(On Cable TV, March 2014) Sometimes, the deepest questions are spurred from the most humble origins. So it is that a lazy, self-indulgent and contemptuous film such as Grown Ups 2 can lead us to existential questions such as “Are we doomed to ever-decreasing standards of popular entertainment? Should I be ashamed of my own reactions to a film? Am I part of the problem?” Because, from the very first deer-urination moments of the film, it’s obvious that Grown Ups 2 takes the dumbest and laziest approach to comedy filmmaking. I haven’t seen the first film, but I doubt it would make much of a difference when Grown Ups 2 seems so satisfied with the broadest male-centric humor, mining bodily functions, basic life dilemmas, major insults, crass humiliation and worn-out clichés. It has the discipline of taking place on a single day, but that’s the last time “restraint” will be used to describe the aimless, quasi-random nature of the script. As series of “and this happened” episodes rather than a progression toward something meaningful, Grown Ups 2 simply strings along the gags as little skits, paying no attention to tone or logic. A massive party gets organized out of thin air, characters get to satisfy their soul-searching within moments and there’s never any attempt at creating something more complex than a simple setup-response comic structure. It’s shoddy filmmaking at best, and it’s a wonder that a low-brow film so badly conceived can not only be released theatrically, but earn a decent amount of money along the way. And yet, and yet… this is from Adam Sandler, after all, and it’s not as if audiences go in this film expecting fine writing and solid structure. Even antagonistic audience will find a few laughs during the comic carpet-bombing practiced here: I laughed a few times myself even as I was wondering how a movie could be this objectively bad. Heck, there are even a few nice things to say about various bits and pieces of the whole: Taylor Lautner turns in his most animated performance yet as a frat leader, while fans of (say) Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph and Steve Buscemi will be satisfied by their quick appearances. Should I be forced to say something nice about the script, I’d have to be impressed at the way the movie juggles along dozens of speaking characters while giving them all something to do. But the point is: Even as classically bad as it is, Grown Ups 2 has enough laughs to make it an enjoyable and undemanding weekend-evening viewing. I have enjoyed far superior movies far less, and it pains me to admit that the lowest common denominator does include all of us. I’m glad I haven’t paid a cent to see it, though.
(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.
(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.