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Dolittle (2020)

Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Passengers (2016)

passengers_fridayonesheet-1Reading the raft of reviews for director Morten Tyldum ‘s (The Imitation Game) new sci-fi movie Passengers, you would think the movie must have killed somebody’s mother. The resoundingly negative press stems from a an early plot development that critics have decried as offensive, disgusting, misguided, misogynist, and even “Titanic in space.” After having seen this controversial film, I feel like some of the moral outrage is overblown, or at least purposely ignoring complexities and context. Passengers is a movie that makes you think and feel and my feelings were more than billious invective.

Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a passenger onboard the Avalon spaceship as it hurtles across the galaxy toward the colony of Homestead II. It’s a gigantic, sleek, and powerful vessel and the trip is expected to last 120 years. Except Jim was awakened early. 90 years too early. His hibernation pod short-circuited and he’s unable to go back to sleep. He’s destined to live out his life and die alone before any of the approximately 5,000 other passengers awakens. The Avalon is large and lonely, save for a handful of robotic and holographic guides, notably an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who advises Jim to accept his circumstances and find enjoyment. One year later, binging on exotic food, playing video games for hours, and living without rules has lost its appeal enough that Jim is considering suicide. Then he sees the sleeping face of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is awestruck. She’s beautiful but she symbolizes more. She’s a journalist and he reads all of her works, admiring her courage, sense of humor, ambitions, and determination. He feels like he’s falling for her and wishes she were awake. Jim asks Arthur, “What if you were stranded on a desert island and had the power to wish somebody else there? You wouldn’t be alone anymore but you’d be stranding them.” Arthur’s response: “Jim, these are not robot questions.” Jim decides to purposely wake Aurora, because if he didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a movie left. He hides his culpability and welcomes her to this new  grim reality and they find solace with one another. The truth hovers over their heads but it’s not the only danger for Jim. The Avalon is experiencing a wealth of small technical glitches that cascade into bigger problems. If Jim and Aurora don’t stumble upon an answer, all 5,000 people onboard could perish far from home.

jennifer-lawrence-passengers-2016-promo-images-1While far from flawless, Passengers has plenty at play to engage an audience on different levels, be they intellectual, ethical, or science fiction thrills. The premise is strong from the first minute onward and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) has an astonishingly imagintive command of world building. The first act is one of discovery for Jim and the audience, and Spaihts provides plenty to discover that fits within the logical future. Jim sends out a video recording asking for help and then learns it will take 18 years to be sent to Earth and another 30 years to get the answer. It’s a nice moment that brings some science smarts to the proceedings. Colony planets are the next big corporate venture, and I appreciated the little touches that made this future world feel all the more plausible and authentic. Jim is a lower-class skilled laborer and will owe a percentage of his life’s earnings to pay for the voyage (sound familiar?). There’s also a class system alive and well, as Jim is denied the more delicious food and beverage breakfast items because he is not a Gold Star passenger. Beyond these little touches, Spaihts delivers a remarkably efficient story structure. The emphasis shifts in half-hour segments just long enough to fulfill a plot purpose before moving on to a natural transition. The rich contours of the Avalon are explored with plenty of built-in mysteries like what’s on the other side of the crew door. It’s a story implanted with strong mystery elements to smoothly guide the intrigue of an audience. The small scenes open up to wider scenes, and every set on the Avalon fulfills a purpose either emotionally or with suspense. I was definitely hooked and wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of this brave new world. Tyldum impresses with how easily he translates his visual prowess into the realm of large-scale science fiction. The set design by Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) is immaculate and had me begging to visit as many locations as possible aboard the Avalon. The many designs are more than just clean, sterile surfaces; there’s craftsmanship and personality in the rococo symmetry. I also greatly enjoyed the very intentional Shining visual motif of Arthur’s red velvet bar.

The film’s selling point is the relationship between its mega-watt stars, and Pratt (The Magnificent Seven) and Lawrence (Joy) deliver on their end. You could do far worse than spend 90 years with some of Hollywood’s most effortlessly charming, gorgeous, and self-effacing actors. Pratt and Lawrence seem to exist on a similar goofy yet spirited plane, and it works toward their eventual courtship. There’s a cute scene where Jim quizzes Aurora on her observational reasoning, guessing real aspects about several sleeping passengers. Jim is a man who feels out of place on Earth, looking to build anew, and Aurora is looking for an adventure worthy of a great story to equal her famous father’s literary works. It’s a fascinating question of whether a person would willingly jump forward in time 250 years, as Aurora plans to when she returns to Earth (if there still is an Earth). You’d be severing all tethers to human relationships from your past and also the world as you conceived. The characters aren’t the most in depth, and “Aurora Lane” is definitely a name that’s one step removed from being downright Jetsonian, but it’s the exceptional situation that makes them compelling to watch. How does one court the only other waking human being on a ship of thousands? What if Aurora happened to be gay? It’s a Last Man on Earth scenario that has been explored many times on TV and the big screen but there’s still something inherently interesting about the premise. I also enjoyed the care they build for their only other companion, Arthur the loyal bartender and confidant.

chris-pratt-passengers-robot-bar-2016Whether you see the movie as a parable about the horrible things people do when confronted with despair or as a fantasy for unchecked misogyny will depend upon if you view the problematic relationship as morally wrong but potentially empathetic or only irredeemably creepy. “You murderer!” Aurora accuses Jim when she discovers the awful truth, and she’s right. Jim has robbed her of a future and taken away her choice. I like to consider myself a relatively enlightened and progressive chap but I’ll admit I that I can only see things through my own white heterosexual male lens, so your mileage may vary. When Jim falls in love with Aurora from researching her background and pouring over every word she’s written in print, this may be the telltale sign for an audience. If you view it as a more heightened equivalent to falling in love through correspondence, an unrequited love fueled by missed chances, then perhaps you’ll still be onboard. However, if you view Jim’s love as the equivalent of falling in love with a coma patient (Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her?) and projecting feelings onto an unresponsive woman without agency, then this is a romantic paean that you’ll associate more with a horror movie.

There are several great and touching one-sided romances in the annuls of film, and I viewed Passengers as a higher concept rom-com where the misguided man (it’s usually the man) is hiding a secret about the murky circumstances surrounding the start of their relationship (like a She’s All That in space). That’s a fairly cheeky assessment of what could also effectively be dubbed a Stockholm syndrome romance, as Jim is the one responsible for kidnapping her from her planned future. I’ve read lots of ink from critics decrying this movie as an offensive, deeply flawed film. I think Passengers effectively communicates the full implications of Jim’s choice. It wants us to wade into that ethically troublesome pool with Jim. It doesn’t pretend he’s the good guy, though that judgment can be read too easily. It says Jim is a human being in a unique setting and that he made a selfish choice. There’s a complexity there I think is going ignored in a rush to moral indignation. I honestly think most people if given similar circumstances would make the same selfish decision. That’s not a lazy excuse but it is empathy, and empathy does not require comprehensive endorsement to still exist in some form or other.

With that being said, the movie certainly stacks the deck in Jim’s favor for some sort of redemption and/or forgiveness. The very fact that we have an actor as handsome and charismatic as Pratt shows the movie’s intentions. It’s not like Steve Buscemi was the one who woke up Jennifer Lawrence, and now that I’ve just written that sentence I’d be seriously interested to see that version of this story. I think that audience sympathies might be different for a more ordinary, homely man awakening a woman who, by conventional dating standards, would be out of his league on any planet. I think an audience might be more apt to interpret a lecherous angle to Jim’s actions if the part wasn’t so young and generally appealing. The opening act is the Cast Away section of the story that follows Jim’s discovery and isolation for a solid year, and it does much to engender good will for an audience, enough that his actions waking up Aurora force us as well into the uncomfortable ethical muck. “He was a drowning man, and he’ll grab onto anyone to save himself if he could,” is the only real overt effort at approaching apology.

maxresdefaultThis premise is strong enough that different angles could have been explored. What if we only spent the opening ten minutes establishing Jim and his life on the Avalon? The awakening of a second passenger would serve as the inciting incident but the movie would purposely hide behind the plausible theory that she woke up by accident, by the same mysterious malfunction that Jim will relate. It would also provide a longer period of time for Jim and Aurora to develop together. Then the Act Two midpoint would be the reveal of Jim’s involvement and the fact that he had been awake far longer than he initially told her, perhaps with the original opening half-hour cut down to a few impressionistic flashback bits to communicate the stark loneliness and desperation. We would be just as shocked as Aurora. It’s here that the movie could completely become a horror movie, with Jim chasing her down through the empty space station. Maybe she even finds a locker with other women he woke up that were then murdered because they too found out too much. Then she has to take him down or else he will keep repeating this murderous behavior until he gets his perfectly submissive Eve. Admittedly, that takes the movie in an entirely different, albeit still interesting, tonal direction.

Passengers seems to bounce back and forth between existential horror movie and broadly romantic soap opera. It doesn’t always mix but I enjoyed the collision of ideas, tones, ethics, and discomfort, at least before it rumbles into a third act that becomes a series of life-and-death action set pieces. It’s not that Passengers goes slack in its final act; the visuals are consistently engaging as the spaceship shuts down piece by piece. When the gravity goes, Aurora’s swimming pool water becomes a floating prison, endangering her life. It’s a terrific moment even if it only serves as momentary suspense. There was always something to keep my interest with Passengers, from the world itself to the mysteries to the ever-changing script to waiting for the awful truth to finally hit about Jim’s misdeeds. Ultimately your opinion of this movie will be entirely based upon your view of how the movie handles Jim’s decision and its aftermath. You may view the movie as a fiendish masculine fantasy that strips away a woman’s right to consent or as an empathetically challenging, morally dubious drama with a relatably selfish choice that requires real consequences and introspection. Pratt and Lawrence are winning actors even if they might not make the most winning couple. Passengers is engaging science fiction made with pristine technical care and a smart screenplay that layers mysteries worth unwrapping. I hope more audience members decide for themselves rather than turning up their noses thanks to the staunchly negative critical reviews reeling with offense. There’s more here than given credit and I feel Passengers is a journey worth taking for fans of large canvas science fiction that still demand a personable entry point.

Nate’s Grade: B

Breaking Dawn: Part Two (2012)

Ignoring the ironic nature of the Breaking Dawn Part 2 poster taglines declaring love to be “forever,” the box-office juggernaut that is the Twilight franchise is coming to an end. Based upon Stephenie Meyer’s outrageously popular series of books, we’ve followed the love life of Bella Swan as she’s experimented with human, vampire, and werewolf. The studio heads decided to take Meyer’s final book and split it into two books. Breaking Dawn Part 1 had a wedding, honeymoon, pregnancy, supernatural birth, and Bella’s death/resurrection. And yet, that movie was still crushingly boring. My hopes were substantially low for Part 2, despite director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) best efforts to jazz up all the awful plotting, characters, and romance. Then a funny thing happened. I started enjoying myself, and then the movie took some chances that I felt were daring considering its rabid fanbase. And then watching Breaking Dawn Part 2 became more than watching the film, it was also the experience of watching the audience. To that end, the movie delivers and I may rue these words but I kinda sorta almost liked enough of it.

Bella Cullen nee Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her husband, immortal vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), have gone through the wringer. In her waning days as a human, Bella got knocked up during her honeymoon, and her half-human half-vampire baby killed its mama on the way out. Now Bella’s a vampire and a mom (note to self: start writing new script – “Single Mom Vampire”). Her daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy’s face on a whole lot of other people’s bodies), is rapidly growing. She’s mistaken for a vampire baby, which is a punishment worthy of death. This news gets Aro (Michael Sheen) to rustle up his Volturi forces, a group of vampires with super powers. They’re coming for the Cullens and little Renesmee. The friendly vampires scour the world, gathering “witnesses” to the tyke’s half-vampire status, but really they’re gathering an army to defend themselves. It’s super vamp against super vamp and heads will roll.

I clearly understand that I am in no way the target audience for this franchise and that my reams of pithy words will find little traction in the hearts of the Twi-hard faithful, but I’d like to state that I’ve never been a hater of the movies. Well, let me rephrase that. My thoughts ping-pong from liked okay (Twilight) to hated (New Moon) back to liked okay (Eclipse) back to hated (Breaking Dawn Part 1), and now here we back are to liked okay. Consider it a double-dip recession in quality. I still view the whole franchise as an exercise in pre-teen wish fulfillment, but I’ve already written extensively upon that theory so I won’t bother re-litigating that battle. With all that said, I found myself oddly enjoying myself for sustained durations. It’s just as silly as the other movies but finally we can move on from mopey Bella and her dubious romantic triangle. Finally we don’t have to suffer through two hours of kids making (new) mooneyes at each other (did I just out myself as “old”?). By this I mean finally something ELSE happens rather than the incremental coupling of Bella and Edward. Granted their kid is really more a prop than a character, but at least the story has taken one gigantic leap forward. Finally Stewart can actually smile and, you know, do things of actual consequence!

It’s no secret that the Twilight saga, as its monetary benefactors would like to dub the franchise, has noticeably been better the less time it spends with its female protagonist, Bella. Breaking Dawn Part 2 might just be the least Bella-filled episode yet, a cause of celebration for my brethren who view Ms. Cullen as an infuriating, insufferable, insulting protagonist. At least in this movie she develops a sense of self-identity, though too often that identity falls into the camps of Wife and Mother. With this movie, she’s adjusting to life as a vampire, so we get cutesy scenes of her hunting prey, learning how to fake looking like a puny human, and arm-wrestling the strong cocky vampire guy to, you know, for the strides in girl power. Too little too late, Bella. I find it more than a little funny that Bella’s super power is passive in nature, fitting a passive protagonist that waist for people to give her meaning and tell her what to do. I should stop before another rant unspools as I’ve done on previous Twilight writing occasions. In short: Bella sucks.

We’re introduced to a lot of new characters in this movie and each brings some sliver of backstory to develop. I’m not saying they’re all deserving of attention or interest, but at least these new clans of vampires brought some much-needed life to what has often been a claustrophobic, monotonous love triangle. Opening up Meyer’s world and seeing other vamps with special powers are a fun detour that I wish had taken place sooner. I liked seeing Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies) as a soldier from back to America’s colonial days. I’m left scratching my head why certain vampire members were added to the ranks when they didn’t even show up for the final showdown. What was the point of having Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) show up and be all skeptical about the group’s chances of winning… and then not have him join? So he was skeptical from the start and then remained so, choosing to sit the finale out. Well I’m sure glad we spent time on him then. Also, the movie falls into the trap of establishing super-powered beings that are too powerful. We get one guy who can control the elements. Not just one or two but freaking all of the elements. He’s like Captain Planet minus that dumb kid with the lame heart power. During the climactic battle, this kid uses his power ONCE. How do you give him a wealth of super powers and then sideline him? There’s also an Amazon vampire who can control people’s vision, namely making them see whatever she wants. How are these two assets not utilized for tactical supremacy?

I had the suspicion that Breaking Dawn Part 2 might be the best film in the series simply by the fact that it’s the one with the most Michael Sheen. God I love this man. His last-minute turn in the appalling New Moon banished the suicidal thoughts swirling in my head. Even when he’s in bad movies, Sheen is usually the best thing about them (see: TRON: Legacy or the Underworld films). Here’s an actor who knows exactly how ridiculous everything about this universe is, and by God he sinks his teeth in. The benefit of added Sheen cannot be overstated. The movie greatly benefits by having a strong outside threat early. Only the third movie, Eclipse, had an external threat from the start, and that gave the film a much-needed sense of urgency. I was with Sheen and the Volturi on this one. They were merely following the laws of vampires meant to protect their own kind. Vampire babies are a no-no since they cannot control their otherworldly urges, so they and their makes must be destroyed. You know you’re in for a darker Twilight when early on we witness a baby getting tossed into a roaring fire. I admit that I have a susceptibility to falling under the sway of magnetic villains. Perhaps this speaks to some character defect of my own. It probably just speaks to the fact that movies often have boring heroes and charismatic villains. Sheen is so hammy and delightful and I just wanted more of him amidst the melee that punctuates the end. The man even looks like he’s about to lead a marching band during the battle and he’s still badass. Such is the awesomeness of Michael Sheen. Of this there can be no question.

But then the Condon and series scribe Melissa Rosenberg do something almost extraordinary given the slavish devotion to the series fans have. They divert from the source material in broad strokes during the climactic vampire brawl. I won’t go into exact details but the preview audience I was with was absolutely losing their collective minds. Women were screaming, cries of “Nooo” rang through the room; all around me was the echo of consternation and shock, women trying to absorb the reality of what they were viewing. Sitting with them, taking in their shrieks and lamentations, the general horror of what might happen next… it was a thing of beauty. I can almost recommend seeing Breaking Dawn Part 2 simply to be part of this experience. However, you’ll have to act quickly and be selective. You’ll need a packed theater filled with vocal Twi-hards, likely an opening weekend evening crowd, the kind that openly cheer shirtless revelries from the male co-stars. And then just sit and wait, knowing that soon all that revelry will turn to shock. I sound so mean-spirited explaining this and that’s not my intention. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the discomfort of the Twi-hards. I enjoyed the bewilderment. It felt like the theater was alive, coursing with the energy of alert uncertainty. Anything could happen, including some very not nice things. To be one tiny drop in an ocean of furious estrogen, well it’s an experience that deserves mentioning. Its strange experiences like this that make me love going to the movies, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a combination of words I’d never thought I would write about any Twilight film.

Also, though my expectations were never that high to begin with, I have to credit Condon with fashioning a fairly exciting action brawl, one that’s surprisingly graphic at spots for a PG-13 movie primarily aimed at young girls. The series has been building up to a massive showdown, and the movie itself has been putting the feuding factions into place, so it’s satisfying that the finale truly feels climactic and delivers some thrills. For the record, Meyer’s book was free of any climactic battle. This movie is chock full of decapitations. I cannot recall another PG-13 film that had this many beheadings. I think you could watch a drama set during the French Revolution and you wouldn’t witness this many people lose their heads. Is there no other ay to kill a vampire? What ever happened to the good old fashioned staking of the heart? These kids these days; all they want to do is decapitate. To dull the grisly spectacle, the beheadings are weirdly bloodless. Condon does a bangup job of setting up plenty of mini-payoffs and duels throughout his busy action centerpiece. Then when it looks like the carnage is at an end, the movie takes a page from the Final Destination playbook, which Twi-hards will probably find relieving. I thought it was a major cop-out but whatever. Let the kids have their happy ending.

Before you get your hopes up too extravagantly, this movie still offers plenty of stupid. I don’t care how you explain it, the imprinting thing is stupid incarnate. I still find it eternally creepy that Jacob couldn’t have the mother so he settles for the daughter. The fact that everyone treats this development so seriously makes me laugh. And oh boy, let’s talk about those Amazon vampires. First off, I find it hilarious that Meyer’s vision of vampire clans from around the world really just boils down to Europe and the Amazon. When they stepped onto screen wearing, and I kid you not, loin clothes and tribal markings, I was flabbergasted. Doesn’t anyone find this depiction to be at least deeply ignorant and culturally insensitive? I’ll stop short of calling it quasi-racist; though attaching “quasi” to anything lets you get away with most declarations (“This movie is quasi-watchable”). But when our big battle over a frozen lake takes place, why are these Amazon characters STILL wearing loincloths in the frozen landscape? Then there’s the annoying fact that Renesmee rapidly grows, meaning that Bella and Edward get to skip out on actually raising a baby. If Meyer intended to punish these kids for having sex in Part 1, then she needs to follow through on her antiquated sexual hang-ups.

As the franchise draws to a close, I’m trying to take stock of the five films and their overall impact (sadly, we all know with the potential riches, a reboot is likely only five years out). The end credits play out like a gauzy yearbook for the franchise, visually highlighting every significant speaking role, including the two different actresses who played villainous Rachel.  The Twilight series has been very good to me as a writer; I’ve produced long-winded reviews with each new entry, and the opening-day people watching has become part of the spectacle I enjoy. That’s really what we’re dealing with here – spectacle. It’s all gooey romantic fantasy nonsense with some pretty bland characters, questionable messages for young girls, and such deadly seriousness. If we were grading on a curve, I’d say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is actually tolerable thanks to nominal character development, less whiny Bella, an influx of new characters, extra Sheen time, a better sense of humor, and a climax that truly feels climactic.

I can’t say the Twilight movies have gotten better as they’ve gone, though Condon has proven to be an apt choice to steer this franchise to a close. He’s given the franchise a bit more life, a bit more blood. I’ll never admit that the love story of Bella and Edward deserved five full-fledged movies, but I recognize the significance Twilight stands in many young girls lives. Fans will eat this stuff up. They’ll certainly enjoy the Bella/Edward sex where she doesn’t end up bruised. For them, it ends in a fitting sendoff, even after the jolts of text deviation morphs into giggled recounts on car rides home. For them, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will be the perfect ending to their beloved series. I can’t imagine anyone indifferent to the series working up that much interest, but I can say with sincerity that Breaking Dawn Part 2 is the best film in the Twilight series and potentially worth seeing for the rollercoaster ride of bewildered fan reactions. Now that the last blood has been drained from this franchise, let’s move on to more important items… like the next Hunger Games movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011)

Taking a cue from the blockbuster film franchise of our age, the Harry Potter series, the producers and studio heads decided to split the final Twilight film into two separate movies. Yes, for you cheerless, unfortunate males dragged along to author Stefenie Meyer’s estrogen-drenched soap opera, hoping to be done with Bella Swan and her sparkly vampire boyfriend, well your pain soldiers onward another year. If Breaking Dawn: Part One is any indication, we’re all in for a world of hurt come November 2012.

Wedding bells are ringing for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her undead boyfriend, noble vampire/undead heartthrob, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Bella’s persistent demand to be turned into a vampire is finely about to come true. She wants to stay human a bit longer, to savor her last days on Earth before sipping blood through a bendy straw. Her always-in-second best bud, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is worried for Bella’s well being. The wedding is like a fairy tale and Edward sweeps his new bride away to a tiny island off of Rio de Janeiro, where the housekeepers illogically speak Spanish. The couple makes the most of their time alone, and by this I mean they have sex (I refuse to believe this couple would play chess in their newlywed downtime). Edward withholds any second rounds of sex, fearing he’ll seriously harm his bride (he destroyed the bed in mid-copulation). No matter because Bella gets pregnant right out of the gate. We’re told this is impossible, yet her half-human/half-vampire fetus is rapidly growing inside momma’s belly. The baby is also destroying its host, eating away Bella’s body. Edward demands to kill the baby but Bella will have none of it. She’s going to deliver this baby even if it kills her. If it does kill her, then the truce between the werewolves and vampires will be broken, and Jacob’s feistier tribe mates will be knocking down the Cullen doors looking for some tasty vampires to chomp.

Director Bill Condon, he of Dreamgirls fame and an Oscar-winner for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, goes hog-wild with the emotions, fittingly reminiscent of the life-and-death swings of emotional polarity that orient a teenager’s life. Condon plays all of the ridiculous melodrama straight. It successfully channels the feelings of teenage angst and obsession, much like the first Twilight film. This Teutonic exhibit of buzzy hormones is like catnip to the Twilight faithful. Finally, they get what they’ve been waiting for, and Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg delay that gratification even longer. This is the longest wedding I’ve seen on screen since The Godfather. It takes up about 45 minutes of the movie. The protracted walk down the aisle literally takes longer than the rest of the ceremony combined. I can already envision thousands of young girls asking for the “Bella dress” when their time down the aisle comes. At no point does the movie address the fact that the “groom’s side” probably are all absent a heartbeat (“Hmm, extreme paleness? Are you with the bride or the groom? I’m at a loss.”). That’s a missed comedic opportunity. What’s with the wedding guests played by name actors like Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost, Taken)? Did they hire recognizable actors for one-line bit parts? They better have larger roles in the second feature. Under Condon’s direction, the film looks marvelous, and even the long-awaited love scene has some discernible heat to it that will give teen girls “funny” dreams for the next few months. Condon’s also helming the next and final film, so I can at least say it’ll look swell.

This last film was broken into two parts due to the mountains of money the studio would make. It surely wasn’t for some sort of artistic necessity. The plot of BD: Part One is stretched mighty thin. It’s no joke that the wedding and honeymoon takes up half the running time. The baby drama is handled so amateurishly, and the plot ramps up the incubation time so that everything happens too fast for the audience to adjust to how stupid everything truly is. The first half of the movie is free of meaningful conflict. It’s just concerned with payoffs. From everything I’ve read online, and from female friends who have partaken of the series, BD: Part One pretty much covers most of the plot of the 400-page book. What’s left? I would totally give the series a pass if the second movie started with Bella, hair a knotted mess, holding a shrieking baby. Edward sits at the table, drinking. “When are you gonna get a job?” she yells. “When are you gonna stop being a bitch?” he retorts, then gulps down a swig of booze. This domestic downer of an ending would almost make the whole series worth sitting through. Truthfully, as the teaser during the end credits advertises, if Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) has a larger part in BD: Part Two, it automatically becomes, sight unseen, the best movie of the series. Thus is the awe-inspiring power of Michael Sheen.

This has long been a silly franchise filled with poorly veiled messages that seem less empowering to teenage girls than reassuring to their parents. Long a heavy-handed message about abstinence, the characters finally get to have sex, after they’re properly married of course (does God really object more to vampire-human relations or when it occurs?). And you better believe the moment Edward and Bella eventually do the deed is a moment that teen girls, and their mothers, around the nation have been anticipating for three long, hard years. The buildup to the carnal climax is a rapturous release for the audience of Twi-hards; my theater felt like it exploded in pubescent hormones and giggling as soon as the proverbial train entered the station. Speaking of euphemisms, I find it telling that not a single character ever refers to sex as, well, “sex.” They keep dancing around the term, referring to it as indistinct pronouns like “this” or “that” or the slightly more specific “honeymoon activities.” It’s like the characters can’t talk about a mature topic without a case of the giggles. There’s even a scene where Jacob talks about Bella’s forthcoming tangle between the sheets, openly, and with alarm: “You’ll kill her,” he tells Edward. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bella assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).

It’s here where the movie awkwardly shifts into a relentlessly pro-life message on legs. I’m not against movies presenting messages, but when a movie is as narratively empty and transparently padded as BD: Part 1, then the movie just gets swallowed up by the clumsy message. It doesn’t matter that Bella’s unborn hell spawn is literally killing her, sucking her dry from the inside out, she’s going to have this baby no matter what, even if she dies in the process. Okay, Meyer, we get it. Here’s a question for the world: can anyone really tell that much difference between emaciated Kristen Stewart and her normal self? She always appears a little sickly and hollow-eyed, but maybe that’s just me. The baby is basically the only conflict the movie presents and it happens so late in the film. Thanks to a fast gestation period, the demon fetus is determined not to wait until Part Two to make its grand entrance. Now that Bella is preggers, she’s become instant buddies with Rosalie (Nikki Reed, a long way from Thirteen), and the two of them begin a war against non-gender pronouns (its vs. he/her). The baby conflict would be more interesting if it was a tad more ambiguous, but the fact that it literally is killing Bella, not to mention its monstrous possibilities, and yet she persists to give birth is less characterization and more stubbornness. If Bella’s worried she’ll never have another chance to have a flesh-and-blood daughter, then explore this. Otherwise it makes Bella look blithely cavalier with her own life.

It’s here where Meyer and the Twilight franchise, already deliriously high on teen angst, goes off the charts into weirdo territory (some spoilers will follow). Never mind where the werewolf boys (and a girl) manage to find new clothes after they destroy them after each beastly transformation, we’ve got far weirder moments to process. There’s a vampire C-section via biting. There are giant wolves communicating via growling telepathy and bad CGI. There are Bella’s completely batshit names for her child; if it’s a boy she wants to combine Edward and Jacob’s names because that’s not awkward (“See, son, you’re named after the other guy I could have slept with but decided to just string along instead.”). And if it’s a girl she wants to combine her mother’s name and Edward’s mother’s name forming the atrocious “Reneesmee.” Excuse me? That makes “Apple” seem as traditional as apple pie. No one tells Bella these names are horrific because she’s pregnant, naturally. I imagine all the characters broke out into laughter as soon as Bella left the room to go puke into a bucket. Easily the weirdest and dumbest thing in the history of the Twilight franchise occurs as a contrived deus ex machina and a tidy solution to Jacob’s eternal, annoying pining. Jacob is determined to slay the monster he believes responsible for killing his unrequited love, Bella, but then he looks into those cute little baby eyes and… swears devotion to this newborn babe. He “imprints” on her, which means that they are meant to be together, and thus the werewolf/vampire truce holds. “Of course,” Edward intones, “Imprinting is their number one law. They cannot break it.” Of course! This reminded me of the scene at the end of the second Harry Potter movie where a phoenix comes from nowhere and cries into a wound (“Of course, phoenix tears can heal anything,” Harry informs while I was physically smacking myself in the head). Doesn’t anyone else find this whole plot development creepy? Jacob can’t have the mother, so he’s going to have the baby? And he’s got to wait 18 years if he wants their coupling to be legal on top of that. I think a messed up name is the least of this kid’s worries.

Does she look like a healthy person? This is pre-baby succubus.

It all comes down to the heroine of the franchise, Miss Bella Swan (sorry, Bella Cullen now). I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. To me, Bella isn’t worth the effort. She’s never really been anything close to a fully formed character. Bella Swan has always defined herself by having a boyfriend, and when he was gone it was about pushing her friends away and moping until she finally found a new guy. She has zero self-identity, no center, she is an empty shell, there is no there there. She’s a cipher, meant for the teenage readership to plug themselves into her place. I won’t restate my theory that the Twilight series is glossed-up pre-teen wish fulfillment, but there you have it. Yet there are sneaking moments where Bella seems almost shockingly… human. Her anxious montage of preparation before her first night of sex is relatable and sympathetic (what outfit to wear? Shave the legs? What kinds of makeup?). Too bad this relatable side of her character vanishes all too quickly. Before Bella defined herself by her boyfriend and now she defines herself by her baby. She’s still the same whiny, selfish, morose, and cruelly manipulative Bella, though. She can’t let Jacob alone; she has to continue stringing him along, bringing him into inappropriate personal matters. Jacob’s always been a bit of a control freak who seems to spout quasi-rapist dialogue (the classic “You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”), but the guy’s always gotten a raw deal as far as I’m concerned. Betrothed to a baby is not a worthwhile parting gift. I worry that young, impressionable girls are going to look at Bella as an influential figure. If these same gals want a literary heroine they could truly look up to, they should feast their eyes on Katniss Everdeen, proactive and laudable star of the Hunger Games and forthcoming movie of the same name.

The three actors have been playing the same character notes for so long that they could all just go on autopilot and collect their paychecks. Stewart (Adventureland) is less annoying than she has been in previous films. I’m trying not to take out my disdain of her character on the actress, who I’ve genuinely liked in pre-Twilight projects (even her Joan Jett performance was pretty decent). Pattinson (Water for Elephants) seems to shrink into the background for this movie. There are a lot of long, ponderous, somehow meaningful stares between the two, with the soundtrack trying to communicate emotions that the screenplay has failed to do (a little more variety on the soundtrack next time, fellas? I think I tuned out after the twelfth melancholy piano ballad). Luckily, Pattinson does have something of a screen presence to go with those abs. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Lauthner (Abduction). The young buck, formerly of Shardkboy fame, just cannot act. He has a nostril-heavy manner of expressing emotion that makes you wonder if he’s about to blow your house down. It’s telling that within mere seconds of the film beginning, the guy rips off his shirt, the peak of his acting abilities. I suspect it will not be long before Lautner and his six-pack and sitting at home, unemployed, and indulging in a different six-pack.

Breaking Dawn: Part One is certainly not intended for critics of the book and film series or really any audience member lacking ovaries. But I think that even the most ardent Twi-hards will walk away giggling at the silliness of the overripe melodrama. I try not to be out rightly dismissive of the whole series, but the bad characters, bad plotting, and questionable messages make it hard to continue bending over backwards to find slivers of quality to support. I get the appeal of the series, the fact that Bella Swan is a cipher to exercise frothing teenage wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t excuse the movies from being so bad. This isn’t the painful abomination that was 2009’s New Moon, but it’s come the closest. Only the promise of more Michael Sheen makes me hopeful that BD: Part Two will be better than its predecessors. When you’re talking about an obscenely popular moneymaker, quality becomes secondary to delivering a product that is recognizable to the demands of the screaming fans. BD: Part One is less a payoff than a warning. There is more to come, and if you thought Bella was intolerable before just wait until her vampire growing pains.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Tron: Legacy (2010)

In 1982, TRON was a movie ahead of its time. It took place in a world inside the world of computers, which couldn’t have been that advanced back then. But “ahead of its time” and good are not the same things. Arguable one of the most influential science-fiction films in terms of design and CGI, the original TRON was a financial dud for its film studio. All this makes it so curious why Disney would spend upwards of $200 million dollars on a fancy, shiny, big-budget sequel to a movie people didn’t really give a damn about before. TRON: Legacy looks to capitalize on a generation of geek nostalgia. At least it doesn’t fare as poorly as the Star Wars prequels.

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is 27 years old and the lead shareholder of Encom ever since his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), mysteriously disappeared in 1989. Kevin had found a way inside the world of computers, which he called The Grid. He studied it and based his company’s arcade games on what he found. Then after saying he was going to break the world of gaming wide open, he vanished. Then in 2010, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, a sight for sore eyes) visits Sam with a message. He got a page from a number that’s been disconnected for over 20 years. Sam ventures into his father’s old arcade/workstation and gets zapped inside the world of computers. Now he’s amidst all those racing light motorcycles and flying disc battles. The slinky program Qorra (Oliva Wilde) rescues Sam from the gladiatorial battles. Inside this realm, the Grid is run by Clu (CGI Bridges), a digital doppelganger of Kevin Flynn. Sam is reunited with his dear old dad and together they try to escape this digital prison and stop Clu.

Never have I felt more like an old man than after watching TRON: Legacy. All the special effects dazzled, but after a while it felt relatively empty and insubstantial. But what did all those gleamy flashes of light and snazzy 3-D effects do, ultimately? Distract from the void of a story. I consider myself a fairly intelligent individual, able to follow complicated narratives and appreciate complex storytelling. And yet, when the lights came back up in my theater, I turned to my wife and said, “There is a lot that I never understood.” The setup is relatively painless, but where the movie grinds to a deadly halt is for an exposition-heavy 20 minutes in the middle after our second big action sequence. When father and son are reunited they get to talking, and talking, and talking some more about God knows what. I think my brain shut off from all the stilted dialogue. Every character seems to stop and unload a pile of exposition. Even though the characters seem to explain so often, you always feel like you’re still missing something important. You still feel left out. But after this dreadful slog, suddenly there’s Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) to save me from my stupor exactly like he did at the end of the turgid Twilight film, New Moon. He brought me back to life, but after his campy, cane-guitar rockin’ sequence of battle, I was trying to get caught up on the parameters of plot and setting. But then the film just flew from one set piece to another and I was forever lost. I couldn’t tell you why anything happened in the last hour of the movie. It just seemed like one thing was following another without any sense of logic or foresight. I got the idea of the need to escape this virtual world and that there was a special doorway to make this happen, but after that it all became an unintelligible chain of ones and zeroes.

The incoherent screenplay by Lost scribes Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis is a bleak vehicle for special effects. TRON: Legacy will certainly melt your eyes but it leaves the brain cold and overlooked. The rules of the TRON universe are never adequately explained. When Qorra suddenly drives a vehicle off the Grid and says, “We can do this, they can’t,” you’re forced to just shrug and go with it. Why is Clu trying to kill Sam and his dad when he’s pretty much had the run of things for 20 years? What exactly is his plan for world domination? He thinks his electro-tanks will be able to take out the military powers of the real world? Do these programs have free will or does their engineering trap them? Why would they gather at a stadium to cheer the death of other programs in violent sport? All of these walking/talking computer programs got me thinking about The Matrix and how much more creative and effective and overall better that movie was with storytelling. There are some token nods to character, mainly Sam’s reunion with his long lost pop, but this is a movie designed to mesmerize with flashing lights rather than story and character. I would find this somewhat acceptable if I wasn’t bored so much, let alone paid an extra four bucks for the luxury of being bored in three dimensions.

But if special effects are what you want, TRON: Legacy delivers big time. The sleek production design is married seamlessly with the flashy, techno-oriented effects inside the computer world. Watching the floating spaceships and zooming racecars is a luscious, exhilarating rush to experience. The visual style obviously has to hew close to the first film in 1982, which seems to handcuff the imagination of the crew. We’ve made gigantic leaps in the world of movie special effects but we’re stuck with characters in glow-in-the-dark jumpsuits and cityscapes that look at like half-finished neon outlines. I haven’t seen a 3-D movie since two-time reigning king of the world James Cameron’s Avatar, but I would readily advise people to see TRON: Legacy in 3-D if available. It gives the film that extra whiz-bang quality. This is not just a cheap grab at extra cash where the studio throws a 3-D rush on a film late in the game. The 3-D, which kicks in when Sam travels inside the computer world (like the change into color from the Wizard of Oz), feels more immersive without resorting to hurling countless objects at the audience. The greatest 3-D effect, bar none, is Olivia Wilde (TV’s House, Year One). Director Joseph Kosinski has a steady background in computer effects, and it shows. His handle on actors is another matter entirely.

But the biggest misstep with the special effects occurs with the 1980-version of Bridges. Whenever we get a glimpse of this Bridges of old, whether it’s from Clu or a brief and distracting scene in the film’s 1989 opening, it’s another opportunity for the movie to remind you of its lack of authenticty. The de-aging technique still needs some serious tinkering. What it does is make an actor look like a plastic doll, with dead Polar Express zombie eyes. It’s creepy and off-putting and every time you see the de-aging effect it rips you out of the movie. Watching young Bridges take on older, current Bridges would have been more interesting if we had an entire digital rogues gallery of Bridges characters. Imagine the Dude and his drunken, self-destructive country singer from Crazy Heart involved in digital games of combat.

There are some nice action sequences that begin to touch imaginative possibilities of this unique world. The flying disc duels are interesting enough for the time being. The first few disc battles make fine use of the unique features of the boomerang-esque weapon. The motorcycle battle where the ribbons of light/exhaust create a wall is still a great idea for battle of wits at high-octane speeds. It just never fully materializes. The edits don’t occur in that hyperkinetic Michael Bay fashion that discombobulates the senses; however, I never really grasped the geography of the action realms. In order for the viewer to appreciate the action and the moves and counter-moves, we need to understand the arena and boundaries of the setting. With the cycle chase, it just seems like they’re all appearing at random. An action sequence is less satisfying if it doesn’t seem like it’s building and making use of the particular surroundings. The moody score by electornica duo Daft Punk gives the film a thematic lift, though having them score with a full orchestra feels like hiring Yo Yo Ma and forcing him to play a trombone.

TRON: Legacy feels at times like a super-sized Light Bright meant to dazzle and distract from the gaping void at heart. The story merely exists to get the characters from one place to another. The leaden exposition pretty much destroys the film’s momentum. It becomes plodding and tiresome. It would be like if Luke Skywalker sat and listened to 20 years of history rather than actually, you know, doing something. It’s been 28 years since the first TRON and the world has gotten far more computer savvy, and the jargon from the first flick would be readily understood. TRON: Legacy doesn’t feel like you’re in a computer, just whatever weird alternative universe. It seems like the real legacy of TRON ends up being hollow special effects.

Nate’s Grade: C

Eclipse (2010)

This may be an obvious statement but I will never be a teenage girl. Shocking news to anybody who never knew of the existence of my Y chromosome. Regardless, it’s hard for me to empathize with the madness that surrounds the cultural juggernaut that is the Twilight series. I cannot work myself into a frenzy. I cannot get madly passionate about the merits of Team Jacob vs. Team Edward (though full disclosure: I lean more toward Jacob). I cannot even understand the appeal of the main character and why she’s worth every human, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her. I just can’t walk in the same shoes of the Twilight faithful and their devotion to author Stephenie Meyer’s series. I get the appeal because its adolescent wish fulfillment with the flashes of danger muted by the overall security of traditional values (the vampire wants to wait until marriage before they have sex). I fully acknowledge my divorce from this conjured reality of the Twilight series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t judge the films on their merits. The first film worked for what it was, the second one was resoundingly bad, and now the third film, Eclipse, manages to reheat the same love triangle squabbles and call it something fresh.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is about to graduate high school and, presumably, graduate from the human race. Her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), has pledged to grant her wish and make her a vampire so they can truly be together forever. Bella’s friend/werewolf/ab model Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is vehemently against this plan. He wants Bella to be with him instead. He’s the safer choice and she doesn’t have to become dead for a happily ever after. Bella is torn between her two romantic options, again. However, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is out their plotting vengeance against Bella and the Cullen clan of “vegetarian” vampires. She’s creating an army of newborn vampires in Seattle. The army is so powerful that the Cullens reach out to the werewolves for an alliance. Mortal enemies comes together, including feuding paramours Edward and Jacob, to protect Bella and vanquish Victoria once and for all.

For starters, stuff actually happens in the third Twilight movie. I know that’s a fairly damning comment in itself that one must wait until the third movie for action. But here’s the thing: the plot fails to advance more than an inch. At the end of New Moon, Bella pretty much made her choice when she decided to whisk to the other side of the earth at the very utterance of Edward’s name, leaving poor Jacob high and dry. In Eclipse, she solidifies her choice. In New Moon, Bella implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he agrees to do after she graduates from high school (what a bizarre academic motivation strategy). In Eclipse, Bella further implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he is reluctant to do, but eventually he agrees. In New Moon, the werewolves and vampires don’t like each other. In Eclipse, that’s about the same, but they form an uneasy alliance to protect Bella, the most important girl in the whole wide world. The third film feels like a student’s paper revision; characters now add supporting evidence to explain their decision-making. Bella now gets to expound in further detail why she should be turned into a vampire (hint: she doesn’t feel like she fits in), Jacob adds to a budding Master’s thesis on why he is the better romantic option for Bella, and Edward gets plenty of opportunity to be the wet blanket, whether he’s turning down a horny Bella (no action there) or warning her about the dire lifestyle of today’s modern vampiric American. Much of Eclipse is people sitting around and chatting about their decision-making, verbalizing stuff that Meyer has no ability to place as subtext. By the end of the movie, at least you feel satisfied that everybody has weighed their options, even if they keep making the same dumb mistakes.

Speaking of action, Eclipse greatly benefits from having an external threat throughout the movie. The first two films felt prosaic and self-involved partially due to the fact that an antagonist was never introduced until the final act of each movie. The first two movies were two hours of brooding and making cow-eyes at each other, followed by a requisite climactic fight that felt anything but climactic.

With Eclipse, we have Victoria building her army of newborn vampires, and we see that army form, wreck havoc on the streets of Seattle, and for once the Twilight series feels like it has a real threat. That’s because Victoria has never ever felt like a threat. I don’t know how she’s represented in Meyer’s books, but in three movies, this curly-haired vampire has always come across as woefully unintimidating. She feels like a Kate Hudson romantic comedy character with fangs. It just doesn’t work no matter how fast the filmmakers show she can run through forests. The Cullen clan will occasionally chase after her, that is, when they’re not lining up like they’re making superhero posse poses. Victoria has never cut it as a villain, so it’s a good move for her to amass an army of super vampires that will do her bidding. The audience is repeatedly told, rather than shown, how serious the newborn vampires are because, you see, newborns still have some human blood in them. Never mind that the Twilight movies have never made mention of this power before. What’s puzzling is that Victoria has been building up her base of bloodsuckers for over a year, so why aren’t there like a ton more? The army of newborns consists of like twelve vampires. I understand the logistics of having to feed and house multiple vampires, but if I was planning for a brutal assault I’d want as many of these super vampires as I could sire.

Let me rephrase some of what I just said. New Moon did have an antagonist and her name was Bella Swan. She was sullen, whiny, self-involved, casually hurtful, and she led around Jacob on a leash. The dude is obviously in love with her, and even tells her face-to-face in Eclipse. Bella toyed around with her self-described “best friend” for whatever she needed and then she screwed him over for her sparkly vampire. In Eclipse, she starts to repeat this same pattern of behavior. Every movie makes it emphatically clear that Bella and Edward are destined to be together, and yet every movie has Bella engage in this annoying, wishy-washy “Maybe I’ll be with you, maybe I won’t” dance to make the boys fight over her one more time and thus validate her existence. I’ve seen this type of behavior before; it’s loathsome. She’s less unlikable and callous in Eclipse. Bella is absent any defining characteristic so that the millions of Twilight readers can insert themselves into the story as the girl everybody wants to fight over. Edward practically hounds her at every turn to marry him, which also seems like another case of wish fulfillment. Bella seems defined by whatever man she has at the current time. I’m surprised more of Meyer’s readers don’t find this fact insulting. Well, in Eclipse Bella doesn’t magically sprout a personality so you’re stuck yet again with the Bella bores.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) was an interesting choice to handle all this teenage melodrama. The visual aesthetic is much more refined and accomplished, and the pacing is infinitely better. New Moon was 130 minutes but felt eight times that long because of all the repetitious plotting and brooding, not to mention the gratuitous beefcake shots. Eclipse is only six minutes shorter than its predecessor and yet it moves along at a steady jaunt thanks to the immediate external threat. It still has to fit in all those beefcake shots to make the soccer moms swoon, but at least the movie maintains that pulpy teenage synergy from the first Twilight movie. The special effects have greatly improved as well, which makes the wolves vs. vampire fight scenes more entertaining to witness for the right reasons.

The screenplay for Eclipse includes all sorts of extras to round out the Twilight universe, though they are tangential to the plot at best. Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) get their back-stories revealed, which means flashbacks with costumes! While each is momentarily diverting, why am I getting time taken out from the movie to flesh out the lives of what are, essentially, background characters? At least Slade doesn’t just let the actors jaw away with exposition; he shows the audience their pre-vampire lives. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has adapted every movie so far and she seems well aware of what her audience expects. Eclipse has the exasperating habit of not leaving anything implied. When Rosalie warns Bella about choosing to become a vampire, Bella promises she’ll never want anything more than Edward. “There’s one thing more you’ll want,” Rosalie says. And then, because the audience is perhaps too thick to pick up that subtlety, she adds, “Blood.”

Our threesome of young actors all seem to have their parts well memorized at this point. One part pouting, one part glowering, and two parts yearning. This is the meatiest film yet for the actors as they all get to assemble heir cases. Jacob argues that he’s best for Bella and tries to convince Edward that if he truly loves her, he won’t let her become a vampire. Edward knows the heartache that comes with transforming into a monster and watching as everybody you love dies while you seem to be standing still. Oh, and there’s that whole insatiable desire to drink blood thing, which is just gross. Bella realizes she’s in love with two guys at the same time. She also realizes that in order for her relationship with Edward to last, she will inevitable have to be turned into a vampire. It’s the fork in the road every “girl who dates vampire” story must ultimately lead.

Stewart and Pattinson give serviceable performances, though Stewart seems like she’s doing you the favor of acting, like she’d rather be elsewhere. Once again, Lautner, who seems to have the most fun with his role, upstages them. There’s a sequence where the threesome share a tent in the mountains, and Bella is freezing and the ice-cold Edward cannot warm her. A plan is hatched: Jacob will crawl into the sleeping bag with Bella and warm her with his body heat. The ridiculousness of the scene is pierced by Lautner deadpanning, “Well, I am hotter than you” (which left my packed theater screaming in approval). Even though he’s saddled with quasi-stalker dialogue like “You love me, you just don’t know it yet,” Lautner makes the most of his wolf-boy licking his wounds.

Here’s another revelation thanks to Eclipse: vampires are apparently made of porcelain. When a vampire is destroyed in the Twilight world, they literally can have limbs snapped off like it’s nothing. They look like dolls getting ripped apart. Occasionally someone will have their head beaten and the vampire cranium will just shatter into thick pieces, much like a porcelain doll. Weirdest of all, whenever a vampire gets hit they are accompanied by this rattling sound effect, like inside the vampires are filled with rolls of nickels and dimes. It’s bizarre and distracting. I don’t ever remember this happening to vampires in the previous two installments. Why not go the Buffy route and just have dead vampires turn into ash? It doesn’t have to be as violent and nauseating as vampires getting staked on HBO’s superior True Blood, but I expect more than vampires just breaking. These are the creatures of the night. They should not be fragile little porcelain dolls. I know Slade and the producers went this route so that they could ramp up their bloodless action and get away with more onscreen.

The fact that something other than two-hours of lovey-dovey romantic declarations and intense, self-indulgent brooding happens means this is by far the most action-packed film in the Twilight series yet. It’s still not that good but it is a vast improvement over the dour suckfest that was New Moon. In fact, since Eclipse repeats many of the same plot points there really is no reason to ever watch New Moon. Skip it altogether. Once again, little of consequence happens in the film but at least Bella isn’t insufferable and we get some nice supernatural fight scenes out of it. The appeal of the series has failed to be translated on the big screen. It’s all about the swoon, and Eclipse will keep the Twi-hards swooning as they take in their male sex objects brought to visual life. Once again, I will state that the Twilight series comes across like a tedious teenage soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. Eclipse is probably the most guy-friendly of all the films so far, but even that isn’t enough to keep old material interesting the third time it’s reheated.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Director Tim Burton seems like the perfect candidate to take on the imagery of author Lewis Carroll. I would argue that, short of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland is the most reproduced piece of literature in modern history. It’s going to take a keen vision to make these old characters interesting (the macabre American McGee video game sure felt like it could have been born from the mind of Tim Burton). Unfortunately, Burton and some 3-D wizardry are not enough to compensate for a story that only works in one dimension.

Alice (Mia Wasikoswki) is now a teenager girl who can barely remember her jaunt to Wonderland in her youth. She’s assigned to marry a simpering lord because in Victorian England that’s how women took care of their futures. Alice is more interested in taking over her dead father’s trading company. So when the time comes for her lord to ask for her hand in marriage, Alice stammers, says she needs some air, and chases after what looks like a rabbit with a pocket watch. She falls down a rabbit hole and winds up back in Wonderland, however it’s really known as Underland. It’s been 13 years since Alice visited this magical world, and in the meantime the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has ruled as a tyrant quite fond of removing the bond between head and neck. Her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), was deposed and lives in exile. The (W)underland residents live in hope that an Alice will return and free them as an old prophecy foretells. She’ll have to rely on old friends, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to fulfill her destiny, and, why not, slay the Red Queen’s fearsome dragon, the Jabberwocky.

You would think that the combination of Burton, Depp, Lewis Carroll, and 3-D would produce an irrefutable masterpiece, at least from a visual and entertainment standpoint. I’m compelled to argue that the finished results are pretty much a mixed bag. The world of (W)underland seems fairly drab. Sure it was some big stuff and some weird stuff but from a color standpoint everything comes across as washed out, like Burton took one look and said, “Bright colors equate happiness. We can’t have that.” I understand the world wanting to convey a dispirited mood, but this isn’t any regular Burton film, this is Alice in Wonderland and we need a sense of, wait for it, wonder. Instead, we get an overwhelming feeling of drabness. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t catch the 3-D version of this movie for two reasons: 1) my wife’s head was hurting and she couldn’t take 90 minutes wearing nose-pinching, eye-hurting glasses that play with her depth of field, and 2) the 3-D shows were all sold out. I could tell which elements where intended to pop in a 3-D environment, namely the Hare always throwing objects as a calling card and the materialization of the Cheshire Cat. The tone isn’t too dark to scare the Disney families but at the same time there’s a bit more menace to the proceedings. The Red Queen’s bulbous, disproportionate head makes for an eye-catching visual that doesn’t get stale. (W)underland is a more hostile world but at the same time it’s not too threatening. Pretty much all the villains have some moment of redemption that makes them less threatening. The weirdest motif in the movie is eye gouging, which happens twice thanks to the same diminutive character.

Having said that, this is a visual decision that I could live with if the story engaged my senses more. Alice is now an older 19-year-old girl that has to defend (W)underland by fighting a dragon and suiting up in armor. She has to accept her destiny and be THE Alice and save the kingdom. The mystery of whether Alice is the one true Alice, look no further than the title, folks. He doesn’t remember anything from her first encounter in (W)underland and yet she has no sense of awe or curiosity. Also, why now do the residents of (W)unerland seek out Alice to rescue them? They never thought about reaching out in the 13 years the Red Queen has been ruling?

The plot is a fairly pedestrian “hero’s quest” that ends in a fairly pedestrian battle sequence where the armies of good and evil clash in CGI combat. The problem is that the original Alice in Wonderland source material really didn’t have much of a plot to it; it was really more a satire of the times, which featured Alice essentially going from one oddball to the other. The appeal was more the language than the story. It’s not the easiest piece of literature to adapt, to find a through line for a plot, so I guess making it about a hero’s destiny seems like the easiest, laziest path. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) assembles all the memorable characters but gives them little else to do, other than act mad. You may start to feel Alice’s sense of frustration after a while. Because of the threadbare story, you know exactly where the movie is going to be headed (wow, unintentional pun). In some ways this movie functions as a sequel and in some ways this movie functions as a remake, meaning that the plot is pretty much stuck trying to decide where to go next in a standard fantasy narrative device.

And then there’s the dance scene. Oh, the dance scene. How do I approach this gingerly? The climax that’s established is not Alice slaying the dragon, accepting her destiny, and (W)underland triumphing over the Red Queen’s tyranny. The climax is Depp break-dancing. You read that right, though the residents refer to his crazy legs movement as “futterwackin,” which sounds suspiciously naughty. It’s a moment so goofy, so tonally inappropriate that it shatters the entire notion of suspension of disbelief. It rips you out of the movie and all for a cheap laugh. It’s bizarre. I acknowledge that, given the fantasy framework, that the ending ought to stay in touch with the fantastical setting. But break-dancing? Would The Wizard of Oz have ended better if the Tin Man and the Scarecrow started break-dancing? At least the Tin Man could effectively perform the Robot. It’s a real-world artifact that has no place in the world of fantasy.

Depp is usually such a valued performer, digging deep into his character and reveling in their eccentricities. He’s the strangest and most exciting character actor that has become a box-office star. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from giving a rare bad performance. While nowhere near as off-putting as his Willy Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is more distraction than anything. He comes across like a figure grappling with post-traumatic stress, causing him to mutter incomprehensibly in a Scottish brogue. He’s tiresome after a while. Carter (Sweeny Todd) can be pretty shrill, playing the same overwrought note time and again, but she still manages to give the best performance in the movie. Hathaway just sort of acts flighty and raises her arms, waltzing around like she’s trying to imitate Depp’s Jack Sparrow. She’s entirely wasted. Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta) is a delight as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, and our heroine, Wasikowska (HBO’s In Treatment) has a striking Grecian presence, even if her performance is more dour than it needs to be given the fanciful environment.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp usually make for an unbeatable creative team, but I think Disney was the key figure in this arrangement. Alice in Wonderland wants to thrill without getting too scary, wants to delight without getting too original, and wants to dazzle without getting too weird. Burton’s visual inventiveness manages to make the movie entrancing at times and bewildering when the rest of the movie fails to live up to those fleeting moments. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the real-world Victorian scenes more than many of the ones in (W)udnerland. The film is just too disjointed and uneven to fully embrace, regardless of the 3-D upgrade. There are moments that I adored and moments that I could have lived without — like the break-dancing finale. The finished product isn’t a terrible night out at the movies, and there are plenty of enjoyable elements to savor. However, Alice plays like a familiar fantasy that takes Lewis Carroll’s creatures and rearranged them into a watered-down Lord of the Rings hybrid.

Nate’s Grade: C+

New Moon (2009)

Admittedly, I am not a fan of the Twilight series. I have never read one of the books but I didn’t hate the first Twilight movie. I thought it kind of worked on its own merits even if it wasn’t for me. However, New Moon is a crushing bore and a mess.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday with her vampire boyfriend, the 119-year-old Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She accidentally cuts her finger and the sight of blood sends one of the Cullen vampires crazy with instinct. Edward concludes that his love would be safer without him. He bids her goodbye and promises, “This is the last time you will ever see me,” forgetting that there are two more books to go. Bella is heartbroken and spends months in a stupor. She finds solace with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her friend of many years. Jacob’s people are indigenous Native Americans to the area, and he holds a secret as well. Turns out that Jacob is a werewolf. Now Bella has to decide between a vampire or a werewolf (does a Frankenstein monster enter the romantic fray later?). Edward mistakenly believes that Bella has died, so he too wants to die and will seek execution at the hands of the illustrious Vultari, the ruling vampire clan in Italy. Bella must decide between her two loves.

I can precisely indicate where everything goes wrong for the abysmal New Moon — the character of Bella Swan. For the majority of this sequel, I didn’t just detest and dislike her I downright hated her. I hated her. I understand her appeal to the millions of Meyer’s literary acolytes, but man does she come across as a self-centered, casually cruel, messed up girl who spends most of her time being whiny, mopey, and sulky. It’s not just that she has a guy interested in her, it’s the absurd notion that every man cannot get enough of this sullen gal. As presented in New Moon, Bella is such a dour and lifeless personality. I cannot see whatsoever why she is worth such effort. This criticism may be tracked all the way to Meyer’s source material, making Bella absent in defining character dynamics expressly so pre-teen readers can insert themselves as the character and swoon over being the object of universal desire. It is insultingly thin wish fulfillment that this girl has every man, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her in the Pacific Northwest. After Edward leaves, she shuts herself out and rejects all her friends. We see in one camera pan that she spends literal months in a stupor. I understand that teenagers think everything is the end of the world, but she and Edward were together for, what, a few months? Then again, heartache is something that knows no exact time frame for healing, so consider this but a quibble. Bella seems to push others away except when she needs a set of ears to whine.

It is post-Edward where Bella becomes insular, self-centered in her pursuit of danger placing herself in stupidly reckless scenarios, and hurtful. Where Bella really infuriated me is her treatment of her lifelong friend, Jacob. Obviously the big guy has a thing for his her and she knows this, which allows Bella to string Jacob along for almost a whole movie. She leads this little doggie along, teasing him with a “Maybe I will be with you, maybe I won’t” dance that becomes irritating and rather loathsome. Jacob is a swell guy who has looked out for Bella from day one, accepted her coupling with a vampire, sworn enemy of werewolves, and he’s been the best listener to all her self-involved drama. Plus this guy is ripped and has hip flexors that could cut glass. And he is there for her and didn’t abandon her like Edward. So Bella toys with her self-described “best friend” until she can hear the word “Edward” and then she can think about nothing else, even after months of complete separation. I understand that Edward has the sexy, brooding, bad boy appeal, where women think they will magically be the key ingredient to change the troubled man for the better. But on the flipside, Jacob thinks he?’ the key ingredient to finally get Bella to commit to a healthy relationship, and he gets screwed. Seriously, what’s the worse thing about dating a werewolf? You may have to take him for more walks. I suppose this makes me sound like I’m on Team Jacob, as the fans call themselves. I’m really on Team Bella Deserves to be Alone.

I don’t want to sound unduly harsh. I don’t necessarily have an inherent dislike for characters that make bad decisions or who are, at their core, unlikable. I could forgive the sins of Bella Swan if she had even a hint of subtext. Bella Swan is a void of personality. I cannot recall if this was the same with Twilight, which I haven’t seen since I watched it on opening day in the theater a year ago.

What also sinks New Moon is how it repeats the same plot from Twilight. Once again Bella feels alone, she finds comfort in a boy that says they can’t be together, this intrigues her and pushes her into action, she’s warned of danger, and then finally she settles in with a pseudo relationship with a supernatural stud who makes blanket promises like “I’ll always protect you,” and, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” It’s not complex folks; Meyer is just feeding pre-teen girls their fantasy of a male romantic interest. Because of this repetitious plot structure, very little of substance happens during the overlong 130 minutes of New Moon. Bella kinda sorta almost gets involved with a werewolf, there’s some lousy Romeo and Juliet allusions, and thanks to a delightfully hammy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), we learn a little bit about what makes Bella special to the world of vampires (it’s telling that her “specialty” is her lack of reaction). Beyond that, this is two hours of posturing and some gratuitous beefcake shots of shirtless men. My theater was sold out and packed with the Twilight faithful who swooned when they saw Edward strutting in slow-mo and openly hollering in approval when Jacob first whipped off his shirt. For supernatural creatures, they do more brooding than anything.

Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) replaces Catherine Hardwicke to steer the second movie. I actually think Hardwicke had the right sensibilities for this franchise and she brought a youthful, rambunctious spirit that gave the first film a teenage synergy that made the romance feel pulpy. Weitz does away with this and makes the movie feel more ornate and chaste and dull. The execs spent major money to film in Italy for the vampire Volturi clan, but as near as I can tell some sets would have done the trick. Note to filmmakers: if you spend money to film in an exotic location, show it. As far as I can tell, Weitz was hired because of the bump up in special effects for this picture. Gone are goofy vampire baseball sequences and now we have cheesy wolf battle sequences, which come across like a less refined version of the polar bear brawl from Golden Compass. The special effects have improved but that doesn’t mean they?re good.

This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that asks for much from its actors, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg distills Meyer’s text to the point that the actors pout and yearn. Stewart is an actress I have liked for years since Panic Room, so imagine how I would feel about the Bella character with a less capable actress. Pattinson is absent for almost the entire movie and it’s hard to say that his presence was missed. The best actor of this weird love triangle is Lautner who at least seems to have some fun with his role. He has an amiable spirit that penetrates all the gloom. He’s come a long way from being Shark Boy in 2005?s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

The plot is a shadow of the first film, and the main character is annoying and hard to sympathize with, there?s so little of consequence that happens, it?s way too long, and, oh yeah, did I mention how much I disliked Bella Swan? At this point, the Twilight franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be contained (as I write this it’s poised to make over $70 million on opening day) and the Twi-hards will find the movie to be catnip, swooning at the visualized male sex objects. For anyone outside the cult of Twilight, the movie version of New Moon will fail to communicate the appeal of the series. The movie feels bloodless. Twilight is like a tedious soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. I think I’ll stick with HBO’s True Blood, a more nuanced, adult, sexy, and just plain fun series following vampire-human love. Bella could learn plenty from Sookie Stackhouse.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Frost/Nixon (2008)

The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Queen (2006)

Long live the queen. In this instance Helen Mirren. After giving a majestic performance of Queen Elisabeth on HBO?s 2006 miniseries, here she is at it again this time as Queen Elisabeth II. Mirren is utterly magnificent in the role and burrows her way deep into her character, completely losing herself. Director Stephen Frears’ The Queen is a docu-drama examining the royals’ response to the tragedy of Princess Di’s death. It’s both a comedy of culture clash between the tradition-oriented world of the royals and the modern world that has moved beyond figureheads and symbols of monarchy and a drama exploring the grieving process. Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan build great sympathy for the queen and the rest of these nutty royals, all stuck in a different age and hesitant and confused about mounting outcries for change. The royal family doesn’t understand the public’s demand to fly the flag over the palace at half mast in honor of Di’s passing; it hasn’t flown at half mast for over 400 years for anybody, kings and queens, let alone someone no longer part of that family. Even Prince Charles comes across remorseful, heartfelt, a little strange, but very identifiable. Plus, as my wife noted, the actor looks a lot better than his real-life counterpart. It’s funny but also sad when the Queen Mum is hurt when her own funeral arrangements, the ones she picked out, will be used in a hurry for Di. The film pays equal attention to the rise of the new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his frustrated relationship trying to save the royal family in a PR nightmare. Mirren, though, is absolute royalty. She plays a character prided in her decades-long approach to shielding emotion, to stoicism, to stiff upper lips, and Mirren displays the flashes of grief, befuddlement, and tenderness that register through that tricky prism. Queen Elisabeth II figures the public doesn’t want someone all weepy. She did, after all, begin her service around World War II when Winston Churchill was her first Prime Minister. The world has changed, she fears, and wonders if she’s fit to lead her people when she doesn’t even know what they want. The Queen is a sterling character piece with excellent direction and great performances. It’s quiet and moving but also a deeply fascinating behind the curtain view at a moment in time. And yet… I cannot help but feel some distance to the movie; I cannot put my arms around it just quite yet. The Queen is a very good film, of course, with an Oscar shoo-in performance by Mirren, but the free-floating plot and the intentional repetition and disconnect kept me from embracing this movie totally.

Nate?s Grade: B+

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