Twilight: Eclipse

The Twilight series marks time in Eclipse, a static, lead-swinging installment in the teenage vampire melodrama, which sees David Slade become the third director in as many films to steer Stephanie Myers’ tiresome, toothless saga to the screen.

We enter the story at the point where the last film, an even more glacially-paced and moody non-event, ended. Bella (Kirsten Stewart) and her bloodsucking beau Edward (Robert Pattinson) have been reunited, much to the chagrin of the Native American third wheel Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Confused Bella is torn between her two admirers; undead Edward, with his sparkly skin and flashing yellow eyes, and hot-blooded Jacob, who can transform into a virile, hairy werewolf on demand. As Bella hums and haws, an old threat returns in the form of redheaded outlaw vampire Victoria (Byrce Dallas Howard, replacing Rachelle Lefevre). Victoria is breeding an army of dangerous young vampires to avenge the death of her beloved at the hands of Bella and the Cullen clan.

The narrative, stretched to exhaustion across two long hours, is composed of almost nothing but flip-flops. Bella loves Edward, Bella loves Jacob. No, Edward. No, Jacob. In a rare moment of insight, Bella complains about being “frozen” in her life, unable to “move forward”. The same can be said for everyone else in this deadening parade. The geologically-timed pacing reveals tiny slivers of narrative progression, cutaways to the teenage runaways gathering for their assault and the vampires joining with their sworn enemies, the werewolves, to defeat them. There is never a moment when you think this battle might be lost, or a single strand of tension to connect this stiffly choreographed mayhem to the central story.

Bella’s notions of womanhood are so unnaturally retroactive, she might as well be mooning over Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy melodrama from the 1940s. Arriving at her 18th birthday, her sole ambition is to find a man who will solve all of her problems. She has found two, and must decide between them, the courtly vampire or the wild wolf. And that’s about all she has to do. There is a little chatter about exams and college but her star is set early on. Bella might be faced with a choice, but she doesn’t have any options.

Stewart’s performance is built entirely on her ability to bite her lip, flick her eyes and mope. She never relaxes, which I suppose is difficult when surrounded by fiends and monsters but she might at least be relaxed about being anxious. Stewart can act, she was good in Adventureland and great in a cameo in Into The Wild, but Bella’s character allows her nothing but fidgety stasis. It’s a vacuous kind of vacuum, too, with Bella repeating the phrase, “that’s so pretty”, to three different items presented to her over the course of the film.

Opposite her, Pattinson is consistently outperformed by his haircut. He is as wooden as a garden shed. As the elemental, shape shifting werewolf, Lautner shows he is better than either of them, particularly in scenes he shares with his family of mystical moon-howlers, but he can’t save the film on his own.

The fey sparkly theatrics are played down this time, the limp action sequences allowing for fewer emotional crescendos. The special effects work is understandably bloodless, given the 12A certificate, but the digital animation and scenic work is nowhere near as accomplished or eye-catching as work available in, say, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, both originated almost a decade ago. This lag may be due to the filmmaker’s belief that their target audience of young teenage girls are not as visually savvy as their counterparts among the boys, but I suspect it is because it is cheaper not to bother.

Twilight has been sold on sight to a ravenous audience who don’t care that they are being short changed. Even so, the film should look and sound better than it does. The effects work is the equivalent of reasonably accomplished television and the soundtrack of bed-wetting emo rock is no substitute for an original score. The cheap look of the film is galling given that the franchise has banked considerable box-office returns and doubly so, since the pancake makeup, Weetabix wigs and wobbly CGI go some way towards disrupting the fantasy.

Shrek Forever After

How do you put the lid on a successful cartoon franchise? If you’re Dreamworks, wringing the last few bucks out of the billion-dollar Shrek, you take all the stuff that worked in the first three films, juggle it around for a while, add a few time-swallowing song and dance numbers and call it a finale. Oh, and make it in 3D.

The resulting Shrek Forever After, unsurprisingly, lacks the comic energy of the first two films but is still a vast improvement on the hopeless third iteration. From the novelty and fun of dragon-slaying and damsel-rescuing, the ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) has been reduced to suffering a premature mid-life crisis. After just a year of married bliss with Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and their flatulent triplets, the ogre has lost his mojo. “I’m just a jolly green joke,’’ he whines.

Desperate to unshackle himself from responsibility, Shrek signs an ill-fated magical contract with the conniving Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dorn), who promises him a single halcyon day of being a monstrous ogre. But there’s a twist, which sees Shrek removed from history unless he can fulfil a clause in the contract before the sun goes down. The clock is ticking, so Shrek undertakes a quest to re-connect with Fiona, now leader of a gang of renegade ogres, the downtrodden Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), now a fat cat living the high life on a silken cushion, and get his life back.

The 3D work adds a few moments of head-ducking diversion, but the overall effect is not worth the extra effort involved. The audience is not watching the effects, they are there to laugh and although there are a few decent jokes, it is not nearly enough for comic satisfaction. Instead, the thin material is padded out with over-long chases, tiresome repetitions and the already mentioned and altogether tedious montages of awkward song-and-dance numbers. All too briefly, the film sketches out a couple of potentially interesting sidebars, (including yet another take on the central notion in It’s A Wonderful Life) considering the fates of the people Shrek cares about, if he had never been born. But these avenues remain mostly unexplored, blockaded by the franchise’s requirement to insert a poop joke or another dizzying pursuit.

It might not be fair to make comparisons between Dreamworks animated output (which consists of Shrek and not much else) and the vastly superior and prolific Pixar, but there is a glaring gulf between the two. Pixar, who will release Toy Story 3 in a couple of weeks, develop their own characters and write their own scripts. All four Shreks are distantly related to characters in William Steig’s children’s book, written twenty years ago. With the Shrek films, Dreamworks have proven themselves to be more interested in hit-or-miss one-liners, celebrity cameos and pop-culture references than telling a story. The story is all Pixar care about. It shows: Dreamworks films are forgotten by the time you strap the kids back in the car, Pixar make films that will be enjoyed for as long as there are people to watch.

Robin Hood

In Ridley Scott’s revisionist re-imagining of the iconic English hero Robin Hood, Russell Crowe doesn’t wear Lincoln green tights or a cap with a jaunty feather. He’s not all that interested in the redistribution of wealth or robbing the rich to feed the poor. He doesn’t have any men, merry or not, and his mortal enemy the Sheriff of Nottingham is mostly marked absent.

In their determination to reinvent a classic cinematic character, writers Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have carefully excised all those elements we’ve come to expect from the legendary medieval outlaw. When so much of cinema is made up of warmed-over clich├ęs, it seems churlish to complain when a filmmaker tries something new, but the result is an action film that might have been called anything other than Robin Hood, and a central character that barely merits the name. It’s like Gladiator in Sherwood Forest, except there’s no mention of Sherwood Forest either.

As the film opens, Crowe’s Robin Longstride is making his way back to England after a decade serving as an archer in Richard The Lionheart’s Third Crusade. Richard (a dissolute Danny Huston) is laying one last siege on a French castle before his return to London, but is killed by a (historically accurate) arrow through the neck. With the army scattered, Longstride and his almost anonymous cohorts, Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Alan A’Dale (Alan Doyle) come across the aftermath of an ambush led by the traitor Godfrey (Mark Strong). Robin takes it upon himself to deliver Richard’s crown to his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) in London, while also returning a prized sword to Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow), the last request of his dead son. When he arrives in Nottingham to deliver the sword, he meets his former comrade’s widow, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). Marian and Sir Walter listen to the crusader’s story and pretend he is their son and husband returned from war, rather than face losing the family estates to the new King John’s (Oscar Isaac) crippling taxation.

As Robin settles in to his new-found home, the arrogant King John is persuaded by Godfrey to tax the already struggling northern lords for more money to fund his war chest. His short-sighted fiscal policies include killing everyone who doesn’t pay up, a wave of chaos that eventually arrives in Nottingham. At the head of the charge is Robin’s newly-minted mortal enemy Godfrey, determined to eliminate Robin before he reveals his treachery against the dead King Richard. At the same time, Robin is honing his own political points of view, a kind of Dark Age Socialism built on the idea that all men are created equal, and so fires the northern lords into forcing King John into signing the Magna Carta.

Built on a foundation of hastily assembled historical moments, this busy plot must also contain Robin’s romance with the no-nonsense Marion, his recovery of a series of repressed childhood memories, his assembling of a team of freedom fighters, a couple of rousing speeches and the staging of umpteen fight scenes and battles. This Robin Hood is no Errol Flynn, but he is still handy with a bow and arrow, and Scott is equally adept at filming pulsating action sequences. The problem with the film is that it tries to be a gritty action adventure and a bucolic comedy romance at the same time. The action is stirring but mindful of the 12A certificate, almost entirely bloodless. The romance is rushed and stilted and scattered with odd moments of witless wordplay. The final couple of scenes, which act as a sort of establishing yarn for an intended sequel, are followed by a title card that tells us “And so the legend begins”. Well, what have we been watching then?


“I just don't know what I’m doing with my life”, declares the 25-year-old nanny played by newcomer Greta Gerwig in Greenberg. Join the club, Greta. The rest of the people who meander through Noah Baumbach’s casually uncomfortable black comedy aren't going to be much help.

Gerwig’s listless Florence is left in charge when the busy Greenberg family, for whom she works as a Jill-of-all-trades assistant, take a long holiday in Vietnam. Florence is content to watch the house and walk the dog while the family are away, but she is also asked to look in on Roger, the dad's brother. Roger is about to turn 41 and works as a carpenter. He has come to LA from New York to find some space and quiet to help him recover from a nervous breakdown. When Florence asks him if he needs anything, he writes a shopping list: whiskey and ice-cream. Confused, lonely and feeling his way back to health, Roger finds his match in the vulnerable Florence, who drives him around the city and, in an excruciating early sex scene, almost sleeps with him. Despite the awkwardness, they are drawn together, seemingly by nothing other than a desire to do something with somebody, anything with anyone.

The plot gradually reveals other things going on in the same spiky mood and at a similarly low temperature. Roger meets up with an old ex-girlfriend (played by co-writer and producer Jennifer Jason Leigh). They go on an excruciatingly kind date, where Roger’s romantic notions are deflated as gently as a hot air balloon. Occasionally, he rouses himself from self-pity long enough to write letters of complaint to various companies and government departments, giving out about trivialities. He never gets a reply. Roger reconnects with his British ex-pat former best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who used to play in their failed rock band, before he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Now a bored IT technician, Ivan acts as Roger’s mentor, cheerleader and conscience for the few weeks he spends in LA.

If for long periods of the film, nothing much seems to be happening, Baumbach’s static mood and strained progression builds into an astute study of ordinary people not living the lives they had once dreamt they would or, somehow worse, rueing the opportunities they missed. Not that any of these characters improve themselves along the way; Baumbach deliberately avoids staging dramatic confrontations or preaching a sermon. Greenberg is not about redemption, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. What matters is who it happens to.

This is an understated study of awkward people, a film that will make you squirm with embarrassment even as you fall for the brilliantly drawn characters. We have become so accustomed to his frantic funny-man routine, it comes as a surprise to discover that Stiller can do straight drama. His inward-looking, angst-ridden performance as a man desperate to recover his mojo is, at times, dangerously unpredictable. A knot of maddening tics and complex anxieties, Stiller is not actively looking for us to empathise with Roger but we do, in time, anyway. He’s funny without being comedic, sympathetic without ever being amiable, sad without being maudlin. Opposite him, in a show-stealing turn as the woman who can organise everyone else’s lives but can do nothing for herself, Gerwig gives a performance of such consummate naturalism she doesn’t appear to be acting at all.

The move from his native New York to Los Angeles has done Baumbach a power of good. The new location, much like the film itself, is packed with contradictory elements: slanted golden sunlight and sudden, torrential rain, laid back hippies and twitchy businesspeople, lazy afternoons by the pool followed by frantic, house-wrecking parties. Unlike the New York of The Squid & The Whale, where the towering, bustling city overwhelmed the people, this little-seen backstreet vision of LA sits unobtrusively in the background, adding character without stealing the show.