THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE
At roughly the halfway point in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - the third of four books (and eventually five movies) in author Stephenie Meyer's frighteningly popular series - we're given a flashback that details the vampiristic recruitment of Rosalie (Nikki Reed), a character constricted to the sidelines in previous Twilight installments. Set in what looks to be 1920s or '30s America, the brief sequence finds this pretty blond-turned-bloodsucker exacting revenge on her hateful fiancé while sporting a wedding gown and a nightmarish grin, and it's a total kick; several scenes later, another enjoyable flashback shows us how the similarly undeveloped figure of Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) joined the ranks of the undead while performing a heroic service during the Civil War.
I mention these narrative detours because they underline what, as someone who hasn't read Meyer's novels, makes the Twilight movies so inherently unsatisfying: They're filled with engaging, creepy, funny, suggestive fringe moments that wind up being insignificant interruptions to an irritatingly dreary love story. Kristen Stewart, as the human teen Bella, and Robert Pattinson, as the 107-year-old vampire hottie Edward, give impressive (chaste) smolder, but their characters seem to have long ago run out of things to say to each other; their discussion about whether to marry seems to last the whole of Eclipse's two-hour running length. And the inclusion of Taylor Lautner's Jacob as a romantic rival - in the films, at any rate - seems awfully misguided, because this werewolf-with-a-six-pack keeps insisting to Bella that she loves him but doesn't know it yet, and absolutely nothing about Stewart's portrayal hints that this might be the case. For those of us unfamiliar with Meyer's unfolding saga, it's hard to tell if this is appropriate acting on Stewart's part (because Bella really doesn't have any designs on Jacob) or lazy acting (because she's supposed to). Like some of us in the audience, the actress appears merely to tolerate this hunky cipher.
Still, director David Slade's movie isn't bad, although I do wish the screen time devoted to Eclipse's uneven love triangle was instead spent with Bella's entertaining high-school pals, who only make token appearances here. (Anna Kendrick's peeved subtext seems to be, "Why don't I have more to do? I've worked with Clooney, for God's sake!") Romantic gush aside, Slade's pacing is mostly sprightly, and he and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg deliver some neat jokes (Bella spraining her hand after punching Jacob was especially nice), and Billy Burke and the wonderfully perverse Dakota Fanning provide their share of amusement. While its plot - which involves a cadre of "newborn" vampires seeking Bella's demise - may be too convenient and simplistic by half, I've had far worse times at the cineplex this summer than at The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. The love story may be a bust for those of us not on Team Edward or Team Jacob, but it's hard to dislike a movie that finds its heroine trying to calm her werewolf suitor with a forceful "Jacob - stay!"
THE LAST AIRBENDER
"There are reasons each of us were born," states one of the interchangeable figures in M. Night Shymalan's fantasy adventure The Last Airbender. "We have to find those reasons." If Shymalan believes that writing and directing are his reasons, he may want to consider alternative options. Seriously, how many portentous, god-awful movies does this man have to make before someone finally revokes his filmmaking license? Based on Nickelodeon's animated series, The Last Airbender is quite possibly the most intolerable work yet from the auteur of Lady in the Water and The Happening, and one that (I'm guessing) is all the more offensive if you catch it, as I did, in 3D; during three or four scenes, I even chose to view the absurd goings-on with my glasses off, because that blurriness was at least preferable to the 3D blurriness that was several shades darker.
Entire thesis papers could be written about the staggering ineptitude of Shymalan's effects-heavy blunder, which looks like the most expensive home movie ever filmed, and sounds like rehearsals for the most expensive home movie ever filmed. (Noah Ringer, playing Airbender's young messiah figure, would be laughable if your heart didn't actually bleed for this poor, horribly misdirected tyke.) So in the interest of brevity, let me just share my three favorite, of many favorite, quotes from Shymalan's latest camp-classic-in-the-making: (1) Ringer's panicked query during a siege of explosive fireballs: "Is there a spiritual place where I can meditate?!?" (2) The scarred and villainous Dev Patel's order to a peace-loving township: "Bring me all your elderly!!!" (With the Slumdog Millionaire sweetie barking this, you wonder: Is he going to walk them across the street or carry their groceries?) And (3) "There are certain things man should not tamper with. The spirits and the spirit world is one of them." There are also certain things that make The Last Airbender a ridiculous, grueling waste of time, and its incoherent plotting, pathetic acting, visual murkiness, and kindergarten-level screenwriting is one of them.