Chris Weitz’ “New Moon” – Mostly harmless, mercifully forgettable.

Poster for Chris Weitz' "New Moon".

Kristen Stewart returns to the screen as Bella Swan, a teenage girl passionately in love with the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Ordinarily, I would begin with a more in-depth plot description, but that’s really all you need to know. In fact, that’s basically all that happened in the first Twilight film, minus a brief diversion of vampire baseball.

In point of fact, I would love to start this review with an impassioned screed against Stephanie Meyer’s puerile prose and hackneyed attempts at supernatural mythology… How she wouldn’t know a vampire if he strutted his hot, sparkling body up and bit her… How she’s taken the framework of an innocuous teenage love story and turned it into a ham-fisted allegory for Mormon sexual abstinence… How her quixotic creation, Edward Cullen, the overbearing and overprotective centenarian in the body of a 17-year-old has been inexplicably and irresponsibly cast as the ideal boyfriend for millions of impressionable teenage girls – as well as masturbatory fodder for their bored, cradle-robbing mothers…

I would love to say all of this. But I can’t, for two reasons. The first is that most of it is overreaching, hyperbolic nonsense. Teenagers aren’t well-known for their adherence to heavy-handed abstinence allegories, and their penchant for worrisome role models is only surpassed by their speedy disinterest in yesterday’s cheesy fad (which might explain how quickly Summit is cranking these films out). As for supernatural mythology, I don’t care any more about Meyer’s version of a vampire than I do about Tolkien’s version of an elf. She is certainly not the first offender when it comes to flouting the traditional rules. While I’m happy to criticize her vampires for their inconsistency and sparkling skin, I do so because these things are stupid, not apocryphal.

But the main reason I can’t go off on New Moon for any of the above points is that it didn’t really provoke such a reaction from me. It didn’t inspire much of any reaction, in fact. It was just a bland diversion, peppered with gratuitously half-naked adolescent boys.

On the surface, it is noticeably superior to the first Twilight film. For a start, there’s some semblance of a plot. Bella and Edward start off by talking at length in English lit class about the various ways in which they resemble Romeo and Juliet, and how they would go about killing themselves if they were ever separated. This seems rather irresponsible in a film marketed to brooding teens, but I’ll go with it. For you see, the vampires of this world are so strong, they’re incapable of even killing themselves. This rule is a bit too much like God creating a rock so big that He is incapable of lifting it for my taste, but I can also accept this, since it only leaves one [thoroughly entertaining] method of suicide at Edward’s disposal – being literally ripped limb from limb by three other vampires.

The superficial nods to Romeo and Juliet continue, as Edward is banishèd from the film a few minutes later. When Bella gets a blood-drawing paper cut at her birthday party and is nearly attacked by one of Edward’s vamp brothers, he resolves to move away and never return. Following the loss of her undead lover, Bella goes variably between a spat of faux-self-destructive teenage angst and a bit of shameless, “I like you as a friend” pursuit of her werewolf buddy Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). True to form, Bella spends nearly half of the film failing to realize her friend’s furry little secret…
But when a bit of well-deserved werewolf jealousy and a series of nonsensical miscommunications lead Edward to believe that Bella has died, he does the prudent thing, and heads to Italy to provoke the vampire royalty into executing him. Given that Robert Pattinson’s acting hasn’t improved much from his abysmal turn in the first film, I was rather hoping Edward would succeed in this endeavor, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Director Chris Weitz has previously proven his visual chops in his terribly adapted but pretty-looking 2007 film, The Golden Compass, and he has brought some much-improved filmmaking to this series. Unfortunately, any effective visual storytelling in New Moon is constantly undermined by the characters themselves. The opening scene is a gorgeous dream sequence in which Bella sees an elderly woman walking through an alpine meadow. Edward, the perpetual teen, strolls across and lovingly greets the woman, and Bella quickly realizes that she’s looking at her future self. This was one of several impressively shot sequences in the film, and brilliantly introduced Bella’s anxiety about aging past her boyfriend’s perpetual youth. But like every other theme in this film, it goes on to be explicitly spelled out about a dozen more times, which ultimately undermines it. Even as Bella pretends to make the choice of becoming a vampire so she can stay young with Edward forever, it is constantly being made for her by various characters as the film goes on.

In spite of the dubious character work, there is a bit of decent acting on display. Kristen Stewart can scarcely do wrong in my eyes after her wonderful performance in Adventureland earlier this year, and she brings back most of her charisma for this film. However, there are several moments in which she reads her lines so woodenly it sounds like she can hardly believe what she’s saying. I couldn’t help but chuckle when Bella breathily suggested that the group go see a movie (with the hilarious title of “Face Punch”), because it contains, “Action, adrenaline…woo! That’s supposed to be my thing now…”

It’s okay, Kristen. I didn’t believe it either.

Still from Chris Weitz' "New Moon".

Taylor Lautner, on the other hand, did a fantastic job. Call me crazy (or a pederast), but I have to say I’m on “Team Jacob”, at least when it comes to acting talent. Lautner is helped along somewhat by Meyer’s genuinely interesting take on werewolves – they’re basically pack-hunter versions of The Incredible Hulk – but I have to hand it to this kid. He spends most of his screentime showing off his chiseled abs and ‘roided biceps, and that’s basically all he needed to do for the target audience. Nonetheless, he delivers every one of his ridiculous lines with the gravitas intended on the page. I’d say he was hamming it up, but he just comes off as completely earnest.

I’m not sure how to conclude this review, since I don’t really have any strong opinions about this film. If I were to take it remotely seriously, it would be offensive on a number of levels, but it’s mostly just mindless pap for the teenage masses. Every interesting or provocative plot point either gets reversed by the end of the film or hammered into the ground. There’s a love triangle, but not really… Bella becomes an adrenaline junkie, but not really… The star-crossed lovers are separated forever… But not really. A girl is forced to make a serious, life-altering choice… But not really. If nothing else, the story demonstrates Stephanie Meyer’s tenuous relationship with tragedy – her characters constantly embrace it, but shy away from any real consequences, and the storytelling is happy to let them get away with it.

The Twilight saga may have broken me. I might have to forgo the next film and wait for David Cronenberg’s gory exploitation version of Breaking Dawn (*fingers crossed*) (contains NSFW language).

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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Roland Emmerich’s “2012” – Does what it says on the tin

Roland Emmerich’s 2012 may well and truly cement its director as a one-trick pony. It’s as if he wanted all the global-scale disaster of The Day After Tomorrow (and then some), but to be even less restrained by minor scientific trifles. Indeed, if there’s one word that aptly describes this film, it’s “unrestrained”. Just as Transformers 2 was a $200-million-dollar channeling of an 8-year-old Michael Bay playing with his toys, this film is Emmerich tramping through the sandbox, wreaking unimaginable havoc upon the other children. He is his own Godzilla. He is rage. He is bile. He is become death, the destroyer of worlds.

This film absolutely revels in destruction, and yet successfully strikes the tone of a light-hearted adventurous romp. It also features a truly remarkable character. Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is a struggling divorcé sci-fi writer-cum-limo-driver. Nothing special about him whatsoever. And yet, as the film goes on, his true role is revealed. He knows exactly the right people. He gets all the right information. He is always in the right place at the right time. He can drive a limousine with a missing door through the plate-glass of a collapsing building as his un-seatbelted family holds on for dear life, and make it to the airport to take off in a fully fueled plane, seconds before the runway is swallowed into hellish oblivion – not once, but twice*… And he always comes back for more.

The film gives us little doubt about who this man is. He is the Luckiest Man in the World.

I’m sure other versions of him come to mind. Jack Bauer, John McClane, James Bond… We’ve seen characters with absurdly persistent luck before, but it’s usually shrugged off as a combination of training, enemy ineptitude, and contrived invincibility. What makes 2012 so remarkable is that it may offer the most convincing explanation yet for this character. It’s the end of the world. And naturally, there will be a smattering of survivors. A few scientists, rich people, AND the Luckiest Man in the World. The film could easily have focused on one of the many barely seen individuals whose unceremonious slaughter makes up the beautifully rendered CG backdrop through which our heroes must cavort, or one of the additional billions who die off-screen, not fortunate enough to meet their end in front of a famous landmark or city skyline… But let’s be honest, who really wants to see that movie?

Whether deliberately or inadvertently, Roland Emmerich has seized upon one of the fundamental truths of large-scale disaster. The bigger the disaster, the harder it is for us to fathom the loss of life in any meaningful way, and with the fictional – and frankly silly – apocalypse on display here, it’s hardly worth trying. So instead, as with Emmerich’s previous films, 2012 focuses on a plethora of characters, many of whom are one-dimensional and serve no other purpose besides cannon fodder, and yet he succeeds far more often than he should at making us genuinely care about them. One scene, in which an old man calls his estranged son to make amends – a setup that absolutely begs for a schmaltzy goodbye – nearly shocked me to tears with its actual ending.

The performances were adequate for the subject matter, but there were a few standouts. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Oliver Platt are two government officials – fairly one-note representations of Compassion and Pragmatism respectively – but they do an admirable job with their limited material. Woody Harrelson is absolutely hilarious as an Art Bell sort of radio host. Zlatko Buric gives an adept performance as Yuri Karpov, a retired Russian boxer and billionaire. Karpov is a fascinating, albeit slightly uneven character, and he gives a provocative (but straight-forward) justification when discussing the ethics of buying himself a seat on mankind’s only chance of salvation. He gazes mournfully across at his wife and children, and asks Curtis, “If you were rich like me, what would you have done?”

Indeed, the ethics of self-preservation are a central question in this film… We see a meeting of the leaders of the G8 – the richest countries in the world – who come up with a plan to build a series of Arks to save a small percentage of the population. Amusingly, the manufacture of the Arks is outsourced to China, but for a very good reason – the scientists have somehow [correctly] predicted that a megatsunami will cover the Himalayas with Emmerich’s signature non-receding ocean water.

Still from Roland Emmerich's "2012".

At this point, I must mention, the bad science in 2012 did take me out of the film once or twice. Most of it strays just far enough from reality to provide exciting and implausibly narrow escapes for our heroes, but there were a few truly egregious offenses, most of them tsunami-related. Bad science also provided the fuel for a horribly contrived end sequence – I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say, it goes on far too long and was entirely unnecessary. I would recommend you not think too hard about the ending of this film, but Emmerich’s planned followup TV series, “2013”, may force me to revise that position.

This is the most thoroughly the world has ever been destroyed on film (with the possible exception of Titan A.E.), and the visuals certainly seem to emphasize quantity over quality in a few scenes. Nonetheless, they are mostly brilliant – one scene, depicting the eruption of a supervolcano, featured perfect visuals and near-perfect drama. But for most of its run, 2012 is just a huge, ridiculous ride. It’s more of the same from Emmerich, but if you’ve enjoyed any of his earlier disasters (as I have), it’s well worth a look.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

*A gimmick the filmmaker is clearly fond of.

Bonus: Check out this amazingly recut trailer for “2012: It’s a Disaster!” from Garrison Dean of io9.com:

Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” – Horrific in the truest sense

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist boasts some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography of any film this year, and is easily one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It tells the tale of an unnamed couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who hike to their secluded cabin in a pristine wood called Eden to struggle with their grief following the accidental death of their toddler son.

At this year’s Seattle One-Reel Film Festival, I saw a short film called Tara, whose horror I described as “simple, mundane, and rather cryptic“. Like this film, it was boring and ponderous for much of its runtime, but played deeply and effectively on male apprehension about the secrets of women.

Antichrist explores similar territory, but in a more severe, graphic, and haunting manner. He is a trained therapist, treating his wife for her grief and fear, despite the obvious conflict of interest of their marriage and continued sexual relationship. She blames herself for their son’s death, while He seems largely unaffected by it. Meanwhile, they are visited by a series of animal apparitions – Grief, in the form of a doe, Pain, in the form of a fox, and Despair, in the form of a trickster crow. These animals – who come to be known as the Three Beggars – are each profoundly disturbing in some way, and without spoiling too much, I’ll simply say that they effectively encapsulate their associated emotions. It’s unclear if these animals are real, a hallucination, or some combination of the two, but they nonetheless contribute a great deal to the unsettling and episodic nature of the story.

I must also note that von Trier has crafted a film that is unrelentingly misogynistic. Its thesis is spelled out clearly by its female lead, who declares in a singsong voice that “a woman crying is a woman scheming”. This is after She informs us that the bodies of women are ruled by nature rather than reason. Her subsequent actions thoroughly bear out this view of women, whom von Trier seems intent on casting as evil and sadistic by nature.

And yet, the evil and sadistic one may in fact be von Trier himself. The self-styled “best director in the world” sits in his lair thinking, “Ah ha! Watch the foolish, PC, and mostly male film critics leap to the defense of women…playing directly into my hands!” In truth, I can only speculate about von Trier’s motives for making this film, but the most consistent message that I received from it was utter disdain for the audience – male and female.

Antichrist balances precariously between brilliant, independent filmmaking and a “MADtv” parody thereof. The performances (particularly Gainsbourg’s) are fantastic, but bewildering. It features some ravishing cinematography, and yet contains enough gratuitous slow-motion to make even Zack Snyder blush. It also depicts (and fetishizes) graphic sexuality, violence, and combinations of the two, in ways that seem exclusively intended to support the film’s thesis about the evils of women. And what of this thesis? After days of pondering it, I must conclude… Of course women are schemers. People are schemers, and women are people, no matter what Lee Majors might say. And while I doubt von Trier is the world’s best director, he is certainly one of its greatest schemers.

I once said to a friend (amid an argument about Terry Gilliam’s classic dystopian film, Brazil) that anyone can disagree with me about a film, but they must never insult my ability to form a valid opinion about it. With Antichrist, von Trier has succeeded in creating the closest thing to a criticproof film that has ever been hatched.

You’ve done me a grave insult, von Trier, and for this, you get a mere 5.

And another point for unleashing my inner turmoil. Now get out of my sight, you arrogant bastard.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10