Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Vintage Review: The Artist

Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture (2012)
Whenever I can’t quite seem to make it to the theater to catch a new release, I’ll be posting a Vintage Review instead. These reviews will cover a range of older films, from classics to duds— and everything in between! They will function much the same as my regular reviews, albeit somewhat shorter in length. :-)
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Now, here is a film that caught me completely off guard... I mean, what was I supposed to expect from a silent, black-and-white film made in 2011? It seemed like an idea that simply could not work in the age of modern cinema... and yet, it triumphed. It was wonderfully entertaining on so many levels, the most refreshing of which being the film’s story. It was elegant in its simplicity; unfolding a very real character one careful piece at a time. He fears what men fear most—the possibility that he is no longer needed.
But it doesn’t (and wouldn’t) have to be that way, were it not for the character’s fatal flaw. His classic flaw, that ancient hubris, is that which prevents him from achieving the goal of the story. Thematically speaking, this is exactly as it should be. The protagonist’s flaw should always play against the theme of the film. Aspiring screenwriters, even seasoned professionals, would do well to study this character arc. In a film that works so well on so many levels, I’d dare say such an arc is The Artist’s greatest strength.
Films that are reviewed on this site undergo a very arduous, yet fair, scoring process. It takes quite a bit for a film to earn a 5-star rating. This is a film that has earned it. It is easily one of the most entertaining and intelligent movies I have seen all year. On top of that, its production values are all excellent. I must specifically applaud Jean Dujardin’s stand-out performance as the film’s lead character, George Valentin. His charming characterization managed to add a whole new level of richness and complexity to the role.
Overall, I couldn’t recommend this film more. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. You’ll be glad that you did.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

“The legend ends.” 
Spoiler alert: this is a story analysis website, likely to reveal major plot points... proceed with caution!
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There are so many good things to say about The Dark Knight Rises. It was a truly exceptional film, and yet... it seemed to be lacking that extra little bit of greatness, didn’t it? What was missing? After careful consideration, I think I may have figured out what this film needed. It was tricky, and here’s the reason why: the director, Christopher Nolan (who was also one of the writers), made some very good choices. But they may not have been the best choices. That’s the writer’s goal: make the best choices possible.
Before we get to those choices, let’s talk praise. Nolan’s films are often technical marvels. This was no exception. (I only had one technical qualm with this film, but more on that later.) The new Catwoman was a pleasant surprise, and Bane was certainly an antagonistic force to be reckoned with. The stakes were higher in almost every way, resulting in a spectacular climax and a very fulfilling resolution to the Batman trilogy as a whole. This will most likely be The Dark Knight Rises’ most memorable aspect.
Now, on to the choices: the first involves the ‘plot twist’ of introducing Talia as the real bad guy behind the scenes. I am aware of her importance in the original comic book series... but honestly, what did this do for the story? I feel that it greatly weakened the character and role of Bane. By suddenly introducing him as the henchman only (of a far less intimidating villain), it also brought into question his motivation. And I have to say, being the caliber of villain that he was, Bane’s death sure seemed... anticlimactic.
The other choices involve the story’s subplots. Whenever a film’s pacing seems to drag, it is often the result of not working your subplots as well as you could be. In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, I think there were just too many subplots. One way to fix this is by removing some of the more unnecessary characters. (Like deputy commissioner Foley... he really didn’t do anything for the story.) This makes for a much tighter film, and frees up time for more important characters. (Also, my only technical qualm: you won’t have to try and liven the pace with incredibly loud drums that smother some of the dialog.)
Now, I’ll be the first to readily admit that these suggestions might not be the best choices... but I do think they are stronger. Instead of having Bane as the henchman, why not make it Talia? Imagine Bane using her as the final weapon against Bruce Wayne—how ingenious would his plot have been then? The other one has to do with Foley’s hatred of Batman. Why not remove Foley and give that arc to Robin? Then he would have come full circle, from hating the Dark Knight to becoming the Dark Knight. It would have also given Batman a chance to come full circle, and truly be the mentor to his chosen successor.
Overall, this was a remarkable finish to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but it could have used a few tweaks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

“The untold story begins.” 
Again, as I mentioned before on my review for Brave—this is a story analysis website, likely to contain spoilers... if you haven’t seen the film yet, proceed with caution. Or better yet, just go see the film!  :)
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I have to say, there are a few really nice accomplishments to behold in The Amazing Spider-Man. But before I get to those, I’d probably better explain my (apparently) unorthodox method of approaching films. Several critics have bashed it quite thoroughly on the premise that it is an unnecessary reboot. In a way, they have a point. The original trilogy only ended 5 years ago. That being said, I would still like to approach this (along with everything else I review) as a stand-alone film. This both helps it and hurts it.
I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, a word or two of praise: I really enjoyed the new take on these characters. Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy were, in fact, scientists. Therefore, they should be intelligent. Thankfully, that is exactly how they were portrayed. Intelligently written characters are a thrill to watch, because they do two things for us as an audience: not only do we feel we’re being treated with respect, but we are also spared (for the most part) from pointless melodrama. They can just figure things out.
As far as the technical aspects of The Amazing Spider-Man are concerned, they might not be perfect... but for goodness’ sake, I could tell what was going on. This is such a rare attribute for an action movie these days that I feel it must be praised whenever humanly possible. Frenetic camera movement and quick cuts do not make for good storytelling—if anything, they work to provide the audience with an acute sense of motion sickness. Such was not the case here. For that, I praise what technical it has.
Alas, there was a thing or two wrong with its story. Not horribly wrong, per se, but enough to miss the mark of greatness. I refer to the film’s theme, specifically in relation to Peter Parker’s character arc. The film’s theme seemed to be that we should strive to be good, especially when we are powerful. Parker’s flaw might then be that he doesn’t think he is good. This was actually touched on in the film, but just never really clarified. There was even a relationship in place to accomplish this, but it was very weak.
I mentioned before that judging this as a stand-alone film would both help it and hurt it... well, this is where it hurts it: subplots. A film may not have to resolve all of its subplots (although it’s usually much better when it does), but it should at least resolve the major ones. Most of the primary subplots in The Amazing Spider-Man go unresolved. They were probably leaving them open for the sequels, but as an audience, we emotionally invest ourselves in these events. We need some kind of equivalent return.
So how might one go about solving the bigger issues of theme and character arc? As I mentioned before, a relationship was in place to do it—that of the conflict between Peter Parker and Captain Stacy (Gwen’s father). Their evolving relationship, centered on the different forms of good, would have allowed for a much more visible character arc from Parker; and subsequently, a much more powerful theme. After all, what Parker really needed to hear was that he was good—from a person who didn’t already love him for who he was. Such affirmation could have been exactly what he needed to overcome the villain.
It was very fun to watch, but without a clearer story arc, it wasn’t as amazing as it could have been.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


“Change your fate.”  
Before we get too far into Brave, I should probably mention that my reviews are often likely to contain spoilers. The reason why is because story analysis often requires me to cover certain ground in order for my reviews to make any sense. If you’re not worried about this, or have seen the film already, proceed. :)
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Brave has both an advantage and disadvantage right out the gate. The advantage is that it was made by Pixar—one of the largest, most successful animation studios in the world. This is also its disadvantage. They have such an excellent track record (for the most part) that people can’t help but compare Brave to Pixar’s greatest. (I know I did.) And on that level, it does fall short. But there’s more to it than that.
Apparently, about midway through the production of this film, Pixar fired its original director, Brenda Chapman. She was then replaced by Mark Andrews. (Honestly, given the subject matter of the film, this seems like a confusing choice.) But no matter—people get fired from directing all the time. What does matter is whether or not the story suffers or thrives as a result. In this case, it appears to have suffered.
The reason I say this is because of the dualistic nature of the film. On the one hand, we have the theme that we are told: that the princess, Merida, wants to change her fate. Had the film not said this out loud (via narration) I would have never guessed it. That’s because everything that’s shown in the film is about something else: a bonding experience between mother and daughter. And they do bond... eventually leading to a climax where they take down the evil bear Mor’du, solving the external plot of the story.
This is why I think the film ultimately comes up short. These two subjects are presented (that of fate and family) but they never really connect. The simplest solution might have been to use only one director’s vision or the other’s—not a blend of both. In the end, the themes worked only to diminish each other.
Another problem with Brave concerns its subplots. There were at least two subplots that needed more development: one was the witch. We see her in person only once, then once more in cauldron smoke, then never again. Just one more scene could have given her a proper beginning, middle, and end. The other subplot issue was that of Mor’du—in that he shouldn’t have been a subplot at all. As the story’s main bad guy, we needed to see him a whole lot more than just three times throughout the entire film.
Overall, Brave may boast a lot of technical prowess, but a disjointed plot and theme really bring it down.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall...”
Snow White and the Huntsman features several set pieces that are really quite fun to look at. There are moments in particular where sheer creativity abounds, resulting in creatures and locations that are nothing short of eye candy. Such gorgeous visuals are most definitely this film’s greatest strength.
Alas, similar praise cannot be said of the story. While its efforts to remain (at least relatively) true to the original Grimm’s fairy tale were largely admirable, the script also suffered greatly at times because of it. In prose, it is very possible for a character to experience growth and change solely within the mind. The same cannot be said of film. In film, it must either be shown or spoken out loud in some way. Showing is always better, and the best way to do this is through the main character’s relationships with others.  
Snow White featured two such potential relationships: that of Prince William, and that of the Huntsman (whose real name was never actually said at any point during the film). Each worked only to diminish the other. Seeing as how both characters served essentially the same purpose, what would have been the harm in combining them? Not only would this have removed the awkwardly-placed love triangle (which was never really capitalized on, anyway), but it would have also improved the overall pacing of the film.
Speaking of pacing, there were several segments during the second act that were dangerously slow. This is often the result of ineffective subplots, which often exist for the sole reason of explaining away the unnecessary characters and/or events. Such things are best left out of the story for the sake of clarity. However, while these less effective characters/subplots were certainly big problems, they were not the worst. The worst problem here would have to be the film’s theme, or more accurately, lack thereof.
A film’s theme is essentially what the film is about, as seen through the eyes of the individual writing it. In this case, I have to wonder how the inherent theme of this story could have been so blatantly missed. The theme should have been that true beauty is on the inside. This would have made the evil Queen’s ambitions tragically pathetic, while providing the protagonist with a clear character flaw—in that she sees no beauty within herself. This could have made for a very remarkable (and very fitting) character arc.
Now enter the Huntsman/Prince, able to see in her what she cannot see in herself. This relationship enables her to realize her full potential... while the same thing happens in reverse. The Huntsman/Prince (himself a drunkard and a brawler) is also lacking in purpose and direction. But then Snow White, whose pure heart is able to see past such outward flaws, enables him to step up... and prove himself as well.   
Overall, while it may have been a beautiful and creative film to look at, its story left much to be desired.