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Thursday, February 02, 2006

A History of Violence (2005)

You never know what you're going to get with David Cronenberg. Along with Wes Craven and John Carpenter, Cronenberg helped define the modern horror movie genre. Unlike Craven, who now has the flabby style of a champion boxer gone to seed, and Carpenter, who sold out in favor of sucking big Hollywood wang, Cronenberg pretty much does what he wants and manages to get the money to do it with. His productions are all over the map. In the past 25 years, he's given us The Dead Zone, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly and Spider, to name a few. Horror, drama, thrillers, sci-fi and very dark comedy all seem to be his forte. Now, with A History of Violence, Cronenberg presents us with a dramatic sociopolitical critique that falls slightly short of the greatness for which it was intended.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives a quiet, unassuming life in Millbrook, Indiana with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and their two kids, Jack (Ashton Holmes), 15, and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), 6. He runs the local diner, she's a successful lawyer, and they all live in a truly Norman Rockwellian farmhouse complete with a dog and a weather vane. Then, one dark and stormy night, two armed robbers knock over the diner, and we see that Tom is adept at kicking ass and chewing bubblegum (this scene is one of the most graphic in the film, containing a horrifyingly realistic gun shot wound to the face). Tom is immediately rocketed to national news as the small town man who killed the big bad outlaws. This news attracts the attention of an Irish mobster named Fogarty (Ed Harris), who comes to town with his entourage of thumbreakers in black limousines and insists that Tom is actually a mobster named Joey Cusack. Fogarty is pissed at Joey Cusack for a number of reasons, primarily because years ago Joey tore up his face with a bunch of barbed wire and destroyed one of his eyes. Tom insists that he's not Joes, Fogarty insists that he is, and we the audience are intended to vacillate, if only for a few minutes, between the two options.

I've read some other reviews of this film that refuse to reveal the truth about Tom's real identity. To me, however, the "is-he-or-isn't-he?" question is not the real point of the film. Not only that, but we are only left to wonder about the matter for a very short time before it becomes obvious. The theme of false identities is seen throughout the film. It begins with a steamy scene of Mortensen and Bello in bed, with Bello dressed up like a cheerleader and Mortensen pretending to be her boyfriend. From this innocent roleplaying, Cronenberg pulls us into the fake roles we play in everyday life. So what is the real identity here, the assassin or the family man? A similar idea was put forth by Bill in Kill Bill vol. 2, when he said that Batman has to put on a mask to be Batman, but Superman has to put on a costume to be Clark Kent.

A History of Violence asks many important social questions, such as whether violence is an inevitability and whether murder can ever be justified. It tricks you into liking Tom a lot, only to pull a 180 and make you question your own values. Sometimes these messages get a little heavy, however; there is a subplot with Tom's son and his own natural violent tendencies that is given too much screen time. Frankly, Ashton Holmes does not have the acting chops to make these scenes work, and they feel out of place as a result. Furthermore, the film has slightly lopsided pacing, with its 97 minutes feeling more like two hours. All in all, however, this is one of Cronenberg's best films, and one of the better films I have seen this year in theatres. I cannot fathom why Ed Harris doesn't just get an Oscar in the mail every year. He's that good.
Mortensen is also awesome, delivering a powerful yet subtle performance that reminded me of his restrained-yet-violent character in Albino Alligator.

Amount of money I would pay to see this movie: $6

MPAA: Rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.
Runtime: 96 min
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

I was talking to a classmate about "Brokeback Mountain" recently, and she said that she didn't like the film because she felt that "if the film had been about a heterosexual relationship, it would have just been boring." The truth is, if it had been about a heterosexual relationship, there would have been no conflict, and that is the point of the entire film. All great love stories need an element of danger that threatens the romance. Casablanca had the Nazis, and Brokeback Mountain has gay bashing.

The plot is easy to summarize: cowboys Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet during a seasonal job at Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain in 1963. They work long days and nights together, they become friends, and, eventually, they fall in love and their relationship becomes sexual. Their bond is sufficient to keep them in contact for the next 20 years. Both men start families, and both "go on fishing trips," with each other once in a while, leaving their wives confused and desperate. Lee shows us an incredibly sad scene in which Ennis makes love to his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) by turning her over and taking her from behind. From the look on her face, we know that this happens every time. Jack's marriage to his wife (played by Anne Hathaway, who has come a long way since The Princess Diaries) is similarly tense; both keep busy enough to ignore the fact that they never have sex. Both men's families are almost incidental, dwelling in the shadows of the all-powerful attraction they feel for each other. The mountain iteself represents the one place where their forbidden love is accepted.

There are parts of Brokeback Mountain that are painfully slow, and some moments of revelation that the audience sees coming a mile away. There were moments when I felt impatient, and I thought "My GOD how many more sheep do we need to see?" That is Ang Lee's style, however, and as nerve-wracking as it can be, it works with the material. The film has on oppressive, melancholy feel, just as the protagonists in the film lead oppressive, melancholy lives. Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal are spectacular, with Ledger giving a surprisingly good, understated performance. Ennis is a man horrified by his own sexuality. Jack is more accepting of himself, but naive about the attitudes of others. Jack doesn't know why they can't be together; Ennis knows all too well, and is too scared to take a chance. The film's screenplay, adapted from a short story by Diana Ossana and Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry is spare but effective. The script gets the job done and the actors make it work. Without the rich photography and outstanding acting, however, the story itself is pretty thin and soapy.

One last performance that I need to note is that of Anna Faris, a young woman who is quickly becoming one of my favorite comedic performers. In Brokeback Mountain she plays LaShawn Malone, the babbling Barbie Doll wife of one of Jack's friends. Hers is also a marriage based on lies, and it isn't clear whether her constant chatter is a sign of fear or just total obliviousness. Faris was great as the Cameron Diaz wannabe in Lost in Translation, and as Cindy in Scary Movie.

Bottom Line: Brokeback Mountain is a very good film and is definitely worth watching. I'm not sure that it should get Best Picture, but it certainly deserves its nominations.

New rating system: From now on, I am rating films based on how much money I would pay to see a movie (or, if it's really, really bad, how much money I would asked to be payed to watch it)

Money I would pay to see this movie: $8

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Oscar Nominations

Okay, it's that time of year again. To celebrate, Celluloitering will review some of the best films that are up for Oscars this year. First off, let's start with a list of who's up for what:

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Brokeback Mountain (2005) - Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Capote (2005) - Caroline Baron, William Vince, Michael Ohoven
Crash (2004) - Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) - Grant Heslov
Munich (2005) - Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote (2005)
Terrence Howard for Hustle & Flow (2005)
Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line (2005)
David Strathairn for Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)
Felicity Huffman for Transamerica (2005)
Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Charlize Theron for North Country (2005)
Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

George Clooney for Syriana (2005)
Matt Dillon for Crash (2004)
Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man (2005)
Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
William Hurt for A History of Violence (2005)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for Junebug (2005)
Catherine Keener for Capote (2005)
Frances McDormand for North Country (2005)
Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener (2005)
Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Best Achievement in Directing

George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Paul Haggis for Crash (2004)
Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Bennett Miller for Capote (2005)
Steven Spielberg for Munich (2005)

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Crash (2004) - Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) - George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Match Point (2005) - Woody Allen
The Squid and the Whale (2005) - Noah Baumbach
Syriana (2005) - Stephen Gaghan

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Brokeback Mountain (2005) - Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Capote (2005) - Dan Futterman
The Constant Gardener (2005) - Jeffrey Caine
A History of Violence (2005) - Josh Olson
Munich (2005) - Tony Kushner, Eric Roth

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Batman Begins (2005) - Wally Pfister
Brokeback Mountain (2005) - Rodrigo Prieto
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) - Robert Elswit
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) - Dion Beebe
The New World (2005) - Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Editing

Cinderella Man (2005) - Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
The Constant Gardener (2005) - Claire Simpson
Crash (2004) - Hughes Winborne
Munich (2005) - Michael Kahn
Walk the Line (2005) - Michael McCusker

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) - James D. Bissell, Jan Pascale
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) - Stuart Craig, Stephanie McMillan
King Kong (2005) - Grant Major, Dan Hennah, Simon Bright
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) - John Myhre, Gretchen Rau
Pride & Prejudice (2005) - Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) - Gabriella Pescucci
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) - Colleen Atwood
Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) - Sandy Powell
Pride & Prejudice (2005) - Jacqueline Durran
Walk the Line (2005) - Arianne Phillips

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Brokeback Mountain (2005) - Gustavo Santaolalla
The Constant Gardener (2005) - Alberto Iglesias
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) - John Williams
Munich (2005) - John Williams
Pride & Prejudice (2005) - Dario Marianelli

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Hustle & Flow (2005) - Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman, Paul Beauregard ("It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp")
Crash (2004) - Michael Becker, Kathleen York ("In the Deep")
Transamerica (2005) - Dolly Parton ("Travelin' Thru")

Best Achievement in Makeup

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) - Howard Berger, Tami Lane
Cinderella Man (2005) - David LeRoy Anderson, Lance Anderson
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) - Dave Elsey, Annette Miles