Blood & sand

What’s on for July 4? Wolves, vampires & sorcerers, oh my!

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

TEEN WOLF | Purse-lipped Bella (Kristen Stewart) strings along ab-fab Jacob (Taylor Lautner) in ‘Eclipse.’
2.5 out of 5 Stars

TWILIGHT SAGA; ECLIPSE
Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Launter, Dakota Fanning.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins.
Now playing wide release.

To praise Eclipse as the best film thus far in the Twilight saga is like saying the drunk driver who rear-ended your new car had only been sipping Johnnie Walker Blue: Its pedigree doesn’t, ultimately, make the pain more bearable.
Little has changed since the last one, New Moon, pitted icy vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) in a chaste sexual competition with passionate werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) for the affections of pouty, bitchy Bella (Kristen Stewart). There are still long stretches with far too little action (“Get to the fight,” my date complained after one of the many delayed starts) — unless you consider emoting and seething “action.”

The (new) director David Slade at least begins the movie with a stylized if tame horror sequence, which postpones the gooey, banal romantic entanglements. Slade has advanced in bounds since first director Catherine Hardwicke’s lame-o special effects made me laugh inappropriately, but you still need to have seen both prior films — and preferably have read the books — to follow what the hell is going on.

Even that might not be enough. The Vulturi cult (led by Dakota Fanning, all of whom appear to have stolen their wardrobe from Pete Wentz), the revenge of Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, as if it mattered), the enmity between the vamps and the wolves — who can keep track of all this nonsense? (The cross-cutting between factions is choppy and confusing.)

Deeper still is this mystery: What, exactly, is Edward’s appeal as a romantic hero? He’s pale, bloodless, glassy-eyed and continually lies to Bella (“to protect you” he insists; I bet Tiger Woods said the same thing); he also sparkles like he’s been doused in body glitter at a circuit party. Jacob, by contrast, is all brio: Forceful and rugged and thankfully shirtless when he has nothing interesting to say. It’s America versus Europe — why isn’t America winning? What is this, the World Cup?
Bella seems to think she’s The Bachelorette, stringing along two guys until the last commercial break. Just give one a rose and let’s call it quits.

Pattinson’s acting amount to little more than brooding like a 19th century actor doing Hamlet. He smolders so much, I worried he might cause a forest fire. Lautner, bless his fab abs, is not the best actor, though his sincerity carries him pretty far.

Alas, none of these qualms will have any effect on its box office success, so I might as well highlight the main positive. The best scene in the film is a relative truce between Jacob and Edward, as the two sit in a tent, Bella asleep between them, and bond over their shared maleness. It also smacks the taste of cheesy sentiment out of your mouth as Jake and Eddie seem a bottle of tequila shy of ditching Bella and moving together to Brokeback Mountain. I wish I could quit them. I wish everyone would.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL | A magical avatar (Noah Ringer) learns to controls the four elements in ‘The Last Airbender.’
2 out of 5 Stars

THE LAST AIRBENDER
Noah Dev Patel, Aasif Mandvi.
Rated PG. 105 mins.
Now playing wide release.

At its essence, the kid-focused actioner The Last Airbender is a two-hour movie about playing Rock-Paper-Scissors: Water beat fire, fire beat wind, wind beats earth. Or something like that. I lost interest pretty quickly.
In a world that looks like it was cobbled together from discarded sets, costumes, cast members and plots from Narnia, The Golden Compass and Return of the King, four nomadic tribes representing the four elements (air, fire, water and earth) are engaged in a war, with the bellicose fire nation suppressing those in other tribes who can “bend” (control) their element. An avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer), missing for a century, returns to bring order from chaos. One Ringer to rule them all, I suppose.

With Aang a Dalai Lama-esque reincarnated leader and lots of repetitive conjuring, The Last Airbender is a hodgepodge of Eastern mysticism and Western myth — Harry Potter Meets Falun Gong. (“Bending” looks suspiciously like tai chi.) Even though the plotting is paint by numbers (the bad guys are all swarthy, to make it even easier), and the symbolism unsubtle (the fire tribe is composed of polluters and soulless machines), none of it comes together.

M. Night Shymalan is constitutionally the wrong director for this kind of effects-laden spectacular. (The 3D effects were added in post production, like with Clash of the Titans, and don’t add much to the drama.) Aside from children in peril, there’s little of his themes present, or his superb though tired sense of tension. This is a bold-faced effort at reinventing himself, but this vehicle? It’s a Shymalan a-ding-dong. And that’s elementary.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas