up, pardner: (l-r) Gyllenaal and Ledger in Brokeback
by Ang Lee
Even before its release, Broke-back Mountain was getting
attention for its subject matter: two cowboys in love, an
idea that strikes at the very heart of American masculinity.
Then there were the tittering reports of the love scene between
stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, two of the most rugged
and promising hunks in Hollywood. Since its release, the film
has moved audiences, critics, and awards committees, and deservedly
so. Adapted by Larry McMurtry (with Diane Ossana) from the
E. Annie Proulx short story, and directed by Ang Lee with
a sensitivity that establishes him as the great romantic director
of his generation, Brokeback Mountain is an overwhelmingly
evocative and heartbreaking experience.
The cowboys are Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal).
They meet in Wyoming in 1963, when they are hired to herd
sheep together on isolated Brokeback Mountain. Ennis, who
has plans to marry after the season ends, is quiet and grim.
Jack is more spontaneous and draws Ennis out of himself. One
bitterly cold night, they share a tent, and their simmering
attraction erupts with almost violent urgency. The next day,
Ennis angrily tells Jack, “I ain’t queer.” To which Jack replies
nonchalantly, “Me neither.”
At the end of their summer idyll, they go their separate ways,
and Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams). Four years later,
he receives a postcard from Jack, who comes for a visit that’s
spent mostly in a motel. They get together for “fishing trips”
year after year, and their love affair is undiminished by
marriages, fatherhood, or changes in their status: Ennis struggles
while Jack becomes prosperous.
The sexuality of the two men is less important than their
feelings for each other—it’s likely that at least one of them
wouldn’t be gay if he hadn’t fallen in love with another man—but
that doesn’t mitigate the danger of their situation, and the
film is searing in its casual portrayal of homophobia. At
one point, Ennis describes how two tough old ranchers who
lived together in his hometown were murdered and mutilated.
But if Ennis and Jack weren’t cowboys (Jack never gives up
his dream of making a go of his father’s ranch), they wouldn’t
be who they are, and it’s the freedom of being their real,
rough-hewn, and undomesticated selves that sustains the relationship.
Lee’s restraint is pitch-perfect; he illuminates the story
with nuance (the sense of time, place, and way of life is
haunting) and then lets it unfold with utter naturalism. The
spare dialogue is as striking as the windswept terrain: When
Jack tries to express his frustration at seeing Ennis so infrequently,
Ennis tells him, “If you can’t fix it, then you got to stand
Unsatisfied longing quietly takes its toll on both men in
different ways, and on those around them, especially their
wives. Lee is delicately astute and sympathetic with the portrayals
of Alma and Jack’s wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and it’s
noticeable that Ennis has difficulties with being married
that have little to do with his affair. While the acting from
all the principals is deeply moving, it’s Ledger who carries
the film. With mere hints of expression—pursed lips, a pained
gaze—he communicates a vista of repressed emotion. Williams
as the determined Alma is nearly his equal in depth, and Hathaway
is spot-on in her brief appearances as Lureen, who gradually
hardens into a façade of oblivious propriety.
Mountain is that rare kind of film that transcends its
OK, You’re Not
by Thomas Bezucha
The fact that The Family Stone is still hanging around
the multiplex is a testament, maybe, to two factors. One,
a well-crafted comedy-drama that isn’t completely insulting
can, on occasion, find an audience. Two, people love to watch
other people have a miserable Christmas.
Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney)—geez, what a WASP name—brings
fiancée Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for Christmas
to meet his comfortably upper-middle-class family. This includes
testy mom Sybil (Diane Keaton) and courtly dad Kelly (Craig
T. Nelson); delightfully bitchy sister Amy (Rachel McAdams);
deaf brother Thad (Ty Giordano) and his partner, Patrick (Brian
White); pregnant earth-mom sis Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser);
and, finally, laid-back brother Ben (Luke Wilson).
The conflict is immediately apparent, as the close-knit clan
is obviously less than enamored with the brittle Meredith.
Hell, the audience doesn’t like her: When first seen, she’s
forcing her assistant to work late on Christmas Eve. (What
a Grinch.) Of course, Meredith and the family—and the audience—must
be reconciled. But how?
The answer to this is what’s really fun about The Family
Stone. Aside from coming up with acidic one-liners and
a general tone of WASP nastiness, writer-director Thomas Bezucha
reverses the dynamic of the standard “home for the holidays”
flick. Usually, a dysfunctional family suffers through tears
and recriminations, and finds redemption through the arrival
of an outsider—like Cary Grant as the angel in The Bishop’s
Wife or Dennis Leary’s thief in The Ref. Not here.
While the Stones can be unpleasant, they’re not dysfunctional.
It’s Meredith who is totally fucked-up. She has to change—they
just have to be a little nicer.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t the requisite portions of melodrama,
including a family member’s illness that’s telegraphed early
on. It’s just that the reversed narrative expectations give
Bezucha room to take the characters in unexpected directions.
And everyone in the ensemble is engaging and makes their mark,
with Parker, Keaton and McAdams first among equals. Special
props, also, to Wilson, the 21st-century George Brent, for
bringing a certain slacker dignity to his usual boyfriend-of-the-leading-lady
role. If there’s any fault, it’s that the character of Meredith’s
sister (Claire Danes) is, one, an insufficiently disguised
deus ex machina, and, two, not on screen enough.
That said, as seasonal confections go, The Family Stone
is a rich, tasty serving of schadenfreude.
by Lasse Hallström
Given the fact that Heath Ledger’s gorgeously low voice, which
combines a sort of he-man authority with a purring sensuality,
is so, well, sexy, it’s hard to imagine that such an instrument
is not put to good use in Lasse Hallström’s Casanova.
Then again, it’s not just the actor’s voice, but, strangely,
his virility, that’s put to waste in this curiously unsexy
romp about how the famous rake is reformed through the love
of a good feminist woman, Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller).
Copping countless Shakespearian tales—not to mention screwball-comedy
plots—of mistaken identity, Casanova is about how such
mistakes wreak havoc with, or make magic out of, true love.
The action begins as our hero attempts to escape the justice
of a wrathful Catholic Church, personified by the nasty Inquisitor
Pucci (Jeremy Irons). Since Casanova can’t just leave Venice,
he becomes engaged to the virginal Victoria (Natalie Dormer).
Victoria is in turn loved by her neighbor, the doltish Giovanni
(Charlie Cox), whose sister Francesca fancies dressing up
as a man and writing, under a nom de plume, heretical treatises
on the rights of women. Meanwhile, Francesca’s never-before-seen
affianced, Paprizzio (Oliver Platt in excessively horrible
prostheses), the lard king of Genoa, is set to arrive to take
her as his wife, a lucrative arrangement much looked forward
to by the debt-ridden Senora Bruni (Lena Olin). Once Casanova
has cast his lot with Victoria, he discovers the challenge
of Francesca, and so begins a series of complicated presumed
identities, culminating in a lavish carnival in which the
lothario’s various machinations threaten to expose him to
the Inquisitor—not to mention his lady loves.
Put simply, what should be funny is decidedly not, and what
should be effervescent and sexy is flat. A crucial failing
is the utter lack of chemistry between Ledger and Miller,
but even beyond that, the movie is burdened with an incomprehensible
leadenness. An early scene in which Casanova has to escape
a nunnery from a clutch of the Inquisitor’s enforcers should
be comical and light, but instead it is joyless and clumsy.
With the exceptions of Irons and Omid Djalili, as Casanova’s
trusted manservant, the performances are lifeless, as if having
to wear tightly laced corsets or heavy waistcoats has left
the cast with no energy or verve. Hallström has done this
sort of thing before—taken a thoroughly competent cast and
set them adrift in a well-meaning but thoroughly mediocre
undertaking (Chocolat, anyone?). With Casanova,
he gets the period pieces right, but all else bombs with resounding
by Barry W. Blaustein
Perhaps it’s because the movie’s a Farrelly Brothers production;
perhaps it’s because there’s been some controversy about the
originality of the idea (screenwriter Ricky Blitt and the
creators of South Park have exchanged some public words
about the similarity of the flick and an already-aired episode
of the animated hit). More likely it’s the combination of
the above with the potentially offensive premise of the movie:
Underachiever poses as a mentally challenged athlete to fix
the Special Olympics. But, whatever the cause, The Ringer
has already gotten way more attention and print than it deserves.
Which is not to say that the print is inaccurate. To the extent
that the publicity has insisted that the movie is respectful
of the Special Olympians and the larger community of the mentally
challenged, it’s right on. Congratulations to the filmmakers
for that. The movie does not condescend to the group it depicts—only
to those it purports to entertain.
Johnny Knoxville plays Steve, a low-level corporate drone
slaving away in a cubicle forest. Through a plot contrivance
too stupid to get into, Steve finds himself responsible for
the $28,000 medical bill of a friendly, uninsured and undocumented
alien; he then contacts his ne’er-do-well Uncle Gary (Brian
Cox) looking for funds. Gary, deep in gambling debt himself,
cooks up the Special Olympics scam. Gary figures that Steve’s
high school experience as a track-and-field star and his unrealized
dreams of being an actor make him a perfect candidate to unseat
Jimmy Washington (Leonard Flowers), the reigning champ—who
is, coincidentally, a hero of the thug to whom Gary owes $40k.
So, Steve ’tards it up, completely pulling the wool over the
eyes of the Special Olympics organizers and longtime volunteers,
which group includes—inevitably—the good-hearted and betrothed-to-an-asshole
hottie, Lynn (Katherine Heigl). Yeah, OK. Apparently, all
that’s needed to fool these experienced folks is a silly voice
and pants worn too high above the waist. In fact, the only
people who don’t buy the shtick are the other Olympians, who
are played warmly as perceptive, funny and talented individuals.
(It’s got to be noted, though, that while the movie features
a number of very minor parts and extra roles for the mentally
challenged, only one of the core group is played by such an
actor. The others are played by actor- comedians, who—though
generally respectful—can be a little too knowing.)
You can guess the rest: Steve wrestles with his conscience
and his increasing attraction to the cute volunteer (with
whom he has absolutely zero on-screen chemistry, by the way),
bonds with the other athletes, and learns some kind of lesson
about honesty, heart, perseverance and following one’s dreams.
He also falls down and gets hit in the nuts a lot.
Knoxville’s a likeable enough actor; some of the group interaction
between him and the Olympians is amusing. But overall the
film comes across like Caddyshack without a performance
as strong and weird as Bill Murray’s Carl. The filmmakers
would have done better to play it less safe with their premise.
Like why not have Steve fall not for the attractive and forgiving
volunteer, but for another Olympian? That’d take the wind
right out of the sails of that Brokeback Mountain,
I’ll tell ya.