Saturday, February 25, 2006

Brokeback Mountain / ***½ (R)

Ennis Del Mar: Heath Ledger
Jack Twist: Jake Gyllenhaal
Alma Del Mar: Michelle Williams
Lureen Twist: Anne Hathaway
Cassie: Linda Cardellini
Joe Aguirre: Randy Quaid

Focus Features presents a film directed by Ang Lee. Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx. Running time: 134 min. Rated R (for sexuality, language, nudity and some violence).

Director Ang Lee has long since been a master of subtlety. In Sense and Sensibility he presented the subtleties of British manners. In The Ice Storm he presented the subtle differences between the children of the 60’s and their own children who desperately needed them to be adults during a New England ice storm in the late 70’s. Ride with the Devil depicted the fine line between the civil rights that were being fought for in the Civil War and the rights that were infringed upon against Missouri landowners by the Union Army in the name of western progress. In Hulk… well, there really shouldn’t have been anything subtle about The Hulk, so Lee should have stayed away. Brokeback Mountain presents subtle moments of joy from a secret that has a profound effect on the lives of two men stuck in a world of intolerance and misunderstanding. Of course, if Brokeback focused primarily upon the joy shared between these two men, it would not have the effectiveness that it carries by showing the sacrifice involved in both exploring their joy and, more importantly, by denying it.

Heath Ledger (The Brothers Grimm) plays Ennis Del Mar, a cowboy eking out an existence by hopping from one ranching job to another. During a job watching over open range sheep he meets another cowboy of a more outgoing nature, Jack Twist, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow). Despite Ennis’s introverted nature, “That’s the most I’ve said in about the past three years,” the two men form a bond that encompassed both the emotional and the physical.

With this initial relationship developing in the 60’s, and the rest of their story spanning over the next twenty years, the men realize that when this job has passed so will their liaison. While parting is difficult for them, their world outside the mountain herding is one of intolerance for such behavior between men, and when they part it is to move onto a more “normal” life. Ennis marries only months later to Alma (Michelle Williams, Imaginary Heroes), who desires to rise above the uprooted ranching life that Ennis insists upon. Jack, after a tougher struggle with his unaccepted physical yearnings, marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries), the daughter of a successful Texas farm implement dealer.

After the initial romance between the men, screenwriters Larry McMurtry (Terms of Endearment) and Diana Ossana (Johnson County War TV mini-series), concentrate primarily upon the lives these men lead outside of their forbidden love for each other. Even after they decide to reunite on a regular basis to continue to express their love for each other, the filmmakers focus on the sacrifices they make to keep the true nature of their relationship a secret to their own families, families they were expected to have in the environment in which they lived.

Lee’s subtle touch is invaluable in the telling of these cowboys’ stories. He avoids most gay stereotypes and presents these two men as men. Both characters have chosen to pursue the testosterone driven lives they live. There is a telling scene of Ennis confronting two bikers who are speaking rudely, without regard for his family, who are within earshot during a Fourth of July fireworks display. The two men dwarf Ennis, but he flattens one and runs them off with frightening ferocity. Ennis strikes me as a man who might participate in a gay bashing if it weren’t for the homosexual feelings he harbors himself for Jack.

There is a tenderness to Ennis and Jack’s relationship, it seems Jack is just about the only person in the world Ennis is comfortable enough around to open up to, but the filmmakers treat them as men even when they are together. A boyish wrestling match turns into an all out brawl between the men, with one ending up with a bloody nose and the other with a black eye. When apart both men deal with the denial of their true natures in their own ways, Jack with eagerness to take any opportunity to be with Ennis and Ennis resisting with a brooding disposition.

Their relationship has a profound effect on their families, which subtly feel the tension of the men who must deny themselves what they really want. Although Alma secretly discovers the nature of Ennis’s relationship with Jack, it is his way of life as a rancher that drives a wedge between them as much as his lack of emotional investment in her. It is Jack’s free spirit that draws Lureen to him, and although she does sense something between them, Jack never loses that spirit and can even surprise her once their marriage descends into routine. Jack’s defiance against his father-in-law during a Thanksgiving dinner at their home still brings a smile to Lureen’s face.

Brokeback Mountain is not really a gay rights film. Although there are moments of passion that are bound to make a predominantly straight audience uncomfortable (but only for the same reasons a love scene between two heterosexuals should make an audience uncomfortable), Brokeback is as much about the lives these men live because of their choices (or lack thereof) as it is about their own relationship. It is a painful story, one approached and executed with tenderness rather than having tenderness placed upon it. These men have to live with their secret and Lee does a good job making the audience live with it as well. We share in these men’s sacrifice and love with their shared intimacy instead of observing it from an outsider’s point of view.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Aristocrats / ** (UR)

Jason Alexander, Shelly Berman, Lewis Black, David Brenner, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Tim Conway, Andy Dick, Phyllis Diller, Joe Franklin, Judy Gold, Whoopie Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, Merrill Markoe, Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, Michael McKean, Larry Miller, Martin Mull, Kevin Nealon, The Onion editorial staff, Penn & Teller, Emo Phillips, Kevin Pollak, Andy Richter, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Harry Shearer, the Smothers Brothers, David Steinberg, Jon Stewart, Larry Storch, Rip Taylor, Dave Thomas, Peter Tilden, Bruce Vilanch, Fred Willard, Robin Williams, Steven Wright.

ThinkFilm presents a documentary directed by Paul Provenza. Running time: 87 min. Not rated by the MPAA (intended for adults).

Have you heard the one about the documentary director and the magician/ comedian who set out to make a documentary about the dirtiest joke in the world? They get all their friends together (and with friends like these, it would be hard not to bust a gut), including major stars and lesser-known comedians from throughout the country, and interview them about this joke that is some sort of urban legend in the comedy world. Many of them, like George Carlin and Billy Connelly, provide the history of the joke, which in most versions is known as “The Aristocrats” but is also known under other titles like “The Sophisticates,” and many, like Paul Reiser and Drew Carey, philosophize on what makes the joke so great (although it is Carlin who provides the best analysis on this matter), while others, like Richard Lewis and Eddie Izzard, argue the legitimacy of the joke’s legend and success, and still others, like Phyllis Diller and Dick Smothers, are just astounded by the vulgarity and ungainliness of it.

Here’s the catch, the joke itself isn’t funny in the slightest. Of course, this setback has a profoundly depressing effect on the film, which really depends on the success of the joke to live up to all the hype the filmmaker’s heap on to it. The joke is mostly an excuse for the teller to be as vulgar and vile as their imaginations will allow them to be and just about everyone in the film has their own crack at the joke, with a fairly consistent failure to draw laughs from it (except from the filmmakers in the background). And much of the insistence by the participants that the joke is funny is somewhat hard to swallow. There are a very few performers who are able to put enough of their own take on the joke to make it work, most notably Bob Saget, who scrapes laughs from his own ability to shock himself as to just how disgusting this former Full House TV star can be, Kevin Pollack, who tells the joke in a spot on Christopher Walken impersonation, and Gilbert Gottfried, the only person who is able to draw laugh from the joke itself simply with his delivery during a Comedy Central Friars Club Roast of Hugh Heffner. But Sarah Silverman’s “autobiographical” version is a sad reminder of just how lame the joke is, and Martin Mull, Robin Williams and Eric Idle can’t even bring themselves to attempt the shoddy joke and instead tell different jokes of a similar nature that are only marginally more successful. It is the film’s sorry subject matter that becomes its own downfall.

“Interesting. What is it called?”

The Aristocrats.

“I don’t get it.”

Neither do I.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hustle & Flow / ***½ (R)

D Jay: Terrance HowardKey: Anthony Anderson
Nola: Taryn ManningShug: Taraji P. HensonLexus: Paula Jai ParkerYevette: Elise NealArnel: Isaac HayesShelby: DJ QuallsSkinny Black: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Paramount Classics and MTV Films present a film written and directed by Craig Brewer. Running time: 114 min. Rated R (for sex and drug content, pervasive language and some violence).

In the midst of watching Hustle & Flow I was brought back to the very first things seen on the screen, the opening titles. First there is the fancy Paramount Classics logo, and then the new and improved spaceman audience logo of MTV, then the actual filmed action starts and old school lettering style credits appear across the images. The first of these are yet another set of production companies; but these are the actual filming production companies from before Paramount broke a Sundance Film Festival record with the largest sum ever dished out for the distribution rights for one of that festival’s films. Those original company credits read “A New Deal Production” and “Homegrown Films.” There couldn’t be two more fitting titles flashed upon the screen at the beginning of this film. A new deal is what this whole story is about; that dream everyone has, no matter how far down the feeding chain they are, about fashioning out a new existence. And homegrown is also just what this film is, culled together and cared for with the passion of someone who has crated it all on his own. And of course a certain homegrown substance does play a pivotal part in the plot of the film.

D Jay is a small time pimp and drug dealer located in Memphis, Tennessee. He talks the talk, walks the walk. He is a hustler to the core. When a popular rap star, Skinny Black (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, 2 Fast 2 Furious) is scheduled to come home to Memphis for the first time since his star rose for a party, the owner of the local watering hole that will host the party tells D Jay that he needs to break out his good stuff, rather than the backwoods trash pot he usually pushes on his clients. This occasion is an opportunity for D Jay, but not to establish himself as a grade A pusher for a client with dough. D Jay sees this possible meeting with the local rap superstar as a way out of this life of pushing and hustling he never dreamed of for himself.

Terrance Howard (Crash) turns in a career making performance as D Jay. With a Memphis lilt to his speech, he makes it clear that the gleam of fame and fortune makes its way into everyone’s dreams; and the life of the street that embodies so much of the hip-hop culture is not just confined to the modern metropolises. Even the trailer park set has a connection with the grit of hip-hop lore at large. Howard’s performance is nothing short of a transformation into the crushed realities of a life dreamed of but always half a continent away, that is until Skinny Black comes home.

The meat of the film flowers out of D Jay’s efforts to cut a hip-hop track out of his own ramshackle house. He runs into an old high school acquaintance in a convenience store who has made a meager living as a local recording engineer. This is Key (Anthony Anderson, Kangaroo Jack), who harbors his own dreams of making it to the big time in the music industry. Key is much more straight-laced than D Jay. Although Key is aware of D Jay’s career choices the two have an understanding that they are both striving for something great with this recording that will levitate each of them from their respective positions in life. This doesn’t prevent the filmmakers from having some fun showing their respective realities clashing upon the initiation of this collaboration. When D Jay shows up at Key’s middleclass neighborhood with two of his prostitutes in tow just as Key and his career oriented wife, Yevette (Elise Neal, Mission to Mars), are settling in for dinner, writer/director Craig Brewer mines the material for all the absurdity and comedy to be found in the situation.

Perhaps the most unique point of view this film provides is D Jay’s relationship with those prostitutes. D Jay pimps three women: Nola (Taryn Manning, 8 Mile), a white girl whom he pimps exclusively from his car in the back alleyways and parks of Memphis; Shug (Taraji P. Henson, Four Brothers), pregnant from an unknown trick and D Jay’s longest running relationship; and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker, She Hate Me), his high maintenance whore who sees herself as the most important ingredient in their little stew. They all live together creating some strange family unit. D Jay alternately treats them as his possessions and loved-ones; creating a unique dynamic the like I have never seen before in a depiction of the world’s oldest profession.

The key scene in the film is when Key and his engineering partner Shelby (DJ Qualls, The New Guy) finally crack down on D Jay to get something on tape. “We need a hook.” In their search for a hook to the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” Key has the idea to have Shug sing the chorus. Shug is one of those people who look as if they’d sooner die than say, Boo!” D Jay pushes her to get it right, but never hints that he thinks she can’t do it. When she does finally nail it, the whole song comes together; and it is easy to see why the Academy honored it with a nomination for Best Song. But it is that hard street love D Jay gives Shug that shows where the strength of these characters comes from and proves how much they love and depend on one another.

Since viewing the film I haven’t been able to get a hook from another hip-hop song out of my head. It is actually from the musical Annie and was stolen by Jay-Z for his hit single “Hard Knock Life.” The line “It’s a hard knock life for us,” rings throughout this film, but like Annie it is a chorus sung not in despair, but with hope. It is the same hope we all have for our lives. A hope for something better.