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Column Fri Nov 16 2012
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, Silver Linings Playbook, Anna Karenina, This Must Be the Place & Chasing Ice
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2
There have been some very capable actors who have been a part of the Twilight films over the last five years, and I include lead actors Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Of course, there are also some actors in these films who make make it their life's mission to suck the breath and soul out of every scene they're in (I'm looking squarely into your eyes, Taylor Lautner and Ashley Greene). Having made this five-film journey with these characters and this saga that could have easily been told in a tightly edited three-film stretch, I feel I've been more than fair to these movies. I loathed Twilight, and felt that the next two films got progressively better, only to have the first part of Breaking Dawn simply collapse in a heap on screen that no amount of vigorous, bed-breaking pretend sex could help.
The overall issues I've had with the series have little to do with how author Stephenie Meyer and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have essentially changed all the rules about what vampires and werewolves are. I love a good overhaul, especially in dealing with supernatural creatures that have been done to death. No, my real problem with The Twilight Saga is that the love triangle that plays out between the chronically indecisive Bella (Stewart), the pussified vampire Edward (Pattinson), and the pouty wolf boy Jacob (Lautner) never felt real.
These actors are going through the motions of people in love, but the never inhabit the necessary emotions or even have the look of love behind their glassy eyes. There are no intimate conversations between any of these characters. They only talk about two things: being in love and anything that keeps the plot moving forward. I love a good love story, I do. But if you're going to tell one, you have to allow your characters to actually inhabit the same space long enough to convince us they can spend forever together. This is a criticism of the entire franchise, not just Breaking Dawn. What's fascinating about this particular film is that, for the first time by my estimation, Bella and Edward show signs of a connection. They have actually found something to bond over — their daughter Renesmee (played for most of the film by Mackenzie Foy and for the rest of the film by a freakishly expressive fake-looking CGI infant).
Breaking Dawn, Part 2 might actually be the best film in series, and not just because of the bloodless violence orgy that makes up the film's epic final sequence (seriously, heads are snapped off left and right, and not always cleanly at the neck). Somehow, having a common purpose outside of being totally into each other gives the couple and this film some much-needed breathing room. Even Lautner seems human in this movie, despite the fact that his wolf side has imprinted on Renesmee, which manifests itself as a combination of falling in love with a child and simply wanting to play bodyguard. No matter how you manipulate this plot point to make it seem less creepy, it just gets creepier. But I digress...
This might be the best of the series (which is by no means a ringing endorsement) because it has focus. It doesn't get lost in its dozens of side characters (more than a little ironic, because there are so many new characters introduced in this film that the end credits are something like 15 minutes long) or feel like it has to cram a half-dozen subplots into its framework. There is one story here: protect Renesmee from the Volturi who suspect that she is an "immortal child," who are apparently pre-pubescent vampires who can't control their bloodlust and have wiped out entire villages in the past. In fact, young Renesmee is a half-human/half-vampire mutt, born of a human and aging rapidly (no one knows whether she will age until she dies or stop at some point).
While the Volturi are gathering their forces to wipe out the Cullens, thinking they have turned a child into a vampire, the Cullens are gathering "witnesses" — people they have convinced of their innocence who will speak on their behalf when the Volturi arrive. About the first half of Breaking Dawn, Part 2 is pretty standard-issue Twilight nonsense, but once the Cullens start bringing in new vampire allies from around the world, things get interesting. Of course, having the Volturi come back in full force is the film's greatest gift. The elder vampire statesmen — including the likes of Michael Sheen as the leader, Aro, and Dakota Fanning as the sadistic Jane — have been my favorite Twilight characters since they first appeared in New Moon. Sheen in particular knows he's in a ridiculous movie, and he camps things up with a maniacal giggle and a peacock strut that is all about wielding all the power. If you think he's overdoing it, you're right... and he's all kinds of genius for it.
As mentioned, director Bill Condon has saved the best sequence of his two films for the end. The big clash is spectacular, and while I'm fully aware that Rosenberg and Condon have changed the ending of the film from the book, I think it's an alteration for the better. And the fans in the screening I attended lost their minds when they realized the extend of the change. It's kind of stunning who lives and dies, and that's all you're getting out of me. But it's a head-popping good action sequence by any movie's standards.
The Twilight films have been easy targets for sure. The capable actors I mentioned in the first paragraph couldn't save or even improve the woefully underwritten material, and the bad actors simply had their lack of talent underscored sevenfold. But I've always been rooting for something about these films to work because I'm hoping that a handful of the younger fans use these movies as a gateway to better movies about monsters in our midst and get enthusiastic about horror films in general. And Bill Condon and his team have pieced together an exit strategy that might do just that. There's about half of a fairly solid movie in Breaking Dawn, Part 2, and for this series, that's an absolute miracle.
Silver Linings Playbook
Whenever I see a film in which a man and woman meet and the film seems hellbent on pushing the two together into a romantic relationship, I'll admit I tune out slightly, for the plain and simple reason that predictability bores me. It's not like I start thinking about picking up dry cleaning or which of my enemies I'd like to kill first; it's more about simply never connecting with the characters enough to care about their journey, let alone their destination. And then there's writer-director David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (from the novel by Matthew Quick), in which two good-looking, mentally unstable characters (played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) are brought together under circumstances that made me think "What the hell is going to happen to these two?" What a refreshingly welcome question.
Pat Solantano (Cooper) has just been conditionally released from a state mental institution and into the hands (and home) of his parents, Pat Sr. and Dolores (Robert De Niro and the phenomenal Jacki Weaver). He was admitted to the facility after a very painful breakup with his wife, whom he still seems convinced he will be reunited with. He runs into an old friend (John Ortiz), who invites Pat over for dinner to meet his wife's sister Tiffany (Lawrence), whose troubled past is something more of a mystery, but we know it includes a dead husband and sleeping with pretty much everyone at her former job. Their first meet is far from cute. In fact, it's rather aggressively awful, but they somehow come out the other side of dinner having arranged a get together and at least recognizing that their forms of crazy might somehow complement each other.
Aside from being attractive, Lawrence and Cooper have a natural banter that might be interpreted as antagonistic, except that each time they meet and talk, they seem to break through to the other's emotional core just a little bit more. It's a painful process to watch much of the time — he can't stop talking about his ex and she is clearly in desperate need to someone to stabilize her and has for some reason pinpointed this wildly unstable man as that person. It's a remarkable pairing that is impossible to take your eyes off of.
But Silver Linings Playbook isn't just about these two, thankfully. Like all of Russell's films (The Fighter, Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster), the supporting cast provides an ample garden for the lead characters to grow in. De Niro hasn't been this good in a very long time. He's a man who is burdened with a hardcore belief in superstitions, especially when it concerns his sainted Philadelphia Eagles. He wants desperately to support his son in his time of need, but he completely at a loss about how to deal with Pat Jr.'s particular issues. There's a scene in which he and Tiffany first meet that is one of my favorite moments in any film this year, as she strips away one of his dearly held superstitions and replaces it with another equally ridiculous one. The verbal gymnastics in this film are breathtaking.
And this movie is not just a story of a family; it's about a family from Philadelphia. And much like The Fighter made the Boston area a character in the film, this film does the same, right down to Weaver's pitch-perfect eastern Pennsylvania accent and colloquialisms. Russell has become a filmmaker to whom place is not just something to duplicate or capture; it's essential to the story in so many ways.
One of the film's most unexpected turns is a bargain struck between Pat and Tiffany. She agrees to deliver a letter to his ex (her sister, played by Julia Stiles, is still friends with the ex) if he becomes her ballroom dance partner for a contest she's planning on entering. It sounds like a contrivance, I know, but there is something so desperate in her need to make this work that all forms of cutesiness are jettisoned almost instantly.
I should also mention that Russell has once again assembled a rather remarkable supporting cast that ranges from Chris Tucker as a fellow patient at the institution to the ever-reliable Shea Whigham as Pat's brother to Anupam Kher as Pat's therapist. It's a stellar line-up that adds texture to this already solid cast. I was particularly impressed with Tucker, who plays it straight for the most part while still making us laugh (despite ourselves) at his affliction.
There are no guaranteed outcomes in Silver Linings Playbook, although you'll probably have a few hunches about who ends up with whom. But the true measure of the film's success is its level of unpredictability, which sometimes runs counter to its charm. Lawrence's Tiffany is a certified mess of a human being, but our reaction to her isn't about sympathy. We warm to her because she wants to desperately to be better. Pat's issues are darker. I spent half the film thinking one or both of these characters was going to attempt suicide, and that wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility.
I've now seen Lawrence in exactly seven movies, and each time I leave one of her films, I think I know what she's capable of. By the next one, she's surprised me once again with her range and abilities. Still, nothing quite prepared me for how impressive she is in Silver Linings Playbook. Part of her success here is thanks to a rich script, but she adds a level of force and energy that I simply wasn't prepared to see from her, and I hope she enjoys all of those awards luncheons she'll be attending early next year. And I don't mean to undersell Cooper either. I'm guessing most of you haven't seen him in full dramatic mode, and I like this version of him better.
This is a film that reveals itself to you one layer at a time. Just when you think you know the characters or what's coming next, things shift just enough to catch you off guard. What a rare and unexpected treat from a mainstream release. Sometimes devastating, always entertaining, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds at being both surprising and fulfilling. The film has a limited release in Chicago beginning today and then expands wider just before Thanksgiving.
From the very beginning, there is something very different and wonderful about director Joe Wright and wrighter Tom (Shakespeare In Love) Stoppard's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's lavish, sprawling look behind the curtain at the last vestiges of the imperial Russian upper classes. Rather than simply setting Anna Karenina in the late 19th century, Wright (who also did Atonement and Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightley, who plays Anna) stages the proceedings as if it were an elaborate play either being put on or perhaps rehearsed. Which is not to say the film in any way resembles a filed stage play, but very often characters are seen moving backstage between scenes with props and sets being wheeled into place or flown in on ropes. The work still feels very much like a movie, but every once in a while characters enter an almost otherworldly arena of theater before snapping back into film mode. I may not be making myself clear, but when you see it, you'll understand; and I'm guessing you'll find it fascinating.
Anna is a woman married to Karenin (Jude Law), an aristocrat with a strong spiritual core. They seem to get along well, but the husband is a largely passionless creature who loves his wife enough to ignore his transgressions as long as she doesn't embarrass him. But when Anna meets the dashing (and largely broke) Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick Ass fame, sporting a twirly little mustache), she is swept away by pure, unfiltered passion, which eventually either becomes love or is mistaken for love. There is so little to love about Vronsky (at least this version of him), it's tough to tell the difference. The situation is complicated by Anna having one child with her husband and another with the Count. Since she was still married when she gave birth to her second child, it is considered her husband's by law unless he denounces his wife, thus giving him leverage over her. You can almost feel Anna's guts being crushed when she realizes she might lose both her children.
For pure entertainment's sake, Anna Karenina dispenses with much of the story's political tones in favor of the affairs of the heart. Although Stoppard and Wright have a great deal of fun tearing down high society for all its stuffiness and birthing rules of conduct that stifle those with any fire in their hearts. But Anna is not given a pass for her behavior either. She's a woman who puts her personal desires before her own children — a crime punishable being driven from her status in life. There's a sequence in an opera house toward the end of the film that is especially brutal.
Wright hasn't forgotten the little touches either, especially in his supporting cast. I was particularly taken with Kelly Macdonald as one of the only women who stays friends with Anna as long as she can because she wishes she were brave enough to make similar decisions. Actors such as Emily Watson, Olivia Williams and Matthew Macfadyen as Macdonald's philandering husband are all quite good and bring some much-needed punch to this often ruthless story. Anna Karenina has a life and flow that keeps things moving with a stunning elegance that goes beyond just nice-looking sets and lovely costumes (although both are on full display). Simply put, Knightley is at her best as an actor under Wright's direction. But in this film, she's devastating — both as a beauty and a performer with tragedy coursing through her veins. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
This Must Be the Place
Am I the only one who finds it truly bizarre that the Italian writer-director who gave us the Oscar-nominated Il Divo has made a movie set largely in Ireland and the US, starring Sean Penn as a reclusive former rock star who looks a lot like The Cure's Robert Smith and speaks with the voice of Tiny Tim? OK, maybe I'm the crazy one. After watching This Must Be the Place, I had a lot of questions. First and foremost, why would Penn agree to be in this movie? Maybe it was the challenge of the getting to the core of the singer known as Cheyenne, apparently a Goth legend at one point (and still dressing like one), but today, he lives in Ireland with his decidedly straight-laced but totally supportive wife, played by Frances McDormand, who ends up being the saving grace of this movie.
The 50-year-old Cheyenne seems to be in something of a rut. Those around him validate his eccentricities; he spends a great deal of his time hanging out with a teenage girl named Mary (Eve Hewson, Bono's daughter) and just generally being afraid of most people, which leads to some horribly awkward conversations.
When he hears that his estranged father has died, Cheyenne heads back to New York to see his family and pay his respects. But upon going through his father's things, he discovers that dad was obsessed with tracking down a still-living Nazi war criminal hiding in America — a man who apparently humiliated his father in some way when he was being held in a camp as a child. To pay tribute to his dad, and with the help of a professional Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch), Cheyenne sets out to find this one-time Nazi, assuming he's still alive. And now the movie is a road-trip film.
As off putting as Cheyenne is as an eccentric human being, the fact that Sean Penn is the man behind the eyeshadow makes his difficult to stop watching. And his choices with Cheyenne — from the voice to the clothes to the freakish mannerisms — are all bold to the point where some of them are just silly. But there's still something there. Not counting his brief scenes in last year's The Tree of Life (and since Gangster Squad has been pushed until January), I haven't seen Penn in a starring role since 2010's Fair Game, and before that it was his Oscar-winning turn in 2008's Milk. So I feel like every appearance is worthy of at least taking a look at, but that's not me saying you're even going to like it. I'm not stepping out on that rickety limb.
The film has some solid acting work by the likes of Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten(!) and even David Byrne playing one of Cheyenne's old music buddies... named David Byrne. There are more than a few moments of genuine humor in This Must Be the Place, but they are too few and far between to make me believe this was meant to be some kind of comedy or farce. In the end, the movie is too much of a mess to be regarded as anything more than a fascinating disaster, but in my book it confirms that Penn is still an essential actor whose performances must be seen to be believed, even when he makes questionable choices like playing this character. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
I'll admit, I presumed Chasing Ice would be a heavy-handed work about climate change and its effects on the world's expansive glacial landscape. Instead what I got was a bit of that in the framework of an exceptionally told, humanizing documentary that features what is essentially the first irrefutable photographic images of how rapidly glaciers are disappearing. The film concludes with the mother of all jaw-dropping money shots: a glacier the size of lower Manhattan crashing into the water with such force that it looks like a thousand whales fighting under the water. You have truly never seen anything like it.
The actual subject of Chasing Ice — a rousing hit at Sundance in January and SXSW in March — is renowned nature photographer James Balog, who has a passion for shooting unusual ice formations. But as he went to polar locations to take such shots over the course of many years, he noticed the landscape changing, sometimes before his eyes, due to the planet's carbon-addicted lifestyle. So he and his small team (including director/cameraman Jeff Orlowski) set up time-lapse cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Glacier National Park in Montana to capture the progression (or regression) of glaciers in those area over the course of a season.
What's fascinating about Chasing Ice isn't just the resulting photos and astounding supplementary video capturing massive sections of ice simply falling into oblivion, but Orlowski has a fair amount of film of Balog dealing with knee problems requiring several surgeries, which is bad news for a guy who makes a living climbing mountains and ice faces. We also get to meet his wife and young daughter, who admire the work Balog is doing, but are clearly concerned about his safety and health. When you see the treacherous places this man goes, you'll understand their anxiety.
The film deals only a little bit in the debate about climate change (clips of scientists like Mitt Romney and Rush Limbaugh are seen/heard offering up their opinion of this "junk science"), but that may be a product of the simple fact that, in a perfect world, Chasing Ice would silence those naysayers once and for all. The time-lapse footage and final video of the massive glacier collapse may actually make you weep for our future (the way some people around me at the screening were). The movie will scare you, devastate your way of thinking, give you a new hero, and hopefully change your life in some way. I dream of seeing documentaries that move me to such a degree. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.