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Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (11/17/12)

Movie Poster: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2

Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg

Starring:
Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner

How long is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2? 115 minutes.
What is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 rated? PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity.

CLR Rating: 2/5 stars

Photo by Andrew Cooper – © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

Final sparklevamp flick packs a surprise end, deserves a salute.

I have to start a slow clap for the new (and final, commence exhausted brow-wiping) Twilight movie. It surprised me, partly by not being the worst thing to happen to cinema in ages, but also by completely tearing the book apart. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t a masterpiece. Meyer’s saga is problematic, poorly written (and addictive, damn her) drivel, and the movies have, on the whole, been really awful. In the interim between Breaking Dawn Part 1 and this new film, I managed to forget Bill Condon was directing. The veteran director, who confused film critics everywhere by taking the helm, infused a dying series with dignity by upending the book’s completely anticlimactic final “battle.”

In the final scene of Breaking Dawn Part 1, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) opens her newly crimson eyes to a future as a vampire. The new movie picks up exactly at that scene, and apparently being a vampire is a little like taking ecstasy. This transformation process, so grueling for most new vampires, is remarkably simple for Bella, and hey, she never even has to kill a human! Because her given superpower (in this series, most vampires have them) is super self-control. Oh right, and she has a baby. A baby named Renesmee (hurk), who is supposed to be the most gorgeous infant ever to grace the earth, but whose CGI features make her terribly creepy to behold (IMDb reveals there were no less than ten girls employed to play Renesmee). To further complicate the instinctive repulsion we feel toward a baby rendered entirely by computers (it’s notable that none of the teenage girls in the theater made a peep when the baby was revealed), teenage shapeshifter Jacob (Taylor Lautner) has imprinted on the kid. In a surprisingly entertaining scene, Bella, always a weakling, tosses super-strong Jacob around like a teddy bear, screaming about how he nicknamed her daughter after the Loch Ness Monster.

Renesmee’s “growth rate is unprecedented,” says Carlisle Cullen, who puzzles over notebooks and furrows his brow in true “perplexed doctor” fashion. Upon hearing the Cullens plan to leave Forks to protect Bella and “Nessie,” Jacob goes to see Bella’s dad Charlie, strips down in front of him (to the delight of every Twihard and Twimom in the theater), and turns into a wolf. Hey Charlie, the world isn’t quite what you thought it was. Also Bella’s a vampire. (I exaggerate.) Then all is suddenly well again (seriously?) until Irina, one of the Cullens’ enemies from Alaska, sees Renesmee catching snowflakes in a meadow. She’s no normal child, of course.

In the past, vampires created vampire children, who were uncontrollable and destroyed vast numbers of humans, villages, and cultures in the midst of terrible-twos tantrums. The Volturi, the vampire governing committee, were forced to intervene. When Irina sets eyes on Renesmee, she sees an Immortal Child. Rather than, you know, asking her friends what they’re doing, she goes straight to Italy to fetch the evilest evil vampires there are. Alice (Ashley Greene), the one who sees the future, discovers that the Volturi are coming…and everyone panics.

The Cullens gather as many “witnesses” as they can. There will be no battle here, the Cullens, the ultimate “vegetarian” vampires, insist. The new additions include Lee Pace, Joe Anderson, and Mia Maestro, and come from the Amazon, Ireland, Egypt, and Transylvania. Unfortunately the Volturi want Alice for themselves (everybody wants to see the future!), so they’ll use anything to get to her. Alice and mate Jasper head for the hills, but not before giving Bella a clue that leads her straight to Wendell Pierce, a.k.a. The Wire’s Bunk Moreland. The plot thickens, and then thickens some more. Montages happen. Bella learns that on top of her super self-control, she can project a shield to those around her, protecting them from ill. Joe Anderson, an American adopting a horrid British accent, doesn’t believe it and generally creeps around the edges, making everyone nervous. Lee Pace is charming and witty, relating war stories from most of the American battles of the last 200 years (oh you vampires). Taylor Lautner is cute and amiable. New vamps arrive with new powers to play with.

Here’s where the movie diverges from the book. In Meyer’s version, there is no battle. There are “warring” factions of vampires standing in a snowy field giving each other the side-eye, and then it’s over. What kind of end to your “saga” is that? Condon and writer Melissa Rosenberg devised a brilliant scheme; a gruesome vampire/wolf melee has most of the series’ important characters dying horrible deaths. Without truly spoiling anything, it really does deserve that slow clap.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock probably caught that Stewart and Robert Pattinson, our very own Bella and Edward, started dating during the filming of the first movie. It was your typical Hollywood love story, first thinly veiled in a publicity ploy, then reveled in by Summit. It seems that when Stewart saw the end of the films in sight, she jumped into (non-penetrative?) bed with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. She then issued an embarrassing plea begging Pattinson to forgive her (but not, it’s notable, mentioning Sanders’s wife and child). Pattinson, who was busy making Cosmopolis with David Cronenberg, has recently started appearing with her again. Woe is me, young love, etcetera, etcetera. I was curious how the media, who immediately dubbed Stewart a “trampire,” and the Team Edward Twihards, who cruelly took her to task on Twitter, would affect the reception of the final film. Well, on Friday evening, the theater wasn’t full of screaming girls or Team Jacob t-shirts. Aside from a little extra security, a few mild squeals at Lautner’s washboard abs, and a packed parking lot, it was a relatively staid affair. The crowd at Pitch Perfect was rowdier.

The Harry Potter kids, brought up in the relative calm of the British acting world by Dame Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, and Michael Gambon, exited the series gracefully and continued their careers graciously. Not so for Twilight’s leading lady. Stewart has appeared at two of the film’s premieres in transparent lace getups and heels. “Here I am, this is it, and you can damn well deal with it,” she seems to be telling us. “Also, thank God this thing is over with.” For someone who obviously wants to seem like she couldn’t care less, Stewart certainly gives off a “look at me” vibe these days. And to be fair, I wish her the best. She was brilliant as Joan Jett in The Runaways, and passable opposite Melissa Leo in Welcome to the Rileys. The girl has talent, and it’s been sorely underused. (Pattinson and Lautner, I’m not so sure about.)

The series is over now. For now, we are done with sparkly vampires and weak, whining leading ladies. The trailers that played before the movie betray its audience: World War Z, Carrie, Beautiful Creatures, and Stephenie Meyer’s next project The Host (starring Saoirse Ronan, who is fantastic). The Twilight series filled the void left behind by Harry Potter. One has to wonder, once The Hunger Games is over, whatever will we do with ourselves?

This is Julia Rhodes, your official California Literary Review Twilight critic, signing off. I bid thee adieu. Fare thee well, Twilight stars. Best of luck. I’m with Stewart: Hallelujah! Let’s go get a beer and celebrate.

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (10/6/12)

Ed. Note (3/20/14): I was in a bad mood. I actually rather like Pitch Perfect these days, and I still love Rebel Wilson. Damn that “Cups” song, though.

Movie Poster: Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect

Directed by Jason Moore
Screenplay by Kay Cannon

Starring:
Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Skylar Astin, Freddie Stroma, Alexis Knapp, Adam DeVine, Ester Dean, Brock Kelly

How long is Pitch Perfect? 112 minutes.
What is Pitch Perfect rated? PG-13 for sexual material, language and drug references.

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie still: Pitch Perfect

Anna Kendrick stars in Pitch Perfect.
Photo: Peter Iovino/©Universal Pictures

A cappella flick fails to hit the right notes.

 film Nerve online

A cappella is serious business, according to this weekend’s PG-13, teen-centric opener. Unfortunately, Pitch Perfect can’t expect to be taken seriously. With stars like Anna Kendrick (Oscar-nominated for Up in the Air, the best part of the Twilight movies) and Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids), it was a good prospect – a movie featuring funny women being funny, with singing and dancing! What’s not to like? But thanks to bad writing, shallowly drawn characters, and misuse of comediennes, it just can’t hit the high notes.

Beca (Kendrick) starts college at Barden, the same school where her divorced father teaches. In order to avoid his well-intentioned meddling, she follows her sullen roommate Kimmy Jin to the activities fair, the place where collegiate dreams go to be corralled. In this land of school-sponsored camaraderie and ego, she encounters Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (True Blood’s Anna Camp), the remaining members of Barden’s all-girls a cappella group, The Bellas. In a tragic incident last spring, Aubrey projectile-vomited orange goop all over the stage at last year’s International Championships of A Cappella, and they are doubly determined to regain their dignity.

Dignity, however, seems at a premium when the two women are forced to scrape from the “bottom of the barrel” at Barden to achieve their eight-person quota. Fat Amy (Wilson) is, well, The Fat One. Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) is The Weird One. Cynthia Rose (Esther Dean) is the Token Lesbian. Stacie (Alexis Knapp) is the Oversexed One. Beca, The Sullen but Actually Invested One, rounds out the group. This is how any sports comedy goes: star athlete leads team to the finals, lets team down horribly, is forced to redeem himself by taking on new, “alternative” teammates and changing his whole mindset.

As the fall semester ramps up (not that you’d know it, as no one ever goes to a class in the movie), the rival a cappella group on campus, The Troublemakers, recruits Beca’s fellow radio station intern Jesse (Skylar Astin), an adorable, geeky movie buff. (It may be that I’m a bit of a sucker for movie geeks in film, but that’s for another day.) Since part of The Bellas’ oath is “I will never engage in sexual activity with a Troublemaker, or my vocal cords will be ripped out and eaten by wolves,” Jesse’s status as rival is supposed to be an obstacle. Actually, the obstacle is Beca’s standoffishness, her determination to reach her goal. College is for suckers! She wants to be a DJ, man. After she explains she can never make it to the end of a movie because she gets bored, Jesse shows her The Breakfast Club.

By using the last scene of the movie, Pitch Perfect throws a nod to the preceding teen movies it strives to emulate – but it completely misses the point. Just before Judd Nelson does the world’s most famous fist pump, Anthony Michael Hall narrates, “You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms; in the most convenient definitions. What we found out is that each one of us is a Brain, and an Athlete, and a Basketcase, a Princess, and a Criminal.” Hughes’s message was that there’s more to your average kid than meets the eye; that even kids from opposite social strata struggle with the same problems, heartbreaks, and pressures. In Pitch Perfect, nobody’s more than The Fat One, The Sexy One, The Dumb One, The Alternative One, and The Gay One.

Basically, Pitch Perfect took The Breakfast Club, Bridesmaids, Glee, and Bring It On and squashed them into a messy blob that leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Characters, particularly Camp’s Aubrey, add an “aca” prefix to words, much as Bring It On’s cheerleaders said “cheerocracy” and “cheertastic.” Fortunately, the intended audience probably hasn’t seen that one. The lesbian character, sporting Fantasia Barrino hair, is also thrust to the forefront for the occasional laugh – because lesbians always take every opportunity to grope someone’s boob in a rehearsal, right? Sure, it’s great that, since Judd Apatow insisted the food poisoning scene stay in Bridesmaids after Wiig and Mumolo’s initial protests, women can now be gross in comedy. It’s a good thing. But having a character spew a CGI stream of orange liquid, then having the women roll around in it, is not only deliberately derivative, but pointlessly classless.

Rebel Wilson’s character is likewise imitative of Melissa McCarthy’s in Wiig’s 2011 film. Fat Amy, self-appointed such so “twink bitches like you don’t call me it behind my back,” is the butt of every joke, and the audience loves it. The only redeeming factor is that Fat Amy is the butt of her own joke; her confidence and random, hilarious interjections (“I once fought a crocodile and some dingoes simultaneously”) nearly save the character. Wilson’s comedic timing and enthusiasm almost make you feel comfortable laughing at Fat Amy – because you’re sort of laughing with her. Unfortunately, the character still stumbles into the “laugh at the fat chick” jokes a few too many times. Isn’t it funny that her skirt doesn’t fit her the same way as it does the other girls? Isn’t it funny that somebody throws a burrito at her from a moving vehicle? Get it, a burrito for the fat chick? Isn’t it funny she’s surrounded by hot guys? Fat girls don’t have boyfriends! Ha-ha. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least – but the audience in my theater ate it up.

Finally, let’s get to the reason we all went to see it: the singing and dancing. Well, what you need to know about that is that Glee does it better. The choreography, cinematography, and arrangements are fine, but Ryan Murphy’s popular show, though it occasionally traipses into movie-of-the-week territory, sports some truly brilliant stage performances. A few of the scenes in Pitch Perfect invigorate and enervate the plot, but it also falls into one of Glee’s frustrating traps: no a cappella group is going to be, ahem, “pitch perfect” and choreographed masterfully without practicing. Where are the practice montages? They would’ve been a perfect way to get to know our characters better, and for our characters to get to know one another. Missed opportunities abound.

Kendrick, who was wonderful in Up in the Air and has spot-on comedic timing, is underused; a shallow, sullen character isn’t the right role for her. Wilson, whose tiny role in Bridesmaids probably got her here, is a comedic genius, and easily the funniest part of the film – the directors did the right thing by allowing her to improvise throughout, but I wish fewer of the jokes had been about how funny fatness is. Color commentators Elizabeth Banks and Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins have a number of funny scenes – but the intended audience probably doesn’t actually know who they are – though when Superbad‘s Christopher Mintz Plasse appears onscreen in a cameo, the whole theater gasped. The movie gets half a star for Wilson, half a star for Banks and Higgins, and half a star for its male lead, Skylar Astin, a cute goofball who has great chemistry with Kendrick (at least until the awkward kiss). Now I’m going to watch Stick It and The Breakfast Club and wash the taste of this drivel out of my mouth.

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman (6/2/12)

Movie Poster: Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman

Directed by Rupert Sanders
Screenplay by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini

Starring:
Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Ian McShane

How long is Snow White and the Huntsman? 127 minutes.
What is Snow White and the Huntsman rated? PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron as Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Photo: Alex Bailey/©Universal Pictures

A warrior princess, an evil queen, an overly saturated fantasy world…and a lot of cliches.

When trailers premiered for the second Snow White adaptation of 2012, I was rapt. A warrior Snow White? The devastatingly sexy Charlize Theron as the evil queen? Dark armies and huge trolls and overly saturated fantasy worlds? Done!

Everyone, everywhere, knows “Whistle While You Work” and the breathy, snub-nosed Disney princess, along with her seven faithful dwarves. But Disney’s first film (and all thereafter, from The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame) glosses over the original Grimms’ tale so it’s nearly unrecognizable. The world could use a harder, darker version, I thought – aside from the truly awful one with Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neill. And hey, Kristen Stewart has a bad rap. Snow White and the Huntsman features Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth (where did these Hemsworth brothers come from, and why did it happen all at once?), as the titular Huntsman, and Stewart (Twilight’s Bella Swan) plays the princess. Charlize Theron, who is no stranger to uglification (she won an Oscar for gaining 40 pounds to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster), is every bit the chilly, throaty, bitter queen. Unfortunately, attempts at humor fall flat, shots at depth fall short, and ravishing romance? Not a chance.

Snow White and the Huntsman opens as any fairy tale should: with a gorgeous queen sidling through a beautiful, snow-blanketed courtyard. In this version, instead of sewing at the window, the queen admires a brilliant rose blooming despite the frozen earth. When the rose (rather than the spinning wheel) pricks her finger, three crimson drops of blood fall to the ivory snow. How she wishes she had a daughter with lips red as blood, skin white as snow, and hair black as the raven’s wing! Shortly thereafter (no sex in fairy tales!) she gives birth to none other than Snow White, before perishing when Snow White is still a child. The princess is revered throughout the kingdom, the narrator explains, for her beauty as much as her defiant spirit. The King, racked with grief, allows himself to be seduced by a stunningly beautiful woman named Ravenna – whose heart proves to be as hard and cold as her beauty is breathtaking. Apparently feeling a kinship with Snow White, Ravenna (whose parents were killed when she was young) imprisons the princess instead of killing her. Ravenna, cursed/blessed by her mother with youth, vanity, and exquisiteness, asks her enchanted mirror, “Who is the fairest of them all?” It is always her – and she remains the fairest by sucking the youth and beauty from lovely young things. But ten years later, Snow White comes of age and becomes (of course) the fairest of them all.

The events of the movie take place when Snow White escapes from the north tower in a Shawshank-like trip through the sewers (can you imagine Disney’s titular character drenched in excrement?) – and straight into the Dark Forest. This version of the Dark Forest features hallucinations, poison fungus, maggots, masses of dung beetles, and winged demons. Ravenna sends the Huntsman, a grieving widower, into the Forest on the promise that she’ll bring his wife back to him. Of course, he comes to his senses before capturing Snow White. As in any good romance, he tries to leave her, but realizes he cannot; he becomes her greatest protector, despite the fact that the two hardly interact and have very little to like about one another aside from their mutual desperation.

The Disney version of the fairy tale featured musical numbers by adorable dwarves with personality (dwarfality?) quirks to match their names. This one also features dwarves, this time played by A-list actors shrunk via CGI to miniscule proportions. Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, and Eddie Marsan inhabit the little guys – not that they have much to work with. The dwarves are usually played for laughs, and the writers of Snow White and the Huntsman struggle for some humor (how could you not laugh with Nick Frost?!). It just doesn’t pan out.

The dwarves do, however, live in Sanctuary, the land of the fairies. The Disney princess was so cute that even bunnies and fawns gather and birds flit and chirp upon her shoulders. It’s cheesy and ridiculous – but Snow White and the Huntsman does it one better. The whole world seems to come alive as the princess walks by, and though that includes the flora and fauna stretching to meet her grasp, it doesn’t feel silly. To the movie’s credit, it feels right. The princess, the dwarves teach the Huntsman, is indeed “life itself,” and they decide they’ll fight for her until they die.

All of this is interspersed with shots of Ravenna screaming at her subjects (Theron actually tore a stomach muscle during filming), staring evilly into her enchanted mirror, and surrounding herself with grimly circling ravens. Ravenna’s brother does her bidding, following Snow White and her Huntsman…at least until the Huntsman murders him. Ravenna is then forced to take the guise of Snow White’s childhood friend William to entice her to eat that poisoned apple with which we’re all so familiar. (There’s a lot of apple imagery in Stewart’s film career, it seems.)

After a kiss reawakens Snow White (though it may not be the kiss you’re expecting, which is slightly obnoxious), she rallies her men with a speech – and I do like Stewart, but this scene was horrible – and rides off to war with them. While previous Snow Whites have been pretty little princesses, this one wears leather pants beneath her skirts and looks “fetching in maille.” It’s one of the movie’s redeeming factors. And who should be the one to defeat the dark queen, but the princess herself? For Stewart, who’s been stuck playing weak, pathetic, husk Bella for years now, the role must’ve seemed a brilliant departure.

Snow White and the Huntsman falls into the category of fairy tale romance, certainly. It’s darker and uglier than some, and definitely worse than many. Its attitude toward men is pretty unforgiving, and its characters have about as much depth as a backyard pool. Theron appears to have a lot of fun with her role, though Hemsworth and Stewart have zilch chemistry. Nonetheless, it features some enjoyable moments, lovely effects, and pretty cinematography. Finally, Charlize Theron is a delight to watch under any circumstances. It can go down in history with movies like First Knight – not great, definitely stretching the lines of “adaptation,” but fun nonetheless. Come on, it’s summer. What do you expect?

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.