Friday, November 28, 2008

'Twilight' offers little to sink into

“Twilight” was a guaranteed hit. The adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s immensely popular book about forbidden love between a vampire and a human had a huge built-in audience that was going to come out no matter what. Here was an opportunity to try to make something with an edge that could still make money. Leave it to Hollywood to not take the risk.

As a film, “Twilight” isn’t awful, but for large portions it is completely underwhelming and lifeless. There is a dull visual sameness throughout. Nearly every scene has the grayish blue of a perpetual twilight, which is probably the point, but is hardly compelling to look at.

The first half of the film comes dangerously close to being boring with repeated scenes of new girl in town Bella (Kristen Stewart, “In The Land of Women”) and the mysterious Edward (Robert Pattinson) exchanging lustful looks. There is a scene early on that is unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny.

It is not a surprise that Edward is a vampire, but the film acts like it is and takes far too long getting Bella to that realization. Just in case the audience wasn’t paying attention, director Catherine Hardwicke gives brief flashbacks to all the evidence: He’s fast, he’s strong and he has cold skin. It is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

Many critics have used phrases such as “but I am not the demographic” when describing the film. This is a cop-out because if the film were better made it could transcend its target audience of non-discerning teen girls and find a broader appeal. Meyer’s book series has a large adult readership, in addition to its teen one, that is being ignored

There is so much potential that the film only hints at. These are non-traditional vampires. This story features no stakes through the heart, holy water, garlic, coffins or crosses. The vampires can walk in the daylight, although they avoid direct sunlight because it reveals their identity in an unusual way.

At its core, there is an intriguing, largely unexplored, concept of a vampire family who has made a decision to feed only on animal blood. Although they aren’t related by blood, so to speak, Edward is part of a large family with many brothers and sisters. These characters are briefly introduced and seem likable and interesting, but aside from a dynamic baseball game — the best scene in the film — we don’t spend any quality time with them.

More time should have been allowed for interaction between Bella and Edward with his family. If less time had been spent with brooding glares in parking lots and classrooms, this could have been possible.

It doesn’t help that the film ends with a chase and fight involving a rival vampire (Cam Gigandet) who hungers for Bella. This conclusion is meant to show that Bella is now part of Edward’s “family,” but since so little time was given to developing that aspect of the film the chase feels more obligatory than a true extension of the story.

Overall, the film is certainly watchable, but it should be more than just that. There are isolated lines of wit that suggest to what could’ve been. There is also some nice chemistry between Stewart and Taylor Lautner, as one of Bella’s childhood friends. The actors are fine, but Stewart and Pattinson aren’t asked do much more than look beautiful. Many teen girls will pay the price of admission just to swoon over Pattinson.

Ultimately, the real disappointment here is director Hardwicke, whose first film “Thirteen” chronicled the loss of innocence of a young girl who succumbed to a lifestyle of sex and drugs. That film had an authenticity because Hardwicke co-scripted the film with the then 14-year old Nikki Reed — who plays Rosalie in “Twilight.” Perhaps Reed should’ve given screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg’s largely flat adaptation of “Twilight” a once over.

“Twilight” plays it safe when it could’ve been provocative and explored complex themes. Forgive me, but it has to be said: “Twilight” lacks bite.

Friday, November 21, 2008

'Solace' offers a different kind of Bond

“Quantum of Solace,” the 22nd James Bond film, is the first direct sequel in the franchise’s 46 years. It marks a different direction for the series as it moves away from formula to try to create a new Bond universe.

“Casino Royale” sent the series back to the beginning in 2006. We were introduced to Bond (Daniel Craig) just as he received his double O status and joined him as he went on his first mission.

Since it was the first mission, some things were missing. There was no Moneypenny. No double entendres. There was no Q dispensing nifty gadgets and this Bond didn’t need them. Craig’s Bond was rough around the edges and more physical than previous incarnations. He was also given emotions to grapple with, something new for an actor playing Bond. Craig was excellent the first time around and is just as strong the second time.

Those expecting that with the origin story now out of the way that the familiar motifs would return will be disappointed. “Quantum of Solace” picks up where “Casino Royale” left off with Bond (Daniel Craig) hungry to avenge the death of his true love, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

During his pursuit, Bond stumbles upon a plot of an organization with the fa├žade of an environmental group. The scheme of company head Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, “Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) is just as muddled and unclear as any Bond villain’s plot.

Amalric isn’t a Bond villain with a bizarre quirk or secret lair, although he does have a meeting at a hotel powered by hydrogen fuel cells in the middle of a desert. He is a more standard issue baddie. Amalric does a nice job making the character sufficiently slimy, and when forced into combat his attack scream is laughable and sort of creepy at the same time.

This is one of, if not, the most action packed Bond films. In fact, it plays more like a Jason Bourne movie than a James Bond movie with the action scenes very much tailored in the style of the hand-to-hand combats, foot chases and car chases of that series. This is not a criticism. The action sequences are extremely well-crafted and quite thrilling.

The film looks fabulous because it has a true director at its helm. Director Marc Forester is a chameleon-like filmmaker who seems like he can work within any genre successfully. His diverse resume includes “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” He is a genuine filmmaker who brings moments of unexpected grace and beauty to the fold.

Although “Casino Royale” lacked the innuendos of its predecessors, the film did have a sharp wit. The largest flaw this new film has is that it is missing that flash of humor. In this film, as was true of Matt Damon’s Bourne, Craig’s Bond is a mostly silent hero. There are laughs, but most come from the raw efficiency in which Bond gets the job done.

This humorless Bond seems like a necessary departure, if only for one adventure. The female co-stars of the series, lovingly referred to as Bond girls, were always forgotten by the next mission, no matter how important they may have been in the context of the film. It is nice that for the first time in the series, Bond cares enough about a girl to want vengeance for her death.

There are naturally two new Bond girls, and although Bond does take one (Gemma Arterton) to bed, the theme is that Bond’s sexual conquests have consequences. One of the biggest criticisms thrown at the series has been that it is sexist and uses women merely as objects. This film, like many recent installments, seems to be trying to rectify that. It helps that Judi Dench has returned as Bond’s boss M. This is her sixth and strongest appearance in the series.

The film’s main Bond girl is played by Olga Kurylenko (“Max Payne”) who, like Bond, is out to avenge the death of a loved one. Rather than any sexual tension, it is this mutual goal that links them. Kurylenko’s character is not as dynamically written as Green’s Vesper in “Casino Royale,” but she makes a strong impression. She is beautiful, a prerequisite for all Bond girls, but is able to play the more emotional scenes well.

“Quantum of Solace” is a good, entertaining film, but there will be much debate to whether it is actually a good Bond film. The series’ new tone may frustrate purists, but thus far I’ve enjoyed the new direction. That being said it would be nice for Bond to find his sense of humor again in the next installment.

Friday, November 14, 2008

46 years of Bond

Today the 22nd official James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace” arrives in theaters. I am not among the privileged elite who have already seen it, so for now I want to take a look back at agent 007.

I am hardly an expert on all things Bond. I will confess that I haven’t seen more than 30 minutes of any of the Roger Moore Bond pictures, but I don’t think I am missing much. Moore always seemed too dapper and sort of wimpy. Sean Connery is my Bond. I have enjoyed other actor’s work as Bond, but Connery will always be the first and best.

Connery brought raw physicality to the role. He could be rough and tumble one moment and then pour the charm on the next moment. He was able to play the material both seriously and with tongue placed in cheek. The playful innuendos that became increasingly more tired and obligatory as the series continued were delivered with a just right wink by Connery.

Those early Connery films, starting with 1962’s “Dr. No,” set up the template. There were always two Bond girls: one good, one bad, a grandiose villain bent on world domination, the delightful gadgets provided by Q, the sassy exchanges with secretary Miss Moneypenny, spectacular action that with each progressive film had to be topped and of course the double entendre spiked dialogue.

Of those first films, 1964’s “Goldfinger” still remains the most iconic and oft-parodied Bond film. In addition to the gold obsessed titular villain (Gert Frobe), the film includes the most memorably named Bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and the henchman Oddjob (Harold Sakata) with his lethal hat throwing abilities.

The second Bond film, 1963’s “From Russia With Love” is noteworthy for being perhaps the most suspenseful of the series. Much of the film is set a train and plays more like a Hitchcock thriller than the slam-bam action adventures the series would evolve into.

Also of note of the Connery film’s is 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.” Scripted by Roald Dahl, famous for writing such children’s classics as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” it is the most delightfully odd Bond film.

In those first films, Bond seemed to be such an entity of the 1960s that it is hard to fathom that 46 years later he is still a force at the box office, but the character has become such an engrained part of pop culture that we as audiences don’t want to see him go. He’s an icon like Superman or Batman. The stories are always more or less the same and we all know what to expect, but there is comfort in that. The series is kept fresh because each decades Bond has had a different flavoring.

In the late 1980s, Timothy Dalton’s two Bond films, “The Living Daylights” and “License to Kill,” saw a return to a harder edged persona after the series went soft under Moore. The franchise had become overly bloated and verging on self-parody, so the Dalton films moved away from the campy excess and went for straight action.

With the cold war over at the open of the 1990s the series waited five years to figure out what to do without the franchise’s long standing villain of choice: the Russians. Ultimately, the franchise decided to stick with Russia as the settling for “GoldenEye,” Pierce Brosnan’s crackerjack first appearance as Bond, but the baddie was a British agent (Sean Bean) taking advantage of the instability of post-cold war Russia.

It was 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” that would prove to have the quintessential Bond villain of the 1990s, a Rupert Murdock-esque media mogul (Jonathan Pryce) set out to create a world war so he could profit from telling the story via print and broadcast media. In these two films, Brosnan was almost on the same level as Connery.

Now Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, lives in a post-9/11 world with terrorism standing in for communism, but more on Craig and the new direction of the series in next week’s review of “Quantum of Solace.”

Friday, November 07, 2008

A sweet and funny 'porno'

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” has caused a bit of stir with just its name. Around the country some newspapers and advertisers have refused to run the full title and a multiplex chain in Utah banned the film.

This review could easily become how the reaction to the film's title says a lot about our country’s hang ups on sex, and unwillingness to talk directly with children about the subject matter, but that really isn’t writer/director Kevin Smith’s point in making the movie.

“Zack and Miri” isn’t an indictment of the United State’s puritanical ideals. Rather, it is what Smith, the writer and director of comedies like “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma,” does best: naturalistic, if crude, dialogue that is smart and low-brow at the same time.

When you get past the vulgarity strewn dialogue and outrageous humor, the film turns out to be a surprisingly sweet comedy about two platonic friends who when they can’t afford to pay their bills decide to make an amateur porn film and in the process realize they love each other. Leave it to Smith to turn making porn into the basis for a romantic comedy.

Seth Rogan (“Knocked Up,” “Pineapple Express”) and Elizabeth Banks (“The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “W.”) star as Zack and Miri, who through a chain of events - including a visit to a high school reunion and unexpected youtube fame from a cell phone video -conclude that porn is the answer to their financial woes.

Smith’s brand of comedy has a niche following that has never quite broken wide open, but his films paved the way for producer/writer/director Judd Apatow, the reigning king of smart low-brow comedy. It is fitting that Smith is borrowing Rogan, one of Apatow’s go-to guys.

Rogan, with his an easy-going likable persona and his unforced way of delivering fast paced, vulgar dialogue, seems to be the ideal actor to star in a Smith comedy. He hasn’t shown extraordinary range yet, but Rogan does what he does very well. His timing allows the dialogue to feel spontaneous and real rather than scripted.

Banks has the same completely natural quality and ease with the obscenity filled dialogue. The two leads have tremendous chemistry and make the film’s basic premise work. Smith is notorious for hating ad-libbing, so credit Rogan and Banks for making it seem like everything Smith wrote is just popping into their head before they say it.

Many have noted this is just another example of the fantasy of the fat geek getting a girl way out of his league, and while that may be true, Rogan and Banks have a rapport that is believable. When they finally do have sex for the camera it is an unexpectedly touching moment.

Rogan and Banks are surrounded by a gallery of funny supporting players including real porn actors Kate Morgan and Tracey Lords, and Smith regulars Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson. Craig Robinson (Darrell on “The Office”) is a scene stealer as the “producer” who agrees to bank roll the project as long as he gets to sit in on the casting process.

Justin Long (the Mac guy) has a hilarious cameo as a gay porn actor at Zack and Miri’s high school reunion. The scene, beyond being funny, is refreshing because it doesn’t have the nasty homophobic after taste that too often comes through in scatological comedy.

Now as one should rightly expect from a movie called “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” there is sex and nudity, but it is no more extreme than average R rated movie sex. There is some full frontal male nudity, but it is played for laughs.

The film’s language and in one case, willingness to go to the lowest lows for a laugh, is likely to be more offensive than the sex. Of course anyone leaving the film offended can’t say they didn’t know what they were getting into. This is definitely a case of truth in advertising.

What may shock people expecting nothing more than a laugh fest is not only will they laugh, but they may just find themselves getting emotional involved in the characters. Now that’s something new for a porno.