Thursday, December 20, 2012

Double Feature: Hyde Park on Hudson and Breaking Dawn Part 2

We're rapidly approaching the year's end, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having too little time to see too many movies. This will only become more complex in the coming week, as Christmas weekend brings us a number of decent-to-great options that include Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Parental Guidance, The Guilt Trip, Jack Reacher, This is 40 and the 3D re-release of Monsters Inc. That means that as much as I want to avoid them, I have to at least try getting to the more poorly-received November/December releases while they're still around. I can't discover hidden gems otherwise, and in the worst-case scenario they'll just hit my Worst of the Year list, which goes up every December 31'st.

Today, I saw two flicks with an excellent chance of making that list, for wholly different reasons. It's blatantly obvious that Hyde Park on Hudson is bucking for an Oscar opportunity for lead actor Bill Murray, playing former US President Frank Delano Roosevelt Sorry, I know all I seem to talk about lately is the Best Actor race, but to be fair it's the only category that seems to be getting any action lately. In the film, the country is in the fragile state between the worst of the Great Depression and the future global conflict of World War II. At home, the people have enough trouble holding down jobs and want little to do with the problems halfway around the globe. But the leaders of Great Britain know that war with Nazi Germany is inevitable, and King George and his wife Queen Elizabeth have been invited to Roosevelt's private home to convene about the island nation getting future support from us.

Another Dark Horse Oscar contender?
The movie pushes its actors first and foremost, and of course a lot of attention is given to Murray, who adds this performance atop an impressive list of roles in the past decade in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, Zombieland, and this year's Moonrise Kingdom. Once again the actor manages to blur the line between dramatic composure and comedic relief with ease, and any acclaim he earns from this is well deserved. He's also surrounded by an abundance of talented ladies, with Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams and Elizabeth Marvel as Queen Elizabeth, Eleanor Roosevelt and Roosevelt's private secretary Marguerite LeHand, respectively. The biggest surprise however, is easily Samuel West as King George VI. It seems the Queen's father has been appearing everywhere lately, from Colin Firth's well-deserved Academy Award-winning performance in The King's Speech to Madonna's romance film W.E. Credit has to go to West for not allowing the role to go stale, and even managing to be as impressive in scenes both with and without Murray. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) also does a great job focusing on the similarities and differences between the President and the King, sharing in disabilities but separate in their appreciation for their wives, among other things. When the story focuses on the budding friendship between these two great men, it's simply amazing.

Seriously, why is nobody talking about this guy?
Unfortunately, the film's tale is told through possibly the worst witness of all, simple-minded sixth cousin to the President Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, invited to help Franklin relax. The pseudo-incestuous relationship that follows is both uncomfortable to watch and lacking in any major impact. Even if the trite love tale is actually based on a true story (discovered letters between Suckley and Roosevelt), Laura Linney's performance as Daisy is weak beyond words, and her voice-over narrations are dull and uninterested, dragging down both the tempo and importance of the event as a whole. It certainly makes it difficult to recommend Hyde Park on Hudson as anything more than a potential rental; Murray and West put in spellbinding performances, but they're stuck in a story that needed more cutting if it wanted any chance of turning out well.

But that's Shakespeare compared to every teenage girl's image-destroying teen paranormal romance finale The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. First, the admission: I've never read or watched anything to do with the Twilight franchise. Even with former roommates who were hardcore fans I've managed to avoid the Stephenie Meyer phenomena for as long as it's been in existence. In fact, the ONLY reason I had any interest in seeing this final entry to the series? The promised battle royale between the heroic Cullen clan and the Illuminati-esque Volturi, with the fate of the future in the balance. The question was whether I could sit through an hour and a half of trite dialogue, poor story and cringe-worthy romance before I got my promised ten minutes of bloodshed.

Breaking Dawn Part 2 definitely gets off to a poor start, with director Bill Condon (this is the same guy who did Chicago?) showing off some of the absolute worst CGI to appear in a major blockbuster. These are special effects so bad, the term "special" takes on a whole other meaning. Looking haphazard and slapdash, they never get above the level of "mediocre", and it's shocking that care wasn't made to get decent SFX for a proven franchise worth billions. Thankfully so much of the movie focuses on pretty people problems and setup for the final battle that once you get past the opening half hour, effect use is minimal at best.

So... why are we doing this again? Oh, right, the mortgage...
On the other hand, one of the best kept secrets in the Twilight series is that it has actually developed some pretty good actors. Sure, everybody gets stuck on Kristen Stewart's wooden and lifeless performance throughout (and that doesn't change here), but for the most the films have done a good job showcasing the talents of Robert Pattinson and many of the secondary actors who have made careers off of the franchise, from Ashley Greene to Peter Facinelli to Anna Kendrick (who sadly does not appear in the finale). Okay, Taylor Lautner has gone stale, but while you need a scorecard to keep track of the dozens (!) of characters who appear in Breaking Dawn Part 2, many of them are either very talented actors or carry the benefit of playing fascinating characters who suffer in the shadows of the "Big Three". Standouts include Michael Sheen, Lee Pace, Dakota Fanning (who I don't believe even says a word), Jamie Campbell Bower, Rami Malek, Casey LaBow and a sorely underused Joe Anderson, and they're supplemented by a wealth of depth that includes ultra-violent Irish vampires (of course), old-school Romanian vamps, female Amazon warriors, and others with special abilities (none of which explains how they survive in the sunlight, however). It's surprising how talent-rich the series has become, and most of these people will go on to have special Hollywood careers.

If you ever see this, it's probably too late.
But while the final battle (15-20 minutes of bloodless fun, up from the 10 I had been expecting) was everything I could have hoped for, the whole experience is undone by shoddy logic, amateurish writing, and ultimate failure by resorting to deus ex machina to immediately undo any emotional turmoil by fans. On one hand, this final act of Twilight is probably the most accessible entry to the saga for genre fans. On the other hand, that decent 20 minutes was all I really wanted, and am left with no interest to go back and revisit the story behind it. Now that I've sated my brief, insane sparkly vampire desire, I can go back to REAL blood-sucking fun from the Underworld series or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I already own on Blu-ray (thank you, Black Friday midnight sales). The point is that when I want a vampire film, I don't need the silly romance and stupid dialogue that is clogging up teen romance shelves these days. I want blood, guts, and a little animal cruelty, and that's just not something you're going to see from Stephenie Meyer.

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