Paul Bril’s Restored Paintings in the San Silvestro Chapel at Rome’s Sancta Sanctorum

Scala Santa leading up to the Sancta Sanctorum

Scala Santa (Holy Stairway) leading up to the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies)
[Photo by David Willey]

ROME – Paul Bril is hardly a household name, but to art historians the Flemish master is hailed as a seminal landscape painter whose haunting and inventive works are “almost surreal,” in the words of Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican museums. Paolucci was speaking November 12th at the inauguration of the decade-long restoration of the San Silvestro (Saint Sylvester) Chapel in Rome, whose high vaulted ceiling and lunettes Bril decorated.

Today’s extraordinary restoration, which covers 1,700 square meters of wall space, was financed by a grant from the John Paul Getty Foundation. It was executed by some forty art restorers and experts under the direction of Maurizio De Luca, who also oversaw the recent restoration of the Pauline Chapel by Michelangelo inside the Vatican. “Like any good restoration, it is invisible,” Paolucci observed.

Technically it was also stunningly complex: deep fissures risked bringing down whole patches of painted ceiling plaster, and inside the chapel with its high, vaulted ceiling the painted walls and ceiling were literally obliterated by four centuries of accumulated candle grease and grime. Only the faintest traces of the paintings remained, and all colors and themes were literally lost to time, and hence forgotten. The restorers painstakingly removed one layer of dirt, then waited to see the result before tackling the next.

The rediscovered colors are vibrant, but at the same time remarkably subtle, with distant mountains in shades of blue picked out by pink and pale gold streaking across the sky. The end result is that Bril’s paintings and the decorations by other artists burst upon the art scene today as if newly minted. “What is interesting is that this was never published because [it was] essentially invisible, and hence unknown,” says Carla Hendriks, a Dutch art historian specializing in Bril’s works.

San Silvestro Chapel before restoration

Interior of the San Silvestro Chapel before restoration

San Silvestro Chapel after restoration

Interior of the San Silvestro Chapel after restoration

Born in Antwerp in 1554, Bril was working in Italy at the end of the century, where his landscapes marked the transition between what Paolucci called the “autumn of Mannerism” of the Renaissance and the birth of the Baroque style. The change was enormous, and Bril is acknowledged as among its authors. His San Silvestro Chapel works precede even Annibale Carracci’s painting in the Doria Pamphilj Museum, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, often cited by art historians as the first landscape painting in Italian art. Carracci’s is similarly a landscape with a religious theme intended for a lunette, but was painted after Bril’s, between 1606 and 1609, when Carracci died.

Bril was therefore also a precursor of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, the artists of the romantic ideal ruins and gilded landscape, who came onto the Roman scene two generations later; Bril is believed to have trained Agostino Tassi, who in turn was Lorrain’s art teacher.

In decorating the San Silvestro Chapel, Bril was assisted by the so-called “Sistine painters,” directed by artists Cesare Nebia and Giovanni Guerra, who, like the artists restoring the Chapel, worked in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Palace in the late 16th Century.

The Chapel, which is tended by the Order of the Passionist Fathers, is situated in one of the most ancient and revered Christian sites in Rome, the Lateran Palace complex. Originally known as the Patriarchium, this once unified complex had been the palace of the Emperor Constantine. When he moved his capital to Constantinople, he donated the palace to the Church, and the complex remained the seat of the papacy and of the government of Rome.

Paul Bril landscape before restoration

Paul Bril landscape before restoration

Paul Bril landscape after restoration

Paul Bril landscape after restoration

On the second story one hall became the pontiff’s private chapel, known as the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies). Even after a devastating earthquake and the ravages of time required reconstruction of other areas within the palace complex, the Sancta Sanctorum remained the pope’s private chapel. Its rich hoard of votive offerings were closely guarded behind a thick grating, which not even the Lanzichenecchi mercenaries managed to loot during the famous sack of Rome of 1527.

In 1586, to embellish the Sancta Sanctorum, Pope Sixtus V had architect Domenico Fontana transfer the ancient Scala Santa (Holy Stairway, supposedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem by Helen, the mother of Constantine) from elsewhere in the complex to the foot of the Sancta Sanctorum. An atrium was created, and, flanking the Stairway, he added four other grand staircases to handle the crowds of worshippers. In acknowledgement, on one chapel wall a colleague of Bril, Baldassare Croce, painted a larger-than-life-size depiction of the saint, given the face of Sixtus.

Inside the San Silvestro Chapel Bril’s large landscapes occupy three lunettes, given fake frames of gilded “wood” so that they appear to be windows, whereas a fourth is actually shaped like an open window that reveals distant fantasy architecture. “They are all open windows, shown through shadowed borders of the lunette frames, suggesting that light is entering from the opposite side,” says Hendricks.

Within these windows daily life is shown, from fishermen in their boats in a river to hooded monks walking up a mountain path toward a triumphant Christian church surmounted by a cross. The church is joined via a viaduct to what appears to be a semi-ruined castle.

Elsewhere are other Christian shrines as well as pre-Christian temples, while in one scene a lively boar hunt is in progress with three hunters and a dog.

“This,” sentenced Paolucci, “was the landscape of both the realistic and the surreal.”

Paul Bril lunette during restoration

Paul Bril lunette during restoration

Paul Bril lunette after restoration

Paul Bril lunette after restoration

Together with his brother Mattheus, Bril came to Rome from Flanders in 1582. His brother died the following year, and Paul completed works Mattheus had begun. His other works can be seen worldwide in museums from the Hermitage to the Harvard University Art Museum and Oberlin’s Allen Art Museum. They include a famous view of the ancient Roman forum, at the time a field given over to pasture, called “The Campo Vaccino with Gypsy Woman.” He is also the author of fresco cycles in the casino of Palazzo Pallavicini and the Villa Aurora, both in Rome.

On the other side of the Sancta Sanctorum, Sixtus V also commissioned construction and decoration of the San Lorenzo Chapel, which similarly vaunts lunettes by Bril. That chapel is not yet restored and funding is actively being sought according to restoration project manager Mary Angela Schroth, an American curator.

Still revered by the faithful, today the Holy Stairway and Sancta Sanctorum attract up to 2,000 visitors a day, many climbing it upon their knees and reciting a prayer at every step.


The Scala Santa is open daily.
Summer hours: 6 am to noon; 3:30 pm to 6:45 pm
Winter hours: 6 am to noon; 3 pm to 6:15 pm
The San Silvestro chapel is open daily except Wednesday mornings and Sundays.
Hours: 10:30 am – 11:30 am and 3 pm to 5 pm
Reservations can be made to visit the San Silvestro Chapel and the Sancta Sanctorum (no email yet), E. 5.
Tel: +39 06 772 6641.
Without reservations, visitors can arrive on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 10:30 am or at 3:30 pm, meeting at the entrance to the San Lorenzo Chapel to the R. at the top of the staircases. No visit is possible, however, if a group has booked those times.

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Movie Poster: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Based on the book by Roald Dahl

Mr. Fox – George Clooney
Mrs. Fox – Meryl Streep
Ash – Jason Schwartzman
Badger – Bill Murray
Kylie – Wally Wolodarsky
Kristofferson – Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean – Michael Gambon
Rat – Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip – Owen Wilson
Petey – Jarvis Cocker

CLR [rating:4]

Movie Still: Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Whimsical Animated Film for Adults and Children Alike

Wes Anderson’s newest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel of the same name. Dahl’s novels, which have helped usher many a disgruntled kid through the travails of childhood, don’t condescend to the young, but there’s an element of whimsy that makes readers want to live in his world. Wes Anderson’s movies, on the other hand, can be hit-or-miss. His films tend toward the pretentious, and he uses a broad cast of actors repeatedly in his movies. Understated line delivery, artfully composed shots, and a focus on dysfunction alienate some viewers while drawing ardent fans from the other end of the spectrum. The combination of Dahl and Anderson proves a winner in Thanksgiving’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, with Dahl’s fanciful novel providing a great backdrop for Anderson’s regimented directorial style.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasant return to classic stop-motion animation, a technique little used anymore. The film went through a long and rigorous production beginning five years ago, and the result is well, fantastic. The sets are beautifully detailed, the puppets’ every hair defined, and each movement is choreographed lovingly (as, one assumes, it had to be, since the film is effectively a series of photographs of puppets). According to IMDb, Anderson used a Nikon D3 camera, which allows for higher definition photography, and the film was shot at twelve frames per second instead of the normal twenty-four. As a result, the characters’ movements are a little jerky, a touch that clues the audience in to the stop-motion animation. The puppetry allows for cute touches (for instance, a “pregnancy glow” is portrayed by an actual fox-shaped lamp). The movie has an alternately surreal and very realistic feel, perfect for the material.

When the film opens, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) raid the neighbor’s chicken coop (as foxes do), and she confides that she’s pregnant just as a trap falls on their heads. Cut to two years later (twelve fox-years), and Mr. Fox works as a newspaper man instead of killing chickens, and their petulant son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) strives to live up to his father’s expectations. Mr. Fox can’t stay away from his foxy nature for long, and recruits the opossum Kylie and his nephew Kristofferson to help him begin executing his Master Plan—to steal from the three biggest, baddest, ugliest farmers in the land, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Unfortunately, the farmers catch on and begin a fruitless attempt to catch the critters as they burrow farther beneath the ground, finding new and different ways to outfox the baddies (pun intended).

By nature the plot is a kids’ story, but in Anderson’s hands, the foxes, badgers, weasels, rats, and bunnies are clad in dapper corduroy suits, living a very civilized life beneath the humans’ noses. There is talk of interest rates, feeling poor, and sports in P.E. class, where Ash struggles to “be an athlete” like his father. Though they’re living quite human lives, the animals slowly realize their talents lie in their own nature—foxes are clever, bunnies fast, moles good at digging, etc. The pleasure is in the incongruity between the civilized costumes and the distinctly wild animal behaviors. As audiences we’re used to talking animals in little animal attire, but rarely do Disney’s cavorting critters (or at least not the “good” ones) indulge their true natures. The Foxes, badger, and opossum are distinctly wild animals, and they kill chickens, ripping apart their dinner with wild furor. Anderson cuts away from any fowl murders, of course, and Kylie the opossum even comments, “there’s blood and stuff!” But nonetheless, it’s amusing to see animals acting like animals as well as taking on human characteristics. If there’s a message here, it’s that we shouldn’t try to be something we’re not.

Anderson fans will love that his directorial style is still present in a medium in which you’ve never seen him before. He has a penchant for title cards, and his films sometimes play as though they’re a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole, which can be sort of annoying in an adult narrative film. Here, though, the material is whimsical enough that it works perfectly. Anderson evidently acted out scenes himself during production, then sent video to the puppeteers and animators overseas. Though this left some of his crew disgruntled, it certainly speaks volumes about the value of our communications technology. Anderson based the film’s set on the town in which Dahl lived and worked, recorded actors’ voices outdoors to add reality to the soundtrack, and included details that show his adoration of the source material.

Though his style can be overly quirky and a bit affected, Anderson’s films generally get you laughing, and this one’s no different. Fantastic Mr. Fox may not appeal to very young children, but Disney’s soon-to-be-released new cel animation The Princess and the Frog should fill that gap. For everyone else (slightly older kids through senior citizens), Fantastic Mr. Fox is a smart, fun holiday release that’s worthy of a watch. And one thing’s for certain: you’ve never seen a movie that looks like this, but you should.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Trailer

Movie Review: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Movie Poster: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Directed and written by Rebecca Miller

Pippa Lee – Robin Wright Penn
Chris – Keanu Reeves
Herb Lee – Alan Arkin
Kit – Julianne Moore
Trish – Robin Weigert
Suky Sarkissian – Maria Bello
Des Sarkissian – Tim Guinee
Teenaged Pippa – Blake Lively
Gigi Lee – Monica Bellucci
Grace Lee – Zoe Kazan
Sandra Dulles – Winona Ryder

CLR [rating:3]

Movie Still: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

A Smart, Quirky Movie That Would Benefit From More Focus

Rebecca Miller is perhaps one of the film industry’s most versatile talents. Her previous directorial efforts, Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, are small, poignant snippets of women’s escapes from the confines of relationships. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is yet another tale of feminine independence. For Pippa Lee, Miller adapted her own novel into a screenplay and then directed the movie. She fits the very definition of auteur: she was a powerful force at every stage of the filmmaking process, and one would think this would produce a movie with a singular, personal vision. Pippa Lee, bolstered by A-list actors and a passionate focus on a very individual story, is actually a bit scatterbrained and overwrought. Though it strives earnestly to tell the triumphant tale of a woman’s reclamation of her identity, it also tries to be humorous, dramatic, and tragic—and these facets never quite engage to create a solid whole.

Robin Wright plays Pippa, a beautiful, pastel-clad homemaker nearing her 50s. As the movie opens, her much older husband Herb (lovably gruff Alan Arkin) drags her into a retirement community with him, and Pippa’s seemingly flawless exterior begins to unravel. The film hops back and forth between the present, in which Pippa and Herb’s relationship begins to crack and crumble, and the past, in which we’re introduced to Pippa Sarkissian, a very different young woman who tenaciously molded her life into the guarded perfection of the present. The sterile, pastel walls of the retirement home are conducive to flashbacks of the 1960s suburbia in which Pippa grew up, and although each flashback provides insight into Pippa’s character, it’s difficult to reconcile younger Pippa (Blake Lively) with the coolly composed present-day woman.

Throughout her entire life, Pippa has been a metaphorical chunk of clay waiting for a sculptor. For her neurotic, pill-popping mother Suky Sarkissian (Maria Bello), she was a paper doll—a dress-form with big blue eyes and long, gorgeous locks. When she hits her teenage years, Pippa realizes her mother’s got serious issues (namely with Dexedrine) and moves out to live with her aunt Trish, whose girlfriend Kat (Julianne Moore) stages arty lesbian S&M photos. Pippa resumes the familiar role as poseable doll—only this time in lingerie and with whips. She veers away from stability, stumbling into disaster after debacle, and eventually into the arms of much older sophisticate Herb. Lively, recognizable from TV’s “Gossip Girl,” is effectively a pretty mannequin. The actress has little range, and the transitions between Lively and Wright are jarring simply because Wright infuses her performance with subtle tics and telling expressions Lively doesn’t. This might have been Miller’s intention: young Pippa is utterly malleable, and older Pippa is beginning to crack at the seams, showing her true character.

The director uses clever visual and script cues to underline the story of a woman reclaiming her individuality. At a housewarming party for publishing magnate Herb, one of his colleagues tells Pippa she is “giving, caring, beautiful, intelligent…the perfect artist’s wife.” Though meant in kindness, it’s in fact a horrible backhanded compliment, and it sets the tone. Pippa’s identity is centered upon her marriage and home life, and she tiptoes meekly through interactions, striving to be the kindest person she can. For this she’s rewarded with the acknowledgment that she’s a good wife. Her recently divorced neighbor Chris (Keanu Reeves, stepping away from his doofy “I know kung-fu” persona) opens Pippa’s eyes in more ways than one. When she sleepwalks into the gas station where he works, he tries to wake her: “Mrs. Lee?” he asks, and when she doesn’t respond, he rephrases, “Pippa?” Her eyes pop open—another subtle sign that somewhere inside, she struggles to be recognized not as Herb Lee’s wife, but as Pippa. In another scene, Chris and Pippa have a fumbling sexual encounter in the back of his truck, and Miller focuses on female pleasure—something rarely seen in studio films, and a revelation for the protagonist who never focuses on herself.

Wright (who is credited in the film as Robin Wright-Penn, but officially changed back to her maiden name following her most recent separation from Sean Penn) performs beautifully as serene, slightly distraught Pippa. Bello’s performances are generally gritty, honest, and real, and Suky is no exception; it’s too bad the role is so small. Winona Ryder overacts in the role of Sandra Dulles, a hilariously self-centered adulteress, but that’s perfect: Sandra is ultimately a pathetic attention monger. Thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn, the suburban Connecticut setting has never looked quite so lush and pretty.

Pippa Lee’s quirky script and liberating message are well and good; however, too much is going on at once, and the result is a movie that never delves deeply enough into its subject. Literature’s format allows raw glimpses into the heads of the characters, and the novel can play with humor and tragedy in a way film often cannot. In an industry still dominated by men, there are only a few female directors making big pictures. Most of Miller’s work takes place outside the mainstream, but she is undoubtedly a talent to be reckoned with. With Pippa Lee, her good intentions and adoration of the character are clear, but ultimately the movie would benefit from some of the self-reflection it grants its protagonist.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee Trailer

Movie Review: Me and Orson Welles

Movie Poster: Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles

Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo, Vince Palmo
Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow

Richard Samuels – Zac Efron
Sonja Jones – Claire Danes
Orson Welles – Christian McKay
Gretta Adle – Zoe Kazan
Joseph Cotten – James Tupper
Norman Lloyd – Leo Bill
John Houseman – Eddie Marsan

CLR [rating:2]

Movie Still: Me and Orson Welles

Christian McKay Rescues an Otherwise Weak Film

You can take Zac Efron out of Disney, but you can’t take Disney out of Zac Efron. In director Richard Linklater’s period piece Me and Orson Welles, the High School Musical actor tries to show he can break out of the Tiger Beat mold, but alas, this is not the project that will do it.

The pedigree of filmmaker Linklater, combined with the intrigue of a 1930s setting with legendary director Orson Welles in his pre-Hollywood days feels promising. However, it all goes out the window when in the first nine minutes of the film, Efron belts out a song on the New York City streets like he’s beginning another HSM number.

That’s not to say the audience should get up and walk away. Though Efron may be the Me in the film’s title, British actor Christian McKay as Welles is the focal point. Luckily, his performance carries the movie from beginning to end and makes it worth sitting through.

Based on the novel by Richard Kaplow, Welles stars Efron as Richard Samuels, a student and budding actor who gets swept up in the world of theater when he is cast in a small role in Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Caesar. Young and naïve, Richard tries hard to navigate through Welles’ tantrums, mind-games and mood-swings that range from charming to tyrannical.

Most of the film is your typical ‘cast-rehearsing-a-play’ story and showcases all the different characters that populate the theater including actors jockeying for stage time that Welles keeps deleting in an effort to showcase himself (he plays Brutus). There’s also the self-centered female lead (Kelly Reilly), the set designer (Al Weaver) and Welles’ plucky assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), the latter whom Efron falls for.

Obviously this can only spell disaster as Richard’s teenage heart is not equipped to handle a world where sleeping around for career reasons is practiced and accepted. Convinced he’s in love, Richard is in for a rude awakening which also leads to his downfall.

Holly Gent Palmo’s adapted screenplay weaves historical facts (yes, Welles did indeed put on this play at the Mercury Theater) with fiction (no, there never was a Richard Samuels). Additionally, Welles would have been 23 years old at the time he directed the play, yet McKay’s Welles looks at least 10 years older. McKay himself is 36.

Other than his age, McKay’s Welles is wonderful to watch. He is the heart and soul of this film and provides the gravitas to make the whole thing believable. By the time the movie is finished, you’re already craving a Welles biopic just so you can see how this legendary figure eventually makes his way to Hollywood where as we all know, he goes on to shoot the legendary feature Citizen Kane and marry actress Rita Hayworth among other feats.

Efron as Richard is not horrible. It’s just that his mannerisms are the same in every movie – and he’s done enough work now for it to be noticeable. Efron saunters around like he’s about to break into a dance number. He constantly flares his nostrils and you can see him suppressing the urge to act with his hands by thrusting them in his pant pockets – only to see them moving inside the material!

On top of that, Efron appears to always use the same five different facial expressions to convey emotion. Not because he’s genuinely feeling them as an actor would, but because the script says so. That may work in a Disney movie where the characters are meant to be easily labeled, but if Efron hopes to develop as an actor, he’s got to get more in touch with himself and his own capabilities.

It’s not like he doesn’t have it in him. Earlier this year Efron showed he possessed natural comedic chops in 17 Again, holding his own successfully against such comedic/improv talents as Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon.

Linklater has always been adept in working with newcomers and youngsters in films like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Fast Food Nation and the remake of Bad News Bears among others. Yet here he was not able to successfully take a commercial teen star like Efron and cross him over to an indie pic. Efron squeezes by using his charm and good looks, but as we all know, that can only take you so far.

Me and Orson Welles Trailer

[Above photo credit: Liam Daniel]

Movie Review: New Moon

Movie Poster: New Moon
The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Directed by Chris Weitz
Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg

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

CLR [rating:2]

Movie Still: New Moon

A Catastrophic Romance Can’t Be Saved by Its Charming Young Cast

In line for the second movie in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romance saga, New Moon, a middle-aged woman clasps her hands in front of her mouth as if in prayer. “I’m so excited!” she murmurs to her daughter. In the theater, a girl two seats down curls up, removes her shoes, and avidly studies the copy of New Moon in her lap until the lights go down. A horde of ten- or eleven-year-olds doesn’t even bother getting seats, instead flopping on the floor in the front of the theater. When the projector rolls the film, hushed whispers and girlish cries reverberate through the theater. This is the Twilight phenomenon.

Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the last two years has surely caught on to the Twilight madness. Stephenie Meyer’s fantasy romance novel Twilight jumped to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists immediately upon publication in 2006, and the author followed the original with three more books, causing a ruckus among teenage girls around the world. Her novels follow Bella, a normal teenage girl from a broken but loving family, through her romance with Edward, a 108-year-old vampire in the body of a gorgeous seventeen year old. The books, though terribly written, are a hypnotic and addictive phenomenon. Their appeal lies in the innocent, tantalizing relationship between Edward and Bella. In Meyer’s world, sex before marriage is forbidden, and every touch and kiss is perilous. Her ability to accurately ascribe both maturity and passion to teenagers drew an ardent fan base. Tweens and middle-aged women, calling themselves Twihards and TwilightMoms, latched on to the books with an insane fervor. When Summit Pictures released the first film adaptation in 2008, it caught like wildfire, throwing its reluctant cast into an international bout of lunacy.

The second film takes dreamy vampire love interest Edward (Robert Pattinson) out of the picture—he has to leave Bella (Kristen Stewart) because he figures he’s endangering her, since he can barely contain his bloodlust (emphasis on the lust). In his absence, Bella suffers the horrid agony of losing him, but then befriends Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who becomes her “own personal sunshine.” Jacob just happens to be a werewolf whose sole purpose is to kill vampires. When Edward hears Bella has committed suicide (this is untrue), he decides to off himself as well; the book and the movie shamelessly reference Romeo & Juliet. To do so, he has to anger the vampire royalty, the Volturi, so they’ll execute him. This is as easy as stepping into the sunlight, because Meyer’s vampires don’t melt or burst into flames when exposed to ultraviolet rays; they sparkle. Bella must race to save him from himself, and all ends happily ever after (almost). If it sounds utterly cheesy, that’s because it is.

The script is a disaster, though to be fair, the cast do their damndest to act through terrible lines and preposterous plot twists. Kristen Stewart, a slight brunette always clad in hoodies and Chuck Taylors, is subtle and touching. Bella is effectively a blank canvas upon which teenage girls can project their own insecurities and misgivings, and Stewart possesses a raw vulnerability that makes her character identifiable, though infuriating. Throughout the books and films, Bella is a weak, fainting damsel in distress, and eventually readers and viewers wonder why on earth she’s so important to everyone around her. Seventeen-year-old Taylor Lautner, the caramel-skinned heartthrob who plays Jacob, bulked up until he’s so muscular it’s hard not to gape—especially when the camera lovingly lingers on his physique (to the shrieking delight of women everywhere). Luckily, Lautner is both charming and innocently sweet, and the chemistry between him and Stewart is palpable. Michael Sheen, a Brit with a formidable acting resume, steals the final act as Aro, the Volturi’s powerful leader. Grinning, cheerful, and utterly eerie, Sheen adds a bit of stimulation to an otherwise dull encounter.

No expense was spared in the film’s effects budget, and it pays off. The werewolves take a distinct visual cue from The Neverending Story’s creepy G’mork, and though the fight scenes rely perhaps too much on slow motion, they’re executed masterfully. The soundtrack, featuring emo-pop artists like Muse, Thom Yorke, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Killers, is both catchy and monotonous. Alexandre Desplat’s score, heavy on piano, is melodic and pretty: the perfect background music for a doomed romance. The movie positively drags at two hours eleven minutes; when the kids at the front of the theater start chatting amongst themselves during the “tense” final scenes, something’s not right.

Summit publicly fired director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) after the first film, replacing her with Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy). Hardwicke’s Twilight had a shaky, independent quality that gave it a realistic feel, but New Moon feels less authentic and more ridiculous. Though the Twilight books may be a guilty pleasure, the films are proving to be little more than industry cash cows. David Slade, whose last vampire movie 30 Days of Night didn’t fare well in box offices, is set to helm the third installment. Perhaps he can pick up the slack, but in the end, the film’s young and charming cast may be the series’ saving grace. Pattinson and Stewart’s are-they-aren’t-they, tabloid-fed offscreen relationship is perhaps the most interesting result of New Moon, and as they say, that ain’t much.

New Moon Trailer