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Friday, November 30, 2012

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) - Is it Possible to Please the Fans?

Twilight New Moon

After the release of "Twilight" in 2008, a common refrain from many fans was, "It's not enough like the book!" Movies are very time-limited, so it's difficult to cram a long and winding story into just a few films. Given the huge success of that movie, though, Summit Entertainment quickly revised its plans and added a couple of additional sequels to the two that it had planned, making a total of five films in all to tell the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and (Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Now, if the screenwriter (an over-worked ) couldn't plot out a somewhat faithful version of 's remaining books in four more films, well, she just couldn't be trying that hard. But try, try, try she did, and many fans think that this sequel, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (2009) is much more faithful to the source material than was the original film.

Ashley Greene and Kristen Stewart talking in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

This time around, Bella is worried about getting older while her love, vampire Edward, always stays young like Dorian Gray. With her feelings already shaky, an accident at her birthday party causes her to bleed, sending Edward's brother, Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), into a feeding frenzy. Seeing where this was all going - or not going - Edward abruptly ends the relationship and the Cullen clan leaves Forks, Washington.

Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Edward's departure sends Bella into an orgy of self-pity, and she secluded herself and lost all of her zest for life (or what passed for that, for Bella as played by Stewart is a singularly dour person even in the best of times). After a threat of banishment from her dad (Billie Burke), Bella agrees to go out. Unfortunately, every time she does anything remotely dangerous, she sees visions of Edward warning her to be careful.

Charlie Bewley and Ashley Greene in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Jacob Black Taylor Lautner) becomes a special friend as she responds to his cheerfulness and astonishing good looks. Unfortunately, though, Taylor becomes a werewolf, the deadly enemy of vampires and begins avoiding her, though he still wants her. There is one benefit to Bella of his transformation, though: he and his pack are constantly protecting Bella from Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre), a vampire who wants to avenge herself on Bella for the death of her dead vampire beau, James.

Dakota Fanning in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Edward, meanwhile, hears wrongly that Bella committed suicide and travels to Italy to provoke the Volturi into killing him (the Volturi being like the Murder Incorporated of vampires sort of led by Aro (Michael Sheen)). Bella finds Alice (Ashley Greene), Edward's sister, and rushes to Italy to saver her love, but it won't be quite that easy, given Bella's human state.

 Kristen Stewart and Edi Gathegi in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Catherine Hardwicke bowed out after having directed the original, so Chris Weitz ("The Golden Compass") took over that duty. The two films were released so quickly, one after the other, that she didn't have time to do both.

Kristen Stewart and Peter Facinelli in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Like the first film, this was a huge financial success. It broke the record for the highest domestic one-day gross at $72.7 million. Many theaters sold out two months before the premiere. As usual, though, reactions were mixed. Some important scenes and even entire relationships had to be left out. Anyone looking for a scene-by-scene filming of the book will be disappointed. However, many would agree that it is much more faithful to the book than the first film.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

One could quibble with some of the acting, and non-fans might have some difficulty catching all the nuances, especially if they didn't see the first film. The fight scenes were better than in the first film, though too short, and overall the pacing was better. Pattinson and Stewart may be in love off-screen, but their chemistry on it is debatable. 

Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

Some of dialogue is a bit precious - "I didn't want to live in a world where you didn't exist" may just make you gag if you aren't a fan - and what little heat got generated was between Stewart and Lautner. The score by Alexandre Desplat was good enough (the soundtracks for these films automatically go to No. 1, and if you think that's because the songs are so timeless, well....), and the CGI was above-average.

The wolf pack shirtless in The Twilight Saga: New Moon 2009

The general sense is that "Twilight" was intended for emotionally sensitive people. All others without that sensibility are likely to feel bored. It is all about how Deeply these folks feel about each other, how Intense and Passionate and Throbbing their relationships are. It's all So Important. This is the film version of a 1970s romance novel.

If that is what you want, this movie will be a ten out of ten for you and you should run, not walk, to rent or buy it. Otherwise, you likely would be bored stiff by it and start  making snarky comments about all the shirtless guys and the wildly emoting females.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Twilight (2008) - A Lonely Girl Finds Love in all the Wrong Places

Original film poster for Twilight 2008

"Twilight" (2008), directed by Catherine Hardwicke for Summit Entertainment based on a script, is based on the best-selling book series. It is difficult to exaggerate the popularity of this story: when each new novel came out, stores around the world set up special tables to sell eager fans copies. It was a marketing phenomenon along the lines of "Harry Potter," and that has carried over to this film, which was a smash success.

Robter Pattinson as Edward Cullen looking at Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan in Twilight 2008

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is a high school girl who lives with her father (Billie Burke) in the tiny town of Forks, Washington. She never fit in with her classmates at her old high school in Phoenix, but makes friends at her new school. She is attracted to one in particular: handsome Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).

Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight 2008

Cullen doesn't seem to like Bella very much, which confuses Bella. However, one day Bella is walking in the parking lot and gets in the way of a van. Edward steps forward and somehow stops the vehicle with his hand, saving Bella. Afterwards, he remains aloof and tells he that he does not want to be friends.

Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen running through the forest in Twilight 2008

This intrigues Bella, and she starts investigating Edward. She learns that he is a vampire, though he does not attack people, only animals. Eventually, the two start an affair, and Edward introduces Bella to his family, who are all vampires as well.

Kristen Stewart smiling in Twilight 2008

Three wandering vampires - James, Victor and Laurent - visit the Cullens and meet Bella. James (Cam Gigandet) decides he wants to feast on Bella and starts tracking her. She hides in Phoenix, but James sets a trap for her. Lured out into the open, Bella is attacked. James bites her wrist, and the Cullens arrive only just in time to prevent him from killing her. Edward sucks the blood, which contains vampire venom, from Bella's wrist, but Bella secretly wants to become a vampire herself. She still, though, has a lot to learn about her new love.

Bella and Edward Cullen share a tender moment in Twilight 2008

The film tries to stay true to the book, but a lot is left out. Stephanie Meyer was closely involved in production, and fought to preserve the integrity of the project.  The book is almost 500 pages, so not all of it could be included, but Meyer reportedly was pleased with the outcome.

Bella Swan played by Kristen Stewart deep in thought in Twilight 2008

"Twilight" should please fans of the novels. It also should please fans of teen romances in general, vampires or no vampires. Vampires are in, and this series exploits that to the maximum, but the vampirism really is just the obstacle between these two attractive kids falling in love. It is easy to dismiss the film as merely a romance novel turned into film - which, basically, it is - but at least "Twilight" is true to what it tries to be, a tale of a young girl's journey into strange love. If box office figures are any guide, many, many women can relate to Bella and her attraction to the strange and intimidating Edward.

Some complain that the chemistry between Bella and Edward is somewhat lacking, but that is part of the tease.  If Edward just jumped at Bella, there wouldn't be much drama!  Another criticism is that Bella is portrayed as too serious by Stewart and is funnier in the book, but that is understandable given how dangerous her situation becomes.  As the series progresses in the sequels, Stewart lightens up a bit, at least by the concluding chapter.

Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan and Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in the trees in Twilight 2008

The real issue with this film is inherent in its source. This is "dangerous romance" muted and de-fanged so that it is family-friendly. Vampires are portrayed as kindly beings who will satisfy all of our natural urges without doing anything to invade our privacy - except for the bad ones, who have to be beaten off with a stick. It's a slick product perfect for girls afraid of sex, or who wish love was exciting and noble, or who want some kind of "pure" love that doesn't require sex until, you know, the time is right and all that. Edward is so wonderful that Bella can't resist, and all she has to do is take it, without any coercion or prodding from him in the slightest - which is what everyone wants to find in life, isn't it? A passive love interest who is just there, providing excitement and drama and feeding our mating urges and especially our own narcissism. Or at least a very, very large section of the population wants that. Evidently.

A confrontation between Edward and James in Twilight 2008

Yes, there are four sequels to this film (only two were originally planned, and I bet Summit Entertainment wishes they had expanded it even further), each more successful than the last.  It finally concludes in 2012's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. The popular book series that fascinated the world also started a firestorm in the film world, and that storm burst out with this film. If you want to understand the "Twilight" phenomenon, you can either read the books, or start watching here. This is a good place to start.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Scrooged (1988) - Spend the Holiday with Bill Murray

Film poster Scrooged 1988
Bill Murray was in between "Ghostbusters" movies and had some time to kill, so he decided to star in a modern take-off of ' "A Christmas Carol."  Being Bill Murray, the project had to have his unique brand of wise-guy humor, so  Paramount called it "Scrooged" (1988) and relied on his unique personality to sell the movie.  The result was one of the classic holiday comedies of all time.
Bill Murray in a holiday hat in Scrooged 1988
Murray plays Frank Cross, a (what else) wise-guy television executive.  He has become wealthy and famous, but at the cost of becoming alienated from all those around him.

Bill Murray holding up three fingers as Frank Cross in Scrooged 1988
It is a few days before Christmas, and Frank is working hard into the holiday.  His assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), is overworked and has to break plans to be with her family, which includes her mute son Calvin.  Frank misses his long-lost love, Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), but he never lets things like personal feelings get in the way of his work. As usual, he intends to ignore the holiday except insofar as he needs to include it in his job.

Bill Murray in a taxi with a surprised look on his face in Scrooged 1988
One of his underlings, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite), unwisely criticizes one of Frank's decisions and is summarily fired on Christmas Eve.  Frank's career, though, is in full swing, and he organizes a live broadcast of "A Christmas Carol."
Bill Murray and Carol Kane in Scrooged 1988
Unfortunately for Frank, his life suddenly starts mirroring that story.  He gets a visitation from a dead colleague who had been a mentor to him(John Forsythe),  and then visits from the famous ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged 1988
The characters of the three ghosts give the film its punch.   David Johansen, Carol Kane and Pat McCormick show Frank in humorous but telling ways where he went wrong in his life.
Bill Murray talking to a taxi driver in Scrooged 1988
The film did not do particularly well on release, though it ultimately showed a profit.  The film has an abrupt shift from being a typical Murray light comedy to quite dark reminiscences.  Murray himself is known for disliking the film while he was making it, but that is not unusual for him.  Perhaps he felt that the light tone should have continued throughout.  As is often the case with him, he fought with director Richard Donner.  Donner, of course, was more of an action director, so Murray and his comedian pals who wrote the script ( and ) may not have thought the comedy part was emphasized enough.  It still is a very, very funny film.
Bill Murray talking to Anne Ramsey in Scrooged 1988
Anne Ramsey of "Throw Momma from the Train" made a cameo appearance
Fans of the '70s and '80s will spot several celebrities of the era.  Lee Majors, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Lou Retton and many others appear.
Bobcat Goldthwaite holding a gun in Scrooged 1988
The film's message is very positive, and many consider this their top holiday film.  Danny Elfman did the score, and the ending will grab you.  Well worth watching when you need a few laughs during the holiday season. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Iron Man 2 (2010) - Another Brick in the Wall

Poster for Iron Man 2
"Iron Man 2" (2010), directed by Jon Favreau for Marvel Studios with a screenplay by , continues right where its predecessor left off. The global media swarm all over Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) revelation that he, and nobody else, is Iron Man. Meanwhile, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), whose father was deported by Tony's father and who lusts for revenge, starts building his own reactor so that he, too, can be a man of iron.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2
Stark uses the suit to maintain world peace, but he refuses to turn it and all related technology over to the government.  But he has a secret, and it is that he is slowly being poisoned by his own invention.  Fearing his impending death, he appoints personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to head his company. To replace her, he chooses promising Stark employee Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).
Gwyneth Paltrow talking to Tony Stark in Iron Man 2
Vanko, meanwhile, has had some success in building his own arc reactor, and uses it to power deadly weapons. He attacks Stark during an auto race, but is defeated. Another rich arms dealer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), spirits Vanko away and puts him to work fashioning competing armored suits.
Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2
Stark still thinks he is dying, so he gets drunk and makes a nuisance of himself in his armor.  His friend, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, who replaces Terrence Howard from Iron Man I), puts on another suit and the two do battle, which ends in a draw.  Rhodes then steals the other suit and gives it to the military.
Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man 2
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of world peace organization S.H.I.E.L.D. then turn sup and reveals that Stark's dad helped found the organization, and that Rushman in fact is an undercover operative. Fury gives Stark some of his father's documents, which provide a solution to the palladium problem.
Gwyneth Paltrow holding a helmet in Iron Man 2
No longer worried about dying (at least right away), Stark is free to go after Vanko.  Stark and Rhodes confront Vanko, all three wearing suits of armor, but Vanko's is the most powerful.  They battle it out in a final, epic battle.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, full frontal shot, in Iron Man 2
"Iron Man 2" is a continuation of the first "Iron Man" in every sense of the word.  The beauty of the Marvel universe, in fact, is its pure continuity.  A problem in one film, even one devoted to a completely different set of characters, still exists in the next film.  Here, we see Nick Fury appear, and it creates great anticipation for 2012's "The Avengers."  Meanwhile, Natalie Rushman is introduced doing some fine stunt work, and she will play an increasingly important role as the sequence of films plays out.
Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman on the telephone in Iron Man 2
This film, though, is essential viewing if you wish to fully enjoy the entire Marvel universe of superheroes.  The plot is straightforward, primarily one of loss and remembrance.  The emotions are clear and easy to understand, there are no murky motivations or anything like that.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, lying on the floor legs spread, in Iron Man 2
 If the film has a weakness, it is that some of the characters are a bit too straightforward. Of course, that is an inherent problem with comic book superhero characters, but it is more so in this film than in other Marvel efforts. More time for character development would have helped, especially for Rourke's Whiplash and Cheadles' Rhodes.
Tony Stark dancing with Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2
The drawback to Marvel's master plan is that each film does not feel like an whole, but rather a brick in an ever-ascending wall.  Now, with so many of the films in the sequence out there, that becomes almost a benefit.  You can slip in the next DVD right away and immediately enjoy the masterly progression of events towards the climax of "The Avengers."  No need to wait six months or a year, just go out and get the next instalment.
Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2
The real secret to enjoying this film is to appreciate the women.  It's all well and good for Downey to strut around in his little robo outfit, but the real draw to this film is wearing black.  By the end, Scarlett Johansson struts around nicely in her skin-tight catsuit, turning her back on us once in a while (which, believe me, is greatly appreciated), lying on the floor with her legs spread, that kind of thing.  If you want to see Scarlett in top-notch form, watch this film and then "The Avengers."  She undoubtedly will do the same thing in "Iron Man 3," but that is not out at the time of this writing, and besides, what more could she really add?  Gwyneth Paltrow is OK as well, but only as a minor distraction.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, shot from rear, in Iron Man 2
Overall, the film is entertaining.  Johansson looks terrific, and Downey is his usual cocky self.   The one who steals the film, if anyone, is Sam Rockwell as the sleazy financier who causes all the trouble and enjoys every minute of it. Highly recommended, but do yourself a favor and see it in sequence with the other films handy. If you don't, it loses a lot of its impact.

The Avengers (2012) - Top Superhero Flick to Date

The Grand Culmination of Earth's Battle Against Invaders

Film poster The Avengers 2012

Marvel Studios has been on a roll for many years now churning out its comic book films, and Disney's purchase of them at the end of 2009 did not slow it down at all.  "The Avengers" (2012), the first Mavel film distributed by Disney, is also the first film of any kind to gross $200 million in its first three days in the USA, and the first Marvel film to make $1 Billion. Obviously, 'The Avengers" hit a nerve with the public, and several other potential blockbusters such as "Iron Man 3" and films devoted to Captain America and Anti-Man that were in development also looked likely to capture the public's imagination.

Renner, Johansson and Evans in character as The Avengers 2012
Captain America leads the team into battle.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) heads S.H.I.E.L.D., which patrols the world to keep the peace.  The Asgardian (sort of an alternate universe) Loki (Tom Hiddleston) wants to subjugate the earth, and he thinks he has the chance after the Other (leader of an extraterrestrial race known as the Chitauri) gives him an army in exchange for a favor.

The Incredible Hulk in The Avengers 2012
The Incredible Hulk helps out.
The favor that Loki intends to do for the Other is retrieve the Tesseract, a powerful energy source of unknown potential.  S.H.I.E.L.D. has the Tesseract, and doesn't intend to give it up.  Loki, however, manages to grab it with the help of Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), whom he has enslaved through mind control, and Fury calls up the Avengers, ordinary people who turn into superheroes in moments of crisis.

Loki in The Avengers 2012
Our Villain, Loki.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.),  Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) manage to capture Loki.  Loki's adoptive brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), though, arrives and frees Loki.  However, Thor agrees to take Loki to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters on a flying aircraft carrier called the "Hellcarrier."  The Avengers then try to recover the Tesseract.

Evans, Johansson and Renner in The Avengers 2012
The Black Widomaking sure her hair is ready for some alien ass-kicking.
Barton and some other Loki comrades manage to disable the Hellcarrier, and he escapes after killing Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), though Black Widow recovers Barton.  Loki then commences his invasion using a portal created by the Tesseract to bring down the Chitauri fleet.

Thor in The Avengers 2012
The main characters are either muscular or pretty or both.
The battle then takes place around New York City, and the Avengers battle to close the portal and subdue Loki.  The battle rages as the Avengers fight to save their home.

Scarlett Johansson in her black catsuit as Black Widow in The Avengers 2012
"I've got my cat moves...."
The acting in this film is superb.  Robert Downey, Jr. is quite amusing at times, and Scarlett Johansson livens things up with her skin-tight catsuit.  Tom Hiddleston is very scary as Loki, and the Avengers themselves squabble amongst themselves as they try to figure out the best way to defeat Loki and his army of mercenaries.

Scarlett Johansson from behind in her black catsuit in The Avengers 2012
"The Avengers" is very scenic.
If you follow the various Marvel films, you will know that "The Avengers" is the culmination of the story that began in the original Iron Man and continued through the various Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America movies.  This film ties everything together and is a grand climax of a string of blockbuster films.

Scarlett Johansson with her legs spread wide in her black catsuit as Black Widow in The Avengers 2012
The Black Widow prepared to do battle.
The film is fast-paced and just over 2 hours.  Director Joss Whedon, better known for his television work, injects his usual clever banter and air of mystery into the proceedings.  Everybody gets their fair share of screen time, and some exposition is given to characters such as Black Widow that might have been under-developed.

Scarlett Johansson lying down in her black catsuit in The Avengers 2012
"Frankly, Scarlett, I don't.... Oh wait, wrong classic.
The visuals in "The Avengers" are what make it special. You get all sorts of wonderful views of destruction and devastation, giving a real feel for what war is like.

Thor and Captain America survey the destruction

The film is full of great characterizations, and the grand finale is one of the great action sequences in film history.  Any fan of comic book characters will want to see this film, though it will be even more enjoyable if you first have watched the other Marvel films mentioned above.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff
Scarlett Johansson transforms nicely from Natasha Romanoff to the Black Widow. One can follow the characterization from the "Iron Man" films and see great continuity.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow
Of course, the real draw to Black Widow is the fact that Scarlett fills out her catsuit quite nicely. That's something they can't really teach in acting school.

Hawkeye adn Black Widow
The characters all interact together well. If you have read the comic books, you can see that the spirit of Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the rest really infuses the characters in "The Avengers."

Black Widow running through the ruined city

But this isn't "My Dinner with Andre." It is a real action piece, the culmination of several different threads into one great coming-together. Nothing like this ever has been done in Hollywood before, and it may be a long time before they try it again. But it works here, marvelously. :)

Hawkeye thinking things over
"The Avengers" was so successful that it led to the television premiering in fall 2013 called "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." starring Clark Gregg. Any fan of comics, or the characters, or just of modern action movies has to see "The Avengers" at some point. It is an epic period on the superhero age, the ultimate superhero movie, and its like won't be seen again for a long time.

Below is the official trailer for "The Avengers."