Saturday, March 20, 2010

Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal! It's NEW MOON!

There’s a moment late in New Moon, the second movie in the wildly popular Twilight series, when Bella Swan, our protagonist-of-sorts, is confronted by an evil vampire who attempts to read her mind to see if she has a special power that makes her invulnerable to vampire E.S.P. He gives it a go and then pulls away from her, clearly disappointed. “I sense nothing,” he says. I thought: that’s about right. I wouldn’t be so quick to decide you can’t read her mind if I were you, Mr. Vampire.

Bella’s a weak character precisely because she appears to be a very unthinking person. This goes beyond just simple teenage feelings of invulnerability or hubris. She simply hasn’t a thought in her head. She’s a weak person who falls easily under the spell of strong, dangerous males and is quick to mistake simple lust for everlasting love. This, or rather the glorification of this, can be seen as incredibly irresponsible, especially in light of the masses of tween and teen girls that adore the series, since girls like Bella in the real world can, and sometimes do, fall into abusive relationships. A real abusive boyfriend is much more terrifying than any supernatural force.

It’s this squirmy undercurrent to the plot that is most responsible for sinking Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 adaptation of Twilight. Though, to be fair, Stephenie Meyer’s horrible writing doesn’t inspire great filmmaking all on its own. Even so, that’s no excuse for Hardwicke’s strange choices in hokey special effects and inflated reverence, not to mention her apparent inability to direct actors or sustain a tone. I would be surprised if she had cut anything from the film for being too cheesy. The movie’s a bit of a drag as it spends vast portions of the movie introducing us to Bella, a wholly uninteresting protagonist, and Edward, a vampire whose primary characteristic is his ability to look handsome. There’s not a lot going on here and, although Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have some degree of talent, there’s not a lot to the characters to get an uninitiated audience excited. The movie asks you to buy a deep love between the two that just doesn’t seem to be there. She pushes her hair back. He says he needs to control himself so he doesn’t bite her. She wants to be a vampire so she can be with him forever. He says no. Repeat. There’s just not enough meaningful conflict happening here.

To my surprise, director Chris Weitz, taking the reins of the franchise for New Moon, seems to recognize the fundamental lack of energy in the plot handed down by Meyer. He’s still fairly reverential to the source material, bringing along all its problems. Despite expanding the plot to include a pack of werewolves to counterbalance the vampires, with whom they have a nasty, centuries-old feud, the events and ideas presented simply don’t live up to their potential. Instead, we find that Jacob, a nice Native American kid with a small role in the first film, is falling in love with Bella. Taylor Lautner plays Jacob, and he’s more than capable of filling a third corner in a developing love triangle. He’s so good, actually, you wonder why Bella would want to stay with the icy, controlling, emotionally abusive vampire when she could have a warm, caring, doting werewolf? After all, Edward jets off in the first reel and doesn’t show up again until the climax. (Does this make me a member of Team Jacob? I’m not clear on the specifics of these things).

Weitz manages to bring this conflict to a bit of a sizzle through sheer filmmaking alone. He almost overcomes the weak material by bringing in Javier Aguirresarobe, of such films as Talk to Her and The Others, as cinematographer, and the great Alexandre Desplat as composer. These two gentlemen are at the height of their powers here. By not condescending to the material and instead doing some of their best work, they help the movie not feel so cheap. The movie looks and sounds rich and sumptuous; the colors are deep and warm, the string section soars. This isn’t the dishwater palate of the first film. Here is a movie that looks romantic and lush, even if the plot isn’t always as convincing in that aspect. And even though we get plenty of slow-motion moments featuring a character moving closer to the camera, all the better for the 12-year-old girls to swoon, it’s not a technique that’s gets overused. I was reminded of the short pauses for laughter that can be spotted in Marx Brothers’ movies.

The plot’s still mostly a drag with effectively nothing happening for most of the second act, but at least we have fun supporting actors like Anna Kendrick and Billy Burke to liven things up. Weitz and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have tried their hardest to keep things moving with a chase here, a stalking there, a near-death experience here, a funny interlude there. Mostly, though, it’s just our characters sitting around talking about immortal rules and mortal emotions. It’s amazing so much time can be spent on characterization and yet we still end up with pretty flat characters. And yet, Chris Weitz’s New Moon does something that Meyer couldn’t do, no matter how many pounds of terrible prose she expends. This movie occasionally generates a sense of rushing teenage emotion, strong and nonsensical, the headlong crash of a crush and the first sparks of attraction. Maybe later on in the franchise (I stopped reading after the second book) we’ll have to accept that True Love has developed. For now, this is almost good enough.

The movie really picks up speed with an ending that is actually kind of fun. We go to meet some of the Volturi, a clan of vampires that, in these movies’ mythology, rule all the vampires in the world. Played by grade-A actors like Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning, they, for lack of a better term, vamp it up wonderfully. They’re at once funny and menacing, no small feat. I enjoyed their contributions so much, with their dry line readings, billowing black cloaks, and piercing red eyes, that they very nearly pushed the movie into solid recommendation territory. But they aren’t in the movie for long enough. Their screen time is probably only 15 to 20 minutes (if that) of this over-two-hours production.

There are plenty of people who care very deeply about these Twilight books and movies. On the one hand, I’m glad they’re excited about something. On the other hand, I’m disappointed so many seem to be missing the uncomfortable, fairly silly, and potentially dangerous, undercurrents of the story. And yet, I have to admit I was kind of captured by this movie at times, enjoying supporting performances and adoring the style and score. I would never say that it’s a good movie, but I would say it’s a watchable, even at times enjoyable, movie. Unless you have already completely lost yourself in fandom for the series, the less seriously you take it (you hear that, vampire geeks and werewolf nerds?*) the more fun you will have.

*I say this lovingly.

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