Waiting for Twilight 

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Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Directed by Paul Weitz

Paul Weitz, brother of New Moon director Chris Weitz, must've drawn the short end of the teen-vampire lit stick. That's not to say the Twilight franchise offers worlds of possibilities—only that watching Cirque du Freak (based on a series of YA novels) made me profoundly aware of the former's rudimentary strengths. Put up against the lipstick-goth sideshow of Cirque du Freak, in which clean-cut teenager Darren (Chris Massoglia) becomes a half-vampire, Twilight's sulkiness begins to look atmospheric and moody.

The Vampire's Assistant, as its internship-like title suggests, is at least a bit more pragmatic than the queasy star-crossed romance of that other vampire series. Darren allows himself to be turned and mentored by Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in order to save his best friend; the sardonic but not so evil Crepsley teaches him that garden-variety vampires don't kill to feed on humans; and a traveling freakshow provides the requisite makeshift family unit (and a good thing, too, because the movie treats regular humans as cartoon idiots; parents and teachers, as ever, just don't understand). The name actors on hand to play supporting freaks—Reilly, Orlando Jones, Salma Hayek and others—have fun with the showbizzy grotesquerie, in the manner of stars clowning around in a Saturday Night Live sketch; the point isn't so much that they're doing great work, but that they're game to do it at all.

Our hero, though, comes off far more tentative—not through adolescent insecurity, but good old fashioned blandness. Massoglia looks like a softer Emile Hirsch, and speaks with such baby-voiced naïveté that he sometimes sounds a bit slow. When he finally sucks blood, it's thoroughly de-eroticized without anything to take eroticism's place: it's not creepy, it's not clinical, and it's certainly not dramatic; Weitz can barely resist the urge to cut away completely.

It might be impatience, though, not squeamishness: throughout the movie, especially as it dives into tedious vampire mythology pitting the harmless against the harmful, Weitz's direction feels rushed, sometimes bordering on incompetent. Scenes are filled up with exposition and abandoned, or augmented with lots of zooms and sped-up action, or intercut with fuzzed-out images that look like they're supposed to be point-of-view shots, but lack the crucial "point" part of the equation. The visuals reflect less like a funhouse mirror and more like a bad trip through the Nickelodeon looking glass.

Once Cirque du Freak decides that vampire-on-vampire blood feuds are more interesting than a creature-filled sideshow, it's pretty much lost, but even hardcore devotees of vampire-on-vampire blood feuds won't get much satisfaction. With about ten minutes to go, the movie screeches to an abrupt halt and spends the rest of its running time trying to psyche the audience up for a sequel (in this respect, the film recalls the other Weitz's work on the anticlimactic Golden Compass adaptation). But if I were ever to revisit this material, I'd beg for a prequel: the freak-populated world of the movie seems like it would be a whole lot more interesting before all of this tedious plot business takes over.

Opens October 23

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