View from the Couch
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Date: 1 June, 2006
Steve Couch reviews films recently released on DVD.
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This isn’t a film about gay cowboys – and not just because the protagonists are employed to look after sheep. Ang Lee’s latest is a film about destructive, obsessive love which just happens to be between two men. Despite the ‘gay cowboy movie’ notoriety, this is a study of people torn apart by passions that they are unwilling to either let go of or embrace fully.
Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Helmar (Heath Ledger) are employed in the summer of 1963 tending sheep on the eponymous Brokeback Mountain. Friendship grows and turns – much to both of their surprise – into something more. From there the film takes us through the next twenty years or so of their lives, twenty years of wives, children, secret liaisons and fear. Fear of being found out, fear of things changing and fear of things staying the same.
Ledger is particularly impressive in communicating the turmoil of the taciturn and deeply private Ennis, a man likely to have been reserved and secretive even if he had nothing to keep secret. Gyllenhaal’s more outgoing Jack makes for an interesting comparison with Ennis, but really this is Ledger’s movie. The main sex scene between the two men is sensitively played – unjudgemental, but also shot darkly so as to avoid any sense of cheap titillation or shock value. Subsequent intimate scenes with wives or girlfriends serve to deepen our understanding of the character and relationships, rather than just for the sake of flashing some flesh across our screens.
So, this is a powerful and tragic love story which is more interested in the broken lives of its central figures than with the sexual politics that has surrounded the film. The controversy has certainly helped to find a big audience for the film, but it’s a film that deserves that audience on merit, not just for tabloid headlines.
The extras are so so, but the film surpasses all the hype.
Click here to see the Damaris Study Guide for Brokeback Mountain.
Another tale of damaging, passionate obsession. But where Ang Lee tugs at our heartstrings, Woody Allen is aiming squarely at our intellects. Typical Allen themes abound, and the early tip of the hat to Dostoevsky gives a clue to Allen’s weighty concerns: the film at times feels like Fatal Attraction meets Crime and Punishment. This has been described as being far from typical Woody Allen. That’s true up to a point. Certainly this is a long way from ‘the early funny ones’, but then so was Crimes and Misdemeanors, another film that you wouldn’t necessarily describe as a comedy. Match Point is a gripping, sexually charged morality tale.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers cuts a brooding figure as ex-Tennis Pro Chris Wilton, introduced to the moneyed nouveau-aristocracy and quickly seduced by the trappings of their privileged lifestyle. For all the passion and sultry glances that pass between him and Nola (Scarlett Johansson), this is a cerebral film about passion, which engages our minds rather than our loins but which still has a powerful emotional grip on its audience. The sex scenes are played to illustrate the effect Meyers and Johansson have on each other’s libidos, rather than to excite ours. The camera doesn’t linger once it has made its point, marking this out from some other films that have been described – as this has – as ‘erotically charged’.
No extras, which is a shame. A Woody Allen commentary would have been a fascinating addition to this release, but one which I suspect we will be left waiting for in vain. And that, more than any of Woody’s intellectual angst, is a truly compelling argument for the imperfection of the Universe.
Click here to see the Damaris Study Guide for Match Point.
There’s always a danger when addressing the subject of war that you will wander off the straight and narrow pathway of the profound and onto the broad highway marked ‘trite’. In the 1980s Boy George informed us that ‘war is stupid, and people are stupid’. Thanks for that, George, good of you to let us know.
By contrast, by the time that Jake Gyllenhaal’s U.S. Marine Andrew Swofford informs us that ‘every war is different. Every war is the same’ it is clear that we are in surer, more sophisticated hands. Although director Sam Mendes is by no means a supporter of American foreign policy, his Iraq War film is measured in its observations.
The film treats Swoff and his buddies with a sympathetic eye, with even the most meat-headed of the marines being shown as more than just a redneck with a gun. And this is their film, the focus more on their experience than it is on the politics that put them in the desert. These are men who have been trained to do a job – to kill – and are waiting, waiting, waiting for the chance to carry it out. We see their excitement, fear, boredom, frustration, comradeship, banter and desperation, and it’s hard for even the most fervent liberal not to be caught up in their desire for a piece of the action.
The extras include a number of deleted scenes – some amusing, all interesting – and commentaries aplenty (both for the movie as a whole and for the extra scenes). An honourable effort and far better than the bonus material for either of the other movies featured in this months column.
Interestingly, Mendes has said that European audiences are more likely to understand the film than American ones, who always want to know whether a war film is pro or anti. Despite Mendes’ liberal credentials this is neither. What it is, though, is a well-made, thoughtful exploration of what modern war is like at ground level. If only Boy George had been available for the soundtrack.
Life On Mars
Best time travel series of 2005: Doctor Who. Best time travel series of 2006? Not so fast you in the big blue box. It’s too soon to judge the 2006 version of Doctor Who (good stuff so far, but we’re not even halfway through yet) but there is stiff competition already from within the BBC. Life On Mars tells the story of DI Sam Tyler (John Simm), a modern day detective who wakes from a road accident to find himself trapped in 1973. Is his bizarre experience merely a figment of his subconscious as he lies comatose in a hospital bed? Has he really been transported back in time? Is 1973 his real world, with his 21st century memories the tricks of a delusional mind? More to the point, how much fun did the programme makers get out of paying homage to beloved icons of 70s popular culture such as Get Carter and The Sweeney?
Life On Mars (the title a reference to the Bowie track from 1971’s Hunky Dory album) plays with its retro setting, but works hard to avoid descending into pastiche. Simm is in every scene (maintaining the possibility that everything we see is a figment of his subconscious) and his impressive performance anchors the series. As a 21st century man cut adrift in the bygone values of the 1970s, he evokes vulnerability even as he shows his resourcefulness, integrity and determination to find a way back to the future.
The perfect foil for Tyler is his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Hunt could have been an amalgam of every hackneyed, hard-nosed 70s TV cop, yet Glenister steers his way safely past parody and through the clichés, emerging as a fully formed character of fascinatingly hidden depth. Each and every episode features at least one finely-polished gem of Hunt dialogue, combining caustic wit, bloody-minded belligerence and a beautifully delivered performance from Glenister. As someone who followed this show throughout its TV run, reliving the Huntisms is one of the joys of this DVD package.
The relationship between Hunt and Tyler – policing by instinct versus policing by intellect – does more than sum up the vast changes that have taken place in our police force and society over the last 30 odd years. It manages to construct a discussion about identity, reality, and morality and at the same time keep an audience on the edge of its seat. A fine achievement, and well worth checking out in advance of the second series – due to reach our screens next year.
The extras are good by the standards of British TV box sets. The eight hour-long episodes all have commentaries (a combination of anecdote, technical insight and mutual admiration), and the two part ‘making of’ is entertaining and informative, if unessential. There are also featurettes on the production design and music, plus an outtakes reel which lives down to all my low expectations of outtake reels.
But if the past is another country, this is one holiday destination that you will want to revisit on a regular basis. My favourite DVD release of the month by a long way.