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Column Fri Nov 18 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, The Descendants & Happy Feet Two

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1

How does one even begin to discuss any of the Twilight films without sounding like an outsider looking in? Up until the latest installment, the first of the two-part conclusion of Breaking Dawn, I'd seen these films getting slightly better with each new film. Part of the reason for this was that the choice of directors was improving with each new movie, and I thought that would be the case when I heard Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters; Dreamgirls) was on board for the climax of this story of young love, supernatural creatures, and shirtless men. But Breaking Dawn, perhaps in an effort to drag this story out to roughly four hours across two films, feels like its moving in slow motion.

I refuse to believe that whatever is left of this story couldn't have been compressed into one 2.5-hour conclusion. How many times do we need to see Jacob (Taylor Lautner), one of the few characters given anything resembling a story arc in this movie, confront his fellow werewolves to tell them that he will or won't deal with the "Bella problem" of marrying a vampire, presumably to become one herself, which would count as a vampire killing a human, which the wolves are sworn to keep from happening. I feel like we got about a half-dozen scenes like this, when two probably would have gotten the job done.

Every scene — from the opening wedding spectacle to the honeymoon in Brazil to Bella's extended, life-threatening pregnancy — seems three times longer than it needs to be. But what makes Breaking Dawn seem interminable is that almost no one in the film seems to want to be there. I will go to my grave knowing that Kristen Stewart is a solid actress, but if all you know her from is the Twilight films, you'd never know it. Make all the jokes you want about her tugging at her hair and having no neck control, but check her out in The Runaways or Adventureland or even the little seen Welcome to the Rileys (to name three recent examples), and you'll see a confident, impressive actor who doesn't stammer. And for the record, I can't wait to see her do the action-warrior thing in Snow White and the Huntsman next year.

I think the issue as far as Stewart's drab performances in the Twilight films is that she doesn't feel challenged by the work, which isn't surprising considering what I'm told is the severely underwritten source material, adapted once again by Melissa Rosenberg, who has written some of the best episodes of "Dexter," so I know she can write better than these movies would lead you to believe. Stewart's reading is so flat and unconvincing that it's kind of shocking. The only times she seems to be inspired by the material is during the back half of the film when Bella is dying due to a rapidly accelerated pregnancy that is literally draining her of life. Perhaps the prospect of being killed off and not having to continue being in this movie motivated Stewart.

Breaking Dawn also suffers severely from a case of "tell not show." The exposition here is exhausting, and people seem to pile on new legends and rules about vampires and werewolves just to explain away behavior that wouldn't make sense without these last-minute adds. And while we're talking about unmotivated behavior, why do the werewolves hates the Cullen vampires so much? Clearly these are the nicest, most hippie-ish vampires ever to exist and wouldn't hurt a fly; so why can't the local wolves just give them a pass? This unsubstantiated hostility makes the werewolves look like hairy assholes... so to speak.

And much like the previous film, Eclipse, Bella still seems to get off on teasing Jacob, even after she gets married to Robert Pattinson's Edward (I mean literally right after the wedding, she's hugging and dancing with Jacob, possibly dry humping his leg). I never accepted these two as friends, since it seems Jacob always was in love with her, and she always knew it and chose to ignore it. It's not surprising that when Jacob gets the wedding invitation, he rips his shirt off and disappears for weeks into the woods. How can a guy be expected to keep his shirt on in the face of such heartbreak?

There is a certain insane joy, I suppose, in the final act of Breaking Dawn, if only because the stakes actually seem high since Bella's life is at risk and there's blood and a lot of people want to kill Bella's possible demon baby. So little of this actually pays off, but the possibility makes for a level of fun roughly equivalent to bouncing two balloons into each other. Low stakes are actually a huge part of the problem I have with the Twilight movies in general. What happens to these creatures and humans in the upper reaches of the Washington sticks never really mattered to me. I don't necessarily need the fate of the world in the balance with every vampire vs. werewolf movie I see (this isn't an Underworld film, for heaven's sake), but give me something I can sink my teeth into.

This is probably why New Moon has always been my favorite of this franchise, since the inclusion of the Volturi adds that worldview and gravitas that are so desperately missing from the other installments. I'm excited that apparently Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning will be back in force with Breaking Dawn, Part 2, but the fact that we have to wait a whole year to wrap this up is ludicrous.

That said, this first part of the final Twilight story is one of the more painful and painfully paced. Plus, many of the actors (I'm looking at you Anna Kendrick, Billy Burke and Peter Facinelli) look like they'd rather be anywhere but in this movie, and that isn't easy to watch. It's almost like those actors who know they'll have careers after this series want so desperately for this work to be over that they can't even fake enthusiasm for the material. I understand.

With any luck, the Twilight Saga will mark the birth and death of a certain type of horror movie — one that features next to no horror, tension, fear, blood or characters developed beyond gazing/glaring at each other in an approximation of emotion. These films haven't always felt like an endurance test, but Breaking Dawn, Part 1 sure did. Hell, even the honeymoon sex scenes here missed sexy by about a mile; there was more eroticism in Jacob's "imprinting" scene, which is just gross. Here's hoping the last part of this tale ends with something resembling a bang rather than a whimper.

The Descendants

The one thing you cannot accuse writer-director Alexander Payne's latest work of being is Oscar bait; if anything, it's anti-Oscar bait, which of course means that it's almost a lock to gets all sorts of awards notice over the next few months, as it well deserves to. The Descendants is second only to Election as my favorite movie by Payne (who also created Citizen Ruth, Sideways, About Schmidt, and the brilliant Paris je t'aime segment with Margo Martindale) as it traces the truly unusual journey of a man whose wife is in a coma and must pull together his family (immediate and extended) to say goodbye to her, while also dealing with a massive real estate transaction, all on the Hawaiian Islands.

Based on Kaui Hart Hummings novel and co-adapted by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants isn't simply about family; it's about legacy — the kind you leave for your kids and the kind generations of people before you leave to you. But it's also a story in which raw emotions are alternately brought to the surface and suppressed, depending on the occasion. In the finest and most nuanced performance of his career, George Clooney plays Matt King, something of a land baron in Hawaii, whose family has made him executor to a large parcel of land that, when sold, will make his dozens of cousins insanely rich.

As the deal seems on the verge of going through, Matt's wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a boating accident that leaves her in a coma, from which the doctors say she will never come out. Trying to abide by his wife's wishes, he prepares for the mandatory unplugging of life support, but decides to bring his daughters, eldest Alexandra and young Scottie (Shailene Woodley from "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and newcomer Amara Miller), to see their mother one last time. He also decides to gather friends and family to alert them to the tragic turn, so they too can say their farewells.

But in collecting Alexandra, he discovers that she has become a bit of a wild child since discovering something that Matt never knew: that Elizabeth was having an affair with a younger man she was apparently going to leave him for. The conflicting emotions that rise up in Matt are palpable and ever-present for the duration of the film. But an early troubling and brilliant scene, just before Matt allows his daughters to see their mother for the first time in her coma, shows Clooney yelling at the his wife's lifeless body and releasing a great deal of his pain. I've never seen anything like this before, certainly not delivered with such emotional resonance, and Clooney is in such agony that it's a remarkably difficult scene to watch without wanting to avert your eyes as such a personal moment of hurt. Much of the rest of The Descendants is Matt trying to get past the hurt, which he decides is going to happen by tracking down his wife's mystery lover.

Dragging his kids along with him (as well as Alexandra's airhead male friend Sid, played by Nick Krause) on this mission, the team makes a few detours on behalf of Elizabeth, including an especially sad moment with her parents (Robert Forster and Barbara L. Southern). One of the film's many surprises is Alexandra's character development. I've seen so many film and TV shows lately that portray teenagers as nothing more than creatures of pure emotion whose only means of expression is fighting and running away in the middle of a conversation. But once she realizes that her mother is about to die, Alexandra snap into shape and begins to assume certain motherly duties (not without a few bumps, naturally), especially when it comes to taking care of her little sister. Woodley is a real discovery for me, and goes toe to toe with Clooney several times, holding her own and then some.

But even the clever way in which Matt meets the man in question (played by a surprisingly strong Matthew Lillard), things don't play out the way you think they will, due in large part to the presence of the man's wife (the always reliable Judy Greer), who knows nothing about the affair. Matt charges into the encounter, but once he's in the midst of it, he's not quite sure what he wants to do about it. The tension in the confrontation scene is thick, not because we're afraid a fight will break out or something conventional like that; we're wondering just how many lives Matt is willing to ruin just to feel better about the one-two punch of this discovery and the fact that he can't confront his wife about it.

As unlikely as it may sound, the adultery storyline and the property deal eventually do converge in a great scene with Matt and his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), and Matt is forced to make a potentially unpopular decision. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Alexander Payne's work that has made him with only a few films under his belt so revered and admired. Of course, his naturalistic, yet elegant writing, but he also brings out something in actors that few other directions of dialogue-driven film seem capable of.

It's a real pleasure watching Clooney — an actor whose bag of tricks I wrongfully assumed I knew completely — play someone with such a complicated and layered set of troubles. He is far from a perfect man. For example, he knows he's not a great dad, being largely absent from his kids' lives (he calls himself "the back-up parent"). He seems to regret that that was the role he had in their lives, but there's no sense that he would have changed anything for their sake either.

Like all Payne movies, The Descendants is laced with humor, but it seems especially dark here, since every moment of laughter is cut short when the characters remember the bigger picture of a dying woman lying in a hospital bed. At the same time, the film certainly doesn't come across as depressing or morbid. I hate to throw around terms like "life affirming," but that pretty much covers the sum total effect the movie had on me, which is a fairly rare thing these days. The Descendants is a work that each viewer will take something slightly different away from based on the life you've had going in, and those are my favorite kind of stories. Whatever it is you derive from Payne's latest bit of genius, the experience of seeing it will improve your life, if only for a moment.

To read my exclusive interviews with The Descendants stars Shailene Woodley and Judy Greer, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Happy Feet Two

Well, this one certainly marks one of those great (rare) achievements when the sequel outdoes the original at just about every level, and I say that thinking the original Happy Feet was pretty entertaining. Then again, director George Miller has a habit of making his sequels often superior to the originals since he directed The Road Warrior and Babe: Pig in the City. Pun intended, the characters in Happy Feet Two seem to have found their footing and created a story that is both inspirational and, at times, utterly surreal.

Our hero from the first film, the penguin Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), now has a family that includes wife Gloria (singer Pink) and a shy young son Erik, who is afraid to follow in his father's dancing footsteps for fear of being laughed at. It probably doesn't help that an early attempt to shuffle results in him landing head-first in ice and then peeing on himself. The themes of being yourself no matter who may mock you are still present in Happy Feet Two, although it is a bit of a mixed message when 10,000 penguins are dancing the same dance yet still making a case for individuality.

Erik and a couple of his penguin buddies run away from home and discover another group of penguins that follow a leader named The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), who is selling himself as the only one of his species that can fly. The story of how he landed in with these penguins is intertwined with that of his right-hand bird Lovelace (Robin Williams, who also voices Mumble's best friend Ramon). The two were rescued by the crew of a tanker, and in an interesting and effective storytelling decision, Miller uses real, non-animated actors to play the human characters. The animated and real world blend really beautifully here, especially in later scenes where the crew attempts to rescue Mumble's penguin brood after a shift in the melting ice leaves most of them stranded in a deep cavern. (Yes, there's a mild environmental message here; deal with it.)

So what makes Happy Feet Two so surreal? It's the little touches... literally. The standout moments in the movie belong two a pair of krill (named Will and Bill, and played by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt). Their scenes have almost nothing to do with the main storyline, yet these two are fantastic together playing creatures who suddenly realize they don't have to be at the bottom of the food chain and exist solely to be whale food. They break from the swarm and set off on their own adventures attempting to be fearsome, meat-eating predators. I'm convinced old friends Damon and Pitt stood across from each other to record their dialogue because they play off each other so well, and their comic timing is superb. Will and Bill deserve their own movie at least as much as Puss In Boots did, and I'm starting the campaign now.

Another bizarre and hilarious moment in the film comes when Mumble and Erik attempt to recruit a herd of elephant seals to help them save their fellow penguins. When the elephant seals refuse, Mumble launches into a variation of song from a Puccini opera but with new words about the admiration he feels for his father. The boy's overly dramatic delivery left me all giggly and mystified by the inspiration.

You may notice a few choice voices in Happy Feet Two, including Hugo Weaving, Common, and Sofia Vergara as Carmen, the woman of Ramon's dreams. Honestly though, is Vergara worth having in your movie if you can't see her? Happy Feet Two works best not when it's trying to be funny or even during the fairly simplistic dance sequences. It's at its best when messages of cooperation, getting along despite differences, and, yes, the ever-present theme of striving to make your mark on the world on your own terms are at the forefront of the story. There's nothing preachy about this movie; even the human characters are treated well by Miller and company.

I should mention that the version of the film I saw was surprisingly not in 3D, which seems like a huge mistake because the visuals clearly were made to be seen that way and probably would have looked spectacular. Even still, what you have at 2D is pretty great, and I can easily see this movie becoming a family favorite of both kids and adults. Happy Feet Two is better than the original, sure, but also better than most of the animated fare for 2011.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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