Monday, June 8, 2009

More Than Enough Vampires to Go Around

Twilight
DVD via Redbox
"True Blood"
HBO via On Demand

You'd think Halloween would be a better time of the year to concentrate your horror-centric film and television premieres, but times have changed. Vampire pictures aren't low-budget, focus group-targeted quickie moneymakers any longer, they're big business. There's money to be made anew in selling the blood, sex, and danger of the vampire myth to teen girls. How can we tell the bloodsucker market is on the rise? The villainous Kuzui family are preparing a "Buffy" reboot -- with no input from Joss Whedon. I take it as a point of pride I've never seen the Whedon-discredited original Buffy motion picture, with Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland. You can count me out for the remake as well.

The new industry leader in sublimating adolescent desire into yarns about pale, brooding pointy-teeth and the warm-blooded girls who love them, Twilight has risen to such cultural status that Entertainment Weekly regularly runs "stories" on its sequel that amount to nothing more than cheesecake photo spreads. It's also got one imitator on cable (HBO's wacky "True Blood") and a couple more coming to network this fall.

It's weird what both of these new works steal from "Buffy" and what they add. Both Twilight, in its competent if drab film version, and "True Blood" thematically center on the same powerful truth as Whedon's TV series: when you're young, very attractive, and often short of breath, every love affair seems like the freaking apocalypse. In a lot of ways things have gotten less complicated since the 90's. Compared to their predecessor, neither of the new vampire sagas tracks much in subtext -- "True Blood," in particular, is so literal that's it's a little off-putting. There's also a strange loss of care when it comes to visual effects. Both "True Blood" and Twilight, when placed into context among the larger history of vampires on film, will seem anachronistic for their dopey fast-motion vampires and strangely underwhelming CGI shots.

The biggest deviation from the "Buffy" physics that "True Blood" uses is the fact that its vampires explode into piles of sticky, disgusting gack when staked. That makes sense in a way, because when vampires die in the "True Blood" world there are usually consequences. Vampire society and legal precedent are much more established in Alan Ball's series, based on a sequence of novels where the pale folk are beginning to tentatively integrate into human society. The best bits of "True Blood" take place when we get to see glimpses of this Vampire: The Masquerade-like political structure. HBO's clout gets amazing Euro guest stars for these roles, including Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd's hunky son and the unmistakable Zeljko Ivanek from "Heroes" and "House," probably the most likely human being on the planet to come out first when the real vampires decide to make their presence known.

Trouble is, a deranged Iron Curtain-influenced dark political thriller is only one of the dozen or so separate things "True Blood" is trying to be at once. The inconsistency of the casting reflects this. The complex, slow-talking Louisiana cops played by William Sanderson and Chris Bauer are directly out of a John Sayles movie. Anna Paquin has the expressiveness of a serious actress but her accent and her dye job are soap-opera stuff. Storylines featuring the major characters played by Ryan Kwanten and Rutina Wesley don't register properly because the actors are so crappy. Sam Trammell's character is so alarmingly similar in appearance and vibe to Rufus from "Gossip Girl" that I totally forget which one of them now is a shapeshifter. The best roles are for vampires. Stephen Moyer, as the male lead, makes difficult, contrary acting choices and genuinely seems to be a man out of time; I wish the show was about him more and Paquin's Sookie less. And the great Stephen Root absolutely knocks his three-episode arc as a nebbish, gay accountant vampire out of the park.

"True Blood" disappoints a lot. It introduces terrific characters, like the dangerous vampire blood junkie played in the first season by Lizzy Caplan, and then gets rid of them before they have the chance to work through to their logical endpoints. It cheats gratuitously as a mystery show, with Sookie's telepathic ability coming and going whenever it's convenient for the storytelling. And whatever its larger ambitions, it's never going to be able to shake the air of abject silliness that hangs in the air beginning with the pilot. "Buffy" worked around this in a lot of ways "True Blood" can't. It had a heightened reality, but maintained it. It had enough, but not too much, of a knowing attitude about itself. Mostly it had characters who seemed unquestionably real even when the events around them were too ridiculous to take seriously. "True Blood" lacks that, except for Vampire Bill and the sheriff, and I'm not sure if those two could carry could the show by themselves. Also a major element of the show's appeal that we haven't discussed yet is that evidently everyone in the cast is required to appear nude -- a lot -- and nobody really wants to see William Sanderson naked.

Twilight is remarkably slight, by comparison; its plot lacks conflict, character development, and most of the other basic characteristics of effective popular movie storytelling. Girl meets boy, boy turns out to be vampire, surprisingly no one really minds very much, insert chase scene, the end. Kristen Stewart seems to be half asleep for most of the proceedings. That's not surprising given the sodden Washington state setting -- everybody involved must have been soaking wet, cold, clammy, and leaden for the entire shoot. That doesn't help the pace of the film very much, and the complete lack of anything resembling a proper plot in Stephenie Meyer's source material hurts worse. About two-thirds of the movie seems to be set pieces taking place to fill space because there's nothing actually happening. (And I hear the sequel, New Moon, is duller still.)

Even so... Twilight doesn't have high ambitions, but it works for what it is, because Robert Pattinson is worthy of the hype. Sometimes just looking the part is all you need, and Pattinson does look exactly right to be playing teen dream vampire Edward, all poignant brow and piercing eyes. He looks a lot like David Boreanaz in the first season of "Buffy," before he bulked up. The entire movie hinges on him being everything Bella (Stewart) sees in him, because the film is utterly uninterested in its lead -- Stewart is onscreen for the entire time and even though the actress is attractive and intelligent-seeming the character is an utter zero. We don't have the least idea why Edward and most of the rest of the single male townfolk, vampire, werewolf, and otherwise, seem so taken by her. I think that's because Bella is a cipher by design -- she's not a real person, she's a stand-in for the teen female viewer, who can easily imagine her own characteristics imposed upon her since she has none of her own.

But Pattinson is a little better than the material requires. He's a hunk, sure, but I think he can act a little too. The only really memorable scene in the film comes when he rages, convincingly, against how his nature as a vampire makes him so irresistible to humans, since his kind has evolved specifically towards luring in the warm-blooded. The trouble with Twilight is that these scenes are way too infrequent. The film takes forever building up Edward's mystery, which is stupid because the whole marketing scheme for the movie relies on giving that up right up front. Then there's a whole bunch of scenes where other characters reflect on his behavior, all incorrectly because they don't know what the audience does before even sitting down. This is dumb. Edward is the only character in the movie who isn't a plot prop or improbably stupid. As such, he should be much less of a passive presence.

Thanks to Entertainment Weekly's round-the-clock coverage, I now know that Pattinson and Edward barely appear in New Moon. Prisoner to their own success, Meyer's junky novels have somehow become sacred texts. The movie series will adhere slavishly to their every shortcoming, which seems pretty stupid to me. "True Blood," on the other hand, is taking the "Dexter" path. After the first season, which followed the first Sookie Stackhouse novel, the writers are going off on their own for the second (premiering later this month). They've got a lot of stuff to work with, and a lot of things they need to clean up. I'll be interested to see them try. As for Edward and Bella... pass.

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