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Brokeback Mountain (2005)
One Of The Greatest American Movies Of The Past Quarter Century
From the pages of Annie Proulx's poignant, sparingly written short story screen writers Larry McMurtry and Diane Ossana have woven an epic love story for the screen and with director Ang Lee guiding a perfect cast have created in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN a motion picture that ranks with the great classics of the past. So much has already been written and discussed regarding this prematurely famous film that it seems superfluous at this point to add another comment. But what I find amazing about this film is its dichotomy: on the one hand there is all the current brouhaha concerning the screenplay's "controversial" subject matter. At the same time here is a movie that dutifully follows the pattern of good, old fashioned Hollywood -style film-making. The 20 year saga of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, their passionate love thwarted by convention and bigotry is given the full throttle treatment by Ang Lee who dares to take the time to tell this story at a leisurely pace. The film's opening section is deliberately paced but never boring. And as we come to know the characters of Ennis and Jack and their time on Brokeback Mountain, the rest of the story becomes an emotional journey for the audience as well. Once off the mountain, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN gains momentum. If the film's longer second half veers into soap opera, as some critics have charged, then it is soap opera of the most riveting and utterly believable sort.
Mere words cannot do justice to the performance Heath Ledger gives in this film. His Ennis is a man whose laconic nature barely hides the anger and passion just underneath the surface. I can't recall another performance where such inchoate feelings of love and loss have been so brilliantly rendered. The final minutes of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN are as heartrending as any you will see on the screen. Jake Gyllenhaal compliments Ledger's performance beautifully. His Jack is all feeling and frustration, a sweet-tempered man whose dream of sharing a life with Ennis is seemingly quashed at every turn.
Technically labeled by some as a western and/or cowboy movie due to its setting, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is really a universal story. However, time (the early 1960s through the early 80s) and place are evoked so completely that one feels immersed in those Wyoming mountain pastures (actually filmed in Alberta ,Canada for the early scenes). As with every other aspect of this film, the cinematography is stunning. Clear mountain lakes mirror majestic skies and pines; a lone campfire, an orange dot on a mountainside, is nearly swallowed in the immense darkness of night; sheepherders guide their lambs, ewes, dogs and mules through vast mountain terrain, one particular shot photographed from what seems like a perch on the moon; small western towns; garish, neon-lit Country Western bars; a nighttime Fourth of July celebration and weathered ranch homes, barns and trailers are registered just as beautifully. This is a movie where grace and grit go hand in glove. Rodrigo Prieto's camera work is flawless.
Ang Lee's achievement cannot be underestimated. He has pulled off an incredible hat trick in making a film that all audiences can relate to. No doubt there are many people who will resist going to see this film, but it will be their loss. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is an ineffably sad tale : an elegy for dreams never achieved and roads not taken. It is an American masterpiece.
King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson pays homage to a classic film and in the process constantly reminds one how truly great the original 1933 KING KONG is. No amount of storytelling embellishment, incredible recreation of Depression Era New York City or State-of-the-Art CGI effects can obliterate the memory of producer/director Merian C. Cooper's early sound masterpiece. Jackson's remake suffers from a surfeit of length. Admittedly the opening scenes of early 30s New York City are breathtaking to behold and the screenplay offers some humorous "inside" references to Old Broadway and Hollywood that should prove amusing to showbiz mavens but will go over the heads of average moviegoers. Everything in the new film seems anticlimactic and it's not just because the plot is familiar. The original KONG was a model of economical storytelling. Jackson's KONG is an interminable three hour extravaganza that works only in fits and starts. The Skull Island sequences, while offering some extraordinary special effects and sound editing, go on way too long and stop the movie's narrative flow dead in its tracks. As the film sputters along into its third hour most audience members are likely to find their haunches more affected than their hearts.
"The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill" is something of an anomaly in current film-making these days. An unassuming, quiet little movie (excepting the various "chatter" of bird species featured in the production), it chronicles the day to day life of Mark Bittner and his flock of wild parrots. Bittner, a San Fransisco resident who moved to the city near the end of the Beat era and the dawn of Haight Ashbury, struggled for several years as a street musician before giving up his dream of having a successful music career. Living as a homeless man for over a decade with the occasional odd job here and there, Bittner eventually settled down in a rundown little cottage near the top of Telegraph Hill, a charming, picturesque area of the city dense with myriad foliage and fauna. A natural bird sanctuary, the hill was also a nesting area for exotic wild parrots from South America who inexplicably showed up years before and made the area their home. Some local residents are interviewed who give various (and often humorous) theories on how the parrots may have ended up there but in the end it remains a mystery.
The film focuses on Mark Bittner's relationship with these amazing birds. Taking on the role of caretaker, he feeds and cares for the parrots, consisting mostly of cherry-headed green conures. He identifies all 45 of these creatures by individual speckled markings and names. The camera hones in on a number of the birds to give the viewer a front row seat to distinct personalities such as Mingus, Tupelo and the lone blue crowned conure of the group, Connor.
Director Judy Irving films this story of Bittner and his bird friends in a slapdash style that hardly calls attention to itself. She narrates at times and even discusses the fact that she wasn't quite sure what the focus of her film was originally going to be. The birds were a starting point but meeting Mark Bittner turned out to be more than just a happy accident. A lifelong naturalist and bird enthusiast, Irving rarely intrudes, letting her camera record very directly, simply and powerfully this story of a modern day St. Francis.
"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is almost artless in its presentation. Unlike "Winged Migration", the French 2001 Oscar- nominated documentary about migratory birds, Irving's film is competently photographed but lacking in the lush visuals that distinguished the former film. The Parrots stay close to terra firma, a necessity considering the menacing Red-Tailed hawks often hovering overhead.
Mark Bittner's story is truly inspiring and ultimately surprising. Judy Irving makes it even more so with an even-handed approach that almost, but not quite, collapses at the end. What could have ended on a sugary and sentimental note emerges as clear, forthright and unforgettable.
Watching writer-director Paul Haggis' new film "Crash", I couldn't help thinking about another, much better film with a similar interlocking storyline. That was "Amores Perros" (2001), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's gritty, no-holds-barred meditation on the lives of some fictional citizens in modern day Mexico City. Although the story was an obvious set-up, with a terrible car crash at its center and how that crash affected the lives of several disparate characters, the movie managed to be engrossing and utterly believable in its depiction of varying social castes in a huge metropolis. The film had the feel of a documentary and was so epic-sized in depicting the teeming life of a city that it managed to triumph over the screenplay's contrivances.
"Crash" is a whole other story. Although I can admire the intentions of its creator and the admirable work of a talented cast, the movie didn't work for me on any level. An ambitious contemporary parable about the need for racial tolerance and understanding, "Crash" offers up a nearly endless series of angry rants and speeches by characters who literally collide into each other on the highway or verbally clash in elegant homes, "mom and pop" grocery stores or utilitarian HMO offices. The movie is a frustrating experience because the acting by the entire cast is superb and there are several powerfully dramatic scenes.
Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser are perfect as a wealthy suburbanite couple obsessed with image. In fact Bullock has never been better, commanding the screen as a spoiled district attorney's wife whose prejudices erupt when her SUV is hijacked by two young black men. Matt Dillon is equally impressive as a bigoted LAPD cop who sexually harasses a woman whose car he has pulled over, only to attempt to save the same women in a horrific car accident the next day. A hotheaded Iranian store owner unjustly berates a Mexican American locksmith for not fixing the door to his liking after the store has been broken into and burglarized the night before. All these story elements (and several others) come to a dramatic conclusion that is at once operatic as it is mechanical. The fine acting, the grainy, unvarnished cinematography, the taut editing and a foreboding, mournful score can't compensate for the fact that "Crash" is an exercise in manipulation. Paul Haggis allows his characters to preach to the choir instead of giving them a narrative that relies less on shouting and coincidence and more on credible storytelling techniques.
Jane Fonda's Bittersweet Return To The Screen
Jane Fonda is one of the great stars in the Hollywood firmament. A beautiful woman and gifted actress, the motion picture camera has been an unflinching repository for her acting genius. Even in her lesser films Fonda always revealed a spark of creativity that often distinguished her from most of her acting contemporaries. With 6 Academy Award nominations to her credit and 2 Oscar wins for Best Actress, her legacy is firmly established. How sad it is then to report that her return to the screen after a 15 year hiatus is squandered on a wretchedly written, clumsily directed romantic comedy that is an embarrassment for not only Fonda but a talented supporting cast.
"Monster-in-Law" represents what seems to be an increasingly generic brand of comedy. Gone are the days of sharply observant romantic entertainments when writers knew where to throw in a bit of farce or add a dollop of cynicism. Directors such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges along with writers I.A.L. Diamond and Fay and Michael Kanin knew how to put an effective story together even if in hindsight the plausibility of the tale was suspect. Most contemporary movies are a completely different animal. Character motivation and good storytelling have been replaced by gross caricature and "connect-the-dots", formulaic writing that is as predictable as it is depressing.
"Monster-in-Law" takes many of its cues from an earlier Fonda comedy, the lamentable 1981 burlesque, "9 to 5". In that film three beleaguered secretaries wreak havoc on their sexist boss. The story was treated as pure farce and was marginally entertaining at best. There have been a score of "dumbed-down" comedies since. Unfortunately movie audiences seem easily pleased by this new comedy hybrid.
In "Monster-in-Law" Jane Fonda plays veteran television interviewer Viola Fields, a Diva from Hell who is determined to break up the impending marriage of her handsome, vacuous son (an L.A. surgeon) to Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini (Jennifer Lopez), an office temp, part time caterer and dog walker. What starts out as only a mere semblance to reality quickly deteriorates into the most puerile farce imaginable soon after Viola makes her entrance. Viola is a psychotic mixture of brass balls and vulnerability and Ms. Fonda plays her to the hilt. Her star wattage is undeniable but this is not a particularly good performance. Most of the fault lies with Anya Kocheff's execrable screenplay and Robert Luketic's sledgehammer direction. Rationality is thrown out the window for the witless line and easy laugh. Only Wanda Sykes emerges relatively unscathed playing Viola's sarcastic assistant. Her Ruby is the one genuinely funny character in the movie. Otherwise "Monster-in-Law" is a mess and possibly the worst movie of Jane Fonda's career.
The Upside of Anger (2005)
Despite its awful title and a screenplay that occasionally takes a wrong turn, The Upside Of Anger is a consistently absorbing and entertaining depiction of one family's dysfunction in a present-day, fashionable Detroit suburb. Upper-middle class angst hasn't had such an impressive workout since Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment. And as with those two films, this new one is basically a well-dressed soap opera but the suds are put into brilliant motion by an impressive acting ensemble. Joan Allen, always a superb actress, outdoes herself here as Terry Wolfmeyer, an abandoned wife with four beautiful daughters who drowns her humiliation and rage with alcohol. Kevin Costner plays her next door neighbor, a retired baseball player whose good looks have turned to a paunchy but shabby attractiveness. Director-screenwriter Mike Binder (and actor: he is terrific as a sleazy Lothario pursuing one of Allen's daughters) sustains the tension in this romantic comedy-drama for most of its two hour running time. Even when the film's second hour slides into mawkishness and an unexpected late plot development nearly derails the picture, The Upside Of Anger manages to keep the audience hooked to what is happening on the screen. That is due in no small part to the wonderful chemistry between Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. Allen gives a ferocious performance, by turns funny, angry and sad. Costner has never been better. For once he seems to have let his guard down, giving a relaxed, warm and very funny performance as a man in search of love and companionship. For what it's worth, both actors deserve to be remembered at Oscar time next year. While the movie itself is a bit too facile and unconvincing to be considered a Best Picture nominee, it's assured pacing and technical know-how does indicate that Mike Binder is a director to watch for in the future. There is so much about The Upside of Anger that is first-rate.
Finding Neverland (2004)
FINDING NEVERLAND is a beautifully produced costume drama. Technically the movie is very impressive, boasting excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography, sets, costumes and a lovely music score that mimics composer Edward Elgar's more wistful compositions. The recreation of Edwardian England rivals the best Masterpiece Theater productions. But there is a huge hole in the center of this movie that prevents Finding Neverland from being anything other than a four hankie tearjerker.
The true-life story of famed novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie's friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family is given short shrift by a screenplay that insists on telling the tale as a genteel fantasy. Although the dark undercurrents of the story are there, David Magee's script (based on Alan Knee's stage play) elects to tell only part of the story and as a result much potential dramatic tension is lost.
There is nothing unusual about movies veering from the hard facts of biography. To make a an effective audience-pleaser it is often essential that real-life events be juxtaposed for effective cinematic storytelling. But in the case of Finding Neverland the actual events surrounding Barrie's life and relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her five sons were so inherently dramatic that changing the story even minimally seems innocuous at best.
Unsurprisingly the best scenes in Finding Neverland deal with the creation, rehearsals and opening night premiere of Barrie's classic play, PETER PAN. The mawkish sentimentalism that pervades the rest of the movie is missing in these riveting scenes that swiftly chronicle the emergence of an immortal masterpiece.
James Matthew Barrie was a complex and eccentric genius whose decades-long relationship and obsession with the Llewelyn Davies boys was by turns nurturing , exploitive and ultimately tragic. Johnnie Depp, tall and handsome, cuts a dashing figure as Barrie, an incongruity considering that the famed author was a slight individual endowed with average looks. Depp's performance, while perfectly workmanlike, displays none of the dark moods Barrie was known to have. The actor simply seems to be a conjurer of fanciful tales, a charming babysitter to Sylvia and her sons and a jilted husband to his self-absorbed, philandering actress/wife.
The real story is heartrending and unforgettable. The movie is entertaining up to a point but it should prove disappointing to anyone with even a passing familiarity to Barrie's life and the world he created for the Llewelyn Davies boys. Andrew Birkin's biography J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys gives a thorough and fascinating account of this disturbing and epochal love story.
Watching George Butler's riveting documentary about John Kerry's tour of duty in Vietnam is an ineffably sad but ultimately inspiring viewing experience. Using archival photos, super 8 film and television video footage from the Vietnam War era, director Butler weaves a tale of one man's heroic journey into a real life Heart of Darkness more immediate and powerful than anything Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" was able to muster. Beginning with his student days at Yale, John Kerry possessed qualities of leadership that belied most young men of his generation. His heroic actions in Vietnam are amply described by fellow comrades-in-arms, one of whom gives an electrifying account of his rescue by Kerry under the most perilous conditions imaginable.
The most revelatory part of this movie deals with Kerry's homecoming. Vietnam veterans were not greeted with a hero's welcome; in most cases the public treated returning soldiers with indifference, even revulsion. John Kerry's compassion and fortitude in working toward giving his fellow soldiers a place of dignity in a cold and uncaring world is heroic beyond measure. GOING UPRIVER has been described by some as one long campaign add for a presidential candidate. That may be so, but if this movie is a shameless plug for electing Kerry to the Presidency, it is also a heartrending social commentary of a time that is inexorably fading into a distant American past. That past , in order to be kept alive, needs movies such as GOING UPRIVER to remind American citizens that the foibles of war repeat themselves unto the next generation. The young, eloquent John Kerry speaking on behalf of his fellow veterans is an unforgettable image. GOING UPRIVER is a mourning for the past as well as an alarum for the future.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
A Trailblazing Documentary
Even if The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fails to recognize Michael Moore's FAHRENHEIT 9/11 with a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary its place in film history is secure. This incendiary and powerful film is an unforgettable viewing experience and not only because it's a deliberate, muckraking attempt to besmirch the current president and his administration. Moore also takes aim at The Media in general, castigating The Powers That Be (NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN etc.) for a reckless mendacity that led to a televised War where TV Anchors and journalists joined the ride to Baghdad and reported and photographed only what Bush & Co. wanted the American people to see and hear.
In BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002) Moore targeted The NRA as the Big Villain in allowing laxity in gun laws for creating the horrendous murders and maiming at Columbine High School in April of 1999. The film was a disturbing but often unintentionally hilarious expose of the state of mind of many Americans whose lives are controlled by fear and the need for firearms as weapons of defense. It was America turning the Gun on Itself, in stark contrast to its relatively placid neighbor to the north, Canada, where firearms are prevalent but murders by shooting are significantly lower than those in The States.
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 employs the same canny juxtaposition of images that made the earlier film such a deliciously barbed and caustic social commentary. Although Moore's main target is one George W. Bush, other big players in his administration are vulnerable targets as well. There is also open season on Democrats and The Media in particular. perhaps the most chilling aspect of this movie.
Whatever the outcome of the election in November, FAHRENHEIT 9/11 will be remembered for its unstinting bravery in stripping the layers of deceit that have plagued this country for the past four years. As with BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, it is a movie that will make you laugh, then make you cry, and ultimately make you angry. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 has an immediacy and importance that makes it the film of the year, and a clarion call to this generation and the next.
King Arthur (2004)
The Dark Days Of Camelot
Watching KING ARTHUR is an endurance test I recommend only to those not bothered by lugubrious pacing , mannered acting and a visual palette consisting almost exclusively of dark greens, blues and grays. Obviously filmed in Ireland amid endless days of fog and rain, director Antoine Fuqua's version of the Arthurian Legend is CAMELOT for the moron trade. The movie begins with the promise of delivering a gritty , historically accurate version of Britain's "Dark Ages" bur quickly descends into a quagmire of endless battle scenes that do little to illuminate the story but will undoubtedly please avid action buffs. Anyone looking for a satisfying film epic about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table might want to check out John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur. That film also has its share of blood and guts but the telling of the tale is swiftly told and brilliantly photographed. Even Joshua Logan's CAMELOT (1967), as over-produced as it is, offers a traditional telling of the Arthurian legend that has its moments, most of them distinguished by Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and a beautiful Lerner and Loewe music score. The new film seems to use Mel Gibson's BRAVEHEART as its inspiration. Gibson's opus had its detractors but at least it held the audience's attention for most of its three hour running time. KING ARTHUR, despite all its scenes of warriors shouting "Freedom!" and vast armies of men shooting arrows and wielding heavy swords, is a sluggish action film devoid of humanity. Clive Owen as Arthur and Keira Knightley as Guenevere have the required acting chops and are convincing in their roles but they are both undermined by a colorless script and pedestrian direction. Hans Zimmer's unrelenting music score, a tiresome , mournful dirge, just adds to the movie's oppressive atmosphere.