Monday, November 21, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011, Bill Condon)

Ever since the first Twilight installment three years ago, I’ve complained that Kristen Stewart isn’t much of an actor, but now I don’t think the trouble here. Oh sure, she’s still pretty un-good, but then teen melodramas- and supernatural trappings aside, that’s what these movies are- have long been full of subpar performers. No, the trouble is that she’s the wrong kind of bad actor for this movie. A character arc like this requires someone capable of big emotions, as the story takes her from wedding-eve jitters to honeymoon passions to pregnancy-gone-bad illness. If your leading lady can’t manage to give a deeply felt performance, the next best thing is to get someone who can hit the high notes with panache and charisma. Unfortunately, Stewart lacks both of these traits, instead relying on over-rehearsed fussiness that’s a hallmark of actors who aim to be serious without necessarily being any good.

What’s more, her face lacks the necessary expressiveness to sell this story, in particular Bella’s chooses to sacrifice herself so that her baby can live. In the book, Stephenie Meyer was able to convey Bella’s decision-making primarily having her narrate the story, but Condon and screenwriter forego first-person narration here, relying entirely on Stewart to put it across, and she fails the test. Stewart’s performance lacks any sign of interior monologue, so when she says she’ll let her vampire baby kill her so that it may live, it feels less like a conscious choice than obligation dictated by the original novel. And that’s a violation of one of the cardinal rules of adaptation- it’s not enough to repeat the original plot, unless you can make the story work in the new medium as well. If you need a book to explain the movie, then the filmmakers have dropped the ball.

That said, I didn’t hate Breaking Dawn Part 1 as much as some people out there. Granted, the much-ballyhooed hiring of Oscar-winner Bill Condon to direct didn’t pay off as it should have, since the movie’s style is as half-assed as ever. Has there ever been a franchise this lucrative that’s felt this cut-rate? Still, I have to admit that the story is going in some strange and potentially fascinating directions, provided Condon handles Part 2 as well as the climactic childbirth scene. And I do like some of the supporting performances- not just those by legitimately solid actors like Michael Sheen (a finely-cured ham) and the franchise’s stealth hero Billy Burke, but also from youngsters like Jackson Rathbone and Ashley Greene, who are stylish enough that they show up Kristen Stewart whenever they’re onscreen. Heck, I even like Taylor Lautner, who may not be a great actor but who is at least right for this movie. At least when he gets angry, you believe it.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Happy Feet Two (2011, George Miller)

2006’s Happy Feet wasn’t a great movie by any means, but for all its cute dancing penguins what lingers in the memory is what an eccentric vision Miller placed on screen, especially by family-movie standards. Unfortunately, genuine eccentricity in cinema is hard to pull off in a way that’s charming rather than annoyingly precious, and doubly so when a filmmaker must re-create his original formula. The biggest problem with Happy Feet is how what was once endearingly off-kilter now feels focus-grouped to death. Oh sure, all the hallmarks of the original- cute penguins singing and dancing along with popular songs, impressive computer animation, zany supporting characters- are there, but now it feels like Miller and company said, “hey, that was fun the first time, so why not double it up in the sequel?” So (to cite the most egregious example) instead of just getting Robin Williams to mince around in two roles- which, I mean, ugh- you’ve also got Hank Azaria with a Swedish-chef accent and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as a pair of krill who oh-so-wackily venture off on their own. Couple that with a story that lopes along (remember Jason Mewes’ description of Lord of the Rings in Clerks II? That’s what this feels like), and Happy Feet Two ends up being perhaps the slowest 90-odd minutes I’ve spent in a theatre all year. Until it rallies somewhat in the final real with a production number set to “Under Pressure,” there’s nothing in this movie that provides any evidence that anybody involved actually cared about making this unique and special. It’s clear that Warner Brothers knew what they had on their hands, what with opening it opposite the new Twilight movie and all.

Rating: 3 out of 10.