Brokeback Mountain

Posted on December 15, 2005 at 3:54 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, character drinks too much, marijuana, chewing tobacco
Violence/ Scariness: Brief graphic violence, character killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B00005JOFQ

Director Ang Lee is a master of repressed love whether between young Taiwanese men in The Wedding Banquet, Jane Austen’s class-conscious Brits in Sense & Sensibility, duty-bound warriors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even monsters and scientists in The Hulk. Lee’s delicate touch and poetic cinematography take Annie Proulx’s 30-page story about cowboys who fall into a crevasse of tragic forbidden love, and expands it into a hauntingly bittersweet two-hour-plus visual feast of lingering melancholy and fragile snapshots of happiness against the lonely backdrop of despair.


As in the short story, the main character, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger in a pitch perfect spot-on performance) scrounges up work one summer by herding sheep for a dismissive rancher (Randy Quaid) up at the spectacular vistas of Brokeback Mountain. He is sent out to this task with another poor cowboy, the aspiring rodeo competitor Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose easy companionship is a salve for orphaned Ennis’ isolation. When they unexpectedly become much more than friends, they build the foundations of a life-long love that will haunt and change them both forever.


The film lingers over that first summer in 1963 and their passionate reunion four years later, then it speeds by 20 years of their respective life signposts including marriages, children, divorce, jobs, in-laws, relationships; ordinary lives punctuated by their semi-annual weeklong “fishing” trips into the mountains.

Ennis is dragged down by duty as he attempts to make ends meet and to keep together the pretense of a marriage and then of a bachelorhood. In near total emotional isolation, he keeps a white-knuckled lock on his feelings, which bubble up in tenderness towards his daughters and threaten to erupt in violence against anyone else.

Jack, meanwhile, is the more needy heart, stumbling into a marriage to a cowboy princess with a wealthy father. It takes him from the adrenaline highs of rodeo-riding to the confining job of a combine salesman. It is he who cannot comprehend Ennis’ inability to see a world where they could be together. Where Ennis gives all he can, Jack wants so much more. The results tear them up inside and the bitterness ripples through both their lives to a final, moving conclusion.


While groundbreaking and beautiful, this movie falters a step when its slow and deliberate pace nevertheless fails to take the audience into an admittedly very private love beyond their time together on the mountain. Jack is a complicated character and, with the exception of the scene where he confronts his father-in-law, his character development later in the film seems uneven and his hold on Ennis less tenable, perhaps because Lee leaves so much to be said in the silences. We see him going to Mexico to cruise for sex, but we do not see him unguarded with his parents, Ennis or even with wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) to give us the understanding that we get from Ennis’ scenes with his wife (Michelle Williams) and their daughters.


The depth of all the characters, it should be said, is one of the movie’s many strengths: there is not a person here who does not easily deserve his or her story to be told, especially Lureen (Anne Hathaway), Alma (Michelle Williams), Mrs. Twist (Roberta Maxwell) and Alma Junior (Kate Mara).


And another strength is the simplicity and strong symbolism of the way the story is told. Up on Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis make the rules. At first they do what the rancher told them, camping out near the sheep in violation of the law. But then they understand that they may not own the place or the sheep, but they are in charge and can decide what is right for them — until they have to come down from the mountain and abide by the rules of society. The story-telling is so plain and straightforward that, like the characters’ feelings for one another, at first you do not realize how powerful it is. But by the conclusion, with its definitive, heart-wrenching portrayal of what will always be divided and what can never be, audiences will realize that the story has entered its souls.
This movie benefits from world-class talent as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Larry McMurtry, keeps the cowboy feel authentic while adapting the screenplay from fellow Pulitzer-winner Proulx’s short story, all under the direction of Oscar winner Lee. With fine performances by all and an Oscar-worthy scope, “Brokeback Mountain” is a solid addition to the canon of tragic loves and it is an immensely moving portrait of joy begetting sadness, pain and fleetingly a small and fragile ray of hope.


Parents should know that the movie deals with mature issues, including bigotry, homosexuality, and adultery. There is nudity, sex between committed couples, adultery, references to prostitution. Characters use frequent profanity, they drink and smoke, in one scene they use drugs. Characters drink to excess, they get violent, and they brawl. There is the frequent threat of brutality and a brief scene of a bloody murder. A character gives an explicit account of torture and murder. There are angry and violent fight scenes between couples.


Families who see this movie should talk about the hope and despair that follow in the wake of a life-changing encounter. When Ennis describes how this one relationship had made him who he was, how might he imagine that he would have been different if he had never gone up on to Brokeback Mountain? In the scene in the trailer with “Junior”, how is Ennis different and what might this foretell about his future? Why is the question Ennis asks her so important? Do you think Ennis and Jack’s story would change today versus when the story is taking place?


Visual cues in this movie are very important and families might talk about these subtle touches, such as the way Ennis’ life shrinks as seen by ever smaller interior spaces, about the smiles -few and far between–and who they are between, and about eye contact, which Ennis in his isolation uses sparingly and Jack in his recklessness uses often.


Families looking for more of Lee’s elegant storytelling and atmospheric beauty will enjoy his early Taiwanese movies, especially Eat Drink Man Woman and the aforementioned Wedding Banquet. For those looking for more big sky, cowboy stories, McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a splendid read and the miniseries is very well done.


A partial list of other films on the theme of socially unacceptable loves and the emotional wreckage that can ensue would include: the moving Boys Don’t Cry, the multi-tissue infidelity study Breaking the Waves, the lifelong affair of Same Time Next Year, or the inter-racial/homosexual loves in Far from Heaven. All of these movies have mature themes and are not for the very young or more sensitive viewers.


Thanks to guest critic AME.

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King Kong

Posted on December 13, 2005 at 12:43 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images.
Profanity: Brief crude language and swearing
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence, many characters injured or killed, reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: Strong female and minority characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B001KZVQJI

This is not just one of the most thrilling action movies ever made – it is more like five or six of the most thrilling action movies ever made. It is not quite twice as long as the usual movie, but it is packed with enough edge-of-your-seat/did-I-just-see-that/goose-bumpy popcorn pleasure for a year’s worth of blockbusters.

We’ve got zombies. We’ve got stampeding dinosaurs. We’ve got very oooky bugs and creatures that look like alimentary canals with lots and lots of teeth. We have hubris, big time. We have tender love stories. We have a lovely damsel in distress — repeatedly — and heroic men who will risk their lives – repeatedly -– to save her.

And we have a really really really big gorilla. It takes almost an hour into the movie before we meet him, but he is worth waiting for.

Peter Jackson showed us with The Lord of the Rings that he knows how to make movies that give us the grandest special-effects-laden spectacle but never let us lose sight of the characters who make it more than pretty pictures. In this remake of the classic that first inspired him to become a director, Jackson has created a masterful mix of story and splendor and hold-your-breath adventure.

The film opens with shots of wild animals, and then realize they are in cages, in a New York zoo. And then we see people, in a sort of cage, too — the Depression has everyone feeling trapped.

Then we meet our characters and soon they are on their way to the uncharted Skull Island to make a movie. There they run into every possible kind of jungle peril, including a gigantic, dinosaur-bashing gorilla who captures — and then is captured by actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). They bring him back to New York and put him on stage in a silly show with bright lights and loud noises and people in evening clothes laughing and applauding. And then he escapes.

Jackson’s staging of the big action scenes is sensational, especially a dinosaur stampede and what I can only describe as a massive and meticulously timed stunt involving a lot of vines. But what is even more impressive is his sensitivity in the small, tender moments, including a breathtakingly exquisite scene on an ice skating rink. Kong himself, a combination of computer effects and the gestures and movements of actor Andy Serkis (who also provided the same services for Golum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies) gives what can only be called a performance, and a beautifully calibrated and expressive one.

The script manages the trick of being true to the source without any ironic winks or post-modern spins but also without taking itself too seriously. A clever little shout-out to Fay Wray, star of the original, sets the tone.

And a great deal of credit has to go to the actors, who more than hold their own in front of all of the special effects. Jack Black (School of Rock) plays movie producer/director Carl Denham, something of a towering monster himself. While Kong appreciates beauty and demonstrates honor, even some humility, Denham cares only about his movie and will lie, cheat, steal, and sacrifice anyone around him to get the movie made. Naomi Watts is Ann Darrow, a hard-luck vaudevillian let down by everyone she ever trusted who wants to be an actress and accepts a part in Denham’s movie, to be filmed on location in a mysterious uncharted place called Skull Island.

Adrian Brody (The Pianist) is playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll, who involuntarily comes along for the ride when Denham insists that the boat take off before Driscoll can leave — and before the police can stop them.

This is an old-fashioned wow of a they-don’t-make-’em-like-that-anymore movie movie with thrills and heart and romance. And a very big gorilla. Who could ask for anything more?

Parents should know that this film has a great deal of very intense peril and violence, including guns and spears. There are zombie characters who are quite creepy and scary animals — both enormous and small, and grisly images. Many characters are injured or killed and there is a reference to suicide. Characters drink and there are some romantic kisses. Characters use some crude language and some swearing.

Families who see this movie should talk about the question one of the characters asks about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Why do people “keep going down the river?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original and read this history of King Kong’s movies, but should skip the campy 1976 version starring Jessica Lange. The World of Kong is a guide to Skull Island produced by the people who designed this movie.

(more…)

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Cheaper by the Dozen 2

Posted on December 12, 2005 at 12:49 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some crude humor and mild language.
Profanity: Brief crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic, cartoon-style peril and violence, including fire, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Brief anti-gay humor
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000EHSVFU

As synthetically generic as a “Happy Holidays” card from your realtor, this by-the-numbers pratfall-fest is, at least, a teensy bit better than the 2004 original. I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, I want to say something about montages.


Montages are the music-video-style interludes in movies. One you see quite often is the falling-in-love montage, with some sweet pop song in the background as our lovebirds ride a bicycle built for two, squirt water pistols at each other and squeal with laughter, walk hand-in-hand through an outdoor market, and smooch in the moonlight. Once in a while they genuinely help to tell the story, but most of the time they are just a lazy way to keep the audience feeling good without doing any actual work by writing, you know, dialogue to show us why these two people really like each other.


Then there are the trying on clothes montages (Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) and the getting yourself or your team or your house in shape montages (Rocky running up the steps) and the passage of time montages. Again, it’s usually just laziness.


When I tell you that this movie features not one but three montages, you get the idea. On the other hand, it’s kind of a relief to be spared the sitcom-style dialogue.


Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt return as Tom and Kate Baker, parents of 12 children. As their children are growing up, with the two oldest girls moving out of town, they plan one last family vacation at a house on a lake they used to go to when the children were younger. At the lake, they run unto Tom’s old nemesis, the ultra-competitive Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), with his beautiful trophy wife Serina (Carmen Electra) and eight high-achieving children.


Tom feels diminished by Jimmy, though their children get along very well, especially two budding romances between the 8th graders and the college-age children. Various fracases and pratfalls later (not once, but twice a guy in a wheelchair who has no other connection to the story falls into the water), the two families square off in a pentathelon of camp contests, a battle of egg-toss, three-legged race, volleyball. Everyone learns again the importance of family. Martin even gets a chance to shed a tear about how wonderful it all is to love your family so very, very much.


I’m still angry that these films appropriate the title of two of the best books for children ever written and then give us something that has no relationship whatsoever to the books or the astonishing, hilarious, and touching real-life story they portrayed about “motion study” pioneers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their twelve children.

Put that to one side, and it’s just a super-sized “Brady Bunch” episode with a lot of dumb-daddy pratfalls and some crude humor (including two completely inappropriate anti-gay jokes). Hillary Duff, now that she’s lost the babyfat that gave her face some sweetness, just looks horsey in a thankless part.

What it does have going for it is a trophy wife (Electra) who is not a stereotype. She is generous and tells her husband when he is behaving badly. Martin and Hunt have an easy chemistry, and one of the kids, Alyson Stoner, is a stand-out who makes a real impression, a genuine achievement amid all the crowd and noise. But the movie’s fundamental superficiality is clear in the absence of any notion of what family really is. There’s some sloppy sentimentality, but not a single moment of genuine parenting — no instruction, guidance (even when a child shoplifts, which is treated as evidence of insecurity not as theft), support, generosity, or even listening. The movie’s idea of what it means to be a parent is not much more than affectionate proximity. What’s cheap here is the sentiment.


Parents should know that the movie has some crude language and jokes, including potty humor, a hit in the crotch, and homophobic references. One girl calls her young sister “butch” because she doesn’t like make-up and it is supposed to be funny that when a man puts his arm around another man’s shoulders, people think they are gay. Character drink (including drinking to make themselves feel better). Misbehavior is endorsed (even encouraged) or overlooked, including shoplifting and destructive pranks.

Families who see this movie should talk about what the best — and worst — parts of having such a large family would be. Why did Tom care so much about what Jimmy thought of him? Why did Jimmy want Tom to care so much? Families should also talk about how they feel as the children grow up and what families do to stay close to each other.


Families who enjoy this movie should read the book and its sequel, and see the original movies.

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Last Holiday

Posted on December 11, 2005 at 12:57 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual reference.
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, theme of fatal illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000ERVJJK

Every night, Georgia Bird (Queen Latifah) cooks a spectacular meal, arranges everything perfectly, takes a picture of it for her “possibilities” scrapbook and then feeds it to the boy who lives next door while she microwaves a frozen diet dinner for herself. She works at a store where she meekly goes along with whatever her nasty boss tells her and she can barely speak when dreamboat Sean (LL Cool J) walks by.


Then she finds out that she has a serious condition and only three weeks to live. So she takes all of her money out of the bank and decides to blow it all on a trip to a fabulous resort. The woman who has been so careful for so long has no reason to be careful anymore. The woman who has been saving everything for someday decides that the time has come to spend.


Queen Latifah has a warm and lovely screen presence and it is a pleasure to see her light up as Georgia comes alive. We are immediately on her side as the caterpillar and we can’t help thrilling as she begins to kick up her heels and spread her wings as a butterfly. Yes, there will be a trying-on-fancy-clothes-montage when Georgia decides to replace her drab wardrobe. Yes, Georgia will run into her hero, the resort’s French chef (Gerard Depardieu) and the mega-millionaire who owns the store she works in, visiting the resort to hobnob with bigwigs. And yes, everyone will assume she’s a bigwig, too (why else would she be throwing so much money around) and yes, everyone will be charmed by her freshness and honesty. And yes, Georgia will wonder why it took dying to teach her how to live.


And yes, we enjoy seeing it all unfold. The script is pure formula, but Queen Latifah is having such a ball that we are happy to be invited along. At times it feels like an extended trailer for itself with silly set-pieces (Georgia base-jumps! Georgia cooks with the chef!), but we are on her side all the way and when the happily-ever-ending arrives, we’re as happy as she is.

Parents should know that the movie has an extremely crude joke about oral sex for a PG-13 movie. There is some comic peril, some strong language, and some social drinking. The theme of a fatal disease may be disturbing to some audience members.


Families who see this movie should talk about what they might put in their own “possiblities” books — and what they can do to make those possibilities into realities. Why did it take a diagnosis of a serious disease to make Georgia brave enough to try out her dreams?


Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Queen Latifah’s fine performances in Chicago and Living out Loud (both with mature material). They might enjoy the original version of this movie, starring Alec Guiness (the original Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

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Munich

Posted on December 9, 2005 at 3:21 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.
Profanity: Mild language for an R-rated film
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and graphic peril and violence, many characters killed, child in peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000F1IQN2

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier said, “I can forgive them for killing my children. I cannot forgive them for forcing my children to kill theirs.”


At the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, there was very little security because the Germans were hoping to counter memories of the Nazi-run 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In what later became known as the Black September attack, terrorists broke into the athletes’ living quarters and took members of the Israeli team hostage. They killed two of the team members and released a list of demands. They wanted the release of 234 Arab and German prisoners held in Israel and West Germany. And they demanded that three planes be fueled and made ready for takeoff. At the airport, a failed effort to rescue the hostages led to disaster. All of the hostages and five of the eight terrorists were dead. The three terrorists who were captured were released a few months later in an airplane hijacking that was later acknowledged to be engineered by the German authorities.


This movie is the story of what happened next.


And it is the story of what we face today. Thousands of years of history have given us no roadmap for responding to terrorism. All of the options are unthinkable.

Meier (Lynn Cohen), criticized for refusing to negotiate with the terrorists, authorizes an attack by air on guerrilla targets in Lebanon and Syria. And she directs that the organizers and perpetrators of the Black Sunday attack be hunted down and killed. Not captured, not tried in court. Killed.


The leader of this off-the-books venture is Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), an officer in Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) with a wife who is seven months pregnant. Israel will have no official knowledge of their activities, but will support them with cash and resources.


Like a real-life Mission Impossible, Avner has a team of experts. One knows bombs. One knows how to forge documents. One “worries” — he’s the guy who makes sure they don’t leave any clues behind.

They have thousands of American dollars to give to those who can help them find their targets. And very quickly, they find their first target. He is not in hiding. In fact, he is due to appear at a promotional event for his new book, a translation of the Arabian Nights into Italian.


They follow him as he stops to pick up groceries and has a pleasant exchange with the shopkeeper. They confront him in the stairwell of his apartment building. They shoot him, and his blood mingles with the spilled milk from the shattered bottle.


Avner makes contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric) a man who explains that he is “ideologically promiscuous” and will do anything except do business with any government. Avner assures him he is working for “rich Americans” and Louis begins to give him names and provide support for the operation. But how do you trust someone who is (apparently) honest about his untrustworthiness, especially when you’re lying to him? Louis (possibly a reference to the initially amoral Louis in Casablanca) makes no promises that he will protect Avner if another client is looking for him. But Louis has what Avner will not find from an upstanding citizen — the names and locations of the people Avner is looking for and the means to help Avner and his team kill them.


It would have been natural, even easy, for the Steven Spielberg of 20 years ago to make this into a sort of “Indiana Jones and the Terrorist Assassins” story, with Avner as something between a cowboy and a comic book hero specializing in do-it-yourself justice. Revenge is a narrative propulsion engine that always works well in movies and Spielberg is a master of pacing and storytelling. All of that is brilliantly applied here. But he does not let us get caught up in the good guys vs. the bad guys shoot-em-up. The first hit is not just excruciatingly tense; it is excruciatingly difficult. We want them to shoot, but we also don’t want them to.


Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) do not just show us all sides; they show Avner and his team all sides, and let the characters and the audience agonize over what they and we have become. In one scene, Louis has unintentionally (or intentionally) double-booked two teams of assassins into a room in an ironically-termed “safe house.” After an all-guns-drawn stand-off, Avner persuades the other group they are not there to hurt them, and everyone lies down to try to get some sleep. There’s a bit of a struggle over the radio until they find a station everyone can agree on — American R&B. Meanwhile, Avner and the leader of the other group talk about the future of Israel and Palestine. The next time they meet, talking is not on the agenda.


Spielberg is a master of point of view, making us care about and root for the movie’s “hero.” We happily root for the good guys when it’s three guys against a shark or some scientists and kids against the dinosaurs or Indiana Jones (or Schindler or the soldiers looking for Private Ryan) against the Nazis. Here, he uses that skill to tell Avner’s story, making it clear that he is the hero, and yet keep us off-balance as he and Kushner add layers of heart-wrenching detail and complexity.

Like most Spielberg movies, the theme of this story is home, and what makes it heartbreaking is the way each of the characters is just trying to do the best he can to protect his home and his family. What makes it even more heartbreaking is the way that all of them, in their own way, end up as exiles. Avner can no longer live in the land for which he sacrificed so much, including his time with his family and his peace of mind. Others lose the home they thought they had as a part of a culture committed to righteousness, not revenge.


Like Avner, we get numb to the killing. The first one is heart-breaking; after the fourth (or is it the fifth?), you’re just thinking about the logistics.

How do you kill a monster without becoming one yourself? How do you look in the eyes of a monster without seeing his humanity? The first of Avner’s targets explains that the Arabian Nights stories are enduring because of the power of narrative. Each of the characters in the story (as well as Spielberg, Kushner, and the real-life Avner who cooperated with a book about what happened) have a story to tell. The movie ends, but the story goes on.

Parents should know that this is an extremely violent movie with constant peril and many injuries and deaths and a child in peril. This is not a mindless Hollywood shoot-em-up; it is a real-life story and Spielberg and Kushner make you feel how agonizing each encounter really is. There are also explicit sexual situations (some nudity). The language is less strong than in most R-rated films; someone gives the finger.


Families who see this movie should talk about what the options are for preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. How does each of the people in this movie define the “home” he or she is protecting? How do each of them decide what the limits are — what they will and will not do? How do you decide what your own defition of home and limits are? Black September and the Israeli response (which they called “Wrath of God”) were both in large part intended to affect the public perception of the righteousness of the causes of their organizers. How effective were they? How do you decide who is in your “us” and who is in your “them?” What does Meier’s quotation mean?

Families who appreciate this movie should see the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September about the capture and killing of the Israeli Olympic athletes, which makes clear the devastation of the loss of the Israeli team members and explores the ineptitude of the German officals and the callousness of the Olympic community. More information about the Black September attack and its aftermath can be found here, here, and here. A Woman Called Golda has Ingrid Bergman as Golda Meier, the Milwaukee schoolteacher who became the second Prime Minister of Israel.

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