New review for The Oregonian's Web site (the studios screened it for us too late to make Friday's paper):
The quick version:
"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" -- the second film adapting Stephenie Meyer's repressed-vampire-lust series -- strikes me as being a fairly stunning improvement over 2008's "Twilight." For starters, it actually makes a little bit of sense. Director Chris Weitz ("The Golden Compass," "About A Boy") takes over for "Twilight" director Catherine Hardwicke, and he works overtime to replace the first film's empty, pretty, humorless hormonal posturing with coherent dialogue, relatable character arcs and, crucially, a gentle sense of humor. (And it's a sense of humor that goes high-camp exactly when it should -- in Europe, with Michael Sheen flicking his eyes about.)
Yes, this is a very relative and qualified compliment, and yes, the snarksters will still find plenty to pick at (more on that below), but this time around, even a complete demographic outsider like myself could at least vaguely comprehend the series' basic appeal. I expect the core audience will squee the roof off the cineplex. They sure did last night.
(I was one of maybe a dozen men in a full Bridgeport Village movie theater. Imagine deluxe stadium seating packed with tweens and Twilight Moms for whom a kiss is like the Death Star blowing up. It was hilarious. At any rate, I'll take this particular estrogen cloud over the screening rats; the Twi-hards are quiet during dialogue scenes and there are slightly fewer fistfights.)
The long version:
No one is more surprised by this marked improvement than me. I only watched "Twilight" for the first time a few days ago. (If you scroll down to Nov. 16, 2009 on my Twitter, I chronicled my "Twilight" viewing like a texting teenage girl. Chris Walsh collected all the relevant tweets in this single post.) I'd been on the vampire-baseball set back in early 2008, for the L.A. Times and my comic strip. While it was the sort of rough shoot where heavy equipment was getting wrecked in swamp-muck and the cinematographer was using the hail on the ground as a light-bounce, all the actors I talked to were relaxed and funny and cool and self-aware about the looming "Twi-hard" fan hysteria.
I didn't want to ruin that good experience by watching the actual movie. I'd read the awful shooting script -- which was rushed into production before the writer's strike -- and it had so many on-set rewrite pages in so many different paper shades, it looked like Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Screenplay.
And while the first "Twilight" movie wasn't nearly as bad as the too-cool-for-school crowd kept telling me, it was still a shaky-bordering-on-disastrous franchise launch. Hardwicke has a gift for creating feverish moods and Kristen Stewart was carrying the movie on her shoulders like a thespic Atlas, but everyone was working against that stupid script -- which was nothing but a series of disconnected, unearned declarations. Bella (Stewart) is the best Mary Sue character ever because everyone keeps telling us how rad and funny and pretty she is! She and the vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) share the Greatest Love of All Time because they say they do, and because they're pretty and stare at each other for epic camera-spinning intervals!
But the script just wasn't earning a damned thing. It had the sort of dialogue where people kept saying sentences that paraphrased down to straight-up nonsense -- "Why didn't you just let that truck kill me so I wouldn't be confused and you wouldn't be angsty?" or "I don't like crowds (so I'll voluntarily attend high school despite being 109 years old)" or "Watching sports? Eating food? That's you, Dad, not me!" And worst of all, Hardwicke had not even a teeny tiny sense of humor about any of it. She played exchanges like "How long have you been 17?" "...A while" as deadly tragic and soap-opera serious, when they were meant to be a little funny. In the end, I found the whole Bella/Edward relationship dynamic playing out a little too close to this "chainsawsuit" comic for my own personal comfort.
Anyway. To my thinking, Chris Weitz and returning screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have addressed most of these problems with "New Moon." They start by making the Bella/Edward relationship more relaxed and conversational, with dialogue exchanges that actually connect and push the story forward. But this time the relationship is also about something more relatable than a vague Romantic Destiny: He worries (correctly) that he's bad for her because he has no soul and wants to kill her, and she wants to be turned into a vampire before she gets old and ugly, with Edward's bite being a nice clean metaphor for, um, something else.
And when Edward understandably dumps Bella and leaves for Europe and a planned suicide-by-vampire-council, an even more relatable relationship takes its place: Native American werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner, now wickedly ripped) horns in on the grieving Bella using a classic Safe Male play. Weitz gives this segment of the movie a low-key gentleness and warmth previously missing from the "Twilight" series. Maybe that's boring, but I sort of enjoyed it. Of course, Bella is totally bored by it, so Meyer turns Jacob into a hot-shirtless-werewolf/tragic-relationship-project whose jealously and shirtlessness increase in inverse proportion to his hair length.
The most welcome improvement is that Weitz fills "New Moon" with self-aware humor that makes the more ridiculous melodrama easier to digest. The movie starts with Edward striding up to Bella in supercool slow-motion and her telling him almost immediately, "Maybe I shouldn't be dating such an old man. ... It's gross." Yes. It is. Supporting cast members also get a few moments to sketch themselves out this time, especially Jessica (Anna Kendrick) and Bella's dad (Billy Burke). I'm also pleased to report that Eric (Justin Chon) no longer has a haircut that looks like Bret's hair-helmet from "Flight of the Conchords." Also, Weitz's experience making CGI polar-bears fight comes in handy when he's making CGI werewolves fight, so "The Golden Compass" was finally good for something.
The best part of "New Moon" is when it takes Bella to Europe (on Virgin Airways, natch!) and Weitz briefly gives us this second, different and utterly hilarious mini-movie in which Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning vamp it up as ancient vampire royalty in a Renaissance palace where they play opera in the elevators. Sheen is one of my favorite working actors, because he alternates serious performances as Tony Blair and David Frost with over-the-top performances as movie monsters, in which he yells "LLLLLYCANS!" or plays an ancient vampire who owes more than a little to Liberace. He's an absolute eye-flicking riot in this, and I hope we haven't seen the last of his character.
Of course, master sparkle-taunters like Cleolinda Jones will be pleased to find that "New Moon" still offers plenty of raw unintentional snark material, as well. (I'm actually starting to suspect that this is a legitimate part of the "Twilight" viewing experience for a significant number of its fans.) For example: After he leaves, Edward keeps appearing as an Obi-Wan ghost to Bella to protect her from danger, and nearly every time that Obi-Wan ghost is what actually gets Bella in trouble, like when it distracts her so much she falls off a motorcycle and hits her head on a rock.
There's also one unintentionally hilarious special-effects sequence/music montage that wants to show us Bella's depression and the passage of time -- but what it really shows us is Bella sitting in a chair for four months getting what I can only imagine is the worst case of piles in movie history. You'll see what I mean. There's also a magical vision of Bella and Edward running through the woods in earth-tone peasant clothing that made even the Twi-hards at Bridgeport Village guffaw. And finally, the shirtlessness in this flick gets so Abercrombie-gratuitous, I thought Jacob Black was going to stop the movie cold and try and sell me a Total Gym.
Of course, there's also the deeper fundamental problem with the "Twilight" saga -- it's selling young girls a slickly packaged primal myth about being able to "rescue" bad boys -- but I won't get into that.
"New Moon" is more solidly crafted and insults its audience quite a bit less than its predecessor, and it sets up several nice emotionally complicated cliffhangers for the next installment. I hope its target audience has a blast.
(130 min., rated PG-13 for some violence and action) Grade: C+
'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' (The Oregonian, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009)