Twilight, Body of Lies

Cinema reviews for Nov. 27: an effective teenage vampire romance and Ridley Scott's latest, a spy thriller with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Peter Facinelli, Cam Gigandet, Taylor Lautner, Anna Kendrick, Michael Welch, Justin Chon, Christian Serratos, Gil Birmingham, Elizabeth Reaser, Edi Gathegi, Rachelle Lefevre, Sarah Clarke, Ned Bellamy, Gregory Tyree Boyce, Matt Bushell, José Zúñiga, Solomon Trimble. Written by Melissa Rosenberg, from the novel by Stephenie Meyer.

A cornball Harlequin romance with a Romeo and Juliet-like love story between a human girl and a vampire boy provides surprisingly effective fodder for Catharine Hardwicke´s moody, atmospheric, almost captivating Twilight. Based on the first novel in Stephenie Meyer´s hugely successful series of books – a young reader´s next step up from Harry Potter – there is absolutely nothing in the material to suggest it might make a successful big-screen adaptation; I certainly didn´t walk in expecting anything more than a pre-teen paen. All credit to director Hardwicke then, as I was floored by this undeniably well-crafted film; the young fans that have helped make this one of the year´s biggest hits should be more than satisfied.

After her mother remarries, young Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves from Arizona to the Pacific Northwest to live with her father in a small Washington town. No uneasy high school transition – she instantly makes some new friends before she walks in the school doors. But she also becomes interested in the creepy Goth kids – all foster children of local doctor Carlisle Cullen – particularly the hunky Edward (Robert Pattinson), who leaves Biology class upon seeing (and smelling) her, and doesn´t return for days. When he does come back, however, a mutual attraction brings the two together and they begin to fall in love – despite Edward´s mixed signals and an insistence that they “shouldn´t be friends.” That´s because Edward is different, something that becomes apparent to Bella when he saves her from an oncoming truck, and later, from a group of rowdy boys. This mixed with some local legend provided by friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and Bella is able to deduce that he is, yes, a vampire.

Of course, every story needs to throw its own spin on the vampire legend, and these vampires – not just Edward, but his entire foster family – don´t mind sunlight (they just sparkle a bit), can only be killed if they´re “torn into pieces and burned,” and have super strength and speed and possibly some other powers; Edward can read minds, sister Alice (Ashley Greene) can see the future, sort of. They´re also ‘vegetarians´ – that is, they only eat animal meat, not human. They still lust for human blood, though, which causes some complications for the two lovebirds. But Bella warmly welcomed into the vampire gang, even joining them for a friendly game of superhuman baseball. Complications arise when a rival gang of vampires – some that aren´t vegetarians – discover Bella in the Cullen´s midst and decide to hunt her down.

<%INFOBOX:1_2%>Beautiful cinematography (by Elliot Davis) and sparse use of music (by Carter Burwell) create a richly atmospheric film that is, for a good while, captivating. I´d be lying if I said things didn´t start to get silly once the vampire plot is fleshed out, but the film is enchanting in its first hour. Twilight is made for a very specific audience (preteen girls), who should eat it up, but I think the rest of us can at least appreciate the care and conviction that Hardwicke has brought to the potentially laughable material.

One true detriment: cheesy special effects – including a spectacularly awful piggyback ride up a mountain – that would feel more at home in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Still, for a blockbuster-level film on what feels like a tight budget, the producers can´t be complaining.

Recalls a number of other films, especially those from the Anne Rice pantheon, but for me most notably Kathryn Bigelow´s excellent Near Dark. I wish Twilight skewed just a little more adult, like that film (I mean, come on – the vampires here are far less threatening than the teen girls in Hardwicke´s Thirteen), but I´ll take what I can get.

Door is left open for a sequel – or 3 or 4 – which will undoubtedly come, though I wouldn´t expect this level of quality next time around.



Body of Lies

Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Ali Suliman, Alon Abutbul, Vince Colosimo, Simon McBurney, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Gaston, Kais Nashif, Jamil Khoury, Lubna Azabal. Written by William Monahan, from the novel by David Ignatius.

A compelling if somewhat unsatisfying spy thriller, Ridley Scott´s Body of Lies gets by on some strong performances and a surprisingly intricate, well-detailed story. Refreshingly adult and not afraid to require the viewer to pay close attention, the talky-but-engrossing film is a welcome diversion from the usual mainstream action fare, which includes the latest Bond film. Still, Body of Lies ultimately charts as something of a disappointingly minor effort from the director.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Roger Ferris, an undercover CIA operative tracking down notorious terrorist Al-Saleem with the aid of his superior back in Langley, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). When he tracks down a suspected safehouse in Jordan, he requests the assistance of Hani (Mark Strong) the Chief of Jordanian Police, whose only request from Ferris is that he never lies to him. The hunt for Al-Saleem is carried out in a number of ways, with and without Hani´s assistance; the film´s most intriguing segment involves Ferris and Hoffman setting up a fictional terrorist sect in an effort to flush the other one out. Title refers to the three main characters and the level of trust they´re able to put in each other; while each has the same goal, they want to accomplish through their own methods, which may involve the (sometimes unwitting) aid of the others or not.

DiCaprio is good but his character feels underwritten. Ferris is the most driven character in the movie but we never get to know what drives him; we might imagine our spies and intelligence men as cool and collected professionals, like Crowe´s Hoffman or Strong´s Hani or any James Bond. Ferris is a man who seems to feel no particular allegiance to US or other authorities, yet he´s frothing at the mouth to uncover these terrorists. What´s his motivation?

<%INFOBOX:2_2%>Crowe is excellent as the distracted Hoffman, a man who guides Ferris through operations while picking up a daughter from soccer practice. Yet he has surprisingly little screen time here, in a role which he reportedly gained 50 pounds here. There´s a really terrific contrast between his character and DiCaprio´s, and it´s something I wish the plot-heavy film focused a little more on. Both stars, however, are upstaged by Mark Strong, who gives the film´s most arresting performance as the headstrong, arrogant Hani. Given the film´s final resolution, I wish we spent more time with his character.

Ultimate showdown with the terrorists – which involves a potential recorded beheading – feels both contrived and tasteless, and really lets down the momentum the film had built up to that point.

Body of Lies is a film I´m willing to praise more for its intentions than for what actually unspools on the screen. There is, certainly, a lot of good here, and while I´m not sure it´s enough to make up for deficiencies in the script I was never bored and could genuinely appreciate the craft and restraint that went into the film.

Similar ground was covered to similar effect in this year´s Traitor, and to far greater effect in Stephen Gaghan´s hugely underrated Syriana.


Also: this week’s other big release is the anticipated Hlídač č. 47 (showtimes | IMDb), from director Filip Renč, which is screening only in an unsubtitled Czech version at the moment.

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