The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)

2019 #132
Bill Condon | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I may’ve been pretty quiet for most of October, but it’s Halloween today and that means it’s time to uphold a tradition I’ve had since 2015 — but for the final time! Well, all good things must come to an end. Fortunately, so too must Twilight.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

As usual with films this deep into an ongoing story, I won’t bother making much of an effort to set it up for newcomers. Film series like this are more like miniseries, just with feature-length episodes that are released theatrically and years apart. You wouldn’t just watch Episode 5 of a five-part TV series, would you? That goes double here, as the title indicates: it’s also the second half of the final book.

Ah, the title… As regular readers may’ve picked up by now, I’m a stickler for title accuracy (heck, it’s literally my job at the minute). The ‘correct’ title is what’s on the film’s title card… which you’d think is pretty straightforward, but every now and then something challenges that methodology. The Twilight films have consistently been a problem with that. Always promoted as “The Twilight Saga: [Film Title]”, the main title card in the films themselves use just the individual title bit. But Breaking Dawn has decided to be even more irritating, because Part 1 was called Part 1, but Part 2 is called Part Two. No, seriously. Look, I know this kind of thing matters not a joy to most viewers, but I feel like it’s indicative of the amount of effort and attention that was actually spent on these movies. (Despite all that, I’ve gone with Part 2 for the title of this review to match my Part 1 review, because I appreciate consistency, at least.)

Numerical formatting inconsistencies aside, the opening titles are really nice. I mean, they’re not so amazing that you should go seeking them out especially, but they look good. And for once, it’s not all downhill from there!

Bella the vamp

But only because the climax is probably the highlight of the whole saga — unless you’re primarily here for the romance stuff, which was mostly tied up in previous movies. It does make you wonder somewhat who this final part is for, actually. The central couple got married in the last film — that’s the end goal of all conservatively-minded relationship stories. You get married, then you live happily ever after, so naturally there’s no story beyond that point. (Heavy eye roll.) But Twilight isn’t quite an ordinary conservative romance, what with one of the pair being a vampire, so there’s some mythology stuff left to tackle. Well, no spoilers (yet), but Breaking Dawn isn’t ultimately very conclusive in that regard. Maybe author Stephenie Meyer was deliberately leaving room for a further book.

As a commercially-minded theory, that seems a reasonable presumption. But the narrative of Breaking Dawn suggests Meyer was more than ready to move on. Out of almost nowhere, everyone starts developing superpowers (element manipulation, forcefield projection, the ability to deliver electric shocks, etc), which they must then learn how to use. Sound familiar? I can only assume Meyer got bored of writing shitty novels about vampires and werewolves so decided to make this one a shitty version of the X-Men instead.

Further evidence of restlessness comes from the amount of plot we’re treated to. In almost all my Twilight reviews I’ve specifically noted how slow the films are, or that nothing happens; but this time so much happens they have to condense events with montage and voiceover. New characters are introduced at a rate of knots, simply to fill out an ‘army’ for the final battle. Any writer worth their salt would’ve known this was coming and spent time introducing these people earlier — it’s not as if there hasn’t been room for it in the sparsely-plotted earlier instalments. Simply, this saga is exceptionally poorly paced.

Almost all of these characters are introduced in this film

It’s certainly not the film’s only technical flaw. Apparently it cost $136 million, so why does it look like it was made for £3.50? Inadequate CGI has always been a feature of these films, so what possessed them to think they could pull off a CGI baby/toddler?! The result is fucking creepy; the very definition of the uncanny valley. Sometimes I think the people who made these movies shouldn’t be allowed to work again. The dialogue, the editing, the obvious green screen, the cheapo effects… it’s not just that it’s a crummy story with dubious morals, it’s that the films are so shittily made.

But, as I said earlier, there’s almost some redemption. First, Michael Sheen rocks up as the head of the Volturi, who are the top vampire coven or something (I don’t really remember, it was explained three films ago). I think he’s thoroughly aware it’s all rubbish (I believe I read he only did it because his daughter was a fan), so he gives a delicious performance. It’s not over the top — he’s not just phoning it in for the payday — but it also seems aware that it’s all daft, so why not have some fun? He’s the Big Bad, so his presence enlivens the climax, which also benefits from a good old “two armies face off across the battlefield with rousing music” approach.

And then they fight… and, wow, they should’ve called this The Twilight Saga: Breaking Off People’s Heads. It’s possibly the best of the series simply because of how fucking brutal it is. If you watched the previous films thinking, “I wish most of these characters would just die horrible deaths”, this is the sequel for you. And it’s still rated PG-13! They pull a woman’s head and arms off, and toss the head into a fire, and then they toss a toddler into the fire too… and it’s still rated PG-13! But half a glimpse of a woman’s nipple and you get an R. You’re fucked up, America.

Michael Sheen shines

Post-fight, the film has one final good bit. I’m just going to spoil it, because if you’ve got this far I figure you don’t care. It’s revealed that the entire battle — which, note, killed off a slew of major supporting characters — was all a premonition. “It was all a dream” is frowned upon as a rule, but here it’s actually quite a neat twist. I didn’t see it coming, anyway. I guess I didn’t think anyone involved with Twilight was capable of such structural ingenuity. How I wish it was in a better film, more deserving of its effectiveness.

Oh, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. It means the fight never happens, which means the bad guy isn’t actually defeated, he just decides not to bother (because he’d lose). But is he happy about it? Duh, no. So he… just goes home… still in a position of power, still not happy with our heroes… Is that a victory? Or has the villain gone away to cook up a new plan? As I said, it feels open for a further story. A pair of characters who wanted the good guys to win for their own nefarious reasons basically tell the heroes, “you’re all fools, the Volturi might’ve left but they’ll never forgive what happened”… and all the good guys just laugh, because they’ve won, because they’re the good guys. But they haven’t won, have they? They didn’t defeat him. They didn’t convince him. It won’t take much for him to come up with a new, better plan. Fuck it, I was glad this was over, but now I want to see The Twilight Saga Episode 6: The Volturi Slaughter All Those Cocky Bastards.

Happily ever after

But there isn’t a sixth instalment. This is it. I have completed The Twilight Saga, just over a decade since it first came to the big screen. Back then it was a relatively significant part of pop culture, with a rabid fanbase clamouring for the movies to be recognised, and turning them into major, much-discussed hits. But they were always critically reviled, both in print and on screen, and now it feels like their relevance is waning, presumably as old fans grow up and new ones fail to materialise. Or maybe they still do good numbers in book sales / TV airings / Netflix streams, but we just don’t talk about them widely because they’re not new anymore. Who knows. The only reason I care is because I’m wondering if I’ve spent ten hours of my life watching something I knew would be poor, spurred merely by its cultural significance, only to find that significance has quickly evaporated.

Oh well. At least I’ll always have Face Punch.

2 out of 5

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)

2018 #207
Bill Condon | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Portuguese | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

And so we reach the final book in the Twilight Saga… but not the final film, because Breaking Dawn hails from the era when Young Adult adaptations routinely split their final book in two, all the better to make more money fully adapt the story. Sparked by the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, said “era” lasted all of five years, taking in Twilight and The Hunger Games, before the two-part adaptation of the Divergent series’ finale was cancelled halfway through due to poor box office.

But back to Twilight. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 starts with an event promised by the end of the previous movie: the wedding of human Bella (Kristen Stewart) to vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson). Sorry, Team Jacob; but let’s be honest, he never stood a chance. The double-length running time afforded this book means the film can spend its whole first half-hour indulging in the nuptials, which I imagine is the kind of thing fans of this series would revel in, so fair enough.

Then Bella and Edward head off on a romantic honeymoon, and after spending three movies being an analogy for the wonders of chastity, the lead couple getting married means they can finally get. it. on! PG-13 style, of course (I believe some thrusting was cut to retain the teen rating in one or both of the UK and USA). Nonetheless, Edward’s so vigorous that he completely destroys the bed — well, the poor guy has been waiting for about 100 years. He also leaves Bella with some cuts and bruises, making him reluctant to go again. This leads to an extended montage where the newly wed girl desperately tries to get laid while the newly wed guy does his best to avoid it. It’s almost transgressive in its role reversal, except Twilight is too coy to present this quite explicitly enough to really nail that gag. Besides, if you’re looking for a human-vampire relationship that nails the sexual politics of teen relationships, Buffy got there over a decade earlier.

PG-13 fucking

Despite the paucity of their lovemaking, and the fact that one of the pair is technically dead, Bella winds up pregnant, with the baby growing in super-double-quick time and sucking the life out of her. Well, it is at least half vampire — that’s kinda their thing. All this means trouble for Bella’s life, but she insists on keeping the foetus — or baby, as one character forcefully points out when another refers to it as a foetus. Hm, I wonder what the conservatively-minded author might be drawing parallels with now? In fairness, it depends a certain amount on how you choose to read it. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has said she is pro-choice and wouldn’t have agreed to do the film if she felt it violated her beliefs, while acknowledging she had to find a way to not offend the beliefs of “the other side”. So, almost everyone tries to dissuade Bella from sticking with the pregnancy, but they let her make her own choice… and (major spoilers!) it ends up killing her. So they were right, basically.

And that’s the entire movie, more or less. Well, it is only half the story. I think it’s the knowledge of it being only half the book that led many critics to describe the film as slow and light on content (you always see such comments about multi-film adaptations of single books), because while it’s hardly fast-paced, I didn’t think it was notably less incident-packed than previous Twilight movies. Mind you, that probably says less about the pacing of this film and more about how little actually happens in all these movies.

Angry like the wolf

However, despite choosing to adapt only half the story, it still feels like the plot is making jumps at times. For example: Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his werewolf buddies factor into things because they want to kill Bella’s devil-kid, but there’s also the matter of a treaty between the vampires and wolves (which I can’t remember the details of, so don’t ask). The film makes a point of emphasising that the wolfpack leader doesn’t want the treaty to be broken, then later on it’s stated that in his mind the treaty is broken. Now, okay, we can connect those dots ourselves, but really it’s missing a scene where the guy undergoes this about-turn of opinion. And yet, despite such missing links, director Bill Condon finds time for numerous sequences where people do nothing while a mournful song plays.

On the bright side, Condon does manage to create a sequence that is the nearest this series has ever got to being an effective horror film (well, apart from Edward being a creepy stalker in the first film). It’s basically the ending of the movie, so, again, massive spoilers. So: Edward eats the baby out of Bella, who promptly dies, forcing Edward to flood her corpse with venom by biting her all over, which seems to do pretty awful things to her organs — that’s the scary bit, though it doesn’t sound particularly terrifying when you put it like that. Potentially more emotionally scarring is that, meanwhile, Jacob is off falling in love at first sight with Bella and Edward’s baby. That’d be their creepy CGI baby, which is roughly as convincing as a plastic one in a Clint Eastwood movie.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” “I think it's... pixels.”

Not that the acting of the humans is much more convincing. Kristen Stewart had a promising career before Twilight, and seems to have managed to reignite it as something of an arthouse darling afterwards, but here she’s just a personality vacuum. The film starts with her delivering a couple of lines of voiceover, and even from just that she manages to sound terminally bored. Later she asks, “why can’t you see how perfectly happy I am?” Probably because you’re not putting any effort into your performance, love. And yet, the less said about the rest of the cast, the better. Lautner doesn’t even get to wheel out his surprisingly-effective comedy chops this time.

But for all the terribleness, I sort of feel I can’t hate it, because the rubbish bits are too funny, and the mad bits too bonkers (for a movie that is primarily aimed at romantically-inclined teenage girls, at least). While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, it was entertaining to sit through — kind of like The Room, for example, only still not quite as transcendently appalling.

2 out of 5

Join me this time next year when I finally finish this thing off. Unless I decide to do it next month, because Part 2 is currently sat on Netflix going “finish meeee”…

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

2017 #142
David Slade | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

For the third Halloween in a row, I’ve subjected myself to true cinematic horror: a Twilight film. I suppose this one’s theoretically the turning point of the franchise: it’s the middle movie in the film series, while in the books it’s the penultimate instalment — surely in every regard placed to set up the final conflict. Well, you wouldn’t know it, because this is another Twilight film where very little happens.

The plot, such as it is, sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) trying to juggle her romantic relationship with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her just-about-platonic friendship with werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), which is tricky because the pair don’t get on owing to an ancient feud between their species. Just your regular high school problems, then. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious murders in Seattle have caught the attention of Edward’s de facto vamp family, because they reckon it’s probably not your bog standard serial killer, but rather something in their neck of the woods. (Their neck of the woods. Geddit? Neck of the woods. Nothing? Okay then.) What do they plan to do about it? Watch it… on the news… and… er… wait and see… if it comes near them… maybe?

So, that, but for two hours.

I know how to settle this... a stare off!

So yes, nothing happens — and yet, somehow, nothing happens less boringly than last time. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not as bad. It actually has some passably good scenes and conflicts, for example. That said, it spends the whole movie getting to basically where the last one ended. The dialogue’s still shit as well. Especially the supposedly passionate stuff, which is like some 11-year-old-who’s-watched-too-many-movies’ idea of what would be romantic. Most of the scenes go on far longer than needed. Plots go round in circles (as I said, nothing happens). And there’s nothing as brilliantly awful as Face Punch, though Edward and Jacob do get one passingly amusing one-liner each. And I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why it’s called Eclipse. I suppose Twilight and New Moon didn’t mean a great deal either, but I still think they meant more than Eclipse.

This may sound a strange thing to say, but this one’s very much a romance movie. The first two must’ve been as well, because that’s what Twilight is, so I’m not sure why I felt it more this time. I suppose the first one had a lot on its plate establishing all the supernatural stuff, and New Moon had a lot of palaver building out the world further, mixing in werewolves and the vampire high council (or whatever). Eclipse does have the Seattle stuff, but that just pops up now and then in between Bella umming and ahhing over her relationships.

Team Abs

As to that, the story tries so. hard. to make you believe it’s possible Bella could change her mind and switch affections from Edward to Jacob — but did anyone ever really believe that was an actual possibility? The story just isn’t built that way. Before I watched the films, I could never understand why anyone would be Team Jacob. It seemed so obvious she’d end up with Edward, why waste your energy? But now, even still thinking it’s inevitable, if I had to pick a team it’d definitely be Team Jacob. The reason is Taylor Lautner. No, not because of his phwoarsome abs. I remember everyone being very surprised when Lautner joined BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo, but actually watching these films you can see he has at least some ability with comic timing. His character is also more down-to-earth and levelheaded than his vampiric rival. Put together, these traits make Jacob much more likeable than bloody Edward.

The rest of the cast are as much nonentities as ever. It’s no wonder it’s taken Kristen Stewart years to re-establish the positive career path she was on before Twilight. Original Victoria actress Rachelle Lefevre was fired because her schedule for another film overlapped, and her replacement is Bryce Dallas Howard. Although Victoria has been an antagonist throughout the series, and her storyline ostensibly comes to a head in this instalment, she’s barely present. Quite why they cast a relatively well-known actress in such a minor role, or why she agreed to do it, is a mystery. At least it doesn’t seem to have harmed her career.

Team Sparkles

Others have been less fortunate. I mean, Robert Pattinson still works, but in what lately? I thought the same about director David Slade, whose work here is perfectly serviceable while at no point being memorable. Previously he’d helmed well-received horror/thrillers Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, a promising start to his career. However, since taking the Twilight dollar (he’d previously slagged off the series, comments he tried to pass off as a joke when he signed on for Eclipse) he’s shifted to TV, starting off poorly with a raft of pilot episodes like This American Housewife (not picked up), Awake (ditched after a half season), Crossbones (cancelled after nine episodes), and Powers (only available on PlayStation). But more recently he’s been an executive producer and director on Hannibal and American Gods, and has a Black Mirror coming up. I guess the era of prestige TV is working out for him.

Anyway, back to Eclipse. For a movie in which so little happens, I found it surprisingly unobjectionable. It’s not good, but I’d say it’s the least-bad Twilight so far. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to watch it without sitting through the previous two first, so my assessment is even more damning with faint praise than it sounds.

2 out of 5

See you this time next year for Breaking Dawn Part 1… and maybe Part 2, just to get this thing over with.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

2016 #170
Chris Weitz | 131 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: New MoonLast Halloween, I reviewed one of the most horrifying movies of all time: Twilight. This Halloween, at the risk of establishing a terrible tradition that could potentially run for another three years, I’m turning my attention to its first sequel, New Moon.*

If you watched the first movie and thought things couldn’t get any worse… well, you clearly didn’t watch New Moon. I don’t blame you. My original plan had been to watch all five and review them over the course of a week last Halloween, like I did for George A. Romero’s zombie movies in 2013 (plug!), but after the first I couldn’t stomach any more straightaway. Or for an entire year, apparently.

Anyway, the film. New Moon picks up more or less where Twilight left off, with human teen Bella (Kristen Stewart) and 109-year-old vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) deeply in love. Their relationship is complicated by the slightest sign of Bella’s blood making members of Edward’s vampire pseudo-family want to kill her, but he refuses to turn her. Then Edward’s family have to leave the area and he decides it would be better if she didn’t come. Bella goes into extreme mourning — OK, teens over-feel break-ups, but Bella goes fucking mental, screaming in her sleep like a junkie going cold turkey. Her father confronts her: “It’s just not normal, this behaviour.” Bang on, daddy-o!

So, Bella discovers that doing crazy adrenaline-generating things — like riding on motorbikes with strangers — gives her visions of Edward. It’s unclear if she’s imagining these or if he’s actually manifesting to her. In most movies you’d know it was the former, but this is a supernatural flick about vampires and werewolves, for crying out loud — make yourself clear, moviemakers! Anyway, to replicate this rush Bella salvages some bikes from a tip or something and gets her chum Jacob (Taylor Lautner) to rebuild them. She still can think of nothing but Edward… until Jacob takes his top off. My face is up here, BellaAnd they accuse teenage guys of being shallowly obsessed with the opposite sex’s chests. But then Jacob starts acting aggressively, and hanging out with a gang, and there are stories about beasts in the woods killing people, and his tribe leader type guy looks shifty whenever all that’s mentioned, and… wait, could there be a connection between Jacob and his friends and the wolf-like attacks in the woods?! Gasp!

New Moon is a terribly slow, terribly mopey movie, which takes forever to get to really obvious ‘reveals’ — like, yes, Jacob and co are werewolves (after a fashion). That’s when it’s not trying to build a love triangle that we all know can only end one way. I mean, Bella tells Jacob “it will always be Edward”. Not subtextually — she tells him literally, with words. Those exact words. And when it’s not doing that, it’s slowly building up some form of mythology, presumably to use properly in future instalments. Then it ends with what I think is meant to be a cliffhanger and/or surprise ending, but it’s so ridiculously unsurprising or cliffhanger-y that it’s almost insulting. Bella’s forced Edward’s hand, making him agree to turn her into a vampire because they can’t bear to be apart and want to spend forever together, so why should it be such a surprise that he wants to marry her?!

Then there’s the pathetically hand-holding direction — a shot that shows the changing seasons conveys the passage of time perfectly decently, so why superimpose the names of the months on top as if we’re all 5 year olds who can’t understand it hasn’t literally turned from late summer to autumn to winter in 90 seconds? The CGI is uniformly terrible, We feel your pain, Bellaso that even bits that aren’t bad in isolation (the wolves, for instance) are poorly integrated into the live-action. And at one point the characters go to the cinema to see an action movie… called Face Punch. At this point New Moon slips from ineptitude into genius. It’s the best worst fake action movie title ever. The scene where they discuss it is so hilarious, I actually had to pause the movie to finish laughing.

Though it may contain the funniest thing I’ve seen in any movie this year, it’s not enough to save New Moon. It’s even worse than the first one, because it’s boring. Some bits and bobs may actually be improved (some of the direction is slicker; Bella’s terrible voice over is reduced), but goddamn, it’s so dull. So little actually happens. It feels like it’s probably setting things in place for whatever’s to come next for an entire movie.

On the bright side, that might mean the series improves from here. I can but hope.

1 out of 5

New Moon featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

* Here’s a thing: the film has two title cards: the first says New Moon, the second says Twilight Saga: New Moon — no “The”. But as all the posters and, y’know, everyone else uses the “the”, I am too. Fighting my urge to use the accurate on-screen nomenclature here, people. ^

American Ultra (2015)

2016 #119
Nima Nourizadeh | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Switzerland / English & Mandarin | 15 / R

American UltraStoner comedies aren’t really my thing, but something about American Ultra — which is often pithily described as “Pineapple Express meets The Bourne Identity” — piqued my interest nonetheless. Partly it’s that Bourne comparison, obviously; partly it’s Jesse Eisenberg choosing to lead an action movie at this point in his career; mostly it’s the reception the film received: critics largely slagged it off, and audiences too, but there’s a noteworthy strand of people who enjoyed it. Sometimes the films with the niche fan base are the best films, and sometimes they’re the worst films. American Ultra is neither, merely settling somewhere between the two.

Max Landis’ wish-fulfilment screenplay (by which I mean Max Landis’ screenplay is about fulfilling Max Landis’ wishes) sees Jesse Eisenberg as a laggard stoner who turns out to be a CIA sleeper agent with Bourne-esque abilities, which are revealed when the director of a rival CIA programme (Topher Grace) sets out to kill him and anyone who stands in their way, including girlfriend Kristen Stewart.

Those aforementioned fans praise it for being original and different, but I don’t see where they got that from — it’s a Bourne clone with added comedy. And by comedy I don’t even Duuudereally mean it’s funny (there are two or three laughs, tops), just that it has a less serious tone. Even if you want to claim the Bourne similarities are just one facet, the film as a whole feels generally reminiscent of any number of low/medium-budget action flicks. It’s not bad, it passes the time, but original or exceptional? No.

3 out of 5

Twilight (2008)

2015 #145
Catherine Hardwicke | 122 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not a big one for Halloween, but I’ve acknowledged the horrific holiday on a couple of occasions now. For 2015, I decided to review one of the most notorious supernatural films of recent times. A movie so horrific, it sent critics cowering behind their sofas. A film so evil, it’s perverted the minds of children — and some adults — the world over. A movie so renowned, it strikes fear into the hearts of even hardened movie lovers.

I speak, of course, of Twilight.

(That was more surprising when it was in a generically-titled post as an introduction to a whole week of reviews for the entire saga, but then it turned out I had better things to watch in October than four more Twilight films, so you’re only getting this one for now.)

For thems that don’t know, Twilight is the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenager who moves to live with her father in the small town of Forks, Washington (apparently it’s actually a city, but the film would have you think it’s almost a village). Attending the local high school, she’s intrigued by the introverted Cullen siblings, in particular Edward (Robert Pattinson). To cut a long ramble short, it turns out they’re vampires, but friendly vegetarian vampires. Bella instantly falls in love with Edward in all of three seconds, because he’s kinda dangerous but pretty and sparkles in sunlight (we shall come back to this), though his lust for her brings out his blood-drinking side. Just to make things complicated, there are some other vampires visiting the area who have fewer qualms about drinking human blood…

Twilight is adapted from a young adult novel by Stephenie “one too many Es in her name” Meyer that no one had heard of (bar its legion of bloodthirsty fans) before someone thought it would make a good movie. It would probably have been better if things had stayed that way. There are many reasons for that, but let’s take them in the order they must’ve occurred. First: the story, which is also the worst part. Edward is an odd, creepy stalker — turning up in Bella’s bedroom and staring at her while she sleeps, that kind of thing — who she then finds out is a century-old man (bit of an age gap) and, literally, a predator… but she instantly unconditionally loves him. What the merry fuck? She’s given no reason to even like the guy, and plenty of reasons to run away scared of him, but no, she falls in love. What message is this sending to young girls? That the guy who follows you around everywhere just staring at you and then confesses he’s having trouble controlling his impulse to murder you (yes, he says that) is the perfect soulmate? Not to mention that he’s 100-and-something years old and dating a 17-year-old. He shouldn’t be pre-teen girls’ idol, he should be Hugh Hefner’s!

All of the characters are this poorly drawn. Their motivations, actions, and reactions often make little sense. The number of times one of them does something because Plot are incalculable. That’s without even mentioning Bella’s almost total inability to do anything for herself, except use Google to find some tiny second-hand bookshop in a rarely-visited town to buy a book about something she wants to research, rather than, say, use Google to read up a bit first. Then she gets the book, looks at one illustration and its caption, and it’s back on Google to find out more. Nice work, Bella.

All of this is Meyer’s fault, faithfully translated to the screen by adapter Melissa Rosenberg. This is a woman with quality TV form: she was a lead writer on Dexter back in its first four seasons, when it was really, really good; now she’s showrunner on the forthcoming Marvel/Netflix series Jessica Jones, which has promising trailers and a well-reviewed first episode, in particular its treatment of female characters. Yet she also wrote this. Even if you allow for her being hamstrung by the novel in story terms, the dialogue is appalling, in every respect. Characters bluntly state their own and each other’s emotions at each other. We’re always being told stuff instead of shown it. Scenes heavy with exposition are shot with frenetic camerawork and underscored with driving music as if that somehow makes it filmic and exciting.

Ah, the acting and direction! Nearly every performance is poor. Pattinson and Stewart spend the entire film appearing uncomfortable and puzzled — by themselves, with each other, with everyone else. Her only other emotion is “moody loner”; he at least manages a smile, maybe twice. Some of it is unbelievably cheesy, like an ’80s genre B-movie by a music video director. That kind of thing can work, a) when it’s from the period, or b) when it’s done knowingly. Twilight is neither. The Pacific Northwest location is inherently atmospheric, which is handy because Catherine Hardwicke’s direction does nothing to conjure up any such feeling itself.

And then we have vampires who sparkle. Sparkly vampires. Sparkly. Vampires. Just… why?! The whole traditional mythology of vampires is played fast and loose with, which is fine, that’s what many vampire flicks do; and there are even some borderline-neat subversions… but golly, that sparkliness is silly.

Some of these points are definitely just niggles, but the film is so laden with them that it all becomes ripe to cause either laughter or frustration. Better the former than the latter, which is why the Honest Trailer is so entertaining. See for yourself:

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually hate Twilight as much as I thought I might. Occasionally there are shots or moments that work, maybe even the odd whole scene. Bella’s dad is pretty good, both their relationship and Billy Burke’s performance. I quite liked some of the aggressively-blue cinematography, but then I do like the colour blue. There’s almost a nice element of melancholic “leaving a fun ordinary life behind for this fantastic but dangerous new one”, but I think that might be limited to literally one shot-reverse-shot of Bella seeing her friends leaving a café.

So it’s not a good film, but it’s not a “worst film ever made”-level disaster either. I mean, it’s not so bad that I can’t even bear the thought of watching the sequels. Actually, they kind of intrigue me, because (spoiler warning!) it hasn’t even got to the Jacob/werewolves stuff yet, and that whole Team Edward / Team Jacob aspect seemed to be such a big thing. And I want to see what Michael Sheen has to do with anything. And I kinda wanna see if Breaking Dawn is as batshit crazy as the plot description I once read made it sound. And maybe there’ll be more of Anna Kendrick’s cleavage, because wow, who knew that was there? (Look, it’s a movie about a creepy stalker romance between a 100-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl — a little light ogling of someone around my own age pales in comparison.)

So that’s Twilight for you: poorly plotted, poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, teaching poor life lessons to its target age group, and yet still somehow so compelling that I’m prepared to sit through another eight-ish hours of the stuff. Never has the phrase “your mileage may vary” been so apt.*

2 out of 5

* Unless someone used it in reference to the Fast & Furious films.

Panic Room (2002)

2011 #16b
David Fincher | 107 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Panic RoomPanic Room stands out as (arguably) Fincher’s most atypical film. Whereas his others are all epic, in one way or another, this is the exact opposite. It’s very contained, virtually the entire running time spent on one night in one house, alleviated only by brief outside bookends and a guided tour of the house at the start. Fortunately, it’s still an outstanding little thriller.

For a start, it’s still clearly a Fincher film (much more so than The Game) thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots. The best known starts with Jodie Foster in bed at the top of the house, before plummeting down several storeys to find the burglars arriving outside, then following them around the house (on the inside) as they try to find a way in (from the outside. Obviously.), Shh!all the way squeezing the camera through banisters, coffee pots, and other assorted obstacles. There are several such shots, the majority early on (though not exclusively — witness the Hitchcockian transparent floor, for instance). This is presumably to help enliven the relatively slow build-up; later, the story’s inherent tension largely takes over.

That said, the story gets going quite quickly, and never drops the ball in the way such contained movies usually do. Even entertaining examples, such as Exam, tend to wind up with moments where you can feel the filmmakers stalling for time; Panic Room has no such scenes. As well as staving off audience boredom, it keeps the film tight, the action constantly pushing forward.

And talking of action, no review of Panic Room is complete without mentioning the slow-motion sequence. Other action scenes in the film are Burglars threeperfectly well staged and suitably tense or exciting as required, but Foster’s slow-mo dash for her mobile, and back into the panic room as the three burglars come pounding up the stairs, is one of those sequences that transcends the film it’s in to become a stand-out example of the form. Any skilled action director could have produced a good sequence at full-speed from that setup, but by switching to slow-motion Fincher stretches out the tension like an elastic band ready to snap, putting us on the edge of our collective seat as we urge Foster on through air that seems as thick as treacle.

Similarly, one must mention the title sequence. I like it well enough, but have never understood why it attracts so much fuss and attention. What’s so exceptional about it? Though I must confess to enjoying it more than I used to, which may just be years of being told how good it is.

Good thief, bad thiefOne other particularly interesting element is how we feel about Forest Whitaker’s character. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven or what have you — the thieves are clearly the villains, and two of them are properly villainous, even if they’re also ultimately shown up as amateurish and a bit useless — but Whitaker’s character gains our sympathies; not as a charming rogue (see Ocean’s Eleven again), or in some kind of honour-amongst-crooks way, or even a wrong-place-wrong-time way, but genuinely as a human being. It helps make things a little different, a little more interesting. Especially at the climax, though I won’t spoil why.

Panic Room doesn’t have as much to say as Se7en or Fight Club, or even The Game, and it feels distinctly low-key after the lot of them — indeed, as Fincher seems to have followed it with a series of genuine epics, it’s increasingly the sore thumb in his filmography. Which probably does it a disservice because it’s a superbly made and entertaining thriller. Whereas before I would’ve happily shoved it to the lower end of Fincher’s work, I felt it had greater re-watch value than The Game and I now like it a lot more than I used to.

4 out of 5

Panic Room is on Film4 tonight, Friday 3rd October 2014, at 11pm.

I watched Panic Room as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.