to offer. (And, frankly, his story's connection to the rest of the piece was dubious at best.) Two of my all-time favorite actresses - Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson - were stranded in unplayable parts (not just one, but three for both of them - thus compounding the damage) and so didn't even register.
Just to elaborate on my dislike of Harper, Joe and Louis: I felt their humanity was compromised because they were conceived and drawn so poorly, not least in the inconsistencies they displayed. Of course, human beings can be extremely inconsistent, but with these characters it felt more like bad writing. Harper spends most of the first part forcing her husband to admit he is gay, and then spends the rest of the piece angry at him for telling her so. Joe's conservative, Republican values are established early on, and then never explained or defended, even amidst Louis's constant challenges. Nor, frankly, is Joe's attraction to Louis: they seem mismatched from the start, making their scenes together just painful to watch (and no, not because of the erotic homosexual content). Louis himself is simply whatever the playwright wants him to be at any particular moment: neurotic and guilt-ridden in the extreme (as well as glum and charmless) around Prior, self-righteous and loghorreic around Belize, mincing and seductive around Joe. Even taking into account the notion that in life we act differently around different people, his personality jumps are simply too extreme, making him seem like three characters instead of one (none of them likable or compelling). [Prior even notes at the beginning how Louis is unable to distinguish very well who is and isn't gay, and yet Louis spots Joe a mile off when no one else picks up on it. Inconsistency!]
And then there's the fantasy sequences. I'll readily admit that these kinds of things tend to work better on the stage, and so perhaps may have been powerful and meaningful there. But I doubt it. They're so poorly written: awkwardly constructed - with flowery and rambling dialogue - and inserted clumsily into the proceedings. Rather than helping to deepen or explain the characters, these sequences actually serve to make them seem even *less* human, and more like . . . oh I don't know, special effects or something. The movie version, at least, would have benefited from their excision, I believe.
Finally, that damn angel. I guess that part couldn't have been excised, since it forms the touchstone image of the entire piece. I didn't get it. Let me say upfront that I was not offended at all by the notion of a highly sexual angel; I actually thought that part was cool (if heavenly creatures exist, why *wouldn't* they be imbued with that power and tendency that, after all, represents the highest and most extreme form of earthly bliss?). But that such sexuality was tied not to a force of compassion or empathy, but rather one of wrath and petulance seemed, once again, inconsistent and inexplicable (and made the resultant sex seem more like rape than any kind of commingling with the spiritual world). I will say that this aspect of the piece finally does cohere somewhat in the last half-hour, with the heavenly tribunal (or whatever it was), and that scene was handled with a certain degree of grace and power. But it's a long and confusing slog getting there, and by that point I pretty much didn't care anymore.
The ultimate theme of the piece is seemingly the Nietzshean one that God is either dead or has abandoned us, yet we assert our humanity by going on anyway. Though I don't tend to agree with that assertion, it's a valid theological and artistic point of view, and can serve as the basis for a compelling story. To me, however, 'Angels in America' is not such a story, because it is too sprawling and unfocused to make this point cogently, and bogs itself down in too many subplots, with too many unsympathetic characters. Clearly, many people disagree, and were profoundly moved by the piece. Which is fine: if it is able to imbue you with hopefulness and a compassion for the human race, then it has served a laudable and important goal. I wish it could have done so for me - too few works exist that do, or even try to - but, unfortunately, I found it unsatisfying on just about every level.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Dr. Strangelove" and "2001:A Space Odyssey" are in my Top 5 movies of all
time, so in my book Stanley Kubrick forever has an asterisk next to his
denoting "genius" (his "Lolita" was none too shabby, either). But right
here, with this movie, is where ol' Stan began - in my mind - to vanish
his own hermetically sealed vault of cinematic pretension and designer,
knee-jerk nihilism. The movies he made for the remainder of his life are
cold, opaque works that don't engage on any level, save for an
of the technical artistry they demonstrate: meticulously constructed
sarcophagi, where lie entombed the spirit of a once-puckish, daring, and
wonderfully *alive* filmmaker.
At least with `Clockwork' Stan still retained the power to provoke (he lost even that right after this release) - but he goes about it all wrong, and to extremely dubious ends. I should say upfront that I read the book (by Anthony Burgess) first, and it had a profound effect on me. (SPOILERS AHEAD) The first part - which chronicled Alex and the violent, pillaging activities of he and his `droogs' - filled me with such revulsion and hatred, that I took sadistic glee in seeing the `reformed' post-Ludovico Alex get his nasty comeuppance in the second half of the book. However, when the story took its final twist at the end by giving Alex his `freedom' back, I was furious. Here's a guy who (the narrative makes clear) has learned no lessons or morals from his predicament - who feels no remorse, and will doubtless return to a life of `ultraviolence' as soon as he gets the chance; I was rooting for him to remain a robotic pawn of the state. The book's fundamental challenge lies just in this: convincing (or at least presenting powerfully to) the reader that even brutes and reprobates such as Alex deserve the dignity of free will, and that there can be no justification for revoking that. (The challenge is, indeed, open-ended - inasmuch as I'm not entirely convinced; after all, isn't prison a revocation of someone's `free will', too? Isn't *any* form of punishment? But at least the book's presentation makes it an idea worth wrestling with.)
Kubrick's mistake, as I see it, is in making Alex such a charming and charismatic figure. In the book he's a single-minded brute; he still is in the movie, but by filtering his thoughts through the purring, dulcet tones of Malcom McDowell, and filming even his most violent and heinous acts with pop-art style brio, Kubrick leaves little doubt about his affection for this monster. Further, he does so within the context of making EVERY OTHER SINGLE CHARACTER in the movie such a caricatured and annoying drone (so much so, in fact, that it is actually *they* who become the monsters - quite a flip).
As such, Kubrick upsets the entire balance of the piece (at least as Burgess envisioned it). We get no sense of Alex's crimes against humanity - because, in fact, there's no `humanity' here: only the kind of ciphers and waxwork grotesqueries that would become Kubrick's definition of `character' for the remainder of his career. Perhaps that's his point, after all (no doubt it is): that, in fact, under a bogus sense of decorum, society consists of nothing but droning, annoying hypocrites, and there's no use in spilling a tear for any single one of them. But when you are watching a woman being violently raped and you are made to feel nothing for her - not to mention her brutalized husband (who gets absolutely savaged by the director later in the film) - then something rather sick and insidious is going on.
Burgess' book was written as a warning against the dangers of social engineering, no matter how well-intentioned. Kubrick's movie plays more as a blatant indictment of humanity as a whole. Its underlying, none-too-subtle message is that in a society so plastic and corroded only violently murderous free spirits like Alex are truly worth anything: he may not be nice, but at least he's not dead inside like every other single person on the planet.
Personally, I think the only humanity Kubrick ends up indicting by such an approach is his own. But then that's just me, isn't it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILERS WITHIN. Don't read unless you've seen the movie.
At this point, almost a decade after its release, Schindler's List is what it is: it has become a cultural touchstone, and its reputation rightfully precedes it. It certainly has an aura and a cachet that goes beyond any single endeavor to praise or criticize it; therefore, I plan to do neither, but merely to share some of the thoughts I had while watching it. Some will be positive, others more negative - but none of it is meant to (or will be able to) diminish what Spielberg has achieved with this movie.
First off, I must say that all the scenes with Schindler himself I found riveting: Liam Neeson - not an actor I usually warm up to very well - was absolutely mesmerizing: he gave the character an authority and a charisma that was totally captivating, while still preserving the basic enigmatic nature of the man. (He reminded me again and again of a young Richard Burton when he was at the top of his game.) The tug-of-war of conscience in the scenes between him and Stern (Ben Kingsley, underplaying nicely) were, though a bit schematic and obvious, nonetheless powerful - no doubt because of the enormity of the topic at hand. Holocaust movies, of course, can very easily get a free pass because of that very enormity, and Schindler's List is no exception: scenes that might otherwise have seemed simplistic or overplayed are imbued with power because of the context in which they occur.
One scene that stuck out for me, though - and not necessarily in a good way - was the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. It is of course a tour-de-force of filmmaking and technical prowess (a foreshadowing, say, of the Normandy Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan), but its reason for being I found suspect. Ostensibly - on the level of the story, anyway - it was there to bring Schindler face to face with the horror and waste of the Nazi policy toward the Jews, and so to suggest a reason why he converted from shameless profiteer and exploiter to Jewish savior.
Except, as such a scene, it doesn't quite wash. Schindler indeed is displayed as witnessing the liquidation, but from his vantage point - a hill overlooking the ghetto - he would in no way have been able to see the scene in the detail, and in all the different locations, that the movie makes us privy to. No, this scene is designed not to be played before Schindler, but to be played before us, the moviegoers.
So why does that bother me? Well, it seems to me a break in form. A movie that had been, up until that time, focusing narrowly on one man, suddenly opens up to wanting to display the panoply of characters and lives that were directly affected by the Holocaust. Problem is, by adopting such a large-scale approach, no one individual (or family) is able to claim our full attention, and so Spielberg becomes guilty in his own way of `ghetto'-izing the Jews - that is, grouping them together facelessly as victims, rather than showcasing any of their dignity or humanity as individuals.
My bias, I suppose, in films dealing with the Holocaust, is that the enormity of it is just lost on most of us. It's impossible - unless we lived and survived through it - to do justice to both its scale and its horror. Therefore, a film-maker shouldn't try. Not that Holocaust-themed films shouldn't be made; it's just that, to be honest and effective (not necessarily the same thing - particularly when the artist is Spielberg) they should focus themselves on a small *microcosm* of it - a family, a person, a survivor - and attempt to *SUGGEST* the full horrors, through the particulars of that person's story. Actually trying to show those horrors outright (to put us, as it were, `inside' the Holocaust) is frankly impossible, and I think Spielberg's ambitions to do so, through this liquidation scene and other similar ones in the movie - are, though perhaps high-minded, ultimately wrong-headed.
But, as I say, when he's focused narrowly on Schindler himself, the film works wonderfully - and is far more able, in my opinion, to get across the horror and waste of the Holocaust than when it's concentrating on its big (but impersonal) `herd up the Jews' scenes. The making up of the list itself is extremely powerful in this regard: `More names! More names!' Schindler demands, and his mania in doing so tells us all we need to know about the absolute desperation of the times (particularly as it comes from a formerly amoral man only interested in himself).
And as such, I must take exception to all those (and there are many) who find the last scene - Schindler's breakdown - to be completely maudlin and ill-advised, a detriment to an otherwise marvelous motion picture. To me, it was the best scene in the movie. For, in the character's hysterical insistence that he `could have done more' - coming on the heels of all the people we saw that he *DID* save - it serves to remind the audience - in absolutely unambiguous terms - that what Oskar Schindler did, though momentous, wasn't'even a drop in the bucket compared to the number of lives taken and/or disrupted by the Holocaust. That this man - driven to bankruptcy and ruin by his (eventual) unceasing efforts to save the Jews - could claim that he `didn't do enough,' only shows how much there was to do, and how much of it was left undone. That, to me, is the kind of moment that brings home the enormity of the Holocaust - not the use of hundreds of extras to be herded onto trains and into showers. We can tell ourselves (and be right) that those scenes are fake (staged for the movie). The point made through Schindler's breakdown at the end is the deepest kind of truth - the kind that never should be forgotten or cast aside.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(This review concerns itself solely with a specific discussion of the latter
half of the movie, so if you have not already seen it, you probably won't
want to read this either.)
This is my second write-up for The Graduate it's kind of hard for me to shut up about this movie; it's one of my all-time favorites, and I find more and more to like every time I watch it.
What I want to talk about specifically, though, is the second half of the movie that is, everything past the point where Elaine Robinson finds out Benjamin and her mother have been having an affair. The film builds to a kind of climactic moment with that revelation, almost a mini-ending (complete with a long shot and a fade to black). Indeed, for many people, the film actually *does* end right about there: it has long been a foregone conclusion in critical circles that the film never completely finds its way back on track from this point on. That is, once the focus shifts from the relationship of Ben and Mrs. Robinson to that of Ben's pursuit of Elaine, The Graduate simply runs out of gas.
It's not my intention to argue too strenuously against this consensus: I don't believe there can be any doubt that the first half of the movie is much sharper, funnier, more intense, and just all-around more involving than the second half. (Though I do believe that by the first part being *so* strong, and involving us so well, it does tend to make the weaknesses of the second part less jarring than they should be: we already know and care about these characters Benjamin, anyway and want to follow them anywhere, no matter how sketchy and unfocused their stories begin to seem.)
No, the point I want to make here is that, though The Graduate becomes a different *kind* of film in the second half (a romance, versus the sex farce/comedy of manners that was the first half), it never ceases being jaundice-eyed and satirical about its characters. I say this because it is an easy enough assumption to make that the film makers expect us to take Benjamin's love for and quest of Elaine at face value: to believe that they were `meant for' each other, and that their ultimate triumph is a resolution to be sincerely wished for.
In reality, it is nothing of the sort. Ben and Elaine barely know each other at least not in any meaningful way when he begins his intense courtship of her (`stalking' might be the better term). There's something undeniably creepy and unsettling about Benjamin's fixation on Elaine: it's as if he's on a quest to woo and win her, but he's doing it primarily for the sake of being on a quest (and perhaps as a way of jump-starting himself out of the rut that his relationship with Mrs. Robinson has become). There's nothing specific about Elaine that is spelled out for the audience as to why she might appeal to Ben so much save for the simple fact that she's NOT Mrs. Robinson. This lack has often been attributed to poor screenwriting and a flawed conception and, while that's an understandable conclusion to draw given the second half's other failings, I don't believe this is actually the case. Whatever you may think of it as a thematic strand, I believe this sense of blankness in the relationship between Ben and Elaine was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers - ie. they knew what they were doing, and what point they were trying to make.
And that point relates directly to the fallacy of romantic love. We see many scenes of Ben viewing Elaine longingly from afar (to the omnipresent strains of Simon and Garfunkel), the camera's soft-focus making it all seem like something out of a fable, or (more likely) a Harlequin romance. But, as an audience, we are so used to (just as much today as back in 1967) accepting these kinds of shots and poses as a shorthand for deep love, and a feeling that the two characters in question were `meant' to be together, that we are easily fooled into thinking that that is just what the film makers have in mind for these two. In reality, it's an insightful (visual) comment upon just how such `shorthand' in not only film, but any of the arts (literature, song, painting, etc.) screws up young people such as Ben and Elaine, giving them the illusion of love and passion being there when they aren't.
Which explains the film's ending that is, its very last shot. It should be joyous and celebratory, as Ben has succeeded in his goal snatching his beloved away from the altar and claiming her for himself (and she going along willingly, even giddily). But after the initial enthusiasm wears off, the smiles on the two of them dissipate and our final image of them is one of sheer dejection and confusion. And it must be so, because they have been duped by years of pop culture hogwash into believing that this is what true love is; the realization hits them hard that they don't have the slightest idea what they're doing together. And so Ben's dilemma of what to do with his `future' continues: he has wound up in exactly the same place he was at the beginning of the movie only now with an equally confused human being as an appendage.
As I say, all this may not make you *like* the second part of the movie any better than you do (I can appreciate it, but on a different, somewhat lesser, level than the first part). But I think it's at least important to be clear what the film makers were after, and to judge it according to how well it hits *that* mark, rather than the one we may have been *fooled* into thinking they were going for.
It would be difficult to find someone who is more in awe of Jim Carrey's
talents than I am. If you want to criticize by saying he mugs and overacts,
go ahead you're right! but he has elevated mugging to such an art form,
and within that over-the-top area he applies such a precision and a
finely-honed control that he makes it a thing of beauty. Anyone is free not
to like him or his movies (and I understand you), but you must MUST!
acknowledge his prodigious talent. (A good analogy might run thus: I don't
particularly care for musicals, or for Gene Kelley in general, yet it simply
wouldn't do to deny what an incredible and inventive performer he
As such, I've enjoyed all of Carrey's comedies on some level; even when the story or premise is lame, he is never less than riveting and hilarious to watch. So it surprised me somewhat when, very early in Bruce Almighty, I caught myself thinking to myself two distinct thoughts: 1) `Someone else should be playing this role' and 2) `Jim seems really *desperate* up there.'
To tackle the second thing first: Carrey desperate. `How can you tell?' a Jim detractor might scoff. `After all, he always runs roughshod over everything in sight, and works desperately to be the life of the party.' True, but up until now he has always tended to play (in his comedies, anyhow) characters that were so over the top, and in movies that were pitched at such a heightened level anyway , that his wildness was not only at home in the material, but completely appropriate. In Bruce, he finally takes on what is essentially an `ordinary guy.' And you know what? Jim just can't do ordinary.
He wants to flail, he wants to scream, he wants to bounce off the walls! And as Ace Ventura, or the Mask, or even his so-slimy-he's-sublime lawyer in Liar Liar, we want him to as well. But in this movie, his rubber-faced antics were not endemic to the character, but rather seemed grafted on, in order to give the audience their `silly Jim Carrey' fix. Hence, the seeming desperation: every opportunity was taken to insert familiar schtick, whether appropriate or not (and it usually wasn't), causing it to look for the first time like the performer was actually doing his best *impersonation* of Jim Carrey, rather than having it all flow naturally from the situations and the character.
And herein we come up against the (current) limitations of Jim Carrey as a performer. He does not play well with others. In no movie I have ever seen of his does he do an even adequate job of being an ensemble player. The other actors exist for him simply as props, not as people to play off of or draw inspiration from (yes, even in his so-called `dramatic' films which is why none of them were any good, save for The Truman Show, which had masterful directing and an indestructible premise going for it). That being the case, he cannot simply settle back into a character and take part in the ebb and flow of a scene he perpetually feels a need to `make something happen' and so strains, even against the grain, to be big, brassy and memorable. And as I've said this is no crime when applied to the type of human cartoons he has heretofore played. But when it's done in the service of someone who's supposed to come across (at least nominally) as a real person, it feels fraudulent in the worst kind of way.
I would have enjoyed this movie more (for, it does have a good premise and some clever bits) had the lead character been played by someone like Ben Stiller or Matthew Perry (on the young side) or, say, Tim Allen or Bill Murray (on the older side) - someone who can balance humorous riffs against a capacity for both subtlety and self-deprecation. (Actually, it would have been most perfect for the 80s version of Tom Hanks, who was capable of infusing yuppie smarm into a character, yet mixing in just enough of an essential sweetness to keep him sympathetic. And, of course, hilarious. Will we ever see that Tom again?)
Morgan Freeman as God, though, is a hoot. Yeah, I could really get *BEHIND* a Heaven that had him in charge! In the scenes with him and Carrey, he just wipes the floor with ol' Jim; it's like he's giving an object lesson to the young whippersnapper in how you get laughs while remaining composed, and not relinquishing your essential humanity (or, in this case, divinity).
I don't know, man. If I were giving career advice to Jim Carrey, I'd tell him to either play to his strengths by sticking with the loony, larger-than-life roles or, if he really wants to stretch and be serious (even if it be `serious comedy' such as this), then he needs to settle down and learn how to truly interact with other people. Far be it from me to clip his wings I love him in the stratosphere! but if he's determined to expand his repertoire, then he needs to develop a new set of skills. Enough awkward hybrids like Bruce Almighty, and he'll be yesterday's news.
Can men and women ever be merely friends, without the temptation of sex
rearing its ugly head? This is the question that this movie so famously
posed - and so glibly answered - almost fifteen years ago. As it follows the
progression of Harry and Sally - a pair of charming, if neurotic,
Manhattanites - from enemies to confidants to lovers, it seems to smugly
relish the fact that it has proven its point: men and women can never just
"be friends" - sex is always the bond that unites them. But the film is so
manipulative, so dogged in its pursuit of this goal, that it never appears
an alternative position was ever considered. So, as philosophy, chalk When
Harry Met Sally up to around zilch.
Now, disregard the above paragraph. Because When Harry Met Sally makes up for its slights to credibility and lack of rigorous thought by being easily the funniest movie of its year (1989). This humor flows mainly from the beautifully crafted scenes and dialogue; indeed, each scene is a dialogue set piece (and could be transferred to the stage quite easily - surprising no one's ever done it, actually), which flows with the firm and confident rapidity of a 20th century Shaw or Oscar Wilde. Of course, this approach has its downside, too: mainly that the lead characters seem less and less like real people and more like tools for the brilliant lines and conceits of the screenwriter (Nora Ephron - never better; in fact, never even remotely close ever again). This may have something to do with the film's inability to seem completely real or true to human nature as it actually plays out - but with lines like these, who's complaining?
For, what is great about the movie is not its originality (it steals from all over, especially Woody Allen movies, and the few ideas it can truly call its own are, as I've said, not particularly bright or well-thought out), but its ability to hone in on stereotypes of character and situation and offer pithy and hilarious precis of the male-female condition through the witty banter and interaction of its characters. As such, the film is less like a conventional movie and more like a stand-up routine dealing with life and love in the Big City: it is to be judged not by its content, but by the dexterity of its put-ons and one-liners. (It is not surprising, for example, that several of its set-pieces and comic notions were revisited just a few years later, and in much the same manner, on "Seinfeld".) In that regard, it succeeds flawlessly.
Just think of all the conventions it gets in, and skewers: the one-track mind male (Harry); the "sensitive" and practical female, repulsed yet intrigued by said male (Sally); the emotionally unsettled mistress playing the field (Carrie Fisher, who keeps an index card file of "available" men); the live-ins who can't "commit" (Sally and her ex-boyfriend); women's concern with middle age and their biological clock ("I'm gonna be 40," weeps Sally. "When?" asks Harry. "Someday."); the male's tendency to skip out after making love; the horror and unpredictability of blind dates; and, in a scene which is almost passe to mention anymore, women's ability to fake orgasm. The way this film jumps from one familiar convention to another would be embarrassing if it weren't for the fact that each one is handled with such economy, humor and grace.
Billy Crystal acquits himself well as Harry - predictably, perhaps, as it's a part tailor made for a standup comedian. Still, seeing him in this after years of half-baked movies and fawning Oscar presentations, it's a revelation how glib and unlikable he can allow himself to be . . . and *still* be likable. Yo, Billy, if you're listening out there: try incorporating some of Harry's darker shadings and more egocentric traits into your future roles; it gives you a more complete palette to work from and keeps you from being too generic and schticky. And your charm and humor will always shine through anyway.
If Billy needs to edge a little bit closer back to Harry, though, Meg Ryan needs to get Sally completely out of her system. This role, deservedly, made her a star - but she has tried to go back to this particular well once too many times, and it's become way too familiar: you know, the adorable, bright-eyed bit - mentally disheveled, prissy around the edges with just a wisp of klutziness, all topped by that cute, mega-watt smile. It has become now the "Meg Ryan" character, but back when Sally came along it was still fresh, and it was tied to a particular personality. Ryan gives Sally a shy-cum-toughness as well as a moody, slightly cynical and self-deprecating wit that is just totally right. She and Crystal play off each other like two old pros, and they weave in and out of some charming and hilarious verbal music.
It's funny, but I just recently saw this movie on a Saturday afternoon television marathon of "Romantic Weepies" - and it struck me as an odd designation, because this movie is anything but a weeper. It takes a clear-eyed, almost cynical view of love and companionship, and creates around it a charming tapestry of bracing wit and crunching dialogue. So save the violins and the handkerchiefs for romantic comedies less sure on their feet - whose deficiency in wit must be made up for by a surfeit of melodrama and manipulation. This movie is manipulative too, of course, but its manipulation is almost beside the point. It's the laughs along the way we remember here, not the big kiss or the grand embrace. That Harry and Sally were "meant" for each other and that the film "proves" it is much less important than the fact that Sally does one hell of a great orgasm.
Waiter, I'll have what they're having . . .
The suburbs were the setting for three of Steven Spielberg's most popular
achievements - "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.: The
Extra-Terrestrial" and "Poltergeist" - and I don't think it's exactly
coincidence. As a storyteller, Spielberg drew strength and imagination from
his suburban setting, and he was a wry and fair chronicler of it. He knew
these people and their environs; he could perceive the inherent
but he also believed in the fundamental decency of most of its denizens,
also recognized what a powerful base of operations the suburban hearthside
could be (even one that was, as in "E.T." somewhat less than perfect). How
different from every other single movie maker who delves into suburbia.
"American Beauty" to "Edward Scissorhands" , from David Lynch's twisted
tales of paranoia to the gothic surrealism of "Donnie Darko", the suburbs
are continually a place of danger and trash - a place where the soul is
crushed and life is perpetually dark and soulless (underneath of course the
placid and reassuring surface). It's time, I think, to send a little letter
to Hollywood: "Enough with this stuff already!" Either find a new take on
the subject, or at least lighten up and let some joy into the proceedings.
The suburbs don't *all* suck, after all.
At first, this film looked like it might be going in that benevolent direction. It did a nice job painting a fairly normal suburban family and environment without pencilling in either too much plasticity (Mary McDonnell's mother veers in that direction, but her portrayal keeps pulling back from matriarchal harpy into a more rounded, human performance) or moodiness. But this idyll breaks down rather quickly, and we're once again into the Suburbs As Hell (teenage angst sub-genre). And you know what? Once you've been down that road a couple dozen times, there's really not too much more to say (or see).
So Richard Kelly, the writer and director, attempts to sustain our interest with a plot that, like "the Sixth Sense", infuses creepiness and notions of horror and/or insanity before resolving all with a "surprise" ending that - supposedly - sheds new light upon all that has gone before (and is meant the make the audience say, "Aw - coooooooool, man!"). As you can no doubt tell, I don't think much of the device, or of the movie, and here's why:
It makes no sense! String it all together, work it out backwards and forwards, and the film still has too many loose ends, too many things that just do not cohere. One could possibly make a plea for relativism, or ambiguity, but even allowing for that the film really doesn't hold together. For example, much is made of the firing of the English teacher played by Drew Barrymore; in the principal's office when it happens, she breaks down and bemoans anyone ever "reaching" the kids. But from what we've seen of her in class, she clearly maligns her students and acts like a supreme bitch, so why should we care. If she was onscreen for more than five minutes it might make sense; instead, it's just bad writing. Yet another of Donnie's teachers is held up as the shrewish, self-righteous type who sees things in utter black and white terms; we're not meant to like her, and we don't - but to what ultimate effect? A motivational speaker in the film is eventually revealed as someone with a dark secret, but that too is passed over and not really dealt with in any but the most cosmetic way. Amidst all this, Donnie Darko seems to be going quietly insane.
All of this might have some sort of point, in a better movie. If I had to guess, that point would be: the school Administration dispenses soul-crushing pablum, like so much mental novocaine. Is this what's eating Donnie throughout the movie? It's hard to say, since the filmmaker decides he doesn't want to deal with any of it head-on, but rather plays around on an arty concept of the world being refracted into all sorts of weird shapes through Donnie's peculiar "condition" (the exact nature of which is not revealed until the end - if there, even!). Problem is, as he plays around with the "freakiness" of what Donnie is going through, he loses sight of how to portray good old fashioned reality (exaggerations and caricatures abound), leaving the audience adrift on a sea of madness on the one hand, and cartoonishness on the other. Not a pleasant dichotomy.
Once the movie finally reveals its hand, a new spin is put on things, of course. But, reflecting upon everything which went before in the wake of the final twist, I could see no reason for the tone the director took, nor could I truly see any kind of resolution. My fear is that the director *thinks* he's made sense of things at the eleventh hour . . . but in point of fact, he's cleared up nothing. It's possible to muse that the film is wanting to be some kind of Generation Y version of "It's A Wonderful Life," but nothing of any import really happens or is revealed, so even that association is bogus.
So many ideas in this movie. So many ideas that were almost good. There isn't a good movie inside this mess, trying to get out, but there could have been. Stylistically, at least, it was very intriguing and well handled - Kelly is a natural director, with an imaginative eye for *shooting* and *displaying* the suburban landscape (almost as good as Spielberg). But the guy clearly needs to hire a writer next time. And if he's trying to make science fiction (which is what this film seems to be leaning toward), a science fiction writer wouldn't hurt.
Which reminds me: hey, Steven, you still available?! Come on back from your 21st century musings - the suburbs could really use you again!
So much invective, so many hurt feelings on this one. Bad press and word of
mouth followed this movie around like the plague upon its release at
Thanksgiving, 2000. On one level, of course, I can understand it; "Grinch"
certainly didn't need the big-screen, live action treatment - the simple
half-hour cartoon is, and always will be, a classic unto itself. But exactly
because that version is in no danger of going away or being forgotten (or -
perish the thought! - replaced), I for one was able to be more generous and
forgiving when watching this movie. Oh hell, I might as well admit it - I
watched it at all pretty much explicitly to see what Jim Carrey was going to
do with the lead role. On that score, I was not disappointed; he took the
basic character sketch that is the Grinch and embroidered it with all manner
of tics, impersonations, and over-the-top shenanigans. As usual, if you're
no fan of Carrey - and broad humor in general - there's nothing here that
will convert you. Me, I'm constantly astonished by his resourcefulness and
creativity, as well as the almost superhuman energy he brings to every role.
Here it's especially impressive, as he coaxes a pulsing life force to come
through layers and layers of prosthetics. In fact, it occurred to me,
watching the film, that if anyone could be a modern day Lon Chaney, it would
be Jim Carrey - I could see him making a good career out of bringing life to
a rogues' gallery of monsters, grotesques, and other costumed or heavily
made-up characters. It would in fact seem the natural extension of his
talents and inclination; if there's ever been anyone constrained by the
notion of being a "normal" person, it's Jim Carrey. But by the same token,
no one - not Jack Nicholson in Batman, not Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed
Roger Rabbit?, not even Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman - has seemed so at
home projecting the weightlessness and exaggeration of a cartoon existence
more fully than Jim Carrey. This is no easy trick by any stretch of the
imagination, and I hope for all our sakes that he'll always at least keep
his hand in this style of performing; there's many who can do "realistic"
acting (in varying degrees of quality, of course) - there's precious few,
maybe no one else currently alive, who can do what Carrey does.
As to the movie itself: is there anything here beyond Carrey's performance that makes it worth seeing? Not really. But then again there's nothing that really gets in the way, either. The sets and the basic look of the movie are reasonably well done: nothing overtly memorable, but not the ugly and barren wasteland many reviewers have suggested. Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lou-Hoo is suitably cute in her part without being insufferable (and on that score let's not forget that even Dr. Seuss's Cindy Lou was impossibly precious and saccharine in the first place) and she develops a nice rapport with Carrey that helps anchor the film. The backstory which "explains" the Grinch and how he became that way . . . well, yeah, it's stupid, but it also doesn't take up much time, so if you just twiddle your thumbs for a few minutes you can get through it without too much pain or discomfort.
But many objected to the film on the basic grounds that its portrayal of the Hoos was an abomination; that it took the simple, good-hearted creatures of the Dr. Seuss original and turned them into lunk-headed and materialistic busybodies - in essence, caricatures of Yuletide soul-lessness and consumerism. Personally, I think it's an interesting change. Seuss's heart was always more with Grinch's cynicism and disgruntlement anyway, so it makes sense to pile on those qualities in an extended treatment of the story. Furthermore, while the Hoos as paragons of perfect virtue and simplicity works OK in a 22-minute treatment (especially one where we don't see much of them), there's something fundamentally false and unsatisfying about it. After all, even in the original tale, these people *are* pretty ostentatious and materialistic in their celebration of Christmas. It makes sense to me that they - just as much as the Grinch - would need a reminder in what the true meaning of the holiday season really is before they would lovingly burst into song at the prospect of a Christmas without any presents or decorations. And, of course, this makes them closer in conception to the average American, and thereby more identifiable and accessible (if necessarily less admirable). Especially since, as I've said, this new version doesn't wipe out the old one, I think the change in the Hoos is utterly defensible and adds an interesting wrinkle that the film can truly call its own.
So that's the Grinch, circa 2000 - no big whoop, but no big travesty either. And if you like Jim Carrey, another notch on his belt of impressive performances. That's really all you need to know.
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