Archive for the ‘ Movies ’ Category

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Movie Review)

Movie poster for The Postman Always Rings TwiceAfter enjoying James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, I watched the 1946 movie version of it. There have been other adaptations, but this is generally regarded as the best. After watching it, I’m not sure why. If anything, it gave me a twisted sort of relief to know that Hollywood was ruining books even back then.

The contrast between the book and the movie is evident right away. The novel begins with Frank Chambers getting thrown out of a truck, trying to steal food, and ending up with a job after ascertaining that his new boss is a sucker with a hot wife. Portrayed in the movie by John Garfield, Chambers is a neatly-dressed man who just walks up to a restaurant to take a job. His only nod to character building is an awkward speech about how his “wandering feet” might not let him stay.

Lana Turner plays Cora Smith, not Cora Papadakis. The movie took out the racial elements probably not out of concern for Greek sensibilities, but to avoid a mixed-race relationship. Her husband Nick was defined almost entirely by this in the book, and actor Cecil Kellaway was left with no material to build a character with. He’s a foolish pushover with no clear motivations, and the heavily character-based drama suffers for it.

Ironically, the attempts to clean the characters up actually make them seem like worse people. With the mistakes of Cora’s past removed, her marriage made bland, and her new affair equally passionless, her only apparent motivation for murder is to move up in the world.

It’s understandable that the studio would want to make this movie palatable for a mass audience, but the book was a success because of its sleazy characters and raw passion. Without that, there wouldn’t be much reason for it to exist. The resulting movie is solidly within our expectations for a film of the 1940’s. I understand why it was popular then, but it hasn’t aged well at all. It’s stilted, self-censored, and features a few baffling mistakes. (For example, the D.A. tries to break Frank by referencing an event that had happened in the book but had been omitted from the movie.) The novel, despite being over a decade older, has aged wonderfully due to its focus on believable characters.

There’s nothing wrong with a work being of its time. Most of the things I review positively, for example, will be less interesting ten years from now. I would expect a reviewer then to judge them fairly based on the standards of that time. By the same reasoning, there’s really no reason left to watch The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Grade: D

 
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Brave (Movie Review)

Brave is about a princess who doesn’t want to have to be a princess. Ironically, it’s the first Pixar movie that really feels like it wants to be a Disney movie. It features inspiring musical interludes and characters one step removed from the traditional funny sidekick. Even the central gimmick of rebelling against the princess lifestyle is less subversive than it’s made out to be; In reality, Princess Merida’s wonderful life is entirely due to her royal family. All her needs are met, she’s surrounded by servants who are never presented as equals, and her main complaint is that all that leisure time can’t take up 100% of her life. It’s a pity this couldn’t be bolder, because the novelty of featuring (gasp!) a girl in a starring role raised a lot of people’s hopes. This may not have everything I hoped for, but I think it still does more good than harm for gender roles in movies.

That’s because, even though it features a princess, this is still unmistakably a Pixar film. The visuals are stunning, even more for their design sense than the technical underpinnings, and the characters are given believable human emotions instead of stock lines. Pixar’s writing strength has always been in applying that depth to simply-defined characters, though, and this approach rings a little hollow here. Merida and her parents are the only characters not defined by a single quirky characteristic, and in line with their royal privilege, everyone else seems to exist only to be laughed at. Fortunately, the relationship with the parents is the focus of the movie. Even if Merida’s mother and father are taken directly from modern sitcom archetypes, those Pixar emotions make them worth caring about.

Brave’s plot will surprise no one, but it doesn’t always take the easy path. It’s willing to portray Merida as a bit selfish, and a couple scary scenes are very bold for a children’s movie. The Celtic culture never feels as well-defined as Pixar’s made-up worlds of talking cars and fish, though the beautiful landscapes and exotic touches are satisfactory for a fantasy movie.

If this review seems to be going back and forth a lot, then you have an accurate impression. The Pixar magic is definitely still here, but for the first time in years, it feels like they’re coasting along on habit instead of taking chances. A very good movie for kids and an enjoyable one for adults, Brave will entertain you for the evening. Just remember to hold it up to normal movie standards rather than those set by Toy Story and The Incredibles.

Grade: B-


The Avengers (Movie Review)

The Avengers movie posterBy now, it’s a little late for me to tell you to go see The Avengers. You probably already have, unless you decided to ignore a month’s worth of great reviews. But I finally saw it, and I loved it. (This was not a foregone conclusion. Of the various movies that set up the premise for this one, I had only seen Iron Man. I found it to be okay, even though most people loved it. That hadn’t left me inclined to watch all the others that people said weren’t as good as Iron Man.)

There are definitely problems: Captain America looks less like a believable character than someone in a Halloween costume. The Hulk changes from a malevolent monster to a warrior with self-control, and the movie makes little effort to bridge the gap between those extremes. “Street-level” heroes without superpowers contribute to the fights as well as Thor and Iron Man. And Samuel L. Jackson seems to be phoning it in the first half of the movie, despite the character of Nick Fury being written to his strengths. (He does improve a lot in his less frequent, but more vital, scenes late in the movie. When called on to deliver a “mutherfucking snakes” line, Jackson is up to it.)

These problems hardly matter, though, because the movie makes everything work. It also helps a lot that, like Jackson’s performance, everything gets better as time goes on. Each succeeding action scene is more thrilling, the characters become better established, and the momentum picks up. This is managed largely because the movie had a huge budget to match the sheer audacity of its plans: The disparate heroes and cosmic villains require a lot more suspension of disbelief than (successful) superhero movies usually aim for, but Marvel had the money to make the special effects work. It also succeeds because it’s written by Joss Whedon.

To many people, Whedon is mainly a source of quirky dialog, and some of that pops up here. Unlike comic writers such as Brian Bendis, though, he is able to control his tics and take on other styles. This was a big-budget action movie first, a spiritual sequel to several different movies second, a Whedon movie last. His version of Tony Stark was completely true to the prior movies, and I can only assume that the other characters, who were written very differently, fit the movies I didn’t see.

Whedon’s real talent is respecting established characters. He’s usually done this with characters he created, but comics like Astonishing X-Men have proven that he can do it just as well with other peoples’ stories. He not only rewards the fans who are familiar with the characters, but shows newcomers why the fanbase exists. This made Whedon a perfect choice for this movie, which needed to handle a wide variety of heroes without making their coexistence seem ridiculous. Honestly, as much as I loved The Avengers and would now line up to see any other superhero movie Whedon writes, this still didn’t sell me on the Marvel movies in general. It would be too easy for lesser hands to mess up a premise that involves a dramatic god, a gee-whiz science fiction hero, a monster driven by rage, and more all in one plot. The only character here who I am really interested in beyond this one movie is the Black Widow, played flawlessly by Scarlett Johansson. (Whedon’s reputation as the only mainstream writer who reliably includes strong female characters is now firmly established.)

I feel a little silly making such a big deal out of a summer action movie, but The Avengers really was excellent. With a satisfying plot, time for every character, and big-budget action that really felt exciting, this is a rare achievement. But this wasn’t “just” a well-executed movie; The Avengers may be an important step for superhero movies as a whole.

In the past, I’ve had a general rule that superhero movies succeed to the extent that they make their stories simple and streamlined for a wide audience. Everyone in the X-Men movies gets their powers from mutations, because also throwing in magic and cosmic forces would stretch belief. Spider-Man’s web-shooters are organic, because it’s difficult to accept that he’d also be the sort of genius who could invent such a thing on his own. And so on. I think that’s a big part of the reason that we’ve never had a superhero series stay good for three movies. By that third one, the writers have gotten lazy, and so an alien creature falls to Earth directly onto Peter Parker’s bicycle, because the plot needs to start some way.

The Avengers, as I already mentioned, is an audacious movie. It opens with a scene that draws from Marvel’s stable of cosmic powers. It throws together heroes of magic, science fiction, and good old human toughness. And the result is something that even I, as a comics fan, would have considered accessible only to the hardcore fans. But instead, this is now mainstream entertainment! The credit is split among the huge budget, Whedon’s attention to all the characters, and to the earlier movies that laid the groundwork, but the fact remains that this is a sea change in the way that modern superhero movies work. We now have millions of people who are paying money to follow a convoluted world spread across multiple movie series, and the geekiest features of comic book plots appear prominently. It could even be argued that, because this follows up so much on Iron Man 2, this is a successful third movie in that series!

The Avengers is a fun movie. The Avengers is an important part of a series of stories that will probably be coming out for years. And yes, The Avengers is actually a bold change to the way that movies like this work. It may have all those flaws I listed at the beginning, but this is a huge success however you measure it.

Grade: A-


Young Adult (Movie Review)

Young Adult movie posterAfter Juno, it was difficult to tell whether screenwriter Diablo Cody was a future star or a gimmicky one-hit wonder. A few years later, her new movie Young Adult makes it clear that she truly has writing talent. The cutesy slang that drove Juno is gone, but the believable characters and interesting situations remain. Of course, those characters and situations are still overly clever, but without insulting our intelligence like most dramas do.

The only real flaw left in Cody’s writing is her lack of subtlety. The characters are complex and nuanced in a manner of speaking, but it’s all on the surface. Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a Young Adult fiction writer who – surprise! – hasn’t grown beyond her own days as a young adult. Her stories bitterly try to justify her past as a self-absorbed prom queen, every night she drinks until she passes out with her clothes and the TV still on, and her first act in the morning is to chug from a bottle of Coca-Cola without bothering to close the refrigerator. When she hears that her high school boyfriend (played by Patrick Wilson) is a happily married father, she returns to her old hick town on a mission to win him back.

The plot and dialogue are smooth and witty enough to seem like a feel-good comedy at first glance, but Mavis’ darkly funny self-destruction is for an artsier, feel-bad audience. The characters look frumpy and realistic, and the camera wavers with a calculated lack of polish. Theron and Wilson play their roles perfectly and realistically as the protagonist obliviously sails through a world of genuine people she can’t comprehend. The real star, both in acting and as a character, is played by Patton Oswalt, who is literally crippled from his days as Mavis’ classmate. Shunned at the time, he’s now the only person bitter enough to understand Mavis, and he plays his role with a perfect mix of adult confidence and self-loathing.

It’s frequently difficult to believe that Mavis could be oblivious enough to stick to her course of action, but some (unsubtle) hints of mental problems may explain it. With just a little generosity on the part of the viewer, this builds naturally to a surprisingly awkward climax and an appropriate, but unexpected, resolution. Young Adult is a tragically funny slice of life. exaggerated but feeling true despite that.

Grade: B


Blue Valentine (Movie Review)

Blue Valentine

Last weekend, Alicia and I went to see Blue Valentine. It tells the story of a husband and wife whose relationship is falling apart, and it manages to convey this so believably that it’s honestly unsettling. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for the first movie to watch together after becoming engaged, but both of us are glad we saw it.

 

I want to keep this article much shorter than my other recent ones, and besides, most of what I want to say about the movie is based on spoilers. So I’ll be direct here: The acting, casting, directing, and writing are all excellent. Blue Valentine tells a story that is way too rare in movies, and makes its human drama absolutely convincing. In fact, the characters and setting are thought through so well that they can let many important things go unsaid. I assume you’re familiar with the feeling of a movie that starts to unravel as soon as you think about it afterwards, or one that you can’t even discuss afterwards without noticing all the plot holes. With Blue Valentine, everything fits together even better as you think about it. Alicia and I talked about it for a while afterwards, and every time one of us said that we didn’t understand a certain person’s motivation, or how something fit together in the timing or setting, we would talk it through and realize that it made perfect sense. The movie just hadn’t held our hands the whole way through it. In fact, I woke up the next morning with new insights into the characters and fresh opinions about their situation. I can’t remember the last time anything (other than reality) let me know people with such intricacy.

Blue Valentine receives a solid A- grade, and you should see it. If anything, I’m being too harsh in my grading. I’m going to discuss a central theme in spoilery detail below the cut, but you shouldn’t read that until you’ve seen the movie. Because this is one of the rare ones that deserve to be experienced.

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