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Review: Brokeback Mountain


First of all, it’s not a gay cowboy movie; it’s a gay cowboy epic. Ang Lee’s sprawling picture about the sad, repressed love of two cowboys — played to perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger — over decades is the kind of atmospherically grand, mournful film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore: For all its topical, taboo-breaking hoopla, it’s perhaps the most old-fashioned film of the year. Next time gramps starts grumbling about how “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can tell him they do — just with, y’know, dudes kissing and having anal sex and stuff.
    The tale, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, begins in the early ’60s with quiet, gruff Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and outgoing Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) getting hired to look after a herd of sheep up on the titular mountain. After a while, the loneliness and the cold get to them. A drunken, breathless, almost violent sexual encounter in a tent turns out to be not a bizarre interlude but the beginning of something much more profound. The film charts their lives over the ensuing decades, as the men marry a couple of good ol’ gals (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway), raise families, and meet up every few months to spend some secret quality time with each other on Brokeback Mountain.
    What’s perhaps most impressive about Brokeback isn’t the tenderness with which Lee (and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) treat the central relationship; it’s the blistering efficiency with which they weave all the complications of life into their melancholy tale. In some ways, this is a film as much about class as it is about sex, as much about fathers and sons as it is about husbands and lovers. In short, it’s an expansive portrait of two lives that puts most other romances to shame. On second thought, scratch what I said earlier: It’s a gay cowboy masterpiece. — Bilge Ebiri

Review: Marebito
Well, the Japanese sure like to watch, don’t they? It seems that every month brings us a new film from that country about the perils of voyeurism and the corrosive fallibility of the image — killer videotapes, webcam prisons, etc. So it’s no surprise that this latest offering begins with grainy video footage and soon reveals itself to be about a cameraman who shoots death for a living. After one particularly grisly suicide on the subway, he discovers an elaborate, fantastical underground world beneath Tokyo’s metro system. There, in a scene that plays like a pervert’s version of The Chronicles of Narnia, he finds a naked, eerily quiet girl in chains. When he brings her back above, he discovers there’s more to the girl: She feeds on blood, sort of like a vampire but without all the biting. So he finds her some blood. Yes, for all that set-up, Marebito devolves into yet another slasher flick.
    Takashi Shimizu, the man whose Ju-On: The Grudge made him one of J-horror’s top dogs as well as a Hollywood player, reportedly shot this weird little horror flick in eight days, and it shows — in ways both good and bad. The antiseptic grimness of The Grudge has been replaced by a more verité approach, utilizing the rough immediacy of the video image. And Shimizu deserves some credit for not shying away from the serious sexual overtones of his central relationship: As the cameraman feeds the vampire girl her blood, the framing becomes more and more suggestive. But to what end? Ultimately, as the twists pile up, Marebito becomes just another indulgent morass of narrative dead-ends. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Mrs. Henderson Presents
Stephen Frears and Judi Dench have nothing to answer for in my book, but they never quite get up a head of steam in this breezy, ill-focused movie about a racy musical theater in 1930s and ’40s London. Lovely, curvaceous red-kneed nudes abound. But though the material is unquestionably appealing, I’m not sure what the film is actually about: theater founder Dench’s relationship with her late son? With director Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins)? Star Maureen O’Rielly’s boy troubles? England at war?
   Frears, who’s directed some excellent movies in his time, would surely say the film is about all these things, but it lacks the cohesiveness to be about any of them. The women — truly beautiful in vintage pin-up fashion — make Mrs. Henderson Presents a treat for babe enthusiasts, and Dench is as charming as ever, but the film is, alas, merely a busty misfire. — Peter Smith
Review: Memoirs of a Geisha
Mopping up its messes with yards of swooshing silk, Arthur Golden’s paint-by-numbers Cinderella fantasy has staggered onto the big screen at last. With the book under fire (one of the geishas interviewed won a settlement for misrepresentation of her story), the film’s producers dispensed entirely with the pretense of authenticity and hired three Chinese actresses to play avatars of Japanese culture, raising a royal stink among Asian and Asian-American audiences. But the film is nearly too dull to offend, swaddled in the opulent brocades and affected Engrish accents that pass for Asian period-piece elegance.
   Inexplicably blue-eyed Chiyo is sold as an apprentice geisha by her destitute family — her new family includes an abacus-clicking mama-san and an evil drunk diva of a geisha (Gong Li, who torches the screen with every scene). After a miserable, Dickensian childhood, Chiyo is saved by a fairy-godmother of sorts (Michelle Yeoh, unflappably dignified), who tutors the girl in the skills that will turn her into a “living work of art.” Cue a Rocky-esque montage — makeup, dance, kimono-fittings — that culminates in Chiyo’s geisha debut: an insane Butoh-style dance number that is a marvel of both garishness and the staggering ability of actor Ziyi Zhang to find the molten emotional heart in even the most unworthy material. Every fairy tale needs a prince, of course — in this case, it’s the Chairman, a would-be sugar daddy who earned Chiyo’s undyingly icky devotion when he stopped to buy the young girl a sweet one day.
    Directed by Chicago auteur Rob Marshall, Memoirs plays like drag-queen camp — Showgirls draped in Orientalist robes. Marshall is careful to dispel the notion that a geisha is a ho in a kimono; nevertheless, he’s not above staging a nice catfight or forcing his actors to dispense fortune-cookie gruesomeness about how “the eel visits the cave.”
    “What do we know about entertaining Americans?” Mameha asks Sayuri, when they are pressed into service to enchant visiting American soldiers after World War II. Plenty, it turns out. Geishas have always peddled fantasies; tarted up with a little of the old razzle-dazzle, some Oscar-aimed middlebrow pomp, and plenty of tie-in products, they’re just being pimped out to a new audience. — Noy Thrupkaew
Date DVD: Cinderella Man
Oh, you closet romantics — you who can only bare your heart when someone’s being bludgeoned to death or starved to death or subjected to the miseries of some historic tragedy — Cinderella Man is the film for you.
    Who knows how well this Depression-era boxing flick might have done had Russell Crowe not taken the Method so seriously and slugged that hotel receptionist — but never mind. Months later, you can shrug off that pathetic scene and appreciate this minor middlebrow marvel for what it is: a straight-arrow historical romance with a surfeit of social detail, the kind of movie Merchant and Ivory might have made, had they grown up on the set of Mayberry R.F.D., as Ron Howard did.
    There’s nothing terribly new to the plot (boxer fights for the sake of his family), but that doesn’t mean that Russell Crowe is any less effective, scrounging for scraps to feed his wife (Renee Zelwegger, who should have been given more to do) and Hollywood-cute son. Crowe is terrific in the role (one in which his beefy muscles are far more appropriate than they were in The Insider or A Beautiful Mind), and his gruff decency captures that kind of idealized integrity that so many quiet men generally assume they’re projecting.
    Its those misunderstood men who might do best with this Date DVD, those who might use it to make a date think that yes, no matter how lazy they might look drinking a beer while watching this movie from the comfort of the couch, under the right circumstances (the Depression, extreme poverty, gut-wracking hunger), they would do the hard right thing. — Logan Hill


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