Oscar Hopefuls, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I told you about some Oscar hopefuls. Here are two more, both not just hopefuls but real contenders. In fact, they’re amongst the best films currently playing in conventional multiplexes.

Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee bounces back from the inedible Hulk with a sweeping romantic tragedy. As Ennis, Heath Ledger brings the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy into emotional reality; this is a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. He falls hard for Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), and Jack falls just as hard for him, but for cowboys in the 1960s, coming out of the closet wasn’t an option.

So they marry women, raise families, and try, unsuccessfully, to lead normal lives. But whenever they can, they return together to the place where they fell in love, Brokeback Mountain. Although still closeted, Jack is clearly the more at ease with his lusts—or at least the more driven by them. While Ennis sleepwalks through an unhappy but inescapable life, Jack talks about leaving their wives and ranching together. And unlike Ennis, Jack looks for male sex elsewhere.

Brokeback Mountain is set over a period of about 20 years, and while you feel the passing of time, there’s almost no sense of history. A lot changed for American gays between 1964 and 1984, but not in the society that Ennis and Jack inhabit. They’re hip enough to share a joint in the 1970s, but the obvious solution of moving to San Francisco (or even Dallas) never occurs to them. That isn’t a flaw–you can’t imagine these two living happily in a big city.

But the film does have a serious flaw: Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx) fail to find a real human in the part of Jack’s wife (Anne Hathaway). She’s a simple shrew, and the film doesn’t ask you to feel an ounce of sympathy for her truly awful situation (which includes a domineering father as well as a bad marriage). By contrast, the trials that Ennis’ wife (Michelle Williams) goes through are heartbreaking. Hathaway, whose big breakthrough was The Princess Diaries, is a talented actress who deserves a good role in a movie that isn’t targeted at children.

I’ve finally figured Steven Spielberg out . The crown prince of commercial Hollywood is, at heart, an ethnic filmmaker.

We’ve all known for decades that Spielberg is a genius at crafting light entertainment. But we’ve also all seen his embarrassing, pre-Schindler’s List attempts at serious art. And we were all disappointed when he failed to follow that one great film with something else half as compelling.

Now comes Munich, which could have been just a taut, well-made thriller. Instead, it’s a taut, well-made, morally ambiguous, and emotionally complex thriller, and easily his best work since Schindler. That’s why Spielberg is an ethnic filmmaker; so far, he can only create great serious art within a Jewish context.

Munich starts with the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. We first meet Avner (Eric Bana) as he and his pregnant wife watch the events unfold on TV. But Avner is a Mossad agent, and he soon receives an assignment to assassinate those responsible for the Munich massacre.

That sounds like a simple espionage plot, but Munich is no James Bond flick (even though the next James Bond, Daniel Craig, plays a member of Avner’s team). The Palestinians they’re assigned to kill often seem on the surface like perfectly nice people. The underground information dealers who help them track down their prey hardly seem trustworthy. And their orders, which include using bombs whenever possible, but not killing innocent bystanders, seem contradictory. (Bombs are not discriminating weapons.)

Slowy, Avner and his team begin to lose it, succumbing to guilt, cruelty, and paranoia. As with David Cronenberg’s  A History of Violence (which this surpasses as my favorite thriller of the year), there are no happy endings for those who live by the sword.

You’ve probably already heard the political complaints about Munich. A film with no easy answers can’t please people who want art to stick closely to their own world view. Spielberg definitely sides with the Israelis here; no Palestinian here seems capable of the guilt that our Mossad heroes experience. But he understands all too painfully that revenge breeds revenge and violence breeds violence.

And good films breed happy filmgoers. Here are three films worth seeing—or at least worth reading about. For others, see my listings.

Noteworthy: Roman Scandals, Castro, Friday. It’s been a long time since I saw this 1933 Eddie Cantor comedy set (mostly) in an art deco ancient Rome. I don’t remember much about it. But I do recall the most offensive scene I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie: Cantor, wearing a blackface that would embarrass Al Jolson, surrounded by beautiful, scantily-clad blondes, singing “Be young and beautiful/It’s your duty to be beautiful/Be young and beautiful/If you want to be loved.” On a double bill with That’s Dancing to close the Castro’s Busby Berkeley series.

Recommended, with Reservations: Mighty Joe Young (1949), Castro, Tuesday. Sixteen years after making King Kong, the principle filmmakers tried a warm and fuzzy variation on the giant gorilla theme. The result is no masterpiece, but it’s a pleasant enough entertainment, especially for young children. While Kong is scary, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic, Joe is simply cute, and gets to live happily ever after (but not before saving children from a burning orphanage).

Recommended: King Kong (1933), Castro, one-week engagement starts Thursday. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–crude by today’s standards but packing an emotional punch, nonetheless. It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the amazing score by Max Steiner, and the wonderful cast headed by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. But most of all, it’s the complex title character. Kong is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying as he grinds people into the ground or bites them to death, but also confused, loving, majestic, and doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly if you think about it, but so are dreams.