Tag Archive for action

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (1/12/13)

Movie Poster: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal

Starring:
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

How long is Zero Dark Thirty? 157 minutes.
What is Zero Dark Thirty rated? R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

CLR Rating: 5/5 stars

Movie still: Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.
Photo: Richard Olley/©Columbia Pictures

War is hell, and Kathryn Bigelow shows us why in a tense, nuanced new film.

In May of 2011, American soldiers performed a midnight raid of a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, the former leader of Al-Qaeda and the figurehead behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Facebook exploded with graphic photos of his dead body, captioned with celebratory exclamations. Terrorism is dead! America triumphs!

After the 9/11 attacks, finding bin Laden was a decade-long process, a lengthy, complex route punctuated by car bombings, attacks on the world’s largest cities, and hundreds of deaths. Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 movie The Hurt Locker is a film whose overriding message is that war is hell, even for (especially for?) those who literally defuse bombs. In late 2012, Bigelow released her newest effort, Zero Dark Thirty, an account of the hunt for, and eventual death of, Osama bin Laden. This new film, very different in locale and tone from her last movie, is also about war as hell; no one, not even the CIA desk jockey scrutinizing from the relative safety of a computer as tiny men blow up tiny cars, comes out of battle unscathed. Hanging over Zero Dark Thirty is a pall of strident assertions that the Obama administration released classified information to filmmakers in a play to curry public favor. The CIA responded that it provided no such information, and a week ago a senate panel was convened to look into the matter.

Whether or not Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) obtained classified information regarding the hunt for bin Laden, the resulting film is a pièce de résistance. The movie begins on a black screen with real 911 calls from people inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “It’s so hot, I’m burning up!” a woman sobs, as the dispatcher murmurs, “Oh my God, oh my God.” It is a brutal, horrifying punch directly in the gut. It’s also an ingenious move – the next scenes, featuring very realistic torture of detainees (including graphic depictions of waterboarding), are much easier to take once we’ve had a vicious reminder of the crimes these men helped to commit.

As young, pretty CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches, Dan (Jason Clarke) beats and intimidates a prisoner. The camera shifts from Maya’s anguished face to the man’s palpable discomfort; Dan steps outside to inhale a cigarette, his gaunt features and shaggy hair betraying his torment. The movie has been criticized for fetishizing torture, for focusing lovingly on violence. No, that it doesn’t do. Dan and Maya, solid and resilient though they are, do not revel in the acts they commit. “This is what defeat looks like,” Dan sneers to the prisoner, and over the course of the film, you’ll find yourself repeating that line. This isn’t triumph. This isn’t glory. This is what defeat looks like.

Maya is a woman possessed, acting brashly on intuition over the course of eight years. Her slight frame and long red hair are out of place in rooms full of men clad in black suits and ties. Her voice, at a higher register than those of her male counterparts, is jarring when directed toward a bound man. In boardrooms and offices, she leans forward, face stony, refusing to be cowed by a director’s temper tantrum. She introduces herself to the Director (James Gandolfini) as “the motherfucker who found him,” without a hint of a smile. She faces off against the CIA’s top agent, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler, a.k.a. Coach Taylor), threatening his job if she doesn’t get what she wants. In short, this woman has more balls than anybody else in the room. She, like The Hurt Locker’s William, risks life, limb, and sanity to ensure no more lives are lost.

Chastain’s performance is nothing short of brilliant (and very worthy of her Best Actress nomination). Her face, a hard mask of determination, features delicate but sharp, barely betrays her sorrow when colleagues die, her fear (short-lived though it is) when bullets riddle her bulletproof car, her anxiety when she sends a company of men to kill someone for her. She’s a force of nature trapped behind a desk. Chastain herself, who seemed to pop out of the woodwork last year with her Oscar-nominated performance in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, is a force to be reckoned with.

Boal’s screenplay is ingenious; Zero Dark Thirty marks the third two-and-a-half-hour movie I have seen in theaters this week, and of all of them, it is the most compelling throughout (I’ll let you figure out which were the other two). Dialogue is simple, though the characters throw around terms that don’t make immediate sense to laypeople. Characters are simple, static; generally with a film about a female protagonist, there’s a subplot involving romance. There is no romance here, only determination. The climactic raid of the Abbottabad compound, including a black ops helicopter crash and subsequent explosion, is so tense I had to remind myself to breathe, even though we all know how the story ends.

Bigelow, who won Best Director despite ex-husband James Cameron’s best efforts in 2010, is the only woman in Hollywood making war movies. Noted asshole Bret Easton Ellis claimed on Twitter recently that she’s only an interesting filmmaker because she’s a hot woman. I disrespectfully disagree with his assessment. Bigelow is an interesting filmmaker because of her talent and perspective. Certainly, she’s beaten a path through the Hollywood boys’ club and been the first female to win the Best Director Oscar. These things are notable wholly because of her gender. More important, though, is the fact that she continues to produce work that amazes us with its artful tension, nuance, and complexity. In this sense, you may feel, watching Maya face off against the men in suits, barreling a hundred miles an hour toward a seemingly impossible goal, that you’re getting a glimpse at Bigelow’s own struggles.

I am almost always the sole unaccompanied woman in theaters for horror and war films. This isn’t because I’m trying to be part of the boys’ club, but because I actually love film. It’s clear to anyone watching that Bigelow does, too – and her films are different from those of many of her (male) counterparts in that there is no glamour here.

War is hell. Bigelow’s perspective, her focus on lonely, purposeful characters in the midst of chaos and violence, portrays this more eloquently than most of her colleagues could hope for. In the final shots of Zero Dark Thirty, a pilot tells Maya she must be pretty important, and then asks her where she wants to go. Her mask shatters, and for the first time we see her as a person, a human being who’s done and seen nightmarish things, whose only sense of purpose is now gone – and whose triumph actually looks a lot like defeat.

Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (6/23/12)

Movie Poster: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith

Starring:
Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas

How long is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? 105 minutes.
What is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter rated? R for violence throughout and brief sexuality.

CLR Rating: 2/5 stars

Movie Still: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Photo: Alan Markfield/TM and ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Completely silly, thoroughly entertaining revisionist history swept under the rug by Pixar’s latest.

It’s sweltering throughout the southern US right now, and in hot weather people flock to theaters – it’s dark, cool, and often foolishly entertaining in there this time of year. On June 22nd, theaters around the country were packed with people anxiously awaiting Pixar’s latest (and from all the preliminary reviews, greatest). So when I waltzed into the theater showing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, prepared to scout out seats for myself and a few friends, I was stunned to see the trailer for Django Unchained playing to five hundred empty seats.

The great thing about an empty theater is that you can act out your own (not as awesome) version of MST3K, project your aggression onto the characters onscreen, and generally act like a fool. In other words, it’s the best environment in which to take in a movie like Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Fantastical revisionist histories are not a new thing (see: CSA: Confederate States of America, Red Dawn), but inserting supernatural beings into great literature (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies) and into the lives of America’s most beloved presidents is a fairly recent trend. In Timur Bekmambetov’s latest offering (penned by and based on the titular book by Seth Grahame-Smith), Honest Abe, that lanky gentleman with the top hat whose pleasant face graces our least valuable coin, is…well, what else? He’s a vampire hunter. Grahame-Smith weaves Lincoln’s passion for Abolition together with his other, secret obsession: ridding this great nation of vampires.

During the 16th President’s childhood in Indiana, Grahame-Smith writes, Abe got on the wrong side of a slaveowner as boy-Abe struggled to protect his black best friend, Will Johnson. Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), wearing darkly tinted sunglasses and a perpetual sneer brimming with ragged yellow teeth, is not just a simple Southern man; he attacks Abe’s mother in the dead of night, sucking the blood from her body as Abe watches.

Years later, a teenaged Abraham (Benjamin Walker, a perfect casting choice if ever there was one) seeks out Barts to wreak vengeance for his mother’s murder. So begins our nation’s forefather’s journey into the depths of hell – and one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve seen in awhile. Every vampire hunter needs a mentor (Buffy Summers has Giles, Blade had Whistler), and in Abe’s case the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) provides. Sturgess warns him, “No friends, no wife; you can have no one.” Well, as we all know, that isn’t how it worked out. Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was at the time engaged to senator Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), finds herself infatuated with Abe’s passion and sense of adventure, and before long the two are married. (As a side note, using “Firefly”’s favorite pilot and Scott Pilgrim’s favorite lady in one movie ups the nerd factor in a good way.) Lincoln’s life progresses the way the history books tell it – he becomes a successful lawyer, attains the Presidency, and has a son with Mary, all while struggling to keep the nation safe from the undead.

These undead, led by Adam (perpetually spooky Rufus Sewell), saw slavery in the US for its lucrative properties…but also as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Seeing as how people were effectively chattel, they made very easy targets for the bloodsuckers. These undead led the Confederate Army into battle – and how could the Yankees fight the immortal?

But that would be revealing too much. What you need to know about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is this: you’ll almost certainly enjoy yourself. You will laugh. The characters do unbelievable things with ordinary tools; they toss each other like rag dolls; they bounce back after mortal blows. You know that scene in every second action film where a hero and villain battle atop moving traffic, leaping improbable lengths while hurling objects at each other at the expense of public safety? Well, no one had mass-produced automobiles yet in the beginning of Abe Lincoln’s life, so instead there are mustangs (it’s brilliant). The final scene takes place atop a moving steam locomotive (Wanted‘s Bekmambetov enjoys trains).

I’m wary of 3D, as anyone who’s read my writing before knows. I blame James Cameron for this blight on cinema. It’s a scam. So few filmmakers know how to use it correctly, so few theaters truly understand how to accommodate the technology, that it often makes for a more frustrating moviegoing experience than plain old 2D.

That’s not true of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. 3D is a perfect venue for a movie like this one. Bekmambetov’s vampires have shimmering eyes whose effect is truly chilling with the extra “dimension;” their eyes glint like a cat’s in the dark. The filmmakers’ meticulous attention to detail graces the viewer with glowing cinders and floating dust motes that stir pleasantly to and fro in the depth of the frame. Further, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel evidently worked closely with visual effects crew to ensure that the movie is filmed brightly, starkly, so that the darkening effect of 3D glasses doesn’t detract from what you see onscreen.

The writing, while snappy and catchy, is trite and worthy of good-natured mocking. “True power lies not in hatred, but in truth!” Sturgess screams to Abe, as the not-yet-Pres sends a whole tree flying with one blow of his axe. “Men have enslaved each other since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it,” says Adam, threatening Abraham. As with Bekmambetov’s other films, the emphasis here isn’t on reality, but fantasy. The director’s signature speedy, frenetic zooms punctuate a film that’s smoothly paced and winkingly earnest. The characters perform impossible deeds in stylized slow motion so that we’re too enamored of how cool it looks to care that it’s impossible.

I won’t go so far as to recommend intoxicants to go along with Abe Lincoln. However, I can suggest that it might be even more entertaining, if that’s your thing. The empty theater on opening tells a tragic story of audience apathy, but you’ll come away satisfied. It’s not good; not by a long shot. I predict a small cult following, but only after the Brave hype dies down. Anyone who’s enamored of Bekmambetov will enjoy herself, and anyone who takes pleasure in revisionist history will love the intertwining of reality and fantasy (or is it fantasy?). It’s a fun movie for a hot summer evening – and after you’ve seen Brave (Because who are we kidding here? That’s obviously your priority), you’d probably do well to check it out. Or, you know, you can wait until DVD.

Movie Review: The Avengers (5/5/12)

Movie Poster: The Avengers

The Avengers

Directed by Joss Whedon
Screenplay by Joss Whedon

Starring:
Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson

How long is The Avengers? 142 minutes.
What is The Avengers rated? PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.

CLR Rating: 5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Avengers

Scarlett Johansson is Black Widow in The Avengers.
© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Whedon pits hero against hero against villain in one of the smartest, funniest, and most exciting action movies in the last few decades.

Over the last half decade, Marvel has embarked on a massive superhero journey, explaining over half a dozen films the origins of the Avengers, a superhero supergroup comprised of Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). No matter your thoughts on the preceding movies (Iron Man 2 was not very good and Thor was stupid but fun), you’re bound to adore this weekend’s brilliant culmination, the Joss Whedon nerdfest – and I mean that in the best way – The Avengers.

When fans heard Whedon might be connected to this movie, much rejoicing was heard across the internet. This is the man who brought you “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” and Serenity. Whedon is a bloody genius with ensemble casts and witty, intelligent dialogue – which tells you all you really need to know about The Avengers. Obviously I’m going to continue, because that’s what I’m here for – but first and foremost know that the film’s screenplay is nothing short of brilliant.

There’s no slow build to action in The Avengers. In the opening moments Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, of whom we caught a glimpse post-credits in Iron Man 2) debarks from an aircraft with his assistant, Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders), and we’re thrown into world-in-jeopardy action from the first five minutes. Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) has been assisting S.H.I.E.L.D., an international peacekeeping organization, to build a pipeline from space through which clean energy will flow like manna from heaven. Ostensibly. Unfortunately, at the end of the pipeline is, well, outer space. And who should be attracted to this open door like a moth to flame, but Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of Thor and son of Odin, who is poised to take his “rightful” place as ruler of earth. Loki, a boy king, petulant, cruel, and vengeful, will force the people of earth to bow to him; after all, we are made to be ruled. After a short, gripping battle, Loki escapes after veritably hypnotizing Hawkeye and Selvig.

“As of this moment, we are at war,” Fury says solemnly, and Fury closes his metaphorical fist, bringing together all our major players. Dr. Bruce Banner, who hasn’t had a “Hulk smash” incident in over a year, is treating the sick in Calcutta. Tony Stark is living in bliss with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the upper floors of Stark’s latest, greatest monument to himself, Stark Tower. Natasha Romanoff is doing what she does best – interrogation – in Russia. Steve Rogers, awakened after 70 years trapped in ice, has no idea what to do with himself so demolishes punching bags and mourns the death of his sweetheart. Fury sends Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to gather the unwilling, largely unstable troops and load them aboard the helicarrier. After the earthbound heroes track down Loki, Thor pops in from the heavens to try to save the day on his own terms – which of course irks the mortals.

What follows is what we’ve really been waiting for; we didn’t pay to see how the superheroes band together – no, we want to see them fight each other. Of course, each battle between our reluctant heroes is better than the last – and they aren’t simply thrown together Mortal Kombat-style for the sake of box office dollars. Authentic, clever dialogue segues into the superhero equivalent of fisticuffs. This is where Whedon excels – he gives his casts, no matter how large, generous character development. His actors seem to have ample time to step comfortably into their characters. In the case of The Avengers, these guys are military experiments, radiation survivors, supergeniuses, and demigods. Each feels vastly different from the others about his position in the world. With egos this big, something’s bound to come undone – but in Whedon’s hands, it’s not only a pleasure to watch the interactions between our heroes, it’s also absurdly exciting.

In a further twist, it turns out S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t actually in this battle for anything so innocent as clean energy; WMDs are the name of the game. “A nuclear deterrent,” as Stark says, “’cause that always calms everything down.” After Loki escapes his cage, scattering the Avengers to the four winds and murdering a secondary but beloved player, the heroes have a reason to fight. An army from outer space soars through a portal over New York City, and the S.H.I.E.L.D’s Council sends orders to nuke Manhattan. What are heroes for, if not to save the world? Ours do just that in stylish, exhilarating fashion, punctuating the BOPs and WHAMs and roars with hilarious discourse.

Not to compare actors to superheroes, but this cast could easily have exploded in our faces; like their characters, each of these actors is famous in his or her own right. Some are A-list while others hover just below, and it takes a persuasive genius (shall we call Whedon a Nick Fury of sorts?) to gather them and get them to fight for a common cause. Rumor has it Edward Norton’s ego was a bit too large to join this cast, but that’s fine. Ruffalo makes a perfect Banner and a great Hulk. Evans is charmingly earnest, delivering more in facial expressions than with lines. Downey, Jr. spouts dozens of one-liners that still have me chuckling fourteen hours later. Johansson and Renner play out a complex, tense relationship with subtle ease. Hemsworth is certainly a pretty face – though sorry, ladies, no shirtless Thor this time around – but he plays Thor comfortably and with a lack of humor that makes the character that much funnier. Hiddleston inhabits Loki with a frightening glee – the kind you associate with a future psychopath roasting ants with a magnifying glass. Yet every actor metaphorically doffs his hat to the next; you’ll see no scenery-chewing or one-up-manship in The Avengers. These guys genuinely play nice together, and that’s the key to a great ensemble cast.

For Whedon fans and comic aficionados alike, The Avengers is a nerdgasm, a playful and intelligent opening to the summer movie season (and be sure to stick around for a few minutes into the credits for a peek at the next step in the franchise). This year is going to be a doozie – before The Avengers, you’ll see new trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Battleship, Brave, and Frankenweenie – in other words, all the big movies about which we movie nerds are preliminarily salivating. If The Avengers is any indication, this summer in theaters going to be nothing short of breathtaking.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (3/24/12)

Movie Poster: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Directed by Gary Ross
Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins

Starring:
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

How long is The Hunger Games? 142 minutes.
What is The Hunger Games rated? PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.

CLR Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Hunger Games

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
Photo: Murray Close/©Lionsgate

It’s everything you’ve been waiting for.

One thing’s for certain: you don’t want to live in the world of The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s trilogy presents a future America that’s as bleak as it is plausible. A world in which the government’s efforts to contain an unruly populace include sacrificing 23 children a year. A place where those who dare to speak their minds have their treasonous tongues cut out of their heads. This is an America in which the very rich and extremely powerful enjoy an unsteady reign over a poverty-stricken population that struggles to stay alive. This is the world of The Hunger Games, and like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or Brave New World, it is absolutely terrifying in its familiarity.

Gary Ross’s film is based on the first of three young adult novels that are fast, well written, and smart. Fans have towering expectations for the movie, and luckily it hits all the notes we’ve been waiting for. The books and movie follow sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resident of coal mining District 12, in the country of Panem. Katniss is effectively mother to her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields), and spends her free time hunting illegally in the woods with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Katniss, unlike simpering Bella Swan, is a certified badass. Watching her hunt is hypnotic – and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they fashioned beauty from her coaxing a deer out of hiding.

Once a year, explains a title sequence at the beginning of the film, a kind of gladiatorial pageant takes place in Panem. To quell a potential uprising, the government takes two children between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district and forces them into an arena where they fight to the death. Every citizen of Panem is forced to watch this death game. As mandated, Katniss and the rest of District 12 gather in their Sunday best for the Reaping, the ceremony in which the names are drawn (the concept is like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel). Whose is the first name to be drawn? Even though she’s only in the running once, it’s Prim, of course. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place – which is the first step in her unexpected, clumsy journey to leading a revolution.

The government, headed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), frames the Hunger Games as something to which people should look forward; according to the powerful it is an honor for children to die for their district. Thus the propaganda film (which sounds oddly, frighteningly biblical) calls the sacrificial lambs Tributes. The second Tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who once threw Katniss a loaf of burned bread to keep her from starving. The two of them board a bullet train to the Capitol, a glimmering oasis of wealth and decadence, to be treated like superstars while they prepare to brutally murder their peers.

In the Capitol, they meet their mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former winner of the Games and a drunken louse. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is a kind of liaison between the Capitol and District 12, an eccentric and bizarre creature hidden beneath layers of makeup and brightly colored clothing favored by the citizens of the Capitol. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, decked out in a Who-from-Whoville pompadour of blue hair) is the announcer and host, the face of the Games; Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) is the man behind the scenes, the great designer. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is the District 12 Tributes’ stylist/strategist, a guardian angel who helps them make an impression.

Katniss narrates the books, and making a film from a novel written in the first person is a daunting task. The filmmakers do a brilliant job of conveying the vast difference between poverty-stricken District 12 and the wealthy, decadent Capitol. Katniss is stunned by the abundance of food and space, the gleaming metallic surfaces of the Capitol; it is unlike anything she’s ever seen before. What we see is akin to an episode of “Cribs” – we value and encourage this kind of decadence in our celebrities. The film portrays this well, in lingering shots of both the Districts and the Capitol. Lawrence, likewise, expresses subtle emotions while remaining outwardly stone-faced.

The actual Hunger Games don’t start until well into the film. There’s a lot of storytelling to get out of the way, a lot of buildup, but never does it feel slow or forced. The suspense builds to bursting as Katniss and Peeta mold themselves to give ‘em a show, and just when you’re ready to explode the film enters the arena. The Games themselves are as brutal as you’d expect. They are, after all, teenagers stabbing, slicing, crushing, and shooting each other. There are a few kinds of Tributes: the cunning and ingenuous, like Fox Face (Jacqueline Emerson) and Rue (Amandla Stenberg); the strategic and talented, like Peeta and Katniss; and the Careers. Careers train daily until they’re 18, just biding their time until they’re given the chance to “honor their districts.” Careers Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid), and Glimmer (Leven Rambin) form a deadly alliance and it’s left to the rest of the Tributes to avoid them.

Katniss and Peeta pretend to fall in love because that’s what the audience wants, and what the audience wants is integral to survival, because the rich can pay to send gifts to those in the Games – medicine, food, ointments. The arena itself is a computer-controlled nature preserve where the gamemakers can employ lethal tactics to murder the children or force them to murder each other. All of these things are artfully explained by cutting away from the arena and onto Caesar Flickerman, our master of ceremonies. Tucci’s toothy grin is both engaging and disingenuous – his casting is perfect.

The movie doesn’t feature voice-over narration from Katniss; we’re outside of her head, and that leaves more creative legroom to keep up with the rest of the characters. It may feel jarring to some fans to leave the arena so often. Frankly it releases some of the tension, though, to cut to Seneca and President Snow, or Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith. All of the performances are spot-on. At 20, Jennifer Lawrence has an earnest maternal quality; she was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for Winter’s Bone, another movie in which she played surrogate mother to her siblings. Stanley Tucci is always fantastic. Harrelson plays Haymitch with just the right amount of bitterness and a splash of deliberate funny. Elizabeth Banks, nearly unrecognizable in Effie Trinket’s uniform, is entertainingly strident and out of touch. The makeup, costuming, and special effects are also pitch perfect. Ross and the rest of the crew treat the book with reverence and respect, and the end result is exactly what fans will want.

We’ve seen movies like this before – in 2000, Japan’s Battle Royale took the world by storm with its horrifying portrayal of an entire high school class fighting to the death. The two bear similarities, certainly; however, Battle Royale is a jarring and gory satire of the inherent, petty malevolence of teenagers, while The Hunger Games is a dystopian nightmare that happens to feature a teenage protagonist. (It’s also worth noting that Battle Royale was banned from wide release by the US and UK until just this year, while The Hunger Games is only rated PG-13.) Comparisons are unavoidable, but the two are separate entities.

On opening night, the theater was filled with preteen girls carrying bows and wearing shirts that declare TEAM PEETA or TEAM GALE; you could mistake this fandom for something along the lines of Twilight – there’s giggling at every kiss, every meaningful glance. Bella Swan, though, wouldn’t last two seconds in the Hunger Games without her shimmering savior. Katniss Everdeen is a strong, smart, fast, and cunning protagonist – and this movie is one I’d encourage my hypothetical daughter to see and love for herself. In short, it’s everything you’ve been waiting for, and may well be the best movie of 2012 so far.

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.