Fast Forward

I've been reading some alarming news lately about Netflix's push to do away with their disc rental service. I watch plenty of their streaming offerings, but the catalog isn't terrifically vast by any measure. I'm not too worried that certain titles will become completely unavailable, but whatever the next platform is for getting your hands on titles that aren't available in streaming form, there are going to be some irksome growing pains. All this is to say that I've kicked up the pace on getting through movies I've been avoiding in my disc queue. And that's led to some interesting movie juxtapositions. Normally, I'll watch a movie, let it sink into my brain for a couple of days, then move on to the next one. But with a sudden burst of viewing efficiency, I knocked out an action movie, a drama, and a kids' movie in rat-a-tat succession.

The first was Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which was released in 2011. I haven't been the biggest fan of this franchise, but haven't minded them, either. They're inoffensive action flicks; the last thing I'm looking for them is any sort of complex, coherent plot. This latest one got surprisingly good word-of-mouth reviews, though, so I tossed it onto my queue... Where I promptly started ignoring it, mostly due to its 133-minute running time. I finally forced myself to sit down and watch, and found myself enjoying it more than the previous three put together. What changed? The director, for one. J.J. Abrams is really good at concepts, but can get bogged down when it comes to execution. This movie was Brad Bird's live-action directorial debut, and though the running time is long, he kept it going at an economical pace. This movie has a compact story that actually makes logical sense, and could be followed. There are still gadgets and stunts aplenty, but the plot isn't being wholly supported by people ripping latex masks off their faces every three minutes.

Next up on the stop-avoiding-this list was Martha Marcy May Marlene, which also came out in 2011. I remember Elizabeth Olsen getting raves for her performance when the movie was released, but I wasn't anxious to dive into a tense movie about cults at the time. But no more procrastination! The movie cuts back and forth between scenes of Olsen's character's days living at the compound of a cult she once belonged to, and scenes in the aftermath of her escape, when she crashes with her sister and brother-in-law and attempts to readjust to a normal life. There are a lot of really fascinating themes that are well-developed throughout. Normally, an audience can't understand why a character would want to join a cult, but this movie shows how magnetic a supportive "family" could seem to a lonely soul. And how a "normal" existence can seem empty and pointless. Still, I wasn't as in love with this film as the critical community was. Maybe I would have felt differently if I had seen this while its praises were still thrumming across the internet, but as it is, I found that it crawled up its own ass a little bit. The script is simple and spare to the point of ridiculous at a few points. Scenes of deliberate ambiguity seem to shout "Look how artistic I am!" when straightforward, concrete resolution would have been more effective. There's more to like than dislike about Martha Marcy May Marlene, but I'm not surprised that I viewed it as homework for so long.

Finally, I wrapped up my week of cinematic gorging by catching up with Disney's 2009 animated offering, The Princess and the Frog. I'd been curious to see how the once-powerful 2D animation studio was doing ever since Pixar redefined what a kids' movie has to be these days. I'm not going to go too much into plot, because it's a standard Disney progression of a girl achieving her dreams and true love after overcoming dangerous obstacles. You know the structure by now. But there are a couple of interesting things that set this princess movie apart from the ones that have come before. Tiana is the first African-American heroine in a Disney cartoon, but beyond a callous jab from an unsympathetic character (a jab that will fly over any youngster's head), her race is never an overt issue in any way. Even though the movie takes place in '20s New Orleans, Tiana's best friend is white, and her intended prince is an unnamed European-ish meld (he looks vaguely Hispanic or Arabic). Tiana is also the first Disney heroine who works, and works hard. Sure, Cinderella had to scrub a castle, but Tiana has to hold down actual jobs. Pocahontas notwithstanding, she's really the first heroine who embodies American characteristics, and I really like how it comes off.

The wild and freewheeling nature of Jazz Age New Orleans is incorporated well into the plot, as is voodoo, used for both good and evil. Unfortunately, the music isn't as memorable or catchy as in other Disney movies, but it's one of the strongest stories in the entire canon. And at the end, Tiana may be a princess, but she's still American; no kicking back on a castle throne for her. It was an entertaining movie, and I think Disney did an admirable job creating a modern character with agency and goals that reach beyond kissing a handsome boy, so kudos to them for that.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: B
Martha Marcy May Marlene: B-
The Princess and the Frog: B+


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