Bad Moon Rising

New Moon poster

As a companion piece to The Black Dog Podcast Twihard marathon (episodes #62 to #64), I too took up the challenge to watch all three Twilight movies. In Twihard Part I, we examined the brouhaha surrounding this franchise, and in Part II dissected the first screen instalment of the saga of Bella and Edward. A dubious claims hangs heavily in the air like a leading man reduced to a yellow smoke cameo… Oh, do not ask “what is it?”, let us go and make our visit...

Twilight - New Moon (2009)

So despite a somewhat mixed critical reaction, Twilight had managed to pull into a very healthy profit (over ten times its budget), and so the second adaption was quickly rushed into production. In fact New Moon was announced the day after the first flicks opening – one presumes that it had already made its money back in first night sales alone. However what’s more unusual than this record breaking green-lighting time, well at least for fans of the Star Trek and Friday 13th sagas, is that this time around Paramount actually increased the budget for the sequel.

The original cast were secured and Melissa Rosenberg was back too to handle the script. However Hardwicke was not to return to the director’s chair, claiming the time restrictions of the production were not to her taste, and so Chris Weitz was brought in to bring Meyer’s second novel to the screen. Whereas Hardwicke had seemed a canny choice to helm a Twilight adaptation, Weitz’s looks a bit of an odd fit; while co writing and directing About A Boy showed he had the chops to handle emotional themes and literary adaptations, his earlier foray American Pie was a very different take to American teenagers and his most recent directing job was the box office failure The Golden Compass, another translation of a book for younger readers to the screen, which looked pretty but made mincemeat of the original novel. Even considering the long and trouble production of this film, which somehow managed to annoy both religious zealots and rabid atheists at the same freaking time, it’s still surprising Paramount gave the reins to a director who had so recently failed to launch a successful franchise aimed at the same cash-in market dominated by Harry Potter that Twilight is aiming for. Often such a debacle would land you in Director’s Jail quicker than you could say ‘Alan Smithee’. Then again the detractors of Twilight may well say that getting the job of helming New Moon amounts to the same...

So then, I came to this movie literally minutes after the credits of the first had rolled. I had intended doing this marathon on a one movie per night basis, however the first Twilight had charmed enough to slap the next disc into the machine straight away. But tellingly, after watching New Moon I was in no mood to plunge into Eclipse. Now I can understand why some folk rate this entry in the series higher than the first but personally I found it to be something of an ordeal.

Partly this may be due to the source material. Firstly plot-wise the meat of this movie; the blooming and subsequent wilting of the romance between Jacob and Bella, plays far too closely like a retread of Twilight with werewolves replacing the vampires. To certain extent I can let this slide; after all, a great many sagas and franchises often are guilty of just delivering more of the same.

But what I have real trouble forgiving is the somewhat dubious about the whole plot thread which has Bella recklessly putting herself in danger just to catch a glimpse of a foggy phantom Edward. Perhaps I’m showing my age here – I’m at that stage in life when if I see scantily clad young ladies on the street I tend to think “they’ll catch their death of cold dressed like that!” rather than breaking into a Sid James leer – but I really couldn’t help fretting about what kind of role model Bella is providing here, and I pray that Meyer’s novel handles this better than Weitz does on screen, because what we actually see is reckless and extremely stupid and I dread to think that some impressionable teens may get the idea that putting themselves at risk is a great way of reconnecting with their former beaus.

But the wider implications aside, none this actually does much to endear us to Kirstin Stewart’s Bella. Now technically Stewart was somewhat less of an irritant in this flick – for much of it she is supposed to be heart broken and depressed which actually suits the ultra-moody perma-frown performance she’s reprising from the first film – but any sympathy this matching of the narrative tone and her face-like-a-smacked-arse delivery might have elicited is totally undercut by the courting death routine. In Twilight Bella generally annoyed me through Stewart’s reading of the role, and while she was better in this outing, in New Moon it’s the character herself and her scripted actions than wound me up.

However in fairness, we do get to see her actually look happy for a brief time. When she eventually succumbs to the charms of Jacob’s company, we even get to see her smile and have some fun with her childhood chum whose slowly morphing into boyfriend material. Now these are some of the best sequences in the movie; they are gently naturalistic, touchingly warm and not over played. And besides getting to witness the once a century breaking of the witch’s spell that locks Stewart’s face in glower mode, Taylor Lautner gets to step into the limelight.

Now in the first film, he had impressed me with his relaxed, likeable and subtle performance, and the promise showed in his brief appearance comes to full fruit in the courtship of Bella. However when his lycanthropic heritage come into play and we move out of the blossoming romance section and into the subsequenct saddening wilting that is the “I can’t be with you” heart break, his performance seems to go downhill. Some may say that this is a simple of case of a young actor who can excel in a supporting role but hasn’t yet the dramatic confidence to play centre stage, and there is probably an element of truth in that.

However I think the trouble is emanating from two behind the camera areas. Firstly there’s a distinct change in the lines he’s being asked to deliver once he becomes a werewolf – instead of well crafted and realistic dialogue, once the wolf is ascendant he mainly seems to get ponderous stilted speeches. However this is a minor problem, the real trouble is the way Weitz shoots the scenes. Basically he seems to stick the camera on a tripod then (presumably) fucks off for a coffee, leaving poor old Taylor just to stand there, metaphorically as well as literally shirtless, spouting exposition Rosenberg’s script has mistaken for high drama. If I hadn’t recognised Weitz’s name, I could have sworn that New Moon was made by someone with a lot of daytime TV soap on their CV, for this just propping up the camera and just calling action reeks of the kind of ‘quick get it in the can!’ direction you see on The Young & The Witless. I can only assume that Weitz thought that the sight of Jacob’s six pack was height of drama in itself.

And as a whole New Moon suffers from a tendency to concentrate on looking good rather telling the story, a failing that it shares with Weitz’s previous flick The Golden Compass. Now it’s true that one of the golden rules of cinema is show, not tell, however that’s not a license to leave your actors floundering in dull static shots in key dramatic scenes, or to expect pretty colours to distract from the fact that the pace of story telling is erratic and often flagging.

There’s a strong stench of style over substance throughout the entire film and while one may be charitable and blame the rapid production schedule for the film’s patchily substance and general lack of dramatic weight, Weitz’s directorial choices must also be held to account. For example, while the movie’s colour palette is lush and gorgeous, overflowing with opulent golds, vivid greens and striking reds. The trouble is though; this vision inspired by Italian art doesn’t make sense for the mood of the story line or its central location. Now this gold and crimson palette makes perfect sense for the final act in Volterra but not for Forks...

Whereas Catherine Hardwicke gave us a gloomy milieu for Twilight, present Forks as a town drenched in blues and almost perpetually overcast by slate coloured rainclouds. And hence you could easily suspend disbelief and buy that Carlisle and his brood of friendly bloodsuckers could blend into human society thanks to the endless rain haunted days. But in New Moon it’s dripping in honey hued tones and you wonder how on earth the vampires get by in this now sun-kissed clime. Presumably Dr Carlisle’s patients must be dying in droves during New Moon thanks to a string of sick days caused by the persistent appearances of what Gollum referred to as “evil yellow face” in Forks a la Weitz.

And I can only assume that casting Michael Sheen as Aro of the Volturi was more to do with having a credible big name that would look good on the poster than giving the story some dramatic gravitas with a highly respected actor. Now don’t get me wrong, I generally love Michael Sheen’s performances as much as the next film buff but in this outing I suspect he was extracting the urine because Weitz seems not to have noticed he was doing a Tony Blair impersonation. As cameos from high classy acts in low brow movies go, Bill Nighy fared far better with the whole vampire elder routine in Underworld than Sheen does in New Moon.

However in fairness, Weitz’s visual flair does mean that as a whole New Moon looks more like a blockbuster movie than the first film, which with Hardwicke at the wheel more resembled a low budget independent offering. And certainly Weitz seems more at home in serving up the special effects and action scenes but this seems to have come at a cost of the drama. But despite the vampire action looking far better in this outing than the previous one, I am honestly at a loss to explain why the werewolves are still on the ropey side.

Apparently the special effects crew handling the lycanthropes spent a good deal of time studying the real lupines and going on jollies to Wolf Mountain Sanctuary. All of which came as something of surprise as the first appearance of a transformed werewolf is simply ghastly. The CGI in bear in The Wolf Man remake got a great deal of flack, but in comparison to this… this abomination that digital bruin looks nearly convincing. This wolf looks like its bulging in random places and the fur is rippling and changing more than a chameleon crossing a tartan rug – honestly how this passed the grade for the final cut is beyond me.

Admittedly the rest of the wolf effects aren’t nearly as bad, but still you don’t want the audience’s first look at your lead creatures to be so shoddily done. rather than thrilling or frightening, having such a ghastly debut has the effect of destroying any belief in the beasts right from the outset. And while the rest of the movie doesn’t have any shots of werewolves looking like they’ve got the parasites from Cronenberg’s Shivers squirming under their pelts, it appeared to me that throughout the flick their size seemed to vary somewhat; sometimes as big as ponies but at other seemingly more like young rhinos. A minor quibble maybe but firstly I may not have noticed if their first appearance wasn’t so botched and secondly Weitz should really be paying attention to such details.

So then to wrap up, in some regards New Moon is superior to Twilight but only in superficial ways. While it closer to the horror heartlands than its predecessor, exploring and expanding the mythology of the novels, and plays more like a Hollywood popcorn flick than an indie teen angst movie, it still largely failing in the same areas and that is simply that it’s fumbling the dramatics of the central relationships: again it’s a case of the problem not being a watering down of horror tropes but not delivering the emotional punch the romance should have.

And while New Moon expands the sense of the fantastic and takes us further into the secret world of the supernatural; the heart of the film is lost beneath the gloss and flashy tricks. And all the emphasis on the gaudy visuals made me appreciate the first film’s low key atmospherics a whole lot more. Now I can understand why for some viewers this may make this second adaptation superior to the first, however this reviewer much preferred the gothic mood and quiet realism of the first. Ideally I’d have liked to see this move equally weight the supernatural and the emotions, because I still feel that the core story line has a lot of cinematic potential. Perhaps Eclipse can get the balance right...

...Find out in TWIHARD Part IV!

Don’t forget, you can hear The Black Dog podcast marathon that inspired these articles here

JIM MOON, 17th March 2011