Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Review: The Road

The Road ****
Directed By:
John Hillcoat.
Written By: Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (The Man), Charlize Theron (His Wife), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Boy), Robert Duvall (The Old Man), Guy Pearce (The Veteran), Garret Dillahunt (The Gang Member), Molly Parker (The Veteran’s Wife), Michael K. Williams (The Thief).

Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is one of the master bleakest books. It takes place in a post apocalyptic American landscape, where a man and his son make their way along the road, trying to reach the coast, where they hope things will be better. Along the way they have to fight off starvation, and marauding bands of cannibals – who eat other people, because there is so little left to eat. The Boy wants to ensure that they are still “The Good Guys”, but in this desolate world, it is difficult to tell what is good and who is evil anymore.

Because the book was such a huge bestseller, a movie adaptation was inevitable, even if the book itself was not overtly cinematic (the only one of McCarthy’s novels that is would be No Country for Old Men, which the Coens turned into a masterpiece two years ago). But when the announcement came that it would John Hillcoat directing, the choice seemed apt. After all, Hillcoat made the terrific, violent Western The Proposition a few years ago, that seemed to capture McCarthy’s violent, moral universe perfectly, even if it was an original screenplay. And I am happy to report that Hillcoat’s movie adaptation does not disappoint. He found a way to make the movie bleak, without being overly depressing, and fleshed out the characters who were very sparse (purposefully so) in the novel. The result is a movie that while it might be hard for some people to watch, is brilliant.

Viggo Mortensen plays the man who is on the road with his son. His wife (played in a series of wonderful flashbacks by Charlize Theron), had previously decided to take the easy way out and killed herself, leaving the Man and their son to fend for themselves. You can understand why Theron makes the decision she does – along the road; we do not meet any other women or children until the very end of the movie. They are weaker, and hence the first people the gangs attack – both as a source for sex and a source for food. She does not want to end up like that.

So the Man and his Son pack up their meager belongings into an old, rickety shopping cart, and set off down the road. Among their possessions is a gun with two bullets left – one for each of them if it ever comes to that. The book and the movie are essentially a series of vignettes as the two struggle to maintain their sanity, and their lives, in the course of the violent, morally empty world that is seemingly closing in on them.

Mortensen is brilliant in the lead role – it could in fact be his best performance to date. He is struggling with his inner moral compass – trying desperately to do the right thing, even though his options are dwindling. In different circumstances, he would be nicer to the people in need of help he meets along the way, but he no longer has that luxury. Everyone they meet may just be trying to befriend them in order to take advantage of them. In one horrifying sequence, they discover a locked basement, and break in to search for food. All they find are people chained to the walls missing limbs and covered in blood. They are being held captive there like animals being kept for slaughter. In a world like this, how is it possible to remain good?

Kodi Smit-McPhee is also wonderful as the son. He has a more innocent, more naïve view of the world, and tries desperately to get his father to be the good guy that he claims that they are. When they come across an old man (Robert Duvall, brilliant in a one scene performance) where he starts out playing at being senile, but reveals he knows more than just about anyone else, the son wants to help him. Later still, they will catch up to a thief (Michael K. Williams), who stole all of their stuff while they were sleeping, and while the man wants to humiliate the thief, and leave him for dead, the son convinces him otherwise. If they survive, but become as bad as the people around them, then really what is the point of surviving?

Like the novel, it is the relationship between the father and the son that lay at the heart of the movie. While the film may seem bleak – and certainly does not paint an overly rosy picture of humanity – it is not hopeless. The boy’s innocent optimism is really what keeps these two characters going from one scene to the next.

Directed by Hillcoat, The Road is one of the best made movies of the year. The sparse art direction and brilliant, dim cinematography makes for one of the most memorable, more desolate looking films I have ever seen. The score is at turns dark and foreboding, but still has moments that offer hope. These elements brilliantly play off the actors to make this one of the most memorable films of the year. Like the novel, the film maybe too bleak for some viewers, who do not feel the need to wallow in the depravity of humanity for two hours, but for those of us with a preference for dark material, than The Road is a must see, and one of the year’s best films.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Director's Final Films

It is pretty much taken as a given that filmmakers tend to do their best work in the middle of their careers. Their first films are often rough around the edges as they try and find their voice, and they slide off into obscurity, or simply try to repeat old glories in their final films. But these 10 filmmakers defied those odds, and ended up making some of their best films their last statement to the cinematic world. I’m not sure I would rank any of these films as the directors best, but all are worthy of the directors who made them. I’m sure that some will be frustrated by all the foreign directors on this list, but I have to say that they seem to leave the cinematic world on a higher note than their American counterparts. (For the record, I did not include Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, even though it is his last film. Since it was also his first film, it went on the list of debut films instead).

10. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)
Robert Altman obviously knew he was dying when he made A Prairie Home Companion, the final great film in the career of the one of the truly great American filmmakers. A radio station has just been bought, and the once popular Saturday night variety show is in danger of being cancelled. The movie essentially about the final nights broadcast, where all the performers come in and do their acts. Two outsiders – an angel played by Virgina Madsen and the “axeman” from the company who bought the radio station, Tommy Lee Jones, also descend upon the theater for the final night. The film’s all star cast, including Garrison Keillor as himself, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a singing sister act, Lindsay Lohan as Streep’s depressed daughter, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the singing cowboys, Kevin Kline as fictional P.I. on the show, L.Q. Jones as the aging legend and the rest are all magnificent. A Prairie Home Companion is about a time in America that has passed, about the inevitability of everything coming to an end, and although there is sadness in the film, there is also much joy. A suitable end to a great career.

9. The Innocent (Luchino Visconti, 1976)
In his final film as a director, Visconti creates one of his most stunning achievements. It is turn of the century Italy, and aristocrat Giancarlo Giannini has an insatiable sexual appetite. Laura Antonelli plays he sweet and sensitive, and long suffering wife. Jennifer O’Neil is his cunning and extremely possessive mistress. Giannini leaves his wife for his mistress, who eventually tosses him out, so he returns to his wife thinking he can resume his former life. What he doesn’t know is that she, fed up with his actions, has had an affair of her own, and is now pregnant with the other man’s baby. He tries to convince her to get an abortion, but she refuses. He hates his new “son” when he is born, and thus leads to a long decline into tragedy. Visconti has often shown his disdain for his own aristocratic roots and their society, and in The Innocent this becomes more pronounced then perhaps ever before. The movie is brilliantly well acted, scored written and directed by Visconti, a master filmmaker still at the top of his game.

8. Star 80 (Bob Fosse, 1983)
Despite the fact that Fosse only directed five films – three of them musicals – his legacy in the film world in undeniable. Star 80 was his last film, and one of only two of his films that was not a musical. Muriel Hemingway stars as Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratton, who rose to fame in the late 1970s, only to be murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). The film in unrelentingly bleak, and at times hard to watch. The movie begins with the murder, and then flashes back. There is not a moment of happiness in this film. Hemingway is brilliant as the sweet, naïve girl at the center of all the madness. She looks and acts like a kid most of the time. Roberts is devastating accurate and disturbing as Paul, who makes Dorothy into a star, which then puts her out of his league. The jealously, the rage of rejection, causes him to go over the edge and kill her. Fosse sees this all with his camera, and burrows deep into the obsession and the depravity of everything in the movie. Star 80 may not be a fun movie to watch, but it is a great one.

7. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
Jean Vigo was only 29 years old when he died, leaving behind a film legacy of only two films – 1933’s Zero for Conduct and then this film a year later (he did make two short documentaries before these two films, but I, and seemingly most people, have never seen them). L’Atalante is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and is touching in its simplicity. A young couple is married even though they hardly know each other, and immediately board his barge to make the trip for her small home town to Paris. It is both a working trip, and their honeymoon. His jealously, and fits of rage, eventually drive her away. The film has a dream life atmosphere and is quietly beautiful. The films we lost because Vigo died at such young age.

6. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)
The surrealist master Bunuel never did anything quite the same twice. This, his final film, tells the story of a strange, dysfunctional relationship between Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy Frenchman, and Conchita (played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), a young, beautiful, poor flamenco dancer. By casting two actresses – of completely different physical looks and temperaments – to play the same role is an example of Bunuel’s surrealist nature. Oddly though, the casting of two actresses does not detract from the character, but rather deepen her. Set against the backdrop of terrorist activity in France, the film chronicles their strange love affair, as Conchita constantly taunts Mathieu with her sexuality, but refuses to have sex with him (she claims to be saving herself for marriage). They bicker and argue constantly, break up and make up just as often. The film is really a strange viewing experience, but an absorbing one. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with Bunuel, finding some of his films to be masterpieces, and some to be bores. This is definitely one of the former.

5. The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
John Huston’s final film, directed when he was 80 and dying, takes on the near impossible task of adapting a work by James Joyce, and pulls it off brilliantly. The movie concentrates on Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), who attend a party in 1904 Dublin, after which Gabriel learns that even though he has been married to Gretta for years, there is much he does not know about her. The movie is beautiful made by Huston, the screenplay by Tony Huston, brilliantly captures Joyce’s prose and the essence of the short story, while still making it cinematic. The performances, especially Huston’s, are brilliant. Gabriel is a weak, insecure man, and his wife’s confession of the great love of her life not being him, rattles him even more. There is poetry in the movie – not just in the dialogue, but in the way in which it was filmed. Right up until the end, John Huston was pushing himself to do great work. The Dead is one of his masterpieces.

4. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)
I’ll admit that I still struggle with a lot of Russian master Tarkovsky’s films. They are so ponderous and slow at times, not to mention dense, that I have trouble truly getting into the films. Not so with his final film however, which I believe may well be his masterpiece. Erland Josephson stars as Alexander, who witnesses the world in the beginning of a nuclear Holocaust, and although he is an atheist, vows to give up everything that he holds dear to him if God will spare humanity. When he wakes up the next day, it appears that God has accepted his deal, and Alexander goes about doing what he promised he would. The film is ambigious in the extreme, as it never feels the need to spell everything out for the audience. Is all this a delusion of Alexander’s, that he has constructed so that he can believe the war he sees at the beginning of the film isn’t real? Or does God actually accept his deal? The Sacrifice is a film that is mesmerizing – like most Tarkovsky films – and is far and away my favorite of his work. Perhaps that’s because to a large extent, this film was a tribute to Ingmar Bergman, a director a like a lot more than Tarkovsky. No matter what the reason though, The Sacrifice is a masterpiece.

3. Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
The final part of Kieslowski’s three colors trilogy is undeniably the best – and perhaps the best individual film of the great directors career (the ten hour, ten part The Decalogue is the greater achievement, but no one segment is as good as this movie). The film is a masterpiece that links the interconnecting lives of a vast group of characters –but the central plot involves a compassionate model who hits a dog with her car, and takes it to the owner – a Judge named Kern who likes to play God, and is listening in on his neighbor’s private phone conversations. The film is much too vast and complex to fully discuss here, but it is masterfully directed by Kieslowski. The bright red color palette of the film memorable, as is the recurring use of broken glass throughout the film. Although Kieslowski is dealing with dense themes, the movie zips by. The other two films in the Three Colors trilogy are both wonderful to their own degrees, but Red is quite simply a masterpiece.

2. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
Leone only officially directed seven films (although he played a hand in directing at least three other films), but his mark on cinema history is undeniable. He will always be best known for his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, as well his brilliant Once Upon a Time in the West, but his final film, Once Upon a Time in America, can easily stand among those masterpieces on its own. It is a huge, sprawling epic that spans nearly 50 years, and runs almost four hours long. It opens in the 1920s, where a group of kids in the Jewish Ghetto of Lower Manhattan, struggle to survive, and get involved in petty crime that gradually escalates. Later, during prohibition, the gang becomes more involves with violent crimes, which leads to double cross. The movie is huge in scope, and yet is also intimate, getting to know its characters, and gradually revealing its mysteries. Robert DeNiro and James Woods give great performances in the two key roles, but everyone in the movie is brilliant. Leone spent 10 years making Once Upon a Time in America (giving up the opportunity to direct The Godfather in the process), but the time spent was well worth it. This is one of the greatest gangster films ever made.

1. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
When I selected Eyes Wide Shut as my number 1 “final film”, I knew the choice would be controversial, and would inspire some to rip me to shreds. How can I possibly pick this film above the others on this list? It’s quite simple really – I think Eyes Wide Shut is better than all of them, and is Kubrick’ final masterpiece. Hurt by his wife’s confession of having thoughts of an affair, Tom Cruise’s doctor goes out into the streets of Manhattan, and suffers a long night in a strange dream world, where everyone responds to him sexually. Sex surrounds him utterly and completely climaxing in the now infamous orgy sequence. Does anything in this movie actually happen, or is it all in Cruise’s mind? It makes the film all the better that Kubrick never spells it out. The film is engrossing and haunting – as well directed as anything Kubrick ever made (yeah, I said it) and the performances are all amazing. Cruise has perhaps never been better, and Kidman is even better than he is. Her pitch perfect final line reading is the perfect note for which Kubrick to end his cinematic career. Eyes Wide Shut is largely derided, but it is in fact a masterpiece. I long for the day when more people realize that.

Weekly Top Tens: Directorial Debuts

Many great directors start from humble beginnings. Many of my favorite directors of all time are not on this list, because their first feature film was not exactly a masterpiece. But these 10 directors came out swinging, and in their debuts made great films. Some never topped their initial success, but many went on to even greater things. These are my 10 favorite debut films of all time.

10. Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1985)
Right off the bat, the Coen brothers established themselves as two of the best filmmakers in the world. Their dark, neo-noir about a young wife (Frances McDormand) having an affair with the bartender (John Getz) employed by her much older husband (Dan Hedaya). Hedaya hires a Private Investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to catch them in the act, and when he does things get messy in a hurry. What starts out as a fairly simple plan by all involved, turns into a convoluted mess of double crosses and mistrust. Highlights of the movie include Getz disposing of a body, and finding it much dirtier than he expected, and the classic final showdown between McDormand and Walsh, where he fires bullets through the wall into the neighboring apartment, causing bolts of light to flash through the darkness. From the beginning, the Coen’s show visual flair, and a wonderful mixture of thriller elements, and pitch black comedy. A great film.

9. Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)
Unlike many of his Italian neo-realist compatriots, Visconti was born an aristocrat, and although he embraced neo-realism for a while, his best films are probably his lush epics like The Leopard. But it all started with Ossessione, his 1943 debut, an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. The movie stars Massimo Girotti as a wandering tramp who starts up an affair with the wife of a restaurant owner – played by Clara Calamai. The two conspire to kill her husband, and when the deed is done, what they pictured as a guilt free, happy life becomes riddled with guilt, and their consciences come back to haunt them. Like the novel, the movie ends with an ironic twist as the tramp is cleared of the murder he did commit, but caught for one he didn’t. The argument about whether this is the first neo-realist film or not does not really bother me. It’s true that Visconti certainly focuses more on the day to day lives of his characters then Cain did, but the film still retains its pulp roots. Although Visconti went onto to make undeniably better movies, Ossessione is still a masterpiece – and may just be my personal favorite of his films.

8. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)
One of the defining films of the French New Wave, was Truffaut’s first feature, and the first film in which he featured his iconic character Antoine Doinel (Jean Pierre Leaud). Antoine is a young teenager, with problems both at school and at home. At school, his teacher singles him out for criticism and scorn, while at home his family is poor, forcing him to sleep on a small cot, not to mention the fact that his mother and stepfather are constantly fighting, and his mother is having an affair. Antoine gets into trouble more and more frequently – with escalating seriousness and consequences – as he always gets caught, and is eventually sent to a juvenile detention center, then to a work camp by the sea. He admits to a physiatrist that he was essentially raised by his grandmother, as his own mother never really wanted him, and in fact planned to get an abortion. The final haunting shot of the film as Antoine looking directly at the audience, daring them to look away from him. The film is an autobiographical character study about Truffaut, and announced the arrival of one the world’s best filmmakers. It may in fact be the best film Truffaut ever made.

7. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1978)
Undeniably one of the strangest films in history, Eraserhead was Lynch’s first foray into the world of feature films. It took him years to finish, yet the end result shows no trace of compromise or those difficulties. The movie takes place in a strange industrial landscape ripe with decay. The films protagonist is Henry (Jack Nance), with huge hair, who finds out that his estranged girlfriend has had a hideously deformed baby. He marries her, but she runs off, and leaves him to take care of the child by himself. Along the way he has strange encounters with the Woman in the Radiatator – a small woman who literally lives in his radiator and does song and dance routines and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, as well as experiencing visions of the Man in the Planet, who seems to control everything. There are more strange things in this movie, and I doubt that I will ever truly understand what the hell it all means, but Eraserhead is a surreal masterpiece of the cinema, and announced to the world the arrival of one of its greatest director.

6. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
One of the most iconic film noirs, was this adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel written and directed by newcomer John Huston. Huston’s film follows Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), as he tries to unravel a mystery that involves his dead partner, a femme fatale (Mary Astor), and a missing “black figure of a bird”. Bogart was great in these types of roles, never better than he was here. The supporting cast, including Astor, Peter Lorre, as a scummy bad guy and Sydney Greenstreet, as “the Fat Man”, who has a lot of money and could be pulling the strings. The twists and turns in the movie come fast and furious, and Huston handles it all effortlessly behind the camera. Huston went on to direct many other great films, but The Maltese Falcon remains one of his very best.

5. Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962)
In Polanski’s first feature film, all of his major themes were already present. A young couple is heading for their boat and a day of sailing. They pick up a young hitchhiker, and invite him to come along with him. The husband taunts the young hitchhiker, who knows nothing about sailing, and the two men compete for the attention of the beautiful young wife. When the husband finds the hitchhiker’s beloved pocketknife, and it accidentally goes into the water, a fight ensues, and the hitchhiker goes overboard, and does not return. Convinced that the young man has drowned, the couple argues as to what to do, and the husband eventually jumps into the water and swims to shore – at which point the young man returns. Knife in the Water is a tense movie, in which the sexual tension simmers just beneath the surface for the entire movie. Polanski never goes overboard with the dramatics, or visual flourishes, but shows supreme confidence for a director making his first feature. Although Polanski would go onto to make even better films than this one, it ranks among his masterpieces.

4. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
I’m not a big fan of most of Godard’s work. I find most of his films overly pretentious, and think that he is far too amused with his own “cleverness” and “importance”. His films in the 1960s are undeniably his best, but for the most part, they work best as a time capsule to a bygone cinematic age rather than great films in their own right. One of the only exceptions though is his first film, Breathless, which is one of the most influential films in history, and one of the best debut films ever. The film is about a low level French gangster who has modeled himself after Humphrey Bogart (Jean-Paul Belmondo), hiding out from the police with his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). Most of the movie takes place in her apartment, as the two endlessly talk – much like many Godard films. This time however, all of Godard’s dialogue works, his visual style, including one of the first extensive uses of jump cuts, works well with the story. The iconic finale of the movie, which sees the police gun down Belmondo, who has a protracted death scene, is among the most brilliant in all of film history. Although in general, I don’t much like Godard, in the case of Breathless, I think that he made the one film of his career that is a timeless classic.

3. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
I remember watching Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs as 13 year and being completely blown away because it was so different then anything I had ever seen before. All these years later, I now know that in reality, Tarantino took elements from many different films and filmmakers for his debut film, yet that has not lessened my love of the film one bit – if anything, it’s actually added to it. Tarantino’s film is about a bunch of diamond thieves hired to pull off one major job. They don’t know each other, only their employer, so they all have to call each other by the colors they are assigned. The movie flashes back and forth in time, as we learn almost right away that the diamond heist was botched, so we see everything that lead up to the heist going wrong, and the bloody aftermath – never the robbery itself. The cast is uniformly excellent – Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and the rest are brilliant, and Tarantino’s trademark dialogue is humming at full force, as is his style in the extreme. I’m not certain about this, but I think I may have watched Reservoir Dogs more than any other film I have ever seen. I love it to death.

2. Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Charles Laughton was a great, Oscar winning actor, yet he only ever directed one film. That the film is a masterpiece means that Laughton probably has the most perfect track record of any filmmaker in history, but also makes one sad to consider how many great films he could have directed if he chose to. Robert Mitchum gives his best, and most frightening, performance as Preacher Harry Powell, who learns from his cellmate that he told his children where he hid the money he is about to be executed for stealing. When Powell is released, he woos and marries his cellmate’s widow (the always great Shelley Winters), and questions the children at every opportunity about the whereabouts of the money. When Winters figures out she is being used, Powell slits her throat, and dumps her body in the river. The children take off with the money, with Powell in hot pursuit. Mitchum towers above everyone in the film. The tattoos on his knuckles that read “LOVE” and “HATE”, his false religious righteous, and his ever creepy voice are all unforgettable. Laughton’s expressionistic style, inspired by the German films of the 1920s, is visually marvelous, and have helped to make Night of the Hunter one of the most influential films in history. Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece. It’s a shame that Laughton never directed again.

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
There really is no other choice to make here, is there? Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made, and with good reason. Welles was the boy genius brought to Hollywood, and decided to make his debut with this epic tale of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane, based on William Randolph Hearst. The result is a movie that is brilliant in its scope, magnificently directed, written and acted and has become the standard for all other films made since then. This is perhaps the only film Welles ever directed that was not marred by either studio interference or money problems. Here, he had everything that he could possibly want or need to make a movie, and the result is one of the best films in history. It is impossible to imagine movie history without it. I can think of nothing of value to add to this film, as so much has already been written about it. If you are one of those poor souls who have still not seen this film, I pity you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Femme Fatales - Modern Era Edition

Sadly, the art of being a femme fatale has sadly been all but lost in the modern era, which for the purposes of this list, I defined as my own lifespan (I’m still young damn it!). But these ten ladies played the femme fatale with just as much gusto and oozing sexuality as their predecessors did, so they deserve their own list.

10. Evan Rachel Wood in Pretty Persuasion (2005)
I don’t much like this movie, as it is too scattershot and not nearly as smart or clever as it thinks it is. Yet Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Kimberly Joyce, the high school femme fatale, is brilliant. Kimberly manipulates everyone in the movie using her sexuality – including teachers, classmates and the media. She starts a rumor that a teacher has sexually harassed her, bringing a media firestorm down on the school at large. But this is just phase one of her plan, that involves her seducing just about everyone in the movie – including a reporter played by Jane Krakowski to use as pawns in her little game. That it all turns out to be a plot to get back at her best friend, who is now dating a boy who dumped Kimberly after she let him do her in the ass (because how could he respect her after she allowed him to do that) is silly and somewhat offensive. Yet four years later, despite my misgivings about the movie (which I have only scratched the surface of her), I have to admit that Wood’s performance remains one of her best – and one that I cannot get out of my mind.

9. Rebecca Romijin in Femme Fatale (2002)
Brian DePalma’s underrated film is one of the best noirs of the decade, in large part due to Romijin’s performance, as Laura Ash, diamond thief turned society girl. After her daring diamond heist, she double crosses her partners, and flees to Paris, where she meets her doppelganger, who kills herself, and allows her to take over the woman’s identity. Six years later, she returns as the wife of the new American ambassador, and is photographed by Nicolas (Antonio Banderas), setting up a series of events, where she tries to get his help to conceal her identity so that her accomplishes from the past don’t find her. Romijin is an actress who has never really been given a role this good before or since. In her opening scenes however, she establishes her brazen sexuality, as she seduces a female supermodel in the bathroom stall at the Cannes Film Festival, and takes off with her diamonds. In the main action of the film, she slowly seduces Banderas, making him think that he is in control, when in reality, he is anything but. This is an underrated performance in an underrated movie that deserves more attention.

8. Ok-vin Kim in Thirst (2009)
Ok-vin Kim’s performance in Chan-wook Park’s Thirst is classic femme fatale material. When she meets the “hero” of the movie, played by Song Kang-ho she plays her part as the put upon wife with the thoughtless husband, and abusive mother-in-law perfectly. Song is a priest, who has recently become a vampire, and is immediately drawn to Kim’s victimhood. The two start a sexual relationship, as Kim finds the kink involved with sleeping with a priest irresistible. When he finally reveals his secret to her, she is at first horrified, but then figures out a way to use it to her advantage. She tells him that her husband is abusive to get him to murder her husband, and eventually transform her into a vampire – which is when her real, evil nature comes out. This is one of the best female roles of the year, and announces Kim as one of the best new actresses around.

7. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)
Forget the silly sequel if you can, and think back to the original movie, and how sexy and seductive Stone was in that movie. As author Catherine Tramell, she seduces and plays Michael Douglas’ dumb cop like a fiddle. She is icy cold in the movie, but also incredibly sexy. The classic scene with detective Wayne Knight, where she uncrosses her legs is justly famous, and the sex scenes in the movie are graphic, without ever crossing the line, and are truly erotic. Stone may not be a great actress, but given a role like this one, she knows how to play it to perfection. Yes, the movie is ludicrous, yet you cannot take your eyes off of Stone for a second when she’s on screen.

6. Jennifer Tilly in Bound (1996)
Jennifer Tilly has such a distinctive look, and an even more distinctive voice, that most directors never really know what to do with her. But the Wachowski Brothers cast her perfectly in this modern day noir tale (still their best film, by far). As Violet, the mafia moll of Joe Pantiliano’s money launderer, Violet uses her sexuality to seduce Corky (Gina Gershon), a lesbian handyman who moves in next door to them, and convinces her to steal $2 million in mafia money from him, so the two of them can run off together. Tilly has never been better, or sexier, than she is in this movie. Her seduction of Corky is erotic in the extreme, and she plays the part of femme fatale to perfection, coaxing not only only Pantiliano, but the other mafia men as well. When the movie ends, it ends on a happy note for both her and Corky – but can we really trust her? A great performance in a much underrated movie.

5. Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981)
“You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man”, Turner’s Matty tells the cocky lawyer Ned (William Hurt) early in Body Heat. In her debut performance, Turner had the guts to take on Barbara Stanwyck’s whose role in Double Indemnity is the obvious inspiration for her work here. No, she doesn’t out Stanwyck Stanwyck, but she comes damn close. Turner’s trademark voice, which has become the subject of countless impersonations and mocking, here is as sexy as any female’s voice in cinema history. She seduces Hurt’s Ned to kill her husband for her, but brilliantly gets him to think that it is his idea. He goes along with it. In classic film noir, the sexuality could only be hinted at, but in Body Heat it is front and center. These two characters are in heat, and Turner confidentially plays Hurt like a fiddle. The movie has twist after twist in the plot – perhaps one or two too many – but at the center of it is Turner’s engrossing performance as a woman who uses sex to get what she wants. A brilliant debut performance.

4. Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Elena Harring plays Rita in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, named after the famed Rita Hayworth in Gilda, a poster she sees on the wall. Without a memory of what has happened, she teams up with aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) to try and discover her true identity. It is only slowly that we discover the secrets in Lynch’s brilliant neo noir, and only slowly that we realize what is truly going on. Harring is not as innocent as she seemed at first, and of course neither is Watts. In the films later scenes, Harring is cruel and mocking towards Watts, her former lover, who she is now abandoning, leading her own mental break. Harring is styled after classic femme fatales of the past, and is brilliantly portrayed by Harring – who has never been given an opportunity since to play a role this good.

3. Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (1992)
Michelle Pfeiffer is the quintessential Catwoman, and the perfect femme fatale for Tim Burton to insert into his film noir version of Batman. She starts out as the meek, mild mannered Salina Kyle, but quickly transforms into Catwoman, the sexy seductress with the skin tight vinyl cat suit, bright red lips a whip, and a kittenish purr of a voice that made her the object of countless wet dreams. In the cat suit, Pfeiffer seduces Batman (including the unforgettable scene where she licks his face), and then out of the cat suit, Kyle starts a relationship with Bruce Wayne. No matter what she is wearing, Pfeiffer has never been sexier than she in this movie, and despite the fact that she has received more than one Oscar nomination, this for me will always be her best performance.

2. Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995)
Gus Van Sant’s wonderful film mixes film noir with a media satire, as Kidman’s Susan Stone plays a lowly TV weather girl who dreams of becoming a big news star. She sees her sweet but lunk headed husband (Matt Dillon) as getting in the way of her dreams. Working on a documentary film about teenagers, she meets Joaquin Phoenix and Allison Folland, and seduces both in different ways. In Stone, Folland sees a glamorous role model, and the type of girl in high school who would never give her the time of day. Stone takes a more direct approach with Phoenix, seducing him and beginning an affair with him, threatening to cut it off if he doesn’t kill her husband for her. Kidman puts his icy good looks, and natural born sexuality to great use here. Bubbly and perky in front of the camera, coolly seductive to Phoenix, and then just downright cruel, this is perhaps the best performance of Kidman’s career – and a perfect modern femme fatale.

1. Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994)
Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory is one of the most sexual, seductive femme fatales of any era. Stealing $700,000 from her drug dealing husband (Bill Pullman), she arrives in a small town and immediately hooks up with the lunk headed Mike (Peter Berg), just back from Buffalo following a quick marriage and divorce. She is looking for sex, which he provides, but he wants more. She gets a job at the same insurance firm as Mike, and quickly figures out a way to tell when men are cheating on their wives by viewing their credit reports. She then goes out of town for a while, and when she comes back, she shows Mike the cash, and convinces him that she got it by murdering a cheating husband, and splitting the insurance money with the widow. She then convinces Mike to do the same thing – setting her own husband up as the victim. Fiorentino is brilliant in this role, coming across as innocent when faced with the police, but in reality she is a stone cold sociopath, who uses her sexuality to play all the men she meets brilliantly. Fiorentino gained a reputation for being hard to work with, and her career never really took off, but she will always have this performance – one of the very best of the 1990s – as her career best. Simply amazing work.

Weekly Top Tens: Femme Fatales - Classic Noir Edition

There is nothing sexier to me that a femme fatale. Those dangerous women in film noir who use their blatant sexuality to bring down normal, if somewhat dimwitted men, their downfall by involving them in murder. During the 1940s and 50s, if you were a female actress, the only real way to display any sort of sexuality at all was to be a femme fatale, and try and drag some innocent schmuck down with you. There was almost always a “good girl” in these movies as well, but they were thoroughly uninteresting. These are the women you fell hard for despite your best judgment.

10. Ann Savage in Detour (1945)
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, shot in six days for just $20,000, features only a few bare sets and actors, is full of technical flaws and continuity errors, but remains one of the seminal film noirs, because rarely has there been a film so full of dread and doom as this one. Poor Al (Tom Neal) has no idea what he is in for when he starts hitchhiking across America to be with his girlfriend. He is picked up by a kindly driver, who winds up dead, but Al decides to take his car anyway. When he picks up another hitchhiker, Vera (Savage), he doesn’t know that she had previously ridden with the same man, and recognizes his car. Thus sets up a blackmail scheme by Vera. Savage is more raw and conniving than most of the women on this list. She doesn’t need to seduce Al, because she’s got him over a barrel from the get go. She is also the most unsympathetic woman on this list – but of course, since Al narrates the story, and paints himself as purely a put upon victim, that may not be true. Savage was a great actress though, and this was her best, most well know performance.

9. Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce (1945)
Blyth is something of a rarity in terms of femme fatales, because it is not only men she manipulates, but her own mother, the title character played by Joan Crawford. Blyth is Veda, a young girl who dreams of riches and high social standing, who is infuriated and humiliated by her mother’s profession – as a waitress. Mildred dotes of her daughter, trying her best to give her everything she wants, which she can do when she becomes a success in the restaurant business. Still it is not enough for Veda, so Mildred marries the formerly wealthy Monty, who now has no money, but has a high social standing, to benefit her daughter. That he is a playboy, who ruins Mildred, is of no concern to Veda, who continues her greedy ways, and even seduces Monty after the divorce – which of course leads to murder. Blyth’s cute exterior, that turns progressively more sexual as she ages in the film, is a cover for the evil, greedy, spoiled little bitch that she is. She deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal – a rarity for film noir.

8. Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
In Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, Hayworth plays Elsa, the wife of a rich defense attorney (Everett Sloane), who meets Welles’ seaman in Central Park and convinces him to join the crew of her husband’s boat, which is about to set sail. Welles and Hayworth begin a relationship on board the ship, and when her husband’s business partner Glenn Anders approaches Welles with a plan to fake his own death, in the guise of a murder to be committed by Welles himself, he agrees, planning on using the money to run away with Hayworth. Of course things go horribly wrong. Despite the fact that Welles miscast himself (he was not quite able to play the stupid guy in the movie), Hayworth was never sexier than she was in this movie – an accomplishment considering that her marriage to Welles was falling apart at the time, and the camera seems to lash out at her. Welles made Hayworth cut her signature long red hair for the role, and dyed it blonde for the role, yet Hayworth was still supremely sexy and wicked in the role. A great performance by an underrated actress.

7. Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy aka Deadly is the Female (1950)
Cummins seems to have taken director Joseph H. Lewis’ advice to heart when he told her that her character was “a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting”. That is exactly what Cummins does in this movie. She plays a sharpshooter at a carnival, who meets a fellow gun enthusiast played by John Dall. They both get fired, because the carnival boss lusts after her, and the two go on the run, and start to rob banks – all at her behest. Cummins did not have a particularly brilliant career, and Gun Crazy is undeniably her most famous role, and she made the most of it. She oozes sexuality in this film, as she seduces not only Dall but the audience as well. A brilliant performance by an actress who never really got the roles she probably deserved.

6. Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (1945)
Edward G. Robinson makes the perfect foil for Joan Bennett’s Kitty, a femme fatale that the movie implies is a prostitute. Robinson sees Kitty arguing with a man on the street (the great Dan Duryea), and “rescues” her, not knowing that he is really her pimp. He falls in love with her, despite the fact that he is married, to a woman who constantly puts him down. Duryea convinces Kitty to string Robinson along, thinking that he is a famous painter, so they can extort money from him. Of course things do not work out as planned by anyone. One of the most painful scenes in all of film noir is when Robinson comes to ask Kitty to marry him, and she merciless mocks him, driving him to kill her with an ice pick. Bennett is everything a great femme fatale needs to be – icy cold, sexy and amoral. A perfect performance in this great Fritz Lang movie – which I much prefer to Lang’s previous The Woman in the Window, which has a better reputation, and the same cast.

5. Ava Gardner in The Killers
Ava Gardner was never as sexy or seductive as she was in this, her first major screen role. The film opens with the murder of the Swede (Burt Lancaster), and then flashes back to tell his story, where he was roped into a bank robbery by Gardner, who casts her merciless gaze on him and has him hooked right from the start. In the movies elaborate series of flashbacks, we see Gardner’s Kitty (a classic femme fatale name), as she manipulates all the men involved in a payroll robbery. Years later, Kitty has not really changed, as she is still pulling the strings from behind the scenes, and allowing the men in front of her to take the fall. Of course, a femme fatale was never allowed to get away with anything in those days. Gardner was sexy and seductive as a nightclub singer, and you can easily see why all the men immediately fall for her and trust her – even as it brings about their doom.

4. Gene Tierny in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is different for a film noir, as it was shot in color. Yet Tierny’s femme fatale is as black and heartless as they come. Tierny’s Ellen is devoted to her husband Richard – much, much too devoted. At first it takes the form of not wanting to hire servants, because she wants to do everything for him herself. That’s kind of sweet. But then Ellen gets jealous of Richard spending any time with anyone else, and of his writing. She takes his younger brother, stricken with polio, swimming, and when he gets a cramp, and cries out for help, she simply watches him drown. Later, she becomes pregnant, but seeing how excited Richard is at the prospect of having a baby, she throws herself down the stairs, killing their unborn child. She plans an even more elaborate revenge on both her husband and sister, who has fallen in love with Richard, and it almost works. Tierny’s performance is a brilliant portrayal of love turning into dangerous obsession – she is one of the most unforgettable screen women in history.

3. Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947)
Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is just a small town gas station owner living in California, when his past comes back to haunt him. He tells his story to his girlfriend, and then the movie flashes back to the time when Jeff was a P.I. hired by Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie (Greer), who ran off with $40,000 of his money. Jeff tracks Kathie down, but like all femme fatale in the movies, she seduces Jeff the two fall in love with each other. One murder leads to another, as Kathie keeps killing people and setting Jeff up to take the fall. He gets away, and thinks the past is behind him, until Whit calls on him once again, and Jeff discovers that Kathie is back with him – but she hasn’t changed a bit. Greer is a classic femme fatale – her long dark hair, distinctive voice and seductive good looks makes her a woman you cannot help fall for. Jeff knows he is in trouble from the get go with her – especially the second time – but cannot help himself. This is perhaps the greatest film noir ever made, and Greer is a big reason for it.

2. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is not your typical noir femme fatale. For one thing, she is an aging Hollywood star, not the young type normally associated with the role. In fact, one could argue that she really is a failed femme fatale, as her attempts to seduce the object of her affection Joe (William Holden), a struggling Hollywood screenwriter all fail. Yet in many other ways, she fits the bill fine. Although she is not able to seduce Joe sexually, she uses her wealth to seduce him to stay with her and help her with her screenplay. She becomes possessive in the extreme, and threatens suicide every time that Joe threatens to walk out on her. She has a hold on him that is more than just money. One of the greatest of all screen performances (and the best one on this list), she only takes second place here because I’m not quite sure she should qualify at all. But I love the performance so much, that I couldn’t not have her here.

1. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1945)
For me, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson will always be the standard on which to judge every other femme fatale. Stanwyck was one the best actresses in Hollywood history, using her natural born sexuality to great advantage in her best roles (Baby Face and The Lady Eve come to mind). Here, she is a heartless seductress, who convinces insurance salesman Neff (Fred MacMurray) to kill her husband for her – preferably under strange circumstances so that his life insurance will pay double the normal amount. But an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) gets suspicious, and starts poking around. Phyllis is conniving in the extreme, and plays everyone right down until her final breath. A brilliant performance in one of the best film noirs in history.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Video Views: DVD Releases November 24, 2009

After last week's outpouring of new DVD releases, this week only sees two - only one of which is actually worth your time, although I am sure that many more people will rent the one that isn't.

Angels & Demons * ½
Ron Howard’s follow-up to the massively successful The DaVinci Code is even more inane and stupid than that film was. The movie, based on a book that was much better than The DaVinci Code was, seems to lack all sense of drama and excitement. Once again, we are stuck watching Tom Hanks and a beautiful woman run from place to place all over Rome to try and connect the dots to what is going on. The supporting cast, including Ewan McGregor as a priest, is wasted and seem bored. But not as bored as the audience. For my original review please see:

Funny People *** ½
Judd Apatow’s third feature, following the massively successful The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, is much more ambitious than either of those films, but also less successful. Apatow is drawing on a bigger canvas this time, focusing on a movie star (Adam Sandler) who learns that he’s dying and tries to reconnect with his comedy roots, via his new assistant and struggling comedian Seth Rogen, and with the girl who got away, played by Leslie Mann. The movie is very funny, and at times quite touching as well. Sandler gives one of his best performances, and isn’t afraid to look like an asshole. Rogen and Mann are also quite good, and the supporting cast – including Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana and a host of celebrity cameos make Funny People enjoyable from beginning to end. For my original review please see:

DVD Views: Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino: The Last Emperor ** ½
Directed By:
Matt Tynauer.

Valentino is one of the biggest names in the fashion world. At the time of his retirement, he had been in the industry for 45 years, and was the last of the huge names in fashion that rose to prominence in the 1960s still designing clothing. He is a man who values beauty above everything else, and shut out anything that was not beautiful. Throughout all those years, he had Giancarlo Giametti, his business partner and companion, by his side. While Valentino focused on beauty, Giametti focued on the business end of things, and helped make Valentino who he is.

The movie, Valentino: The Last Emperor, follows the man at the close of his career. Right up until his retirement, he was designing beautiful gowns for women, and insisted that he make dresses that women would actually want to wear. The business end of things seems to be a mystery to him. His company went public, and had the majority of its shares bought by one congolerate, and then sold off to another. Valentino doesn’t much care. He wants to continue to make clothes.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Valentino and Giametti who argue and bicker just like any other old married couple. They have been around each other for so long, that they have a shorthand with each other. Giametti understands Valentino’s flourishes and his insecurities, because he is really the only one that Valentino lets see them. He handles him remarkably well – he gives him a rock to lean on when he needs one.

The rest of the movie is far less interesting to me. I’m sorry, but fashion has never really been an interest of mine, and no documentary is really going to change that. Watching as they prepare for numerous runway shows, and Valentino’s grand exit from the fashion world, simply was not all that interesting to me. For someone who likes this world, I’m sure the movie would be fascinating. For me, not as much.

Valentino is a fascinating man, but one that keeps everyone at a distance. He seems unsatisfied all the time, overly pressured, overly managed. All he wants to do is dress beautiful women in beautiful clothing. He has done that for 45 years, and become a multi-millionaire with everything that he could possibly want. In a way, his life resembles something out of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – surrounded by shallowness all the time, how could we possibly expect him to be anything but shallow?

And therein lies the problem for me with this movie. It is all surface, much like the dresses that Valentino designs. Yes, it is all very beautiful. But does it mean anything?

DVD Views: Every Little Step

Every Little Step ***
Directed By:
Adam Del Deo & James D. Stern.

I have never seen A Chorus Line, either on stage on the movie version, so dispite strong reviews, I didn’t bother to see the documentary Every Little Step when it was released this summer, or when it came out on DVD. But considering that the film was one of the 15 shortlisted for the documentary Oscar this year, I decided to give it a chance over the weekend. What I found was a surprisingly entertaining, funny and ultimately moving documentary about the lives of actors. From what I gathered about A Chorus Line while watching the movie, in its own way, this documentary reflects the original vision of the Broadway show.

When A Chorus Line debuted in 1976, it became an instant success, won a bunch of Tonys and the Pulitizer Prize for Drama, and became one of the longest running shows in history. The brainchild of Michael Bennett, a dancer himself who gathered a group of his fellow dancers together and recorded the 12 hour session where they all opened up about their lives. He, and his writers, then turned these confessions into a Broadway show, where 19 actors get up to audition for a spot in the chorus line for an upcoming Broadway show.

30 Years later, Bennet dead for almost two decades, they decide to revive A Chorus Line for Broadway once again. The producers of the show hold open auditions, which thousands of people show up for. The movie follows the audition process for 8 grueling months and callback after callback, as actors show up and try their damnedest to earn a spot in the revival.

What emerges is both an homage to the original show – as we hear all the shows classic numbers (making me wonder how the hell I knew almost all of them despite the obvious disadvantage of never having seen the production), as well as a tribute to actors everywhere. Unless you are one of the lucky few celebrity actors, being a professional and making a living doing this is damn near impossible. Everyone wants to be a star, but there are not all that many spots open. During the course of the movie many dreams are made, but many more are shattered. It is not so much the people who make the show, but the ones who do not that stick out in my mind.

To a certain extent, Every Little Step is lightweight entertainment. You cannot help but think of reality shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance while watching the movie (the later of which is particularly strong, since one of the choreographers from that show, Tyce Diorio is one of the auditionees for this show). But while those films celebrate amateurs, this movie is about professionals who long to work. True, they do this out of love, but also because they want to make money. There is much more sadness in this film that I expected there to be.
Every Little Step is a fine documentary of a certain type. I cannot really recall another documentary that looked with such an unblinking eye at the world of actors. The movie does justice to the musical on which is it based – at least I think it does.

DVD Views: Ballast

Ballast *** ½
Directed By:
Lance Hammer.
Written By: Lance Hammer.
Starring: Micheal J. Smith Sr. (Lawrence), JimMyron Ross (James), Tarra Riggs (Marlee), Johnny McPhail (John).

Ballast is a movie about a family that was torn apart years ago. Although they all continued to live in the same small Mississippi town, they never see each other. Now the estranged father has killed himself, and left his small house to his ex-wife and son. The problem is that the house is on the same property as another small house, belonging to the dead man’s brother, who may have been responsible for the family coming apart in the first place. To make matters worse, the two brothers also run a convenience store together, which now belongs in part to the mother. Bitter feelings are on all sides of this battle. But what Ballast is not, is a film about hysterics and arguments and really resolving the problems. These people have too much to do in their lives to get into arguments about the past. Although they don’t much like each other, they need to find a way to co-exist.

At the beginning of the movie, we don’t really know why everything fell apart in the first place, just that it did. Now Lawrence (Michael J. Smith) is all alone, and depressed, since his brother killed himself. He tries to kill himself as well, but is not as successful as his brother was. When a young teenager, James (JimMyron Ross) arrives at the door and demands money, he knows that it is his nephew, and he gives him what he can. He doesn’t even report it to the police, even though the teenager arrives with a gun in tow. Marlee (Tarra Riggs), the mother, doesn’t want anything to do with her ex, or his brother, but she has no job and no money, and sees this as perhaps a chance to give her, and her son, a leg up in a world that doesn’t seem to care about them. When James gets into debt with some local drug dealers, who appear dangerous, she decides that they have no choice but to move in next to Lawrence. They try and stay away from each other, but cannot. It’s a small property after all.

Ballast is probably a film that will frustrate most viewers. There is no artificial drama in this film – in fact there is nothing artificial about the film at all. It simply observes these characters in their day to day lives. It doesn’t feel the need to explain everything from one scene to the next. These characters know what happened in the past, so why do they need to discuss it? It is a film about ordinary lives – about three broken, wounded people, who slowly, gradually lean on each other to help fix themselves.

I will admit to being kind of frustrated at the beginning of the movie, as I struggled to connect the dots between these characters, and what it all meant. But the movie won me over a little more with each passing scene, until by the end I was completely absorbed by these characters and their lives. The ending of the film isn’t exactly a happy one – but it signals that perhaps at some point in the future, there could be one. For characters in a movie like Ballast, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: New Moon

The Twilight Saga: New Moon * ½
Directed By:
Chris Weitz.
Written By: Melissa Rosenberg based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Bella Swan), Robert Pattinson (Edward Cullen), Taylor Lautner (Jacob Black), Billy Burke (Charlie Swan), Ashley Greene (Alice Cullen), Jackson Rathbone (Jasper Whitlock), Anna Kendrick (Jessica), Michael Welch (Mike), Michael Sheen (Aro), Jamie Campbell Bower (Caius), Christopher Heyerdahl (Marcus), Peter Facinelli (Dr. Carlisle Cullen), Rachelle Lefevre (Victoria), Elizabeth Reaser (Esme Cullen), Kellan Lutz (Emmett Cullen), Nikki Reed (Rosalie Hale), Chaske Spencer (Sam Uley), Gil Birmingham (Billy Black), Graham Greene (Harry Clearwater), Kiowa Gordon (Embry Call), Tyson Houseman (Quil Ateara), Edi Gathegi (Laurent), Dakota Fanning (Jane).

Being a teenager is hard. It is a time of personal upheaval, confusion and raging hormones as kids try to become adults too quickly, and end up making mistakes. This is why teenagers are at the heart of many movies, TV shows and books. Their lives, even when mundane, are just so much more dramatic than adults lives are. Every little thing that happens to them is the BIGGEST THING EVER to them – at least for that moment. This is why the Twilight series – both in book form where I read all four novels, for reasons I do not understand myself – and in the movies is so frustrating to me. Never have I seen a group of teenagers so bloody lifeless and morose. That the series has legions of teenage fans is somewhat curious to me – does anyone actually relate to these characters? They certainly do not reflect my life as a teenager in any way.

But I digress. The second movie in the Twilight series, New Moon, is worse than the first film, even if they did drastically improve on the special effects of the first film. Director Chris Weitz, coming off the vastly superior The Golden Compass, knows how to use CGI very well in his movies, and in particular here he gives us some great work – particularly in the scenes of the werewolf’s transformations.

But the story is still so cheesy and lame, isn’t it? In this one, our teenage heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart, once again valiantly struggling in a movie so far beneath her obvious talent level it’s frustrating) and her vampire love Edward (Robert Pattinson, once again mistaking staring off into space and speaking slowly for being dramatic) are forced apart by Edward’s conscience. He doesn’t want to see Bella get hurt, so he decides to leaves Forks, and her, forever. She is torn up by his abandonment, and in what may be the films worst scene, spends months in her room simply staring out the window. Then she discovers that is she does something stupid or self destructive, she can bring Edward back – not really, but she sees him in her mind telling her not to do it. This leads her to do more and more stupid things. She rescues a couple of motorcycles for the dump, and takes them to her old friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), on the Native Reservation, because he is a good mechanic. The two of them become close over the months, and although Bella knows that Jacob is in love with her, she doesn’t give in. She is in love with Edward, and always will be. But then Jacob pulls away for reasons she doesn’t understand. We of course, figure out long before she does, that he has become a werewolf. But much like the Cullens, Jacob’s werewolf pack are not really “monsters”, but kind and benevolent werewolves. They are just there to protect their people, and the people from Forks, for the vampire horde descending on them. Much like Sunnydale, the city in which Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes place, Forks seems to be a magnet for monsters.

For a series that contains vampires, and now werewolves, Twilight is rather bloodless. Bella is seen to be in constant danger, and yet nothing ever really happens to her. She wanders around depressed, is put under threat for a few moments, but really, she is not in danger. There are too many monsters in love with her for that to happen.

I suppose that a series like Twilight could work, if the writing was better. The screenwriter is Melissa Rosenberg, who does great work season after season on Dexter, but here her hands are tied by the terribly written novels by Stephanie Meyer. Because teenage fans have eaten up the novels in record numbers, they don’t really change anything for the movie versions. The same lame dialogue has to be delivered, the same false dramatic episodes, the same lame characters. Because of their success, the movies have drawn some big name talent to star in the movies – not only Stewart, who will recover and return to doing great work after this series is over I hope, but now Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen as two members of the “Volturi”, vampire royalty who make the rules that all vampires must live by. They try hard to be dramatic and evil, but they cannot pull it off.

I am under no delusions that anything I write here will have the slightest bit of impact. The movie just made $141 million in its opening weekend, which is the highest three day total of the year. Sad really that teenagers are flocking to this series, but whatever. They like what they like. When they grow up a little bit though, I wonder if they’ll look back at their Twilight love with nostalgia or embarrassment.