| Director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls") and returning scribe Melissa Rosenberg ("Dexter") make the pages of Stephenie Meyer's fourth novel come alive visually on screen.
It has been three years since this romantic supernatural soap opera fantasy became a cultural phenomenon with the release of the first movie "Twilight."
The enormous Twi-hard fan base of mothers and daughters vicariously followed every move made by teenage heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). They even divided into separate teams representing either the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) or the shape-shifting werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).
Rather than being left behind by the secrets and mysteries of this romantic supernatural soap opera fantasy, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and read the book in preparation for the movie.
I was thoroughly entertained by this first half of the final cinematic installment and found it to be very faithful to the source material. Non-readers, including those who have only watched the prior three films, will lose their way and have trouble grasping the intricate details and the fragile relationships in play.
Although tempted to lose her virginity and transform into a vampire, Bella has practiced abstinence and kept her human heart beating in the previous spellbinding episodes of this beloved romantic epic. Dramatic changes brought on by a wedding, honeymoon and difficult pregnancy trigger a chain of consequences that bring unforeseen and shocking developments.
The movie opens with Jacob angrily rushing out of the house and shape-shifting into a wolf after receiving an invitation to Bella and Edward's wedding. Bella's divorced parents, Charlie (Billy Burke) and Renee (Sarah Clarke), are more accepting of the impending nuptials and appear happier for their 18-year-old daughter.
Edward's sister Alice (Ashley Greene) takes charge of all the preparations assuming the duties of wedding planner.
A touching scene between Edward and Bella takes place the night before the big event in Bella's bedroom under Charlie's roof.
Edward checks to see if Bella has cold feet. He tells her he has been waiting a century to marry her. Bella admires the courage and sacrifice Edward has shown by resisting the temptation to transform her into a vampire.
They share one last embrace before Edward goes hunting for animal blood on his bachelor party with Cullen family members, Emmett (Kellan Lutz) and Jasper (Jackson Rathbone).
The usual things take place on Bella's wedding day starting with getting her hair styled. Charlie and Renee deliver a family heirloom that represents something old to go with the traditional blue and borrowed items.
The ceremony takes place outdoors in a wooded setting. Bella wears an exquisite white gown. Edward looks very handsome in a black tuxedo. They alternate reciting their vows. Things conclude with an extended passionate kissing scene.
A series of humorous toasts tinged with irony are given during the celebratory reception.
Edward raises his glass and tells Bella "let's start with forever." This comes close to the movie's tagline-"Forever is only the beginning."
Although not in attendance at the wedding ceremony, Jacob comes out of the woods and dances alone with Bella. He is glad she still has a heartbeat and two left feet. Bella advises Jacob that it is not her last night as a human and wants to experience all the emotions of a real honeymoon with Edward.
Edward's secret honeymoon destination turns out to be Isle Esme on the Brazilian coast. It was a gift from Edward's father, Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) to his spouse Esme (Elizabeth Reaser). Esme had agreed to let the newly married couple borrow it for a few weeks.
Edward carries Bella across the threshold of the large house on the tiny island. She takes a look around, but her focus is on the absolutely huge white bed in the center of the bedroom. She starts getting nervous about losing her virginity and asks Edward to give her a few moments alone.
They begin the night with a skinny dipping swim and end up having conjugal relations in bed. The sex scene is very quick with Bella replaying bits and pieces in her mind when she wakes up the next morning. The filmmakers leave much to the viewer's imagination. The bedroom is in shambles with a destroyed bed frame and feathers flying everywhere. Bella has bruises on her arm and shoulder.
They spend their days exploring the natural beauty of the island and playing chess. Bella wears sexy lingerie and entices Edward into making love to her again.
Meanwhile back home in Forks, Washington, Jacob is miserable without Bella. He fears the treaty between the werewolves and the vampires will be broken if Edward kills or transforms Bella into a vampire. Jacob still hasn't found a mate to imprint on.
Bella suffers from morning sickness just 14 days after the marriage. Although it sounds impossible, Bella is pregnant with a demon child moving inside her.
Edward packs their belongings quickly and they head home. Bella decides that she wants to carry the baby to term and enlists the help of sister-in-law Rosalie (Nikki Reed).
Bella becomes pale and sickly looking. The fast-growing fetus cracks Bella's rib and continually crushes her small frame from inside out. Edward urges Bella to abort, based on Carlisle's advice that the fetus is too strong and not compatible with her body.
Edward asks Jacob to try to change Bella's mind. He even gives Jacob permission to kill him if Bella dies during the pregnancy. Bella tells Jacob that she is strong enough to deliver the baby. She views pregnancy as a miracle and not a scary thing.
The Alpha shape-shifting werewolf leader Sam (Chaske Spencer) believes the treaty is now void. He wants to destroy the abomination growing inside Bella before it is born. A split in the pack occurs when Jacob decides to go his own way and vows to protect Bella. Jacob is joined by siblings Seth (Boo Boo Stewart) and Leah (Julia Jones).
As Bella grows weaker, Jacob comes up with an idea and Edward acts on it. A spooky scene takes place when Bella drinks blood through a straw to quench the thirst of her hungry fetus. Bella says it tastes good and her pulse becomes stronger.
Rosalie is very protective operating as a mother hen throughout Bella's pregnancy. Bella picks out names for the baby and runs them by Alice and Rosalie. If it is a boy, she likes EJ, which is short for Edward and Jacob. If it is a girl, she combines the first names of her mother and mother-in-law and comes up with Renesmee (pronounced Ruh-nez-may).
While Carlisle is away hunting for more blood, Bella's body goes through weird contortions as the placenta becomes detached. Bella screams to Edward to get it out now.
Edward takes Bella upstairs to Carlisle's medical office and examination room. Edward delivers the baby by biting through Bella's stomach. The impromptu plan is to deliver the baby first and then transform Bella into a vampire by injecting venom into her system while her heart is still beating.
Jacob is in the room during delivery. He attempts CPR to revive Bella. He goes outside and starts crying thinking Bella is dead. Edward continues to attempt resuscitation and even sucks blood from different parts of Bella's body.
While Bella is in a comatose state, her whole life passes before her in reverse with brief snapshots. There was a collective gasp and ecstatic screaming from the advance preview audience as the movie ended with a perfect final scene.
Midway through the credits, an Easter egg teaser features Irina of the Denali Coven reporting the news of the Cullen clan to the ruling class Volturi vampires. Aro (Michael Sheen) says, "They have something I want." Fans will have to wait until part 2 is released on 11/16/12 for the climactic full-scale vampire showdown.
Moviegoers have come to accept Stewart, Pattinson and Lautner as genuine embodiments of the three major characters. They have grown into their roles and play off each other so well generating emotional sparks with their words and actions.
The movie's strengths include the interior designs, costumes and background scenery. The musical score lacks any memorable tunes and doesn't accentuate the viewing experience.
Those looking for action and combat scenes will be disappointed. There are two brief battle scenes shot at night between the wolves and the vampires in which no blood is spilled.
The fourth book is so expansive that the filmmakers made the right call in splitting it into two parts and following the formula established by the popular "Harry Potter" franchise.
The pacing is spot on with a nearly two-hour running time that never drags as you become fully immersed in the melodrama of this supernatural realm.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"