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The softcore vampiric tryst heats up for 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,' overshadowing its predecessor

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Every now and then, a pop culture phenomenon comes along that forces us to either love to hate it, or hate ourselves for loving it. "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Boy bands. The 1980s.

Undoubtedly, "The Twilight Saga" and its glittery, brooding vampire heroes outshine them all. (The more than $30 million it took in first-night grosses attests to that.) The third installment, "Eclipse," brings the supernatural teenage angst present in the first two films and then amplifies it with an interspecies love triangle and abundant jealous snarling.

For those in need of a refresher since last year's "New Moon," normal girl (or, as we have learned, the most desirable young woman in Forks, Wash.) Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart, "The Runaways") is in the midst of an internal struggle. On one hand, she's inconsolably, uncontrollably in love with her once-alive-now-undead boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, "Remember Me").

A good portion of the film focuses on a battle of wills between the couple regarding Bella's entrance into the Cullens' serene, porcelain-skinned clan. He won't turn her into a vampire or have sex with her until she marries him. Among other things, she won't marry him out of fear people will think she's pregnant " because that's the stigma she should be concerned about.

On the other hand, there's the oft-shirtless abdominal specimen of Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner, "Valentine's Day"), Bella's werewolf best friend, who has been in puppy love with her all along. Now, with her impending date of death, it's all coming to a head.

Hot-blooded and hot-tempered, Jacob tries to lure Bella back to the living, going so far as to steal a kiss (that animal!), creating an enraged Edward and prompting frail, human Bella to break her hand punching his face.

But boy troubles aren't our heroine's only concerns. Fiery-haired Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, "Terminator Salvation") is still seeking revenge for her dead mate by creating an army of bloodthirsty vampiric newbies to kill Bella and destroy the Cullen clan.

Naturally, Bella's two leading men must work together to keep their fragile damsel-in-distress safe. This task seems to require a lot of jealous, suspicious glances and clenched-jaw dialogue. In fact, the whole cast seems to have taken a class on how to deliver lines without actually moving their mouths. It's impressive, really.

This all culminates in a battle between the Cullens/wolves and the newborns. Sitting out of the battle is Edward, who after proposing around half a dozen times, has finally convinced a desirous Bella to marry him. To protect his soon-to-be bride, he takes her to a campsite near the top of a mountain, whose snow is so pristine it must never have been disturbed by plodding human feet.

But Bella can't handle the cold temperatures. Who ya' gonna call when your girlfriend's teeth are chattering? Her flesh-and-blood furnace of a beastly best friend, of course. Here, as Jacob lies in Bella's sleeping bag warming her, he and Edward share a moment that truly makes the viewer wonder what it is about Bella that attracts these two. So many magnificent, expressive eyebrows in one tiny room!

On an effects level alone, "Eclipse" has surpassed its predecessors. Poor, sparkly Edward has evolved from sweating glitter in the sunlight to instead looking like someone took a BeDazzler to his alabaster skin. While still mildly ridiculous, the look's a step up.

In addition, the CGI wolf pack continues to make the implausible seem real. In fact, they provoke one of the more genuine moments from Bella as she nuzzles and emotes (egads!) to Jacob, in wolf form.

One thing "Twilight" has always done well is given credibility to teenage emotions. "They're people too!" it screams. That continues here with an increasingly difficult love triangle. Bella must choose between the loyal, father-approved Jacob or the cold, gentlemanly Edward. This tension is what "Twilight" fans love, and it's at its best here.

In short, "Eclipse" is the sort of thing you'll like if you like that sort of thing. It won't lure any new converts, but the improved blend of romance, complexity and action should give Twihards something to look forward to in the two-movie adaptation of "Breaking Dawn." "Nicole Hill

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