Triangles: ‘The Descendants’ and ‘Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1

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Alexander Payne is both the most aptly-named director and the least accurate: His movies are all about people enduring a fair share of pain, but his default reaction is to find humor in that. It’s a great skill, of course, but one that he beats like a drum. So when his newest, The Descendants, works its story around a husband and father (George Clooney) faced with the twin tragedies of a wife in a coma and discovering she has been cheating on him … well, sometimes pain just needs to be pain. (Payne also loves the “road trip” plot, here and in Sideways and About Schmidt; I wonder if he would even know how to make a movie set in a boardroom.)

But if The Descendants traffics in familiar territory, at least Payne knows how to paint portraits of people that ring true. Certainly Clooney — proudly showing his age as a salt-and-pepper middle-aged dad juggling his own parental ineptitude and obligations as the family patriarch — brings the proper balance of heft and comic sensibility to the role of an emotionally detached man grappling, for the first time, with the realities of connecting with other people. Come to think of it, that describes just about every other movie Alexander Payne has made. He might not show much variety, but at least he knows his limitations.

The romantic triangle in The Descendants is between two men and a dead woman; in Breaking Dawn, Part 1 — the latest in the Twilight saga — it’s between a dead man (well, actually vampire Robert Pattinson) and another man (well, werewolf Taylor Lautner) and a woman (well, actually Kristen Stewart, who I think may be part mannequin). In this, the fourth film in the series, I think I may have finally figured out what I’ve missed all this time that every teenaged girl seemed to understand intuitively: The supernatural element is extraneous to the slow-moving romance between Bella and Edward (and the puppy-dog longing of Jacob). It’s kind of the point that nothing much happens over its two hours — if it did, it might shake you from your swoon.

A new director, Bill Condon, imposed a horror-film sensibility on all the treacle, giving us both the longest wedding sequence since The Godfather and the most harrowing childbirth since Rosemary’s Baby.  If you can stomach author Stephanie Meyers’ didactically anti-abortion subtext — and can accept how Lautner keeps his shirt on most of the time — Breaking Dawn is actually the best entry in the series to date. Go figure.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Blood & sand

What’s on for July 4? Wolves, vampires & sorcerers, oh my!

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

TEEN WOLF | Purse-lipped Bella (Kristen Stewart) strings along ab-fab Jacob (Taylor Lautner) in ‘Eclipse.’
2.5 out of 5 Stars

TWILIGHT SAGA; ECLIPSE
Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Launter, Dakota Fanning.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins.
Now playing wide release.

To praise Eclipse as the best film thus far in the Twilight saga is like saying the drunk driver who rear-ended your new car had only been sipping Johnnie Walker Blue: Its pedigree doesn’t, ultimately, make the pain more bearable.
Little has changed since the last one, New Moon, pitted icy vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) in a chaste sexual competition with passionate werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) for the affections of pouty, bitchy Bella (Kristen Stewart). There are still long stretches with far too little action (“Get to the fight,” my date complained after one of the many delayed starts) — unless you consider emoting and seething “action.”

The (new) director David Slade at least begins the movie with a stylized if tame horror sequence, which postpones the gooey, banal romantic entanglements. Slade has advanced in bounds since first director Catherine Hardwicke’s lame-o special effects made me laugh inappropriately, but you still need to have seen both prior films — and preferably have read the books — to follow what the hell is going on.

Even that might not be enough. The Vulturi cult (led by Dakota Fanning, all of whom appear to have stolen their wardrobe from Pete Wentz), the revenge of Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, as if it mattered), the enmity between the vamps and the wolves — who can keep track of all this nonsense? (The cross-cutting between factions is choppy and confusing.)

Deeper still is this mystery: What, exactly, is Edward’s appeal as a romantic hero? He’s pale, bloodless, glassy-eyed and continually lies to Bella (“to protect you” he insists; I bet Tiger Woods said the same thing); he also sparkles like he’s been doused in body glitter at a circuit party. Jacob, by contrast, is all brio: Forceful and rugged and thankfully shirtless when he has nothing interesting to say. It’s America versus Europe — why isn’t America winning? What is this, the World Cup?
Bella seems to think she’s The Bachelorette, stringing along two guys until the last commercial break. Just give one a rose and let’s call it quits.

Pattinson’s acting amount to little more than brooding like a 19th century actor doing Hamlet. He smolders so much, I worried he might cause a forest fire. Lautner, bless his fab abs, is not the best actor, though his sincerity carries him pretty far.

Alas, none of these qualms will have any effect on its box office success, so I might as well highlight the main positive. The best scene in the film is a relative truce between Jacob and Edward, as the two sit in a tent, Bella asleep between them, and bond over their shared maleness. It also smacks the taste of cheesy sentiment out of your mouth as Jake and Eddie seem a bottle of tequila shy of ditching Bella and moving together to Brokeback Mountain. I wish I could quit them. I wish everyone would.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL | A magical avatar (Noah Ringer) learns to controls the four elements in ‘The Last Airbender.’
2 out of 5 Stars

THE LAST AIRBENDER
Noah Dev Patel, Aasif Mandvi.
Rated PG. 105 mins.
Now playing wide release.

At its essence, the kid-focused actioner The Last Airbender is a two-hour movie about playing Rock-Paper-Scissors: Water beat fire, fire beat wind, wind beats earth. Or something like that. I lost interest pretty quickly.
In a world that looks like it was cobbled together from discarded sets, costumes, cast members and plots from Narnia, The Golden Compass and Return of the King, four nomadic tribes representing the four elements (air, fire, water and earth) are engaged in a war, with the bellicose fire nation suppressing those in other tribes who can “bend” (control) their element. An avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer), missing for a century, returns to bring order from chaos. One Ringer to rule them all, I suppose.

With Aang a Dalai Lama-esque reincarnated leader and lots of repetitive conjuring, The Last Airbender is a hodgepodge of Eastern mysticism and Western myth — Harry Potter Meets Falun Gong. (“Bending” looks suspiciously like tai chi.) Even though the plotting is paint by numbers (the bad guys are all swarthy, to make it even easier), and the symbolism unsubtle (the fire tribe is composed of polluters and soulless machines), none of it comes together.

M. Night Shymalan is constitutionally the wrong director for this kind of effects-laden spectacular. (The 3D effects were added in post production, like with Clash of the Titans, and don’t add much to the drama.) Aside from children in peril, there’s little of his themes present, or his superb though tired sense of tension. This is a bold-faced effort at reinventing himself, but this vehicle? It’s a Shymalan a-ding-dong. And that’s elementary.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’ targets the gay community … even though its Mormon creator favors anti-gay author

Two things — well, three really — about the new Twilight Saga entry, Eclipse. First, my review will be in the paper this week, so look for it. That’s kinda the third thing.

Second, when perusing the press site for the film, I came upon these two photos. Look carefully at Taylor; now look at Robert; they are actually the same picture, taken from a scene from the film. The only difference — other than the fact that, once you look closely, you can see how it was Photoshopped — is that in one, the girl is missing. Now, she’s in the scene in the movie. So the question is, why was she removed from the photo?

And the answer, according to one person in my office, is clearly: To appeal to the gay community.

Certainly it is convenient for the studio to streamline all the beefcake in one two-shot and omit the woman — which, when I think about it, is probably the only reason most girls go to see these films. (Who likes Bella, anyway?) But I think gay guys want it all conveniently tied up without female distractions, too. And the producers know it.

They also seem to know it insofar as the two directors in competition to helm the adaptations of the last book in the series were gays Gus Van Sant and Bill Condon (Condon got it). But deep down, it’s hard not to feel exploited by the creator.

Which brings us to point No. 3: The author of the books, Stephenie Meyer, is a devout Mormon who had never written so much as a letter to the editor before she became fabulously wealthy with her Twilight series. Some have analyzed the books through the prism of the LDS church, noting the virginal heroine and Edward’s insistence on marriage are conservative religious principals. Meyer has denied it.

What she hasn’t denied is being a fan of Mormon sci-fi author Orson Scott Card. Card is a virulently anti-gay bigot (which, if you saw the documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition, is par for the course for that cult). Last year, he joined the board of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage and has said no one can claim to be gay and a Mormon.

Now, I see these movies for free as part of my job (plus I have a well-documented crush on Taylor Lautner). But it makes you wonder: Does Meyer agree with Card’s view on homosexuality? Does she have as much contempt for her gay fans as Card seems to?

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Is Bella spinning her wheels? Patz may be gay

Maybe he's faking it. He is pretending to be a vampire, after all.
Maybe he’s faking it. He is pretending to be a vampire, after all.

There’s speculation out there that the star of Twilight might be gay … the wrong Twlight star from my perspective, but we work with what we got.

Robert Pattinson (not Taylor Lautner — sigh!) gave an interview to Details magazine where he claimed to be “allergic” to vaginas. “I really hate vaginas,” he told the reporter, following a 12-hour photo shoot with many women. He also dodged the question of whether he was dating anyone, saying only his current and most meaningful relationship is with his dog.

How much of this is hoo-ha manufactured by the blogosphere is anyone’s guess — maybe he was just waxing about the numbing effect of nudity — but that hasn’t stopped sites like MTV Australia from reporting it as basically news: Robert Pattinson has indirectly come out.

Please. I know what coming out looks like, and it’s not that.

Nevertheless, it’s worth reading just to hear Edward Cullen — who, keep in mind, no one had even heard of 18 months ago — say something other than the dreadful trite dialogue of thse terrible, terrible movies.

You can read the interview here. though if I were you, I might scroll over to the interview with Channing Tatum, where he talks about his penis in detail. Even shows the interviewer a picture of it.

I need to get that gig.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones