THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse isn't the best of three, but neither is it the worst. Instead, this adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster book falls somewhere in the middle, between the nicely captured teen angst of 2008's Twilight and the ill-fated emotional oasis of 2009's The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Clearly, we're not talking about quality to match the Toy Story trilogy, but neither are we plumbing the Police Academy or depths.
Detractors would disagree, but that's because most come from that fanboy camp that cannot abide the thought of movies centered around women and their desires (see also: Sex and the City). The Twilight series (on screen anyway; I haven't read the novels) is often only so much melodramatic glop, but at its best, it also taps into that essence which informs youthful, blinding love, when amorous emotions are so scalding hot that the only choices that make sense to a young girl are either to be consumed with desire or perish outright (usually symbolically, as in "If he doesn't ask me to the prom, I'll just die!").
The canniness of the Twilight franchise is that it uses its protagonist, Bella Swan (Kirsten Stewart), to literalize these desires. Having spent the first movie falling in love with sparkly emo vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and the second picture brooding over his departure, Bella is now fully at the point where she feels that spending her life by his side as one of the undead beats anything that the human world has to offer.
Others aren't so sure. Chief among these is Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the Native American hunk who's able to change into a werewolf at will. Deeply fond of Bella, he's determined to win her from Edward, largely by offering himself as a warm-blooded alternative to the pasty, ice-cold bloodsucker (their face-off leads to the movie's funniest line, Jacob's verbal smackdown of Edward while they're sharing a tent with Bella late in the movie). Yet even Edward and his fellow vampires aren't so eager for Bella to give up her life to join their ranks: In one of the film's best scenes, Rosalie (Nikki Reed) relates to Bella the sad tale of how she became a vampire, without any say in the matter. (Another fine scene finds Jasper, played by Jackson Rathbone, sharing his back story, making me wish we could have spent more screen time on all the vampire characters' origins.)
As Bella struggles with her choices -- vampire or human? Edward or Jacob? Coke or Pepsi? -- other developments pose immediate threats to the Forks, Wash., community. The vampire and werewolf communities continue to snarl at each other's collective throats. A series of slayings is taking place in nearby Seattle. The vampiric Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) still seeks revenge. And the vampire overlords, the Volturi, have been snooping around for reasons unknown.
Returning screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg and new series director David Slade (Hard Candy) try to wrestle all this material into a coherent shape, with middling results. The inconsistent tone results in an opening act that's lethargic; thankfully, the picture eventually hits its strides. There are a number of ingredients likely to earn titters, from some overripe lines to several of the characterizations; for my money, nothing's more risible than the Volturi, who are supposed to be monster masters but, as led by little Dakota Fanning, come across as models for a new Goth fashion line.
Yet for all the film's flaws, there's much that it gets right. The visual effects are better than in previous installments, and this allows the battle between "good" vampires, "bad" vampires, and werewolves to deliver the climactic goods when they count. (And thank God some studio idiot didn't suggest converting this to 3-D, as every other movie seems to be presented these days.) Stewart again makes Bella a watchable heroine, and while Pattinson and Lautner may not reveal themselves as the most accomplished actors around, they're nevertheless desirable for these roles, especially in the scenes in which Pattinson's ethereal angst bounces off Lautner's robust earthiness.
THE LAST AIRBENDER
The live-action spectacle The Last Airbender is based on the animated Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and were writer-director M. Night Shyamalan really as brilliant as his admirers insist, he would have demanded that the studio retain the word Avatar in the title -- that act alone could have added an extra $10 million to the coffers from ill-informed folks thinking they were going to witness a sequel to the James Cameron smash. Left to its own devices, though, it's difficult to ascertain whether the picture will earn enough to warrant its planned sequels or not even make enough to allow Shyamalan to Super-Size his next fast-food order.
The answer, I suppose, rests on how many parents will be dropping their children off at the multiplexes to catch a matinee. Because unlike most of the family-friendly films of today (especially those from Pixar), The Last Airbender has nothing to offer adults -- this is strictly kid stuff all the way. That may not be the case with the source material, which has been enjoyed by viewers of all ages, but it's unlikely anything here -- beyond some of the special effects -- will capture the imagination of anyone over 12.
Those effects are occasionally excellent, and they're the only things that provide any pulse to an otherwise poorly executed story of how one young lad, Aang (Noah Ringer), proves to be the only person in his world with the ability to control all four elements of air, water, fire and earth. His leadership is needed as the Fire Nation wages an all-out war against the other tribes; in order to restore balance and save countless lives (including his own), he teams up with Waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, doing double duty since he's also playing Jasper in the Twilight series).
Shyamalan's habit of giving himself choice roles in his own projects -- which wouldn't be a problem if he could, you know, act -- mercifully ends here, since he's nowhere to be seen on screen (of course, if someone needed to bend some hot air, he would have been perfectly cast). But focusing less on his thespian aspirations hasn't helped his writing or directing prowess, since The Last Airbender is a clunky, soporific undertaking punctuated by some truly cringe-worthy dialogue. Then again, maybe it's a good thing pearls of prose weren't wasted on this lackluster cast. No one fails to make an impression: Even Dev Patel, so charismatic as the Slumdog Millionaire, comes across as a colorless novice in his role as Prince Zuko. Like everyone else in this dud centered around the elements, he's clearly out of his.