Sunday, November 20, 2011

Vampire and Wife: BREAKING DAWN - PART 1

There’s a good chance that you already know whether or not you’ll enjoy the new Twilight movie, the latest in this series of movies about Bella (Kristen Stewart), the human who falls in love with Edward (Robert Pattinson) the vampire, but kind of likes Jacob (Taylor Lautner) the werewolf too. Mostly unfamiliar with the books by Stephanie Meyer, I found the first film pleasantly mediocre, the second, New Moon, a bit better, and the third, Eclipse, considerably worse. My disinterest towards the story is at an all time high. This central trio started off with some small amount of genuine sizzle – never better than in the second movie – but has settled into somnambulant performances. The plot had run out of steam somewhere between the second and third films. Still, it’s the big movie of the weekend and I figured I might as well review it, so I dutifully shuffled off to see number four, Breaking Dawn Part 1.

This time around, it all starts with a wedding that somehow expects us to believe that an 18-year-old high school student should be allowed to marry a 100-year-old vampire. Fine. I’ve fallen for some pretty odd plots in my day, too. But this opening ceremony is drawn out beyond all reason. I didn’t time it, but I think I sat there for a couple of days waiting for the movie to move on to something else.  At least the wedding allows (Academy Award nominee) Anna Kendrick and Billy Burke to walk in and bring some genuine human warmth and life to the proceedings. (I think they retain their likability because they’re playing the closest thing to real people in neglected supporting roles). While lots of characters we’ve never met smile and wave, Bella and Edward drive off to start their honeymoon.

Once there, off the coast of Brazil in a mansion on a remote island owned by Edward’s adopted vampire father figure, naturally, the happy couple finally does something that they haven’t done in any of the previous films. Yes, that’s right, they sit down and play chess. What did you think they’d do? They also swim and smile and, oh yeah, they also consummate their love. This is the inciting incident for the second and pretty much final plot point of the film. You see, Bella gets pregnant even though her new husband told her it would be totally fine and, besides, he knew he couldn’t even get someone pregnant. That’s the one big lesson this stretch of the story has to teach the discomfortingly young audience I was sitting amongst. Always use protection, especially since vampirism is apparently not a good form of contraception.

More so than any of the other Twilight films, Breaking Dawn Part 1 provoked my disgust at its central premise, one of terrible gender politics and a twisted approach to sexuality. Poor Bella has absolutely no life beyond loving Edward, except when she thinks she might like someone else. This film postulates that her ultimate function is as wife and mother, even if it kills her. There’s simply no other option for a female character this weak and flat, and that’s simply unacceptable. But, by this point, I just need to acknowledge it and move on. This is also a movie series that includes a tribe of youths who turn into giant dogs that stand around and think at each other. There’s only so much you can read into it all before you start to feel a little silly.

The director this time around is Bill Condon, who got his start in horror, moved on to glossy prestige pictures like Dreamgirls and has kind of merged the two here, though it’s really a worst-of-both-worlds situation. It’s slick and sick, but without the impact each aspect could offer. He does bring the film some good stylistic touches amidst complete and utter straight-faced serious ridiculousness. This is a two-hour film in which nothing of interest happens for long stretches of time, a film with its only fleeting moments of significance arising from when Condon tries his hardest to push against the constraints of the material and expectations to punch up the style. This is a far more colorful Twilight film than we’ve received before. It’s brighter and at times sunnier (though I never did see a vampire sparkle). At the very least, it looks like he woke up the cast.

Condon serves up some stylish dream sequences and a nightmarish birthing that stays barely this side of the PG-13. For all the supernatural monsters stomping around the series, this is the first to get this close to the horror genre. After the opening, Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation takes a long, dull slide into body horror as the demonic vampire fetus tries to suck the life out of Bella. She sips some blood, at the urging of her vampire doctor, to keep the little monster happy and Condon lovingly regards the dark red liquid as it gets slurped up a straw. “It tastes…good,” she says. Creepy. This all leads to the film’s best, most effective moments: sudden, intense, spine cracking labor pains followed by a bloody, jagged, Caesarean performed by teeth. Most of the gore is kept off-screen but the ragged editing, blurry focus, and squishy sound effects leave little to the imagination.

There are a few good moments, but they’re built on such shaky foundation. Condon’s not a bad filmmaker, but he’s also not prepared to completely subvert the material of a series that has so many fans. It would be unreasonable to expect him to be. The plot slides into crazy territory by the end. We’re talking who-in-their-right-mind-thought-this-up? crazy. At worst, it’s not even laughably bad. It’s just plain bad. It’s not sick in a horror way, but more in a total nonsense way. Of course, this is only Part 1. I can’t for the life of me guess where this is all going in next year’s fifth and final movie of the series. It’ll either be pure, unfiltered freaky craziness or utter boredom. Actually, judging by the previous films, it’ll be the dull mid-point between the two.

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