Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Title Suggests Inherent Dimness

Full disclosure: I kind of liked the first Twilight film. It had a long list of flaws, most of which could be blamed on Melissa Rosenberg's crappy screenplay, but despite them, the film managed to convey something authentic. That now-somewhat-famous shot of Edward and Bella lying in a bed of flowers is an undeniably potent representation of two teens lost in the throes of hormonal love. Thanks, in most part, to some surprisingly beautiful cinematography (courtesy of Elliot Davis) and an eerie score (from Carter Burwell), the film's flaws were smothered in its striking, ethereal atmosphere. Twilight can be written off as cheesy, but it made the thirteen year-old girl in me swoon.

Consider my heart broken. None of the crew from the original film returns for New Moon – neither the music nor the cinematography are anything to write home about – but Summit Entertainment did hold on to Rosenberg. This ensured that New Moon retains all of the flaws of the original, while shedding most of its redeeming value.

Even if one was somehow unaware of Stephenie Meyer's book series going into New Moon, it would not be long before he or she would identify the movie as an adaptation of a novel. All of the pitfalls are present here: A meandering plot, half-baked character progression, a lack of identifiable themes and, of course, a rather unsatisfying ending. (The Writers' Guild of America sorely needs to hold a seminar on how to adapt a novel into a screenplay. Hollywood seems to fail at this task more consistently than almost anything else.) I have no idea how good Meyer's books are, or if the source material can partly be to blame, but it is safe to say that Rosenberg is taking the painfully short-sighted "stay as close to the source material as possible" route with her scripts – and moviegoers are paying the price.

As we rejoin our pasty couple, Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) are in a stable relationship, but are beginning to run up against the inherent weirdness of vampire-human dating – she is worried about aging, and he is worried about eating her. Way too many allusions to Romeo and Juliet suggest where this is heading. After a bit of (extra?) brooding, he decides to cut her loose and move out of town. This sends Bella into a nigh-suicidal phase, complete with misguided thrill seeking and night terrors. She eventually turns to her old friend, who is newly hot, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) and their relationship grows quickly. Still, Bella has no intention of getting over Edward. This leaves Jacob with growing frustration, particularly as his involvement with his Native American tribe's fight against vampires deepens and he is forced to protect Bella from her own wild behavior. Eh, the Shakespeare connection left off at some point back there but, rest assured, the parallels return for the ending, albeit not as closely as some viewers might wish.

None of these developments are nearly as engrossing as they could have been, since the film only devotes a few minutes to a given thread before wandering off in a different direction. A fifth-wheel date between Bella, Jacob and a boy from school, for example, is played for all of the awkward laughs it can be until Jacob arbitrarily, and comically, goes into a fit of rage. The boy from school disappears from the rest of the film, taking the cheeky sense of humor that drove the previous few scenes with him. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the film has a jarring, third act change of scenery to rival that of Transformers 2. It makes a vague sort of sense within the film's plot but, being the umpteenth hard turn the script takes, I had trouble caring enough to pay attention by this point.

Director, Chris Weitz does little to mitigate the shortcomings of the script. This is no surprise, considering that his last film was the debacle known as The Golden Compass. There are one or two moments of flair: Bella sulks away three months of her life in one shot and a dive off of a cliff has a nice, surreal bent. His best known work, however, is American Pie. Like his predecessor, Catherine Hardwicke, he seems to have been chosen for his experience with teen movies. As such, he is only marginally capable of shooting an action sequence.

Yet, the true problems arise elsewhere. Weitz proves unable to finesse the melodrama into something palatable – an achievement Hardwicke managed to eke out in Twilight by putting more dramatic emphasis on Bella's down-to-earth interactions with her father. In New Moon, the man simply shuffles into her room every few scenes in order to do some perfunctory parenting. As evidenced by my description of the movie date midway through the film, Weitz also occasionally fails to subdue the film's comedic aspects sufficiently. In the midst of all of the melodrama, it just leads one to wonder how much of the film is a joke.

The cast bears much of the blame here, as well. Stewart does not have much range. Her dry, basket case schtick gets her through most of the movie, but it wears thin, and the higher the drama gets, the more grating it becomes. When Edward's life is in danger, and the best she can do is stutter loudly, it saps all of the drama out of the scene. Pattinson underplays about as much as she does, but he can at least get through an entire sentence with relative ease. By far the biggest problem is Lautner. He may have been able to step up to the role physically, but he fails miserably in every other respect. As a meek, ancillary character in the first film, he did well enough, but he is simply not capable of portraying his character's growing intensity. Despite his six pack, he still sounds like the kid who gets beaten up in gym class. One of the worst scenes I have witnessed this year is his rain-drenched argument with Bella; Lautner does not sell a single frame of it.

The honeymoon is over, and the reality of the situation is grim. Summit has proven that its priority is to squeeze these films out as quickly as it can before the fad wanes. Accordingly, Eclipse is due out next summer. Most frustrating of all, the new crew is intriguing; David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night will take the helm. Melissa Rosenberg, though, remains the writer. I continue to see potential in the series, but something tells me that Twilight and I are star-crossed lovers. You know, like Romeo and Juliet.

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