Friday, July 2, 2010

Twilight Eclipse: Bloodless

Twilight: Eclipse (2010) • View trailer for Twilight: Eclipse
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for swooning teenage angst and quite a lot of violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.2.10
Buy DVD: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Two-Disc Special Edition) • Buy Blu-Ray: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Single-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Thank goodness for Taylor Lautner. 

At the risk of succumbing to the obvious pun, this film would be utterly lifeless without his easy presence, quick grin and dry sense of humor. 
Bella (Kristen Stewart) has trouble keeping Jacob (Taylor Lautner,
left) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) from attacking each other, since
werewolves and vampires have been natural enemies for
generations. The situation gets even stickier, because Jacob and
Edward both love Bella, and each believes that he'd be the better
boyfriend. Bella, poor dear, can't make up her mind. That makes
sense, since it's impossible to tell, from Stewart's perpetually
mopey expression, which guy she does prefer. Acting isn't a strong
suit in this film...

Honestly, would it be so difficult for all the rest of these people to smile? 

Judging by the giddy, sugar-fueled enthusiasm and shrieks of delight every time Lautner hit the screen during Monday evening's Sacramento preview of Twilight: Eclipse, this third entry in Stephenie Meyer's insufferably maudlin vampire/werewolf opus will please the faithful  they call themselves "Twihards"  just as much as the first two films. Which is to say, this installment inflexibly follows the same formula. 

I do not mean that as a compliment. 

Some stories reluctantly resort to cliches when necessary; some make at least a token effort to conceal well-worn plot contrivances. Director David Slade and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg positively wallow in the trite and overly familiar in Eclipse, as if the absence of original thought  and the lack of narrative forward progress  were virtues. 

Ah, yes: Let's talk about forward progress. 

At the end of this series' previous installment, Twilight: New Moon, Bella (Kristen Stewart) asked her vampire boyfriend, Edward (Robert Pattinson), to turn her into a vampire, so that she might remain with him for eternity. Edward countered by asking Bella to marry him. Fade to black. 

At the end of this film, Bella asks Edward to turn her into a vampire, and Edward asks Bella to marry him. Fade to black. 

No lie. 

Deja-vu never felt so oppressive. 

Similarly, I can report with complete accuracy that neither Bella nor Edward has changed a lick since these films began with 2008's Twilight. Bella still looks, in every scene, as if somebody has just run over her favorite puppy. Edward still looks, in every scene, as if he's about to burst into tears. Declarations of love eternal repeatedly flow between these two, always delivered with breathless, constricted intensity amid pauses so pregnant I keep expecting them to give birth. To triplets. 

Slade, the third director to navigate these turgid waters in as many films, doesn't even try for artistic finesse. Ever. Indeed, this flick is quite a comedown for the guy who made 2005's Hard Candy  great performance from Ellen Page  and the ferociously suspenseful 2007 adaptation of the graphic novel 30 Days of Night. Now, that was a big-screen vampire flick! 

Slade's bloodless handling of Eclipse, in stark contrast, is the epitome of lazy filmmaking: most glaringly with his relentless use of tight close-ups, a stale technique recognized from its overuse in afternoon soap operas and manipulative, tear-jerking TV movies. It's the hallmark of a director who doesn't trust his actors, or his audience, or both: Shove the camera right up the speaker's nostrils, so that  in theory  we can't help sharing the emotional intensity of the line being delivered. 

In theory. 

In practice, savvy viewers will notice pretty quickly that Slade relies on this technique merely to conceal this film's complete lack of genuine dramatic heft. Or movement. 

I note that Eclipse is being released in the IMAX giant-screen format, as well; the mere thought of all these tight close-ups on that screen  of Stewart's pouty features made six stories tall, as she mumbles her way through another melodramatic sigh of disappointment  is enough to send brave men and women fleeing from the theater. 

Let me hasten to add that I know Stewart can act; she has done much better work in Adventureland and The Runaways. (I'm not so sure about Pattinson.) But Stewart has very little room for thespic oomph here, thanks to the necessity of bowing to the chaste, long-suffering conventions in Meyer's books; remember, the author's blatant agenda employs vamps solely to guarantee that Bella can't possibly lose her virginity, like "naughty" real-world teens. 

Stewart's brief scenes with Billy Burke, as Bella's father Charlie, display more authenticity and sensitivity than any of the laughable nonsense involving Pattison and Lautner, whose hunky werewolf, Jacob, turns her life into an anguished romantic triangle. (Cue the tragic cow-eyes and perpetual mope. Again and again. And again.) 

On the few occasions we're not forced to watch Bella decide which boyfriend to torment anew, Eclipse offers a lot more violence and lurking malevolence than the first two films. Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Rachelle Lefevre), still furious over the events that transpired in the first film, has made herself a vampire acolyte, Riley (Xavier Samuel), who in turn has built himself a small army of Newborns. 

Freshly transformed vampires, we're suddenly told in this film  and you'd think Edward might have deemed it prudent to slip Bella this memo sooner, given her desire to join him in undead eternity  have levels of strength, deranged viciousness and uncontrollable blood-lust that are greatest, and most dangerous, during their first months of supernatural life. 

Victoria is determined to use this army to overwhelm Edward and the entire Cullen family "good vampire" clan. The precognitive Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene, who also adds some badly needed sparkle) can sense and anticipate some of Victoria's plans ... but never all of them. Just enough to be tantalizing and vague. 

Just enough to remind us how insufferably contrived and manipulative Meyer's books are. 

Well, if danger is coming, that means the Cullens need to practice up on their anti-Newborn defensive battle techniques, which means we get to watch more of those silly sequences where two vampires rush at each other in laughably poor special-effects shots. (Really, couldn't Summit Entertainment use a bit of the beaucoup bucks reaped from the first film, to make these sequels look better?) 

And because the approaching Newborn army is A Serious Threat, the longstanding feud between vampires (the "cold ones") and Jacob's tribe of werewolves is put on hold; a truce is declared in order to mutually address the common threat. Then, too, Bella plays her part in helping bring the vampires and werewolves into an uneasy alliance, although she continues to do so in a clumsy, sulky manner that couldn't help infuriating both of these ancient clans in a real story. 

Oh, yes, and let's not forget the all-powerful Volturi: the even stronger super-vampires that hover, in cold, red-eyed disdain, at the edges of these proceedings. This film's quartet of Volturi are led by Dakota Fanning's Jane, who is supposed to look and sound malevolent but instead whines like a 6-year-old about to have a temper tantrum. 

Really, I can't imagine how Fanning delivered her few lines without bursting into laughter. (At times, it looks as though she's losing the struggle.) Although the dark-robed Volturi are intended to be this saga's Darth Vaders, they're no more frightening here than little kids in Halloween costumes. Which they frankly resemble. 

Speaking of token appearances, the same thing happens to Bella's human high school friends, who get one quick scene before being shuffled off into Hollywood's unemployment line. At least Anna Kendrick's Jessica gets to deliver the graduation valedictorian speech, one of the other few times that this film shows a breath of actual life. 

But pity poor Kendrick, forced to follow her Academy Award-nominated performance in Up in the Air by once again playing fifth banana to so large a cast of hilariously constricted so-called actors. Some of the performances in this film  as in previous Twilight entries  are wooden enough to warp. 

None of these many issues will bother Twihards even a little bit, of course, and I've no doubt they'll regard me as nothing more than a crank. Fair enough: I genuinely admire the energy of fan devotion, which can be a lot of fun. It would be nice, though, if the filmmakers and actors involved with the Twilight series tried a little harder, and gave all these dedicated readers a little more dramatic meat with these gallons of angst-fueled gruel. 

That's probably a futile hope. As has often been observed, it's impossible to make a good film from a bad script ... and, in fairness to Rosenberg, it's impossible to make a good script from a bad book. 

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