(The Twilight Saga:) Breaking Dawn Part 1 (PG-13)
If I can say anything for Breaking Dawn Part 1, the first half of the final film of the Twilight series, it's that it delivers exactly what the legions of Twi-hards want and expect--or what "Team Edward" wants, anyway: here, human heroine Bella Swan walks down the aisle with he, her chosen sparkly vampire and not werewolf Jacob, en route to undead wedded happily ever after bliss. But not so fast--after spending three films whining and begging Edward to turn her and finally agreeing with him to do so once they've become hitched, that deed done, suddenly Bella wants to put off her transformation, thus, of course, causing a huge mess for everyone around. Therein lies the root of the trouble with this story: beyond any fundamental objections to the cheesy teen angsty romance novel trappings of Stephenie Meyer's books and their oddball alterations to time-tested vamp/wolf conventions, which at this point are a shrugged-off given, characters and events now defy even their universe's own established internal "logic." There's no discernible reason for Bella to want to remain human other than forcing a contrivance to keep the story, which came to a fairly natural close with Eclipse, and to crassly continue to milk this cash cow--which is stretched to an even thinner level by splitting this book into two films. Not much of real importance happens between the opening and closing, with the graphic, gory details of (not a spoiler) Bella's violent vampire pregnancy as reportedly found in Meyer's book watered down to barely PG-13 levels on film, thus reducing what would be the movie's real hook into what is essentially a lot of sitting and waiting with an increasingly digitally emaciated Kristen Stewart. Celebrated director Bill Condon makes no bones about this being an easy paycheck gig with the complete autopilot work he does here, and the malaise extends to his cast, as Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, and the rest going through the motions, with, as usual, the only traces of energy offered from Anna Kendrick and Michael Sheen in their even more heavily reduced screen time in this go-round. Granted, the cutoff point to this half promises at least some actual stuff happening in the second, but if I'm looking forward to the next one at all it's only to get this "saga" over and done with already.
When watching a film by Tarsem Singh, story and character content is secondary, for few other filmmakers exhibit such unfettered visual imagination, from the production design to the costumes and makeup to the cinematography and editing. And, indeed, while this a take on the Greek myth of the mortal hero Theseus, plotting (and, most certainly, fidelity to the source material) comes distinctly secondary to the immense visual splendors, here presented in 3D; while not shot natively in the format, Tarsem has completely raised the bar for all post-production conversions, the mere added depth of the screen canvas making his images all the more startlingly immersive in their detail and density while at the same time delivering some decent and not overly forced "pop up" moments for the masses. The raw movie majesty alone makes this worth a view on the big screen, but as an adventure epic, it also works well enough. Purists will no doubt scoff at the many liberties taken here with the original mythology, and cynics will scoff at the strong CG blood splatter specter of 300 (not surprisingly, the same producing team is responsible for this film--as so proudly trumpeted in all the marketing), but the actors fill their archetypal roles well (future Superman Henry Cavill as Theseus; Mickey Rourke as evil King Hyperion; Luke Evans as Zeus; Freida Pinto, impossibly even more gorgeous in 3D, as oracle Phaedra), and as a gory fantasy/adventure yarn that just happens to star mythological characters, it delivers all the sword-swinging action one would want and expect.
Demons Never Die
It would be easy to write off Demons Never Die as just yet another teen slasher flick, British accents be damned, and such a generic description would not be inaccurate at all, for this is indeed a horror whodunit in the Scream mold, with various attractive teens being bumped off by a masked murderer. But even if he doesn't exactly stray from the formula paces, writer/director Arjun Rose recognizes that the overly familiar can make for an entertaining ride all the same with the right amount of slick style and intelligent inspiration.
In the latter category falls the film's central conceit, which was best summed up by the film's original title, Suicide Kids. The group targeted by the killer (Robert Sheehan, Jennie Jacques, Emma Rigby, Femi Oyeniran, Shanika Warren-Markland, Jason Maza, and Jacob Anderson) is no typical teen clique but a group that has made a suicide pact, and Rose offers a more honest and real look at the behavioral mindset of someone in that space. Now past the point of outwardly depressive behavior that is the typical attention-seeking "cry for help," they've moved to the zombie-esque, outwardly functioning, going through the motions behavior, grappling with the demons in internally while externally behaving like what others "want" and "expect" once said cries go unnoticed much less unanswered. If the group can be further be broken down to the assorted expected "types" one finds in these films (e.g., broody Sheehan, goth girl Jacques, glam girl Rigby, wisecracker Maza), that core unifying despair for most of the group (in a believable touch, some are part of the group out of less concrete and sincere motivations) does ring true--not to mention makes the horror-formula disbelief at the notion of a serial killer easier to swallow, for it also casts believable suspicion within those in the group, everyone knowing too well each other's demons.
But let it be known that this is, in the end, of course meant to not be anything deep but an entertaining thrill ride, and Rose does deliver where it matters most in high style. Not only does he keep the proceedings visually interesting, he does so in a manner that efficiently serves and enhances the story, from the slick extended opening shot that swiftly introduces the canvas of characters and their portrayers to a cleverly cut video chat sequence that dispenses a lot of necessary exposition in a brisk and cinematically engaging manner to a narratively justified switch to the faux found footage style that's all the current genre rage for the climax. He also has at his disposable a capable, likable cast in the fresh faces playing the youths (Maza makes the most of his movie stealing role as the wisecracking loose cannon of the lot, and Sheehan and Jacques share a nice rapport as the more prominent of the protagonists) and more seasoned players (such as Ashley Walters as one of the lead cops).
Conventional teen slasher films never die, and admittedly so goes Demons Never Die and its familiar paces. However, if Rose is able to spin such a programmatic genre piece into something if not entirely fresh but certainly enjoyable with some distinct flavor, I look forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeve for future films.
One shouldn't look at Anonymous as anything but speculative fiction; while there is indeed a faction of the real world intelligentsia who maintain that William Shakespeare is not the author of his works but rather the nobleman Edward de Vere, I doubt Roland Emmerich's (yes, he of the overblown disaster fare) film bears any similarities to specific theories aside from that basic, general idea. But divorced from any notion of historical truth, this costume drama is fairly absorbing in an alternately classy and salaciously trashy way that operates not too unlike Emmerich's popcorn entertainers. Under the "classy" heading falls the sterling cast, led by Rhys Ifans' rather terrific work as de Vere, whose past and present as depicted here echoes various themes and developments made familiar by those famous plays--thus leading to writer John Orloff weaving a web of those more scandalous, pulpy intrigues of scheming, seduction, betrayal, and dirty politics. The seemingly gimmicky trope of having mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson playing Queen Elizabeth I in different time periods ends up working effectively and seamlessly, and lesser-knowns Rafe Spall and Sebastian Armesto do solid work as, respectively, the vain, famewhoring actor Shakespeare and poet Ben Jonson. Having Bard production perennial Derek Jacobi bookend the film in a stage-set framing device adds a nice bit of polish and serves as a nod to the sly sleight-of-hand that is theater: what imagination it takes, and how we are all so eager to believe and accept it at face value.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
The Sesame Street character of little furry Elmo is nothing less than a multimedia pop culture icon, but the man behind the monster, Kevin Clash, has remained fairly anonymous over the years--that is, until Constance Marks's heartwarming feature documentary. Whoopi Goldberg narrates Clash's story, from his humble beginnings in Baltimore as a kid teased about his unusual puppet-building hobby to teenage puppetry prodigy working on a local kids' TV show to joining the Jim Henson studio ranks to, finally, unknowingly securing his place in entertainment history when rescuing a forgotten red puppet from the Sesame Street dustbin. His remarkable rise is rendered all the more so by Marks's access to and generous use of some remarkable archival footage, including some priceless scenes of a high school age Clash learning under Muppet designer Kermit Love. The film's message may not exactly be new--believe in your dreams and pursue your passions, no matter how unusual they are or unlikely the odds--but Clash is such an incredibly likable personality that the inspiration from his story is that much more relatable and powerful. Young or old, Elmo fan or not, anyone can find something of real value in Clash's story, whether his dedication and work ethic or his unfailingly positive nature as he humbly, generously pays forward however he can in both his art and life.
The Double (PG-13)
It says a lot about the state of the movie business today when a watchable and rather commercial adult-targeted thriller with a name cast gets picked up by a smaller company for a limited release. Such is the case with this slick, efficient entertainer where a retired CIA spook (Richard Gere) is brought back to action when a long-disappeared old Soviet nemesis appears to resurface; joining him in the hunt is the obligatory eager upstart partner, a young FBI agent played by Topher Grace. As is customary with the espionage genre, twists, turns, and double-crosses ensue, some more easily foreseen than others, but director Michael Brandt keeps the pace swift and the plot points clear and stages the action sequences well, not to mention comfortably casts Gere and Grace in their respective wheelhouses, displaying an effective chemistry. This is not exactly groundbreaking fodder by any stretch, but this is the type of professionally assembled star programmer a big studio would once release wide to a decent return in an off-peak season--and such mid-level success would not be unjustified, for it hits its required, expected notes, no more, no less.
In Time (PG-13)
With Gattaca, S1m0ne, his script for The Truman Show, and now this film, writer/director Andrew Niccol continues to be the go-to guy for using smartly executed science-fiction/fantasy concepts in the service of expressing ideas rather than bang-up action. While the striking ad campaign is centered on the chicly-dressed pair of Justin Timberlake and a strikingly dark-tressed Amanda Seyfried brandishing guns--and indeed that image does recur on screen--Niccol's focus is the world and society in which these two become an unlikely duo: one where people are genetically engineered to not age past 25 and only are allotted one more year thereafter unless they can literally buy more time. The constant punny plays on time terminology initially come off as a little grating, but that is quickly eased away as the fascinating world Niccol creates and his smart, sly (if not exactly subtle) commentary about contemporary socioeconomic issues enthrall as working stiff Timberlake and rich girl Seyfried attempt to upset the time imbalance in Bonnie and Clyde/Robin Hood fashion. The well-cast and -matched leads are ably supported by the likes of Cillian Murphy (as the cop on their pursuit), Vincent Kartheiser (as Seyfried's greedy father), and Alex Pettyfer (surprisingly effective as a heavy--maybe more character work is in order instead of being continually shoved down audiences' throats as a leading man?), but the star of the show is Niccol, who once again shows how true imagination in sci-fi cinema lies not so much in overblown effects and flash but rather intelligence.
Like Crazy (PG-13)
Drake Doremus's romantic drama was one of the more celebrated entries in this year's Sundance Film Festival, and its simple, intimate charms make it easy to see why. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones share a sweet, gentle chemistry as a pair who initially fall in love at university in L.A. but then are forced to make a go at a long-distance trans-Atlantic relationship when she runs into visa issues. That's basically all there is in the way of plot, and if the story seems a bit small outside of the film festival context, the performances and the feeling of romantic yearning--not just in the literal sense, but in that for younger, simpler, easier times--created by Doremus loom large and linger under the skin and in the heart, due in no small part to the work of the likable, luminous leads.
Puss in Boots (PG)
From the moment he stole the show in Shrek 2 way back when, there's been buzz and demand for a spin-off for the swashbuckling cat Puss in Boots, and after being largely wasted in the final two Shrek films, he indeed proves more than capable and deserving of the solo spotlight, his outsize bravado, machismo, ego--again, perfectly brought to (larger than) vocal life by Antonio Banderas--spilling out beyond the big screen in fiercely funny feline fashion. However, far less compelling than the charismatic cat is the basic story, involving Puss's childhood friend Humpty Dumpty's (Zach Galifianakis) get-rich plan centering on magic beans and a castle in the sky--which points up the main problem: while Puss does exist in Shrek's fairy tale/nursery rhyme universe, it feels unneccessarily limiting for a hero so rich with creative possibilities to be tied down to Shrekverse twists on iconic characters such as Humpty and Jack and Jill (the latter two respectively voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris). It's neither a shock nor surprise that the film's best elements aside from its lead are the fresh ones, and luckily there are enough here to make this a fun timepass: Salma Hayek still has great chemistry with Banderas even only in voice as Puss's perfect match, Kitty Softpaws; some intricately choreographed and nimbly animated dance sequences; and some inspired spaghetti western atmosphere and visual flair from director Chris Miller--which also underscore just how much more interesting and entertaining the film could've been had Puss been placed in a completely fresh context. Here's hoping that's the case for the inevitable sequel (and that there will be an end credits duet from proven singers Banderas and Hayek!).
Long before its release date, Ra.One was already a landmark work for Hindi cinema and the Indian film industry as a whole. Granted, that's not because it's wildly original; it is, as is often complained about Bollywood, shamelessly derivative, liberally borrowing pieces large and small from films such as Terminator 2, Virtuosity, The Matrix, Unstoppable, Iron Man, and even last year's South Indian/Tamil language blockbuster Enthiran: The Robot (to which it pays direct homage in clever fashion). But it blends those ingredients, some truly top notch effects and technical work, and distinctly Indian masala filmmaking spice into something so incredibly, enjoyably (and very much in-on-the-joke) bonkers that even the most rigidly-minded West-reared viewer will find it hard to resist.
The ever-charismatic superstar Shahrukh Khan plays a dorky video game programmer who, after being taken to the task for his fundamental lack of badassery by his young son (Armaan Verma), designs his latest game around the ultimate supervillain--one so supremely Evil that he somehow escapes into the real world. Much mayhem ensues, and the only hope of ending the rampage of Ra.One (played with cool menace by Arjun Rampal, again showing he's much more effective in negative roles) is in also liberating the game's hero, G.One (also played, natch, by Khan). The effects and action scenes put together by director Anubhav Sinha stands up to any Hollywood blockbuster, but the real appeal, as in the best of Bollywood, comes from its infectious personality, best exemplified by Khan's comically and emotionally engaging presence and especially the music by the reliable duo of Vishal and Shekhar. Beyond the songs, they've composed a rousing and memorable blockbuster action score--but, of course, it's the picturized tunes that straight-up kill, in particular their two compositions sung by none other than Akon, whose Hindi diction is nothing short of impeccable (attention Eros Entertainment--campaign the global smash "Chammak Challo" for Oscar now!). The terrific soundtrack makes it all the more disappointing that Khan's leading lady is inexplicably popular hapless hacktress Kareena Kapoor, for whom Sinha and the team of choreographers obviously dumbed down the moves, thus keeping the staged numbers from truly doing the songs justice and taking complete flight. That's a damn shame, but even if the whole film as a result never reaches the stratospheric heights of entertainment euphoria it could have, it's still an undeniable blast all the same.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (R)
Some films say everything you need to know in its very title, and so goes A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas: John Cho and Kal Penn's title stoner characters getting into wildly outrageous antics, this time during the holiday season and in 3! D!! The exact details of the story, including how the two are estranged as the movie opens, is beside the point, for fans will get exactly what they came for, which is a steady barrage a crass, crude, over-the-top-and-in-your-face jokes--none more crass, crude, and over-the-top-and-in-your-face as, of course, Neil Patrick Harris's ever-amusing portrayal of a most monstrous mutation of himself. As usual, Harris serves up the biggest and best laughs in his extended cameo, and everyone has fun shamelessly exploiting the 3D gimmickry for all it's worth, but in this third go-round the strain to continually push the envelope of altered-state-friendly absurdity is starting to show, with director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers/series creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg resorting to an increased indulgence (dependence?) in more surreal touches (hello, Claymation!). That said, this is all that the target audience would want, right down to the de rigueur pit stop at White Castle.