Archive for 2011

The Walking Dead Recap: “Pretty Much Dead Already” (Season 2, Episode 7) (11/29/11)

So far in this season of The Walking Dead, the writers can’t seem to figure out what to do with the characters, and in the interest of prolonging a suspenseful plot point (Sophia’s disappearance) they let the protagonists dig their own graves with us discontented viewers. Look, I get it: these people are barely surviving in the wake of the apocalypse. They have problems unique to this kind of story – the idea that one’s family might die in the jaws of the living dead, for instance, is only the surface of the fears these people face. Imagine the idea that you might really, truly be alone for the rest of your life. Think about the fact that life as you knew it is over. Hence the title of this episode, “Pretty Much Dead Already.” As the survivors begin to realize nothing will ever be normal again, they alternately cling to each other and battle each other’s demons. Unfortunately the pacing, which in the first season was breakneck, deliberately slowed to a crawl.

Walking Dead S2E7

Finally, some resolution. Photo credit Gene Page/AMC

Sunday’s episode marks the end of the first half of the season…finally. In the opening scene, Glenn is forced to decide between Maggie, who wants him to keep the zombies in the barn a secret, and Dale, who thinks the whole group should know about them. Glenn decides in favor of the forever omniscient Dale and blurts the news to the group, which causes Maggie to smash a very precious egg on his head (she says, “I think it was rotten”).

Shane is an insane person, and responds as any insane person would: by throwing a temper tantrum. Why is Dale the only person to realize it? Shane’s tantrum leads the ever levelheaded Rick to talk to Hershel, who responds by telling Rick the group’s gotta go. But, but – but Lori’s pregnant! Rick sputters. Hershel’s done with them; as far as he’s concerned he’s done his Christian duty, but Maggie convinces him to rethink things. “It’s not about me and Glenn, it’s not about me and you. It’s about who you are,” she tells Hershel. Even this mild-mannered veterinarian has changed irreparably in the wake of an invasion whose severity he wishes to deny. Read more

The Walking Dead Recap: “Secrets” (Season 2, Episode 6) (11/21/11)

The name of this episode, which marks the middle point of season 2, should be “Open Secrets.” In last week’s “Chupacabra,” AMC poked us awake – prodded us into caring after the first half of the season put us to sleep. (The heated comments on my snarky review of last week’s episode bear witness to this: whether you’re frustrated with creeping plotlines and overused devices or you think season 2 is the best thing since Dawn of the Dead, at least you care.)

Getting your bottles in a row. Photo credit: AMC/Bob Mahoney

This week’s episode dwells on the plot points introduced last week (“dwells” is an understatement – “hammers on” might be better). Carl’s up and around now, but Sophia’s still nowhere to be found. (Come on already!) Lori is pregnant, and as with the scene in which she wonders whether to just let her son die, she’s once again waxing dramatic and stewing in her own bad decisions. Andrea is gathering strength in firearms and shooting practice; her will to live seems to be back with a vengeance. Glenn is still acting like a teenager – but to be fair, so is everybody else in this episode. Read more

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (11/19/11)

Movie Poster: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg

Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black
Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan
Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen

How long is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1? 117 minutes.
What is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 rated? PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, sexuality/partial nudity and some thematic elements.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

A fairy tale saga gets a dab of sophistication from Bill Condon, remains perfectly overwrought.


What do you think of when you think of Twilight? You think of screaming teenage girls; you envision the crazies sitting outside in the rain for 2 days before the L.A. premiere, the 40-something women who gasp at the site of a teenage boy’s bare chest. You think of Mormons, tabloids, and truly terrible writing. What you probably don’t think about is that, while Stephenie Meyer is no genius, she sure did strike a collective nerve with her overwrought saga. We live in a world where marriage rates are declining and people are choosing not to start families. One in which the economy is in the toilet, Occupy Wall Street protests are creeping ever closer, and women’s healthcare is under a constant barrage of malicious darts from conservatives. So really, what better way to engage your mind than a fairy tale? The Twilight saga is a fairy tale romance, complete with shape-shifters, vampires, raging hormones, and an entirely unassuming protagonist. (I prefer the Harry Potter series, myself, but someone had to fill that void following the culmination.)

Breaking Dawn Part 1 is the fourth film in the series, based on the fourth book. It’s also the series’ fourth director; Summit ousted Catherine Hardwicke after the first movie, replaced her with The Golden Compass’s Chris Weitz for New Moon, and then got 30 Days of Night’s David Slade to helm last year’s Eclipse. When Summit somehow enticed Bill Condon to direct Breaking Dawn, heads turned all about Hollywood. Condon is an Oscar winner who consistently churns out critically acclaimed work. So what on earth is he doing directing a YA supernatural romance series? Well, though he can’t redeem the series, he does his best.

When last we left off, that ethereal angel Edward (Robert Pattinson) had proposed marriage to his one true love, the clumsy and “completely average” Bella (Kristen Stewart). This entails Bella’s one true desire: that she be turned into a vampire too, and before she gets too old, thanks. Poor Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the shape-shifter (werewolf with no need of that pesky full moon) who’s also head over heels for Bella, ran off to Canada to be alone for awhile. Breaking Dawn zips straight through the traditional wedding and into the honeymoon. Logistics of vampire sex aside (inquiring minds want to know, if you have no heartbeat, how does blood get to the places necessary for the act itself?), Edward fears he’ll hurt Bella with his rock-hard muscles if they have sex before she becomes a vampire. However, unable to help themselves, they indulge in hazy, peach-colored lovemaking on Isle Esme, a private island off the coast of Brazil. It isn’t until a few days later that Bella realizes she’s pregnant…and already beginning to show.

What’s growing inside her is a monster, a thing capable of shattering her bones and reducing her to a corpse. And yet she won’t consider letting anyone touch it. So when the thing decides it’s coming, ready or not, it actually eats Bella from the inside out. And – get this – Edward has to bite her body all over to turn her into a vampire before she dies of massive hemorrhaging. What is actually a really brutal birth scene in the book translates quite well to a PG-13 format with some smart editing and fuzzy filters.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s tribe of shifters, the Quileute, experiences a massive upheaval when Jacob flip-flops on the subject of Bella. He finally decides to splinter from the main pack, bringing with him totally adorable fifteen-year-old Seth Clearwater (Booboo Stewart) and his shrewish sister Leah (Julia Jones). When the pack thinks Bella has died, breaking the long-standing peace treaty between sworn enemies vampires and shifters, alpha dog Sam stages an attack on the Cullens. Fortunately, though, Jacob has imprinted on Bella and Edward’s newborn baby girl, Renesmee. Yes, a seventeen-year-old boy has fallen deeply, irrevocably in love with a newborn. All of this is pretty twisted, but Condon and writer Melissa Rosenberg focus on Jacob’s visions of “future Renesmee” to make the whole situation a little less uncomfortable.

In case the abstinence-before-marriage and anti-abortion stances weren’t clearly sketched for you, here they are: kids, sex can be a lovely and wonderful thing – but don’t do it until you’re married, remember you might get pregnant, and that if you do you better plan on keeping that thing forever, even if it’s a danger to you and the world at large. And then when your best friend falls in love with it, you better just incorporate him into your family, too. Phew. Did I lose you yet?

Frankly, as much as I jest, the story is one that’s so ridiculous it’s hard not to keep reading/watching. Meyer’s fantasy is a too-perfect fairy tale with a too-neat culmination, but between the covers of books one and four, the events that come to pass are seriously twisted and totally engrossing (so long as you can ignore the 25% of the books that is Bella’s describing Edward as an archangel).

In Breaking Dawn, the Twilight cast is coming into its own. Pattinson and Stewart, who are no longer trying to hide the fact they’re dating in real life, have real chemistry in the film; though they have trouble with the awkward sex scenes and lengthy, deep kisses, it’s clear they actually enjoy one another’s presence. Lautner has genuine charisma as impetuous, lovable smartass Jacob. Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick, who was the best part of the first movie, gets a few choice opportunities to run with her comedic charm. Billy Burke is, as always, thoroughly entertaining as protective, downtrodden dad Charlie (I wrote in my notes that his face does more acting all by itself than the rest of the cast put together, but that’s a little unfair).

The film’s pacing is extremely erratic – it dodders along when it should be sprinting, and it sprints when it should take its time. Each time it could end, there’s another segment still to come. Carter Burwell’s score is entirely wrong for the movie – more often than not it’s a distraction, an upbeat piano jangling in the background of a meaningful scene. In Breaking Dawn, the wolves look more realistic than in the previous films. Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography takes full advantage of the beautiful Washington forests and Brazilian beaches. All in all, the movie is better than the last by far…which maybe doesn’t say much.

Most sane people wouldn’t brave the theater on opening night of a Twilight movie. Luckily, that’s what I’m here for. I couldn’t go to a midnight show (and wouldn’t have even given the choice), and the crowds on opening night were more subdued at this film than the last two. Perhaps the Twilight phenomenon is dying out; perhaps people are growing weary of the studio’s blatant attempt to reach into your pocket by dividing one book into two films. One way or another, the theater was packed with young women in UGG boots and sweatpants, Converse and skinny jeans. It was chock full of mothers leading gaggles of preteens, bored-looking boyfriends who surely wish their girlfriends would turn their starry eyes away from Edward and Jacob and back to the real world. But why would they do that?

Meyer’s fable is convoluted and strange, as unsexy as True Blood is oversexed. But in a world devoid of Muggles and Death Eaters, in a country plagued by serious cultural and economic difficulties, it’s a damn good way to turn off your brain for a few hours. Bill Condon’s talented hand lends an air of elegance to the series, tamping down the camp and turning up the heat (for better or worse). With one more movie yet to come, the series isn’t quite done yet – and the highly anticipated movie versions of The Hunger Games series will then take its place. While Breaking Dawn Part 1 may leave fans eagerly awaiting Bella’s transformation into vampiric magnificence, the rest of us aren’t holding our breath.

Movie Review: The Descendants (11/19/11)

Movie Poster: The Descendants

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon

George Clooney as Matt King
Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King
Amara Miller as Scottie King
Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer
Nick Krause as Sid

How long is The Descendants? 115 minutes.
What is The Descendants rated? R for language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest brings us
the best and worst of grief and humiliation.

On opening night of the 2011 Virginia Film Festival, the new George Clooney/Alexander Payne vehicle The Descendants is sold out. A palpable buzz fills the theater, as much for the beginning of the festival as for the evening’s feature. I’ll admit, I knew little about the movie prior to the screening – but Payne’s name is enough to get me in a theater seat. With 1999’s Election, Payne handed us an older, grayer, and totally deplorable Matthew Broderick, ruining the teenage dreams of Ferris Bueller fans (and he showed us that romcom queen Reese Witherspoon has serious range). In 2004, Sideways put Paul Giamatti and a naked Thomas Haden Church on the pop culture map as pathetic middle-aged wine connoisseurs. With The Descendants, Payne turns his brutal but loving hand to Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about a cuckolded widower (played by Clooney, who is far more believable as a grieving father than as a cuckold) and his dysfunctional quest to find the man with whom his comatose wife was stepping out.

The story could take place anywhere; it bears a passing resemblance to one arc in John Irving’s New England-set The World According to Garp. Fortunately for the audience, though, Payne’s newest flick takes place in that paradise of sparkling sand and cerulean sea, Hawaii. Matt King (Clooney) is a member of one of Oahu’s wealthiest dynasties. As his family struggles to make an enormous, far-reaching real estate decision, Matt’s wife falls into a coma as the result of a speedboat accident. Matt, who until the accident was the “backup parent, the understudy,” finds himself saddled with two foulmouthed daughters. Seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a bit of a drinking problem, and apparently has kicked her drug habit following her expulsion from the last fancy private school she tried. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) has a cruel streak and an entirely understandable obsession with death and sex. When Alexandra stops acting out long enough to tell Matt his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was cheating on him, Elizabeth’s impending death takes on a decidedly more confusing hue. In one of the worst parenting decisions committed to film, Matt takes his dysfunctional family, which now includes Alex’s twerp surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause), to Kauai to hunt down the man with whom Elizabeth was sleeping.

Payne is best at depicting the niggling, cringe-worthy flaws of your average Joe. His movies are smart depictions of normal people thrust into bizarre situations – but softly strange, not so farfetched as to be impossible. Like The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Payne chooses topics that are grotesque, darkly comic. You laugh because you can’t figure out what else to do with yourself. The Descendants intersperses chuckles with poignant portrayals of grief. People respond in viscerally nasty ways to death – they lash out at one another, they place blame, they stubbornly deny that anything at all is wrong. In fact, all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief are present in Payne’s movie. One could argue people are at their worst after the death of a loved one – and in Payne’s deft hands even people at their worst are a morbid pleasure to watch.

The Kings finally locate Elizabeth’s lover Brian Speer. Speer turns out to be none other than Matthew Lillard (I only bring this up because, well, who in her right mind would choose Matthew Lillard over George Clooney?). Even worse, he’s a real estate agent heavily invested in Matt’s family’s land. In a final dagger straight to Matt’s heart, Speer has a family: pretty wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two young children. After a brief and intensely awkward confrontation, Matt can finally return to the grieving process, and as always in road movies (which this is, despite its oceanic setting), the characters grow closer together.

The majority of Americans, of course, live in the lower 48, and to us Hawaii is as exotic as a foreign country. In the opening monologue, Matt asks, “Do you think just because we live here, our heartaches are less painful?” Juxtaposed with shots of Hawaii’s overpopulated cities and homeless – the things that don’t come to mind when we think of that idyllic state – the question is startling. Likewise, it’s jarring to see Hawaii’s most influential businesspeople dressed in khaki shorts and (obviously) Hawaiian shirts: “Don’t be fooled,” Matt warns us. “The most powerful people often resemble bums and stuntmen.” Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael walk a fine line; although Hawaii is undeniably gorgeous, for the most part the beauteous landscape takes a backseat to the microdrama on the surface of the islands.

Clooney, who’s falling into common typecasting for older actors, is perhaps too suave for the role. Nonetheless he’s believable as a man stumbling into parenthood, meandering through grief, and tripping over pointless jealousy. Lillard and Greer, both comedic actors usually relegated to the role of funny sidekick, remain firmly on planet earth in The Descendants. Woodley, Miller, and Krause form a team of quirky, eventually likeable young things to bolster Clooney through his journey. Robert Forster puts in great screen time as Elizabeth’s bitter, grief-stricken father, spewing vitriol and placing blame. Though Payne is undoubtedly a great filmmaker and Clooney will draw audiences thanks to that charm, that coif, and that beautifully graying stubble, the movie isn’t brilliant. It’s a bit tonally uneven, a bit heavy on the profanity. It isn’t destined to go down in history with Election. But those like me, who are drawn to family-oriented melodramas infused with a bit of comedy, will find a perfectly likeable movie with a number of genuinely hilarious scenes. It’s smart, sad, and painful all at once, but the execution isn’t snappy enough to draw Oscar gossip. It’s a perfectly passable dramedy, but it isn’t among the best.

The Walking Dead Recap: “Chupacabra” (Season 2, Episode 5) (11/14/11)

Following last week’s romantic gestures, last night’s episode of The Walking Dead treated us to some frustrating reversion. Shane won’t quit harping on his duty to Lori and Carl; Andrea manages to take one step forward and two steps back. We finally get another dose of Merle’s vicious hatred (though not in the way you’d expect); Glenn’s turning into a teenage boy; and Hershel is turning out to be not at all what we expected.

The Walking Dead S02E05 dinner

AWKWARD. Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC

In their search for Sophia, Rick and Shane begin to reminisce about Shane’s many high school conquests. But Shane’s moodiness gets the better of him and this shortly turns into a bitter argument. “It’s like we’re old folk,” Shane says. “The people in our stories are all dead.” There was a similar, and better done, moment in the new version of Dawn of the Dead: “That fat chick at the Dairy Queen? Dead,” explains one character to another, who responds petulantly, “Yeah, that sucks too.” Tropes from other TV and movies are continuing to pop up here, and though we get it – it’s all been done before! – it could really be done better here. Shane refuses to believe Sophia is still alive; and what’s worse, he can’t let go of his displaced protectiveness toward Lori and Carl.

The Walking Dead S02E05 Glenn and Maggie

Really, Glenn? Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC

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