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Column Fri Nov 21 2008

Twilight, Bolt and A Christmas Tale

Twilight
I've never read one of Stephenie Meyer's novels about the tormented love affair between the human Bella and the vampire Edward, so when I speak about Twilight, I am only discussing the film version and whether or not I was indoctrinated into this story to any degree of satisfaction. I want to know if screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg and director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) have constructed a compelling film for those of us who know nothing about novels or where the tale of these angst-ridden teens is headed. The truth is that Twilight is a beautiful-looking work with a pair of the most bizarre and frustrating characters you're likely to see in a film this year. I'll give the movie credit for avoiding most of the infuriating trappings of modern vampire films, but that doesn't make the resulting work all that captivating.

And let me add this right up front, if you do go see Twilight and coo and swoon over the film and try to tell me it's a great movie, I'm going to point you right at a theater in this city playing Let the Right One In to give you a prime example of a truly great young vampire tale. I realize it's not fair to compare these two movies, but for all its trumped-up drama, longing gazes and breathy dialogue, Twilight doesn't hold a candle to the emotional weight of the stark Swedish vampire story about a 12-year-old boy who falls in love with a same-aged vampire girl.

I should applaud the choice of Hardwicke to direct Twilight. She has made a succession of films in recent years that tap into hormonally heightened teens, and this story seemed almost written for her. Bella (Kristen Stewart) is a withdrawn girl moving from her mother's home in Phoenix to her father's place in the rainy Pacific Northwest, where she spent her early years when her parents were still together. She reunites with old friends, including the Native American Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and meets a whole slew of new ones. It is at school where she first becomes acquainted with the Cullen "family," who all dress rather formal for high school, are intensely pale, and pretty much stick to themselves. Bella is paired with Edward (Robert Pattinson) as a science glass lab partner, and the two seem unnaturally drawn to each other. Much of what follows is a variation (although not that great a variation) on a high school courtship movie. The two dance around each other and their unmistakable attraction, but a series of strange incidents involving Edward popping up in the least likely places and a little investigating lead Bella to discover the truth about Edward — he's a vampire.

One of the reasons I'm guessing Twilight was such a big hit among the younger female sect is that Edward and his family are "good" vampires, trained only to drink the blood of animals and resist killing humans. And what self-respecting 13-year-old girl doesn't want to hang with good vampires? But since you can't have good without bad, we eventually do meet the villains of the piece, three vampires (led by Cam Gigandet's James) who stalk and kill humans, and have moved into the area not knowing that the Cullens have laid claim to the area. We can tell they're bad vamps because they dress like they just left the club at 4am and are still ready to party.

One thing I did like about Twilight is the way Hardwicke shows the balancing act that Bella lives everyday going between the human world at high school and living with her sheriff father (Billy Burke), and getting to know Edward and his family, led by Peter Pacinelli as Dr. Cullen (cool idea making the local medical examiner a vampire; that way he can cover up any suspicious deaths in the area). But as much as I tend to admire Stewart's style of acting (in such works as Into the Wild and this year's What Just Happened?), her stammering and nervous ticks started to grate on me after a while. She brushes hair out of her face and wrings her hands so often that it's distracting I realize Bella is a fish out of water and a natural-born klutz to begin with, but I felt like Stewart was flailing and uncomfortable playing someone with zero boundaries or filters. It also seems impossible for her to finish a thought or a sentence. I imagine a screenplay loaded with ellipses (...).

And then we move on to Pattinson, who plays Edward as the vampire version of James Dean complete with gravity-defying hair, the whitest skin available in a makeup kit, and red lips that make him look more like someone you'd meet in a tranny bar than a haunted house. His eyes almost never leave Bella, which is meant to invoke some sort of sexual tension or danger, but to me it was just plain creepy. In fact, there are so many moments of mutual glaring at each other in the film's early moments that some of the young die hards were even laughing in the audience when I saw the film. Edward stammers slightly less than Stewart, but he's completely devoid of any charm or grace despite his insane good looks. One show-and-tell sequence in which Edward allows Bella to see the full extent of his physical abilities is about the closest we ever get to a traditional seduction, although a bedroom kiss in the home of the virginal Bella is one of the rare instances of on-screen chemistry between Stewart and Pattinson.

Twilight is not a complete failure. Hardwicke's work in showing up this sleepy little down in Washington state almost makes it feel otherworldly. Some of Meyer's' takes on age-old vampire lore are kind of neat (direct sunlight doesn't hurt these vampires but it does make they sparkle like they have diamonds under their skin). And I'm pretty sure we never see a set of fangs in the whole movie. Once the film moves away from the romance and into a cat-and-mouse game between the good and bad vampires, the tension is strong enough to keep us entertained. But in the end, Twilight is little more than a "Dark Shadows" for the high school set. It's a soap opera with a bigger budget, and a not-so-veiled plea from Meyer for abstinence before marriage. But it's a clever and well thought out gimmick that seems to drive the young girls wild, both in book and movie form. You have to respect that on some level. In a lesser director's hands, the film would have been a cataclysmic mess. In Hardwicke's capable hands, Twilight is passable without being exceptional in any way.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interviews with Twilight star Kristen Stewart and director Catherine Hardwicke.

Bolt
I know that the knee-jerk reaction to any non-Pixar animated work from Disney is resistance and ridicule, but please allow me to be among the first to tell you that Bolt goes down easy and is a whole lot of fun. Yes, co-directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard use what has to be the most obvious creature in the known universe to gain our affections — a cute dog (a rescue dog, no less, voiced by John Travolta), who has superpowers that he uses to defeat the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), the villain with one green eye. His master (or as Bolt calls her, his human) is Penny (Miley Cyrus), and together they have continuous adventures defending the world against Calico and his particular brand of evil (complete with a pair of evil cats) with Bolt's extraordinary abilities to leap hundreds of yards at a time and a super bark that seems to have the impact of a small, concentrated earthquake. The only thing is, none of it is real.

You see, although Penny does love her dog dearly, she's also an actress on a TV show, of which Bolt is the star. The showrunners have come to realize that if Bolt ever sees a camera or boom microphone he'll know his whole life is a lie, so he's essentially isolated and left thinking he really does have all of these powers and that Penny's life is in constant peril. Some of the great voice talents used early on in the film include James Lipton as the show's director and Greg Germann as Penny and Bolt's slimy agent. Through a series of misadventures, Bolt is accidentally shipped from Hollywood to New York City. Thinking that this is all Calico's doing and that Penny is in serious danger, Bolt decides to somehow make the cross-country journey back to his human.

Before leaving New York, Bolt crosses paths with a mangy stray cat named Mittens (voiced to sassy perfection by "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Susie Essman), who Bolt immediately thinks is in line with Calico since, you know, she's a cat and all cats are evil (cats are not represented well in this film in case you couldn't tell). Mittens pretends to know where Penny is being held, and the pair begin the trip to California together. Along the way, they add a third member to their party, a weird, fat star-struck hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), who lives in a plastic ball and loves TV. He knows exactly who Bolt is and is the first to reveal to the dog that the life he knows is a lie.

Bolt works because it doesn't try too hard to be cute and lovable. The adventure show opening is fantastic, and a big part of me wanted all of Bolt's superpowers to be real. But this film is at its heart a road trip movie. Bolt and Mittens are a great team, with Essman really delivering in some crucial emotional scenes that reveal a bit about Mittens's past and her scrappy nature. She's a damaged feline. The film has some emotional depths that I wasn't anticipating, and there's more than one moment in the film where you might feel the old tear ducts start to fill up. And while the film is clearly made for younger audiences, I don't think any adults are going to struggle to enjoy Bolt. I especially liked Walton (a storyboard artist, who also does voice acting) as Rhino, who is clearly meant to embody fanboys the world over who actually get the rare opportunity to spend a little time with a hero. As far as I'm concerned, he and Essman are the stars of this film.

Bolt has a noble innocence to it as well. Bolt the character understands that a dog and his human belong together and that's really all her cares about. Sure, having the veil pulled away from his heroic life is devastating, but it's secondary to his knowing that Penny really does care about him. I was also quite pleased that the film didn't pull any punches when it comes to putting animals and young humans in peril. This film is rated PG not G for just this reason. Penny gets kind of beat up (in the TV show) and Bolt and his pals see mild abuse as well, especially in a fire sequence at the end of the film. If you have youngsters that will freak out because they think a puppy might get killed, you may want to keep them away from this movie. My guess is the kids can take it even if you can't. There are easily a dozen movies I'd recommend people go see ahead of Bolt, but I'd also urge you at some point to check this out before the theaters get packed with award contenders and end-of-year event films. And you can watch this film in 3-D at certain theaters (I did not see it this way but would love to, especially the opening action sequences). Not a must see, but a good time nonetheless.

Head to Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with Bolt star Susie Essman.

A Christmas Tale
One of the pure joys of the Chicago Film Festival this year was A Christmas Tale, the latest work by French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin (Kings & Queen, Esther Kahn, My Sex Life...), a film less about the holidays and more about how even the most demented, dysfunctional, back-stabbing family members can pull together in times of crisis... if only they then can get just a little more screwed up than they were before.

For those of you as obsessed and enamored with current French cinema, this one is kind of this year's crown jewel with its unbelievably notable and stellar cast, including the Catherine Deneuve as the family's matriarch Junon, and Quantum of Solace villain Mathieu Amalric as the eldest living brother Henri, the most self-destructive (or perhaps just plain destructive) member of the family, whose manipulations and bad behavior got to be so unbearable that his own sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) had him banished from the family five years earlier as part of a court settlement. The younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is the most stable creature in this barn, and seems to have escaped the household relatively unscathed, now with a wife (Chiara Mastroianni) and two wise-beyond-their-years sons. Rounding out the clan is father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), a man of logic and reason (some might say blissful ignorance as well), but also someone filled with great passion for his wife and great affection for his children.

While there certainly is a thread of a plot to A Christmas Tale involving Junon being diagnosed with leukemia (a disease her eldest son, Joseph, died from as a child), and each member of the family getting tested to see if there is a bone marrow transplant possibility, the real joy of watching the film is to lay witness to the dance that goes on as the siblings each arrive home for Christmas, including the exiled Henri. The film examines each character as they relate to each other and how they relate to their own families. Elizabeth has an emotionally troubled son (Emile Berling), and a soulless husband. Ivan would appear to have the perfect family until cousin Simon arrives and a long-buried secret about him and Ivan's wife is revealed. Henri brings his new girlfriend Faunia (the charming Emmanuelle Devos, who has starred in many of Desplechin's films, as have Deneuve and Amalric), who becomes deeply engrained in the family in just a few short days.

While A Christmas Tale has great moments of humor, it's some of the darkest you're likely to see this year. Even when potential donors come to light, the emotional blackmail games begin with a vengeance. Henri does not easily forget who supported his banishment and who defended him. If you've never seen Amalric in a non-English language film, this is a great introduction to his talents. He was absolutely devastating in last year's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as the stroke victim narrator, but this work really shows just how unhinged he can become with the right material. We watch him bob and weave from charmer to bastard, sometimes within the same scene.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the film is that it doesn't use Christmas as an emotional crutch, a cure all to all family problems. If anything, the holiday season highlights what is so deeply wrong with this family by pulling everyone together under the same roof to pick at each other, dig at old wounds, and unbury painful memories. A Christmas Tale is the anti-holiday movie, and I love it all the more for being so. One of the reasons I am so passionate about French cinema is that there seems to be a genuine community among dramatic actors. In America, we see a lot of this communal work in comedies, but in France we see so many of the same actors working together time after time. Deneuve and Amalric have made so many movies together, I've lost count, as have Amalric and Devos and Deneuve and Mastroianni (which isn't surprising since they are mother and daughter). There are many other examples of this co-mingling in French cinema, and in a way it's a comforting phenomenon and an easy way to keep track of certain favorite actors.

A Christmas Tale is loading with screaming matches, drunken declaration, a bit of bed-hopping, and some hard-won revelations and realizations about this family that are equal parts brutal and liberating. Go see this film and then go home and hug someone in your family, and thank your stars that your relationships are (hopefully) just a little bit more stable than the ones in this wholly satisfying and riveting work. And by all means, get to this one before the next onslaught of Hollywood Christmas movies hits theaters to water down and artificially sweeten the holiday season. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 

Gordon McAlpin / November 24, 2008 1:03 PM

I totally agree about Bolt — good but not great, yet well worth watching for the "on" moments — particularly because of Essman and Walton stealing the movie. If Disney doesn't do a Rhino short for the Bolt DVD, I will be sorely disappointed.

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 15 2014

The Expendables 3, Let's Be Cops, The Giver, Venus in Fur, Dinosaur 13 & The German Doctor

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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