FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #28 – “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” (dir. Bill Condon)

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel are joined by returning guest/fiancee Sarah, who will help weigh in on the final chapter of the glorious Twilight Saga. Will love conquer all? Will a werewolf win the capricious heart of a newborn child? Will Michael Sheen once again prove that he best understands what sort of movie he’s in? Listen below and find out! (48:07)

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4/10 (but we actually rather enjoyed it!), 6/10 (Sarah)

Show notes:

  • We had an issue with the audio quality in this episode – it was recorded near a computer whose fan was a bit loud. It sounded quiet when we were recording in person, but was picked up significantly due to the placement and angle of the microphone. I’ve applied several noise filters that have eliminated most of the sound, but it will still be faintly audible throughout the episode. Sorry for the issue, and enjoy the show!
  • Music for this episode is Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years“, from the soundtrack to Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (another version appears in the soundtrack to this film).
  • Read the review in which I first became a Kristen Stewart apologist – also the first review ever on this blog! (Adventureland)
  • For my only other word on Twilight, you can also check out my review of Chris WeitzNew Moon.

Listen above, or download: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).

2009 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Marcia Gay Harden – Brooke Cavendar, Whip It

Marcia Gay Harden in "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It (review), was an adept entry in the sporting genre (in this case, roller derby), made even more effective by some impressive casting and rich characters. The great Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar, an overbearing mother who puts constant pressure on her daughter, Bliss (Ellen Page), to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball. Bliss, meanwhile, would rather throw elbows and knock out teeth on the derby track. Brooke is an apt parallel to overeager football dads, but Harden’s performance is far more layered than such a stock character would normally require. Even as she steadfastly refuses to consider her Bliss’ wish to continue with roller derby, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing shines through. She is stubborn, imperfect, but utterly well-meaning, and Harden’s strong performance contributes to making this one of the most engaging relationships in the film.

#4: Diane Kruger – Bridget von Hammersmark, Inglourious Basterds

Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds"

As I said in my review, I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses, and German actress Diane Kruger was no exception. As she knocks back champagne and disarms an entire tavern of soldiers with a single laugh or smile, she harkens back to a time in which celebrity meant something altogether different for an actress from what it means today. And as her true role becomes apparent, she portrays her fictitious vintage film-starlet-cum-saboteur with exactly the right blend of elegance and ruthlessness.

#3: Rinko Kikuchi – Bang Bang, The Brothers Bloom

Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"

Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi first came onto my radar with her fantastic performance as a deaf student (and nearly the only interesting character) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. She returns in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom as another less-than-verbose character… We are told that the brothers’ sidekick and demolitions expert, Bang Bang, speaks about three words of English, and indeed, this is about all we hear from her during the film. Nonetheless, Kikuchi’s brilliance at physical comedy and remarkable range of facial expressions make her one of the most memorable and hilarious characters in the film. If there’s one thing Javier Bardem showed in No Country for Old Men, it’s that a character with very little dialogue can still be quite compelling. With her performance in this film, Kikuchi has proven this true once again, and further proven that such a character doesn’t have to be a daunting psychopath.

#2: Kristen Stewart – Em Lewin, Adventureland

Kristen Stewart in "Adventureland"

Kristen Stewart is either a brilliant actress or a one-time fluke. Here’s what I had to say about her eight months ago when I first saw Adventureland:

As much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without [Jesse] Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

As Dave Chen from /Film points out, there is a “massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona”. Since Adventureland, all I’ve really seen from Stewart is a considerable foray into celebrity, and an understandable, if unremarkable return to her principal moneymaker. At this point, I must reserve judgment on whether she’ll prove a strong actress after she has left the Twilight franchise behind… Nonetheless, this is one of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen this year, and I have absolutely no qualms about praising it.

#1: Vera Farmiga – Alex Goran, Up in the Air

Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

“Just think of me as yourself, but with a vagina,” says Alex to Ryan (George Clooney), with whom she has just shared a casual hotel fling. In my original review, I said that it is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She is almost a total mystery – we know that she lives a similar life to Ryan, spending much of her time flying around the country, but we don’t really know much else. And yet, Farmiga’s performance and chemistry with Clooney completely make this romance work. While we don’t learn much about her profession, we do learn a great deal about her as a person. This character is somewhat of a mirror, acting as both a female version of Ryan and an older version of his colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick). But in her interactions with the two, she offers some remarkable insights. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Alex and Natalie swapping their respective versions of the ideal man. Farmiga’s monologue in this scene is just fantastic. Even as she is saying some pretty provocative things (e.g. “Please, let him earn more money than I do”), her delivery includes all the hesitation and reflection that comes with such a deeply personal question as one’s ideal match. On the surface, this scene simply highlights the difference in perspective between women in their 20s and 30s, but it also provides a mountain of subtext for the film’s central romance between Alex and Ryan that gives the film immeasurable rewatch value.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alia Shawkat as Pash in Whip It
  • Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It
  • Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell
  • Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in Public Enemies

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Chris Weitz’ “New Moon” – Mostly harmless, mercifully forgettable.

Poster for Chris Weitz' "New Moon".

Kristen Stewart returns to the screen as Bella Swan, a teenage girl passionately in love with the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Ordinarily, I would begin with a more in-depth plot description, but that’s really all you need to know. In fact, that’s basically all that happened in the first Twilight film, minus a brief diversion of vampire baseball.

In point of fact, I would love to start this review with an impassioned screed against Stephanie Meyer’s puerile prose and hackneyed attempts at supernatural mythology… How she wouldn’t know a vampire if he strutted his hot, sparkling body up and bit her… How she’s taken the framework of an innocuous teenage love story and turned it into a ham-fisted allegory for Mormon sexual abstinence… How her quixotic creation, Edward Cullen, the overbearing and overprotective centenarian in the body of a 17-year-old has been inexplicably and irresponsibly cast as the ideal boyfriend for millions of impressionable teenage girls – as well as masturbatory fodder for their bored, cradle-robbing mothers…

I would love to say all of this. But I can’t, for two reasons. The first is that most of it is overreaching, hyperbolic nonsense. Teenagers aren’t well-known for their adherence to heavy-handed abstinence allegories, and their penchant for worrisome role models is only surpassed by their speedy disinterest in yesterday’s cheesy fad (which might explain how quickly Summit is cranking these films out). As for supernatural mythology, I don’t care any more about Meyer’s version of a vampire than I do about Tolkien’s version of an elf. She is certainly not the first offender when it comes to flouting the traditional rules. While I’m happy to criticize her vampires for their inconsistency and sparkling skin, I do so because these things are stupid, not apocryphal.

But the main reason I can’t go off on New Moon for any of the above points is that it didn’t really provoke such a reaction from me. It didn’t inspire much of any reaction, in fact. It was just a bland diversion, peppered with gratuitously half-naked adolescent boys.

On the surface, it is noticeably superior to the first Twilight film. For a start, there’s some semblance of a plot. Bella and Edward start off by talking at length in English lit class about the various ways in which they resemble Romeo and Juliet, and how they would go about killing themselves if they were ever separated. This seems rather irresponsible in a film marketed to brooding teens, but I’ll go with it. For you see, the vampires of this world are so strong, they’re incapable of even killing themselves. This rule is a bit too much like God creating a rock so big that He is incapable of lifting it for my taste, but I can also accept this, since it only leaves one [thoroughly entertaining] method of suicide at Edward’s disposal – being literally ripped limb from limb by three other vampires.

The superficial nods to Romeo and Juliet continue, as Edward is banishèd from the film a few minutes later. When Bella gets a blood-drawing paper cut at her birthday party and is nearly attacked by one of Edward’s vamp brothers, he resolves to move away and never return. Following the loss of her undead lover, Bella goes variably between a spat of faux-self-destructive teenage angst and a bit of shameless, “I like you as a friend” pursuit of her werewolf buddy Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). True to form, Bella spends nearly half of the film failing to realize her friend’s furry little secret…
But when a bit of well-deserved werewolf jealousy and a series of nonsensical miscommunications lead Edward to believe that Bella has died, he does the prudent thing, and heads to Italy to provoke the vampire royalty into executing him. Given that Robert Pattinson’s acting hasn’t improved much from his abysmal turn in the first film, I was rather hoping Edward would succeed in this endeavor, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Director Chris Weitz has previously proven his visual chops in his terribly adapted but pretty-looking 2007 film, The Golden Compass, and he has brought some much-improved filmmaking to this series. Unfortunately, any effective visual storytelling in New Moon is constantly undermined by the characters themselves. The opening scene is a gorgeous dream sequence in which Bella sees an elderly woman walking through an alpine meadow. Edward, the perpetual teen, strolls across and lovingly greets the woman, and Bella quickly realizes that she’s looking at her future self. This was one of several impressively shot sequences in the film, and brilliantly introduced Bella’s anxiety about aging past her boyfriend’s perpetual youth. But like every other theme in this film, it goes on to be explicitly spelled out about a dozen more times, which ultimately undermines it. Even as Bella pretends to make the choice of becoming a vampire so she can stay young with Edward forever, it is constantly being made for her by various characters as the film goes on.

In spite of the dubious character work, there is a bit of decent acting on display. Kristen Stewart can scarcely do wrong in my eyes after her wonderful performance in Adventureland earlier this year, and she brings back most of her charisma for this film. However, there are several moments in which she reads her lines so woodenly it sounds like she can hardly believe what she’s saying. I couldn’t help but chuckle when Bella breathily suggested that the group go see a movie (with the hilarious title of “Face Punch”), because it contains, “Action, adrenaline…woo! That’s supposed to be my thing now…”

It’s okay, Kristen. I didn’t believe it either.

Still from Chris Weitz' "New Moon".

Taylor Lautner, on the other hand, did a fantastic job. Call me crazy (or a pederast), but I have to say I’m on “Team Jacob”, at least when it comes to acting talent. Lautner is helped along somewhat by Meyer’s genuinely interesting take on werewolves – they’re basically pack-hunter versions of The Incredible Hulk – but I have to hand it to this kid. He spends most of his screentime showing off his chiseled abs and ‘roided biceps, and that’s basically all he needed to do for the target audience. Nonetheless, he delivers every one of his ridiculous lines with the gravitas intended on the page. I’d say he was hamming it up, but he just comes off as completely earnest.

I’m not sure how to conclude this review, since I don’t really have any strong opinions about this film. If I were to take it remotely seriously, it would be offensive on a number of levels, but it’s mostly just mindless pap for the teenage masses. Every interesting or provocative plot point either gets reversed by the end of the film or hammered into the ground. There’s a love triangle, but not really… Bella becomes an adrenaline junkie, but not really… The star-crossed lovers are separated forever… But not really. A girl is forced to make a serious, life-altering choice… But not really. If nothing else, the story demonstrates Stephanie Meyer’s tenuous relationship with tragedy – her characters constantly embrace it, but shy away from any real consequences, and the storytelling is happy to let them get away with it.

The Twilight saga may have broken me. I might have to forgo the next film and wait for David Cronenberg’s gory exploitation version of Breaking Dawn (*fingers crossed*) (contains NSFW language).

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

My entirely over-long review of Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland”

Kristen Stewart, budding teenage heartthrob, fresh off her role in the critically acclaimed epic vampire romance Twilight, returns to the screen alongside comedic greats and Judd Apatow alums Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in Adventureland, a hilarious and carefree new comedy from the writer/director of Superbad.

…or not.

Adventureland was filmed in October of 2007 and sat on the shelf for a year and a half while Miramax figured out how best to release it. I can only speculate as to why they held onto it for so long. Eventually, it seems, a combination of residual favor from Greg Mottola’s previous film and Kristen Stewart’s increased profile following her turn as teenage vampire-lover Bella Swan in 2008’s creepy stare-fest, Twilight, was enough to get the film a release.

This film defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience. It is the story of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent graduate who was all set to head for Europe on a post-college jaunt when his parents painfully admit that due to money problems, they will not be able to pay for his trip. Without warning, James is presented with the insurmountable task of finding a job with his liberal arts degree.

This aspect of the story was rather apropos for me – the poli sci major currently working in IT. But even the various absurdities of a helpdesk employee seem tame in comparison to an exciting career in crooked carnival gaming.

“You can do better, son,” says James’ father when he announces that Adventureland is the only place he can find employment. And yet, James can’t do better. He’s quickly realizing that his parents can’t help him, and that he has to take whatever job – and whatever life – he can find. It is this desperation and sudden, reluctant thrust into grownup life that the film captures so well.

Throughout the film, there’s a persistent feeling that these kids aren’t ready for their situation. They live with their parents. They’re old enough to drink legally, and yet they sneak around hiding liquor. They sit in their parents’ cars and make out in their driveways. They gossip, spread rumors, and weave a tangled and overlapping web of ambiguous relationships. They engage in whimsical, self-destructive behavior at the drop of a hat. These kids are not alright. They’re college graduates acting like high school students.

And yet, not a single moment in this film rings false. The story is a parable of modern life, and a ruthless exploration of modern relationships. The film’s treatment of romance, evoking sympathy for all manner of relationship fouls, reminds me greatly of last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And in much the same way as that film, you just have to stare resignedly at the characters and shake your head in bewilderment.

You know you shouldn’t do that, you’ll say. You know you’re just doing it because you’re in love and heartbroken and stupid. You know you’ll feel worse afterward. And you know you’re going to do it anyway.

The principal romance in this film was between James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Emily (Kristen Stewart). In a rare reversal of the usual pratfall of casting young characters, the then-17-year-old Stewart plays a seemingly 21-year-old college graduate.

kristenstewartAs much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!” is the conciliatory message of this romance, as delivered by James in the final romantic speech at the end of the film. This scene was obligatory, as it is in most romantic dramas, and yet (without giving too many details) Mottola’s take on this scene manages to ring truly unique. Jesse Eisenberg’s acting definitely deserves some of the credit for how well this scene (and the romance) plays, but it is Stewart that truly shines in this film.

ryanreynoldsI must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in. You’ve probably met someone like this character in real life. Someone who evokes two simultaneous reactions – amusement and unsettlement. Someone who might be good for a laugh or two, but would probably toss you aside the moment he no longer needed you for something.

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

Adventureland is a poignant film with a lot to say about our generation. And I say this as a current twenty-something who is more than happy to coopt and internalize the lessons of this film. And yet, the story is actually Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical take on his experience after college in 1987. Does this indicate that the film’s message is at least somewhat timeless? Or that Mottola has merely spun a tale of modern twenty-somethings and added a bit of weird hair, outdated music, and a lack of cellular communication for ambiance? Impossible to say. But the result is well worth seeing.