Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Moon (2009)

After the success of Twilight, Summit Entertainment certainly realized they had a goldmine on their hands, so you'd think the second installment would be an improvement on the modest first. Unfortunately, that was not the case from either a story, acting or production standpoint.

To begin with, the new director Chris Weitz was not an improvement over Catherine Hardwicke. It seemed like he had less of a budget to work with, when just the opposite was true. In this second installment, there are no scenic visuals, no arresting camera angles. No artful staging. There's more action, but it feels phony and falls flat. It includes the wolves that were in the book and some Volturi fights that were not. Since the filmmakers feel the need to rev up the volume, not by heightening the romance upon which this saga is built, but by creating physical conflicts that weren't in the original source material, I shudder to think of what they will do for the series finale.

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson are back in this sequel, although Pattinson is absent for 75% of the movie and Taylor Lautner steps in as Jacob, the other non-human in Bella's life. Having Pattinson gone saved the audience from much of his relentless squinting. His broad forehead is constantly wrinkled in, what I can only assume is supposed to be agony. He has a visage that resembles Frankenstein more than Dracula and he mumbles so much that if I hadn't read the books, I'd have little idea of anything Edward said. The laconic Kristen Stewart's measured monotone mirrors his and they're a murmur match made in heaven.

Stewart is not untalented. She has a deft quality that brings small moments to life, as when Bella, eager to avoid a romantic movie, convinces her friends to go see Face Punch instead. Stewart plays subtle humor well, but when the script calls for deep emotion -- such as a fear of bloodthirsty vampires or the undying love that is the cornerstone of Bella and Edward's relationship -- she's missing in action.

As for Lautner, it's hard to tell whether he's a bad actor or just struggling with bad dialogue. For better or worse, he emotes more than the other two. In the nineties, the X-Files was mocked because critics claimed Mulder and Scully droned constantly, never using inflection in their tones. The Simpsons even spoofed their robotic demeanors in an episode called The Springfield Files and, always one for self-mockery, the X-Files lampooned its own deadpan characters in an entry titled Jose Chung's from Outer Space. The fact is, Mulder and Scully's calm masked repressed love and pain made all the more powerful because it was so controlled. With Bella and Edward, it's not control lurking behind their blank exteriors, but apathy. Everything they are is visible on the surface and that surface is empty.

Comparing the movie to the book, Bella implores Jacob not to make her choose between him and Edward, because if he does she'll choose Edward. She lets Jacob know that it's always going to be Edward. I for one wish that Book Bella had been that direct. In the book she repeatedly described her preference for Edward in much more complicated terms, then ended up contradicting it by describing her attraction for Jacob in almost identical words a few pages later. In the movie, one senses more certainty in her words, for now at least. Who knows what she'll say in the third movie. Certainly, the movie allows Jacob and Bella to connect in a kiss that was deflected by Bella's continued hallucinations of Edward. Meyer's Jacob and Bella did not actually kiss until the end of Eclipse. The movie is taking this side of the triangle further, faster, in a way that can only disappoint Team Edward! As Taylor Lautner has quite a fan base, the movies will, no doubt, make all of Jacob's interactions with Bella racier than the actual Twilight pages would justify.

Furthermore, while the written series ended on a non-violent note, it's doubtful the movie makers will be content for that to happen. They've already revved up the Volterra "action" scenes, in New Moon, creating an extended fight Edward never had with the Volturi guards. There's sure to be more of that manufactured excitement in the films to come, sacrificing the exploration of character relationships for special effects.

Continuing to compare story to script, there's also a small twist earlier in the film when Jacob answers the phone in Bella's home. In the movie, Jacob knows he's talking to Edward, when he sneers and hangs up abruptly. In the book, Jacob thought he was speaking to Edward's father. Given the fact that Jacob knew that Bella would want to speak to Edward above all else, let alone the consequences of that abbreviated phone call (which made Edward mistakenly assume that Bella was dead), Jacob's action in hanging up alone should have been enough to cause Bella to end their friendship for good, without remorse. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen.

The Twilight saga made for an easy read, fulfilling sophmoric fantasies. I invariably expected less from the movie, but not this much less.

My review of the New Moon book can be found

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Twilight (2008)

I spent the week between Christmas and New Year's Day reading the four Twilight books. They were entertaining if not impressive and I enjoyed the romance of the story as much as any Harlequin I might have read as a teenager some thirty odd years ago.

The books behind me, I wanted to see the movies, while the plots (such as they were) were still fresh in my head. While most of the reviews I'd read placed the lion's share of the movie's acting deficits at Kristen Stewart's feet, I found her to be quite competent as Bella. Her voice was huskier and manner more masculine than I'd expected from the heroine, but she was believable as a reserved, introspective teen. Her tomboyish quality was reminiscent of Jodie Foster, maybe that rubbed off during Panic Room. Unfortunately, Stewart doesn't have Foster's acting range yet, but there's a smidgeon of depth. While she didn't exhibit any of Bella's capacity for passion or panic from the novel, she expressed the casual aspects of the character quite well, with a realistic deadpan shrug.

It was Robert Pattinson which brought the flick to a screeching halt, so that, overall, it is fit for nothing more than Saturday Night Live bait. Edward is supposed to be over 107 years old. He's meant to possess an old world charm that not only captures Bella's heart but enthralls every woman he encounters, young or old. Pattinson is completely devoid of such powers.

Since Bella harps on Edward's eloquent, musical voice so much in the books, I would have thought the producer's first act was to find an actor with a distinct and distinguished speaking manner. Instead, the casting agent seemed to be going for Bam Bam Rubble. I really don't understand this because Pattinson is British. I've seen him on talk shows and he sounds debonair enough given his youth. Since David Niven and beyond, the British accent has been a surefire aphrodisiac for us Yanks. Allowing Pattinson to speak in his native tongue would have given Edward a unique, refined quality that would make it easier for us to associate him with 19th Century America. But the filmmakers were having none of it! Their Edward speaks like a New Jersey thug. And far from being eloquent, he speaks in halting, strained English that makes you suspect he's illiterate. When he tells Bella that he's repeated high school many times, I'm guessing it's not because he's lived for decades, but because he's just that dumb. Carlisle probably converted him into one of the undead because he felt it was the only way Edward could ever live long enough to obtain the academic assistance he appears to need quite badly.

In Edward's tight t-shirt, I think the director was aiming for Marlon Brando, but only hit Stanley Kowalski. Edward should say culture, class, not "I'm da son Archie Bunker never had."

Worse than his demeanor, Pattinson doesn't act, so much as emote with one big furrowed brow -- which itself would be fine, if it wasn't a fake brow. In the book, Edward's skin is stone cold, like marble and he can't express emotion, except with his eyes. So, if his features had remained implacid throughout the movie, like he'd overdosed on Botox, I could have accepted that. No, instead he wears a scrunched up look for 2 hours, which is more obnoxious than pained or brooding.

Pattinson's Edward also seems more fascinated with himself than Bella could ever be. In the book, Edward becomes so protective of Bella that is more paternalistic than romantic. It more than borders on patronizing. But you'd almost welcome that in the movie. One feels that Pattinson's Edward only hangs around Bella because he can better see himself in the reflection of her awestruck eyes. The book's Edward sees Bella as fragile and delicate and uses his strength and speed to shield and cradle her. The movie Edward only uses his superhuman skills to show off around her. He seems to hang around her for the challenge of (maybe) resisting her blood, not because he's been transformed by love. He wasn't courtly. He wasn't loving. He wasn't "beautiful." He wasn't right for the part.

Due to the movie's failure to realize and portray the romance that defined the book, it collapses on all other levels, because there's little else of substance left. The movie's "plot" is less suspenseful than your average Desperate Housewives episode. There were some cool moments, like the fast-action baseball game, full of fluid, sped up movement, set to a nice soundtrack. The glimpse we got of Jackson Rathbone (Jasper) looked much more appealing than Pattinson, even though he hardly seemed the scarred fighter described in the novel.

Alice (played by Ashley Green) wasn't the fashionista we met in the book, but she was light and lithe, floating across the room to break the villain's neck in a gesture of graceful violence that I believe author Stephenie Meyer would have applauded. The bad vampires, Laurent, Victoria and James, gave nice swagger and attitude. Toss off tough.

Makeup question: Since Edward's the vampire, why was Bella so preternaturally pale? There was barely any difference in their skin tones.

I've seen all the Harry Potter movies and I like them just fine. I'm not immune to teen-based products, which is probably why I have the whole Twilight saga both in hard copy form and on my Kindle (for easier searching and re-reading) but this movie's rendering of the story lacks the heart, the basic caring, that should be at the story's core. It could be that the filmmakers wanted the celluloid Bella to be more independent than her written counterpart.

In the book, Edward effortlessly carried Bella everywhere, obsessed with her safety. In the movie, he clumsily tries to fasten her seatbelt once and she swats him away. There's nothing wrong with making her less fragile, but why is he so less tender? The novel's Edward used to wrap Bella in a blanket before pulling her to his chest, to shield her from the coldness of his skin. In the movie, when Bella sleepily reaches out to touch Edward he looks startled and not in a good way. I think he's afraid she might break his sculpted hair. Earlier, when he confessed that he often stole into her room to watch her sleep, because she was "fascinating", he sounded like he was mocking rather than extolling.

Pattinson was miscast, which makes everything else the movie achieved or left undone moot. I saw him in a Harper's Bazarre picture spread recently and he had no more dimension in the movie than he did in that photo layout. Glossy pages, but no content. Turns out that although a vampire has no soul, an actor needs one. Without soul and intelligence in the role, the result is more dead than undead.