Sunday, January 29, 2006

A hike up "Brokeback Mountain"

This just in: "Brokeback Mountain" is about gay cowboys. If you can manage to get past that, it's also about a whole lot more.

I'll admit, I had a little trouble getting psyched up for this one. Like Rory Gilmore, I found myself making a pro-con list in my head. It went something like this:

Pros: 1. I absolutely love Ang Lee. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" already should have brought him a best picture Oscar, and heck, I even liked "The Hulk."
2. It's sure to be nominated for best picture at this year's Oscars, so it has to be good, right?

Cons: 1. Though it doesn't physically sicken me, seeing two men kiss has never been on my daily things-to-do list.
2. Oscar voters have a long history of going for movies that are "important" rather than good. And there's a big difference. From 1988-1990 we had "Rain Man," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Dances with Wolves," making for six hours of my life I'd sure like to get back.

All that said, "Brokeback Mountain" is a pretty good, not great, movie in my book.

It is a romantic film, I suppose, but the love expressed always seems to be coupled with anger because it has been suppressed for so long. It centers on the relationship that develops between sheep-herding cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as they are working one summer on Brokeback Mountain.

Both are great in challenging roles, but I couldn't help thinking of Billy Bob Thornton's Karl Childers as Ledger mumbled his way through the movie. It made me laugh at times you surely weren't supposed to.

But as much as it about their hidden love, it's also, like "The Last Picture Show," a great ode to the decaying West. Little shock that both were written by Larry McMurtry.

Though it was filmed in Canada, you'll be taken away to a different time and place, a view of the West that I've never seen better captured in film. The cinematography in the mountains alone is worth the price of admission.

Even saying so little, Ledger manages to chew up the screen, leaving only crumbs for the women in this one. Michelle Williams, however, as his struggling wife, manages to make them into a feast whenever she's given the chance. I can never figure out the dividing line between best actress/best supporting actress, but if she falls into the supporting category, she should walk away a winner.

For you Freaks and Geeks out there, Linda Cardellini makes a brief appearance near the end. She appears like an angel in a yellow halter top as she leads Ledger out to dance to Steve Earle's "Devil's Right Hand," but by that point he's too far gone to take much notice.

I won't begin to spoil the ending for you, but on many levels, this is a very tragic movie, but never maudlin. So why did I like it, but not love it?

I blame the Oscars. When a movie is preordained as great, I can't help but give it intense scrutiny. It happened last year with "Million Dollar Baby." Though I liked that too, I found both "The Aviator" and "Sideways" to be much more entertaining. In 2005, I'll go with "History of Violence" and "The Squid and the Whale" as movies that simply entertained me more than "Brokeback Mountain."

As a public service to anyone worried about such things, I'll answer the burning question: Just how gay is "Brokeback Mountain?" Well you do have to see two men kissing, and you will see, in varying degrees of focus, the butts of our two leading men. Their first encounter in a tent on the mountain is uncomfortable to watch, as it was intended to be. After that initial shock, Ang Lee takes over and is once again a masterful storyteller.

Back in December there was a humorous article in the New York Times about how groups like Focus on the Family are reviewing movies like this one, rather than picketing them. At least one group, however, reviewed "Brokeback Mountain" on two scales, one artistic and one moral, garnering it a split-decision of being somehow both "excellent" and "abhorrent" at the same time.

I guess baby steps are better than none at all.

P.S. A quick additional plug for the Capitol Theatre, which has certainly hit the ground running. Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m., and again for a late show, there's "A History of Violence." I know I'll be there. Before then, you can catch a double feature of "Wallace & Gromit" and "The Family Stone" Friday, Feb. 3, and Saturday, Feb. 4.

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