Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Put a Stake in This One

Hon. Daughter #2's Girl Scout troop has been working on the Reading badge. One requirement involves selecting, reading and discussing a book; as two or three of the girls were already diehard Twi-hards and they're all about that age the choice of Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, was elementary. This, of course, means that the leaders had to read it too.

But more about that later, as my book notes are all on a laptop to which the power cord adaptor was lately lost by one of the boys. The topic for today is the movie based on the book, for which despite some grousing I shelled out nine bucks to accompany the girls last Friday night.

The uninitiated may require a brief overview of the Twilight phenomenon. Twilight is the first in a series of four books currently wildly popular among teenage girls. The plot is stock romance novel with a twist: Shy, awkward new girl at the high school meets the most gorgeous guy on campus. First they don't hit it off, then they fall madly in love. The twist is that the hot guy's a vampire who's locked in a mortal struggle with his own lust--bloodlust, that is. He's also been perpetually seventeen since a near-death encounter with the Spanish Lady in 1917. Obviously, these star-crossed lovers aren't going to be living happily ever after without some major lifestyle changes.

On to the movie.

Twilight (the movie) is, to its credit, a fairly faithful rendering of Twilight (the book) insofar as that can be accomplished without running to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings lengths (thankfully, it does not.) Departures from the plot are few, which should keep the book fans happy. Much of the dialogue is lifted intact from the book; fans can pretty much recite along for individual scenes. (One notable exception is Edward's lack of response to Bella's declaration that she isn't afraid of him: for several pregnant seconds, the audience hangs waiting for the ominous "You should be," that never comes. I wondered afterward about the possibility of a Rocky Horror Picture Show moment right there, where the audience could just fill it in. Then throw toast during the diner scenes, raise umbrellas almost everywhere else--the story's set on Washington's Olympic Peninsula-- and do the Time Warp during the prom...oh, never mind.)

Other good points of the movie are some very picturesque scenes of the local landscape and the fact that there's no foul language, no nudity, no gross-out body fluid situations, and no sex in it. The leads do sleep together in one scene--at least, the one capable of sleeping does--but that's as close to shenanigans as anyone gets. Thus while I wasn't exactly crazy about Twilight, I was at least able to sit through it without once being seized by the urge to grab my thirteen-year-old daughter by the collar and yank her over two rows of other viewers and their popcorn tubs while beating a hasty retreat from the premeses.

Much of what I didn't like in the movie was what I didn't like in the book, but that's another essay. Here I'll stick to what I think are failures of the movie.

Primary among these is the choppy feel the film has: it's basically a pastiche of scenes from the book and often doesn't flow seamlessly from scene to scene. This is a shame as Stephenie Meyer actually did a decent job of transitioning from chapter to chapter. If you've read the book and can mentally fill in what's between, you can follow the story; if you haven't you'll just annoy your Twi-hard companions by repeatedly nudging them and asking "what's going on?"

A film needs believability, even (or especially) if all manner of improbable things are going on in it. Good acting will go far to convey the viewer into the most fantastic worlds. Which brings us to problem number two: I wasn't conveyed. With few exceptions (the young man who plays Jacob Black is kinda cute and actually manages to convey some realistic emotion and Edward's "sister" Alice delivers her telepathy-laced remarks smoothly and naturally) characters fail to convince. Part of this must be laid at Meyer's feet as she didn't do a great job of creating complex characters to begin with, but the actors don't do much with their material, either. The delivery of lines is often stilted, and the principals are serious offenders in this regard. Oddly, given that Bella and Edward are overwrought teenagers in love, it's hard to feel much passion or anything else in their dialogue. Not that Bella is ever very demonstrative: were Dorothy Parker alive today, I suspect she might have dusted off her famous pan of the young Katharine Hepburn, "She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B," just for her. Bella's relationship with her airheaded mother is supposed to be close and affectionate, and one wonders why; there's little chemistry or communication there. Her relationship with her long-absent father is awkward, but even after she's been living with him for a while Bella never really warms up to him. Again, one wonders why. He seems a decent fellow.

If the protagonists are a little wooden, James, chief among the villains, goes too far in the other direction. He tries to infuse his character with personality, bless his heart. Maybe he tries a little too hard. His character, an obsessive vampire uberpredator, should be sinister and frightening. All he manages to evoke is a sort of sadistic psychotic idiocy. It's a relief when Edward's "brothers" and Alice finish him off, if only because you know you won't have to watch him ham it up any longer.

Good special effects, or at least special effects that don't overreach, are as critical to fantasy as good acting. If Santa's beard is tied on or Peter Pan's guy line embarassingly obvious, you've lost the audience. The Twilight special effects crew could have done a better job, even taking into account their low budget.

Early in the movie we are introduced to Dr. Carlisle Cullen, patriarch of the vampire clan. He sweeps, Chad Everett-like with white coat and wavy blond leading-man mane, through the emergency room doors where Bella has been brought following her first near-fatality. (Yes, I meant "first." The girl's an actuary's worst nightmare.) Good night, what a make-up job. His face is white. Really white. Darn near clown white. Makes-Severus-Snape-look-like-George-Hamilton white. A-different-shade- than-his-neck-and-hands white. I visualize the make-up girl with the Really Big powderpuff. The rest of the vampires, and Bella, for that matter, are pale enough to make one suspect artifice. But for Carlisle in this scene, all pretense is dropped.

In the book, Meyer makes much of the "fact" that vampire skin sparkles in the sunlight; this naturally has to be shown in the movie. The trouble is it isn't very impressive. (This would be one of those times when viewers not in the know would be annoying the Twi-hards; if you don't know what's coming, you might not get it.) Edward wears body glitter? Big deal; you can see guys with eyeshadow and nail polish down at the rock club any night there's a show. In another scene, Edward climbs a huge fir tree with Bella on his back. You can't see the bluescreen behind him as it's filled in with scenery, but it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination. He sure doesn't look like he's climbing a tree.

There are a few other picayune things about the movie that might throw off the chi of book fans although they don't of themselves detract from the movie. There's the string of mysterious fatal "animal attacks," actually the work of James's coven, for starters. And while four of the five young (relatively speaking) vampires of the Cullen clan have paired off as couples in the book, this isn't generally made known to outsiders; they live as the foster children of Carlisle and his wife. In the movie the characters' relationships are the talk of the high school; it's enough to give a Family Services social worker a case of the vapors. Not a smart move for people seeking to avoid unnecessary attention.

Also, though most of the characters are cast fairly faithfully to the book descriptions, there are a few oddities. The book says little about Jasper, one of the young Cullens, except that he is tall, lean but muscular, and blond. The casting director's idea of Jasper --small, perpetually worried-looking, and with curly gold locks-- looks like the love-child of Edward Scissorhands and Li'l Orphan Annie. Laurent, one of the sidekicks of the villainous James, is a three-hundred-year-old French vampire in the book; in the movie he's been turned into a dreadlocked French Creole vampire who could fit in playing steel drum for the Wailers.

Twilight would likely appeal to the young and not very discriminating moviegoer, especially if said moviegoer has already acquired a taste for the book. It's unlikely to appeal to adults with reading lists not dominated by Harlequin romances. (As we left the theater, I could hear a dad ahead of me moaning, "Where were the explosions and car chases?")

Other reviewers of the Twilight books have raised moral and philosophical objections to them. While I think many of their objections are correct, I won't bother to go there today. Moral objections aside, Twilight is a fluffy, not very deep, not very well done movie based on a book that is also fluffy, not very deep, and not very well done. Add more bad acting than I think I've seen since the time I ran across an episode of Divorce Court, (second run, I believe,) and you've got a complete waste of time and funds. Go read or watch something good, and if you must watch this wait for it to hit the second-run theater (if you're really big on scenic panoramas) or go to video. And if your teenage daughter's friends haven't already gotten her whipped up about this silly movie, be thankful.



Blogger Bob the Ape said...

Thanks very much for the review. The Authoress is an uber-Twilight fan, and I was wondering if I should be worried or not (though it must be said that, all things considered, she seems to be one of the soundest and most level-headed young women out there).

2:31 AM  
Blogger CMinor said...

If she's levelheaded, I wouldn't worry much as long as she can tell fantasy from fact and also reads quality literature. Great literature it's not. I've read the first book and though I think it's a bit lascivious in spirit it's not overtly tawdry. (My 21-year-old tells me a friend described it as "Girl Porn"--no actual sex, but certainly written to cater to a teenage girl's romantic fantasies.) What bothers me most about it is that Meyer sets up a slew of compelling life-and-death questions and then fails utterly to explore them in any depth. But sometimes, beach reading is all we want.

I'd be cautious of giving it to pre- or younger teens because of this and because I don't think Bella's a very good role model, but I don't think it would harm an older teen with a fairly set character. I might have thought twice about turning my thirteen-year-old loose on it had I read it first, but I don't think any harm was done other than time wastage. Of course, she's had to listen to me critique it ad nauseum!

When I can access my notes again, I'm thinking of jotting down some thoughts on the book. Meanwhile, happy Thanksgiving!

2:48 PM  

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