Archive for November 2012

Breaking Dawn – Part 2

November 18, 2012

During the long goodbye at the end of Breaking Dawn Part 2, the last film in the Twilight franchise, we see images of, apparently, everyone who has ever been in a Twilight film, even if they weren’t in this one. It was nice to see good ol’ Graham Greene again; I’m sure he would’ve rather had the money, or at least a walk-on, even in a flashback (his character died in the second movie). This end-credits tribute makes it seem as though everyone in the world — well, except for those nasty Volturi — joins us in wishing an eternal happily-ever-after for the pretty vampire couple Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). I suppose this is one of the few romantic films that actually can offer a literal happily-ever-after — for many centuries, long after the rest of us are dead.

But will The Twilight Saga live forever? Teenage girls are notoriously fickle, and if you were, say, fourteen when the first of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books came out, you’re well into college age now. Still, this series probably represents the closest thing to long-form romance the movies have seen since the Thin Man films closed their doors, and that’s worth noting in an era when mostly sexless boys’-toys stories get all the franchise attention. Despite the trappings of lite horror — vampires, werewolves — Twilight has always been about how Bella and Edward would hurdle the many obstacles to their True Love. It’s been a sappy and largely uneventful ride, and I welcome The Hunger Games taking its place in girls’ hearts, but let’s not pretend there haven’t been far worse film series.

The big drama here follows up on Breaking Dawn Part 1, in which the still-human Bella gave birth to Edward’s daughter, almost died, and was saved by getting vampirized. The daughter, Renesmee (a name widely mocked in and out of the fanbase), grows rapidly and communicates by touching people’s faces. Bella and Edward have been given their own charming little house out in the forest, and Jacob the soulful werewolf (Taylor Lautner) has “imprinted” on Renesmee, which basically means he’ll hang around her with puppy-dog eyes platonically for the rest of his life, perhaps hoping for the occasional biscuit or bouncy ball outside. All seems sparkly until the dread Volturi, the elite vampire coven that controls all bloodsuckers, hear about Renesmee and think she’s a human child who’s been vampirized.

This leads to a big fake climax, which is nonetheless the highlight of the series, in which we get to see the Cullen clan, plus the werewolves and whatever other vampires they can summon, face off against the Volturi in an epic battle in the snow. Filmmakers, take note: you can get away with pretty much any level of carnage in a PG-13 movie as long as you don’t show any blood. Many heads and limbs are liberated from their bodies. Reportedly, this battle did not appear in the book, and appears here only because psychic vampire Alice (Ashley Greene) wants to show Volturi leader Aro (Michael Sheen) what exactly would happen if the opposing sides did throw down. Well, that and because director Bill Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg didn’t want to end a five-film series with a polite chat between good and evil.

As always, I have to say the proceedings were painless, if uninvolving. Stewart and Pattinson, perhaps because they were aware their Twilight ordeal was almost over, show more spark here than before; Stewart actually becomes interesting to watch when Bella is a new vampire learning the ropes, and she manages an impressive I-will-kill-you scowl directed at anyone who threatens Renesmee. This series has always cribbed from classical archetypes without quite feeling archetypal itself; it’s Epic Romance Lite, and everything else about it has been lite, too. Aside from the occasional “hmm” moment arising from our knowledge of its author’s Mormonism, The Twilight Saga hasn’t offered very much to chew on or digest, no subtext or connection to where we’re at today — these films and books could’ve been written in the ’70s. I presume it has been an introduction to star-crossed romance for a generation of girls too young to remember Titanic (much less Romeo and Juliet, even the DiCaprio version), but for the rest of us it’s been a mildly diverting sidebar, not central to any discussion outside the tabloids and the fanbase. That the movies haven’t been as embarrassingly terrible as they could’ve been is a small bonus, I guess, though embarrassingly terrible movies might have performed the dual public service of bringing Howard the Duck-level shame to the books’ fanbase and laughter to the rest of us.

See also:
Twilight
New Moon
Breaking Dawn – Part 1
(I watched on DVD, but did not review, Eclipse.)

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Skyfall

November 11, 2012

If nothing else, Skyfall is the prettiest James Bond film in years. In the Shanghai sequences, master cinematographer Roger Deakins bathes the screen in the soothing blue of neon and the perky yellow of lantern lights. Elsewhere, Deakins brings out lush and painterly browns, reds, and oranges. The movie is certainly a lot easier to look at than its drab predecessor, Quantum of Solace, and considerably easier to sit through, too. Skyfall isn’t quite a throwback to the absurd thrills of the 007 films of old, but it does inject some fun back into the franchise. What you need in this series, it turns out, is a diabolical mastermind with apparently limitless resources. Bond needs to stop him. The rest almost takes care of itself.

The mastermind here is Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who wants revenge on MI6 leader M (Judi Dench). Silva warms up by stealing a list of agents in deep cover and threatening to out them. Bond, in the formidable form of Daniel Craig, swings into action — though painfully, since he almost died (and for months is officially presumed dead) and spends half the movie wincing over a bum shoulder. This is Craig’s third 007 outing, and probably his best; he seems more comfortable in Bond’s skin here, and he gets to play a productive mix of emotions. Since this year marks the series’ 50th anniversary, it looks back a lot (much is made of “the old ways” being better than “the new ways,” and Bond’s very relevance is questioned by the government), and so does Bond.

For its 50th birthday, the franchise has been gifted with its first-ever Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). Though not an action director, Mendes at least lets you see what’s going on, unlike Quantum of Solace non-action-director Marc Forster. The movie has breathing room, too; as far as I can determine, Skyfall has the second-longest 007 running time (Casino Royale has it beat by a minute), yet the pace is smooth and assured, mainly because the plot doesn’t get bogged down in pointless twists. Getting away from his usual theme of masculine disillusion seems to have done Mendes a world of good (though the betrayed Silva character allows him to sneak it in a side door). We can feel Mendes enjoying the far-flung locations, the set-ups and grandeur that only 007 money can buy. For the first time, I got the sense that a name director had attached himself to the franchise out of love for Bond, not for an easy paycheck.

This is all to say that I, generally indifferent to Bond films, had a decent time at this one. Bardem brings back something we haven’t seen in the series in far too long, an interestingly depraved villain who seems to love his work. I don’t know whether Silva’s flirtatious advances towards Bond indicate anything other than simply tweaking his macho and legendarily hetero adversary, but it’s amusing to watch. Bond himself gets two bedmates here, one of whom has no dialogue and one of whom does, but may as well not have any — all she does is vamp, talk about how much Silva scares her, and fail to smoke a cigarette convincingly. Aside from M and a new field agent (Naomie Harris) who assists Bond, the 007 franchise remains a boys’ club, and a white boys’ club, at that. Is there any reason the next 007 can’t be a black man — or woman?

Well, you go to war with the Bond you have. In a way, Skyfall returns Bond to his roots — the title refers to the estate where Bond grew up and where the climax unfolds, and though Bond is unsentimental about the place, the movie brings in Albert Finney as the estate’s gamekeeper, a role originally intended for Sean Connery. I wish the filmmakers had enticed Connery out of retirement, as Skyfall would be a far superior swan song to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but Finney’s presence feels right here anyway — it seems like he always should’ve been part of this series in some capacity. He might’ve made a wittier Q than Ben Whishaw, who doesn’t get to do much with what he’s given here, but any Finney is better than none. And for those who feel that any Bond is better than none — i.e., those who convinced themselves that Quantum of Solace was any good just because it was there — Skyfall should be a pleasant surprise.

The Man with the Iron Fists

November 3, 2012

Am I the only one who remembers Kung Faux? It used to run on IFC, though I’ve no idea if the show is still in production. Anyway, they’d take old martial-arts flicks and dub them with wise-ass dialogue, kind of a hip-hop version of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? It wasn’t the first time I was aware of the large African-American fandom devoted to chop-socky movies, but it sure was the funniest. RZA, the hip-hop legend who leads the Wu-Tang Clan, is a serious student of martial-arts epics, particularly the Shaw Brothers productions, the same films that kept Quentin Tarantino company on so many afternoons. Now RZA has co-written and directed (and Tarantino “presents”) The Man with the Iron Fists, an homage to thousands of hours of poorly-dubbed Asian action. He gets some blaxploitation in there, too — Pam Grier is even in it, briefly. This is almost the missing third chapter of Grindhouse, only without the fake splices.

Probably my recounting the plot would make us both stupider. It has to do with the Lion Clan and some bad Lions who kill their leader, and the good Lion who wants revenge, and some gold the bad Lions want, and there’s a brothel called the Pink Blossom run by Lucy Liu, and a beefy dude who can turn his flesh into brass, and a British soldier named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) who ambles into the middle of all this and avails himself of whatever the Pink Blossom has to offer. There’s also a blacksmith (RZA himself), a freed slave (the movie is set in the 19th century) who found himself in this village and makes weapons for bad guys so he can make enough money to get his girlfriend (Jamie Chung) off the Pink Blossom’s payroll.

We don’t go to these things for the acting, but some of the performers — especially Rick Yune as the vengeful Lion — deliver their lines in an inert manner that seems to pay tribute to the terrible dubbing of old martial-arts films. Others fare better, like Byron Mann as the wicked Silver Lion, who looks and sometimes acts like Dave Chappelle playing Prince. Crowe and Liu have fun, and RZA salts the supporting cast with venerable old-timers like Gordon Liu (no relation) and Chen Kuan-tai. I also enjoyed “the Geminis,” who escort the gold and who have joining swords that form the yin-yang symbol. The movie is undeniably colorful and action-packed, and gorier than a slaughterhouse floor. But something’s missing.

I don’t doubt RZA’s commitment to the genre, and he acquits himself smoothly enough as director — we always get a good look at what’s happening in the fight scenes, which is always a plus. But Man with the Iron Fists leaves me feeling the same way Grindhouse did, and Hot Fuzz too. I know that RZA wanted to do his martial-arts film, and he’s done it, and now he should move on; people with the talent to pay tribute to other people’s movies should really focus on making original movies. What’s missing, I think, is passion — not passion for old movies, which this film and Grindhouse have in abundance, but passion in general. For all its bloodletting and crazy action, the movie never really cuts loose. RZA never risks the excesses that sometimes made old chop-socky funny, and that Kung Faux lampooned so effectively. It feels like the work of a very serious student, not a master.

Still, I’m curious what else RZA might have in his quiver. He has a good feel for narratives of injustice, to the point where he almost masochistically gives his own character three movies’ worth of heartache before he finally gets to become the hero of the title. The film is dynamically scored, of course (by RZA and Howard Drossin). In the tiny subgenre of debuts by musicians-turned-directors, The Man with the Iron Fists ranks with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses — which was, maybe not coincidentally, another act of worship towards grindhouse cinema. If RZA has a Devil’s Rejects in him as his second film, and if he can avoid remaking a classic, he stands a good chance of being a filmmaker to watch.