- "Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" is too padded to compete with last year's "Eclipse"
- The long-delayed and much-anticipated love scene does have a nasty sting in the tail
- Bill Condon delivers the grotesquely bloody finale with operatic gusto
"Do not be afraid," Bella tells herself as she prepares to stride naked upon a moon-kissed Brazilian beach and consummate her marriage to Edward.
It's been her credo through four films now in the boffo "Twilight" saga, and for all the criticism that novelist Stephenie Meyer preaches good old-fashioned abstinence, it's worth pointing out that this gutsy heroine has a habit of making up her own mind and going after what she wants, even if (like everyone in her onscreen life) we can't bring ourselves to wholeheartedly approve of Bella's determination to wed and bed a vampire at the age of 18.
"Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" marks the beginning of the end for Bella (Kristen Stewart), Edward (Robert Pattinson) and his arch rival, local wereboy Jacob (Taylor Lautner). But fear not, the fat lady hasn't sung just yet, and there's still some life left in this domesticated gothic romance, even if you can feel it draining out before your eyes, drip by drip.
It's a rare series that improves the longer it goes on. "Breaking Dawn" is too padded to compete with last year's "Eclipse," but on the other hand, the production values have gone up each time, the actors have grown more comfortable in their roles (yes, even Lautner) and with each new film comes a new, more accomplished director.
Bill Condon, taking over from David Slade, was a surprising choice for the job -- he's best known for A-list fare like "Dreamgirls," "Kinsey" and producing the Hugh Jackman Oscar telecast a couple of years ago -- until you remember his breakthrough film, "Gods and Monsters" (with Ian McKellen as "Frankenstein" director James Whale), and before that a long apprenticeship in pulp schlock.
Condon immediately makes himself at home, throwing in a sneaky tribute to "The Bride of Frankenstein" and milking the wedding sequence as if he means to outdo William and Kate. (More trees!) It's not all about the extravagance though: The cross-cutting as the couple exchange their vows is a lovely, simple touch that crystallizes the emotion of the moment.
Then Condon reverts to "Lifestyles of the Rich and Fatuous," with a ridiculously ostentatious and overlong honeymoon getaway.
Unlike Mrs. Frankenstein, Bella isn't freaked by her monstrous other half. But the long-delayed and much-anticipated love scene does have a nasty sting in the tail: In Meyer's world, it seems that sex isn't safe even within the bonds of marriage. It's not the act itself ("Awesome" -- despite the bruising and considerable property damage) but the after-effects, which I suspect most everyone knows by now include the prospects of a little bloodsucker running amok.
Having split the last book into two, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg struggles to parse enough plot to keep this episode on the boil -- or even simmering. The aggressive threats from Washington's wolf pack ring hollow, a lame attempt to inject macho excitement into the movie's self-inflicted prolonged pregnant pause.
A doggy powwow is easily the movie's biggest unintentional howler. But mostly, Condon ladles on the atmosphere effectively enough with the now-customary indie-pop soundtrack (Iron and Wine; Sister Rosetta; Mia Maestro) so up front we're only a whisker away from a full-on musical.
And he delivers the grotesquely bloody finale with something approaching operatic gusto. We've come a long way since dads could escape labor pains by putting the kettle on and pacing outside in the hallway; this scene could send birth rates plummeting.
Critics will scoff, and this isn't a very good movie, but it's been a while since I saw anything so deliciously delirious.