A year after Twilight scorched the cineplex with its tale of forbidden teenage human/vampire love the second chapter of author Stephenie Meyer's harlequin saga has arrived to once again stir the loins of enraptured tweens (and their mothers and their mothers' mothers) everywhere. Having already sold out its first 2 000 showings several days before its release The Twilight Saga: New Moon is arguably the most critic-proof movie of the decade. And yet here goes ...
From a filmmaking standpoint New Moon represents an immediate upgrade over its predecessor which all too often felt slipshod and amateurish. Under the more assured hand of director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass About a Boy) who took over the reigns from Twilight helmer Catherine Hardwicke the film can at least boast the gloss and shine of a real Hollywood movie and not some straight-to-video hack job. Better visual effects more accomplished camerawork improved production design and a more seasoned cast all add up to a vast improvement in production values in New Moon. It could very well be the awesomest issue of Tiger Beat ever.
Where the film falters — fatally in my opinion — is in its porous plotting and sluggish pacing. Meyer's source material mandated that its teenage heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) be separated from her vampire paramour Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) at the outset with the bulk of the narrative devoted to Bella coping with the loss of her goth James Dean. But producers of the adaptation loath to reduce their most valuable asset to a mere cameo expanded Pattinson’s presence — and the film suffers for it. Edward lingers throughout New Moon's prolonged first act strutting around in slow motion and uttering lines like “Bella you give me everything just by breathing” before finally ditching the old lady and disappearing to Italy on official vampire business.
The inciting action — Edward’s departure — is followed by a decided lack of action specifically in regards to the futile efforts of Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) a musclebound shape-shifting werewolf who emerges as a potential rebound candidate for Bella. The two friends engage in a painful protracted flirtation: She ogles his (typically shirtless) chest stares deeply into his eyes and tells him he’s beautiful but when he makes a move she shuts him down citing her continuing devotion to Edward who appears repeatedly to her in the form of a distractingly cheesy Obi-Wan Kenobi-like apparition. In the end poor Jacob is left holding nothing but an aching pair of werewolf blue balls.
New Moon is all about longing: Bella longing for Edward; Jacob longing for Bella; me longing for something anything to happen. The film teases us with ominous talk of a looming war between vampires and werewolves but it’s just that: talk. The real action I’m told is saved for the next two Twilight installments Eclipse and Breaking Dawn which judging from the current trend will no doubt be stretched into six equally critic-proof films. Until then we're forced to subsist on New Moon's meager melange of pointless adolescent melodrama — sprinkled liberally with gratuitous shots of toned shirtless boys.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.