Tag Archives: recommended

Brokeback Mountain (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee

Ennis: “I figure we got a one-shot deal going here.”
Jack: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.”
Ennis: “You know I ain’t queer.”
Jack: “Neither am I.”

I want to say these are two simple, uncomplicated men, with simple lives and simple desires, but it just isn’t true. To say that would confound us all as being simple. We reach for simplicity, for plain happiness and peace of mind, but the reality is never quite like that, and the case of Ennis and Jack is no different. Love isn’t ever straightforward, and it can become so complex that it rips you apart. You will have heard Brokeback Mountain described as ‘that gay cowboy movie’, but to be honest, sex/gender is irrelevant to a large extent. It’s about two people who long for and love each other, and how no matter how strongly their love is tested, it will not die.

This is a film remarkably free of pretension or obviousness. The direction is careful and restrained, as one expects from Ang Lee; working in tandem with one of my favourite cinematographers, Rodrigo Prieto, he crafts stunning compositions that are truly beautiful to behold. From a wide shot of sheep being herded through a valley, to a tight closeup of an actor’s pained performance, to one of the best final shots I’ve seen in a film, he uses the full frame superbly to extract the most out of every scene. Everything is placed perfectly: the actors, a campfire, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of beer. It all adds up to some of the most impressive images in recent memory, particularly as most of the subjects are everyday things that one wouldn’t normally give any thought to.

In the steady hands of an assured director, all the actors shine. Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are good as the wives of Ennis and Jack, and Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris offer good support in brief roles. However, the movie is about the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and they absolutely nail their roles. Ledger is garnering most of the praise in the press for his subdued, grunting performance, and I can understand that as it is some distance away from his real-life persona. For me, though, Gyllenhaal’s turn is marginally more impressive. He shows sensitivity, fragility, strength, and a deep sadness and regret; I’d be quite happy to see him take him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. They both are really very good, though. Their scenes together, right from the film’s opening, are compellingly well-acted and affecting.

I wonder how people are reacting to this film. I’ve read about religious zealots condemning the film (and in a couple of cases refusing to screen it), but I’m not interested in them. I want to know what the average male cinemagoer feels when a movie gets him to care strongly about – and love – two male characters. Has it provoked angry reactions, or maybe rethinks of personal philosophies? Personally, a heterosexual, I welcomed the opportunity to empathise with gay men in a film, as it challenges me and forces me to consider things I would otherwise avoid. Anyway, as stated earlier, gender was pretty much stripped away by the sensitivity of the portrayal. That’s the way it should be. It’s love, just as we know it – intoxicating, difficult, impossible to predict or prevent. There are significant elements in the plot concerning homophobia and the concealing of the relationship, but they are an aside, rather than the crux of the story. The focus is on the struggle of two people, and the effect their struggle has on the people close to them.

Overall, it loses a couple of points for covering a long period of time in too short a time-frame and for being a little episodic. Brokeback Mountain isn’t a great film, but it is a very good one – a serious, thoughtful, mostly subtle exploration of the Greatest of All Things. It deals with homosexuality in a very mature manner: while it plays an integral role in the characters’ lives, it isn’t what defines them. Their love for each other is what defines them, and ultimately, what destroys them.

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Farewell My Concubine (1993) (R)

Original title: ‘Ba wang bie ji’
IMDb / Ebert
Written by Lillian Lee, Bik-Wa Lei & Wei Lu
Based on the novel by Lillian Lee
Directed by Kaige Chen

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that relates to opera and China, the other being the disappointing M. Butterfly. Thankfully, Ba wang bie ji is not a confused adaptation of a confused stage play; rather, it is a quality adaptation of a popular novel. Unfocused and abrupt in some sections, but expertly orchestrated in others, it tells an involving and epic story with often stunning visuals and confident direction.

While I was watching, I was struck by how much more substance was present than in Yimou Zhang’s recent epics, Ying xiong and Shi mian mai fu. Those films are stunningly beautiful and extremely entertaining, but they just don’t have the depth of Ba wang bie ji. Very basically, it’s a love story – two characters and their loves for the opera stage, a woman, and most of all each other – but their detailed exploration makes it more than that. These are complex characters, full of hope, sadness, regret, and great love that spills all over the screen; I remember someone referring to those Zhang films as ‘China discovering Shakespeare’, but to me this is more Shakespearean because it deals in important themes while telling a good story.

Because Mandarin is so different from English, I usually find Chinese acting stilted and awkward and lacking in emotion. Not so here. The three leads (Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang and Gong Li) are compelling and offer affecting portrayals of tragic characters; the child acting in the earlier Full Metal Jacket-esque scenes is also very good. In particular, Cheung is superb as the confused Dieyi; he has too much love to give, and it is heartbreaking to watch as it slowly destroys him. It is particularly sad to watch now, as he committed suicide three years ago.

I’m particularly unfocused with this review; perhaps that’s because the last half hour covered too much ground too quickly. A film of nearly three hours should feel complete and satisfying, and such feelings are nearly impossible when it crams a lot of plot development into the final reel. By that stage the themes are well established and we are just waiting for them to be rounded out, but the introduction of these plot elements is distracting. It’s not enough to derail the film, but I would like to think they could’ve spent a bit less time further back in time in order to give the later periods better coverage.

Overall it’s worth seeing, at the very least for a few scenes which were so good they sent shivers down my spine. It’s the best film I’ve seen from the Republic, and probably better than any Hong Kong film I’ve seen, too. Kaige Chen shows that he is an extremely capable director (I couldn’t believe this was the same guy who made Killing Me Softly), and the actors offer impressive characterisations. I guess my lack of focus with this review shows that I wasn’t completely struck by greatness, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have watched it in two goes. Another viewing, a complete viewing, would probably make my opinion more solid. It doesn’t matter; it’s good cinema.

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Munich (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
Based on ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas
Directed by Steven Spielberg

I hate it when movies are lumped with political agendas. Nothing distracts more from a good story than obvious political content, and it is equally frustrating when that content is forced upon the film by statements in media. Munich suffers from the latter, but tellingly, not the former. (Here and here are two very insightful pieces of comment by Spielberg himself, defending his film.) Words have been spoken at length in the press about its supposed defamation of Palestinians, or of Jews, etc etc etc. I was aware of all this going in, and to my delight, these statements were proved to be totally reactionary. This film sides with no group or individual; it sides with humanity, our collective desire, and shows how misguided we can become in our pursuit of the fulfilment of that desire. It’s a film made by people who care about people, not a piece of propaganda designed to convert minds to a different way of thinking.

Munich is based on true events – the series of hits carried out in the wake of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. However, its focus is not so much political, but more on the implications of these incidents on one man. And, in keeping with my own philosophy for filmmaking, this refined focus offers a more inclusive and substantial view of the human condition than a wider scope could have. We watch as Avner (Eric Bana) leads his team through several hits, his life becoming more and more complicated; we don’t condone his actions, and neither does the film, but we sympathise with him because he has real concerns that we can relate to. Family, morality, legacy. The big issues, the ones that really matter.

The screenplay drives the film forward nicely, becoming more focused as it progresses (which I like); it also has room for brief moments that do nothing to advance the plot, but flesh out the characters infinitely better. The acting is decent; Bana is not a great actor, but he is a good one, and he carries the film well – we want to know what happens to his character, and we understand what’s going on through his eyes. It’s every inch Spielberg’s film, though. Many shots are masterfully composed, shifting our focus from one character to another with considerable skill and a great deal of style. It moves at a swift and even pace, making the long running time fly past. And, as I have stated many times already, it is very well focused for a film tackling such grand issues. My hat is off to the guy; he’s hardened a lot since E. T., that’s for sure. Of particular note are the assassinations: they are brilliantly executed, exhilirating set pieces that linger long in the memory.

A few overly dramatic choices bring it down a bit. The sex scenes that bookend the film are gratuitous, especially in that they are integral to the overall message; there had to have been a more toned down way to get the point across. Some of the accents were not very convincing, especially Daniel Craig’s – a minor quibble, but it is distracting. And occasionally, the violence is a little bit too brutal. It’s horrifying and realistic, but too much of it can be numbing, and Munich comes close to reaching that stage.

Some of us may have a collective goal, but are we justified in doing everything in our power – including killing other people – to obtain that goal? And how does it compare to watching our children grow up, or looking into the eyes of a friend and knowing that there is mutual trust and respect? Munich raises many questions, none of which have simple answers. Like The Constant Gardener, it promotes an awareness of what atrocities are being committed in the world, and it promotes a better attitude towards each other and ourselves. Everything isn’t just going to be all right if we carry on like this, so let’s all do something about it. Classic Spielberg themes, in a way, but rarely have they been better handled.

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King Kong (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Lieberman
Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
Based on the 1933 story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Directed by Peter Jackson

Just like his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the entertainment of Peter Jackson’s King Kong lasts only for its duration: it does not stick in the mind, leave you pondering, or remain at all as anything more than a few traces. However, while you are in the cinema, it fully occupies your senses and your imagination for three remarkably swift hours. This is a big, big movie, currently the sixth most expensive of all time, but it is money well spent. Compare it with the year’s next most expensive, Revenge of the Sith, and there is no comparison – where Lucas made an uninvolving, not even cool movie, Jackson has produced the purest cinema entertainment for our delectation. And I loved it.

Of the 187 minutes, virtually every single second is completely ridiculous hokum – schmaltzy and totally outside the realms of reality. Practically all of the dialogue is straight out of a 30s or 40s matinee – that is, it exists only to drive the story on, and would never be heard in real life. The characters are quickly drawn and remain consistent throughout, without great development arcs or anything, but that’s fine. What matters most is that Jackson presides over each frame with dutiful care, investing it with all the love he has built up for the original, the big budget film in general, and the personal joy he takes in making these enormous cinema entertainments. He just wants you to enjoy yourself – there are no further pretensions, and that is truly wonderful to find in today’s mainstream cinema.

The star of the show doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the film, but it is worth the wait, and from then on every scene involving Kong is one to savour. He is an animal, not anthropomorphised to any great extent, which is remarkable in itself in these times of Pixar’s and DreamWorks’ litany of wisecracking flora and fauna. Because he remains a beast, he cuts deeper into my heart than if he had been given more complex facial expressions and verbalisations. He grunts, he beats his chest, he roars, and he is sometimes fascinated and/or delighted. A creature. There were several moments, mostly when he interacts with Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow, when I thought he would slip into human mode, but each passed with a sigh of relief on my part as he resisted. Not once does he grin or grunt knowingly. That would be tantamount to winking at the screen, or spouting a witty one-liner, as it would have the same diminishing effect on the power of the story.

It’s a simple story, too, but a good one – a story that appeals to our deepest sense of adventure, the sort of stuff you want to do when you’re a kid. And when Kong finally stands atop that skyscraper, with Darrow at his side and biplanes flying around him like mosquitoes, it’s exhilarating and a little bit affecting. Jackson’s qualities as a director don’t generally lie in shot composition, but the fall of Kong is visually very well executed. A girl behind me bawled her eyes out, and if you get someone in the audience to cry, surely you’ve done something effective with your filmmaking craft.

So, the dialogue is ridiculous, principal characters come through extraordinary danger hysterically unscathed, and many scenes in the first hour and a half could have been pared down or cut altogether. But come on! A fucking giant gorilla FIGHTS A Tyrannosaurus, ripping its jaw apart with alarming brutality, and it is rendered well enough to be believable! You slap down your cash, you go into the cinema and sit down, and you are entertained for the duration. That’s what Jackson promises, and that’s exactly what you get.

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Being There (1979) (R)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel
Directed by Hal Ashby

I think I’ll just let Ebert and Cale do the talking for this one – I needn’t add much to their very good reviews. I will say two things:

1) This was my second Ashby film after The Last Detail. I like this guy. He doesn’t overdo anything, ever. In fact, he deliberately avoids manipulative devices – rarely does music accompany the visuals (when it does, he usually chooses something surprising), there is no gross editing trickery. He just shoots the script, alternating between long, mid and close-up to great effect. You know the phrase ‘They don’t make ’em like that anymore’? Well, his films may be where it applies best. Allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions has almost become taboo in Hollywood today, but in the 70s (even as late as ’79) a studio like Warner Bros. would produce a film like Being There because the material was good. If only it were still that daring and simple.

2) I loved the ending. Loved, loved, loved it. It encapsulated the whole film into a single 30-second shot without trivialising all that had gone before; it makes for a fitting end to a very good film, but leaves you pondering for some time afterwards. Beautiful and possessing great depth, like the film as a whole.

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The Constant Gardener (2005) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Jeffrey Caine
Based on the novel The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

After only two feature films, Fernando Meirelles has developed a filmmaking style that is recognisably his own. Every frame of The Constant Gardener, like his brilliant debut Cidade de Deus, is clearly stamped with his seal – this is something that few filmmakers can attest to so early in their career (others that spring to mind are Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky and Pawel Pawlikowski). His style is characterised by an (nearly) always moving camera (often handheld), washed out tones, and a lot of quick cuts. Personally, it’s not the kind of style I would use to make films – I prefer things to be slower, more meditative – but it is undeniably effective, especially given the subject matter he has tackled.

Justin Quayle, a diplomat, meets and marries activist Tessa. Both of them have a lot of work in Africa, particularly Kenya, and Justin starts to suspect Tessa is keeping secrets from him. She is then murdered, leaving Justin with a lot to find out, particularly concerning international pharmaceutical corporations. Don’t worry, it gives nothing away to mention Tessa’s murder, because that is what opens the film; it is the event that forces Justin to stop treading carefully, and start demanding answers to very big questions.

For the first 45 minutes or so, The Constant Gardener is deliberately beguiling – it moves so quickly that it takes an effort on the viewer’s part to keep up with what is happening. We see Tessa in various situations – urging Kenyans to take AIDS tests, confronting people from big pharmaceuticals, and questioning her marriage. We don’t know exactly what it all means because the puzzle pieces don’t fit yet, but eventually the answers will come – we feel like Justin, because we care about this woman and want to know what happened to her, but we have only snatches of information from which to seek answers. It’s so rare for a filmmaker to simply provide the viewer with little details and leave the dots unconnected at first, before eventually rewarding our interest by steadily revealing more information. Cidade de Deus was similar, if more clear (probably because it used voice-over); I love that he respects the audience and gets us thinking before offering more. Too many films spoonfeed information leaving us with no work to do; this, however, is serious, intelligent, adult filmmaking to be savoured.

In the role of Justin, Ralph Fiennes (my distant cousin, hooray) is good, effective. unspectacular. He does awkward well at first, but develops a hardness as the character becomes more and more disillusioned with his surroundings. Rachel Weisz as Tessa, however, is even better – a very complex character with positive and negative qualities, a character we love in spite of our reservations. Given not a lot of screen time overall, she brings this character expertly to life – it’s one of those pieces of acting that make you forget the actor. Weisz is a beautiful, talented woman; I believed this before The Constant Gardener, and am completely sure of it now.

It does lose its way a little towards the end, however, as the influx of details is a little hard to cope with and may be unsatisfying for some; still, that is what repeat viewings are for. And what was the deal with Pete Postelthwaite’s accent? Still, this is overall a very effective film. Just as Justin is forced to question the world around him, so are we; how can we accept the atrocities being carried out by corporations and government officials all over the world? We must confront not only the sorry state of our world, but also our own morals and ethics. Place yourself in Justin’s situation. Would you be willing to put yourself in danger in the search for answers, or would you protect yourself and not rock the boat? Stay in your seat for the final credits: there is a postscript from John le Carré that gives the story a little more power.

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Manhattan (1979) (R)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Directed by Woody Allen

“You’re so beautiful, I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter…” So says Allen’s Isaac Davis in Manhattan, as a cab takes him and his date through the New York streets. It’s typical of a film which accentuates all human neuroses and cynical attitudes and places them front and centre – not to be celebrated, but to be acknowledged, something of a warts-and-all approach that doesn’t romanticise but leaves room for real romance. It’s deeply autobiographical, clearly, but I think it’s relevant to many of us.

Isaac is the central focus of the film. He’s nerdy, articulate, funny, neurotic – all these adjectives that have been applied to Allen over the years. He has no trouble finding women, but his relentless critical evaluations of relationships seem to derail them before they have a chance to be anything more than just sex and temporary companionship. Indeed, Isaac talks for almost the entire movie – he says so much so fast that it’s kind of hard to keep up with at first, but you get used to it as it goes on. In fact, I could say the same thing of the whole movie: I found it somewhat annoying at first, with its self-righteous, overly cerebral and incredibly narcissistic characters. That’s just who these people are, though. It isn’t as stagy as it first seems – there are people just like these in the real world, we know them, in a lot of ways we are them.

So it’s a film about relationships, but without any of the sappy nonsense we usually see in films. There are no sentimental moments, no turning points, and there is no real happy ending. People are right for each other in some ways, but totally incompatible in others. And of course, a relationship between two people encompasses more than just the people in it – others affect it directly or indirectly, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. No matter how open you are, there’s always more beneath the surface. To be honest, I could’ve just quoted dialogue to convey all this information. There’s so much of it, and so much of it is good. Funny, clever, and true, and delivered quickly but effectively by all members of the cast, particularly Allen and Diane Keaton (who had worked together before). Very occasionally the talking stops, and the ensuing silences are wonderfully used – characters have reached a point where words won’t do anymore, they just kind of look at each other, and it’s beautiful.

It’s not just a good screenplay, though. Allen’s decision to film in black and white was audacious, but tremendously effective; some sequences are almost completely without light, such that it is hard to make out what is happening on screen and you have to use the character’s voices to guide you, drawing attention to the excellent dialogue. The other brave choice he made was to shoot mostly from mid- or long-range, very rarely in close-up; rather than removing the audience from the action, it somehow makes it more real, more involving. Close-ups can make for great cinema, but that isn’t really what this script calls for – while not quite gritty realism, it’s a world that strongly reflects our own, and our lives are frequently composed of talking across a room or a table. So that’s what happens here. I really liked that.

As always, though, I have reservations. Some scenes end abruptly, some fall completely flat; most importantly, the final scene is a disappointment. It contains probably the weakest dialogue in the whole movie, and departs in tone from the rest of the film, when we should continue to be swept along in the entertainment. It doesn’t provide a conclusion, but that’s okay (and is often a good thing); what is not okay is that it doesn’t really leave any questions, either. All that had gone before was so engaging and thought-provoking, to end on that note feels very much like an anti-climax. It isn’t enough to sabotage the whole film, but it is bit of a let down.

This was my first Allen film. I’ll certainly be seeing more, particularly with the rave reviews of his latest, Match Point. Based on interviews I’ve read, he seems content to feel mediocre – he’s under no illusions that he’s become very much wiser over the years, and I guess that attitude shows in his films. In no way does he come across as superior; he’s just another guy making do with whatever happens. Manhattan, however, is an excellent reflection of the mediocrity of life. The Gershwin soundtrack is fantastic, too.

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