(On Cable TV, July 2017) As someone who doesn’t mind romantic movies but is easily bored with them, I’m reminded by Water for Elephants that the key to an interesting romance is largely made out of its setting. In this case, setting a relatively standard love triangle in the middle of a 1930s travelling circus feels like an instant shot of interest—watching the minutiae of a circus is fascinating to the point when it’s easy to tolerate the familiar romantic plot. None of the three main actors impress by going out of persona—Reese Witherspoon is her usual forgettable self, while Christoph Waltz genially chews scenery and Robert Pattinson continues to prove that he’s better than his Twilight character but not that far removed from it. Still, the star here is the travelling circus and its sub-culture, the details of setting up the big top every day and the challenges of trying to run a circus in depression-era America. It’s a great setting and you can lose yourself in the way the movie shows those details … before being brought to earth with the familiar love triangle featuring a good guy, a damsel in distress and an abusive husband. It wraps up satisfyingly, though, and that more than makes up for the familiar path trodden along the way. Production values are surprisingly good, and there’s a wealth of supporting characters who get a shining moment or two. I was surprised by Water for Elephants—I expected something duller and middle-of-the-road, but that was based on reading a plot summary—the actual film is far more generous than expected in its period details and richness of setting. I’ll take it.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) To be entirely honest, I started watching Remember Me knowing where it was headed, and was already predisposed to dismiss its manipulative ways. What I didn’t know is that the film doesn’t just end on a grand melodrama, but begins with one as well as the mother of one of the main characters is senselessly killed in the very first scene. It quickly gets worse, with the introduction of a mopey protagonist who spends his days moaning about his life without appreciating any of the privileges he’s given. With his dead brother, library job, quirky friend and New York City apartment, he practically checks off the grand list of insufferable protagonists. The tone thus having been set, Remember Me remains almost laughable throughout; an exercise is pushing melodrama to the breaking point where the only rational response is to dismiss the entire film as self-indulgent rubbish. Then there’s the climax, which seems overwrought even knowing what’s coming. Robert Pattinson didn’t exactly cover himself with anti-Twilight glory by starring into this film—his sullen persona is well executed but fundamentally irritating, and having more charming actors such as Pierce Brosnan run circles around him (even when nominally portrayed as antagonists) doesn’t help. I’m sure that there is an adoring public for the kind of cheap weepy drama that is Remember Me, but I’m not in that group.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) So there it is: the final conclusion of the Twilight “Saga”, after five seemingly-interminable films that were often more laughable than effective. If you sense some weary resignation in the preceding statement, then you probably understand how the series divides fans from onlookers. Fans will love it, while onlookers will wonder aloud at the series’ substantial plot holes, backward social attitudes and pacing issues. Fans will go nuts for the overblown ending (complete with written passages of Stephenie Meyer’s novel, and a lavish slideshow of every single actors to have played in the series) while onlookers will wonder when the thing will actually end. Plot-wise, the split of the series’ final book has taken its toll: After the events of the previous film, this one seems unsure of what to do: The villains announce their intention to come make trouble, then take weeks to come around –leaving the protagonist to mount a defense of sorts. Various vampires with superpowers are brought in (and it’s hard not to laugh when emotionless protagonist Bella’s superpower is explained as being a really effective superpower wet blanket), various stereotypes are presented on-screen (Irish vampires with a drinking problem? No, no, no…) and the film puts all the pieces in place for a big fake-out of a conclusion that wimps out just as it becomes interesting (and also has it both ways, almost). Bill Condon does fine as a director with the material he’s given (he even gets to helm a large-scale special-effects sequence.), while the usual trio of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are up to their now-usual standards as the protagonists. It goes without saying that this final installment, more than any others, is for the fans: If you’re still hating and watching after five movies, then there’s no helping you.
(Video on-demand, March 2013) The kindest thing one can say about Cospomolis is that after more than a decade spent in the wilderness of criminal realism, it’s good to see writer/director David Cronenberg go back (even partially) to weirdness and his longstanding preoccupation with the dehumanization of modern society. From the first few highly-stylised moments, it’s obvious that Cosmopolis is not going to be your average plot-driven thriller. Our protagonist may be a rich businessman driving around with the simple goal of getting a haircut, but the artificiality of the film is underlined at every second through fake visuals, elliptical dialogue obviously copied-and-pasted from Don Delillo’s short source novel and performances so devoid of normal emotion to make us question whether we’re truly seeing humans on-screen. For Robert Pattinson, this isn’t a good break from the Twilight series: His performance demands such a sense of detachment that we don’t get anything resembling emotion from him, and so no perceptible shift away from a hundred-years-old dispassionate vampire. (This is called typecasting.) It’s a film built to dwell upon the artificiality of life among the elite and it sort-of-works, but it sure feels like it takes a long time to make its points about the coldness of technology, capitalism and/or driving around in circles. It offers mildly thoughtful material, a few nude scenes, unexplainable plot points and an atmosphere that’s quite unlike any other film in recent memory. As a thriller, it’s a flat one-thing-after-another framework on which to hang ideas and intercutting monologues (the characters speak a lot but rarely respond to each other) –it’s a lot more interesting as a high-concept film with strung-together sound-bites. Still, it’s not uninteresting to watch even as an art-house experiment, and as would befit an intellectual thought-piece, a few lines may even stick in mind once the film’s performances fade away.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) It’s easy to be dismissive of the entire Twilight series as pop-culture fluff for teenage audiences, but the continued appeal of the franchise hints at something deeper than marketing brainwash. While Breaking Dawn is widely acknowledged as the weakest novel in Stephenie Meyer’s series, it does continue the “romantic fears thinly transposed in fantasy terms” trend of the series so far, what with the heroine getting married, having sex and getting pregnant. The pregnancy is terrifying enough without the addition of dueling vampires and werewolves, but that’s the kind of series this is. After the relatively sedate and well-handled Eclipse, which was just good enough to escape ridicule, this first half of the fourth novel renews with insanity and unintentional laughter. The birthing scene is about as well-handled as the material can be, meaning that the most ludicrous scene in the movie is the following battle between the vampires and the teddy-wolves: the CGI of the wolves is noticeably bad throughout the film, and it’s never as bad as when they’re thrown around by vampires. The “imprinting” thing is also very… special. Otherwise, the film plays on the same register aimed at fans of the series: The leads’ acting abilities are still as limited as ever (Kirsten Stewart glowers; Robert Pattinson broods and Taylor Lautner growls), the pacing is deadly slow and the quirks of the series just sound dumb to anyone who’s not emotionally invested in the plot. It’s made a bit more colorful due to the Brazilian honeymoon, and the more adult-oriented plot completely escapes high-school now that Bella is an unemployed pregnant newlywed. The film still works by fits and starts, although some choices (the editing of the wedding speeches, for instance) seem jarring given the series’ demonstrated lack of interest in directorial showmanship. Something that may not affect people who see the film without close captioning is the jarring atonality of the endless song lyrics displayed on-screen. Oh well; if nothing else, Breaking Dawn, Part 1 feels far more self-contained than anyone would have expected from a “Part 1”: The immediate dramatic arc is more or less settled by the time the film ends, with only slight cliffhanger elements. As for the rest, well, it’s a fair bet that no one will see this film completely cold: you will get what you expect from it.
(On DVD, January 2011) The adulation of teenage girls for young male heartthrobs is a gender-specific phenomenon I can’t quite understand, but I knew what I was getting into when I picked up this cheap biography of Twilight star Robert Pattinson: Even at $0.99, I knew that I was getting ripped off, and the end result does not disappoint. A mediocre collage of talking heads, terrible paparazzi pictures and breathless hagiography that sounds read from a tabloid profile, Robsessed is cheap celebexploitation filmmaking and it shows. How cheap? Well; no interviews with Patterson, scarcely any footage of him (and none whatsoever from Twilight), little original material… basically, nothing requiring real money. Nothing else really compensates for the lack of resources: There’s no wit to the cinematography, barely any depth to the interviews (all with distant third-party sources, pundits or “superfans”) and little insight to the pop-magazine-grade writing. The producers are as innumerate as they are exploitative: The case says the film lasts “110 minutes”, whereas it really lasts 70 (or “1:10 hours”)… not that anyone was really asking for 30 more minutes of this stuff. The happiest surprise to the film is in seeing respected fantasy author/critic Kim Newman talk cogently about vampires and point out that Patterson-the-actor is far less important to his fans as Patterson-as-Edward-Cullen, perhaps the closest the film comes to self-awareness. Otherwise, it goes without saying that Robsessed is practically worthless: anyone with a high-speed internet connection could come up with a better multimedia profile of Patterson by simply clicking away on search results. Still, as audio-visual wallpaper while doing something more worthwhile (like washing dishes, or rearranging a stamp collection), Robsessed is perfect low-attention chattering. Plus imagine the ironic hipster credentials once you start showing off the box at parties, either now or in twenty years!