When you find yourself a fan of a certain actor or filmmaker, isn't it great when you're actually alive at the turning point in their careers? Sounds like a simple and/or silly statement but I, for one, seem to come across the majority of filmmakers and stars late in their careers or after their deaths, which makes accessing their movies a real pain sometimes. When it comes to Ang Lee, I was always impressed by his universal characters and themes. Eat Drink Man Woman is one of the strongest dark comedies from East Asia that I've seen in a while. Likewise, I'd been following the careers of Ledger (Monster's Ball, The Dark Knight) and Williams (Dawson's Creek, Blue Valentine) for some time. The news of them acting in the same film was very exciting, as was the addition of Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, both of whom I'd seen around, but not enough of. When I discovered that the plot circulated two gay lovers, I was a little reluctant. I'd seen The Wedding Banquet, another of Lee's films with a gay theme, and thought that it would be similar. Not that the mentioned film is a bad one, but its execution was very exclusive to a gay male audience, and people who enjoy your typical drama. Most dramas don't exactly move me. In the very least, I think it helps to have been in a similar situation with the characters in the film. Regardless of my feelings, Lee is a director that I like, so I went to see Brokeback Mountain on its opening weekend. From start to finish, I was transfixed and truly unprepared for the experience.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two strangers looking for work. Ennis is a ranch hand and young Jack is a rodeo enthusiast who rides occasionally. Though both have little to no experience with jobs of great complexity, they meet for the first time and find themselves accepting a job herding sheep across a mountain. Their boss Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) has little patience with his new employees and gives them a little rundown before sending them off to a task that will stretch across several seasons. The two men are exact opposites and find it difficult to relate. Ennis is reserved, quiet, and practical. His only interest is getting the job done well and returning home to his fiance. Jack is loudmouthed and chatty, and certainly more friendly than Ennis. This part of the film is considerably slower, taking its time to reveal the mountain terrain of Wyoming. That calm is disrupted when the food rations they collect, which consist mainly of beans and soup, grow tiresome, and the weather changes from summer to fall, then a harsh winter. The two men socialize, but don't exactly grow close; eventually the job requires that they distance themselves and watch over the mass herd from different areas. One night they decide to stay together on the camp and end up having sex. The morning after brings about denial and mixed feelings between them, but regardless, a bittersweet romance ensues. At the end of their job, the two part on bad terms and try to go about their lives.Continue Reading
Let me just lay it out there: not only is Kate Winslet the best actress of her generation, she’s probably reached all time top ten for me. After some British TV work she burst in to movies while still a teenager with her haunting performance in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and then established herself as a major young adult actress with her wonderful work as Lucy in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Winslet then capped off this early period of art house auteurs with Michael Winterbottom’s adaption of another victorian novel Jude the Obscure (shortened to just Jude for the screen) and the best on-camera interpretation of the role of Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s underrated Hamlet. And then her career exploded with the cultural and box office goliath Titanic making her a giant international star. But she did an interesting thing; she didn’t chase the money, and (until recently) she mostly stuck to smaller character driven films, never again working with another A-list brand name director like James Cameron or even Lee. (With smaller exceptions being Nancy Meyers, Michel Gondry and Jane Campion, while directors like Philip Kaufman and Roman Polanski were well past their primes. She only had a small role as part of a large ensemble in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.)
With Hideous Kinky in ’98, (Winslet’s first post-Titanic role) she really laid down the gauntlet for the kind of career she would map out for herself: challenging, surprising, anti-star and often unsympathetic. Based on Esther Freud's autobiography about her childhood being raised with her sister by her free-spirited British mother in Morocco, Winslet plays the mom, Julia. Disillusioned by life in stuffy London and with a hippie attitude, in a search for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, she packs her eight and six year-old daughters up for a Middle East quest. The two little girls are played by Bella Riza and Carrie Mullen, and they deliver a pair of outstanding performances. Julia, though loving, is also young and selfish, with only fleeting concern for her children’s needs for stability. The girls actually want to go to school, but Mom keeps whisking them off on busses across the desert landscape to romance her Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (the charismatic Said Taghmaoui), who also seems to be a lost soul, unwilling to live up to his community's expectations. It’s never fully clear if Julia is truly spiritual (her enthusiasm usually feels naive) or if it’s all a pose to rebel against her family and the girls’s father, a London poet. (The question of their marriage is also blurry.) The film provides an insightful and fascinating look at Moroccan city life; this, of course, is before the full-blown Islamic revolutions would make Westerners a little less comfortable being strangers in a strange land.Continue Reading
Sense and Sensibility
After making a name for himself on the international art-house circuit with the Taiwanese dramedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee took on the Masterpiece Theater crowd with his first English language film, Sense and Sensibility. Actress Emma Thompson toiled on the script for five years and went on to win an Oscar for her troubles. The film is easily the best adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s musty novels (not my usual fare), but the combination of Thompson and Lee’s ability to make the usually stale material so relatable to modern audiences and the fantastic casting from top to bottom rockets Sense & Sensibility to the heights of the genre. The film is also aided by all-stars behind-the-scenes, including an often moving score by Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Rise of The Planet of the Apes, etc.), handsome cinematography by Michael Coulter (who has the market cornered on shooting British rom-coms, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and simple but elegant art direction by Luciana Arrighi (whose work goes all the way back to Sunday Bloody Sunday in ’71 but who made his reputation designing the best of the Merchant/Ivory canon: Howard’s End and Remains of the Day). And of course Lee himself, who would further his diverse filmography over the years since with an incredible body of work including The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi.
Apparently Thompson’s script differs from Austen’s 1811 novel, and it's for the best. The center of the story is the difference between two adult English Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and the dreamy Marianne (Kate Winslet) who are thrust into poverty when their father dies, leaving his estate to his only son (and the son's pushy, conniving wife). Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger adolescent sister Margaret, are forced to live off of the goodwill of friends and relatives, even taking up residences in a countryside cottage without servants! Now penniless, the two sisters are no longer considered good catches for marriage and have to watch as most of their peers become engaged while they are ridiculed for their new lower status. Along the way they meet their sister-in-law’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant at his stumbling, stuttering best); he befriends the family and he and Elinor obviously make a potential romantic connection but are both too restrained and reserved to act on it. This is where much of the film’s comedy comes from: those English corked-up, controlled manners that leave people in a constant state of isolation. On the other hand, the beautiful and lively Marianne does find two suitors. The charismatic, dashing and handsome dream-beau John Willoughby (a solid, but very '90s looking Greg Wise) carries her home when a walk in the rain becomes too difficult; the two truly fall in love, but he is forced to scorn her because of her lack of a dowry, which leads to a Splendor in the Grass-like, deeply heartbroken depression for her. Also a rich neighbor befriends the family and falls for Marianne’s beauty: the much older, grave Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman in maybe his finest performance). He’s a good and sensitive bachelor, but utterly charmless. Through many misunderstandings our heroines' lives sink into more despair until an incredibly moving happy ending (albeit a rushed and perhaps a little too tidy one).Continue Reading
The Ice Storm
Set over 1973’s Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Storm is the tale of a group of suburban families in Connecticut dealing with ever shifting social mores and sexual desires.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Rick Moody, James Shamus’ screenplay adaptation is a dark but truthful examination of the American family. It is well structured with highly dimensional characters, never bowing down to the oversimplification of human behavior. Rather, he gives them each their own voice and distinctive point of view.Continue Reading