Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) **

When drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) takes a job at a diner, the job comes with benefits in the person of the boss’s wife, Cora (Lana Turner).  Tired of her marriage to the older, boring Nick(Cecil Kellaway), Cora longs to be with Frank and have the diner to run herself, so the two of them hatch a murder plot.
With this classic noir setup, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” explores the difficulties of carrying off a perfect murder as well as the aftermath, including the question of whether love can survive such stresses.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t explore these themes nearly as well as the superior film “Double Indemnity” did two years earlier in 1944.  The film does have some bright spots.  Cecil Kellaway is excellent as the penny-pinching, clueless Nick, and Hume Cronyn steals every scene as a sleazy defense attorney.  I also like that the film doesn’t make the murderers completely despicable.  They do truly fall in love, and Cora winds up having more than the usual financial motive to want Nick dead. The lead actors, unfortunately, are too weak to carry the story off.  Lana Turner is just serviceable, John Garfield is completely unconvincing, and the pair lack chemistry.  Aspects of the plot are poorly developed as well.  The District Attorney is onto Cora and Frank from the beginning, but the film never explains how he comes to suspect them.
“Postman” was successful and apparently well-regarded by critics, and it was a turning point in Turner’s career, offering her a meatier role than her previous “scream-queen” and “sweater girl” work.  In the context of great noir films, however, it is a couple of tiers below movies like “Double Indemnity.”  “The Postman Always Rings Twice”?  He can just leave this one on the front porch.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Looper (2012) **

“Looper” is written and directed by Rian Johnson, the mind behind the excellent neo-noir film “Brick.”  Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Also from “Brick”) and Bruce Willis, the film has all the ingredients of a great thriller.  I came in with high expectations, and was unfortunately disappointed.
The story revolves around the idea that mobsters of the future have a hard time disposing of bodies, due to tracking, forensics, etc.  To solve this problem, they send one of their own back in time thirty years to set up a hit-man ring.  Then they just send potential victims back in time to be murdered and disposed of, achieving the perfect crime.  Eventually, for reasons that are never adequately explained, the Mobsters will hunt down the retired hit-men and send them back in time to be murdered by their 30-years-younger selves, which is called closing the loop.  These callow, young men mostly comply with this, because it comes with a stack of gold, and at their young age, they figure a fortune and 30 years to spend it is all they need from life.  Joe (Gordon-Levitt), however, finds that his older self isn’t so easy to kill.  When Old Joe (Willis) escapes, Joe pursues him, trying to stay one step ahead of his angry boss.
It’s a decent story setup except for the glaring question of why these future Mobsters decide to close all those loops.  Why not just let the old hit-men live out their lives in retirement?  The suggestion is that it’s because they could potentially testify against the Mobsters regarding their illegal use of time travel, but that doesn’t really explain it.  What about the henchmen who throw the victims into the time machine?  They could potentially rat their bosses out, too.
If this were the only example of poor plot development in “Loopers” I could let it go.  Unfortunately, the film is a mine-field of inexplicable actions on the part of it’s characters, not to mention very sloppy handling of the time-travel paradox.  My final complaint is that the film features the hunting down and killing of children, as Old Joe tries to prevent a future Mob boss from growing up.  A movie has to be really good to justify the melodrama of putting children or animals in danger, and “Loopers” does not meet that standard.
Having said all that, the film is very stylishly done.  Rian Johnson is an excellent filmmaker, I think he just needs some help on the writing side.  Gordon-Levitt and Willis are also excellent, both giving compelling performances that make the film somewhat watch-able despite its plot problems.  Still, if I could go back in time, I would probably tell my slightly younger self to watch something else.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Atlas Shrugged Part II (2012) **

So I already explained how “Atlas Shrugged Part I” is beautifully filmed and well-enough acted that those who agree with Ayn Rand’s political philosophy will enjoy it despite the ridiculous plot and often wooden dialogue.  Well, Part II has all the same liabilities, with worse acting and cinematography.
The director and cast were replaced for “Atlas Shrugged Part II,” mostly for the worse.  Patrick Fabian is actually an improvement as the smarmy James Taggart, but otherwise the casting suffers.  Jason Beghe’s Hank Rearden rasps out his lines in a deep, hoarse voice that is a parody of masculinity.  Samantha Mathis is absolutely the worst as Dagny Taggart.  She actually looks the part of an experienced engineer and business tycoon more than Taylor Schilling from Part I did, but Schilling matches the age and look of the Dagny from the novel better.  Also, Mathis is 14 years older than Schilling, so the transition between the two is jarring.  None of that would be a deal breaker if Mathis were a better actress, but she is just terrible in this.
Plotwise, the film starts with a ridiculous-looking airplane chase, with the new lead Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart flying one of the jets.  This scene is so badly done that I almost gave up on the film right then.  Fortunately, the sequence does represent the low point of the film.  Unfortunately, they revisit it at the end.  Otherwise, the film continues the tale, with government interference relentlessly destroying industries, and talented people continuing to disappear.  Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden continue doing their best while government looters hound them at every step.  Rearden gets brought up on charges of violating some socialist law, and his trial features a moving speech that should warm the hearts of Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.)  In their headlong rush to move the film along, however, the filmmakers don’t really build the trial up or give this pivotal scene the development it deserves.  This problem of pacing is a recurring issue in both Parts I and II.
“Atlas Shrugged Part III” is slated to hit a few theaters in Summer 2014, and that’s all the news I can find on it.  The good news is that if they decide to re-cast yet again, it’s bound to be an improvement this time.
These “Atlas Shrugged” movies are essentially porn for Objectivists.  With porn, you put up with the bad acting and silly plot because you know some hot porn action is on the way.  In this case, the hot action consists of people standing up for individualism and free-market ideas.  It’s not something you get to see every day.

2 stars out of 5