'The Twilight Saga: New Moon'

This second chapter of the four-part franchise is as good as "Twilight" and arguably a shade better.

With more bark than bite, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” finds its brooding heroine torn from her depressive, bloodsucking boyfriend and thrust into the claws of a hunky werewolf. That’s sort of like being caught between a rock and a hard place (or, in high school terms, between a Goth and a jock), and this second screen installment of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling “Twilight” series focuses, somewhat convincingly, on the emotions of an 18-year-old coping with her undying love of the undead. Carried by Kristen Stewart’s compellingly dark performance, but also by helmer Chris Weitz’s robust visuals, “Moon” should cause boffo B.O. tides and could outperform its predecessor, which grossed $383 million worldwide.

While this second chapter of Summit Entertainment’s four-part franchise is as good as “Twilight” and arguably a shade better, it’s indisputably darker in its depiction of the throes and woes of adolescent love, especially when one gets dumped. That’s how things kick off for Bella Swan (Stewart), whose 18th birthday begins with a nightmare and ends with vampire heartthrob Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) telling her he’s moving away, with no plans of maintaining a long-distance relationship. Bella quickly slips into a massive depression that resembles a full-scale heroin withdrawal, while her cop dad (Billy Burke) and barely visible school pals can do little but look on.

As foreshadowed in the closing minutes of part one, help soon comes in the form of Native American dream boy Jacob Black, aka Jake (Taylor Lautner), who’s clearly been working out since the first film (as Bella remarks several times).

Although they start off as friends, it’s no secret where things are headed, and Bella engages in several near-suicidal acts that leave her torn between Edward’s far-reaching grasp and Jake’s bulging biceps.

Bella and Jake’s growing relationship is paralleled by rumors of random animal attacks in the woods, as well as the increasingly menacing presence of Jake’s macho buddies (all of whom, like Jake, prefer to remain bare-chested, especially after it starts raining). When vampires from the first go-round resurface to take revenge on Bella, a pack of colossal werewolves comes to her rescue, and it doesn’t take a degree in occult studies to make the connection between the beasts and the boys.

Pic’s first half maintains a somber atmosphere that is broken by spells of PG-13 violence (a decapitation, a few gory closeups) and some nifty cinematic tricks, including a twirling 360-degree shot that shows the passing of time as Bella recovers from the break-up.

Director Weitz (“The Golden Compass”), taking the reins from “Twilight” helmer Catherine Hardwicke, and lenser Javier Aguirresarobe painstakingly depict the gloomy, dreamlike state of Bella’s extended blues, and then pick up the pace about an hour in with several action sequences set in the rain-soaked woods near Forks, Wash.

As expected, Edward soon reappears, albeit for confused reasons, and the quid pro quo eventually carries the action to a royal Italian vampire council (known as the Volturi), providing some handsome locations and a brief turn by Dakota Fanning as a mind-controlling, heavily made-up vampiress. The shortcuts needed to propel the narrative homeward feel a tad rushed, but screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (who also penned “Twilight”) wisely keeps things focused on Bella’s ever-changing, mostly darkening emotional states, and whether she will end up choosing Edward or Jake.

Stewart is the heart and soul of the film, and not only because her Bella is surrounded by characters who literally have neither one nor the other. She gives both weight and depth to dialogue (“You’re just warm. You’re like your own sun”) that would sound like typical chick-lit blather in the mouth of a less engaging actress, and she makes Bella’s psychological wounds seem like the real deal.

Fangirls may be disappointed by Pattinson’s reduced presence here, as his Edward appears predominantly in mumbling visions until a cliffhanger that brazenly sets up the next episode. Lautner’s Jake provides a strong alternative to Edward’s pale dreariness, though the filmmakers overdo the “strong” part in an ongoing effort to keep their target audience enraptured.

Tech credits and visual effects have improved since “Twilight.”

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Production

A Summit Entertainment (in U.S.)/SND Groupe M6 (in France) release of a Temple Hill production in association with Imprint Entertainment and Sunswept Entertainment. Produced by Wyck Godfrey, Karen Rosenfelt. Executive producers, Marty Bowen, Greg Mooradian, Mark Morgan, Guy Oseary. Co-producer, Bill Bannerman. Directed by Chris Weitz. Screenplay, Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel "New Moon" by Stephenie Meyer.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Javier Aguirresarobe; editor, Peter Lambert; music, Alexandre Desplat; music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas; production designer, David Brisbin; art director, Catherine Ircha; set designers, Geoff Wallace, Peter Ochotta; set decorator, Lesley Beale; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Darren Brisker; supervising sound editor, Scott Hecker; re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Chris Carpenter; visual effects supervisors, Phil Tippett, Matt Jacobs; stunt coordinator, J.J. Makaro; fight choreographer, Mike Desabrais; line producer, Guido Cerasuolo; associate producer, David Roker; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; second unit director, Phil Neilson; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at MK2 Bibliotheque 5, Paris, Nov. 18, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Bella Swan - Kristen Stewart Edward Cullen - Robert Pattinson Jacob Black - Taylor Lautner Alice Cullen - Ashley Greene Victoria - Rachelle Lefevre Charlie Swan - Billy Burke Dr. Carlisle Cullen - Peter Facinelli Rosalie Hale - Nikki Reed Emmett Cullen - Kellan Lutz Jasper Hale - Jackson Rathbone Jessica - Anna Kendrick Aro - Michael Sheen Jane - Dakota Fanning

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