Thursday, November 17, 2011

The "Twilight" Challenge: Part 4 - Will I find a stray ray of light in this endless darkness under the "New Moon?"

The challenge enters its final legs!  This Friday, the latest film in the Twilight Saga “Breaking Dawn (Part 1),” hits theatres, and to “celebrate,” we’re spending this week examining the Twilight franchise in depth with my epic five-part investigation of the series: “The Twilight Challenge.”  Originally published on YourHub in June 2010, it’s been revised, expanded, and updated for 2011.  It chronicles my findings as I journey into the dark fathoms of this series, with reviews, analysis, and more!

Today we continue with chapter six, my review of the second “Twilight” movie, New Moon, and discover some startling results!  You can read Part One of “The Twilight Challenge” here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.  We’ve got one part left, and it will go up tomorrow morning, followed in the afternoon/evening by my review of the “Breaking Dawn” movie. 

Read “The Twilight Challenge: Part 4” after the jump….

Chapter Six:
Last Quarter
In which I watch the second film, “New Moon,” and am stunned by the results.

“New Moon” is a textbook example of why a good director makes all the difference in the world.  After the first film opened to gargantuan box office numbers, a sequel based on the second book in the series was put on the development fast track to be released exactly one year later.  None of that spelled anything good for the franchise – trying to make a major movie like that in less than a year is irresponsible at best – but the producers made one very good decision.  They hired Chris Weitz, director of “About a Boy” and “The Golden Compass,” to helm the picture.  I’m not familiar with Weitz’ work, but “New Moon” makes it clear that he a talented man.  It’s not a great movie, nor one I would necessarily watch for my own enjoyment, but it improves infinitely upon everything the first film did wrong, and makes the most out of some really poor source material. 

As soon as the DVD started playing, the first thing I noticed is that “New Moon” is a much more visually appealing movie than “Twilight.”  As I explained before, the first film looks like a cheap TV production, and the drab, gray-based color scheme was just downright ugly to look at, not to mention that it made everybody look like a pale vampire.  “New Moon,” on the other hand, is big, sweeping, and cinematic throughout, with a warm, friendly color scheme that makes the vampires stand out more, and even looks kind of cool.  That’s due in part to vastly improved make-up and special effects work.  Though it was shot on a budget only ten million dollars more than “Twilight,” not a frame of “New Moon” looks cheap; unlike Hardwicke, Weitz uses his limited resources to their fullest.  I wouldn’t say the cinematography or effects are a wonder to behold, but they are never anything less than polished, and even if the rest of “New Moon” sucked, it would be worth a look for Weitz’ mastery of mise-en-scene.

But the rest of the movie doesn’t suck, surprisingly, as I was also immediately struck by the music.  Alexandre Desplat replaced Carter Burwell as composer, and thankfully, none of Burwell’s unexpectedly atrocious score appears in “New Moon.”  From the opening seconds, Desplat’s compositions are subtle, beautiful, haunting, and wonderfully atmospheric.  It’s actually a damn good score, and whereas Burwell’s compositions for the first film hurt every inch of that movie, Desplat’s score enhances each frame of “New Moon.”  I’m baffled as to where in the story Desplat found this level of inspiration, but when it comes to this series, I’ll take what I can get.

Improvements in cinematography and music are nothing, however, compared to the acting.  I don’t know what Weitz did or how on earth he pulled it off, but he coaxed some fine performances from the same cast that delivered the worst acting of all time in “Twilight.”  Kristen Stewart shows the most improvement; I still wouldn’t say she’s anything special, but she at least plays Bella competently this time around, with solid line readings and quasi-believable emotions.  Bella does some really stupid, infuriating stuff in this movie, stuff I hate the character for, but Stewart improves enough to quell some of that hatred.

Due to the nature of the story, Robert Pattinson appears only in the first and last twenty minutes as Edward, and while he shows tons of improvement, I still think he’s woefully miscast.  In his early scenes, he speaks with more confidence and even musters up a little charm, but by the end he slips back into the unfortunate habit of mumbling all his lines.  Pattinson is talented, but I’ve never gotten the impression that has a lot of enthusiasm for this material, and that’s never more apparent than it is here. 

Taylor Lautner, on the other hand, impresses as Jacob, Bella’s werewolf pal and the third 60 degree angle in the love triangle.  He wasn’t in the first movie much, but he’s a huge character here, and does a fairly good job.  I wouldn’t say Lautner should win any awards, but of the three lead actors, he’s easily the best and the most believable, and he has far more chemistry with Stewart than Pattinson could ever hope to achieve.  As far as the supporting cast goes, Ashley Greene gets a lot more screentime as Alice, Edward’s precognitive vampire sister, and she makes a quantum leap forward this time around.  I liked Alice in the book, but I really like her in the movie, if only because Greene gives a charming and endearing performance, bursting with more personality than every other character in this series combined.  Anna Kendrick is still her wonderfully charming self as Bella’s human friend Jessica, and she even gets a very funny bit about zombie movies that provides the most entertaining 30 seconds in this entire franchise (I’m guessing that part wasn’t in the book).

I’m so glad Weitz whipped the existing cast into shape, because I couldn’t have taken two more hours of the non-acting that plagued the first movie.  The cast members who shine brightest, however, are the ones Weitz got to cast himself.  “New Moon” introduces the Volturi, a sadistic group of vampire royalty that are definitely the highlight of the movie, simply because the actors portraying them are on fire.  Michael Sheen steals the show as Aro, the leader of the Volturi, with a creepy, delightfully twisted performance (though I wouldn’t expect anything less of Sheen), and young Ms. Dakota Fanning sizzles with evil as Jane, a Volturi guard.  I’m not sure if it’s a back-handed compliment to say that Fanning, a fifteen-year-old, acts circles around the majority of the over-twenty cast in just a few minutes of screentime, but that’s what she does.

In fact, the sequence where Bella and Edward confront the Volturi near the end of the film epitomizes everything “New Moon” does right.  The cinematography and set-design is gorgeous, the make-up is cool, the acting ranges from good to great, the music is haunting, and a very effective atmosphere is created.  In short, “New Moon” has some class: it walks and talks like a real movie, not a cheap, quick cash-grab.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the plot yet, but that’s because I want to emphasize how much the filmmaking team did right.  When it comes to the story, which is the most essential part of any movie, “New Moon” falls apart because it’s based on insipid source material.  That’s not the fault of the filmmakers; I think Weitz and his team did about as good a job as anyone could have when adapting a story like this.

I’ve complained ad naseum about the problems with the story of “Twilight,” but at least it had a solid beginning, middle, and end.  “New Moon” is probably a stronger story overall, but it lacks a cohesive narrative through-thread to maintain the entire adventure, and there are plenty of dead ends in the story.

“New Moon” opens with Bella celebrating her birthday alongside the Cullens, but when she gets a paper cut, the scent of her blood entices Jasper into attacking.  Edward saves her, but realizes that he is endangering her life by sticking around, and makes the decision to pack up his bags and leave Forks forever, a decision that tears Bella apart.

You know what this means?  A major Hollywood movie has been produced where the impetus behind the entire story is, in fact, a paper cut.  That blows my mind.

Anyway, Bella’s reaction to Edward leaving is, to put it kindly, unhealthy.  She withdraws from the world, screams at the top of her lungs into her pillow, and becomes an adrenaline junky.  See, whenever her life is in danger, Bella sees a vision of Edward for reasons that are never explained.  These visions are the only remnants of Edward she has left, so she decides to put her own life in danger over and over again. 

I did mention that I hate Bella, didn’t I?

Oy.  It goes without saying that this isn’t how any sane person would react, and while that’s quite grating to watch, the worst part is that “New Moon” is entirely based around the audience buying into Edward and Bella’s relationship, believing that they truly are so perfect for each other that Bella’s behavior at his departure is justifiable.  And as I’ve explained over and over again, the genesis of their relationship was senseless in both the first film and book.  Therefore, nothing that happens in “New Moon” carries any weight, because it’s all based around a faulty presupposition that this relationship has meaning.  It doesn’t, especially because Chris Weitz couldn’t find a way to make Stewart and Pattinson have chemistry.  It all just makes Bella look even more stupid and pathetic, as if she needed the extra help.

In the midst of Bella’s depression, her friend Jacob Black enters the scene to help her out, and they begin to hang out and bond.  Jacob, it seems, is the perfect man for her.  He’s smart, he’s nice, he’s charming, they have similar interests, and he’s not dull as a rock like Edward is.  Plus, Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart have really good chemistry, far more convincing than anything Stewart and Pattinson could brew.  The only knock against Jacob is that, in another narrative thread that goes absolutely nowhere, we learn that he’s a werewolf.  Still, that’s hardly as bad as a vampire; he doesn’t instinctually want to maim Bella.  These two are obviously perfect for each other, and for a while, “New Moon” coasts by on this blossoming relationship, telling a very solid story about the post-break-up healing process.  If it had ended with Bella and Jacob getting together, then it would at least partially redeem Bella’s character and the series, because Bella would finally do something intelligent, and the story would send a message about finding the right person instead of the convenient one.

Alas, that’s not where the story goes.  Bella slips back into her infatuation with Edward, even more infuriatingly nonsensical after her time spent with Jacob, and jumps off a cliff for the adrenaline rush.  She lives, but Edward hears that she died, and so, inspired by all the Shakespeare he’s read in 100 years of immortality, decides to kill himself.  The problem?  Vampires can’t commit suicide.  I’d ask why, but I doubt it would do much good.  Only the Volturi can allow a vampire to die, and they’ll do so only if said vampire exposes his or her secrets to humans.  Thus, Edward goes to Italy to expose himself.....

Wow, that sentence did not come out right.

Anyway, Bella rushes to his side and stops him from doing so just in the nick of time.  It’s all very melodramatic and such, but it’s serviceable.  The problem is that the hour proceeding this part of the story was spent developing the Bella/Jacob relationship and the werewolf storyline, two plots that end up having no bearing whatsoever on the Italian climax.

After said climax, there’s still twenty minutes to go, but it contains the best material: a creepy confrontation with the Volturi, one that, in all fairness, doesn’t go anywhere either.  But it is a good scene, and I’m sure the main purpose was to set up developments in future sequels.  In the final scenes of the film, Bella, apparently having forgotten all that frivolity with Jacob, decides she wants to spend eternity with Edward and forces him to agree to turn her into a vampire.  Because, you know, doesn’t everyone want to have to drink the blood of small defenseless animals, stay out of the sun, and lack a soul for all eternity?  Edward agrees, but only if Bella will marry him, and yes, that’s how they close the movie—with the line “Marry me, Bella.”  It’s not just a cheesy finale: it’s an ending made entirely of marble cheddar.

Again, to the film’s credit, these are all holdover problems from the book.  The narrative of “New Moon” is scattershot and most of it is simply set-up for the rest of the series, but the film feels like a much more cohesive whole than the first movie did.  “Twilight” played like a collection of loosely-related (terrible produced) vignettes, but “New Moon” always feels like a movie, with sequences blending together seamlessly and a strong, measured pace.  It’s a well-crafted film, one that often rises far above the source material.  I’m not the target audience, and it’s definitely not my cup of tea, but I can respect it for its merits.  Those merits, of course, don’t come from the story department, because while I didn’t read the book “New Moon,” I know the movie is a close adaptation of the novel, and the story certainly didn’t improve over the first book.  There are problems inherent with the “Twilight” series that can never be scrubbed away by any amount of quality filmmaking, and the fact that “New Moon” simply doesn’t suck is a miracle on its own.  Being a mildly enjoyable movie on its own terms?  That stuns me to no end.

“New Moon” gets a C–, but Chris Weitz gets an A for effort.

If “Eclipse” turns out to be this not-bad, then I think I’ll make it through this challenge in one piece…

Next Time on the final installment of
“The Twilight Challenge:”
I watch “Eclipse” and offer my final thoughts on the franchise as a whole:
Will I make it through without gnawing my leg off?
Will Robert Pattinson ever learn how to act?
Will Stephenie Meyer ever repent for her sins?

Find out on the last, exciting installment of

And enjoy my review of “Breaking Dawn” tomorrow afternoon!

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