Thursday 30 March 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

Ang Lee film set in 1963 initially but spanning twenty years in the lives of two Wyoming shepherds who have a homosexual love for one another frustrated by their own fears of how society will react towards them.

Heath Ledger plays the more reticent of the two men, Ennis Del Mar. He was brought up by his brother and sister and has had quite a hard life. Jake Gyllenhaal is the more forthright Jack Twist, who initiates the physical relationship between them. After their initial summer together spent up on Brokeback Mountain guarding thousands of sheep from the wolves (is there a metaphor there, I wonder?), they don't see each other for four years, by which time they are both married (to Dawson's buddy Michelle Williams and The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway - not, incidentally, Shakespeare's wife, who I believe died some time ago). They claim to be old fishing buddies and swanny off to the mountains two or three times a year for the next twenty years. Ennis doesn't have the courage to come out and live on a ranch together because he saw as a child the savage vigilante murder of a gay man.

It's difficult to judge this film fairly: I came to it late with so many preconceptions, although I had tried to avoid reviews so I could form my own opinion on it. It's always labelled "the gay cowboy movie", but it's not: they guard sheep - although there is a plethora of stetson action, thumbs in belt loops, boots, and all-round Marlboro ad posing.

Contrary to what I've been told, this is not one of the best or most important films in cinema history (never trust an Australian's taste, if that isn't oxymoronic enough). There are more sensible and sensitive treatments of gay relationships in The Crying Game and - although I confess I haven't seen it - My Beautiful Laudrette.

Criticisms of this film? The dialogue for the first half hour is impossible to make out, so muffled are the masculine husky voices. The relationship between the two leads is implausible, not helped by the fact that you're waiting for them to get together and think from the first time you see them, "He's a gay cowboy!" I didn't buy the whole rough love thing, although I understand the tensions it was meant to express. It is cinematic, but some of the shots are overly contrived and smack of trailer plugs: the low-angle shot of Ledger, hand in belt, with fireworks exploding behind him, head bowed in Marlboro mystique. Time moves on too quickly: there's no attempt to dwell in the difficult separation the lovers must endure, although it is implied. The whole missing shirt thing is a bit contrived and twee (you'll see what I mean). We could have done without the jump cuts to explain what really happened when Ennis calls Jack's wife near the end (vagueness to avoid being a spoiler). Relies too much on stereotypes. Makes no attempt to place the events of the film in their historical context - a lot of interesting stuff happened in 1963, you know: it was filmed in the traditional Hollywood Western mythic time - albeit 100 years later than John Ford. I'm just not sure the acting was up to much. Elocution lessons, anyone? Heath?

Yes, it is an important film and I welcome more attempts to portray gay relationships on screen. It will take a while to move beyond stereotypes.

Nugget: what was all the fuss about?

This review was also posted on Blogcritics, where I also commented on this review.

Saturday 25 March 2006

Annie Hall (1977) - ickleReview (DVD)

Classic Woody Allen - second only, in my estimation, to Manhattan. They make good companion pieces as the central relationship in both is between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen. Annie Hall (Keaton) is a nightclub singer. A bit dipsy when they meet after playing tennis with their current partners. Wonderfully awkward delivery of the lines by Keaton - she's all over the place. Of course they eventually get together and split up. The genius of this movie are the talking to camera moments, the bizarre moments when Woody consults the extras on the street about what they make of his love life - half in, half out of character. When they're waiting in line at the cinema, Woody brings out the real Marshall McLuhan to set a pretentious Columbia professor straight.

There is an odd beginning with titles and NO JAZZ SOUNDTRACK! Then Woody, talking traight to camera, launches into two quickfire jokes, so beware to pay attention. He does in fact use some of his stand-up material in the movie - I wonder if the audio from that came from the live performance and he added the pictures later.

This movie is a little rough around the edges, but it's full of laughs and great lines, such as when Allen (whose character's name is Alvy Singer, a TV comic) asks Keaton if she's free at the weekend, and when she's available both Friday and Saturday, he asks her what's wrong with her, does she have plague.

There are cameos from a very young-looking Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum. Walken tells a weird story about wanting to swerve into oncoming cars. Allen replies: "Right. Well, I have to - I have to go now, Duane, because I, I'm due back on the planet Earth." The next scene Walken is driving Allen and Keaton home.

Nugget: enjoyed this much more the second time round.

Monday 20 March 2006

The V-neck sweater

A six-year-old kid is shopping for a new school uniform with his mum. His mum gets him to try on a grey V-neck sweater. "How do you like that?" she asks. "Is it comfortable? Not too itchy?"

"Mum, you're not buying me one like this! My teacher sometimes wears one like it, and when she bends over I can see her lungs."

Source: adapted from Quote...Unquote, BBC Radio 4.

Friday 10 March 2006

A Cock and Bull Story (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

Very clever and inventive postmodern film adaptation of Laurence Sterne's eighteenth-century novel, Tristram Shandy. Steve Coogan plays himself playing Tristram and his father, Walter. Rob Brydon plays himself playing Uncle Toby. Very self-reflexive - somehow capturing the madcap chaotic essense of the book. The best adaptation since Adaptation. (2002).

Coogan is brilliant as an egomaniac leading actor, making a big fuss over the height of the heels of his shoes - worried about his stature in comparison to Brydon, who does hilarious impressions of Coogan and Roger Moore.

There's no point relating the plot. Like the book, which is about writing an autobiography, the film is about making a film about the book. It achieves a kind of verisimilitude, so at times you forget you're watching a film at all - more like a documentary - reminiscent of the margins of reality breached in Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996).

I look forward to the DVD release of this film, which promises extras like footnotes to the book. A stark contrast to director Michael Winterbottom's previous film, 9 Songs (2004). The lead from that (Kieran O'Brien) has a small part in this one as a tabloid journalist who blackmails Coogan into giving him a feature interview by threatening to reveal a hotel sex scandal, which Coogan claims not quite to remember.

Nugget: crammed full of British character actors with cameos by Gillian Anderson and Stephen Fry.

Sunday 5 March 2006

Tsotsi (2005) - ickleReview (cinema)

South African film about a young black man called Tsotsi ("Thug") who lives in the townships of Johannesburg. He and his mates, Butcher, Boston, and Aap, take the train into town where they mug rich people to earn a living. Their lives are violent, their murders unforgiving. Boston, drunk and disturbed by their last job, has a go at Tsotsi for his lack of "decency", hits a raw nerve when he asks about Tsotsi's mother and father, and whether he would hurt a dog that way, and receives a beating for his troubles. Tsotsi runs away and, in desperation to shelter from a rain storm, hijacks a car in a rich black suburb and shoots the female driver when she tries to stop him outside her home. In the back seat he discovers something that will change his life.

Tsotsi's real name, we learn in flashbacks, is David; but no one knows this. He ran away from home as a boy, away from a sick mother and a violent, drunken father. He lived in unused concrete water pipes with a group of other vagrant kids in the wasteland between city and township. His only family now are the "brothers" of his gang whom has found on the streets, but he begins to turn against them and his old way of life when he has to live up to his responsibilities. He begins to make amends for his own misdeeds and the iniquities of his father.

The parallels in the story turn it into a sort of parable, surprisingly uplifting, delicately ambiguous. Gavin Hood directs scenes drawn out on the wrack of tension, close to the breaking point of tragedy.

The characters speak a type of pidgin language with English and (I think) Afrikaans influences. One senses the subtitles dilute some of its flavour so that their words seem not always to fit their emotions. (South Africa has, I think, around 25 official languages.)

The look and feel of the film is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie (lighting, close-ups) and City of God (gangland shanty towns). The long shots of the wooden shacks look unreal, smoke rising in the morning light as if designed for a movie set. The township has an odd semi-prosperity: they have running water and the insides of their homes look comfortable. There is a second-hand (stolen) car dealership and a night-life of bars and dice.

It's unusual to see these images on our screens and important that we do. I expected that Jo'burg's violent crimes would be black on white; but here they are black on black - it's prosperity that counts, not race. The only prominent white character in the film is the cop who chases Tsotsi, miraculously tracking him down in the chaos of the township.

Nugget: in my synopsis I've deliberately omitted one very important detail, but I think it's better to let the film tell it's own story, rather than you read it here in advance.