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Bill Condon had one advantage working in his favor from the start as director of both halves of "Breaking Dawn," the final film in "The Twilight Saga," and that is that the nature of a conclusion allows you to do things dramatically that no other story in the series can do.
Catherine Hardwick deserves high praise for the same reason Chris Columbus did on the "Harry Potter" series, because even if their respective films in their respective franchises aren't the best films in those series, they still had to get the whole thing up in the air to start with. They had to find the cast. They had to set the stage. They had to establish a tone and a visual language that every other director in the series then had to react to, and if you're the fourth guy on the series, you're going to benefit from any mistakes other people have made on the earlier films. You'll be able to build from what they've done, and while they're busy feeding the audience exposition or grappling with the inertia of a movie like "Eclipse," where nothing of consequence happens to anyone at any point, if you're making the conclusion, you get to deliver payoffs, and that's always going to be more fun.
It also helps that Condon is a very smart filmmaker who obviously appreciates the inherent camp that is part of the story Stephenie Meyer wrote. And at this point, the story is very very strange, so the only logical response in how you play it is to embrace that weirdness as if it's matter of fact. The baby that Bella and Edward have produced is a major plot point this time around, and pretty much every line of dialogue about that character in the entire film is totally and completely bizarre. The Jacob thing. Her magic powers. The thing the bad guys mistake her for. All of it pushes the story into some crazy new level of unintended comedy. If you've seen Condon's "Gods and Monsters," then you know how well he understood the position James Whale was in and how "Bride Of Frankenstein" became such a great weird reaction to the success of the earlier film. Condon did several things when he signed on for both halves of "Breaking Dawn." First, he brought his regular collaborators with him, and that is a pretty significant upgrade behind the scenes. He brought Carter Burwell (who scored the first movie) back to the series to close it out, and Burwell's work is, as one would expect, very strong and often subtle. He can throw bombast at a moment when it demands it, but he's not just slapping up wallpaper. Speaking of, Richard Sherman was the production designer on both "Kinsey" and "Gods and Monsters" for Condon, and his work on "Breaking Dawn" largely consists of creating these spaces for the stuff to play out. Obviously, much of the world of "Twilight" has already been introduced by this point, but Sherman dos contribute a great tactile sense to the world around them, and it's all richly detailed. Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer who has done dazzling work on films like "Watchmen," "300," and "Tron: Legacy," had to give Bella an iconic wedding dress for "Breaking Dawn - Part 1," and in this film, his most in-your-face contribution might be the marching band attire that the Volturi wear to war. All of this is stuff that just makes the world feel more lived in and more immersive in the Condon "Twilight" films, part of the way that he sets his own tone that has been more aggressive and pop horror.
That's the other important thing about how Condon approached these as a director. He is a real-deal genre uber-nerd, a guy who adores horror, and while I still wouldn't say I find anything about "Twilight" scary, aside from their pop culture prominence, Condon has done more to underline the genre nature of these stories than the first three filmmakers did. I didn't care for "Breaking Dawn - Part 1," but I was able to appreciate just how wholeheartedly insane it was. My problem lies almost entirely at this point in the text itself. I do not like or respect the source material, and I don't think Melissa Rosenberg's scripts have been any sort of significant improvement, sometimes terrible in all new ways. But that's the story being told, and while I have had deep issues with the subtext of the earlier films, this last one kind of stands alone in terms of what it's doing and, importantly, how it treats the main character.
Bella Swan is a terrible, terrible human being, but she seems to be a pretty okay vampire. Every terrible choice, every single minute of icky sexual dynamics, all builds to her turning into a cougar-killing mutant-power-having sex machine with the kung-fu skills of Neo and permanently tousled just-got-laid hair, and in this movie, Kristen Stewart looks like she's having a ball. Or at least, she's as overtly happy as she can be. Basically, she's the dramatic version of Aubrey Plaza's persona, and typing that made me realize that I would love to see Aubrey Plaza do a movie where she could wrestle wild animals and have a kung-fu war with vampires whose heads seem to pop off with ease, all while making charming sardonic comments about it. Get on that, Hollywood. In the meantime, Condon more than earns the snow drifts of cash he'll be getting for these films with the final showdown between the Cullens and the Volturi. By the time you've got two camps of vampires facing off with some big rowdy werewolves in the mix as well, it really doesn't matter how or why they got there. The entire film is about that showdown, and everything beforehand is all about gathering people on both sides. All the fuss has to do with Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy), the fast growing magical child of Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella, and much is made of the effect she has on each of the new vampires that take up with the Cullens to stand against the murderous Italian vampires who want to destroy the child. There are a lot of characters in this film, and each of them has been designed to be so distinctly visually different that it's very easy to keep track of who's who. They give you just enough screen time with them so that it means something when heads start getting snapped off during the finale.
It is a carefully walked line that separates this version of the film from what could easily have been an R-rated version of the film. There are indeed a number of onscreen deaths, most of them involving what seems to be a huge design flaw in vampires that makes it very easy to tear their heads clean off their bodies, but even the most violent of these (there's a close-up of a head being torn in half that is, pardon the joke, jaw-dropping) is done without being wet. That's the fine line for the MPAA, and so because you don't get splashing spraying dripping blood, you get a PG-13. Just be warned… it goes further than you think it will.
By now, the main cast in these films has it down cold, and Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson both walk through the film with the confidence of late-in-the-series Fonzie on "Happy Days," Because things are so busy, we see a lot of concerned faces from actors like Peter Facinelli and Elizabeth Reaser or Kellan Lutz and Nikki Reed, and I'm pretty sure Jackson Rathbone says less than ten words in the whole film, while Ashley Greene gets to play a few scenes where her ability to see the future is of vital importance. Much is made of the way certain vampires have certain powers in this film, and there's a stretch of it that basically feels like Condon made an "X-Men" movie. It's like he hijacked this franchise and decided to just do this other thing entirely with the characters and the actors. It's so different than anything else in the series so far. He lets the Volturi bad guys gobble scenery, and Michael Sheen makes his work in "TRON: Legacy" look like mime with the way he carries on as Aro, the pope of this weird-ass Vampire clan. Dakota Fanning and Maggie Grace don't have much to do as henchmen and underlings, but they try in the few moments they have. Cameron Bright seems to fully embrace the playing of a toady. Basically, the best performance moments here are just actors trying to stand out during the few fleeting moments the film is willing to spare to anyone in this giant ensemble.
In the film's final moments, it does something I've never really seen a franchise like this do before, and yes, someone has to invent another new mutant power to make it work, but it's an excuse to basically pay tribute to the whole series, to give the fans one last lap around the track, and while I think in many ways, Bill Condon has subverted the "Twilight" series to his own wry sense of humor, he also more than honors the fanbase that really is invested in the story and the characters. While I actively dislike what the series says and how it says it, I can admire the way Condon pulls off this unusual beat, and his impression of the series, the way he conveys it there, manages to just dismiss all the ugly messy stuff around the edges and just focus on the shampoo commercial sunshiney love story that has always been the main hook that fans were caught on. He makes a better case for the iconography of the series than anyone else has so far, and if you're a fan, you're going to feel incredibly well-served by what you see.
If you're not, why would you go see anything called "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2"? This is their last hurrah, a group hug for the hardcore fans, and they couldn't have ended up in better hands.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.