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Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

DIRECTOR: Chris Weitz

CAST:

Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Nikki Reed, Kellan Lutz, Elizabeth Reaser, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Rachelle Lefevre, Edi Gathegi, Christopher Heyerdahl, Jamie Campbell-Bower

REVIEW:

After the explosion of Twilight mania, with a more established director and an expanded budget, New Moon is a better-looking film, but does not escape problems- mostly related more to Stephenie Meyer’s source material than Chris Weitz’s adaptation- that still make it a mixed bag.

Having survived their encounter with the tracker vampire James, Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) have a moment of peace as Bella celebrates her birthday with the Cullen family. But when a paper cut and a drop of Bella’s blood causes Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) to lose control, the narrowly-averted attack convinces Edward that he’s still placing her in danger, and he removes himself from Forks, telling her she’ll never see him again. Wallowing in abandoned misery despite the attempts of Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) to step into Edward’s shoes, Bella discovers Edward’s image appears before her when she puts herself in danger. But when Bella’s adrenaline-seeking goes too far, and a phone misunderstanding leaves Edward thinking she’s dead, the despondent vampire heads to Italy to commit roundabout suicide by provoking the Volturi, the ‘royalty’ of the vampire world (presided over by a gleefully scenery-chewing Michael Sheen and including a sinister Dakota Fanning) who enforce the vampire law, prompting a race against time by Bella. Meanwhile, Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre) lurks on the sidelines plotting revenge against Bella and the Cullens for the demise of her companion James, and Jacob and his Native American tribe reveal a secret of their own.

Replacing Catherine Hardwicke in the director’s chair, Chris Weitz, a director with a more distinguished résumé and experience helming book-to-screen adaptations (About A Boy , The Golden Compass) gives New Moon a more polished look and also throws in some nice touches of visual flair (the opening shot of a moon falling into shadow, revealing the film’s title, and an opening tease of Bella’s race through Volterra transitioning into an eerie, effective dream sequence). The hazel eyes and pale skin of the Cullens are emphasized more (along with the red eyes of Victoria, Laurent, and the Volturi). Laurent (Edi Gathegi)  looks better in his cameo than in Twilight , and the onion-skinned description of the Volturi in the novel has been translated well to the screen. However, it’s worth pointing out that while the Cullens’ paleness and unusual eye color makes them look vampier, it also makes it questionable how much they could really blend in with the mortals they go to school with. Edward’s makeup in particular is overdone, making him look in some scenes like he fell in a pile of flour and topped it off with red lipstick. The wire work is more polished and manages to avoid looking unintentionally silly, although I’m still not a big fan of the sped-up running effects (the effect itself is better than in Twilight; I just think it was kind of a goofy idea to begin with). Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of unintentional hilarity spread around, with it being hard not to snigger at the way Taylor Lautner whips his shirt off at the slightest opportunity, the better to display his buffed-up physique (Lautner hit the gym, and obviously hit it hard, to convince the studio to keep him on despite their doubts that he would be able to buff up enough to match Jacob’s bulked-up stature in the second book- a later scene where we get to compare Pattinson’s bare bod does the skinny, pasty Pattinson no favors), and an early scene of Edward striding in slow-motion toward the screen, looking straight out of an advertisement for the Gap. The special effects are still on the cheap; the CGI wolves are embarrassingly unconvincing effects when the camera is allowed to linger on them for any period of time, as in their first appearance in open field. They look like exactly what they are- animated, and not particularly well. Other effects are equally hokey, including Edward’s ghostly image that periodically appears before Bella, and a shot of the ‘wolf pack’ boys standing on what is laughably obviously a matted-in cliff (where did that $60 million budget go? Taylor Lautner’s gym classes?). There are still plenty of cringe-inducingly clunky lines, with Stewart and Lautner getting saddled with the majority of them, although Pattinson gets his share. Arguably the most unintentionally goofy moment is a dream sequence of Edward and Bella frolicking through the woods in Victorian clothes (in slow-motion, of course), that had my audience cracking up (it doesn’t help anything that Pattinson seems incapable of cracking a smile without looking physically pained, and makes the most miserable-looking “frolicker” I’ve ever seen).

The biggest problem with New Moon, however, is not Chris Weitz’s adaptation, but Stephenie Meyer’s source material. Weitz has ensured that New Moon is 99.9% meticulously faithful to the novel, down to almost every line of dialogue. This is one of the most literal and faithful translations from page to screen you are likely to find, and it is easy to see how fans of the book may be enthralled by the movie. At the same time, for non-members of the rabid Twilight fan following, being bound to Meyer’s writing limits how far the filmmakers are able to go. The novel has an awkward structure, limiting the male romantic lead to the beginning and end, then a long, sluggish middle section, racing to the climax of Bella’s race to save Edward in Volterra which happens too quickly and is not allowed to build to enough emotional or suspenseful effect, and then continuing with lengthy sequences with the Volturi and the Cullens and a forest confrontation between Edward, Bella, and Jacob that makes it seem anticlimactic. During the sluggish midsection, the only hint of tension comes from talk of Victoria seeking revenge, but she’s too peripheral a presence to amount to much, mentioned occasionally and popping up once, apparently just so we don’t forget about her while she hangs out like a plot complication-in-waiting, killing time until the next installment where she actually does something. Stephen King has bluntly stated that Stephenie Meyer “can’t write worth a damn”, joining some irreverent remarks ironically enough from Robert Pattinson himself. Part of the problem is that we get almost none of Bella and Edward’s relationship, which was the main appeal of Twilight. Another is that Bella is so ‘woe is me’ through the entirety of New Moon that it’s very hard to be engaged by her as the central character. Given that she spends half her time with Edward trying to convince him to transform her into a vampire, and wallows in listless depression without one man and is only brought back to life by another also opens plenty of room for debate about whether she’s the most empowering of role models for young girls. And to make matters worse, not only is Bella unexciting, she’s also sometimes hard to support. Her unhealthy obsession with Edward aside, she admits she selfishly gives the lovelorn Jacob mixed signals just to keep him around for her own comfort, and acts irrationally, putting herself in dangerous situations to see Edward’s ghostlike apparition and goes wandering off alone through the woods at every opportunity even after learning a vengeful vampire wants to kill her. A stirring heroine Bella Swan is not; at best, she’s reactive, weak-spirited, and dull, at worst she’s selfish, mentally unbalanced, and reckless to the point of stupidity. I have my doubts Meyer and Weitz intended for her to come across in any of the latter ways. The middle section of Bella uncovering the secret of Jacob’s Native American tribe SPOILER WARNING IF YOU LIVE UNDER A ROCK and the activities of the wolf pack is moderately interesting, but too much time goes by without anything really happening other than Bella tiresomely traipsing through the woods while her voiceover informs us with monotone glumness that ‘there’s just nothing now’. There are a couple points in which the movie seems to wake up, none more so than the brief appearance by Rachelle Lefevre’s Victoria as she is chased through the woods by the wolf pack. Cutting between the pursuit and Bella’s fateful cliff dive, and set effectively to ‘Hearing Damage’ by Thom Yorke, this couple minute sequence is highly effective. The other standout scene is the meeting with the Volturi. The Volturi, the vampire ‘government’ that enforces the vampire laws (the main law is not revealing the existence of vampires to humans) is quite possibly the best idea Stephenie Meyer ever had. Headquartered in a medieval city in Italy, inside an enormous throne room, dressed elegantly, long-haired, with waxen complexions and blood red eyes, the Volturi are by far the closest in the series to most people’s traditional image of a vampire. Alongside the amiable Cullens, both on page and screen the Volturi actually seem halfway sinister, and the conclusion of their scene, as a band of tourists are led unsuspectingly to the slaughter, is a flickering moment of inspired horror that would seem at home in a darker, more grown-up vampire story like Interview With The Vampire. The tussle between Edward and hulking Volturi guard Felix (Daniel Cudmore) is welcome, albeit serving no real purpose beyond injecting a dose of action the rest of the movie is conspicuously lacking.

In my review of Twilight, I credited Kristen Stewart for pulling about as much as could be expected out of the material she had to work with, but here, somewhat surprisingly, the material seems to have gotten the better of her a little more. Of course, much of this is probably due to what her scenes involve; Bella in New Moon is such an endlessly mopy, chronically depressed character that it would be hard for anyone to enliven her. Stewart seems most comfortable in the couple high school scenes where she’s in somewhat typical teen romantic comedy material, and is undone at other times, especially when Bella is at her most melodramatic. Robert Pattinson is limited to the beginning and the end, and isn’t given much to do besides looking and acting almost laughably angsty and brooding, like he’s physically nauseous or severely constipated.  Taylor Lautner struggles with his expanded role; he’s mostly adequate when Jacob is being friendly and charming, but his narrow range is stretched to the breaking point when he’s supposed to be angry, particularly in a key scene where he tells Bella off. As before, some of the supporting actors are more interesting than the leads. Billy Burke has a few ‘awkward dad’ moments, although he’s not given quite as much to do as in Twilight, Ashley Greene is delightful in an expanded role as the bubbly Alice Cullen, and Peter Facinelli and Jackson Rathbone make the most of their scant screen time- Facinelli with a nice little conversation with Bella about the question of the damnation of vampires’ souls and why he chose to be a doctor, and Rathbone going enthusiastically berserk at Bella’s birthday fiasco (he also has a line near the end that got some laughs from my audience). Of the new characters, Graham Greene (as a friend of Charlie’s and a member of the local tribe) gets a couple amusing lines in a thankless role that has Plot Device stamped on his forehead. Given much juicier material, if not much more screen time, is Michael Sheen as Aro, the head of the Volturi, who acts like the kind of ingratiating, overly friendly uncle you try to avoid at family gatherings. Sheen is obviously having a lot of fun hamming it up, his red eyes flicking in all directions like a lizard, and does a good job tinging Aro’s outward demeanor of giddy friendliness with a faintly creepy undertone. Sheen’s performance lasts about ten minutes, but his screen time is enough to make it obvious he’s a higher class of actor than most of the others, and it’s delightful to see a real thespian dropping in and showing how it’s done. I’m not sure if Sheen steals the show or is wasted within the mediocrity around him, but either way his Aro is a lot of fun to watch. Dakota Fanning radiates a little menace as Jane, Aro’s chief minion, a scarlet-eyed girlish-faced vampire who can plunge her victims into unbearable pain just by looking at them, although her basically cameo appearance can hardly be described as challenging (she says maybe three lines and otherwise stands around with red contacts glowering at everyone). Rachelle Lefevre (whose replacement by Bryce Dallas Howard in the upcoming third installment, Eclipse, caused a much-publicized war of words between Lefevre and the studio) has a wordless cameo, but gets to take part in the movie’s best scene (judging by her handful of lines in Twilight, Lefevre might be more effective when she’s not talking).

Strictly from a filmmaking perspective, New Moon is a much more polished effort than Twilight, but also lacks some of the first outing’s heart with the absence of any Bella-Edward scenes apart from approximately the first ten minutes to the last twenty. The best scenes in New Moon– the scenes with Victoria and the Volturi- are a step above anything in Twilight, but other issues keep it approximately an equally mixed bag. Most of the narrative issues can be laid squarely at the feet of Stephenie Meyer, leaving me to wonder whether there is any further the Twilight movies can go in cinematic quality. The fan base will eat them up, and box office killings are pretty much guaranteed, but their appeal to mainstream audiences remains dubious.

**1/2

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