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Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Where exactly did this go so wrong? The rebooted Charlie’s Angels is based on a property that the general public has little investment in 2019 and it seems like nobody was aching for another movie. The early 2000s Angels movies were fun and had some big names attached and it was the debut for music video director McG, a guy who knew his way around visual decadence. I think the first wrong step was hiring Elizabeth Banks to both write and direct. Banks has been a highly successful actress and recently directed Pitch Perfect 2, but a fizzy spy thriller is another matter entirely, and the end results of the new Angels doesn’t help. Scene to scene, timing and shot selections just feel off, and there’s one sequence I’ll use as an example of the whole. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) is chasing after a bad guy. He’s in a car and she’s on a horse. You would naturally think, given that dynamic, you’d want to showcase the speed and fluidity of the horse with wider shots, the horse getting closer, and yet the camera jumbles between awkward close-ups, clumsily edited together, sapping all energy from the action and making me wonder if there were logistics challenges to cut around. The action is so lackluster but the story is also needlessly convoluted and unclear, with things meant to be revelations that I thought were obvious, and things that the movie thought were explained that were very much inexplicable. Sabina and Jane (Ella Balsinka) just assume Elana (Naomi Scott), a tech engineer roped into an adventure, will just pick up on things without explanation. They leave her a package of mints that aren’t really mints but she, and we, don’t know what they’re for. The rules are unclear and there are so few setups and payoffs. At no point does the movie give me anything to grab onto, whether it’s a interesting set piece, a villain with a colorful personality, or some surprise turn. This is a very thoroughly bland movie that seems to serve its empowerment message above all else, sacrificing action, comedy, and good plotting along the way to beat the drum. I’m on Banks’ side here, but there were moments that just made me roll my eyes with how heavy-handed the “girls can do it too” message was, like a montage of women across the world doing things like science and sports and friendship; it felt like I was watching a hacky campaign commercial. I will say there is a refreshing lack of male gaze even as the Angels are dressing up in sexy outfits to entrance weak men. The cast is the real highlight and they have a charming chemistry together, enough that given a stronger script or a more adept director I could envision this trio really succeeding. The end credits present Elana going through a series of Kingsman-style trials to enter Angel Academy, and that’s when I yelled, “This is the movie I should have been seeing! Angel Academy!” The 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot is a wash. The humor is strained, the high-tech gadgets and spy set pieces are so haphazard, the plot is convoluted without being intriguing, and there just isn’t a feel for the genre material from Banks as its leading creative vision. It doesn’t fail because it’s too woke, or whatever the self-pittying Men Rights Activists of Twitter claim, but because it didn’t know how to be the movie it wanted to be. Turns out everyone can do mediocrity.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Breaking Dawn: Part Two (2012)

Ignoring the ironic nature of the Breaking Dawn Part 2 poster taglines declaring love to be “forever,” the box-office juggernaut that is the Twilight franchise is coming to an end. Based upon Stephenie Meyer’s outrageously popular series of books, we’ve followed the love life of Bella Swan as she’s experimented with human, vampire, and werewolf. The studio heads decided to take Meyer’s final book and split it into two books. Breaking Dawn Part 1 had a wedding, honeymoon, pregnancy, supernatural birth, and Bella’s death/resurrection. And yet, that movie was still crushingly boring. My hopes were substantially low for Part 2, despite director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) best efforts to jazz up all the awful plotting, characters, and romance. Then a funny thing happened. I started enjoying myself, and then the movie took some chances that I felt were daring considering its rabid fanbase. And then watching Breaking Dawn Part 2 became more than watching the film, it was also the experience of watching the audience. To that end, the movie delivers and I may rue these words but I kinda sorta almost liked enough of it.

Bella Cullen nee Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her husband, immortal vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), have gone through the wringer. In her waning days as a human, Bella got knocked up during her honeymoon, and her half-human half-vampire baby killed its mama on the way out. Now Bella’s a vampire and a mom (note to self: start writing new script – “Single Mom Vampire”). Her daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy’s face on a whole lot of other people’s bodies), is rapidly growing. She’s mistaken for a vampire baby, which is a punishment worthy of death. This news gets Aro (Michael Sheen) to rustle up his Volturi forces, a group of vampires with super powers. They’re coming for the Cullens and little Renesmee. The friendly vampires scour the world, gathering “witnesses” to the tyke’s half-vampire status, but really they’re gathering an army to defend themselves. It’s super vamp against super vamp and heads will roll.

I clearly understand that I am in no way the target audience for this franchise and that my reams of pithy words will find little traction in the hearts of the Twi-hard faithful, but I’d like to state that I’ve never been a hater of the movies. Well, let me rephrase that. My thoughts ping-pong from liked okay (Twilight) to hated (New Moon) back to liked okay (Eclipse) back to hated (Breaking Dawn Part 1), and now here we back are to liked okay. Consider it a double-dip recession in quality. I still view the whole franchise as an exercise in pre-teen wish fulfillment, but I’ve already written extensively upon that theory so I won’t bother re-litigating that battle. With all that said, I found myself oddly enjoying myself for sustained durations. It’s just as silly as the other movies but finally we can move on from mopey Bella and her dubious romantic triangle. Finally we don’t have to suffer through two hours of kids making (new) mooneyes at each other (did I just out myself as “old”?). By this I mean finally something ELSE happens rather than the incremental coupling of Bella and Edward. Granted their kid is really more a prop than a character, but at least the story has taken one gigantic leap forward. Finally Stewart can actually smile and, you know, do things of actual consequence!

It’s no secret that the Twilight saga, as its monetary benefactors would like to dub the franchise, has noticeably been better the less time it spends with its female protagonist, Bella. Breaking Dawn Part 2 might just be the least Bella-filled episode yet, a cause of celebration for my brethren who view Ms. Cullen as an infuriating, insufferable, insulting protagonist. At least in this movie she develops a sense of self-identity, though too often that identity falls into the camps of Wife and Mother. With this movie, she’s adjusting to life as a vampire, so we get cutesy scenes of her hunting prey, learning how to fake looking like a puny human, and arm-wrestling the strong cocky vampire guy to, you know, for the strides in girl power. Too little too late, Bella. I find it more than a little funny that Bella’s super power is passive in nature, fitting a passive protagonist that waist for people to give her meaning and tell her what to do. I should stop before another rant unspools as I’ve done on previous Twilight writing occasions. In short: Bella sucks.

We’re introduced to a lot of new characters in this movie and each brings some sliver of backstory to develop. I’m not saying they’re all deserving of attention or interest, but at least these new clans of vampires brought some much-needed life to what has often been a claustrophobic, monotonous love triangle. Opening up Meyer’s world and seeing other vamps with special powers are a fun detour that I wish had taken place sooner. I liked seeing Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies) as a soldier from back to America’s colonial days. I’m left scratching my head why certain vampire members were added to the ranks when they didn’t even show up for the final showdown. What was the point of having Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) show up and be all skeptical about the group’s chances of winning… and then not have him join? So he was skeptical from the start and then remained so, choosing to sit the finale out. Well I’m sure glad we spent time on him then. Also, the movie falls into the trap of establishing super-powered beings that are too powerful. We get one guy who can control the elements. Not just one or two but freaking all of the elements. He’s like Captain Planet minus that dumb kid with the lame heart power. During the climactic battle, this kid uses his power ONCE. How do you give him a wealth of super powers and then sideline him? There’s also an Amazon vampire who can control people’s vision, namely making them see whatever she wants. How are these two assets not utilized for tactical supremacy?

I had the suspicion that Breaking Dawn Part 2 might be the best film in the series simply by the fact that it’s the one with the most Michael Sheen. God I love this man. His last-minute turn in the appalling New Moon banished the suicidal thoughts swirling in my head. Even when he’s in bad movies, Sheen is usually the best thing about them (see: TRON: Legacy or the Underworld films). Here’s an actor who knows exactly how ridiculous everything about this universe is, and by God he sinks his teeth in. The benefit of added Sheen cannot be overstated. The movie greatly benefits by having a strong outside threat early. Only the third movie, Eclipse, had an external threat from the start, and that gave the film a much-needed sense of urgency. I was with Sheen and the Volturi on this one. They were merely following the laws of vampires meant to protect their own kind. Vampire babies are a no-no since they cannot control their otherworldly urges, so they and their makes must be destroyed. You know you’re in for a darker Twilight when early on we witness a baby getting tossed into a roaring fire. I admit that I have a susceptibility to falling under the sway of magnetic villains. Perhaps this speaks to some character defect of my own. It probably just speaks to the fact that movies often have boring heroes and charismatic villains. Sheen is so hammy and delightful and I just wanted more of him amidst the melee that punctuates the end. The man even looks like he’s about to lead a marching band during the battle and he’s still badass. Such is the awesomeness of Michael Sheen. Of this there can be no question.

But then the Condon and series scribe Melissa Rosenberg do something almost extraordinary given the slavish devotion to the series fans have. They divert from the source material in broad strokes during the climactic vampire brawl. I won’t go into exact details but the preview audience I was with was absolutely losing their collective minds. Women were screaming, cries of “Nooo” rang through the room; all around me was the echo of consternation and shock, women trying to absorb the reality of what they were viewing. Sitting with them, taking in their shrieks and lamentations, the general horror of what might happen next… it was a thing of beauty. I can almost recommend seeing Breaking Dawn Part 2 simply to be part of this experience. However, you’ll have to act quickly and be selective. You’ll need a packed theater filled with vocal Twi-hards, likely an opening weekend evening crowd, the kind that openly cheer shirtless revelries from the male co-stars. And then just sit and wait, knowing that soon all that revelry will turn to shock. I sound so mean-spirited explaining this and that’s not my intention. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the discomfort of the Twi-hards. I enjoyed the bewilderment. It felt like the theater was alive, coursing with the energy of alert uncertainty. Anything could happen, including some very not nice things. To be one tiny drop in an ocean of furious estrogen, well it’s an experience that deserves mentioning. Its strange experiences like this that make me love going to the movies, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a combination of words I’d never thought I would write about any Twilight film.

Also, though my expectations were never that high to begin with, I have to credit Condon with fashioning a fairly exciting action brawl, one that’s surprisingly graphic at spots for a PG-13 movie primarily aimed at young girls. The series has been building up to a massive showdown, and the movie itself has been putting the feuding factions into place, so it’s satisfying that the finale truly feels climactic and delivers some thrills. For the record, Meyer’s book was free of any climactic battle. This movie is chock full of decapitations. I cannot recall another PG-13 film that had this many beheadings. I think you could watch a drama set during the French Revolution and you wouldn’t witness this many people lose their heads. Is there no other ay to kill a vampire? What ever happened to the good old fashioned staking of the heart? These kids these days; all they want to do is decapitate. To dull the grisly spectacle, the beheadings are weirdly bloodless. Condon does a bangup job of setting up plenty of mini-payoffs and duels throughout his busy action centerpiece. Then when it looks like the carnage is at an end, the movie takes a page from the Final Destination playbook, which Twi-hards will probably find relieving. I thought it was a major cop-out but whatever. Let the kids have their happy ending.

Before you get your hopes up too extravagantly, this movie still offers plenty of stupid. I don’t care how you explain it, the imprinting thing is stupid incarnate. I still find it eternally creepy that Jacob couldn’t have the mother so he settles for the daughter. The fact that everyone treats this development so seriously makes me laugh. And oh boy, let’s talk about those Amazon vampires. First off, I find it hilarious that Meyer’s vision of vampire clans from around the world really just boils down to Europe and the Amazon. When they stepped onto screen wearing, and I kid you not, loin clothes and tribal markings, I was flabbergasted. Doesn’t anyone find this depiction to be at least deeply ignorant and culturally insensitive? I’ll stop short of calling it quasi-racist; though attaching “quasi” to anything lets you get away with most declarations (“This movie is quasi-watchable”). But when our big battle over a frozen lake takes place, why are these Amazon characters STILL wearing loincloths in the frozen landscape? Then there’s the annoying fact that Renesmee rapidly grows, meaning that Bella and Edward get to skip out on actually raising a baby. If Meyer intended to punish these kids for having sex in Part 1, then she needs to follow through on her antiquated sexual hang-ups.

As the franchise draws to a close, I’m trying to take stock of the five films and their overall impact (sadly, we all know with the potential riches, a reboot is likely only five years out). The end credits play out like a gauzy yearbook for the franchise, visually highlighting every significant speaking role, including the two different actresses who played villainous Rachel.  The Twilight series has been very good to me as a writer; I’ve produced long-winded reviews with each new entry, and the opening-day people watching has become part of the spectacle I enjoy. That’s really what we’re dealing with here – spectacle. It’s all gooey romantic fantasy nonsense with some pretty bland characters, questionable messages for young girls, and such deadly seriousness. If we were grading on a curve, I’d say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is actually tolerable thanks to nominal character development, less whiny Bella, an influx of new characters, extra Sheen time, a better sense of humor, and a climax that truly feels climactic.

I can’t say the Twilight movies have gotten better as they’ve gone, though Condon has proven to be an apt choice to steer this franchise to a close. He’s given the franchise a bit more life, a bit more blood. I’ll never admit that the love story of Bella and Edward deserved five full-fledged movies, but I recognize the significance Twilight stands in many young girls lives. Fans will eat this stuff up. They’ll certainly enjoy the Bella/Edward sex where she doesn’t end up bruised. For them, it ends in a fitting sendoff, even after the jolts of text deviation morphs into giggled recounts on car rides home. For them, Breaking Dawn Part 2 will be the perfect ending to their beloved series. I can’t imagine anyone indifferent to the series working up that much interest, but I can say with sincerity that Breaking Dawn Part 2 is the best film in the Twilight series and potentially worth seeing for the rollercoaster ride of bewildered fan reactions. Now that the last blood has been drained from this franchise, let’s move on to more important items… like the next Hunger Games movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Snow White & the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White & the Huntsman is meant to be a darker, splashier, more action-packed retelling of the classic story, and when compared with the earlier 2012 Snow White venture, Mirror, Mirror, it certainly merits all those descriptions. With Twilight star Kristen Stewart at the helm, this movie seems tailored for teens looking for some girl power. I have no problem with reworking fairy tales to suit our modern-day cultural interest, but just giving a person a shield and a sword does not instantly make them a warrior. And just plopping Snow White into a medieval war does not instantly make this a movie worth watching.

The wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) killed the king and installed herself on the throne. She sucks the youth directly from ingénues to keep those good Theron looks of hers. She is the fairest of them all but she is warned that one day the king’s daughter, Snow White (Stewart), will overtake her in fairness. Snow’s been living in a prison cell for about ten years since her evil step-mom took power. She escapes her imprisonment and flees to the Dark Forrest beyond the castle grounds. The Queen’s powers will not carry over into the Dark Forrest (for whatever unexplained reason), so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve Snow White. The Huntsman changes sides, allies himself with Snow, and some dwarves, and then everyone bands together to retake the kingdom under Snow’s stout leadership.

Snow White & the Huntsman falls victim to that age-old screenwriting curse of failing to show us its work. I get so sick of movies, or any narrative really, that heaps praise upon some person and then never shows us any convincing evidence. If somebody is said to be a great poet, I want to hear one of his or her great poems. If somebody is said to be a great leader, then I want to see him or her inspire. To make up for the plot shortcomings, the screenplay reminds us at every moment of downtime how special Snow White is, how glorious she is, how different she is, how she is the only one to bring down the tyrannical rule of Ravenna. At no point did I believe any of this. Just because I have characters tell me, ad naseum, that someone is special doesn’t make it so. I need to see the evidence, and from what Snow White has to show, it is not that impressive. She’s somewhat resourceful, escaping from captivity, but she’s not exactly a figure of compelling strength, magnetism, or inspiration. She gives one “rally the troops” speech that gets the townspeople all fired up to go to war; it’s no St. Crispin’s Day speech, but even if we’re grading on a curve, it’s a pretty weak motivational speech. There’s no reason these people would line up behind this displaced damsel other than the fact that the plot requires them to do so. This Snow lady has, much like the infamous Bella Swan, the personality of a dead plant, and all the proclamations to the contrary will not change that fact. Snow White is just not an interesting of compelling person, period. The only way Stewart could be most fair is if we’re talking about being pale.

There are two reasons why Stewart is completely wrong for this part. First off, when we’re objectively talking about one who is “fairest of them all,” and Charlize Theron is in your movie, you’re going to lose every time. I’m not saying Stewart is wretched looking; quite the contrary. Debut director Rupert Sanders finds ways to film her that make her look lush and vibrant, giving more life to his heroine than his actress is capable of. Some would argue “fairest of them all” is not in references to physical beauty, which it has always been, but to the fact that Snow’s heart is so pure and good. If that’s the case, that’s just stupid. Then why even make it Snow White if the nemesis to the evil queen is simply somebody who is morally just? You could have had a commoner play the role and that would have brought about more interesting class conflicts. Secondly, Stewart is such a modern era actress, someone who has so effectively channeled the rhythms of a blasé generation of young people, that dropping her into a medieval time period is jarring. She doesn’t fit. Everything about her aloof acting style screams modern times. Maybe that’s why her speaking is kept to a minimum. She can ride on horseback, dress in Joan of Arc armor, but she’ll never strike anyone as a fitting Epic Heroine. I feel that her acting has blended with the sullen nature of Bella Swan to the point that it’s hard to separate the two. I’m not a Stewart hater at all. I actually think she can be quite a capable actress (see: Speak, Adventureland, the upcoming adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road) when paired with the proper material. Snow White & the Huntsman is not the proper material.

Aside from casting errors, this dark fairy tale doesn’t find any time to settle down and develop anything that could approximate characterization. Case in point: all we know about Snow is that she is a princess, everyone tells us how beautiful she has always been, she runs away, and then leads a rebellion, then she become queen (don’t pester me about spoilers). What else do we know about her? She’s defined entirely by outside forces, especially the charitable words of others. Snow White is not a character but a symbol, the prophetic Chosen One. She’s really a placeholder for every lazy archetype needed for epic fantasy. Stewart cannot connect with the material, so she seems to wander around, mouth agape, almost like she’s stumbling drunk through the whole movie. It seems that Snow White & the Huntsman just provides us the familiar elements of the story (evil stepmother, huntsman, dwarves) and expects us to fill in the rest with our own wealth of knowledge over the famous fairy tale. The rote insertion of a long-lost childhood friend/eventual love interest (Sam Claffin) is made tolerable only by the fact that he does not eventually become a love interest. This Snow doesn’t need a man, and good for her.

Sanders’ background in commercials definitely shows in his superb visual palate. The man knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the visual highpoint is Snow’s hallucinogenic shamble through the Dark Forrest. Without the narrative traction, though, the movie starts to resemble one very long, very excruciating perfume ad, particularly when Snow comes across a white horse just laying down in the surf. Some of Sanders’ “ain’t nature great” creations deeper into the forest reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, especially with the godly stag. Despite its considerable faults, Snow White & the Huntsman is a great looking movie. Sanders’ crisp visuals are further enhanced by wonderfully theatrical costumes from multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (expect another award on that mantle come 2013). Queen Ravenna has more eye-catching outfits than Cher in her heyday. They seem to be made out of interesting organic elements, like a gown accented with diminutive bird skulls. She may be a ruthless tyrant, but man does that lady know how to dress. The fashion choices became so exotic and intriguing that it provided another reason for me to hope we’d get more time with the queen. The production design by Dominic Watkins (United 93) is fittingly medieval. At least there’s always something nice to look at with this monotonous bore.

I don’t really get the geography of this kingdom. By all accounts, it looks like one poorly guarded castle, one poor mud town, and a deep expanse of forest. The fact that it’s labeled as the Dark Forrest seems shortsighted, since it takes a few hours continued walking to come across all sorts of other civilizations, including our scarred matriarchal society. And then there are dwarves too. It all feels so listless, lacking any sort of connective tissue to help round out this magical world. After a while, it just becomes an assortment of cool stuff just put into a movie because it’s cool. The fact that none of these magical creatures or assorted villagers ever pop back again, except for our coronation in the resolution, means they were meaningless to this story other than being a rest stop.

The screenplay is surprisingly rushed; rarely do we spend more than five minutes in any location. I was interested in a city of women with self-inflicted facial scars to protect themselves from Ravenna coming for them. Just as things start to get interesting, it’s like the movie gets antsy and has to keep moving, and we’re off again. It’s hard to work up any sort of emotional engagement for anyone when we just spend a few minutes with these characters. The brisk pacing also gives the impression that the characters really don’t matter in the end. If it weren’t for a scene where the Huntsman blatantly explains every feeling he has to a comatose Snow White, we’d know nothing about him. The Huntsman is grieving over the loss of his wife, and oh she just happens to have been killed by Ravenna’s creepy albino brother (Sam Spruell). The pigment-challenged dolt confesses this convenient bit of information at a strange time. Why confess to killing a man’s wife when you’re battling to the death? Confess afterwards. It’s another example of lame screenwriting and nascent characterization. Even the queen gets a bizarre throwaway bit of characterization. For whatever reason, we have a flashback to when she was a child and her mother forced her to drink the magic immortality elixir. Why did we see this? It’s too late to make her sympathetic. And yet, even this brief glimpse at Ravenna’s back-story makes her more interesting than our feckless Snow White.

The bleakly brilliant Young Adult renewed my fondness for Theron as an actress. For a while, she seems to really sink her teeth into the role, lapping up the villainy in a satisfyingly menacing manner. It’s at this lower level of burn, the quiet intensity, where Theron is most enjoyable. When the movie requires her to raise her voice is when things start to go bad. She shrieks in such a campy, over-the-top, weird overly enunciated style. Any hope of secretly enjoying this movie died with Theron’s stagy agitation. Hemsworth (The Avengers) adopts a thick Scottish brogue but does little else. At times I found that he looked remarkably like a cartoon tough guy; just something about his face lends itself to clean, burly definitions. The best actor in the movie is Bob Hoskins (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as a blind dwarf, and perhaps that sentence alone should say all that needs saying.

This film is more Lord of the Rings than fairy tale. It’s got some battles and some siege action to pacify the men folk, but this is obviously aimed at the ladies. It’s a feminist, Robin Hood-esque reworking of the Snow White tale, recasting the damsel as action heroine, and I’d have no problem with this revision if: 1) the film made her an actual character, 2) it had been played by anyone other than Kristen Stewart. It’s got all the familial elements but they have no context in this reworking; it lacks internal logic. If I did not have sufficient background knowledge about this tale, I’d be left wondering why any of this should make sense (apples are poisonous now?). At every turn, the movie has to tell us why things should matter rather than showing us. There’s no evidence onscreen why this Snow White lady deserves any fuss. Snow White & the Huntsman is a movie obsessed with appearance and precious little else. Snow White & the Huntsman is one boring, truculent, dreary chore of a movie that goes on far too long. Just because it’s darker doesn’t make it more mature or exciting. Fairest of them all, my ass.

Nate’s Grade: C

Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011)

Taking a cue from the blockbuster film franchise of our age, the Harry Potter series, the producers and studio heads decided to split the final Twilight film into two separate movies. Yes, for you cheerless, unfortunate males dragged along to author Stefenie Meyer’s estrogen-drenched soap opera, hoping to be done with Bella Swan and her sparkly vampire boyfriend, well your pain soldiers onward another year. If Breaking Dawn: Part One is any indication, we’re all in for a world of hurt come November 2012.

Wedding bells are ringing for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her undead boyfriend, noble vampire/undead heartthrob, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Bella’s persistent demand to be turned into a vampire is finely about to come true. She wants to stay human a bit longer, to savor her last days on Earth before sipping blood through a bendy straw. Her always-in-second best bud, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is worried for Bella’s well being. The wedding is like a fairy tale and Edward sweeps his new bride away to a tiny island off of Rio de Janeiro, where the housekeepers illogically speak Spanish. The couple makes the most of their time alone, and by this I mean they have sex (I refuse to believe this couple would play chess in their newlywed downtime). Edward withholds any second rounds of sex, fearing he’ll seriously harm his bride (he destroyed the bed in mid-copulation). No matter because Bella gets pregnant right out of the gate. We’re told this is impossible, yet her half-human/half-vampire fetus is rapidly growing inside momma’s belly. The baby is also destroying its host, eating away Bella’s body. Edward demands to kill the baby but Bella will have none of it. She’s going to deliver this baby even if it kills her. If it does kill her, then the truce between the werewolves and vampires will be broken, and Jacob’s feistier tribe mates will be knocking down the Cullen doors looking for some tasty vampires to chomp.

Director Bill Condon, he of Dreamgirls fame and an Oscar-winner for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, goes hog-wild with the emotions, fittingly reminiscent of the life-and-death swings of emotional polarity that orient a teenager’s life. Condon plays all of the ridiculous melodrama straight. It successfully channels the feelings of teenage angst and obsession, much like the first Twilight film. This Teutonic exhibit of buzzy hormones is like catnip to the Twilight faithful. Finally, they get what they’ve been waiting for, and Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg delay that gratification even longer. This is the longest wedding I’ve seen on screen since The Godfather. It takes up about 45 minutes of the movie. The protracted walk down the aisle literally takes longer than the rest of the ceremony combined. I can already envision thousands of young girls asking for the “Bella dress” when their time down the aisle comes. At no point does the movie address the fact that the “groom’s side” probably are all absent a heartbeat (“Hmm, extreme paleness? Are you with the bride or the groom? I’m at a loss.”). That’s a missed comedic opportunity. What’s with the wedding guests played by name actors like Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost, Taken)? Did they hire recognizable actors for one-line bit parts? They better have larger roles in the second feature. Under Condon’s direction, the film looks marvelous, and even the long-awaited love scene has some discernible heat to it that will give teen girls “funny” dreams for the next few months. Condon’s also helming the next and final film, so I can at least say it’ll look swell.

This last film was broken into two parts due to the mountains of money the studio would make. It surely wasn’t for some sort of artistic necessity. The plot of BD: Part One is stretched mighty thin. It’s no joke that the wedding and honeymoon takes up half the running time. The baby drama is handled so amateurishly, and the plot ramps up the incubation time so that everything happens too fast for the audience to adjust to how stupid everything truly is. The first half of the movie is free of meaningful conflict. It’s just concerned with payoffs. From everything I’ve read online, and from female friends who have partaken of the series, BD: Part One pretty much covers most of the plot of the 400-page book. What’s left? I would totally give the series a pass if the second movie started with Bella, hair a knotted mess, holding a shrieking baby. Edward sits at the table, drinking. “When are you gonna get a job?” she yells. “When are you gonna stop being a bitch?” he retorts, then gulps down a swig of booze. This domestic downer of an ending would almost make the whole series worth sitting through. Truthfully, as the teaser during the end credits advertises, if Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) has a larger part in BD: Part Two, it automatically becomes, sight unseen, the best movie of the series. Thus is the awe-inspiring power of Michael Sheen.

This has long been a silly franchise filled with poorly veiled messages that seem less empowering to teenage girls than reassuring to their parents. Long a heavy-handed message about abstinence, the characters finally get to have sex, after they’re properly married of course (does God really object more to vampire-human relations or when it occurs?). And you better believe the moment Edward and Bella eventually do the deed is a moment that teen girls, and their mothers, around the nation have been anticipating for three long, hard years. The buildup to the carnal climax is a rapturous release for the audience of Twi-hards; my theater felt like it exploded in pubescent hormones and giggling as soon as the proverbial train entered the station. Speaking of euphemisms, I find it telling that not a single character ever refers to sex as, well, “sex.” They keep dancing around the term, referring to it as indistinct pronouns like “this” or “that” or the slightly more specific “honeymoon activities.” It’s like the characters can’t talk about a mature topic without a case of the giggles. There’s even a scene where Jacob talks about Bella’s forthcoming tangle between the sheets, openly, and with alarm: “You’ll kill her,” he tells Edward. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bella assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).

It’s here where the movie awkwardly shifts into a relentlessly pro-life message on legs. I’m not against movies presenting messages, but when a movie is as narratively empty and transparently padded as BD: Part 1, then the movie just gets swallowed up by the clumsy message. It doesn’t matter that Bella’s unborn hell spawn is literally killing her, sucking her dry from the inside out, she’s going to have this baby no matter what, even if she dies in the process. Okay, Meyer, we get it. Here’s a question for the world: can anyone really tell that much difference between emaciated Kristen Stewart and her normal self? She always appears a little sickly and hollow-eyed, but maybe that’s just me. The baby is basically the only conflict the movie presents and it happens so late in the film. Thanks to a fast gestation period, the demon fetus is determined not to wait until Part Two to make its grand entrance. Now that Bella is preggers, she’s become instant buddies with Rosalie (Nikki Reed, a long way from Thirteen), and the two of them begin a war against non-gender pronouns (its vs. he/her). The baby conflict would be more interesting if it was a tad more ambiguous, but the fact that it literally is killing Bella, not to mention its monstrous possibilities, and yet she persists to give birth is less characterization and more stubbornness. If Bella’s worried she’ll never have another chance to have a flesh-and-blood daughter, then explore this. Otherwise it makes Bella look blithely cavalier with her own life.

It’s here where Meyer and the Twilight franchise, already deliriously high on teen angst, goes off the charts into weirdo territory (some spoilers will follow). Never mind where the werewolf boys (and a girl) manage to find new clothes after they destroy them after each beastly transformation, we’ve got far weirder moments to process. There’s a vampire C-section via biting. There are giant wolves communicating via growling telepathy and bad CGI. There are Bella’s completely batshit names for her child; if it’s a boy she wants to combine Edward and Jacob’s names because that’s not awkward (“See, son, you’re named after the other guy I could have slept with but decided to just string along instead.”). And if it’s a girl she wants to combine her mother’s name and Edward’s mother’s name forming the atrocious “Reneesmee.” Excuse me? That makes “Apple” seem as traditional as apple pie. No one tells Bella these names are horrific because she’s pregnant, naturally. I imagine all the characters broke out into laughter as soon as Bella left the room to go puke into a bucket. Easily the weirdest and dumbest thing in the history of the Twilight franchise occurs as a contrived deus ex machina and a tidy solution to Jacob’s eternal, annoying pining. Jacob is determined to slay the monster he believes responsible for killing his unrequited love, Bella, but then he looks into those cute little baby eyes and… swears devotion to this newborn babe. He “imprints” on her, which means that they are meant to be together, and thus the werewolf/vampire truce holds. “Of course,” Edward intones, “Imprinting is their number one law. They cannot break it.” Of course! This reminded me of the scene at the end of the second Harry Potter movie where a phoenix comes from nowhere and cries into a wound (“Of course, phoenix tears can heal anything,” Harry informs while I was physically smacking myself in the head). Doesn’t anyone else find this whole plot development creepy? Jacob can’t have the mother, so he’s going to have the baby? And he’s got to wait 18 years if he wants their coupling to be legal on top of that. I think a messed up name is the least of this kid’s worries.

Does she look like a healthy person? This is pre-baby succubus.

It all comes down to the heroine of the franchise, Miss Bella Swan (sorry, Bella Cullen now). I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. To me, Bella isn’t worth the effort. She’s never really been anything close to a fully formed character. Bella Swan has always defined herself by having a boyfriend, and when he was gone it was about pushing her friends away and moping until she finally found a new guy. She has zero self-identity, no center, she is an empty shell, there is no there there. She’s a cipher, meant for the teenage readership to plug themselves into her place. I won’t restate my theory that the Twilight series is glossed-up pre-teen wish fulfillment, but there you have it. Yet there are sneaking moments where Bella seems almost shockingly… human. Her anxious montage of preparation before her first night of sex is relatable and sympathetic (what outfit to wear? Shave the legs? What kinds of makeup?). Too bad this relatable side of her character vanishes all too quickly. Before Bella defined herself by her boyfriend and now she defines herself by her baby. She’s still the same whiny, selfish, morose, and cruelly manipulative Bella, though. She can’t let Jacob alone; she has to continue stringing him along, bringing him into inappropriate personal matters. Jacob’s always been a bit of a control freak who seems to spout quasi-rapist dialogue (the classic “You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”), but the guy’s always gotten a raw deal as far as I’m concerned. Betrothed to a baby is not a worthwhile parting gift. I worry that young, impressionable girls are going to look at Bella as an influential figure. If these same gals want a literary heroine they could truly look up to, they should feast their eyes on Katniss Everdeen, proactive and laudable star of the Hunger Games and forthcoming movie of the same name.

The three actors have been playing the same character notes for so long that they could all just go on autopilot and collect their paychecks. Stewart (Adventureland) is less annoying than she has been in previous films. I’m trying not to take out my disdain of her character on the actress, who I’ve genuinely liked in pre-Twilight projects (even her Joan Jett performance was pretty decent). Pattinson (Water for Elephants) seems to shrink into the background for this movie. There are a lot of long, ponderous, somehow meaningful stares between the two, with the soundtrack trying to communicate emotions that the screenplay has failed to do (a little more variety on the soundtrack next time, fellas? I think I tuned out after the twelfth melancholy piano ballad). Luckily, Pattinson does have something of a screen presence to go with those abs. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Lauthner (Abduction). The young buck, formerly of Shardkboy fame, just cannot act. He has a nostril-heavy manner of expressing emotion that makes you wonder if he’s about to blow your house down. It’s telling that within mere seconds of the film beginning, the guy rips off his shirt, the peak of his acting abilities. I suspect it will not be long before Lautner and his six-pack and sitting at home, unemployed, and indulging in a different six-pack.

Breaking Dawn: Part One is certainly not intended for critics of the book and film series or really any audience member lacking ovaries. But I think that even the most ardent Twi-hards will walk away giggling at the silliness of the overripe melodrama. I try not to be out rightly dismissive of the whole series, but the bad characters, bad plotting, and questionable messages make it hard to continue bending over backwards to find slivers of quality to support. I get the appeal of the series, the fact that Bella Swan is a cipher to exercise frothing teenage wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t excuse the movies from being so bad. This isn’t the painful abomination that was 2009’s New Moon, but it’s come the closest. Only the promise of more Michael Sheen makes me hopeful that BD: Part Two will be better than its predecessors. When you’re talking about an obscenely popular moneymaker, quality becomes secondary to delivering a product that is recognizable to the demands of the screaming fans. BD: Part One is less a payoff than a warning. There is more to come, and if you thought Bella was intolerable before just wait until her vampire growing pains.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Runaways (2010)

This fizzy 1970s glam rock biopic on the teen girl rock group The Runaways is a fairly shallow tale elevated by a handful of strong performances. All but completely ignoring the other members of the famous girl group, the movie focuses on lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Both actresses slip under the skin of their real-life figures, imbuing the anger, desperation, and sheer nerve of pubescent rock stars being exploited. Watching Stewart’s attitude-filled strut, or how Fanning transforms from any other California girl into a slinking rock goddess igniting a Tokyo stage, is downright exciting to behold. But the chief reason to watch this film is Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as the group’s flamboyant, lewd manager who put the girls together. Shannon is his typical bug-eyed sensational self, but the profane tirades he unleashes are downright poetic. He gives the movie a desperately needed pulse, and thus when he leaves the screen he also takes most of our interest. The biggest issue The Runaways has is that writer/director Floria Sigismondi doesn’t convince us why any of this matters. We watch the girls get together, play their first gigs, improve musically, and then all of a sudden they’re famous thanks to a magazine headline montage. Then they’re broken up. You neither feel the rise nor the fall, nor do you ever truly get a good feel for any of the characters. The Runaways spends too much time posing and trying to look fierce when it should have spent more attention on a decent script.

Nate’s Grade: C

Eclipse (2010)

This may be an obvious statement but I will never be a teenage girl. Shocking news to anybody who never knew of the existence of my Y chromosome. Regardless, it’s hard for me to empathize with the madness that surrounds the cultural juggernaut that is the Twilight series. I cannot work myself into a frenzy. I cannot get madly passionate about the merits of Team Jacob vs. Team Edward (though full disclosure: I lean more toward Jacob). I cannot even understand the appeal of the main character and why she’s worth every human, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her. I just can’t walk in the same shoes of the Twilight faithful and their devotion to author Stephenie Meyer’s series. I get the appeal because its adolescent wish fulfillment with the flashes of danger muted by the overall security of traditional values (the vampire wants to wait until marriage before they have sex). I fully acknowledge my divorce from this conjured reality of the Twilight series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t judge the films on their merits. The first film worked for what it was, the second one was resoundingly bad, and now the third film, Eclipse, manages to reheat the same love triangle squabbles and call it something fresh.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is about to graduate high school and, presumably, graduate from the human race. Her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), has pledged to grant her wish and make her a vampire so they can truly be together forever. Bella’s friend/werewolf/ab model Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is vehemently against this plan. He wants Bella to be with him instead. He’s the safer choice and she doesn’t have to become dead for a happily ever after. Bella is torn between her two romantic options, again. However, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is out their plotting vengeance against Bella and the Cullen clan of “vegetarian” vampires. She’s creating an army of newborn vampires in Seattle. The army is so powerful that the Cullens reach out to the werewolves for an alliance. Mortal enemies comes together, including feuding paramours Edward and Jacob, to protect Bella and vanquish Victoria once and for all.

For starters, stuff actually happens in the third Twilight movie. I know that’s a fairly damning comment in itself that one must wait until the third movie for action. But here’s the thing: the plot fails to advance more than an inch. At the end of New Moon, Bella pretty much made her choice when she decided to whisk to the other side of the earth at the very utterance of Edward’s name, leaving poor Jacob high and dry. In Eclipse, she solidifies her choice. In New Moon, Bella implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he agrees to do after she graduates from high school (what a bizarre academic motivation strategy). In Eclipse, Bella further implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he is reluctant to do, but eventually he agrees. In New Moon, the werewolves and vampires don’t like each other. In Eclipse, that’s about the same, but they form an uneasy alliance to protect Bella, the most important girl in the whole wide world. The third film feels like a student’s paper revision; characters now add supporting evidence to explain their decision-making. Bella now gets to expound in further detail why she should be turned into a vampire (hint: she doesn’t feel like she fits in), Jacob adds to a budding Master’s thesis on why he is the better romantic option for Bella, and Edward gets plenty of opportunity to be the wet blanket, whether he’s turning down a horny Bella (no action there) or warning her about the dire lifestyle of today’s modern vampiric American. Much of Eclipse is people sitting around and chatting about their decision-making, verbalizing stuff that Meyer has no ability to place as subtext. By the end of the movie, at least you feel satisfied that everybody has weighed their options, even if they keep making the same dumb mistakes.

Speaking of action, Eclipse greatly benefits from having an external threat throughout the movie. The first two films felt prosaic and self-involved partially due to the fact that an antagonist was never introduced until the final act of each movie. The first two movies were two hours of brooding and making cow-eyes at each other, followed by a requisite climactic fight that felt anything but climactic.

With Eclipse, we have Victoria building her army of newborn vampires, and we see that army form, wreck havoc on the streets of Seattle, and for once the Twilight series feels like it has a real threat. That’s because Victoria has never ever felt like a threat. I don’t know how she’s represented in Meyer’s books, but in three movies, this curly-haired vampire has always come across as woefully unintimidating. She feels like a Kate Hudson romantic comedy character with fangs. It just doesn’t work no matter how fast the filmmakers show she can run through forests. The Cullen clan will occasionally chase after her, that is, when they’re not lining up like they’re making superhero posse poses. Victoria has never cut it as a villain, so it’s a good move for her to amass an army of super vampires that will do her bidding. The audience is repeatedly told, rather than shown, how serious the newborn vampires are because, you see, newborns still have some human blood in them. Never mind that the Twilight movies have never made mention of this power before. What’s puzzling is that Victoria has been building up her base of bloodsuckers for over a year, so why aren’t there like a ton more? The army of newborns consists of like twelve vampires. I understand the logistics of having to feed and house multiple vampires, but if I was planning for a brutal assault I’d want as many of these super vampires as I could sire.

Let me rephrase some of what I just said. New Moon did have an antagonist and her name was Bella Swan. She was sullen, whiny, self-involved, casually hurtful, and she led around Jacob on a leash. The dude is obviously in love with her, and even tells her face-to-face in Eclipse. Bella toyed around with her self-described “best friend” for whatever she needed and then she screwed him over for her sparkly vampire. In Eclipse, she starts to repeat this same pattern of behavior. Every movie makes it emphatically clear that Bella and Edward are destined to be together, and yet every movie has Bella engage in this annoying, wishy-washy “Maybe I’ll be with you, maybe I won’t” dance to make the boys fight over her one more time and thus validate her existence. I’ve seen this type of behavior before; it’s loathsome. She’s less unlikable and callous in Eclipse. Bella is absent any defining characteristic so that the millions of Twilight readers can insert themselves into the story as the girl everybody wants to fight over. Edward practically hounds her at every turn to marry him, which also seems like another case of wish fulfillment. Bella seems defined by whatever man she has at the current time. I’m surprised more of Meyer’s readers don’t find this fact insulting. Well, in Eclipse Bella doesn’t magically sprout a personality so you’re stuck yet again with the Bella bores.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) was an interesting choice to handle all this teenage melodrama. The visual aesthetic is much more refined and accomplished, and the pacing is infinitely better. New Moon was 130 minutes but felt eight times that long because of all the repetitious plotting and brooding, not to mention the gratuitous beefcake shots. Eclipse is only six minutes shorter than its predecessor and yet it moves along at a steady jaunt thanks to the immediate external threat. It still has to fit in all those beefcake shots to make the soccer moms swoon, but at least the movie maintains that pulpy teenage synergy from the first Twilight movie. The special effects have greatly improved as well, which makes the wolves vs. vampire fight scenes more entertaining to witness for the right reasons.

The screenplay for Eclipse includes all sorts of extras to round out the Twilight universe, though they are tangential to the plot at best. Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) get their back-stories revealed, which means flashbacks with costumes! While each is momentarily diverting, why am I getting time taken out from the movie to flesh out the lives of what are, essentially, background characters? At least Slade doesn’t just let the actors jaw away with exposition; he shows the audience their pre-vampire lives. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has adapted every movie so far and she seems well aware of what her audience expects. Eclipse has the exasperating habit of not leaving anything implied. When Rosalie warns Bella about choosing to become a vampire, Bella promises she’ll never want anything more than Edward. “There’s one thing more you’ll want,” Rosalie says. And then, because the audience is perhaps too thick to pick up that subtlety, she adds, “Blood.”

Our threesome of young actors all seem to have their parts well memorized at this point. One part pouting, one part glowering, and two parts yearning. This is the meatiest film yet for the actors as they all get to assemble heir cases. Jacob argues that he’s best for Bella and tries to convince Edward that if he truly loves her, he won’t let her become a vampire. Edward knows the heartache that comes with transforming into a monster and watching as everybody you love dies while you seem to be standing still. Oh, and there’s that whole insatiable desire to drink blood thing, which is just gross. Bella realizes she’s in love with two guys at the same time. She also realizes that in order for her relationship with Edward to last, she will inevitable have to be turned into a vampire. It’s the fork in the road every “girl who dates vampire” story must ultimately lead.

Stewart and Pattinson give serviceable performances, though Stewart seems like she’s doing you the favor of acting, like she’d rather be elsewhere. Once again, Lautner, who seems to have the most fun with his role, upstages them. There’s a sequence where the threesome share a tent in the mountains, and Bella is freezing and the ice-cold Edward cannot warm her. A plan is hatched: Jacob will crawl into the sleeping bag with Bella and warm her with his body heat. The ridiculousness of the scene is pierced by Lautner deadpanning, “Well, I am hotter than you” (which left my packed theater screaming in approval). Even though he’s saddled with quasi-stalker dialogue like “You love me, you just don’t know it yet,” Lautner makes the most of his wolf-boy licking his wounds.

Here’s another revelation thanks to Eclipse: vampires are apparently made of porcelain. When a vampire is destroyed in the Twilight world, they literally can have limbs snapped off like it’s nothing. They look like dolls getting ripped apart. Occasionally someone will have their head beaten and the vampire cranium will just shatter into thick pieces, much like a porcelain doll. Weirdest of all, whenever a vampire gets hit they are accompanied by this rattling sound effect, like inside the vampires are filled with rolls of nickels and dimes. It’s bizarre and distracting. I don’t ever remember this happening to vampires in the previous two installments. Why not go the Buffy route and just have dead vampires turn into ash? It doesn’t have to be as violent and nauseating as vampires getting staked on HBO’s superior True Blood, but I expect more than vampires just breaking. These are the creatures of the night. They should not be fragile little porcelain dolls. I know Slade and the producers went this route so that they could ramp up their bloodless action and get away with more onscreen.

The fact that something other than two-hours of lovey-dovey romantic declarations and intense, self-indulgent brooding happens means this is by far the most action-packed film in the Twilight series yet. It’s still not that good but it is a vast improvement over the dour suckfest that was New Moon. In fact, since Eclipse repeats many of the same plot points there really is no reason to ever watch New Moon. Skip it altogether. Once again, little of consequence happens in the film but at least Bella isn’t insufferable and we get some nice supernatural fight scenes out of it. The appeal of the series has failed to be translated on the big screen. It’s all about the swoon, and Eclipse will keep the Twi-hards swooning as they take in their male sex objects brought to visual life. Once again, I will state that the Twilight series comes across like a tedious teenage soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. Eclipse is probably the most guy-friendly of all the films so far, but even that isn’t enough to keep old material interesting the third time it’s reheated.

Nate’s Grade: C+

New Moon (2009)

Admittedly, I am not a fan of the Twilight series. I have never read one of the books but I didn’t hate the first Twilight movie. I thought it kind of worked on its own merits even if it wasn’t for me. However, New Moon is a crushing bore and a mess.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday with her vampire boyfriend, the 119-year-old Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She accidentally cuts her finger and the sight of blood sends one of the Cullen vampires crazy with instinct. Edward concludes that his love would be safer without him. He bids her goodbye and promises, “This is the last time you will ever see me,” forgetting that there are two more books to go. Bella is heartbroken and spends months in a stupor. She finds solace with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her friend of many years. Jacob’s people are indigenous Native Americans to the area, and he holds a secret as well. Turns out that Jacob is a werewolf. Now Bella has to decide between a vampire or a werewolf (does a Frankenstein monster enter the romantic fray later?). Edward mistakenly believes that Bella has died, so he too wants to die and will seek execution at the hands of the illustrious Vultari, the ruling vampire clan in Italy. Bella must decide between her two loves.

I can precisely indicate where everything goes wrong for the abysmal New Moon — the character of Bella Swan. For the majority of this sequel, I didn’t just detest and dislike her I downright hated her. I hated her. I understand her appeal to the millions of Meyer’s literary acolytes, but man does she come across as a self-centered, casually cruel, messed up girl who spends most of her time being whiny, mopey, and sulky. It’s not just that she has a guy interested in her, it’s the absurd notion that every man cannot get enough of this sullen gal. As presented in New Moon, Bella is such a dour and lifeless personality. I cannot see whatsoever why she is worth such effort. This criticism may be tracked all the way to Meyer’s source material, making Bella absent in defining character dynamics expressly so pre-teen readers can insert themselves as the character and swoon over being the object of universal desire. It is insultingly thin wish fulfillment that this girl has every man, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her in the Pacific Northwest. After Edward leaves, she shuts herself out and rejects all her friends. We see in one camera pan that she spends literal months in a stupor. I understand that teenagers think everything is the end of the world, but she and Edward were together for, what, a few months? Then again, heartache is something that knows no exact time frame for healing, so consider this but a quibble. Bella seems to push others away except when she needs a set of ears to whine.

It is post-Edward where Bella becomes insular, self-centered in her pursuit of danger placing herself in stupidly reckless scenarios, and hurtful. Where Bella really infuriated me is her treatment of her lifelong friend, Jacob. Obviously the big guy has a thing for his her and she knows this, which allows Bella to string Jacob along for almost a whole movie. She leads this little doggie along, teasing him with a “Maybe I will be with you, maybe I won’t” dance that becomes irritating and rather loathsome. Jacob is a swell guy who has looked out for Bella from day one, accepted her coupling with a vampire, sworn enemy of werewolves, and he’s been the best listener to all her self-involved drama. Plus this guy is ripped and has hip flexors that could cut glass. And he is there for her and didn’t abandon her like Edward. So Bella toys with her self-described “best friend” until she can hear the word “Edward” and then she can think about nothing else, even after months of complete separation. I understand that Edward has the sexy, brooding, bad boy appeal, where women think they will magically be the key ingredient to change the troubled man for the better. But on the flipside, Jacob thinks he?’ the key ingredient to finally get Bella to commit to a healthy relationship, and he gets screwed. Seriously, what’s the worse thing about dating a werewolf? You may have to take him for more walks. I suppose this makes me sound like I’m on Team Jacob, as the fans call themselves. I’m really on Team Bella Deserves to be Alone.

I don’t want to sound unduly harsh. I don’t necessarily have an inherent dislike for characters that make bad decisions or who are, at their core, unlikable. I could forgive the sins of Bella Swan if she had even a hint of subtext. Bella Swan is a void of personality. I cannot recall if this was the same with Twilight, which I haven’t seen since I watched it on opening day in the theater a year ago.

What also sinks New Moon is how it repeats the same plot from Twilight. Once again Bella feels alone, she finds comfort in a boy that says they can’t be together, this intrigues her and pushes her into action, she’s warned of danger, and then finally she settles in with a pseudo relationship with a supernatural stud who makes blanket promises like “I’ll always protect you,” and, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” It’s not complex folks; Meyer is just feeding pre-teen girls their fantasy of a male romantic interest. Because of this repetitious plot structure, very little of substance happens during the overlong 130 minutes of New Moon. Bella kinda sorta almost gets involved with a werewolf, there’s some lousy Romeo and Juliet allusions, and thanks to a delightfully hammy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), we learn a little bit about what makes Bella special to the world of vampires (it’s telling that her “specialty” is her lack of reaction). Beyond that, this is two hours of posturing and some gratuitous beefcake shots of shirtless men. My theater was sold out and packed with the Twilight faithful who swooned when they saw Edward strutting in slow-mo and openly hollering in approval when Jacob first whipped off his shirt. For supernatural creatures, they do more brooding than anything.

Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) replaces Catherine Hardwicke to steer the second movie. I actually think Hardwicke had the right sensibilities for this franchise and she brought a youthful, rambunctious spirit that gave the first film a teenage synergy that made the romance feel pulpy. Weitz does away with this and makes the movie feel more ornate and chaste and dull. The execs spent major money to film in Italy for the vampire Volturi clan, but as near as I can tell some sets would have done the trick. Note to filmmakers: if you spend money to film in an exotic location, show it. As far as I can tell, Weitz was hired because of the bump up in special effects for this picture. Gone are goofy vampire baseball sequences and now we have cheesy wolf battle sequences, which come across like a less refined version of the polar bear brawl from Golden Compass. The special effects have improved but that doesn’t mean they?re good.

This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that asks for much from its actors, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg distills Meyer’s text to the point that the actors pout and yearn. Stewart is an actress I have liked for years since Panic Room, so imagine how I would feel about the Bella character with a less capable actress. Pattinson is absent for almost the entire movie and it’s hard to say that his presence was missed. The best actor of this weird love triangle is Lautner who at least seems to have some fun with his role. He has an amiable spirit that penetrates all the gloom. He’s come a long way from being Shark Boy in 2005?s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

The plot is a shadow of the first film, and the main character is annoying and hard to sympathize with, there?s so little of consequence that happens, it?s way too long, and, oh yeah, did I mention how much I disliked Bella Swan? At this point, the Twilight franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be contained (as I write this it’s poised to make over $70 million on opening day) and the Twi-hards will find the movie to be catnip, swooning at the visualized male sex objects. For anyone outside the cult of Twilight, the movie version of New Moon will fail to communicate the appeal of the series. The movie feels bloodless. Twilight is like a tedious soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. I think I’ll stick with HBO’s True Blood, a more nuanced, adult, sexy, and just plain fun series following vampire-human love. Bella could learn plenty from Sookie Stackhouse.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Twilight (2008)

It’s only been three years since the first book in the Twilight series was published, but man has it already become a phenomenon among young girls. Author Stephenie Meyer was a Mormon housewife who professed to never having seen an R-rated movie, so of course she seems like a natural fit for vampire literature. Meyer has taken the torch from Anne Rice and created an insanely popular series of books that chronicle the lives of humans and vampires in the rainy Northwest United States. I had never heard about the books until the spring of 2008, months before the hotly anticipated release of the fourth and final book in the series. Then again, I’m not a pre-teen girl, so excuse my ignorance. My wife Karen and I decided to bear the hormonal, high-pitched squeals and sit with a packed house to experience the movie with the Twilight faithful. Judging from my screening, I think it might be mandatory for all girls between the ages of 7-14 to go see the Twilight film.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart, Into the Wild) is the new kid in school. She’s moved back to live with her father (Billy Burke), the sheriff of a tiny Washington town with a population of 3,000 people. Bella has her sights set on the Cullen family, a group of weird kids that are pale and keep to themselves. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) goes out of his way to avoid Bella, and of course this just makes him more mysterious. He tells her that they shouldn’t be friends. Then one day at school he saves her life by stopping a van from crushing her. Bella suspects that this Cullen kid might not be a usual teenager. He’s not. He’s a vampire who hasn’t aged since 1918. Bella is smitten with her otherworldly protector. It’s your typical high school relationship. Bella doodles Edward’s name on her notebook and falls in love with an unattainable boy. Edward must resist the constant temptation to drink Bella’s blood (he and his vamp family are “vegetarians,” meaning they only drink animal blood).

Let’s examine the distinctions of the Twilight vampire incarnation. Now, the vampire myth is not written in stone, so it allows for creative interpretation. Some vampires cast a reflection, others don’t. Some vampires are thwarted by garlic and crosses and others are not. Some vampires sleep in coffins and others just prefer a comfy mattress. It seems that the two characteristics that follow every vampire tale involve the insatiable thirst for blood to drink and the fact that sunlight is a vampire’s enemy. Meyer’s vampires don’t even adhere to this. They walk around in the daylight with no concern; in fact, we learn they never sleep at all, which means they must have all the late night infomercials memorized by this point. Removing the danger of daylight from the vampire myth proves to be somewhat troublesome decision. This is because, when you think about it, there are little to no drawbacks or limitations to being a vampire in Meyer’s world. Yeah you’ll live forever and crave an unorthodox beverage, but as a vamp you get super abilities, super strength, super speed, and a laughable diamond-like glow when the sun hits your exposed skin (think of those people that encase cell phones in tacky “bling” jewelry). If this is what it means to be a vampire in Meyer’s world then I wouldn’t be surprised if every freaking teenager in the world was signing up to join the army of the undead. The vampire myth brings with it plenty of baggage but it also helps to patch up holes in a narrative; just introducing the concept of a vampire allows an author some free pass with the details. However, vampire tales bring with them a certain set of expectations due to audience familiarity with the popular concept. I could care less if Meyer’s vampires have fangs or chow down on garlic bread, heavy on the garlic, but she loses me when she has vampires roam around during the day with little to no drawbacks. They just don’t feel like vampires. What they feel like are superheroes with skin conditions and a unique appetite. Which is fine, but don’t call it a traditional “vampire” flick.

I completely understand the enormous appeal of the Twilight series because it’s totally pre-teen wish fulfillment. I’m positive that the majority of the pre-teen readership projects themselves as Bella, the typical Every Girl. She encounters a sexy boy who ignores all the flashy and trashy girls and recognizes that special something in the Every Girl. In fact, he respects her and doesn’t want to be physical with her because he’s afraid of giving in to his urges (a rather obvious abstinence metaphor). He wants to love her forever and protect her. He has a dangerous bad boy angle but yet he’s still safe. In short, Edward Cullen is the idealized male for a nation of pre-teen girls who are just stepping into the world of boys (Bella also becomes an object of affection for no less than three boys at school). The Twilight tale even pulls a gender flip: the girl is pressuring the boy to give in to his carnal urges. And yet I can also understand why the books appeal to an older, mostly female, readership as well. If you remove the vampire angle from the story, it’s that old classic literary tale about a gal falling in love with the rebel, the boy who’s misunderstood. Hollywood has been making those sorts of love stories for decades, and so Meyer is able to tap into this classical romantic appeal.

Twilight never delves too deeply into the dramatic dynamics of a 17-year-old girl dating a 90-year-old vampire. There are a lot of dramatic consequences drawn from dating somebody who cannot age. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show explored the ins and outs of human-vampire relationships with wit and sincerity. Edward is forever seventeen but does that mean he still digs the high school girls? If you’re trapped in the body of a teenager does that mean you are still attracted to teenagers? If I were almost a century old I think I might seek out the comfort and conversation of a more mature woman, which is precisely the notion I’m sure the older female readership also fantasizes about (for all those guilty soccer moms, it doesn’t qualify as fantasizing an underage when he’s undead). Talking to teenagers for the rest of your life seems like a strange form of penance, as does repeatedly completing high school. Are the vampires just bored and attend school to pass the time? Don’t they know that TV was invented?

Twilight doesn’t have much of a plot to fill out a two-hour running time; the bulk of the movie consists of two characters feeling each other out. When the film does introduce an exterior threat (Cam Gigadet as a vamp obsessed with the hunt) it never feels that dangerous or fitting. The outside threat is saved for the very end and is easily dispatched, so the movie would have been better off without forcing a last-minute life-or-death dilemma into its love story. The love story itself doesn’t feel as properly nourished as it needed to be. The whole film experience feels like one long introduction and set-up, not so much an open-and-shut story.

Now, with all of that established, the Twilight film itself isn’t too bad. The movie is well made and certainly has a pulpy romantic vibe. The movie never feels overly burdened by excessive emotion or fake drama. It also follows a leisurely pace but never becomes dull. The actors are a big help. The leads don’t seem like they stepped out of a magazine photo spread; Stewart and Pattinson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) have a palpable chemistry that simmers throughout. Stewart is a terrific actress that embodies a typical teen, and Pattinson has the heartthrob glower down cold. I think there is rarely a scene where Edward isn’t glowering. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thriteen) might as well provide onscreen instruction telling the audience when to swoon. Hardwicke is a filmmaker that doesn’t wallow in pretension, so she knows what kind of flick she has at her disposal. On the other hand, she is able to tamp down the inherent cheesiness that can go with a gooey supernatural love story. Twilight is able to work because it strikes the right balance between romance and silliness.

Fans of Twilight should be delighted by the big screen adaptation of their favorite characters and heartthrobs. Sure the plot is a tad lightweight, the vampires might not be vampires as we traditionally understand them, the characters make giant leaps in their proclamations of love, and the outside conflict is a bit too poorly manufactured, but the movie has some bite. The movie isn’t moody, it isn’t too heavy, and it can come across as entertaining, though I’m at a loss to explain its extraordinary popularity. Now that Hardwicke and company have established the Twilight inhabitants, I hope the inevitable future installments will be better at providing resonating story and characters. If you doubt the certainty of sequels, need I remind you yet again that it is mandatory for girls age 7-14 to see this movie. The Twilight phenom has yet to reach its peak. Get used to it. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood starts cranking out the Twilight knock-offs. Then, perhaps, I will join the armada of pre-teen girls and shriek wildly.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Into the Wild (2007)

Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Jumper (2008)

The premise for Jumper seems like adolescent wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want the ability to instantly get away? Plus, being able to instantly vanish would unleash an inner Lothario in some men, causing them to love the ladies one night and leave them high and dry the next morning. Having the ability to be anywhere at a moment’s notice is quite a powerful gift but could it lead to tremendous vanity? Director Doug Liman doesn’t seem too interested in all the interesting possibilities afford by teleporting teenagers and instead unleashes what feels like an empty prequel to a hopeful sci-fi franchise.

David (Hayden Christensen) is a shy kid at school when he discovers one day that he has the ability to instantly transport himself to another location simply through the power of his mind. David uses this teleporting ability to, naturally, rob banks and build a cushy lifestyle for himself. He can snack on top of the Sphinx’s head, surf along Australian waves, hang off the clock face of Big Ben, and best of all, he never needs to reach for the TV remote again (seriously, David teleports from one couch cushion to another just to snag the not-too-distant remote). David is a jumper and he discovers he is not alone. Griffin (Jamie Bell, the true star of the movie) has the ability as well and enlightens David on the perils of the jumper lifestyle. Paladins have been hunting and killing jumpers for hundreds of years. The Paladins carry staffs that shoot electrified tethers out, hoping to wrap up the jumpers. The electric bolts stop the jumper from being able to concentrate and escape. Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), a head Paladin, explains that “only God should be able to be all places at all times.”

Complicating matters is that David has reconnected with his high school crush Millie (Rachel Bilson). He whisks her off to Rome and they break into the Coliseum together like crazy kids do. He’s vague about where he’s been for 8 years and says he can afford such expensive getaways thanks to his “banking” job. But Roland is circling and plans on getting to him by any means, even if poor Millie gets gutted in the process.

Jumper has some flashes of excitement and a halfway decent premise, but this film is completely hollow on the inside. Liman must have been too entranced with his premise to ask for anything substantive from his slew of screenwriters. The movie has a handful of great images and moments that surely make for a crackerjack trailer, however, there is hardly any attention paid to plot or character or even enticing action. There is one good chase scene between two jumpers going through many stops around the globe; one second they’re running on a beach, the next through downtown Tokyo, and another falling off the Empire State building to landing safely inside a community swimming pool. The pace is a little too break-neck for my taste but the sequence is high on imagination and finally plays with the fun possibilities of teleporters otherwise ignored by the film. That’s the highlight of the movie, right there, and yet even it feels mildly derivative of the sequence in Being John Malkovich where Cameron Diaz chases Catherine Keener through the subconscious bowels of John Malkovich’s memory. This is a movie that asks little of its audience because the filmmakers barely scratched the surface with their material. The execution is a wash and the movie feels like a scattered sightseeing tour told by someone high on crystal meth.

The characters are pretty shallow and powerfully bland, and the romance between David and Millie is entirely contrived and unbelievable. In fact, Millie isn’t a character but a plot contrivance. In the beginning she’s established as the caring girl next door for adoration, then flash ahead years later and upon her first reunion with David she has sex with him because, well, I don’t know, because the plot demands some impromptu sex. Then her purpose is to serve as a broken record of morality; a good hour of Millie’s dialogue is reiterations of the lines “What’s wrong?” “Are you okay?” and “What aren’t you telling me?” It gets really annoying and all she does is keep repeating these queries while David drags her by the hand through Rome. It also hurts that Christensen and Bilson have zero chemistry together. But expectantly, Millie’s final purpose is to be the damsel in distress that requires rescuing. Millie’s lax characterization is emblematic of the film as whole. She and the other characters serve a strict, utilitarian purpose to move the plot forward when it’s called for, but the plot isn’t even that good!

The audience is willing to accept the unbelievable as long as it makes some for of logic on its own terms. People have the ability to teleport, got it. But then the movie throws in the Paladins and gives us little explanation. These grey-coated hunters are some religious order or something and have hunted jumpers since the Middle Ages, though their grasp of technology must have improved. I wanted to know more about these hunters, and “religious fundamentalism” seems like a lazy excuse for motivation. Why do these people go to such great ends to kill jumpers? What is their history? Why do they use tazers instead of guns? If a jumper can’t dodge an electric cord then surely they wouldn’t be able to dodge a bullet. How come the jumpers don’t use guns to easily knock off the Paladins? If this is an ongoing war then how come no one else has caught on to the massive collateral damage of the battles? The jumpers leave trace damage to wherever they appear, so how come no one else seems to have caught on? Just like all the other plot elements, the Paladins are established and then ignored by the filmmakers. I kept finding my mind wandering and I created my own intriguing back-story for the Paladins, one where the insurance companies of the world are sick of losing money to the self-serving jumpers, so they subcontract the Paladins to kill these financial fiends. Right there I just spent more time thinking about how to make this movie interesting than the people responsible for making this movie interesting. The corporate avenging angle is more fun than simply making the villains an age-old religious sect like they were plot leftovers from The Da Vinci Code. This movie needed a whole heaping helping of exposition to provide some minute level of clarity to all the flash and noise.

There are so many plot holes and loose storylines that it seems like the filmmakers had the delusional thought that this movie was the first step in a franchise. Because of this belief, we are treated to every single character being left hanging and there is no resolution or sense of finality. The subplot with David’s mother (Diane Lane) is tacked on with promise of addressing it in the future. Jumper doesn’t so much end as put everyone on hold, including the audience.

Liman delivered on his Hollywood potential with 2002’s Bourne Identity and 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, so Jumper is a pretty crushing letdown for a man with such a great mind for inventive action sequences. Liman is sunk by such a terrible script, but it almost seems like the plot was dictated by Liman’s handful of visual cues he had in his brain. There are some nifty images and a couple of cool moments, but cool moments do not make a 90-minute movie, and Jumper lurches from plot point to plot point with depressing routine. There’s so little imagination with the brief, lackluster action sequences given the sheer possibilities with teleporting.

The acting seems on autopilot. Christensen is too bland for words. I repeat my earlier prediction that Christensen will likely be nothing more than the human equivalent of a vacant, pretty mannequin for his acting career; though I must suggest that everyone see his one piece of acting greatness in 2003’s Shattered Glass. His character in Jumper is pretty much a cipher for the audience to have some vicarious, globe-trotting fun, but David is pretty hard to like and doesn’t give an audience much insight into his character. His monotone delivery buries the cheesy dialogue. And, as a die-hard Ohio State fan, it made it even harder for me to root for an Ann Arbor kid. Bilson is pretty but relies on looks of anxiety and sensuous lip biting to display the depths of her one-note character. Jackson delivers a performance suitably in the Samuel L. Jackson canon of screaming and scowling, this time with a white buzz cut hairdo.

If I were being charitable, I’d say that the absence of a succinct story and sufficient characters is because Jumper feels like the pilot to a franchise. But I’m not being charitable. I expected much better from Doug Liman than 20 minutes of setup and another hour of shiny, flashy diversions with little context. The premise isn’t capitalized at all and for a film about the thrilling possibilities of having the world at your fingertips, this movie sure lacks any sense of whimsy and fun. Jumper tells the audience that it has the power to go anywhere, but all I wanted to do was transport myself into a different theater.

Nate’s Grade: C

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