The one movie more of my friends have cited as their favorite of 2019, besides Avengers, is a small little indie that left theaters as quickly as it arrived. High Life is a challenging, provocative science-fiction movie by French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), making her English-language debut. High Life is set in the deep of space with a crew made up of prisoners serving life sentences. We follow Monte (Robert Pattinson) along with a baby and we’re left to determine how they got here. The following two hours will explore the hazards of space, the fragility of man, and the weirdness of French people.
I knew I was in troubled territory when the movie spends a whopping 18 minutes (18!) to set up that Pattinson is alone in space with a baby and everyone else on his crew is dead. I understand establishing a mood, a day-to-day sense of the grunt work operations this guy has to do to stay alive, but this is simply excessive latitude to convey the same information. It was a bad indication of what was to come.
Fortunately, the movie picks up as we transition into the flashback of life with the crew and the growing anxiety and tensions that would seal their doom. I was waiting for some taut tension. We know they’re all prisoners serving life sentences so I also expected some combustibility with them trapped, together, for years on end, and subjected to strange experiments. I expected some prisoners to lose their minds into madness and others to be distraught and others to be excitable. What I wasn’t expecting was that everybody would simply be masturbating the whole time or raping each other. There’s a hard turn into explicit sexuality and the movie starts to resemble a more insidious soft-core flick. There’s a masturbation room though its overall importance escapes me. Juliette Binoche’s character is performing fertility experiments and has her eyes set on a specific DNA combination. This leads to some bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious moments where she stalks the halls with syringes of sperm. The psycho-sexual aspect of the movie feels like it should be more important but Denis doesn’t seem to be articulating its importance, only using it as an excuse for characters to act on their carnality as if this is commentary on the human condition alone and without context. “Sex is the only freedom,” she says, as if this is a unique observation.
I suppose there’s the concept that these people have been disposed of by larger society, jettisoned out of the solar system in the name of scientific discovery but perhaps just as a means of cleaning out Earth’s prison population. These people are all atoning for something, or so we’re told, and you would think the existential solitude and knowledge that they will likely never see Earth again would be a prime starting point for some really interesting and introspective examinations on these people, their conceptions of themselves, and their actions and place in the universe. We get little glimpses of this but mostly the other characters are kept at an unreachable distance; they’re strangers to the audience, so when they start being dispatched one-by-one the emotional response is simply that of indifference. Another character we never got much of a sense of is gone. Oh well.
The characterization by Denis and her four other co-writers (five people wrote this!) keeps everyone underdeveloped with the exception of our protagonist, who seems to be the model for the character journey the movie was setting up. He’s trying to live a life free from urges but ultimately comes into care of a little baby. Their father/daughter survival could be the stuff of great drama that pushes his character into uncharted realms. Unfortunately, once Denis has killed off everyone the movie zips ahead to the baby now as a teenager and then it abruptly ends in what seems like a suicidal confrontation of oblivion that could have just as likely happened at any point. It feels only so much an ending because there are credits afterwards.
This is going to be much more metaphorical and subtextual science fiction, so I was waiting for the eventual themes to emerge, and I just kept waiting. The first 18 minutes is watching Pattinson play take-your-daughter-to-work-day on the space ship. The next hour is almost a mad scientist drama with a bunch of expendable characters meeting unfortunate ends. There’s also a lot of sexual violence here. Once we get caught up in the timeline, the last twenty minutes is pretty mundane until one final fateful decision that we established earlier is the physical equivalent of suicide. That’s about it. It feels like pieces of more meaningful ideas and conversations are left as scattered detritus, demanding that an audience not just put the pieces together but also project their own meaning onto that puzzle. I don’t mind a movie that makes me work but there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being empty and vague. I don’t know what Denis and her movie is trying to say and it’s generally hard to follow when we don’t get to know people and situations before jumping around in time. There’s definitely a vision here, but to what?
High Life often looks gorgeous, with large swaths bathed in moody lighting and artfully styled shot compositions. A masturbatory “dance” into something dream-like feels like what would happen if David Lynch tried his hand at erotica. The performances are rather blank as if Denis had precious little to explain about their characters. There’s a stretch where they’re all highly sedated as well, which only makes them seem like slightly sleepier versions of who we have seen up to this point. Pattinson has really impressed me with his recent indie output working with eclectic artists, especially his live wire performance in 2017’s Good Time as a hapless criminal trying to get out of an increasing mess. Pattinson burrows into his character’s monastic aim in an attempt to tap into something deeper. It just isn’t there, so he looks longingly at the stars, thinks furtively about his past, and goes through his routine. These people too often feel like vacant shells of human beings, zombies walking the corridors in habit. The only other actor worth noting is Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) who gives it her all, especially during a masturbatory sequence that reminded me of a riding bull. Get ready for lots of extreme closeups of her pubic bone as well.
High Life feels like Annihilation in space but even lacking that movie’s attuned sense of purpose about mankind’s relationship with nature and its general indifference to us. It fails to come together for me into something more cohesive or engaging or just even understandable. This is operating more on a metaphorical level than a hard science level, though the asides with black holes are depicted with intelligence. Mostly I was watching the movie and I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in. There’s a dispirited collection of ideas and images and a general lack of hurry to get around to saying little with clarity. It’s frustrating because the movie has so much potential with its premise and setting and different narrative pieces, but ultimately it feels too lost in space when it comes to larger meaning and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C
David Cronenberg is a director that’s full of surprises. The biggest surprise about Cosmopolis, his new film based on the Don DeLillo novella, is how shockingly terrible it is. This may be Cronenberg’s worst film. It’s certainly one of the worst films of 2012.
Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a mega-millionaire currency trader. He’s got so much money he wants to outrightly buy a church just because. We travel with Eric over the course of one day as he travels through New York City in his stretch limo. Along the way, he hosts a colorful array of characters and fears that his high-stakes wagers will be adding up. He becomes more and more self-destructive and looks for new and exciting ways to waste money, talent, and time.
I hesitate to even use the term “film” with Cosmopolis because it’s truly more of an endurance test in didactic, pretentious art house masturbation. The script is really a collection of self-indulgent scenes with very little to connect anything together. Each new scene feels like the movie is starting over. Worse, the dialogue is painfully elliptical, stilted, and monotone, reeking of pseudo intellectual intent, lingering in ambiguity like it’s poetic. It’s not, it’s irritating and obtuse and characters talk in circles without ever really saying anything. It’s the kind of dialogue that reminds me of a pompous student play, something where the particulars involved think they’re making Artistically Daring Statements about Things That Matter. It’s such a mannered way of speaking, so labored in its affectations and superficially drawn to the mistaken belief that obtuse and redundant equals philosophical and thought provoking. The only thoughts I was thinking were of the murderous variety. I felt so pained that I had to check the time and only eleven minutes had passed. It felt like I had spent three times that. I stuck it out for you, dear reader, but otherwise I would have bailed. Here are a handful of dialogue samples to give you an idea:
I feel like I’m even doing a disservice to calling the people onscreen characters. They’re really more just talking heads, mouthpieces for cluttered ideology. The plot introduces new characters but they only last for a scene and then it’s time for someone new. This would be acceptable if it ever appeared that these interactions had any effect, positive or negative, on our protagonist. As it stands, it’s just a gloomy guy running into one meaningless encounter after another. Oh, and if that was the point of the whole exercise, then shoot me now. I literally cheered when the movie was over. Well, right after incredulously barking, “That’s it?”
Plot is another term, much like characters, that has next to no meaning for Cosmopolis. The plot is a wealthy guy who wants to get a haircut. Yes, that is the inciting incident. He stays in his limo as it slowly drifts down the bumper-to-bumper New York City traffic. He has encounters with people, sure, but mostly it’s the story of one man in his pursuit of a haircut. And you know what dear reader, spoilers be damned, but he gets that haircut too. The final half hour of the movie, almost a third of the whole running time, is spent with Paul Giamatti, an intense and angry man who wants to kill Eric. At least Giamatti’s performance kept me awake. The plot, much like the characters, is really a vehicle for the script’s ideas, so it becomes exasperating when the movie tries to pretend, at points, like now all of a sudden we should care about Eric and his journey. The ideas, as presented, are either on-the-nose or impenetrable. For every confusing conversation about death, you’ll get a leaden capitalism = rats metaphor.
Pattinson (Breaking Dawn Part 2) seems like an apt choice as well as a craven marketing ploy for Cronenberg to get his weird arty movie greater exposure and financing. Pattinson gives a rather cold and detached performance, which I’m sure is also the point but it’s not exactly an outlet to showcase any potential range. I’m sure Pattinson leaped at the chance to work with Cronenberg, but he should have checked out his emotionally vacant character first. Oh I get it that Eric is a guy who seemingly has it all but now feels empty, and I get how it’s meant to be an analogue for the Wall Street set that’s hijacked our capitalism markets (rats!). I get it. It’s just lousy, and Pattinson could have been replaced with just about any young Hollywood hunk. The only enjoyable aspect of this whole movie, and this is simply a theoretical extension, is that plenty of diehard Twilight fans are going to watch this movie and be very very confused.
Cronenberg keeps us locked in that limo, at least for the first half of the film. We get to watch Eric host an array of guests. He gets serviced by a middle-aged woman (Juliette Binoche). He gets a prostate exam while conducting a meeting. He gets up-to-the-minute reports on the millions of dollars he’s hemorrhaging, and he doesn’t care. Money has lost all known value when everything is given to you. Look, I can make vague, self-important statements too. I’ll credit Cronenberg with finding creative ways to play around within the confined space of the limo, making the film less hermetic than it by all means should be. However, bad green screen effect work really proves distracting, so that you’re given another reason to check out when characters drone on as they do.
Strictly put, this was not a story that needed to be turned into a movie. I’m sure DeLillo’s novella has its own weight and power, but the big-screen adaptation of Cosmopolis is all flaccid pontification, empty verbal masturbation, and crushing dead weight. It was a Herculean effort for me to watch this meandering movie to the end and I know I can’t be alone in this regard. If only the characters were really characters, or the plot had any minute sense of momentum, or that the dialogue was less purposely obtuse, or if the movie felt like it was at least going somewhere or had some small recognizable shred of purpose. I won’t go as far to say that you should be worried if any of your friends gushes to you about how great this movie is, but you should probably keep an eye on them or see if they bumped their head. This movie is more like an insufferable lecture by the most boring people who confuse cerebral with impenetrable. If you’re not going to supply me any significant means of entry to engage with your art, then I’ll just go play with somebody else. Cosmopolis feels like the worst and most pretentious student film you’ll ever see. The rub is that a great director like Cronenberg made it.
Nate’s Grade: D
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-
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.
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-
Would you believe at no point does the film Water for Elephants come close to explaining its title? I have never read the best-selling 2007 novel, where I’m sure it’s given some glancing explanation; so allow me to thus pontificate. Rosie the elephant is given tubs of whiskey at several points in the movie, which she happily laps up thanks to her prominent proboscis. So does that mean that the “water” for elephants is whiskey? If that’s the case, then this is really a tale of dangerous enabling. But then again, how do you tell a four-ton pachyderm that she’s cut off?
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from becoming a licensed vet from Cornell in 1931 when he’s delivered some tragic news. His Polish immigrant parents died in a car accident. Distraught, Jacob runs away and hops onto a passing train, stumbling upon a crew of circus performers. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus, led by the fiery August (Christoph Waltz). He’s about to be thrown off the train when he panics and screams that he’s a vet. August hires the kid as the team’s newest vet and Jacob finds animals that are in bad shape and pushed to their limits. He recommends a mercy killing for the main attraction, a white horse that the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), performs upon. He takes some initiative and puts the horse out, despite August’s wishes. Lucky for them all, they find a new star attraction – Rosie the elephant. Robert doesn’t know the first thing about elephants, or “bulls” as they’re referred to by performers, but he’s tasked with getting the creature ready to perform or else everyone will be destitute. The man has a way with pachyderms, and the Benzini Brothers experience a windfall of new business, looking to take on Ringling Brothers. But the whole time, Jacob is making moon eyes at the boss’s wife, despite everyone telling him at every turn not to.
The biggest issue this movie has is that the trio of main characters all feel like they exist in separate movies. There is zero chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon, further dampening their lukewarm romance. Robert is a character defined by being young and having a moral center. He’s not a person so much as an alternative. Marlena is the damsel very distressed, and Witherspoon plays her part all in all slow cock-eyed glances. If I had to pick one of the three, I’d choose to go with August’s version of the story just because he’s a more interesting character than our do-gooding Jacob. August is a huckster who needs to take care of a caravan of drifters and sell them to the public as the stuff of dream and legend. He has some charisma, he’s constantly leveraged against debts, and he is pressured to keep things afloat and to keep people from mutinying. This is beyond the heyday of circuses, so he knows that too many shows with too few people means that his troupe will be picked apart by circus carpetbaggers. You actually start to empathize with him at turns, and then he goes off and beats animals or his wife and that’s that. August is an interesting, vulnerable, flawed character, and he’s given the thankless role of being setup as sneering villain. I would have rather watched August try and keep his deteriorating circus together than watch another tired romantic triangle.
The romance that so much rides on is about as sure-footed as a drunken elephant. Part of this is the failure of Pattinson to deliver a performance that doesn’t feel wooden and artificial, as if he’s posing more than acting. But the romance, which dominates the film’s narrative, is given such scant reasoning that it expects the audience to simply fill in the blanks. He’s a young, good-looking guy who loves animals. She loves animals. Her husband is a jerk, so what’s the problem? Naturally, she’d just run to whatever available catch she could find to escape her hell so anything that delves into more character detail would be a waste of time, right? The movie seems to think so. The love triangle all inhabit very rigidly defined parts. Just because a woman is married to a nasty guy doesn’t mean I instantly want her to get together with just any alternative. Sure this lady deserves to be treated better, but just because a film presents “Option B,” and that option happens to set teenage girls aflutter, doesn’t mean I’m rooting for “Option B” just because it’s not “Option A.” That’s not enough for me to make a satisfying romance, but that’s all Water for Elephants has its aim set on. I need more effort, movie. It’s no surprise that the romantic moments are the weakest parts of the film.
The real star of the movie is Rosie the elephant. She’s a natural performer and she’s got more presence than Witherspoon. I needed more moments with Rosie. After a somewhat boring first act, I started wishing that Rosie would replace someone in this dull love triangle. Imagine how much more interesting this movie would be if it was the heartbreaking story of one man, on woman, and one elephant. Maybe Jacob likes fat-bottomed girls. For animal lovers, there are some wince-inducing sequences of animal cruelty, mostly at the hands of the temperamental August.
The very opening sets the story up for a colossal disaster in the end, and the fact that we are not delivered disaster is a disaster of storytelling (too much?). I’ll try and keep the spoilers in a general sense without going into specifics. The film is bookended by the framing device of Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) leaving his nursing home to see a circus and tell his life’s story. During his conversation with a circus leader (Paul Schneider), the young man is taken aback when Old Jacob reveals he was apart of the Benzini Brothers troupe when “it” happened. We’re told that it’s like the third biggest circus disaster in history and it has reverberated through decades. I’m set up for something memorable. I’m set up for a tragic ending, likely involving Marlena so that their love will forever have that tinge of unrequited longing. Then when we do eventually head to our big moment in the big top, well it’s far from memorable. Once you assess the ending, you realize that there is very little to make it number three on history’s lists of circus-related mayhem. If this stuff registered as number three, what the hell was number four? A clown catching his hair on fire? And then the movie carries on to some ludicrously happy ending, which seemed tonally inappropriate given the mood of the film and the poorly written romance between Jacob and Marlena. I was prepared for something operatic and terrible, and skimping out on that after an exasperated setup makes me feel hoodwinked, like listening to August bark about the greatest sights and sounds imaginable when they’re all just a trick. Something tells me that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You) was not intending to add some meta commentary on how his story is built for dissatisfaction.
Water for Elephants is a watered-down romance that flounders thanks to three different actors acting like they’re in three different movies. Also, it doesn’t help your romance when so little work is put into making young people fall in love. There are fascinating circus-related tidbits that make me wish the movie was more Depression era circus drama than Depression era circus romance. It’s a handsome enough movie from a technical standpoint, and it has some points of interest and some interesting characters, but its shackled to such a weightless and naïve love story. This movie was described by many as an “old fashioned” kind of film, and generally that can be construed as a warning signal. When people dub something “old fashioned” it can tend to mean “boring except to older people.” It just so happens that my screening of the film was an open caption screening, which attracted dozens of our nation’s elderly and hearing impaired. I didn’t so much mind having grown up with subtitled foreign films. But one delightful accident of seeing this open captioned screening was that they captioned everything. Every sound, every offhand piece of dialogue that would ordinarily go unnoticed and undetected. So now I got to see, as subtitle form, such discoveries as Guy in Background saying, “Hey pick that up,” and Other Guy in Background responding, “Okay. Put it where?” It was more exciting than what was going on between Jacob and Marlena. Now let’s get that elephant drunk!
Nate’s Grade: C
How much time do we give before our memories are used as unnecessary and cheap dramatic ploys to wring out tears? Remember Me will test your sensibilities on what should be classified as art and what should be designated as hacky, shameless exploitation.
Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) is a troubled 21-year-old college student in New York City. He’s mostly estranged from his rich, distant father (Pierce Brosnan). Tyler’s older brother hanged himself five years earlier, and that personal tragedy still lingers. Tyler quotes poetry, writes letters to his dead brother, and has his share of run-ins with the police. Sergeant Neil Craig (Chris Cooper) busts Tyler and his friend (Tate Ellington, mostly annoying) one night after the duo tries to clear up a brawl. Then the boys discover that the sergeant’s daughter, Ally (Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin) also attends their college. They devise a sketchy means of getting even: Tyler will date Ally. A subway mugger killed her mother when she was 9 years old, so the two bond over family misfortune. He asks her out for dinner and she appears cautious, but it isn’t long before love is in the air. Dad doesn’t approve but that won’t stop Ally from spending time with her special someone. Suddenly Tyler is vulnerable and coming out of his shell. It looks like things might work out though you don?t really comprehend why, then things take a sudden turn and very much do not work out. More details on that plot development later.
Remember Me does not work for many reasons, but as designed, it was never going to work. Allow me to go into greater analysis, which will naturally unleash a horde of spoilers concerning the film’s conclusion.
This movie will not work; in fact it refuses to work from a conceptual standpoint. The story seems retrofitted to lead directly to the ending. Screenwriter Will Fetters seems to have followed the M. Night Shyamalan approach to screenwriting and come up with a twist ending and worked backwards. You see dear reader, the film climaxes on a day burned into the memories of everyone who lived through it — September 11, 2001. The movie plays coy with its timeline the whole time, never drawing too much attention to its exact setting. Tyler even goes to see American Pie 2 to lift his spirits, and who besides people who are crazy about film release dates would know that was released back in August 2001? There’s also a jump forward of ten years from the murder of Ally’s mother in 1991, but that’s the last time the movie ever reminds you about time. Instead, it makes sure that all the pieces will be in place so that Tyler will be standing on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center, looking off into the horizon for the last day. Fetters’ story uses a national trauma as a dramatic tragedy for his doomed lovers. But here’s the thing: anything else would have worked the same. Did Tyler really have to die in the 9/11 attacks? Could he not have had an accident, gotten mugged, hit by a car, or any number of other missteps that would have the same effect? The emphasis isn’t on the relationship of 9/11 to the characters; 9/11 just serves as the event to wipe out one half of our relationship. But any other event would have resulted in the same effect without coming across as so icky and exploitative. The movie does not work because it’s designed as a ?gotcha? ending but the only “gotcha” is that 9/11 is shamefully used to spin this illusion that Remember Me is meaningful and transcendent.
The other half of this argument could go as such: Fetters was trying to tell but one tale of the many that lost their lives on 9/11, illuminating the fantastic human toll and how each number was a person with a family and friends that will forever miss them. That would have been sufficient. Hollywood and the cinema have a history of taking national tragedies and showcasing individuals who were lost. I even declared United 93, the docu-drama painstakingly detailing the final moments aboard that downed airline, the best film of 2006, and four years later I still stand by that declaration. Artists can take collective pain and showcase triumph and substance, allowing us a cathartic means for therapy and working through trauma. I believe with every fiber of my being that art has the power to heal and elucidate.
However, Remember Me is not that kind of art. If Fetters had a strong desire to showcase one of the lives lost that horrific day, that’s a noble effort. But the drama of Remember Me is stagnant and suffused with stereotypes and one-note characters bumbling around, uncertain what exactly they should be doing. It almost seems like everyone is simply waiting for the Big Event at the end, and that in itself is disquieting. The character dynamics of this movie couldn’t get more cliché. This sloppy, overcooked weepie has the Bad Boy and you know he?s troubled because he has stubble and smokes. Pattinson also spends 80 percent of his screen time looking forlorn. I’m sorry, but looking off screen and being forlorn are not replacements for good character development. He’s lost a brother and he?s mad at his distant, workaholic father, but you might as well describe him as Boy. That’s pretty much his extent in this film. His love interest could equally be named simply Girl. The two have a shared history of family tragedy, but then what? Do we learn anything about Ally as a person, about what draws her to Tyler (besides that haircut, of course), or how her life is made more whole thanks to the brooding bad boy? No. It would be generous to even refer to these characters as archetypes. They are characters in name only. Fetters has cobbled an equation that simply boils down to Boy + troubled past + Girl + troubled past = perfect future. Even worse, their whirlwind courtship feels like it exists in some movie world where gazes and hugs substitute for the excitement of romance, of feeling out the interested party and becoming overwhelmed with the sheer possibility of a relationship. This is only a love story from a the standpoint of that equation. You never believe for a second that anybody matters because they only feel like puppets meant to go through the motions until the film reaches its anvil of a climax. Then, you see, we’re supposed to feel because there is death, except I didn?t see any convincing signs of life beforehand.
The rest of the story is awash with bizarre and mostly lame elements meant to heighten the ensemble drama. For whatever reason, Tyler’s friend coaxes him into initially dating Ally as a contrived means of sticking it to her father. This tiny yet stupid hurdle will of course be revisited when the film’s second act break comes calling. But why does this past run-in even matter? Romantic comedies have all sorts of plots where the couple begins their time together through some duplicitous guise, and of course the truth drops just as guy and girl are starting to really like one another. But in Remember Me it isn’t a bet or something nefarious that brings boy and girl together. If anything, the run-in with dad could be seen as an introduction. The “get revenge” idea isn’t something that’s ever revisited by Tyler or his friend, nor do they at any point provide further detail. It remains a vague notion from beginning to end.
Then there’s Tyler’s own family drama. The strangest plot addition is when Tyler’s younger sister attends a birthday party. It is at this birthday party that a cohort of mean girls gives Caroline Hawkins an unflattering makeover. This bad haircut is then played for ridiculous dramatic overkill. Everyone around the kid is speaking in hushed tones, trembling, recollecting as a family unit, and pretty much acting like Caroline had been molested when, at worst, she got her hair cut by some mean girls. Tyler even escorts his kid sis to school and almost decks one of the little girls responsible, instead choosing to huff and puff in her face like a raging bull. I guess when you’re Pattinson and a good third of your acting comes from your haircut, you take follicle care very seriously.
Remember Me is so anxious to be poetic. It’s not. It’s pedantic and faux intellectual. It wants to be a moving romance. It?s not. It?s two pretty but bland characters that just seem to play around furniture and eventually do it. They’re as interesting as bland pretty people usually are in these things. It wants to be a significant drama that manages to say something big. It’s not. It’s a slapdash effort revolving entirely around the eventual reveal of a “gotcha” ending that does nothing to justify all the strained spinning. At best, the ending is in poor taste and a cheap trick to gin up sympathy and give the impression of substance. At worst, it’s ugly exploitation that reduces a national tragedy into a last-ditch effort to cover the empathetic deficiencies of a lackluster drama. Flogging national suffering to make an audience feel for your bland characters after an empty 100 minutes? That’s offensive. Remember Me isn’t worth any outrage. It?s a pretty but mostly empty venture designed around a twist. It is anything but worth remembering, even in disgust.
Nate’s Grade: D+
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+
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+
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-
I’m really liking how much more mature this series gets as it goes. I’m also enjoying the fact that they’ve had two talented directors in a row with, surprise, artistic vision. Harry Potter 4 isn’t the best film as far as plot is concerned (if they needed Potter’s blood could they not have done this at any time?). It is, however, the best as far as character, turning near every scene into an awkward coming of age moment. The movie is far more comical than the rest; seriously, nearly every scene has some comedic underpinning. The emergence of the Dark Lord (a nasally-challenged Ralph Fiennes) is creepy, and the series gets better as its outlook gets darker.
Nate’s Grade: B