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In trying to balance the hopes of the passionately devoted fans of the Twilight series (are there any other kind?), who want to see every single word of the books up on the screen and the realities of cinematic storytelling that limit a feature length movie script to about 110 pages, Summit Entertainment has opted for a third priority, the maximization of ticket sales.  The decision to split the fourth and last book of the series into two movies may satisfy the most avid of the Twihards but the result is a movie that is sluggish and dragged out.  And when “Twilight” gets dragged out, that exposes the weakest parts of what even many fans acknowledge is the most problematic of the four books, with too much time to focus on some of the story’s most outlandish absurdities.

In the last episode, 18-year-old human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) became engaged to 100-plus-year-old vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and this one begins with the delivery of the wedding invitation.  Bella’s mother is excited.  Her father is resigned.  And Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the wolf-boy who shares a mystical connection with Bella, is so angry that he has to take his bad wolf self up to run around Northern Canada for a while.  Meanwhile, Bella has the usual wedding jitters — will she be able to walk in those high, high heels Alice is making her wear?  Will the friends and family on both sides manage to get through the wedding without killing each other — literally?  And will she survive a wedding night with a vampire?  She does not have to worry about whether Jacob will take his shirt off because that happens in the first ten seconds of the film.

Even some Twilight fans admit that author Stephenie Meyer wrote herself into something of a corner by the time she started the last book.  She has said that the idea for the human/vampire love story came from her commitment to writing about a loving relationship where physical intimacy was impossible.  But in the last volume (so far), she decided to go there anyway.  There are some things one can suspend disbelief for more easily in a book than more explicitly portrayed in film and a flashback to a 1930’s Edward watching Elsa Lanchester’s “Bride of Frankenstein” as he waits to pounce on human prey (meticulously chosen, Dexter-style — killers only) elicited laughter from the audience, as did the literally bed-smashing wedding night.  A bigger problem is that four movies in, Bella and Edward still do not have much to talk about beyond how much they love one another and the logistics of their very mixed marriage.  Edward actually researches vampire babies on the internet (a take-me-right-out-of-the-movie product placement from Yahoo search which should inspire nothing more from the audience than a Google search to see whether Yahoo still exists).  And, frustratingly, Meyer begins to bend the rules of her own world, where blood means one thing in one scene and then everyone seems to forget about it in another.  There is a very weird detour into a pro-life/pro-choice debate — is the creature Bella is carrying a child or a fetus?  If, as it appears, continuing the pregnancy means certain death for her, should she have an abortion?

I’m enough of a fan to have enjoyed the wedding scene and even the honeymoon, even with the cleaning crew at the perfect getaway with an ocean view glaring at Edward because in their simple native way they can tell he is a demon.  And I liked seeing Edward respect Bella’s relationship with Jacob.  I laughed, but I was touched, too, when Bella, terribly sick with the pregnancy, is cold, and all three of them realize that only Jacob, the human furnace, can warm her up, and even when he and Edward do a sort of Vulcan mind meld to figure out what Bella and the baby need.  But the best scene in the movie is the one that comes midway through the credits, featuring the much-missed Michael Sheen, letting us know that the final chapter will be less sap and more action.

 

 

Just because he lives in Hawaii, don’t think he’s in paradise, Matt King (George Clooney) warns us.  No one is immune to life.  The first Alexander Payne film since “Sideways” gives us another damaged hero at a crossroads and as the King whose crown lies very uneasily on his head Clooney gives his most vulnerable and sensitive performance.

Matt’s wife Elizabeth, glimpsed briefly but vibrantly as she is out boating, is in a coma following an accident on the water.  “If you’re doing this to get my attention,” he says to himself as much as to her, “it’s working.”  All of a sudden he has to pay attention to a lot of things.  He’s the one who gets called in to school when his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) brings in photographs of her mother in a coma for show and tell and the one who has to drive her to apologize after she insults a classmate via text.  “I’m the back-up parent,” he tells us, “the understudy.”  He was.  Now he’s first-string and the game is on the line.

Matt and his family live on his income as a lawyer but everyone knows that he has inherited land of almost unimaginable value and that he is about to decide whether he will sell it for a lot of money or for you-can’t-count-that-high money.  The land is owned equally by Matt and his many cousins, all descendants (hence the title) of Hawaiian royalty and the son of missionaries.  For legal reasons they cannot continue to hold it indefinitely.  For financial reasons, the poorer relatives are pressing to make a deal.  But Matt is the sole trustee.  He has the authority to decide, and is trying to do what is best for everyone.

He impulsively takes Scottie to pick up his older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who has been away at boarding school because of problems with drugs and overall bad behavior.  When they arrive, she is out after curfew, drunk, and hostile.  At home, she tells him why she was so angry at her mother — Elizabeth was having an affair.  And the doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth is deteriorating and there is no hope.

Matt begins to understand how little he knew and how little he has control over.  He is clear, methodical, and deliberate on removing Elizabeth from life support, informing her brusque father (an excellent Robert Forster), her mother with dementia (Barbara L. Southern), and their friends and family about what is going on and urging them to visit her to say goodbye.  He brings depositions to Elizabeth’s bedside so he can keep working.  But in other areas he goes on instinct and impulse, taking Scottie, Alex, and Alex’s dim-witted, awkward boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) to track down Elizabeth’s lover, all of them more sure that they need to do it than they are sure what they will do when they find him.

Alexander Payne (“Election” and “Sideways”) has a gift for life’s messiness, the mash-ups of pain, humor, anger, terror, and longing that collide in the midst of big moments and domestic dailiness.  A man wants to get somewhere urgently so finds himself running in shoes that slip and with lungs that no longer let him forget he is getting older.  A thoughtless teenager says the wrong thing to a tough old man and gets popped in the eye.  There is an awkward encounter with the man who drove the boat in the accident (played by an actor who looks like he has lived his whole life on the beach because it is surfing champion Laird Hamilton).

But moments of grace that come from the wrong people and at the wrong time can still brighten spirits.  Payne is also an actor’s director who has consistently given underrated performers a chance to show greater depth and breadth.  This film is filled with beautiful performances from Clooney, Woodley, Forster, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, and, as a character who does not even appear until about 3/4 of the way into the movie, the always-wonderful Judy Greer.  Too often relegated to best-friend roles for whatever Jennifer and Jessica are in the latest forgettable romantic comedy, Greer is an actress of impeccable honesty and timing.  At first her character seems like a nice person who has never needed or wanted to be anything else.  But then Greer brings to the small but essential role a dignity and resolve that are unexpectedly touching.

There is a lot of crying in this movie, and not movie crying with one perfect sparkling tear welling up in the corner of one perfect eye.  There is some messy, ugly crying.  And there is messy, ugly behavior.  This is a terrible, painful situation and people are fraught and scared and angry.  Matt tells Elizabeth that even in a coma she can still be difficult.  But he finds his way to some clarity about some of the problems that were making him feel powerless.  And we recognize that acknowledging the messiness may be the closest to clarity anyone can get.

This is the busiest time of year for movies with a bunch of holiday releases for families, big-budget and high profile films to check out while shopping or celebrating, and end-of-year prestige films opening in time to be considered for awards.  Here are ten to watch for:

Big Books

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”  The posthumously published trilogy thriller about a crusading journalist and a brilliant but damaged young woman is already an international publishing phenomenon and a faithful and very successful Swedish movie trilogy.  Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara star in the American remake from David Fincher, director of “The Social Network” and “Zodiac.”

“Breaking Dawn: Part 1”  The last of the four books about the romantic triangle between a high school girl, a wolf-man, and a vampire is too big for just one movie.  After three movies about longing, Part 1 has the wedding, the wedding night, and the complications of a vampire pregnancy.

Big Stars

“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”  Tom Cruise is back and the stunts look wilder than ever in this fourth in the movie series based on the 1960’s television show.

“The Iron Lady”  Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, or, based on the trailer, it is more accurate to say that Streep transforms into the first woman Prime Minister of the UK, a still-controversial figure who served from 1979-1990.

Sequels and Remakes

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”  Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson and Guy Ritchie returns as director as Holmes takes on his most diabolical foe, Professor Moriarty.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”  An all-star cast including Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and last year’s Oscar-winner Colin Firth appears in this remake of the brilliant BBC miniseries inspired by the “Cambridge Five” case with Soviet agents infiltrating British intelligence.

For the Whole Family

“The Muppet Movie” Jason Segal really, really loves the Muppets and his dream came true when he was given the chance to write and star in the first Muppet feature film in 12 years.  A whole generation who grew up on “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” can’t wait to bring their children to this one and it looks like it will be everything they hope for.

Arthur Christmas” Any time the folks behind “Wallace and Gromit” make a film, I am excited about it.  And this story about Santa’s son saving Christmas looks like a delight.

Likely Oscar Nominees

“The Descendants”  George Clooney plays a father who discovers that his wife has been having an affair in this movie from the director of “Sideways” and “Election.”

“Albert Nobbs” Glenn Close plays a woman in 19th century Ireland who finds that the only way to support herself is to dress as a man and ends up living as a man for three decades.

 

The guilty pleasure of the fall television season is “Revenge,” a deliciously twisted story of a beautiful young woman (Emily VanCamp as “Emily Thorne”) who returns to the super-rich, super-luxurious, super-dysfunctional world of the Hamptons to wreck the title fate on those responsible for framing and destroying her father.  The first few episodes were fun as we got to see Emily X out of a photograph some of the supporting players.  She exposed a rising politician by having his pregnant mistress show up at a fund-raiser.  She busted a psychologist by publicly airing the videotapes of her private sessions.  And she has been making progress in gaining the confidence and affections of Daniel (Joshua Bowman), the son of wealthiest and most powerful couple in the Hamptons, Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny) and his wife, “Queen” Victoria Grayson (the fabulous Madeline Stowe).  Soapy and melodramatic, yes.  But now things are really getting interesting.  Emily’s old friend, the one who swapped identities with her, has shown up after killing the Grayson’s man of affairs who was getting too close to the truth about Emily’s real past.  We’re promised some big surprises in tonight’s episode.  Can’t wait!

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