The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (Bill Condon, 2012) – For all the bluster and gossip that surrounded the release of the final instalment of The Twilight Saga, only two things can be said about it for sure: it’s all over and it ends on a pretty decent high note by series standards. It gives fans more than enough of what they want and casual viewers can just sit back and enjoy it more handily than any other film in the franchise.
Picking up after the events of Breaking Dawn – Part One (and after dividing Stephenie Meyer’s final novel into parts), Bella (Kristen Stewart) has now become a full blooded vampire after a life saving effort from her beau Edward (Robert Pattinson) to save her from giving birth to their child. The secret, ancient vampire police The Volturi now seek to kill the child as they believe it to be a rapidly aging and uncontrollable immortal that can wreak havoc and murder everything in sight. Knowing this isn’t the case, Edward, creepy friend and former love interest Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and their families amass a band of witnesses to tell the truth about the tyke or possibly throw down and go to war if necessary.
Sure, things are still as romantically cheeseball as ever. There’s slow motion sequences, montages of love, grandiose proclamations of said love, talk of love conquering all, and from there you get the idea. In that respect, director Bill Condon (back from the previous instalment) stays true to form, but this entry stands apart in two very different ways from its predecessors. It’s the only film to have an actual payoff since it’s nothing BUT payoff from the last four films, and it also comes with a healthy dose of intentional humour that buys the whole premise a lot of good will.
Condon firmly knows how to make a good film out of this material, straddling three fine tightropes between camp, fan service, and genuine sincerity towards the core story and themes. To his almost immeasurable credit, Condon knows his material is somewhat ridiculous and he allows his cast – all of whom know their characters by this point – to simply relax and use their instincts. It’s natural rather than forced. It’s the rare case of people just doing what feels right for the story instead of conforming to a forced ideal.
Pattinson and Lautner don’t really have too much to do in this entry, although the latter arguably gets the biggest intentional laughs of the film in a sequence where he attempts to explain to Bella’s father what exactly happened to his daughter. Both get a chance to play around with people’s preconceived notions of them without betraying a character they could play in their sleep by now. It’s refreshing even if they aren’t more than background fodder this time out.
The focus here comes more in the form of looking at the familial aspect of the Cullens with family patriarch Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) getting almost as much screen time as his son does as they assemble a sort of “model UN of vampires” from around the world to help their cause against the evil hooded hordes. In almost X-Men like fashion, all of these vampires have special powers and abilities that will serve them all well later on in the film, but that doesn’t really add or take away from anything. It’s just kind of there to move things along.
The only member of the supporting cast who really gets a chance to shine among an overstuffed batch of minor characters is the returning Michael Sheen as the leader of the Voltari. Easily becoming the go to actor for this sort of role following Tron: Legacy and the only (almost) passable Underworld movie, Sheen doesn’t so much chew the scenery as much as he beats it into submission, rips it to shreds with his bare hands, and then sets it on fire before biting into any of it. It’s a gleefully unhinged bit of villainy that enriches the gloriously violent climax of the film, which I’m told deviates wildly from the book (and actually emulates the ending of my most hated film this year without annoying me like that one did) before getting back to the actual task at hand. The climactic showdown might be a bloodless PG-13, but there are still plenty of decapitations and dismemberments to go around.
The movie ultimately belongs to Stewart who for once attacks her role with aplomb and a smile instead of having to sulk and be dour all the time. She’s having a blast climbing up cliff faces, breaking boulders with her bare hands, and tackling giant running cougars to feast on their blood. And yet, she also has to do the fair share of the film’s dramatic heavy lifting as Bella has to struggle with her new life, cutting ties to her old life, and questioning how good of a mother she can possibly be while her feet still remain in two separate worlds. If the finale is a great payoff for fans of the franchise, it’s almost a better payoff for her.
If it sounds like I’m praising it too much, it’s probably because I never expected it to be this good. Sure, there are some problems. It’s mostly just set up for one action sequence. There’s an incredibly unconvincing looking face of Bella’s kid as a rapidly aging baby straight from the uncanny valley that’s creepy in all the wrong ways. A lot of the serious minded dialogue is still pretty risible, and the scene that follows the finale feels like someone tacked on a fan made YouTube tribute to the series at the end. But overall, aside from going over the complaints from the previous entries concerning a lack of depth to everything, there’s nothing new to be said in the minus column, and the positives barely outweigh the overall negatives here. At least for once Bella and Edward have a functional and healthy relationship instead of one with controlling and psychologically damaging undertones. The same can’t be said about Jacob’s creepy linking to Bella’s kid, which is thankfully not dwelled on too heavily here.
The Blu-Ray looks and sounds appropriately sparkly and swooshy, and it comes with an incredibly commentary track from Condon, who really asserts himself and knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the technical and dramatic requirements of the franchise. There’s a 90 minute batch of behind-the-scenes featurettes and another seven minute bit about filming the last two instalments back-to-back, a jump-to-a scene feature (that bizarrely changes aspect ratios and sound quality from the features like they were taken straight from an EPK), and a Green Day video that’s oddly the most forgettable thing about the package. (Andrew Parker)
Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012) – It was inevitable. Given all the videogame nostalgia that built up over the last decade, someone was going to capitalize with a cartoon. With Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s new animation division (led by Pixar founder John Lasseter) has announced their presence as Pixar-light. The dedication to strong storytelling, relatable characters, and high concept ideas is there (much like they were in all Disney heydays), but it comes in a slightly less rounded and more commercial package than taking a straight hit off the Pixar pipe. Wreck-It Ralph is essentially Toy Story remade for the videogame generation with-wall-to-wall in-jokes verging on product placement. There’s plenty for cynics to scoff at, but the warm and fuzzy Disney center, strong comedic performances from the all-star voice cast, and gaming nostalgia whipped up by folks who clearly wasted most of their allowance at the arcade are enough to make this flick pure pleasure for any child or overgrown child.
The film takes place in a magical world where not only do arcades still exist, but the characters from those quarter-eating machines spend their off hours hanging out in the power bar. One of the most popular vintage games in the arcade is Fix-It Felix Jr., a Donkey Kong knock off with a big hulking monster man named Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) who destroys a building that can then be fixed by the player as Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). Of course, the life of a videogame villain ain’t easy and Ralph spends his nights sleeping on a pile of garbage while Felix parties it up with the people he saves day-after-day. Ralph tries to console himself through a videogame villain support group with the likes of Bowser, Kano, and Zangief but it never works. One day he decides to abandon his game to find a home elsewhere and after a failed experiment in a first person shooter called Hero’s Duty, he ends up in a Japanese teeny-bopper racing game called Sugar Rush. There he befriends a little girl named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) who is desperate to become a racer even though she’s a programming glitch that might ruin the game. So, Ralph has to battle Sugar Rush’s villainous dictator King Candy (Andy Tudyk). At the same time, Fix-It Felix sets out to find Ralph to prevent his game from going out of order and finds a search partner/possible life partner in Hero’s Duty’s lady leader Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch).
It’s all fairly straightforward and builds towards one of those “learn to love yourself” messages like so many animated films before it. But while the screenwriter’s won’t win any awards for great innovation in children’s storytelling, they picked a formula that works and execute it well. The emotional beats are sound and the tear-jerking punch comes through right on time. What makes Wreck-It Ralph a rock solid work of children’s entertainment comes on the comedy side of things. Longtime Simpsons director Rich Moore knows his way around anarchistic animated comedy and parody, which he applies to the videogame world with prankster glee. The sight gags of Ralph drinking a night away at Tapper, Q-bert struggling to communicate, or Kano ripping out a zombie’s heart while trying to prove he’s an emotionally stable guy hit the mark just right. The designers clearly love their games and fill the movie with references an in-. It’s all ultimately fluff, winks, and nods to the audience, but done by fans and done well.
That cross-audience appeal clearly came into play when casting the voice actors as well. It’s just as unlikely that any youngster watching the film will know who John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are as it is that they’ll pick up on a killer M. Bison joke. These folks were cast for parents and slumming 20something viewers…well, and also the fact that they are ideally suited to the roles. Reilly does his lovable loser thing well (even though his Steve Brule comedy eccentricity is missed), Sarah Silvemarn’s voice works so well as a little girl that it’s odd no own thought of it before (maybe it was all that filthy comedy), while Comic-Con fav Andy Tudyk delivers a hysterical Ed Wynn impression as the villain that will be funniest only to those who know the sexually ambiguous 60s comic. The cast MVPs are definitely Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch whose star-crossed gaming love story is the comedy highlight with large chunks of dialogue clearly improvised by the Second City veterans. The voice work is matched by some truly gorgeous CGI animation that mimics all of the required videogame styles well and uses the virtual camera in a very cinematic way.
Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a masterpiece, nor is it the definitive videogame movie (that’s still The Wizard, folks). However, it is a perfectly pleasant piece of crowd-pleasing Disney entertainment. Kids will get wrapped up in it, while their parents will enjoy the voice performances and playing spot-the-videogame reference. At times the movie feels more like an advertisement for gaming (Wreck-It Ralph tie-in games are in stores now kids!) than a loving tribute (like say Who Framed Roger Rabbit was for cartoons). Few of the characters referenced were actually associated with the arcade era and the parade of inside jokes can get a little tiresome after a while. But at the same time, no one has done a loving gaming tribute this well before, so it’s hard to nit-pick too heavily. This might only be a decent children’s animated feature with a fresh gaming setting, but that’s enough to make it stronger than most of the kiddie CGI faire seen these days.
Disney has been doing Blu-ray right for years now and Wreck It Ralph is no exception. Whether in 2-D or 3D, the transfer is flawless and the audio mix pumps with 8-bit score delights (the sucker looks like it was transferred from a Disney hard drive to your spiny disc without any compression). Special features are a bit sparse by Disney standards, but still impressive. There’s a 20-minute making of documentary that delves into the technical side of things in great detail, but sadly leaves the all-star cast on the bench. If you pause the film, there’s a strange 10-minute bonus feature where Nerdist opportunist Chris Hardwick pops up to explain all of the videogame references. On the excised features front, there are a handful of ho-hum deleted scenes taken out for a reason and some hilarious fake commercials for the fictional games. Finally the best feature comes in the form of the 7-minute animated short Paperman, a beautiful little fateful love story that deservedly picked up an Oscar last week. Not exactly the most stacked set that Disney ever cranked out, but at least everything on the disc is worth watching. Overall, Wreck-It Ralph a strong showcase for Disney to prove they can do more than just release Pixar movies and should tickle any videogame nostalgics. That’s more than enough to make it a worthwhile family film. Expecting more would be like expecting to beat Ghosts n’ Goblins on a single quarter. That’s just not being realistic. (Phil Brown)
The Intouchables (Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache, 2011) – While pretty far from perfect, the inspirational “based on a true story” feel good French drama The Intouchables gets a lot of mileage out of a pair of great leading performances that can allow viewers to overlook some of the screenplay’s more maudlin touches. This tale of two troubled souls learning to love life once again after years of being knocked down either by society or physical ailments stays true to the main characters, but somewhat slights everyone around them. Then again, when you have leads as strong as the ones here, there’s not much else that such lightweight material needs.
Driss (Omar Sy), a streetwise Parisian of Senegalese descent, interviews for a job as the caregiver for a quadriplegic rich white guy named Philippe (Francois Cluzet) fully knowing that he’s unqualified for the job just so he can continue getting assistance. Philippe, on the other hand, see something in the young man that he likes: the inability of Driss to show unnecessary pity towards the once strong willed businessman and adventure enthusiast. Over time, they begin a bond that teaches Driss the nature of responsibility and Philippe how to live without fear or sadness over his current lot in life.
It’s probably easier to get the negative out of the way first for two reasons. First, being because this kind of story will be one that audiences will either buy into as being inspirational within seconds or they will mentally check out immediately at being taught life lessons they think they already know. Second, addressing the downfalls of the story will bring to greater light just why the lead performances work so well and lead to the movie being more entertaining than it probably should be.
The film spends so much time in the lives of these two characters that writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have very little time for anyone else in the story, making the peripheral supporting characters into thinly drawn caricatures and making Driss and Philippe speak for everyone else within the context of the film. We don’t know anything about anyone else other than what Driss and Philippe think of them. Admittedly, it is their story, but these characters fit into such archetypical North American story standards that it feels like the film blows off some potentially interesting side characters that only fleetingly influence their lives.
It’s also these very basic character traits that have led to the argument that the film can be seen as being somewhat racist, sexist, or ableist. For what it’s worth, I really don’t see the movie as being any of those things, but I can understand where the structure and characterization of the film can lead to such claims. Driss (who in the real life version of this tale was actually of Algerian descent, changed by the fictional film’s creators to act as a star vehicle for Sy) has the stereotypical blustery attitude from countless hood dramas, and his all too brief dealings with his family have been seen time and time again. Philippe comes across as they typical invalid simply looking for someone to believe in him as much as he believes in himself. Again, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff, which gives the film a narrow point of view. These two characters are very well fleshed out in terms of personality and mannerisms in the script, but viewers trying to look for something more outside of these two will find almost nothing.
The movie ultimately works and becomes enjoyable in spite of itself thanks largely to the efforts of the terrific Sy and Cluzet, who have effortless chemistry together. Their relationship feels wholly believable in spite of the story’s contrivances. As Driss, Sy shows how the character sometimes wants to show compassion, but how he thinks pity can only lead to more pain for the both of them. As Philippe, Cluzet has to give an emotionally and physically demanding performance without the benefit of using his body to project as a man who remains hard on the outside, but has even more crippling insecurities always bubbling beneath the surface.
An opening sequence where Driss and Philippe joy ride around in a million dollar sports car and the first dinner sequence where they bond blazed out of their skulls in a diner at 4:30 in the morning showcases their rapport. They take the formula of their basic characters and create a real chemistry between them that makes the audience want to watch them. It’s a very simple North American concept, but one that ultimately works well here since it elevates the material into something theatrical and cinematic and above that of a melodrama.
By the end of the film, the issues between these Driss and Philippe are easily resolved, but one shouldn’t expect otherwise when buying a ticket to see The Intouchables. It’s about as formulaic as moviemaking gets, but it doesn’t do harm by it or the type of audience that finds an attraction to these kinds of films. It will be heralded by some as inspirational and decried by others as being overly sentimental and incredibly basic. It’s the kind of film where there’s a very clear line that the viewer will make between what they can stomach and what they can’t. Thankfully, this one ended up on the right side of my line.
The only special features on the DVD are some deleted scenes. (Andrew Parker)
Red Dawn (Dan Bradley, 2012) – Remaking a movie is always a dicey proposition, especially one that was a cult hit and beloved by fans across the globe. With this new edition of Red Dawn, the Russians and Cubans from the 1980’s have turned into the North Koreans and it still makes for a half way decent action yarn.
A small city awakens to the surreal sight of foreign paratroopers dropping from the sky. To the townspeople’s’ shock, the U.S. has been invaded and their hometown is ground zero for an invasion that’s larger that they can even imagine. Quickly and without warning, the citizens find themselves prisoners and are scared and confused as their town is now under enemy occupation. Determined to fight back, a group of young patriots seek refuge in the surrounding woods, training and reorganizing themselves into a guerrilla group of fighters. Taking inspiration from their high school mascot, they call themselves the Wolverines, banding together to protect one another, liberate their town from its captors, and take back their freedom.
On the shelf for awhile thanks to some rewrites and the well publicized financial troubles at MGM, this remake of the 1984 original sees long time stunt coordinator and second unit director Dan Bradley move into the director’s chair for his feature debut. Having worked on big budget action films like The Bourne Legacy and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol there’s no question that he has seen how to run and stage fairly elaborate action sequences, and to his credit Red Dawn will never be accused of being a film that drags be it on the football field or as they fight off the North Korean invasion. He gives it a fairly slick feel, undoubtedly why a first-time director was trusted with a fairly large budget.
The screenplay from Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore leans enough on the original film to make it recognizable without being too derivative, and to their credit they play to the director’s and the cast strengths throughout. Any moments of overwrought, hand-wringing emotion that was apparent in the original was mostly trimmed out in favor of focusing on the action as much as possible. Despite some clunky Red State vs. Blue State overtones that play out in the back drop of the recent U.S. election this is a simple yet solid narrative. With an action heavy script, the ensemble cast isn’t stretched too far, simply being asked to look good while running, sweating and shooting guns led by Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth easily carries the screen as the young Iraqi vet home to visit his family leading his younger brother (played by Josh Peck)and friends into battle. Peck, most recognized from the Drake & Josh TV Show and The Wackness, is admittedly a bit of a weak link playing the scared teen trying to save his girlfriend and he can’t sell being petulantly mad at his older brother for leaving home after the death of their mother all at the same time. Pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson doesn’t really do much and the likes of Adrienne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, and Connor Cruise are only there to fill out the young and sexy quota of the cast. Veteran character actors like Brett Cullen and Michael Beach support where possible, however, the best casting in the film belongs to Jeffrey Dean Morgan in essentially the same role that Powers Boothe played in the original and he played it to the hilt for a fair amount of fun providing some mild comic relief in the midst of all the war that surrounded these young people.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are excellent as expected, however this combo pack release has no special features. (Dave Voigt)
The Marine 3: Homefront (Scott Wiper, 2013) – It’s somewhat staggering that the WWE Films franchise The Marine has been able to squeeze out three feature films. I guess it might be because generally wrestlers can most easily play lunkheaded military grunts better than fully fleshed out characters, but it’s kind of funny how the casting has moved on to yet another different actor than the other two films, even if the situation this time out is even more outlandish and the returns increasingly diminished.
Taking the reigns from John Cena and Ted DiBiase Jr. (remember him?) is former reality television star and former champion Mike “The Miz” Mizanin as the titular soldier Jake Carter back from overseas to return home to his two sisters and one wimpy looking fiancé that he doesn’t fully approve of. Little does he know that his small hometown of Bridgeton, Washinton is about to get rocked by an anarchic terrorist (Neal McDonough) who wants to teach the world about the downside of greed and the nature of personal responsibility. Seriously, that’s his M.O. When one of his sisters and the dopey boyfriend witness the bad guys murdering someone that’s outlived their usefulness, little sis gets captured and it’s time for the marine to defend the homeland.
For what it’s worth, Mizanin is constantly watchable even when the movie’s cut rate theatrics and dollar store script (both courtesy of Scott Wiper, who last collaborated with WWE on the underwhelming Stone Cold Steve Austin vehicle The Condemned) are constantly letting him down. He can credibly jump, shoot, and emote, but those looking for the same edge that his wrestling persona comes equipped with might be taken aback by how subdued everything feels here. McDonough kind of sleepwalks through the villain role, but that’s because he’s simply another envisioning of Heath Ledger’s Joker character appropriated into another nutty whackjob. The action is pretty substandard, the ending laughable, and it’s the kind of movie that opens with three minutes of backstory narration taking place over Second Unit shots of the countryside and then another three minutes of our hero riding the bus just to pad out a reasonable running time. It’s “that kind of movie,” but if you’re renting or buying this movie based on the name of the franchise, you should know what you are getting into.
The Blu-Ray looks and sounds pretty decent by direct to home entertainment standards. There’s also some interesting and fun on-set journals courtesy of The Miz, a look at just who the heck The Miz actually is, the cast that surrounds him, and an in-depth look at the film’s biggest set piece aboard the terrorists’ floating compound. (Andrew Parker)
The Bay (Barry Levinson, 2012) – Despite getting a generally positive response following it’s appearance at TIFF’s Midnight Madness this fall and a brief theatrical release in the US late last year, this change of pace from director Barry Levinson and the same company that brought audiences Insidious and Paranormal Activity, the found footage horror The Bay never got a theatrical release in the Great White North, and that’s kind of a shame since it’s Levinson’s most accomplished and thoughtful effort in quite some time. It’s scary, subtly witty, and surprisingly effective despite using the already tired shooting style that’s being employed.
The Chesapeake Bay in Levinson’s native/favourite setting of Maryland has become ground zero for a pollution based epidemic that wreaks gory havoc on the coastal community of Claridge. The footage that makes it to the screen tells the story of several people in different scenarios and parts of the city as terrifying parasites begin to eat people from the inside out.
Just because Levinson is getting scary doesn’t mean he’s stopped getting political and allegorical, and part of the fun here is watching the subtle ways that he’s getting his message across (like the inappropriate placement of American flags in certain places and the town’s eccentric mayor who seems to have never seen Jaws before). The energy level never flags, and Levinson’s story is shockingly tight. This should have been a wider release, but instead it’s a damned great video store curiosity.
The DVD comes with a behind the scenes look and a commentary track from Levinson. (Andrew Parker)
Check back later this week for an exclusive interview with director Barry Levinson!
Girls Against Boys (Austin Chick, 2012) – Now this is kind of a strange one. It’s a post-feminist revenge thriller that borrows liberally from some of the greatest mindfucks and exploitation flicks of the past two decades without ever directly ripping them off by name. It’s also probably more fun than it should be given it’s gristly subject matter of two young women (one a nice girl played by Danielle Panabaker, the other a mysterious redhead played by Nicole LaLiberte) who go on a killing spree to rid the world of lecherous dudes and bros after they off the man who raped the both of them
Ostensibly a gristly rape-revenge flick with the same feminist vein as the subversive Slumber Party Massacre, there’s a decent amount of substance amid the purposefully depressing goings on. Panabaker and LaLiberte make for am entertaining gruesome twosome that the viewer wants to see succeed, but far too often the message gets undercut by the same kind of torture porn the filmmakers seem to be railing against and some truly leadening sermonizing that doesn’t get any deeper than basic “you know what really grinds my gears” grandstanding. Still, it’s better than one might expect. The Blu-Ray comes with a commentary track from Panabaker and director Austin Chick. (Andrew Parker)