Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A review of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Posted By on Tue, Jun 29, 2010 at 7:37 PM

Since the new Twilight movie opens tonight, reviewer Scott Renshaw has agreed to have his write-up posted early for the Web. It will still appear in Thursday's paper, along with our other film coverage.

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Here's Scott's take:

The Twilight Saga producers keep trying; you’ve got to give them that. For 2008’s Twilight, they hired Catherine Hardwicke (thirteen) to direct, suggesting they were aiming for edgy teen drama. Then they signed Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) for last year’s New Moon, suggesting an epic action vibe. Now they’ve got David Slade (30 Days of Night) for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, bringing a background in genuine horror. They keep tinkering, looking for a fix.

There is, however, a flaw in that logic: It presumes that what’s missing is in the stuff a director can change. To the delight of Twi-hards, Twi-moms and allies — and the befuddlement of those outside the phenomenon — the movies are stuck with Stephenie Meyer’s books as a foundation. And now, with earlier casting decisions. The Twilight movies can keep changing the curtains and painting the walls, but they’re still in a balsa wood house.

For the uninitiated, we join Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) on the verge of graduating from high school and fulfilling her pledge to the vampire-royalty Volturi that she’ll be “turned” by Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) into a vampire herself. But there are distractions. Reports from nearby Seattle suggest that an army of vampire “newborns” is forming, possibly under the guidance of the Cullens’ enemy, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard). And then there’s Bella’s werewolf pal Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who’s not prepared to give up his feelings for Bella despite her connection with Edward.

That romantic triangle is the cornerstone of the series’ Team Edward-vs.-Team Jacob appeal, and returning screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg gives it plenty of attention. The big moments are pitched at the core fans — Edward’s proposal to Bella; Bella and Jacob’s first romantic moment; a tense truce between Edward and Jacob on a mountaintop — and they do the job. Whatever else one might think about Meyer’s writing, she clearly taps into something primally heart-fluttering.

Yet that story is also fundamentally adolescent melodrama, and melodrama is hard for even the best actors to sell under the best circumstances. Neither is the case here, where key roles are not packed with subtle, refined talent (Billy Burke’s appealing work as Bella’s dad Charlie being the exception). Stewart’s breathy readings continue to be annoyingly one-note, and Pattinson continues to mistake raspy muttering for sultriness. Lautner brought a welcome spark of energy with his performance in New Moon, but he’s still awfully young for the heartfelt speeches he’s asked to deliver. And they’re actually restrained compared to amusingly over-the-top performances like Dakota Fanning’s sneering Volturi Jane, or Peter Facinelli’s tight-lipped, eyebrow-furrowing Carlisle Cullen.

But Eclipse truly tips into unintentional hilarity during a series of flashbacks. A colonial-era conflict between vampires and werewolves, and the “origins” of Cullen clan members Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed), show the series at its most absurdly florid — and here Slade’s selection makes little sense. There may be a few vampire attacks and one grand 15-minute battle royale, but there’s nothing remotely horror-focused about Twilight’s approach to mythological beasts. You might be able to take away Meyer’s purple prose, but you can’t take away her vision of a chaste gothic bodice-ripper crossed with young-adult angst.

For next year’s final installment, Breaking Dawn, Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has already been selected to direct. Maybe this time they’ll look to improve things by turning the Twilight saga into a musical. At this point, anything is worth a try.

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