Reviews

Twilight's Last Gleaming: 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn' Parts 1 & 2

The Twilight universe is ruled by a curious strain of American morality that can be described as “bloody puritan”. Decapitations = Yes, Premarital Sex = No.


Breaking Dawn—Part 1

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner
Distributor: Summit
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2013
US release date: 2013-03-02

Breaking Dawn—Part 2

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner
Distributor: Summit
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2013
US release date: 2013-03-02

If there’s an ironclad rule in cinema, it’s the law of diminishing returns. Storylines grow stale. The films based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels prove the rule.

The first film, Twilight (2008) was better than expected, largely due to the breakout performances of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. The two charismatic leads rose above the material they were given. As a result, Bella and Edward became the most popular onscreen couple of the last decade. But the series grows weaker and sillier with each new installment, and we now have the final chapter, Breaking Dawn -- Parts 1 and 2.

For those uninitiated into the Twilight universe, the novels are set in Forks, Washington and the films were primarily shot in the Pacific Northwest. So the series unfolds in Twin Peaks country—lushly green, a dreamy, rainy and isolated locale where one can easily imagine supernatural forces at work.

Stewart plays Bella, a high school girl from a broken home who lives with her father. Bella is hardly the ditzy cheerleader. She’s intelligent, melancholy, and darkly beautiful, like a young Sigourney Weaver. Stewart brings gravitas to the role, breathing life into this lonely young woman who carries the weight of a dysfunctional childhood like a millstone on her soul.

At school she meets Edward (Pattinson) and intuitively detects a kindred, lonely spirit. Pattinson smartly underplays Edward as an alluring outsider who shuns the trappings of high school popularity. Edward is a member of a vampire clan, a handsome loner with a fully mature moral nature. It’s curious that the immortal Edward lurks at a high school instead of a university. Nevertheless, the first film has a seductive, quirky charm.

But as the sequels rolled out over the last four years, it became clear that Meyer had run out of ideas. In the hands of a more talented writer like Anne Rice, the Twilight universe would’ve been a volatile blend of eroticism and horror. But Meyer instead took the series in the direction of a chaste Romeo and Juliet romance.

Early in the series, a second plot element is introduced: a local Native American tribe is a shape-shifting werewolf clan. This is a promising idea, but it’s ultimately wasted.

Throughout the course of five films, we learn little to nothing of the lycan tribe and their history, including their blood feud with Edward’s vampire clan. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is a shape-shifter and Bella’s childhood friend. A predictable love triangle develops between Edward, Bella, and Jacob. Meyer’s fictional universe is a lot like J.K. Rowling’s: a vividly imagined world that’s crippled by dull characters and a lack of dramatic tension.

It’s instructive to examine the nature of this cultural juggernaut. The Twilight series is built around two supernatural elements: vampirism and lycanthropy. It’s not difficult to discern the sexual repression inherent in these two myths. The vampire seduces and then penetrates his victim. The werewolf is the beast that lurks within, a personification of the sexual id.

Now consider the Twilight triangle: Vampire→Bella←Werewolf. Since the entire series revolves around this curious triangle, we must look to the author to determine a purpose. One wonders about Meyer’s Mormon upbringing and how it’s manifested here. The Twilight series eventually becomes a tiresome exercise in sexual repression.

For those who champion wholesome entertainment, the Twilight series is a terrible example of that. The films are quite bloody and the finalé includes gruesome decapitations. The Twilight universe is ruled by a curious strain of American morality that can be described as “bloody puritan”. Decapitations = Yes, Premarital Sex = No.

By the time we get to Breaking Dawn -- Part 1, Bella is trapped between the warring vampire and lycan clans. There have been numerous battles, yet nothing resonates—each and every conflict is interchangeable and forgettable. One might ask why these two clans are at war.

The overt reasons are contrived, but here’s the unstated casus belli: the alpha-male of the winning tribe gets to deflower Bella. Our heroine ultimately chooses Edward over Jacob and the first 30 minutes of Breaking Dawn--Part 1 is a wildly expensive wedding video. The film then quickly pivots to the endgame: sexual consummation followed by an unplanned pregnancy and the birth of a child.

In Breaking Dawn -- Part 2, Bella has been turned into a full-fledged vampire but her daughter is only ‘half-vampire’. This curious child draws the ire of the ruling vampire clan, the Italian Volturi. An apocalyptic rumble follows between the decadent Volturi and the ‘Friends of Bella’—a collection of hipster vampires and grunge werewolves. If the plot sounds messy, that’s because it is messy.

One yearns to go back to the original Twilight, which in retrospect is a quiet gem in comparison to the bloated, grandiose Breaking Dawn finalé. The first film works because it’s small scale: lonely high school girl meets handsome but sensitive vampire. Throw in the undeniable chemistry between Stewart and Pattinson and you have a likable and successful film.

But with each additional installment, the series grows progressively worse. Note the exchange below, after Bella discovers that Jacob ‘imprinted’ on her daughter in order to protect her:

Bella: You’re making some wolfie claim on my daughter? She’s a baby!

Jacob: Remember three days ago—how you wanted me around? It was Nessie who wanted me there.

Bella: You nick-named my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster!

I don’t know how such dialog ever made it into Breaking Dawn -- Part 2. I do know that it’s a shockingly bad film, which cannot be said of the original Twilight.

In the first four films, Bella’s well being is completely dependent on Edward and Jacob. Not surprisingly, the series has drawn the ire of feminists. Bella’s a hot waif at the mercy of two alpha-male suitors. Whenever Bella defies them, a near-death experience follows. The plotline formula: (a) Bella resists her male protectors; (b) An unprotected Bella is stalked by vampires or werewolves who want to tear her apart; (c) Bella is saved by Edward or Jacob.

There’s an erotic undercurrent of sadism at play here. It’s as if the raison d'être of the entire enterprise is to throw the chaste but delectable Bella into situations where she can be ravaged. Yet Bella always escapes with her virtue intact. This taps into the sexual yearnings and frustrations of millions of teenage girls who make up Twilight’s immense fan base. They desire the alluring Edward and the virile Jacob. Yet most of these teenage girls are conflicted by middle class morality with its double standard--female sexuality must be deterred. Meyer obviously adheres to that double standard and imposes it on the Twilight universe.

In Anne Rice’s universe, Bella would square the circle by bedding both Edward and Jacob. But Meyer’s repressed sexuality undermines the Twilight series. These films offer a repeating cycle of arbitrary plot contortions where female desire is subservient to male power.

In an interview given on Breaking Dawn -- Part 2, Meyer refers to Bella’s heightened awareness as a vampire: “She can see and hear with amazing clarity”. One wishes that Meyer had that same sense of clarity.

The Blu-ray version of Breaking Dawn -- Parts 1 and 2 offer a gorgeous video transfer with crystalline depths of color. The digital 5.1 audio track is sharp but underutilized. Extras include eight minutes of additional footage on the Breaking Dawn—Part 1, Extended Edition. On Breaking Dawn—Part 2 there’s a ‘making of’ feature and interviews with Meyer (who produced the film), as well as comments by the cast and crew.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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