Review: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is about as good as New Moon, not as good as the first Twilight movie. It includes a payoff for the Victoria the Vampire plotline which has been running since the first, which is a bit colorless and disappointing. But despite all that, it feels pretty authentic and moves the ball down the field just competently.

The actors are fine, but again seem engaged in a struggle against mediocrity in writing which has become more and more strained trying to (a) I guess, keep a PG-13 rating for a bloody vampire tale and (b) perhaps assume too much knowledge of the books' plots, or stay faithful to them in a way which hurts the cinematic impact of the movies.

I still haven't read anything by Stephanie Meyer, and don't intend to. Odd that I'm a fan of the movies and have no interest in the books. I even read The Bridges of Madison County after seeing that Clint Eastwood movie (movie's way better, of course). I just have a strong instinct that Meyer trapped some lightning in a bottle with her story dynamics, and I prefer to watch that unfold as it will on the big screen.

The first film had novelty going for it. The vampires of Twilight are unique on film, and seeing their debut was kind of a treat, even if the ultimate surprise is the rather bland and boring nobility and niceness of the vampire clan portrayed. It also had a fresh romance between compelling leads, and a nice subplot with Jacob Black (Tyler Lautner) and his nascent wolf pack. The second film managed to be more successful than this one in creating dynamic and watchable conflicts, even with the physical absence of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) for much of the film. His presence in New Moon was palpable and intriguing, causing Bella (Kristen Stewart) to take risks and question herself.

This film begins with a misquotation of Robert Frost's immortal poem "Fire and Ice." One word is exchanged, "I" is substituted for Frost's "it," and I sigh to report that this brought a loud dreamy teenage sigh from the crowd when I watched it. It feels cheap and unearned. And Kristen Stewart's reading of it is so arrhythmic and anti-charismatic that "fire" and "ice" become fellow words on the line with no particularly extreme emotional temperatures.

But it's a soap opera, I'm not looking for great literature, I'm looking for the tween Gone with the Wind, with vampires. The plot of this one concerns Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, okay with not a lot to do) raising an army of powerful newborn vampires to avenge the killing of her vampire husband James by Edward, by threatening his love, Bella. Along the way, the romances between Bella and Edward, and Bella and Jacob, do deepen, change and conflict--and get talked to death. At least half an hour of dialogue about this could have been cut without blinking. I was excited to see David Slade, the director of 30 Days of Night, a fairly no-nonsense, satisfying action vampire film with a great Danny Huston performance, take the helm for this one, as I assumed these kind of useful cuts would be second nature to his style. But I think somebody must have gotten in his way.

The result is a rather slow pace, which really drags at times. I also found some of the action and effects dragged the film down. Things seem unmotivated, unless you think a dramatic motivation is to get to the next drawn-out dialogue mess. Not all the dialogue is hopeless, but less is most often more when it comes to star-crossed love. The effects are not as bloody, stark or thrilling as one might wish. Unlike in real life, seeing is not necessarily believing at the movies, especially in today's huge, effects-driven blockbusters-in-waiting. Twilight Saga, you haven't blown it yet, but let's keep it moving, top priority. Try having a little more respect for these doomed teenage characters, played by appealing actors, and you'll do fine. But you are on notice.

The ending especially, for me, lacked some drama and impact, and the very ending seemed way too happy and bright. New Moon announces its intentions quite openly in the title: there will be mooning. Yet Eclipse provides not quite enough darkness. They're splitting the next book in two, and they couldn't find a dramatic cliffhanger anywhere in the last 50 pages of this book, or the first 50 of the next? Storytelling 101, people.

The first film in this series is really quite good, and the second is as competent as this, but slightly better. Another new director, the estimable Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) may provide a dose of badly-needed fresh blood to a series which, despite the best efforts of the cast, seems constantly in danger of going from clever and pleasantly morbid to totally moribund. It's not there yet, but this film leans slightly more that way than the last. It's okay, it's good, that's all.

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Review: Knight and Day (2010)

There's a scene near the beginning of James Mangold's Knight and Day when a scarecrow hits the windscreen of a jet, betraying the movie's true heritage as another eighties retread, like The A-Team and The Karate Kid (2010).

"The Scarecrow and Mrs. King," if you remember it, starred Bruce Boxleitner and Kate Jackson as secret agents, Boxleitner, codename Scarecrow, in the field, and Mrs. King drawn in through happenstance, and moonlighting with the Agency while raising two kids, the perfect cover. (You can even get "King" out of "Knight.") This film could be the origin story of that show, which, in itself, already referenced greats like The Thin Man films, or Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, and so does this movie, sometimes interestingly.

Knight and Day is about as likable as that show, indeed, it's hard to hate, but that doesn't mean it reaches the level of a successful film in its own right. There are a few factors which keep holding it down, though we keep sensing the faint pulse of a much better movie beating somewhere beneath.

Goldface, Il Fantastico Superman secret agent Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) meets cute with classic car restorer June Havens (Cameron Diaz) on her way home for her sister's wedding. But not too cute, he's undercover. That's blown, of course, when it turns out that he has to execute everyone on the flight but her, crash-land the plane in a cornfield, and flee, giving her ridiculous instructions for handling the aftermath of the incident and improbably leaving her asleep in her own bed with sticky notes everywhere.

It's easy to go along with the set-up. It's funny, if a bit stupid, and Cruise and Diaz do their best, managing to sell the emotions well enough for a while and engage in some witty banter. Did I mention how likable they are? The film also plays off of Tom Cruise's, shall we say, unique public image as a kind of nutty guy, by embracing nuttiness and ridiculousness for Miller.

One of the biggest problems is Diaz's character, however. It's not in how she plays it. There just don't seem to be a few scenes or notes for her character which would make her development work. Instead, she's one of these crazy movie people who not only get Stockholm Syndrome when kidnapped repeatedly, but get good at the secret agent stuff with no training or much plausible motivation. Then she really goes nuts, which is fine, but not as cute or grounded as it should be to really connect.

Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Marc Blucas and Celia Weston, a top-flight supporting cast, add some atmosphere, but are featured in a miniscule way. Ultimately it doesn't matter what they do.

The film has some moments which are truly elegant and which really do seem to work for the characters and the story. Some of the action is choreographed well, with subtlety and meaning, and is interesting. A couple of fade in and out montages stick out as particularly admirable, along with most of the action sequences in the first half. The second half falls apart, though, including a chase through the running of the bulls, which is bull. It looks like it was designed on a computer, and then they forgot how people would look at it, completely forgot to render the details. It's like a short, boring insert of unfinished effects from some other movie.

Knight and Day starts strong, but falls apart with lackluster effects, plot developments and a general surrender to dull and comfortable predictability. It's an inoffensive, inconsequential romp and probably wouldn't overly burden a good date or disappoint much if you're looking for a brainless action ride, but if you miss it you won't miss much. It could have been likable and fun, but tries so hard to be likable it's not very fun. Why's it called Knight and Day? Heck if I know. Okay, okay, I know, it's just not a very good title, not a very good movie.

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Review: Toy Story 3 (2010)

I'm not one to cry at the movies and then think that necessarily means it's a four-star movie. But I did get a lump in my throat near the end of Toy Story 3, and it is, improbably, the third four-star movie in a grand trilogy. I can't remember another all-four-star trilogy after wracking my brains for a couple of days, except, obviously, Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs, and now add Toy Story.

The first film was about jealousy and rivalry over Andy's affections, and how those affections are what bring the toys to life, as well as (especially for Buzz Lightyear) the conflict between one's programming and how it can play out in the "real" toy world.

The second delved referentially into the backstories of the famous Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and introduced anxiety over whether life with Andy, or finding some connection to their own pasts as famous characters, will best serve the toys, as Andy, and the toys' collectible and pop-culture values mature, and ends up by allowing both to add meaning to their lives. They are great and well loved movies, deservedly so.

It's 11 years since Toy Story 2, and the new installment, directed by Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich, lets that time pass like a boat drifting on a placid lake. The toys' owner, Andy (voice of the returning John Morris), is growing up and heading off to college, though he still harbors great emotional attachment to his boyhood and his boyhood toys. During packing, however, a sack he meant to stow safely in the attic gets kicked to the curb, and all the toys inside feel that way, too. So the third movie is all about breaking up, growing up and moving on.

A well-meaning rescue by Woody (voiced again by the great Tom Hanks) saves the rest of the toys from oblivion at the dump, but before they can stop bickering over the slight and make it safely back to Andy's room, they're rerouted yet again, to the donation bin of the Sunnyside Day Care Center, where we learn that rainbows, so pretty in the sky, can also be outright lies.

Sunnyside is run by a cabal of scheming toys, their leader, self-actualization teddy Lotso Huggins (voice of Ned Beatty, excellent, doing a markedly Burl Ivesian honeyed drawl of cold rationality which deceives and reassures by turns) and his chief thug, the creepy Big Baby. It's playroom fascism, where if you can fight or inveigle your way to the top, you've got it made with the big kids, who have learned to treat their toys with respect. If you're a newbie, you'll be fighting for your survival anyway in the brutal arena of the nursery.

As in the first two films, there are again (at least) double Buzz Lightyears (voiced by Tim Allen and Javier Fernandez Pena, both outstanding), anxieties about where one belongs, wonderfully persuasive action and rescue sequences to rival any less ambitious major summer action blockbuster, and a moving resolution with no false steps.

There's also a quite imaginative and entertaining, nearly wordless short to kick things off, Day & Night, by Teddy Newton, which admirably upholds the traditions of great Pixar shorts of the past. I won't go too far into it, but it showcases daytime and nighttime as windows on the world and new friends with a lot to learn from and about each other. Symbols and ideas from the short recur meaningfully in the main feature. Dr. Wayne Dyer makes a short radio announcement, but it could as easily have used a clip from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" or Harvey Milk's "Hope Speech."

Watch Toy Story 3. Bring the kids, leave 'em at home, or, ideally, both. I don't have to tell you, it's a monster hit already. See it in 3-D if you can, if you enjoy 3-D, it's tailored excellently for it. It would be great in regular 2-D, as well, if you prefer. If you're any kind of fan of Toy Story, animation, great movies, see it, see it. It's one of the best movies of the year so far, a shoo-in for a Best Animated Picture nomination (a category the original installments helped inspire), and the likely winner. Maybe it'll even end like Up, with a Best Picture nod, too. Did I mention it's close enough to perfect to call perfect? Because that's what I mean to say.

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Review: The Karate Kid (2010)

Jaden Smith's The Karate Kid (2010), not to be confused with John G. Avildsen's great 1984 film of the same name--though they have about the same script--is pretty good. Nothing much new, but pretty good.

Sure, the screenplay is almost a total retread, or a reworking of elements from the earlier first film and its first sequel (set in Okinawa), with a few scenes adapted from Kung Fu Panda thrown in for fun, but Jaden Smith as Dre Parker in the Ralph Macchio role and Jackie Chan as Mr. Han in the Pat Morita role from the original turn out to have enough dedication, humor and charisma to make it pretty sufferable.

And yet, for all its similarities to its classic namesake, this Karate Kid does have a few story differences which do give it a different shape and arc, and make it a different enough journey, to be worthwhile for a casual viewing.

What's familiar from the original is Dre Parker (Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson, good) pulling up stakes for brighter prospects in a new town, just like Daniel and his mother.

But for the Parkers, the town is not on the Southern California beach with lots of blondes having more fun, but is instead the teeming metropolis of Beijing, with language barriers, a heightened sense of alienation and more difficulty making the transition to the Chinese setting from Detroit than Daniel had with his move from Jersey to Cali in '84.

That Dre is so cut off from his old life and comfort zone, and immediately encounters seriously dangerous bullying from martial artists he seems to meet everywhere he goes, or turns, gives the film a different kind of urgency from that which Daniel-san confronted. The new bullies really are relentless, while the bullies in the original were scarier and made more sense.

Zhenwei Wang as Cheng, the kid bully who bullies Dre, has a lot of charisma as well, though his kung fu studio doesn't really. Yet Wang still manages to create a semi-believable character to oppose Dre's super-nice nice guy. The hero and the villain come across as kids who lack maturity and need to find some more, and that's a satisfying enough conflict here. Scenes with Dre and Han are less heartwarming and surprising than those between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, and the training sequences are less clever and even get boring, but they mostly serve. Henson and Smith have a pretty strong mother-son dynamic.

Not destined to be any kind of classic itself, it is better than The Karate Kid, Part III and the beyond-cheesy attempted reboot/last gasp of the original series The Next Karate Kid, with Hilary Swank and three visiting monks patterned after the Three Stooges. (Yes, I have seen them all, in movie theaters, but I'm only proud of that in the most cantankerous and rueful possible way.) (I'm whistling "Glory of Love" right now.) ("I am the man / who will fight / fo' your honah...")

As I said about its fellow Eighties Remake Weekend movie The A-Team, if you want to see it, go for it. Many already have. Also like that one, this movie could have lost 15 or 20 minutes easily and gained overall. But Jaden Smith is very talented, one to watch, and Chan almost always is (except when one of his movies really isn't). I'd watch it again for free, maybe, once, not soon. Yeah, it should have been titled The Kung Fu Kid, but that sounds like it would be on the Disney Channel, so they probably got that right.

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Review: The A-Team (2010)

Joe Carnahan's The A-Team manages to be a decent actioner with some nostalgic notes for fans of the original eighties t.v. series, while also being not all that much fun, almost completely brain-dead, implausible to the nth degree, and proud of it. Strong acting from the excellent cast and iconic characters who aren't hurt too much by a lazy script, poor dialogue editing, and action which is sometimes too exciting to follow save it, but only just.

We first meet the team of Army Rangers south of the border on the trail of drug dealers, as in this year's superior The Losers (the best A-Team movie of the year so far, awaiting results of the upcoming The Expendables). First up is the mysterious and wily leader Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson, cigar-chomping). He completes a great escape from captivity and heads out to find aid for fellow prisoner Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper of The Hangover, appealing) so they can accomplish their mission and flee the country.

Along the way, they encounter and recruit former Rangers B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, very good) and hospital inmate "Mad Man" Murdock (Sharlto Copley, so good in last year's Best Picture nominee District 9 and fine here). Baracus and Murdock get the least character development, and Baracus's is pretty stupid, verging on insulting to an average viewer's intelligence, which is a shame, as the actors are very good.

38 missions later, they find themselves still a team in the closing days of the Iraq War (so the film is mostly set in the future). A double-cross on a mission to find missing plates for counterfeiting American money leads to a confrontation with Face's former girlfriend Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel, all right), now with the Defense Department, and contractor Blackforest's Pike (Brian Bloom, a co-scripter with director Carnahan and Skip Woods, and okay in his role as head villain), who makes off with the plates.

The death of the base's commander, General Morrison (Gerald McRaney, "Major Dad"), takes with it any knowledge of the A-Team's secret orders and earns them courtsmartial and imprisonment in separate high-security facilities around the globe. This, of course, does not sit well with them, and when CIA operator Lynch (Patrick Wilson of Watchmen, pretty solid) offers them the opportunity to track down Pike and the plates, all systems are go for multiple jailbreaks and action fireworks galore.

This is where I admit loving "The A-Team" t.v. show when I was a kid in the eighties, and spending long hours playing at it, with action figures or in elaborately scripted backyard games involving forts, trampolines and plastic toy guns so realistic they are no longer legal to sell. I was usually Hannibal or Murdock. It was a lousy show, looking back, but fun, with some wit and lots of action, and the obligatory build-a-big-war-machine montage to its striking theme music. I wanted to drive every one of those behemoths, generally built with steel plates to be shot at by that week's villains in the final confrontation. There are a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-it original cast cameos in this film, but I confess I blinked and missed them.

The film is better than the show in the respect that it does try to make the team more believable, at least militarily, if not with many good character notes. Hannibal and Face get the most screen time and notice, while Baracus and Murdock are unfortunately given somewhat short shrift. The film has a punchline rhythm which is mostly effective, despite some dialogue which seems aimed at being humorous, but which is often unintelligible as it is briefly shouted and/or drowned out by its proximity to major explosions. There's a very stupid secret revealed near the end about the movie's villains which is dumb, dumb, dumb.

The film's ending takes place at the L.A. docks, as in The Losers (who knew L.A. was such a hotbed of covert operations?), and again suffers in comparison. The Losers has a lot more wit, charm, natural intelligence and watchability. The A-Team's denouement is loud, messy, poorly choreographed, shot and edited. It's way over the top, and not in a good way. Still, we, and the team, muddle through somehow.

If you really want to see the The A-Team, I'm sure you will, and you probably should. It's a couple of hours of mostly fun, nostalgia and some entertaining set-ups. I would probably watch a sequel, but would be less enthusiastic to watch this one again. Carnahan's previous Narc, with Ray Liotta and The Losers's Jason Patric, was a true gem, a twisty character study with integrity and beaucoup plot surprises. The A-Team is an undemanding popcorn ride without Zoe Saldana.

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Review: Splice (2009)

Oh, Splice, you had me at hello. Well, at least I was intrigued at hello. An over-the-top, campy, yet still minimally plausible DNA horror story, Splice is a Frankenstein tale with Oedipal overtones, truly outrageous consequences for that, and a few unique, perfect movie moments which will live in infamy for all time.

Vincenzo Natali's Splice stars Adrien Brody (The Darjeeling Limited) as Clive Nicoli and Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) as Elsa Kast, married genetic scientists who have their own cool custom lab at a pharmaceutical company, where nobody ever asks them why large glass-encased equipment has been repeatedly smashed all up.

They've created two living Mr. Potato Heads which mate in a visually entertaining way, intertwining their fluorescent tongues into a beautiful rose of light. Also, this new spliced species produces hormones which are in demand for livestock-raising purposes. This got Nicoli and Kast the cover of "Wired" magazine, which impresses them, anyway.

But the pharmaceutical folks are starting to look at the bottom line and wonder whether their "pure science" investment in the two eggheads is really going to pay off. The word comes down: Make us a product we can sell. Stop splicing and start slicing, figure us out exactly how this new species of yours makes these valuable hormone products so we can run with it.

Mad scientists as they are, however, this sounds boring and stupid to the brainiac couple. So instead, in what seems at first like an impetuous act, they decide to try to create a human hybrid in the lab, before the locks are changed. (I could swear the "random" female human sample they used was labeled "CA 92069," which, if true, is the end of my address.)

And so here we have Dren (Delphine Chenéac, very good), a humanoid growing at an alarming rate (as in Jack, though it's easier to sell Robin Williams as a genetic mutant). The name is a play on the name of the lab where she was invented, but more on the word "children." You know, like Robert Mitchum says it in The Night of the Hunter: "Chil-dren...." And "deoxyribonucleic." Over time, one gets the idea that she was created to be sort of an impregnable fairy--early on (Abigail Chu) she resembles the sprite from Ponyo--or Valkyrie, with obvious genetic-design heritage from squids, monkeys, cats, butterflies, pigs, kangaroo, goats, birds and more, including Fred and Ginger, the aforementioned flower-tongued superslugs, and one more possible parent I won't mention here.

There is a huge, and well-earned laugh in the film. I won't give anything away about it, but alone it is worth the price of a seat. I might even like to watch the film again with a bigger audience just for that moment, even though I never need to see this movie again. There is some unevenness of tone which keeps Splice from being what I would call a perfect film, but on the whole the plot developments make sense in context and have some fun with the general scientific ideas being explored.

Splice reminded me of Tarsem's The Cell, with a campy sci-fi framing story wrapped around some truly startling and interesting visual effects for the main story. Splice is not quite so visually inventive, though Dren is a major achievement of character design, in my humble opinion. (I have not seen Natali's previous The Cube, or it might have reminded me of that.) Also, it brought to mind John Frankenheimer's funny The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Nosferatu. It does get a little repetitive that the scientists are always like, "Yeah, we should definitely terminate this experiment now--but it's bathtime!" But Brody and Polley dive in gamely, and anchor the film through some truly crazy moments.

If you like horror, camp, campy horror, incredible silliness mixed with scientific sorta-plausibility, ripped from tomorrow's headlines, watch Splice and have a great time. If you have a weak stomach, it's not for you. And it's not for kids. But it is hilarious, very creepy and a little bit glorious.

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Thune leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for May

Sen. John Thune (SD) led May voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

May 2010

#1 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 26.5%
#2 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 15.3%
#3 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 13%
#4 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 12.6%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 11.6%
#6 - Other ... 6%
#7 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 5.1%
#7 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 5.1%
#8 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 1.9%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1.4%
#10 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... .9%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... .5%
#12 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 0%
#12 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 0%

215 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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Review: Babies [Bébé(s)] (2010)

Sometimes, a film's simple poster tagline is almost more than can be said about it. Such is the case for Babies:

"Everybody loves...BABIES. BabiesTheMovie.com."

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