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Column Fri Jul 02 2010
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Airbender, Love Ranch, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky & Let It Rain
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
I remember about two years ago almost to the day standing in line for about two hours at the San Diego Comic-Con waiting to get into the panel that would include the world's first look at footage from Twilight. I had to be there to cover the event, but nearly everyone else in line wanted to be there. So I took advantage of the situation to chat with a woman about my age and her 14-year-old niece, both of whom were rabid fans of the then-three Stephenie Meyer books and were eagerly awaiting a chance to gaze upon the actors who had been chosen to embody their beloved characters. I was completely uneducated about the Twilight world when I got in line, but thanks to these two lovely ladies, I got schooled pretty fast. Although their quick synopsis of the first book wasn't winning me over, their unbridled enthusiasm was infectious, and it gave me the energy I needed to survive the screaming mayhem of the panel and the one-on-one interviews I got with the clearly shell-shocked star Kristen Stewart and director Catherine Hardwicke.
I remember while waiting to chat with Stewart, I looked to my right, and saw Robert Pattinson standing almost at my shoulder, unattended as he awaited his next interview. I said hello, told him I liked his work as Cedric in the Harry Potter movies, and for a brief moment, he seemed really happy not to be talking about vampires or how hot he was or what kind of underwear he wore. And if it were possible, he looked even more shaken up than Stewart, like a cannon had been fired while he was in a deep sleep. But again, my mind kept returning to those two ladies in line who made me understand a bit of why they loved the Twilight material. I was envious of their passion and I remembered a time in my younger days when it didn't take much to get me that revved up about a film. So imagine my surprise when I finally saw Twilight months later and felt like I'd just witnessed the birth on one of Satan's largest, most evil toilet babies.
I don't care how you slice it, Twilight is a hunk of shit. And while New Moon certainly wasn't much of an improvement, it was an improvement thanks almost entirely to the presence of Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning as members of the Italy-based Volturi, who police the activities of vampires worldwide and discipline those clans who get a little too high profile. But the Volturi weren't a huge part of the proceedings, so they didn't even come close to saving the film. To make matters nearly intolerable, the love triangle between Bella (Stewart), Edward (Pattinson) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is one of the most drop-dead, snore-inducing romances ever committed to film. But the death stroke of all three films is that I can't get passed the fact that Bella is the biggest, most manipulative bitch imaginable as she seemingly goes out of her way to string two guys along over the course of three films (with the two-part Breaking Dawn still to go -- yay) by playing the horny virgin with a guy she knows wants to wait to have sex with her until they're married. While the guy who would tap that ass in a second, him she says she loves but not in "that way." But she still makes out with him, and I'm pretty sure I saw her twisting his often-exposed nipples at least once. So in conclusion, I hate Bella. And I'm not really a fan of the way Stewart plays her, and I say that as a Stewart fan.
That being said, the films in the Twilight Saga continue to improve for the pure and simple reason that there is less time devoted to the primary and secondary romances. The film's climactic battle -- between an army of newborn vampires (who are apparently stronger than long-term vamps because of the human blood is still in their system) and the alliance of the Cullens with Jacob's werewolf tribe -- is well staged by director David Slade (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) even if the werewolf effects still look unbelievably fake. I liked the sequence because it doesn't pull any punches in terms of brutality. Heads and limbs are ripped off (albeit in that weird alabastery way that vampires die), and spines and other bones are shattered with nasty aggression. If for no other reason, Eclipse is a better movie than the previous two because of the action.
I did like the flashbacks that a few of the Cullen family members got in an effort to show us how they were turned into vampires. The only problem with them is that other than giving us the raw information, these flashbacks don't amount to anything beyond the storytelling. What we learn about their backgrounds doesn't help to enrich them as characters. It's the cinematic equivalent of empty calories. I liked the idea of one of the film's many new characters, Riley (Xavier Samuel), a missing young man from Bella's hometown who turns out to be the leader of the new vampire army. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's a pawn of Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard), still seeking revenge for her lover's death. Riley's dilemma might have been a great plot point, but anything that takes away from the sluggish love stories seems destined for the scrap heap.
Where Eclipse really screws the pooch is in the scenes between Jacob and Edward, who are forced to become uneasy friends in a joint effort to protect Bella from every non-Cullen vampire on the West Coast. Jacob and Edward's verbal jousts are about as convincing as kittens smacking each other in the face over a ball of yarn. The two of them should just fuck and get it out of their system; if it's good enough for gay porn, it's good enough for Twilight. And I'd bet you the fan base would grow exponentially... in numbers, I mean, not inches. Sorry.
Seriously though, a person can only handle so many hours of two guys gazing at one woman before it just seems stupid. And what might pass for sexual tension ends up turning into a joke. There's a sequence in the back half of the film in which Bella, Jacob and Edward end up on a snow-capped mountain in a tent (don't ask). Bella is freezing and the cold-blooded Edward is incapable of warming her. Naturally, the half-naked Jacob jumps right in the sleeping bag with Bella, suggests she remove her clothes, and suddenly it's boner city. OK, that last part didn't happen, but it really wanted to. The scene made me laugh out loud for every single wrong reason.
What makes me a bit sad for the die-hard fans of Meyer's books is that, for many, the romance aspect of the story is the thing that really hooked them. So to see those moments in the movies squandered with such abandon is an unfortunate thing. I'm still trying to figure out how such a talented writer like Melissa Rosenberg can be responsible for these deadly dull adaptations, but perhaps an effort (or pressure) to stay true to the source material has left her little to work with.
The brief glimpses we get of members of the Volturi (including Dakota Fanning's nasty Jane) in this film helped keep me awake, but endless debates over Bella becoming a vampire or getting married to Edward or whether or not she's in love with Jacob or how the whole fucking combined vampire and werewolf communities have to protect this awful young woman wore me down once again. Perhaps it took a little longer this time around to break me, but break me it did. Eclipse is another soul-draining Twilight movie, but maybe by the time they get to the second film in the Breaking Dawn story, they'll get it right. A guy can dream. And I say this without a hint of sarcasm: I hope my Comic-Con line-mates are digging the movies as much as I'm loathing them.
The Last Airbender
I'm going to speak plainly in a language everyone can understand. M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is a hate crime against film lovers. No one should ever have to endure what I was unexpectedly put through yesterday afternoon watching this murky 3-D shitstorm of a movie that appears to have been shot through unflushed toilet bowl water, which, upon reflection, seems 100 percent appropriate.
Before I launch into why this film is so abysmal, let me make a plea to all studios across the land. Please stop the unwatchable practice of converting movies into 3-D. I have no issues with shooting in 3-D or the array of lovely animated films made in 3-D, but you sons of bitches have not perfected the process of 3-D conversion to the point where it is safe for human viewing. And if you are going to convert these poor, helpless movies, don't choose ones in which 75 percent or more of the action takes place at night or in dimly lit settings. Stop cloaking your films in darkness on top of darkness. And I know this wasn't a projection issue here in Chicago, because I sat through two 3-D movies back-to-back on this particular day in the exact same theater, and the second one (an animated film) looked awesome and fairly bright. There are huge sections of The Last Airbender that simply don't even appear to be in 3-D, and when I removed my glasses, guess what? I could actually make out faces and action and decently rendered special effects. With the glasses? Everything looked like pond scum. Fuck everyone whose job it is to convert movies to 3-D and the people who hired you. It doesn't work, so just stop ruining my experience going to the movies.
That said, nothing on heaven or earth could have saved The Last Airbender from spiraling out of control and making it certainly the worst film I've seen all year so far, and an early candidate for the worst film of the decade. There isn't a single element to this movie that works, and I say that knowing nothing about the TV series on which it is based but as someone who went into this film thinking there was a strong chance I might enjoy my experience.
It's difficult to explain just how far Shyamalan strayed as a filmmaker, but he seems to have entered into this story with a tell-not-show attitude. Huge chunks of this movie are just people talking about action that has already happened or is going to happen. It's as if the production ran out of money to shoot certain action sequences, so the powers that be simply said, "OK, let's describe the action instead." Who does that? But I know that's not what happened because this movie looks like it cost a metric shit ton of money. All of those wasted funds are right there on the screen in the form of elaborate landscape backgrounds, mythical creatures (like a dragon and a giant beaver-like creature), elements being tossed around by "benders," who I think are people who can manipulate either air, fire, earth or water.
The writing here goes beyond just lame description of action. I could almost see the exclamation points at the end of every sentence in Shyamalan's screenplay. And the words are acted in kind by the lead child actors, who deliver each word with eyebrows raised and voices in full announcer mode, almost as if they thought they were recording dialogue for an animated movie (which would have looking a helluva lot better in 3-D -- zing!). I'm sure the tens of thousands of kids who see this movie are going to respond really well to all that 3-D talking.
And I don't mean to crap on these poor kids, but they are across-the-board terrible, especially the two white kids who follow the title character (white kid playing non-white) around. They are played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, who plays Jasper Hale in the Twilight films and does so in a far more interesting manner than in The Last Airbender. Poor guy has had a rough week. And don't even get me started on the Airbender himself, Noah Ringer as Aang, a young monk who is the reincarnation of the "Avatar," a bender who can control all four elements (with proper training), as opposed to regular benders who can only control one... I guess. Ringer has decent delivery, but all of his lines sound so clear, they seem dubbed. And while he does get a chance to fight in the film, he mostly just rattles on and on about his history, his destiny, his abilities, blah, blah, blah.
There are a few familiar faces, but they don't really do anything to remove the stink from this production. Cliff Curtis plays Fire Lord Ozai, the leader of the Firemen, or whatever the hell they're called. His disappointing son is portrayed by Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire, while the usually reliable Aasif Mandvi plays Ozai's top military leader Commander Zhao. For all of their yelling and posturing, you would think a little spark might be lit under the ass of this movie, but you'd be wrong. They just talk, talk, talk about fighting, fight a little, then talk some more.
And then there are plot points in The Last Airbender that are just plain dumb. See if my logic makes sense. Leading up to the big battle scene between the firebender warriors and the water bender monk-like people, a water dude makes a point to say that everyone in their camp should put out every fire so the fire people won't have anything to...bend, I guess. Fair enough: fire people need fire to do their tricks, water people need water, etc. But it's made very clear that the world in which this story takes place is somewhat industrialized. We see these machines that look like a cross between a tank and a bulldozer driving on their own steam, plus there are these giant metal battle ships that the fire people travel upon that clearly are operating on something other than air. Now I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing that a race of people that possess and operate such devices might also have invented and carry around with them, I don't know, matches maybe. Perhaps even something as sophisticated as a flint-based lighter? Call me crazy. No really, call me crazy. It doesn't take long for the story to inform us that some firebenders can actually create fire out of thin air anyway, so why waste our time? Because they can, dummy.
As a critic, I always try to find one or two positive things to write about every film, even for the most trying movies I see in a given year. But for The Last Airbender, I've got nothing. No the 3-D doesn't help the film in any way; it actually makes is a whole lot worse. But even without the 3-D, this movie would have been an endurance test. There was a 14- or 15-year-old girl sitting behind me during this screening, and when the end credits began rolling, she turned to the person next to her and said, "Look at your watch. That movie was only 90-some minutes long; it felt like three hours." Truer words have never been spoken. If you still want to see this movie, you're either too dumb to understand why you shouldn't or too young to care. Fair enough. Enjoy spending the rest of your life with the memory of The Last Airbender fouling your brain. This summer is beginning to feel like the End of Movie Days. God save us.
I make no secret that I will watch Helen Mirren in anything. That being said, since her Oscar-winning turn in The Queen, she has really tested my undying love for her work with performances in the National Treasure sequel, Inkheart and The Last Station, which I know some people liked, but I found tedious and overacted by everyone but her. She was quite good as a newspaper editor in State of Play, but it was a supporting part that only offered us a taste of what she's capable of. So the best news about her latest work, Love Ranch, is that she owns this thinly veiled account of Mustang Ranch madame Salley Conforte (renamed Grace Bontempo for this movie). And although the film is deeply flawed, I think admirers of Mirren's body of work are in for a treat, especially since she's playing opposite Joe Pesci, dragged out of semi-retirement to play husband Charlie (a sorta, kinda version of Joe Conforte, owner of the original Mustang Ranch, the first wholly legal brothel in Nevada).
Love Ranch also marks the first time Mirren has worked with husband-director Taylor Hackford since they met making 1985's White Nights. And while Hackford's body of work (including An Officer and a Gentleman, The Idolmaker, Dolores Claiborne, The Devil's Advocate, Proof of Life and Ray) is impressive, he's done something extraordinary bringing these two great actors together. At the top of the mid-1970s-era film, Grace is dealt a severe blow with a cancer diagnosis that puts an expiration date on her life and serves as the catalyst for her to take a look at her existence with Charlie, who cheats on her with their many employees (played by the likes of Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Bai Ling, Elise Neal and Scout Taylor-Compton). Clearly, she's stopped trying to talk him out of his behavior, but her death sentence has made his philandering far less easy to cope with. Around this time, Charlie also decides to buy the contract of Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta, mirroring the career of boxing legend Oscar Bonavena), a handsome, charming and strangely sensitive man who shows a genuine interest in Grace, whom Charlie has assigned as Bruza's manager.
The elements of Love Ranch that are the most fascinating involve screenwriter Mark Jacobson's examination of the Bontempos' inability to run their perfectly legal business inside the law. They seem incapable of managing their operation without cheating the IRS and keeping two sets of accounting books, among their many offenses. I was especially impressed with Pesci's work as Charlie, a man who pitches his brothel and prostitutes like used cars. His ridiculous southern accent underscores the lengths he will go to to get people to like him and use his services. But he also manages to unleash an ugly, dangerous, slightly psychotic side that made me think, "Ah, there's the Joe Pesci we know and love." Mirren certainly goes for a more zen approach to her performance, but her real strength comes in the gradual breaking down of her resistance to falling in love with Bruza.
Although many of the things that happen in this movie also happened in real life doesn't mean that they mesh especially well on screen. I normally enjoy when a film refuses to be pigeonholed into one specific genre, so the idea that the story of the brothel and the love triangle occupy the same film doesn't bother me in theory. But something doesn't quite work here in blending these two elements. The performances carry the film through the rough spots, but you can still feel the bumps on this road. The plot loses its focus in the second half, as it becomes all about the love affair and Charlie's jealous rage at his wife announcing she's leaving him. For those familiar with how this story played out in real life, there could have been an entire movie about just that, and it would have been great with this cast. But the story Hackford chooses to tell is this one, and he loses his way at points with only the strength of his actors to guide him to a mildly satisfying conclusion. I am absolutely recommending the film for Mirren and Pesci's work, but if you aren't particularly drawn to them, you may find yourself losing interest in a hurry. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with Love Ranch director Taylor Hackford, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky
Serving as something of a sequel to the recent Coco Before Chanel look at the fashion icon's rise from obscurity, this latest work from director Jan Kounen (Dobermann) concerns a very specific sliver of time when the lives of Chanel (the stunning Anna Mouglalis) and composer Igor Stravinsky (Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen), seven years after the notoriously disastrous premiere of his "The Rite of Spring" at the Theatre des Champes-Elysees. Chanel was impressed with the work, and when she runs into him and his family living destitute in Paris after fleeing the Russian Revolution, she invites them all to take refuge in her palatial home so Igor can work in peace while the children and his sickly wife (Yelena Morozova) are looked after and distracted.
But Chanel has ulterior motives for her generosity; she is deeply attracted to the artist, and her aloof, glamorous demeanor soon has Stravinsky under her spell. The film seems to indicate that Igor never really respected what Coco did for a living, but it also implies that she never cared. She had enough people in her life praising her work that she didn't require this man to do so. Their relationship was deeply passionate, and every encounter is fraught with tension because all of this was happening under one, albeit very large, roof.
It's entirely possible to lose oneself in the production and costume design of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, much of which was on loan from the archives of the Chanel company. Each room in her house is as immaculately laid out as she was -- simple lines, black and white, elegant to perfection. But there's also a deliberate coldness to both Chanel's home and Mouglalis' performance. I was actually genuinely entranced by the filmmaking and the acting here. This is a work that thrives on an understated canvas, except when it comes to the fairly explicit sex scenes. But for the most part, emotions are rarely expressed, unless that emotion is anger and/or resentment, which springs its head late in the game. Coco & Igor is beautifully directed by Kounen, and the screenplay (by Kounen and Carlo De Boutiny, from Chris Greenhalgh's novel) boils the relationship down to its essential lustful core. There's an odd coda to the film that may have audiences shaking their heads, but by that point I was on board with this haunting work about two passionate artists at their peak finding something like love with each other. I'm not sure this is a great movie, but it held my interest without fail. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Let It Rain
There's a little repertoire company in France that tends to work together under the direction of actress Agnes Jaoui (The Taste of Others, Look At Me, and the co-writer of Family Resemblances and Smoking/No Smoking) and her husband, co-writer, and acting partner Jean-Pierre Bacri. Each film is a biting, energetic comment on the human condition and bad behavior, and their latest work, Let It Rain, is among the best they have put together. Jaoui plays a politician with ambitions of running for office, but doesn't seem to like people, including her boyfriend. She seems equal parts flattered and annoyed when a documentary filmmaker (Jamel Debbouze) asks to shoot a segment on her for his film about powerful women. His bumbling partner (Bacri) seems intent on finding new and glorious ways of ruining each shoot, and the combination of the three leads to some enlightened conversations about the sociology of sex roles, ineffectual government, the death of romance and whatever else comes into their minds.
Each character has trials and tribulations. Bacri is trying to stay close to his young son, while carrying on a relationship with a married woman. Debbouze's attempting to make a better life for his family, including his aging mother, who is a housekeeper for Jaoui's recently dead mother. There's only the barest sketch of a plot in Let It Rain, but this film isn't about the narrative; it's about digging deep into the qualities of its characters that make them worth knowing. At its core, the film is a comedy, but there are moments of true frustration and pain in the lives of these people that might make you want to sob openly. Like rain itself, this work is something you let fall over you a drop at a time until you are soaked in its greatness. OK, maybe that metaphor doesn't quite do it, but you get the idea. Let It Rain is a charming, funny, and moving experience. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.