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.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A truly Capitol idea

As I was watching Dorothy hit her head and fly Over the Rainbow Thursday night at the newly restored Capitol Theatre, I had my own dream about the bright future of movies in downtown Macon.

If you haven't been yet, do it. The restoration job is remarkable, and its now a friendly atmosphere for movies, music or whatever may be in store for us. But it's the movies, of course, that excite me.

For years Hollywood has been complaining about a box-office slump, with more money being spent on DVDs and less on going to the theater (but all this money still goes to the studios, so it's a perfectly hollow argument.)

Though some of this can be blamed on the quality of movies being put out by the big studios now (did anybody actually go see "Grandma's Boy"?), it's also due to the fact that going to the movies just isn't as fun for many people as it used to be. What incentive is there to stand in line, get gouged for refreshments and squeeze in among the cattle when you can instead just wait a few months and watch the same movie in the comfort of your own home?

What's been lost is the communal experience, the thrill of finding something new with your friends and talking about it afterward. As technology drives us all to be more insular in nature, this may soon be lost forever, but the Capitol Theatre is doing its small part to make going to the movies fun again.

How do you improve on the already perfect "Wizard of Oz"? For me, throw in a cold Chimay Belgian beer to sip on and a very eager kid behind me yelling out things like "Look out, they're behind you" as the scarecrow, the tin man and the cowardly lion are about to get jumped by the wicked witch's henchmen. A perfect evening. The crowd was thin, but seemed to be picking up for the second half of the double feature, "The Godfather," which started too late for me to enjoy on a school night.

Throw in food, which I did not try on my first venture, and you've got a genuine possibility - with the right movies - of drawing more people to downtown.

What kind of movies? For me, movies with great dialogue are the best for viewing in a group. Anything by Kevin Smith, especially "Clerks," fits the bill. How about a double feature of Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket," which brought Luke and Owen Wilson to the world, and then the even-better "Rushmore"?

"Almost Famous" and "Dazed and Confused" would be big draws, as would anything by Quentin Tarantino. And, of course, the sublimely silly "Napoleon Dynamite." I could go on forever, but you get the idea. Just think of the movies that make you smile, then think how much fun it would be to see them on the big screen again with a bunch of friends.

My boss, Oby Brown, always one for big ideas, wants to rent the place out for a double feature of "Cool Hand Luke" followed by "Sling Blade." A Southerner's dream lineup, I'd say.

Will this actually work? Who knows, but I'll do my part to support it, and I hope you all will too.

As the final credits were rolling on "The Wizard of Oz" I also had some darker thoughts. Although I love "The Wiz," having seen it on Broadway, I breathed a sigh of relief that no one else has had the nerve to more conventionally remake the original.

Imagine what might happen if it fell into the hands of a soulless remake machine like Tim Burton. The first thing Burton would do is skip the trouble of finding all those adorable little munchkins and instead just use one little guy and re-create his image over and over digitally like in Burton's purely purile take on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Secondly, I could see some hack taking the poppy field followed by snow to its illogical extreme, having the wicked witch instead try to stop our heroes with an opium den, only to have good witch Glenda pick them back up with a hit of cocaine. Perhaps we could even get a cameo visit from the Snowman himself, Macon's own Young Jeezy.

But that would never happen, would it? Keep your fingers crossed that "The Wizard of Oz" will remain, as it has for so many decades, untouchable.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Oscars? No, just the Demkos

My eyes usually glaze over when I read about whether it's been an up or down year for Hollywood.

Joe Kovac Jr. once did a story about a young man named Paul Cooper who proudly declared, "I'm going to a big birthday party, mine." Well, in honor of Paul, this is all about one person's moviegoing experience, mine. And I, Keith Demko, had a great time at the movies this year.

In that spirit, allow me to share my favorite (and least favorite) movies and performances of 2005.

Best picture

1. "A History of Violence" David Cronenberg took a graphic novel about one man's possibly shady past and turned it into a credible commentary on the destructive nature of violence in modern society. Remarkable and remarkably entertaining.

2. "The Squid and the Whale" One reviewer rather ridiculously called this a "great divorce movie," but it really is an intimate tale of one family's road to destruction that serves up enough humor and humanity along the way to make it an engaging ride.

3. "Pride and Prejudice" First-time director Joe Wright rightly kept things fast and funny in telling Jane Austen's best story, and found the perfect Elizabeth Bennet in Keira Knightley.

4. "The Constant Gardener" Fernando Meirelles followed up what was in my opinion 2002's best movie, "City of God," with this taut thriller that begins with a mysterious death and casts its net wide to tackle the shady practices of drug companies in Africa.

5. "King Kong" Easily the most flawed movie on this list. Too long? Maybe, but it was also the most fun I had at the movies this year. Can't wait to see what trick Peter Jackson will pull on us next.

Honorable mention

6. "Broken Flowers" I'm convinced that only a complete lack of any tidy resolution kept this Jim Jarmusch gem about a man who tries to track down a son he may have fathered in his colorful past from being a major hit.

7. "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit" Nick Park kept the bawdy jokes just over the head of younguns and put in enough broad ones to keep the kids I saw this with in stitches.

8. "Murderball" "March of the Penguins" clobbered it at the box office, but this portrait of quadraplegic rugby players was easily the best documentary of 2005, albeit with possibly the worst title ever. Get it on DVD to see them take on the crew from "Jackass." Priceless.

9. "Walk the Line" Though it will inevitably be compared to 2004's "Ray," this made for a far superior biopic by wisely focusing on the love of Johnny & June rather than the Man in Black's whole life.

10. "Good Night, and Good Luck" I had a private screening of this one morning at the AmStar Cinemas, and it was a bit eerie. Like it was me and Joseph McCarthy in a room together. That said, it's great agenda filmmaking and a surprising directing accomplishment for George Clooney.

Worst picture

This comes with the caveat that, not being a paid film critic, I don't generally go see movies that I know in advance I'm going to hate. Though these are surely not the worst movies made in 2005, they are, in no particular order, the worst I saw.

1. "Elizabethtown"
2. "Syriana"
3. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
4. "The Ringer"
5. "Chicken Little"

Again, I didn't bother to see instant classics like "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Doom," but these are five flicks that really grated my cheese last year.

Best actress

If I were an Oscar or Golden Globe voter, here's how I would rank the best performances by women in 2005, in descending order:

1. Keira Knightley Her Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride & Prejudice" goes from steely resolve to painful vulnerability with ease. A real accomplishment that gets my fictional Oscar vote.

2. Reese Witherspoon Granted, her appeal as June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" hinges almost as much on her cuteness as her ability to act, but she makes every scene she's in better by sheer force of will. By the way, if you haven't seen her in Alexander Payne's "Election" with Matthew Broderick, stop reading now and go rent or Netflix it. You'll thank me when you stop laughing.

3. Maria Bello As her world crumbles around her in "A History of Violence," Bello brings us along through her personal hell with a harrowing performance.

4. Rachel Weisz Comic book geeks tell me she was great in "Constantine," and I'll just have to take their word for it. To me, she makes this list for her portrayal of the activist doctor whose life and death are the focus of "The Constant Gardener."

5. Laura Linney She's been my favorite actress since "You Can Count on Me," and delivered a solid performance as a philandering and failing wife in "The Squid and the Whale."

Best actor

Again in descending order ...

1. Terrence Howard It may be "hard out here for a pimp," but Howard makes it all look easy as the hustler at the center of "Hustle and Flow," which almost made my top 10 list.

2. Jeff Daniels I expect to hear his name on Oscar night as much in recognition of his career than of his performance in "The Squid and the Whale," where he piles on the clueless ego as Noah Baumbach's portrait of his father.

3. Bill Murray Granted, he flies through "Broken Flowers" with the same deadpan demeanor he delivered in "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation," but it's a unique style that deserves recognition.

4. Cillian Murphy While I haven't seen Heath Ledger's gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," I have seen Murphy's fun performance as a gay Irishman in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" and left the theater with a smile.

5. Joaquin Phoenix He broods with the best of them in "Walk the Line," and I'd expect to hear his name on Oscar night if Daniels loses out.

One final note: If you don't usually watch the Golden Globes, make an exception and tune in. It's usually a looser affair than the Oscars, facilitated and fueled by free-flowing alcohol, and makes for a fun night of viewing.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Crash and burn on "Glory Road"

Just how many movies can tell the story of the "greatest game ever played?" We get what must be the 101st entry with Disney's "Glory Road," a severely dumbed-down take on Texas Western College's 1966 run to the national championship in men's basketball.

For once, the game itself lives up to the hype. By fielding an all-black team that beat Kentucky at Maryland's since torn-down Cole Field House, coach Don Haskins changed the course of sports history by integrating college basketball, even if his main motivation was just to win. To Disney, however, it's just an excuse to compile a highlight reel of scenes you've seen before, and much better done, in great sports movies like "Hoosiers" and "Bull Durham."

The most disturbing thing is how the racial incidents are dismissed. The scrutiny these players were under as they kept winning, from both friend and foe, was intense. In what could have been one particularly troubling scene, they get off the bus to find words like coon (and another one you won't see printed here) written on the walls of their hotel room in what appears to be blood.

However, with very little discussion and no reflection, they're right back on the bus. By glossing over such conflicts, you're left with what I can only assume is the exact opposite impression than director James Gartner was going for, that hate of this magnitude is really no big deal, just something to shrug about and move on. It's at best stupid and at worst destructive.

On the upside, the very short scenes are punctuated by some of the great songs from the Stax catalog. Even the sourest swill goes down just a little better with some Sam and Dave. And the basketball scenes are well choreographed, capturing the excitement of the moment.

The performers are also clearly more inspired than the filmmakers. Josh Lucas, who apparently starred with Reese Witherspoon in "Sweet Home Alabama," wades through his coaching cliche-ridden dialogue with spirit, and "Antwone Fisher" star Derek Luke leads the fairly dynamic cast of ringers Haskins snagged to run to the championship. And I won't spoil the movie's funnest surprise: who plays Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp under a heavy dose of makeup.

If you sit through the credits at the end you'll see interviews with some of the Texas Western and Kentucky players who were there, including Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who played for Kentucky in 1966. It's a fascinating glimpse into the minds of some truly inspirational athletes, but it only left me wondering how great their story could have been in the hands of someone who actually cared about their accomplishment.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Two bites from the Big Apple

If this was the last time I get to close out the year with a week in the greatest city on Earth, I definitely went out on top. As my usually indulgent boss Oby Brown pointed out, it's a little selfish to expect to get the last week of every year off, and I couldn't come up with a rational argument to refute that.

Along with getting to hang out with my parents and brother, a week in NYC for me is about four things: Museums, music, meals and, most of all, movies. Here are reviews of two highlights which should be coming to Macon soon.

The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach's autobiographical tale about the implosion of his parents' marriage is a sad tale spiked with just enough humor and humanity to make it a small classic.

When your parents are Brooklyn College professor and semi-acclaimed writer Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown, there's bound to be a little ego in the room, which Noah Baumbach exploits to the max.

Jeff Daniels as the pater familias is as good as I can remember him being in an already long career. He is blissfully unaware of how he has ignored his children's rather obvious problems. Watching him fight for a parking space in the family's Park Slope neighborhood as if it was the most important thing in the world is as funny as it is frustrating. Already christened by the Hollywood foreign press with a Golden Globe nomination for best actor, expect to hear his name on Oscar night too.

But the beauty of "The Squid and the Whale" is it's ensemble appeal. Laura Linney is adequately embattled as a woman whose serial affairs have robbed her of any ability to communicate with her children. As the older son Walt, Jesse Eisenberg gets to run with the year's best joke about a Pink Floyd song or just about any other subject, and young Owen Kline is charming as Frank, who has more problems than any child star since Drew Barrymore.

Although the family collapse is painful to watch at times, expect no "Kramer Vs. Kramer"-style histrionics. It's never mawkish or maudlin, just surprisingly intimate and real. How it attracted so much attention from the Golden Globe folks (also nabbing a best picture nomination, among others), I don't know, but I do agree. Next to "Pride & Prejudice," it's the best movie I've seen this year.


I was looking forward to this one more than any other movie this year except "King Kong," so I guess I should be happy with being only mildy disappointed.

Going as only he can from popcorn to politics, Steven Spielberg follows up his take on "War of the Worlds" this summer with an ambitious look at the terrorist act that tore apart the 1972 Munich Olympics and how Israel reacted to it.

To track down the identified members of the Black September unit that killed11 Israeli athletes (with an unforgivably incompetent - and I still suspect intentional - assist from the German government), Eric Bana leads a troubled team of assassins commissioned by Golda Meir. He's a wise choice and up to the task. You can see the increasing futility of his mission played out on his face.

As the team sets out on its gruesome task, the movie has the look and feel of the best '70s thrillers, most notably Kubrick's "The Conversation." They are methodical and meticulous, and it's a tense ride. Daniel Craig, the next James Bond, and the always reliable Ciaran Hinds ("Persuasion" and any number of Masterpiece Theatre appearances) stand out in Bana's band of assassins.

Like the best movies about the past, Spielberg has more to say about today's bloody mess than he does about Munich and its aftermath. For Spielberg, the endless violence-begets-violence cycle created by terrorism and our response to it is a zero sum game, a point he drives home here with all the tricks in his bag.

He's at the top of his game here, and my only real beef is that the movie is at least 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, with the multiple-endings syndrome that almost sunk Peter Jackson's "Return of the King." As Geoffrey Rush points out as Bana's handler, "There's no peace in this," and there also doesn't need to be any kind of neat resolution.