MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies – The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Airbender, Love Ranch, Restrepo, Let it Rain and Sweetgrass

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Two Stars)
U.S.; David Slade, 2010

Midway through The Twilight Saga: Eclipse — a mediocre movie based  on another Stephenie Meyer novel, and poised to rake in oodles of cash, — Taylor Lautner suddenly showed up, grinning and preening, seemingly deep into his role of Jacob Black, the spurned but persistent Native American werewolf.Jacob was still competing for the affections of Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan, that somewhat sullen blue-jeaned virgin from small town Washington state, a girl who was still dippy for Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen, the dreamy-eyed perfect-gentleman teen vampire, but who also still had some serious hots for Wolfman Jacob too.

As Bella wavered between the two smitten hunks, a mass squeal of delight, accompanied by yelping kittenish moans, and a fusillade of “Aaaahs” and “Ooooohs” of near-orgasmic proportions, suddenly rose up in the theater with the inevitability of an oil spill crashing on the Gulf Coast shores.

Were these susceptible teens wailing for hard-working sex-objects like the tuneful, teen idols of the bobbysoxers, teeny-boppers or grunge gals of Yesterday? For Frank Sinatra rapturously singing “All or Nothing at All?” For Elvis Presley pensively crooning “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You?” For the Beatles impishly wailing “She Loves You. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah?” Or even for Kurt Cobain from nearby Seattle, darkly launching into “Seems Like Teen Spirit?” Were they panting for a surly teen movie rebel like Jimmy Dean or a strutting disco dancer like John Travolta?

Nah. They were squealing because Lautner’s Jacob had taken off his shirt and was impudently smirking and rippling his abs and pectorals — just as they would also moan when Pattinson‘s Edward turned his non-penetrating gaze on Bella and explained, with yearning devotion, that he didn’t want to have sex with her, though he was madly and eternally in love, because he was afraid of the inevitable consequences of vampire-love: banging up his beloved and harming her.

What a guy! What a pair of guys! Thanks to Jacob’s apparent inability to keep on his shirt and Edward’s seeming inability to take off his pants, the Twilight Saga target audience seemed about to achieve double delirium, at least at the screening I saw. These moaners, probably pretty typical, seemed deep in the throes of a bizarrely mesmerizing Teen fantasy that involved no sex, lots of smooching in empty mountain landscapes, swooning embraces, seductive fangs, marriage vows and mother‘s wedding rings, a puzzling no-show inattendance at school and the relative rarity of parents, teachers and shirts, plus occasional or climactic rumbles between gangs of competing good and bad vampires, with the good vamps (Edward’s gang) aided by huge, galloping but strangely weightless-looking werewolves, the size of horses (Jacob’s pack).

This is a dream whose inarguable appeal to sometimes moaning mass audiences just mystifies the hell out of me. When I was a teenager, the boys may have had fantasies of love and sex, and the girls fantasies of love and marriage, but those sometimes wet dreams lacked the weird intensity, or should I say the bite, of these new twilight heart-in-your-throat fantasies.

Anyway, Eclipse, the latest in the Twilight series — which puzzlingly seems to have conquered a lot of critics too, gives us the same old stuff, the same old vamps, as the first two. But the action (or in Edward’s case, lack of action) is triggered this time by the rampages and serial killings of a young bloodsucker gang of New Blood, or “newborns,“ led by vengeful redheaded Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), who challenges the Cullen brood to yet another showdown.

Meanwhile Edward yearns and pledges himself for Bella. Jacob flirts, strips and smirks. Bella defies her cop father Charlie (Billy Burke), who seems unable to discipline his daughter or solve a case. Bella‘s school pals, including Justin Chon as smart-ass Eric and Anna (Up in the Air) Kendrick as bubbly Jessica, graduate from high school, and Jessica gives one of the phonier commencement speeches I’ve heard. (Not that most commencement speeches aren’t phony.) The Newborns run amok. The showdown has a climax, but Bella, Edward, and Jacob, apparently do not. And the audience has a few more chances to ogle Jacob’s abs, and to chuckle at Edward’s crack, “Doesn’t he own any shirts?” That’s as funny as it gets in Eclipse — which, however many sighs it ignites, isn‘t nearly as good a movie as either Antonioni‘s 1962 Eclipse or Agnieszka Holland’s 1995 Total Eclipse (a certified Maltin bomb) or Conor McPherson‘s recent The Eclipse. Not to mention any half-decent episode of The Twilight Zone.

One problem I have with these Twilight movies, among many, is that I can’t understand why those guys are so crazy about Bella, that they prefer celibacy or even death, to losing her. I mean, Kristen Stewart is an attractive young gal. But Bella has never rung my bell, and if she stood me up, I wouldn’t even consider death or celibacy as alternatives. What’s the deal? Bella’s wardrobe is nondescript, her personality sparkless, her smiles rare. She seems intensely and unappealingly self-absorbed, and she doesn’t show those obvious compensating factors of brains, wit and good-heartedness — though she does stay the course when somebody gets bitten or stomped.

Also, neither Bella nor her beaux seem to have read a single book, not even the Twilight series, or even cracked a Kindle. Yet Bella doesn’t just inspire a typical teen age crush. She arouses the passionate devotion of Jacob, who braves death to win her, and she inspires the undying love of the undead Edward, who apparently hasn’t seen anything like Bella in over a century. No wonder those girls were moaning.

Melissa Rosenberg once again wrote the script (from Meyer’s novel) and the new director, succeeding Catherine Hardwicke (the first movie) and Chris Weitz (the second), is David Slade, who did his vampire prep on 30 Days of Night, won fans with Hard Candy, and delivers just the kind of movie you’d expect from an ex-rock video helmsman: slick and full of fancy tableaux and big star close-ups.

As for me, I guess I‘m just impervious to The Twilight Saga, and will probably remain so until I get somehow bitten in the neck. Or until they take a new tack and cast, in some future Twilight, those teen dreams Ellen Page as a pregnant vampire and Jonah Hill as a vampire with a taste for linguini.

Or until Bella finally does get bitten and does her Bela Lugosi impression. “I never drink…pinot noir!”

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The Last Airbender (One Star)
U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan, 2010

Based on the highly-praised anime TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender — but sadly unable to use Avatar in the title — this is M. Night Shyamalan’s futuristic saga of a post-Apocalypse world devoted to tribute concerts of Earth, Wind and Fire.

No, sorry, my mind is wandering. It’s about a world divided into the warring kingdoms of Earth, Air, Wind and Fire, with the kingdom of Fire, run by Cliff Curtis’s evil Lord Ozai, bullying everybody –including the young Avatar, Aang, who is played by Noah Ringer — and forcing them all to live in a horrible world dominated by bad 3D effects. By the way, to make up for the fact that “Avatar” couldn‘t be used in the title, it’s used at least ten thousand times in the dialogue.

Is there any truth to the rumor that M. Night Shyamalan has been kidnapped and that this movie, originally called “The Last Fenderbender,” was directed by an impostor named M. Night Schlemiel? I’m afraid not, though the gifted Shyamalan may need a Seventh Sense to recover.

But it is true that the only good reason to see this show, the movie formerly known as “Avatar,” is if you’re a fugitive from the police hiding out in the theatre. Even then, you may want your money back.

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Love Ranch (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Taylor Hackford, 2010

This should have been better, but it’s not bad: a pungent fictionalized drama about the Mustang Ranch shooting, when Oscar Bonavena, the boxer-lover of Sally Conforte, wife and partner of Mustang owner, Joe Conforte, was killed on the premises. The Mustang is the famous legal whorehouse outside Reno, Nevada. The movie, which doesn’t claim to be too accurate, changes the Confortes to the Bontempos, Charlie and Grace (Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren), and Oscar to “Armando Bruza,“ (played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta) a Brazilian boxer with a head injury — and it centers the story around the doomed love affair of Grace and Armando, and Charlie’s crazed jealousy.

The acting by the central trio is superb. But the script, by journalist Mark Jacobson, is a little too obvious. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe the story, and I felt Jacobson was pushing points too hard and sometimes playing a little too automatic/romantic and politically correct. You can’t do better than Mirren (Mrs. Hackford) and Pesci though, and it’s a kick in the head to see the genius psycho of Goodfellas back again. You think he’s funny? Yeah!

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Restrepo (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Sebastian Junger/ , 2010

Restrepo is a documentary about the war in Afghanistan that’s beautifully shot and terrifyingly convincing. The color photography is crisp and clear. The subjects, a platoon of American soldiers in the mountains, are amazingly candid. The directors — journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington — try to capture the images and the words of their subject, the men of the Second Platoon, 183rd Airborne Brigade, and not obviously intrude on them. They succeed, admirably.

So we see the Second Platoon’s daily routine, watch them as they horse around, listen as they’re being interviewed by the filmmakers, watch an occasional battle from ground zero (usually signaled by bursts of gunfire and the camera image jerking around as the photographer tries to get his bearings). At the end, we see some of them leave. After fifteen months and over 50 casualties in the region, they will all leave, as the Americans abandon the Taliban-infested area, the Korangal Valley, regarded as one of the world‘s most dangerous hot spots.

The title Restrepo refers to a 20 year-old medic named Juan Restropo, who was the platoon‘s first casualty. Restrepo, whom we see very briefly, was a happy, generous guy who played the guitar and was very much liked by his buddies. They named their digs after him: Outpost Restropo.

The movie is all about war, danger and friendship — and judging by what we see here, the Afghanistan War is a pretty awful one to have to fight. There’s nothing obviously political in Restropo either way: no flag-waving, no military bashing. Junger and Hetherington‘s movie focuses instead on the men who have to fight the war the politicians whip up: the kind of war that most of those politicians –including bellicose chicken hawks like Dick Cheney — never fought and never will. That’s the true politics of it, I guess. As Sam Fuller once explained , if you make a war movie and do it honestly, it always becomes anti-war. And maybe it always becomes pro-soldier as well.
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Let it Rain (Three Stars)
France; Agnes Jaoui, 2008

French cineastes have been gracing us the last few years with a number of excellent family ensemble films, A Christmas Tale and Summer Hours among them, and this picture — from the first-class writing-acting team of Agnes Jaoui and her ex-husband Jean-Pierre Bacri — belongs in their company.

It’s about a brainy, independent-minded woman novelist turned politician named Agathe Villanova (Jaoui), who travels back to her family home in Provence, and steps in on some family crises, involving her sister Florence (Pascale Arbillot) and their longtime Arab-born housekeeper Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji). Agathe has also unwisely consented to be the subject of an indie documentary shot by the earnest but sometimes comically inept team of unemployed reporter Michel (Bacri) and Mimouna’s ambitious son and amateur cineaste Karim (Jamel Debbouze, who’s wonderful).

The scenes with Michel and Karim trying to goad their patient subject with anti-feminist jibes, even as they keep arguing between themselves and comically screwing up the shoot, are priceless. Every single performance is top-grade. I had a good time at this movie, and I can‘t imagine anyone smart, humane and cine-savvy not enjoying it a bit too. (In French, with English subtitles.)

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Sweetgrass (Four Stars)
U.S.; Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Ilisa Barbash, 2010

In Sweetgrass, named for part of the lushly beautiful Montana country in which it takes place, we see the last summer pasturing of the vast sheep herd that once belonged to the Allested ranch in Big Timber — thousands of sheep blanketing the mountain slopes and valleys, bleating, baa-ing and clanging their cowbells like some grand atonal choir, ranging freely over the green grass and past the rushing rivers and under the high blue sky, surging like some white snowy river itself, with that entire tumbling, rippling, slowly moving mass of animal life itself cared for and guided by just two lone sheepmen in cowboy hats on horseback, with their alert and tireless sheep dogs loping alongside.

This stunning event was recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor (“recordist” or, I guess, cinematographer-director-editor) and Ilisa Barbash (producer), a husband-wife ethnographic filmmaking team then resident in Boulder, Colorado and now based at Harvard University. And it was the last of its kind, because the Allested Ranch closed down in 2006, thanks to yet another asinine move by the recent Bush administration, whose bureaucrats cancelled the public land grazing permit that the Allesteds and other independent ranchers had used for more than a century to feed their herds. (No doubt some of the beneficiaries of this decision were whatever greed-crazed Agri-business giants stuffed enough campaign loot into enough eager politico fists. But let’s be fair. Maybe the administrators who ended the grazing policy were just crazy about wild sheep, grizzly bears and cougars, and didn‘t want the critters’ naps disturbed in summer by 3,000 baaing Allested sheep.)

So what we see, though it isn’t explained until the end titles, is the end of a way of life — another wondrous American ritual and tradition, largely lost to the contemporary world.

As with Frederick Wiseman’s great socio-political documentaries, like High School, Welfare and The Titicut Follies (all of which focus on urban landscapes), there is no voice-over or narration. There’s precious little talk at all, and most of it comes from sheepmen John Ahern and Pat Connolly, who plan their work and gab laconically, or cuss something fierce, as they ride, or as they sip coffee and chew bacon, or just laze around and ruminate, in their camp chairs or by the fire.

Often they complain. But we can’t. They’re burdened by each day/s work, which looks endless. We’re just blessedly privy to the beauties of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and that huge woolly cloud of sheep. As in Merian Cooper’s and Ernest Schoedsack’s (King Kong) great 1925 documentary Grass, a movie which watched another group in a more distant land, the Bakhityari or Persian tribesmen, taking their herds to pasture, we‘re absorbed by the spectacle and by the journey before us: with the sheep moving like a great white wave grazing uphill and down, as the sheepmen try to protect them (vainly in one instance) from marauding grizzlies and wolverines, as mothers suckle their young, and dogs run and nudge, and the season passes, and as we see what only a relative handful have watched before this.

Critics have generally loved this film — and they’re right — but Sweetgrass is unfortunately the kind of movie that some would-be wits and carpers denounce because they say nothing is happening, that it‘s like watching paint dry. Or sheep graze. Nothing is happening? What in God‘s name were they looking at in the theatre? Their watches? Their navels?

Thanks be to the filmmakers for undertaking this journey, which took them two years (2001-2003) to record and eight in all to get on film and in theatres. We are in their debt, and also in that of the Allesteds and of sheepmen Ahern and Connolly (and hell yes, of the horses, dogs and the sheep herd as well), for the lyrical sights and uncommon beauties of Sweetgrass. At the end, the crusty Ahern, riding in a truck cab, is asked what he’ll do next, and he replies that he “ain’t going to worry about it for a week or two.” You think: Well, that’s okay, get some shut-eye. You earned it. Goodbye, sheep. Adios, amigos.

– by Michael Wilmington
July 1, 2010

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies – The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Airbender, Love Ranch, Restrepo, Let it Rain and Sweetgrass”

  1. I gotta admit I too am a big fan of Twilight

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