Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Education/The Twilight Saga: New Moon

"Women Who Run with the (Were)Wolves"

What is it about the "bad boys" that attracts good women? Is it that "girls just wanna have fun" and the wild ones are more capable of showing them a good time? Is it something deep in our alligator brains that says the more aggressive ones are the better mates for procreating, even if they're not the better mates for consistent fatherhood? Is it the female imperative to "tame" the wild stallion—"I can change him" is the common refrain. Is that inclination an argument against monogamy in the human instinct, that women gravitate towards undependable, albeit aggressively undependable men?

All good questions, but I doubt there's a definitive answer (and even if there was, would it do any good?) But it's a thought to bring up, in light of these two releases.

Poor Bella Swan. When last we left her she was stuck in Forks, Washington in a terrible movie.* "Twilight" even without the vampire trappings sucked—it bit and bit hard. The script was overwrought and silly and the direction murky and slip-shod with some of the lousiest special effects since cartoon bats. With the second movie based on the "Twilight" series, "New Moon" things improve a bit—the effects work while sometimes dodgy practically, in other places hits a fine note of creepiness. The murk problem has been solved and a good director, Chris Weitz (who started out co-directing "American Pie"—which pays off here with better school scenes—upgraded to "About a Boy," and helmed "The Golden Compass," where he seemed a bit out of his depth, despite overseeing a massive production), who makes this installment look like a "film," where the first looked like a dashed-off tele-movie.**

Bella's (
Kristen Stewart) life is spinning out of control. Well, she's pretty much running in place, but Weitz's camera is constantly circling, circling, circling as she reaches her 18th birthday and worrying that she's getting older while the two men in her life, vampy Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and young pup Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner, who buffed up for the role—you should have heard the ladies in the audience gasp when he whisked off his shirt, which he does a lot in this film) are frustratingly youthful. Edward, despite being 109 years old, still acts like a moony 17 year old, and decides that in order to protect Bella from a blood-feud with a vicious vampire tribe, he's going to withdraw his protection and mope in some other part of the world. That illogical motivation is the desperate act of plot contrivance that sets the film in motion; blame must go to returning scripter Melissa Rosenberg (who does much finer, more devious work on "Dexter") and book-author Stephenie Meyer). It creates a Swan-dive into depression for the heroine, who in moments of danger is warned off by apparitions of her love-at-first-bite, as if he's a wispy Obi Wan (emphasis on the wan!) Kenobi (there is one nifty sequence where a risky motorcycle ride makes her see periodic visions of Edward pass by like "Burma-Shave" signs). She turns to Jacob for friendship and support and motorcycle repair skills and finds herself having feelings for him, which he reciprocates.

She should have got a dog, and in a way she doesJacob becomes part of a gang (or should I say "pack?") of werewolves, who are secretly sniffing out vampires in the night. She sure knows how to pick 'em, or as one of the Forks folks says "(she's) good with weird." Edward's a vampire, Jacob's a wolf, and, at one point, Bella jokes she's afraid of becoming "a cougar." Love brings out the primal in all of us.

Based even more deeply around a "
Romeo and Juliet" motif, things get more complicated in—Osilo lo dicono?—Italy with a possible judgement by the Vampire papacythe Volturi—led by Aro (Michael Sheen) who has the power to make judgements on the life and death of vampires. The better production values of "New Moon" speaks to the casting of Sheen and Dakota Fanning as two of the Volturi, although one suspects that Fanning's part was more important in the book, as she's under-utilized here. It's interesting to see Sheen in a role that doesn't have much at stake, prestige-wise; he draws his considerable precision into a florid, vaguely threatening performance that induces cackles and dread. For the rest, Pattinson maintains the James Dean persona, they still photograph his pimp-roll in lethargic slo-mo—one suspects it will be a constant in the series—and he's an interesting kisser. Kristen Stewart has the tough role, carrying the movie throughout (one wants to say boldly as she's in almost every scene, but the performance is of flickering and quavering) although she still has the annoying habit of not looking her fellow actors in the eyes—their neck, their chest, their ass, anywhere but their eyes.

It's a big improvement overall, solidly presented with a minimum of squish and a slightly harder edge, the main weakness coming from Meyer's plotting.

"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" is a Rental.

"Wilhelm Alert" here.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) is not carnivorous, but he's no less predatory—a wolf in expensive clothing. Seeing Jenny (Carey Mulligan), 16 year old schoolgirl, soaked with rain and burdened with cello, he offers her a ride and finds a smart, pretty girl studying for Oxford, studiously sophisticated but inexperienced. She sees in him all the things she's learned in books lived day-to-day and she is soon besotted with him and his life. He treats her as a woman, takes her to Paris and Oxford, concerts, jazz-clubs, and art auctions and she's in a rush to live life, rather than read about it. And David is her entrĂ©e.

Jenny is his dessert.

Based on
Lynn Barber's memoir with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, "An Education," like the character of David, impresses you with its pedigree. Directed elegantly but simply by Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners"), it manages to rise above the smarm of the concept, and turn into a cautionary tale pursuing success and "the good life" at all costs. Jenny's parents, particularly her father (Alfred Molina, really good here) want her to crack her books so she can make something of herself, or at least something better than him. He's as swayed by David—by his success—as Jenny is, granting weekend travel privileges so that she can have the experience of the places he's never gone and aspired to. Oxford falls in priorities. Superficial concerns over-take a fall-back position. And for both father and daughter, the older beau is a means to both their ends.

But it's a short-cut, a diversion, and
has the potential of switching back and landing you exactly where you started.

One walks out of the film impressed with its look, its sophistication, its cast (Sarsgaard is always dependable to appear in cut-above material, and Molina has his disappointments but is frequently fun to watch), which also includes Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike and Emma ThompsonThompson delivers an anvil-thumping line with such flippancy, it's more devastating than if she'd belabored it, and Mulligan is a real find, sometimes suggesting a young Audrey Hepburn. But in the cold light of day the morning after, one's opinion drops precipitously. Ultimately, it's a million dollar budgeted Afterschool Special with fine English (and one American) actors, and more precisely, it's the B-story of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" without the tragedy or irony of the rest of it. And one feels slightly hood-winked, reflective of the movie. Sure, it's getting great reviews and talked up for year-end awards, but it feels like a passing thing.

An Education" it may be, but if feels like being held back, the lessons already learned.

Better stay in school, kids.

"An Education" is a Rental.

* To be completely factual, she was in Oregon substituting for the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Now, they're in Vancouver, B.C. substituting for Oregon substituting for the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The Oregon film board must be using Washington's play-book.

** To be fair, although nobody's talking about it, the budget for this sequel must be considerably higher than the first.

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