Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn ― Part 1 (2011)

Sometimes I don't know why I bother. I've been able to draw at least a little entertainment and amusement from a lot of the bad movies I've seen over the years, but I cannot say that about the Twilight movies. Each and every entry into this damnable franchise has been the equivalent of a turd in the punch bowl, yet they are still met with the adoration of a multitude of tween girls who wouldn't know a good vampire story (or a good romance story, at that) if it hit them in the face. Being a tremendous masochist, I've subjected myself to all of these movies in a (so far) fruitless attempt to understand why these stupid things are so popular. And with the final Twilight movie seeing its release today, I figure I might as well keep going and visit one more entry into this media juggernaut. So please bear with me as I try to talk about Breaking Dawn ― Part 1 without completely losing my mind.

The wedding of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) goes off without a hitch, and the happy newlyweds fly off to an isolated island off the coast of Brazil on their honeymoon. It is not long after they first consummate their relationship, however, that Bella discovers she's pregnant. And not only is she pregnant, but the baby is growing at an accelerated rate. Bella and Edward rush back home, where even the idea of Bella being pregnant with a vampire/human hybrid horrifies Edward's family.

And while her health rapidly deteriorates, Bella refuses to have an abortion even though carrying the child will lead to her own painful demise. The baby could also have potentially devastating effects on the tenuous peace between the Cullens and the local werewolf clan, as the werewolves will declare war once the baby is born. But Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) breaks away from the clan, vowing to protect Bella and her unborn child from his werewolf brethren no matter what.

I'd heard stories about this movie, tales told by online movie reviewers who sought not to critique the movie, but to warn others of its existence. "Surely they're exaggerating," I thought. Some online critics will do that for comedic effect, or to drive up page views. Besides, the other Twilight movies were bad, but this one can't be that bad. But the rumors were true: Breaking Dawn ― Part 1 really is that bad. It takes this awful franchise to an all-new low, something that I have a hard time believing that even the most devoted "Twi-hards" can defend.

The movie was directed by Bill Condon, an odd choice to helm the movie because none of his past efforts ― especially his acclaimed films Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and Dreamgirls ― would make him seem like the right guy to direct a Twilight movie. But then I thought the same thing about the directors of the other three movies in the franchise, so maybe that was what the producers were going for this whole time. I'll applaud Condon for doing the best job that he possibly can with Breaking Dawn, but because he's basically stuck attempting to polish the world's biggest turd thanks to the terrible actors and ludicrous script, the movie ends up being a two-hour train wreck.

I actually feel a little sorry for Condon, much in the same way I pity the directors of the first three Twilight movies. Condon's made some great movies in the past and he does everything he possibly can to try crafting something watchable. But such a thing is unfortunately beyond him. I'll give Condon credit for bringing some pretty cinematography and fluid editing to the table, but he's forced to water down a lot of things in order to get a PG-13 rating and avoid upsetting the tender sensibilities of the tween girl crowd. Everything I've heard about the Breaking Dawn novel implies that it's far more intense than the other books, but a lot of that supposed energy feels like it had been toned way down. There's no passion, no spark, no life. There are a few moments that come close, like the scene where the baby is born, but the rest of the movie feels content to just shrug its shoulders and say, "What can you do, huh?"

Things aren't helped by the fact that the movie was the fourth Twilight movie in a row to be written by Melissa Rosenberg. Even if you think Stephenie Meyer's books all suck, I'm of the opinion that a talented writer could have overcome any flaws in the source material. Rosenberg has shown time and time again that she's unable to do that, and this movie is further proof that she's incapable of writing a good movie. The characters are flat and dull as dishwater, and she completely bungles any sort of approach towards the subject matter.

A lot of people have brought up the "pro-life vs. pro-choice" aspect of Breaking Dawn, and Rosenberg handles it with all the delicacy of someone with advanced Parkinson's disease would have while performing brain surgery with a pipe wrench. This is a really touchy subject that really should be approached with some tact. But it's instead treated as Jacob, the Cullens, and the werewolves being all, "That baby's a monster and it has to die," and Bella's all "I'll do what I want even if it means I'll be just a broken pile of meat and bone at the end of the movie." The whole thing even ends up being contradictory and a little confusing, as Bella goes for the stock "my body, my choice" argument while still being pro-life. It's like the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. It just doesn't work that way, and I can't really say I blame people for getting a little upset with this particular subtext.

But as bad as Rosenberg's writing is, it's actually rivaled by the utterly atrocious acting. Every single person in front of the camera (with the exception of Billy Burke, who I thought was better than the movie deserves) is straight-up bad. The supporting cast is forgettable at best, while the three main actors are the worst offenders. And while I've praised Taylor Lautner in the past and will praise him here for at least putting forth some kind of effort, his performance here is still pretty bad. Lautner's heart is in it, something I respect. But he's simply not a good enough actor to make it work. At least he's trying harder than Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. They would obviously prefer being anywhere else on the face of the planet, and you can tell that they resent the fact that Twilight is the only reason they're famous at all. Pattinson and Stewart barely bothering to go through the motions here, and if neither of them can be bothered to care, why should I?

Today marks the release of the second half of Breaking Dawn and hopefully the end of the Twilight saga as a whole. And after having sat through Breaking Dawn's first half, I'm not really eager to see the franchise's grand finale. Not one minute went by where I didn't want the movie to just end. The direction was bogged down to mediocrity, the writing and acting are bad beyond worlds, and it's full of laughably fake-looking CGI, a cocktail that results in one of the worst movies to be released during the entirety of 2011. But at least there's only one move of these movies to go, right? Stephenie Meyer doesn't have any more Twilight books up her sleeve, right?

Final Rating: *

Monday, November 5, 2012

V for Vendetta (2006)

Few comic book writers have managed to achieve the same level of respect that Alan Moore has developed over the years. It's a respect not given lightly, as Moore has most certainly earned it. He's created a very diverse body of work since he got his start in the industry, having breathed new life into Swamp Thing, written classic stories for Batman and Superman, and created original tales that are still cherished by comic book fans decades after their first publications.

Watchmen may arguably be Moore's most famous and popular original tale, but it is closely rivaled by V for Vendetta. Initially printed in black and white, V for Vendetta was published episodically beginning in 1982 in the Quality Comics anthology book Warrior. However, the story was left unfinished as a result of Warrior's cancellation in 1985. DC Comics eventually picked it up, allowing Moore and artist David Lloyd to craft the previously published chapters and new material into a colorized 10-issue limited series in 1988. The whole story was compiled into a trade paperback under DC's then-fledgling imprint Vertigo not long thereafter, and has remained in print ever since.

Moore and Lloyd's tale of the battle between fascism and anarchy in a dystopian future was met with high praise and acclaim, and nearly twenty-five years after the story began in the pages of Warrior #1, it was adapted into a movie. It even had Matrix creators Larry and Andy Wachowski on board as the writers and producers, too. But unlike the comic, it received mixed reviews upon its release, the main criticisms being for the changes the characters and overall themes underwent in its transition from printed page to silver screen. But really, the V for Vendetta movie isn't that bad at all.

By the year 2020, the world will have become a much different place. The United States government has collapsed, while the United Kingdom has fallen under the totalitarian rule of Adam Sutler (John Hurt) and his fascistic Norsefire party. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a production assistant at the state-run British Television Network, ventures out after curfew one night only to be accosted by members of Norsefire's secret police. But before they can force themselves upon her, Evey is rescued by a mysterious, mask-wearing vigilante dressed as the failed 17th-century British revolutionary Guy Fawkes.

Identifying himself as simply "V" (Hugo Weaving), the masked man leads Evey to a rooftop so she can bear witness as he detonates a series of bombs he'd planted within the Old Bailey courthouse. While Norsefire tries spinning the explosion as a controlled demolition, V hijacks BTN's signal and takes responsibility. He urges the people of Britain to rise up against their oppressive government by joining him in one year, on the fifth of November, at the Houses of Parliament, which he promises to destroy as he did Old Bailey.

V spends that year systematically killing various high-ranking members of Norsefire. He also lures Evey deeper into his world, something she initially resists. And that's understandable; her continued association with V comes with a heaping helping of suspicion from Scotland Yard. But while she becomes a greater target, Evey begins to see things from V's perspective and joins him in his crusade against Sutler and Norsefire.

I'll come right out and admit right now that I'm on the side of DC Comics in the great "DC vs. Marvel" war between comic book nerds. But I'm disappointed in knowing that when I go to a theater and see a movie based on a DC property, the movie's probably going to suck. I can only think of less than ten good DC Comics movies off the top of my head, and V for Vendetta is one of them. While it does indeed stray in some areas from its source material, it's still a thoroughly rousing action movie that stumbles in some areas yet never truly falters.

At the helm is James McTeigue, this being his directorial debut after working as an assistant director on the Matrix trilogy and Star Wars: Episode II. McTeigue clearly has a passion for the material, a passion that is evident in every passing second of the movie. Each frame of the movie that flickers on screen is filled with a desire to do right by the material to the best of his ability. A lot of comic book adaptations will toe the line between full-on seriousness and a sort of corny flair, but McTeigue plays it completely straight and the movie is better for it. His work is stylish yet slightly understated, keeping things moving and the energy high without ever letting things go over the top.

He also has a strong script written by the Wachowski brothers. V for Vendetta was the first movie written by the Wachowskis since the Matrix sequels, and those two movies had scripts so dreadful that I'm surprised Hollywood let them even think about letting them do anything other than direct. But believe it or not, their script for this particular movie is pretty good. It's an exciting, compelling story with characters that you actually want to watch and dialogue that tries to be profound yet doesn't approach pretentiousness. And if there's anything the Matrix sequels proved, it's that the Wachowskis can do pretentious dialogue.

The script was met with a little controversy when the movie was first released, with fans of the comic book up in arms over the shift in V's ideology. The comic's tale of total anarchy battling total anarchy was replaced with V becoming a freedom fighter overthrowing a dictatorial government. A lot of critics and bloggers wrote in great detail about how the changes were made to turn V for Vendetta into a left-wing fantasy, with Norsefire representing George W. Bush and the so-called "culture of fear" that was supposedly created and cultivated in the United States in the years following the September 11th attacks. I'll grant you that there may be some kind of veiled satire there, but sometimes a story is just a story. Nothing more, nothing less.

Regardless of any sort of political agenda or satire attempt, the fact remains that the Wachowskis still wrote a damn fine movie. And it's something to think about even beyond the vigilante in the Guy Fawkes mask killing British politicians. We only barely get to see the world beyond London, but one gets the feeling that there's a huge world to explore beyond our one setting. It's inspired just as much by George Orwell's 1984 as it is by that comic book; you don't know if what the Wachowskis have told you about the outside world is truth or propaganda. The characters are also handled extremely well. We care about all of them, even the villains and random citizens we see only brief glimpses of. It's a testament to just how well the Wachowskis can write if they really hunker down and do it for something more than just a paycheck. (I'm looking at you, Matrix sequels.)

But not only is the script strong, but so is the majority of the cast. Among the supporting cast, I enjoyed Stephen Fry in spite of his limited screen time, and Stephen Rea puts forth a solid performance as a detective investigating V's activities. John Hurt also does a great job as the movie's answer to Big Brother. He comes just short of chewing the scenery, and the role couldn't have been played better.

All that's left are the two leads, Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Portman is good, but it sounded like she needed to spend more time with her dialect coach working on her English accent. Her performance isn't bad, but her inconsistent accent really becomes distracting after a while. It makes her the one weak link in an otherwise strong chain.

Weaving, meanwhile, acts circles around everyone in the cast. He spends many scenes depicting V as something of a playful rogue, as if he were a swashbuckler straight out of an Errol Flynn movie. But in his serious moments, he brings forth more of an edge, along with a deep compassion as well. And he does the majority of it all with just his voice, making the whole thing that much more impressive. Weaving actually replaced James Purefoy during production, but I can't imagine anyone other than Weaving playing V. He's that good.

While I've sadly never read the comic book, I can honestly say that I enjoyed the cinematic adaptation of V for Vendetta. It's a daring tale to tell, and I'm of the opinion that McTeigue and the Wachowskis pulled it off successfully. Would I have preferred it had the movie stuck to the comic's "fascism vs. anarchy" theme? Maybe. It would have made for a really cool movie. But the movie we've got is still pretty cool, and it earns three and a half stars in my book. And if anything, at least the movie gave the "Anonymous" group a face. That's worth something, right?

Final Rating: ***½

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

It goes without saying that movies based on video games have something of a bad reputation. Even the ones that don't suck will rarely rise any higher than mediocrity. Hollywood must have gotten the hint too, because outside of the Resident Evil movies, most video game adaptations in the last few years have gone direct to video.

But one that stands out is Silent Hill. Released in 2006, the movie was a fantastic attempt at translating the surreal world of the games into live action. But its modest box office performance and lackluster critical reception, combined with the passage of time, have caused the movie to be all but a footnote in the "video game adaptation" genre. That's why it was surprising to see a promotional campaign for Silent Hill: Revelation pop up. After six years in developmental hell, I thought a second Silent Hill movie was never going to happen. I was proven wrong in that regard, but after seeing it, perhaps they should have developed it a little further.

Many years have passed since the end of the first movie. During that time, young Sharon Da Silva (Adelaide Clemens) somehow managed to escape the hellish ghost town of Silent Hill. She has no memory of of the horrors she was a part of, having only the vaguest of recollections of the town itself. But the evil religious cult that calls Silent Hill home never forgot, continuing their hunt for the innocent Sharon. Her father (Sean Bean) knows just what they'd have in store for her, and has kept himself and his daughter on the road ever since. Changing their locations and identities whenever necessary, the Da Silvas seemingly never have a moment's peace.

We pick up on the eve of Sharon's eighteenth birthday. It unfortunately won't be a happy one for her, as she's plagued by violent nightmares in which she's stalked and killed by otherworldly monsters. Her nightmares are so vivid that they soon start bleeding over into the real world and lead to the murder of a private investigator hired by the cult to find her. And this private investigator didn't help matters much anyway, as he led the cult right to the Da Silvas. They kidnap Sharon's father, leaving the message "COME TO SILENT HILL" painted in blood on the living room wall. Faced with no other recourse, Sharon must return to the town of her nightmares and face unspeakable evils if she wants to save her father.

I really enjoyed the first Silent Hill movie, so much so that I was still highly anticipating the sequel despite the rather negative reviews it's been getting. But I unfortunately walked out of that theater not excited because I'd just seen an awesome follow-up to a movie I really like, but instead a movie that felt like kind of a letdown. There are so many elements of Silent Hill: Revelation that I really dug, that really made the movie work. But then there's some things that just plain hold it back from realizing its full potential. It's not a bad movie per se, but it could have been so much better.

The movie was written and directed by Michael J. Bassett, a British filmmaker whom I'd never actually heard of previously. But I was still curious to see how he would approach a Silent Hill sequel, as I really liked the surreal, almost dreamlike world that Christophe Gans crafted in the first movie. And while he doesn't bring Gans's truly artistic flair to the movie, Bassett still does an amazing job in building the world of Silent Hill. I'll admit that he struggles somewhat, mainly because the movie's budget was less than half of its predecessor's, but it's apparent that Bassett wanted to put as much effort as possible into making Silent Hill look and sound as if it had come to life.

The special effects are amazing, with each of the various monsters, beasts, and creatures looking like they'd stepped right out of the games. Some of the CGI is a little iffy at times, though it's never enough to take you out of the movie. Bassett also puts the 3D effects to good use too. He goes for the standard "things pop out of the screen at the audience" gimmick, but he also uses it for atmospheric effect at the same time. The world feels deeper and more encompassing, almost as if it would suck you in if you sat close enough to the screen.

And while it's obvious that Bassett loves the Silent Hill games, there's one thing he forgot to add: the overall sense of soul-crushing dread that permeates both the games and the first movie. My experience with the franchise is admittedly limited, but I've seen and played enough to know that Silent Hill is home to Hell's nightmares. But it's not just all the different monsters and creatures occupying the town that make things so terrifying. A vast majority of the Silent Hill titles I've encountered have all felt like there was something dark, something sinister lying just beneath the surface. Even when some monster with no face and a bunch of claws is trying to rip your heart out, you can never escape the notion that a far more horrifying beast is in the darkness ahead of you.

And this is probably my own opinion, but Silent Hill: Revelation was lacking in that department. It had its fair share of weird, bizarre, surreal moments, but it was missing that feeling that the movie itself was going to come to life and kill you. I could blame it on Bassett's direction or the smaller budget or any number of things, but I thought it really hurt the movie's effectiveness. It had some good scares, but it would have been a lot scarier if it had that same atmosphere.

I will say, though, that Bassett's direction is better than his script. This movie's script is all kinds of awful. There's the banal dialogue, plot threads that go nowhere and are never resolved, and poor characters that make it hard to care about them. Things will come to an absolute dead stop on more than one occasion so a character can deliver lengthy expository monologues that do nothing but kill the story's momentum. That sort of thing might work for video games, but the lack of interactivity in movies means that it just throws off the pacing more than anything else.

Another thing that bugged me was that Bassett began setting up what could have been an intriguing subplot (in which Heather was wanted by the police for questioning regarding a murder), only to drop it altogether without so much as a further mention after the first act. Did I miss the resolution? Did Bassett cut out most of the subplot and accidentally leave the first act stuff in the movie? I want to know what happened to the cops! There could be a whole alternate movie here, where the police end up in Silent Hill fighting their own batch of creatures. A resolution could make for a neat bonus feature on the DVD and Blu-ray release in a few months, but the fact that Bassett seemingly started something he never finished just makes the final product look rough.

But I will applaud him for going above and beyond the call of duty when it came to staying close to the source material. He actually took the story for the third Silent Hill game and tried spinning it as a continuation of the first movie. The only problem is that the whole thing got a little muddled along the way. The fact that he's trying to appease both fans of the first movie by introducing the plot from the Silent Hill 3 game while still trying to continue the original movie's story (right down to explaining that Sharon Da Silva has changed her name to Heather Mason, for example) is too much. It sets up plot holes and inconsistencies, and it's so poorly handled that it feels like he's simultaneously doing too much and not enough. It's a bloated mess, yet nothing seems to really matter at all in the long run. I appreciate Bassett's efforts, but I just wish he could have had a co-writer to help him streamline some things.

And this brings us to the cast, a group of actors who are give or take. Sean Bean is great yet sadly underused (much like in the first movie), Kit Harington is okay (but not fantastic) in his role as Sharon's love interest, and Carrie-Anne Moss is sadly just kinda there as the leader of Silent Hill's cult. She spends the whole movie on autopilot, like she showed up on set one day and decided to mosey in front of the camera to kill a little time until another movie came along for her.

There are some standout performances, though. For starters, Malcolm McDowell is an insane amount of fun in his unfortunately brief appearance in the movie. He's obviously doing everything he can to avoid taking the movie seriously, choosing instead to be as hammy as possible. McDowell can overact with the best of them, and he's one of the most entertaining parts of the whole movie. On the other hand, Adelaide Clemens actually is taking the movie seriously, and her performance is very strong because of it. The character suffers from the weak writing, but Clemens still makes every effort to rise above it. She's strong, brave, smart, and very likable, and I don't know if they could have gotten a better actress for the part.

Silent Hill: Revelation is a movie that I desperately wanted to love. I wanted to rub Paul W.S. Anderson's nose in it and tell him that this is how you turn a "survival horror" game into a movie, instead of that Resident Evil crap he's been putting out for the last decade. Alas, I had my heart broken instead. There was much I did like that I did enjoy, but there was just as much that I thought the movie could have improved upon. Maybe my opinion will change in a few months if I give it a second chance on DVD, but right now... meh. I do want to see another Silent Hill movie, though, but considering the overwhelming number of negative reviews and the lousy box office numbers, I'm pretty sure that this one will be the last one. And honestly, that's even more disappointing than the movie itself.

Final Rating: **