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Holiday Movie Roundup

By Tony Sheppard

The Twilight Saga:Breaking Dawn – Part 1
Directed by Bill Condon
This fourth installment in the series seems to have been named for those with short attention spans, who might otherwise have forgotten why they were at the theater.  Many of the rest of us are more likely to want to forget having been there.

The original “Twilight” movie was fairly awful, with a mediocre story told poorly.  In all fairness, the next two were getting better, as the action and direction improved.  And the underlying premise of a love triangle between a lonely teen girl, a similarly teenaged werewolf, and a teen-looking but century undead vampire, has decent dramatic potential.  So I actually hoped to enjoy this one.

But it’s, perhaps, the worst yet – largely because it seems to jam every eyeroll-worthy story element into a single outing.  And it’s awkward in the context of its intended audience – watching a night of bed-destroyingly violent vampire/human sex while sharing a row with four twelve year girls who were squealing the entire time seemed inappropriate.  And that’s far from the most uncomfortable aspect of the story to watch with tweens – this is a movie for kids who had “the talk” when they were still in single digits and have been watching MTV’s “The Real World” ever since.

The acting is still stiff, the dialog still makes you yearn fondly for Anakin and Padme, and the pacing still makes you wish you had a fast forward button.  But it’s going to make a ton of money from those squealing twelve year olds.

Melancholia
Directed by Lars von Trier
I know nothing about the genesis of this project but I can’t help imagining a meeting, a couple of years ago, between Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick.  I picture them knocking back a few and discussing a film that explores the way we become who we are, our parents roll in that process, and the nature of love.  Then the conversation drifts off into our fixations on life and relationships and how meaningless they all are in the greater cosmic dimension.  They end up challenging each other to a filmmaking duel and von Trier makes “Melancholia” while Malick makes “The Tree of Life.”

In “Melancholia,” Kirsten Dunst plays one sister, Justine, getting married in a wedding planned by the other sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Their parents are played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, giving the effect of a family who don’t seem likely to be related but who celebrate one of the most fantastically awkward wedding scenes since Rowan Atkinson’s standup act.  And this portion of the film is by far the most enjoyable and worth watching, all by itself.  

Justine is barely in attendance despite being the bride, and apparently suffers from some kind of depression.  The movie then skips forward in time and we revisit some of the family as they await the approach of another planet that might or might not be about to collide with Earth.

The end result is somewhat more linear and approachable than Malick’s seemingly similarly themed film, but still somewhat disjointed in tone.  It’s also reminiscent of the more recent “Take Shelter,” a film that pondered how visions of the future would likely be perceived as mental illness.  The performances here are good but the film is best suited for those who want to ponder the meaning and value of life – and those who love stunningly disfunctional weddings.

The Descendents
Directed by Alexander Payne
“The Descendents” is a beautifully simple movie.  There’s almost nothing here that comes as any surprise but it’s a pure pleasure to watch it unfold.  It’s the telling of the story more than the story itself that makes it work.

But it’s also a decent story as Matt King (George Clooney) copes with multiple family crises.  His thrill-seeking wife has been hurt in a boating accident and is comatose, a condition that he later discovers is probably actually healthier than their marriage had been.  This causes him to become, for the first extended period ever, the primary care giver to his two daughters – something he is completely unready for.  He’s also in the middle of an enormous real estate deal as the sole family trustee of the last privately held, vast tract of undeveloped land in Kuaui.

The acting is excellent in all of the major roles, including the two girls, played by Amara Miller (in her first credited role) and Shailene Woodley – and this would be a good case study for the idea of giving awards to casting directors.  The cast also includes Judy Greer, a very adult seeming Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and Nick Krause as the older daughter’s wonderfully annoying friend.

Clooney may be an international heartthrob and jet-setting star of assorted big budget and action movies, but he’s possibly at his best in quieter performances like this, as a dad – an unglamorous  family-oriented guy just trying to do the right thing for all those around him.  It’s a role and a film that seem honest and genuine, and both are likely to be contenders during awards season.  It’s also another winner for director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “Election”).

Weekend
Directed by Andrew Haigh

There’s a moment in any successful relationship where dating and conversation somehow get elevated to a new level and love kicks in.  It’s often hard to place and not predictable – but at some point it’s there.  In “Weekend,” two young gay men embark on what seems like a somewhat random, post-nightclub one night stand until the invisible magic starts and the stakes suddenly get raised. 

It happens to be a gay story, with scenes that may make some in the audience uncomfortable – but that, in and of itself, is also explored in the film.  One of the men, Glen, is fascinated and appalled at the omnipresence of heterosexual imagery and stories in society and the almost total lack of homosexual equivalents. 

Meanwhile, the underlying story of burgeoning love is universal and you could replace the characters with any combination of genders and it would still ring true.  It’s an uncomplicated production with many extended exchanges of dialog, complete with arguments and awkward pauses, and it works in its honest examination of the birth of a relationship, regardless of the sexualities involved.

The Muppets
Directed by James Bobin

The best of the holiday family/kids movies, “The Muppets” manages to cater to the adults in the audience as well as, if not better than, their younger counterparts.  In what is probably the best reboot of a franchise since the most recent “Star Trek” movie, we get to revisit the magic of the original Muppet Show TV series while parodying almost every aspect of the film. 

This is a project that’s entirely self-aware, a musical that makes fun of musicals, a road movie that makes fun of road movies, a movie with a montage that makes fun of montages, and a story about an evil villain that makes fun of stories about evil villains (“maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh”).  Co-written by lead actor Jason Segel, it’s really a triumph of writing, not least in the song lyrics.  It’s also a project that has a lot of
fun with surprise guest cameo performances, including a neat appearance by “The Big Bang” star Jim Parsons.

Segel’s Gary has a brother Walter who is conveniently Muppetlike in appearance and, not surprisingly, a bit of an outcast as he ages.  When he discovers the actual Muppets he becomes their biggest fan and is excited at the prospect of visiting their studio until he, Gary, and Gary’s long suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) find it in a shambles and about to be sold to evil oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper).  This of course give rise to the inevitable Muppet reunion and much hilarity ensues.  The extended sequence of rounding up the old gang plays like a multi-segment episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” with Animal, for example, in drum rehab. 

If you’re looking for only one movie for the whole family this weekend then, of those I’ve seen so far, this would be my top pick.

Happy Feet Two
Directed by George Miller

The original “Happy Feet” played like a cross between “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” set to music and aimed at seven year olds.  It was cute and fun but it was also a thinly veiled, if veiled at all, message movie about global climate change.  The sequel, in contrast, is mostly a closer to home story about character and overcoming challenges.  It has its own appeal but it doesn’t seem like much of a match to its predecessor. 

It’s also a bit of a mess, with side characters and storylines that seem more suited to their own short film than as recurring moments in the larger narrative – as exemplified by the bromance between two krill, Will and Bill, voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt.  In hindsight, I think I would have preferred to watch the first one again than watch the sequel.

Hugo
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Another narrative mess with two many secondary characters and plotlines that seem to go nowhere is more of a surprise, coming as it does from Martin Scorcese (“The Departed, “ “Casino,” “Taxi Driver”).  “Hugo” tells the tale of young Hugo Cabret, an orphan with a flair for repairing clocks and machines, who lives secretly in the walls and attics of a Parisian train station.  And this is yet another classically American depiction of Paris in which all of the actors are made to seem more French by sounding entirely English.

There seems to have been great potential here but the film never lives up to it – even individual scenes seem to be on their way to somewhere better before abruptly halting.  There are great actors who are put to little use, including Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, and Frances de la Tour.  There’s also a performance by Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat,” “Brüno”) that isn’t anything like as comedic or dynamic as it probably seemed on paper.

I can appreciate how appealing this was for Scorsese, with elements of film history and preservation in its storyline, as well as great visual elements.  But the outcome is poorly paced and overly long at more than two hours, especially given plodding scenes and entire story elements that could be plucked out of the movie without detracting from the plot.  I wish I had been plucked out of it.


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