The British stiff upper-lip, or for that matter Kabuki theatre, has nothing on the cowboy way -- Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain now proposes buckaroos chocking enough emotion into anguished gesture to fuel two remakes of Brief Encounter. Why all the taciturn suffering? The love that dare not speak its name, of course, for the film has already been tagged "the gay-cowboy movie," for convenience or perhaps to alert Bill O'Reilly of his new dartboard. In any case, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are dropped together on a bean diet amid the sheep, cowhands guarding Randy Quaid's flock in the eponymous Wyoming hilly formation. The year is 1963, Stonewall is still some time away, but the furtive glances between these two upon their awkward first meeting hints at accepted behavior erected upon the suppression of emotion, if not yet passion -- that comes later, with the guys bunched together under the same tent during a cold night, a grab for the pistol and then some backdoor mountin'. The sudden release, instinctive and uninhibited, might have been liberating, yet their idyll ends with their drive; "Guess I'll see you later" as Ledger becomes a reflection in Gyllenhaal's rearview mirror, seconds before he collapses on a corner, sobbing. Back to heterosexuality, although their Brokeback Mountain interlude stays with them: Ledger is aroused during bedtime with wife Michelle Williams, so he flips her over doggy-style as Lee cuts to Gyllenhaal at a rodeo in Texas, about to meet his own settling-down choice, moneyed, hot-to-trot Anne Hathaway.
A reunion is in order four years later, each with their respective clans but willing to risk discovery by spending "fishing trips" together, trying to recapture the magic at Brokeback Mountain -- instead of soothing the straitjacketed yearning, the meetings only cruelly remind them of the feelings that must remain hidden. Societal repression is the uniting motif of Lee's miscellany oeuvre, from The Wedding Banquet to The Ice Storm to The Hulk, and also, unhappily, its stylistic template -- Syriana creates mind-numbing spreadsheets out of global oil politics, but cooling down forbidden passion is just another day at the office for Lee, always toiling in muted shades of tastefulness. Ledger and Gyllenhaal, neither very convincing either on the saddle or with gray temples, are nevertheless game for man-love, let down by the director's middlebrow approach to Annie Proulx's 1997 short story, strictly for the straight eye: the boys kiss and dry-hump, yet the directorial oven mitts are so thick that any Red Stater and their grandparents could catch it. The archetype of masculinity, the cowboy image has harbored subversive seeds long before Warhol camped it up in drag, so Brokeback Mountain had the chance to bring them upfront, queer subjugation linked to the roles of women in society. (Tellingly, Williams gives the most touching performance.) "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it," Ledger says to himself more than to Gyllenhaal, though Lee can't tell the difference between criticizing oppression and turning out an oppressed work. The time-spanning narrative might as well have ended in 1982 with the release of Making Love, because that's about how far back the movie sets gay cinema.
Hold on... Jack Black doesn't play King Kong? Anything would have made the overdigitalized remake less tedious, but no, Black plays Peter Jackson's view of himself, a darting-eyed visionary battling a roomful of greedy producers who want to chain down his cinematic journey for "mystery." Disingenuous, really, for after the success of those Lord of the Rings flicks, since proclaimed on the same less as Shakespeare by nerds-at-heart reviewers, Jackson has Hollywood in the palm of his hand, so he's chosen to retool the 1933 saga, reportedly a childhood favorite, into an epic of plastic wonder. The beginning is not that bad, a montage of urban misery scored to Al Jolson so we know this is the Depression, and the grayness of New York City is a relief from that damn Middle Earth green. Among the struggling dwellers is Naomi Watts, fresh out of work as her vaudeville show closes down; she's about to go to jail for a stolen apple when daredevil Black steps in to offer her not just the main role in his picture, but also "money, fame, adventure." She's uninterested until he name-drops sensitive playwright Adrien Brody, on board their beat-up old steamer to pen the screenplay, so off they sail to uncharted waters toward Skull Island, whose first view through the mist, which Spielberg would have aced in his sleep, Jackson manages to botch. To try to make up, he crams the island with a Macy's Parade of CGI behemoths, Jurassic Park rejects all, before pausing long enough so the ooga-booga dark-skinned natives can snatch the white woman.
A brontosaurus stampede, a trio of rapacious T-Rexes, creepy-crawly foreskins... Where's Kong? Sitting by the edge of his cave watching the sunset with his beloved by his side after snapping a dinosaur's jaw open, gruff but sensitive, played by Andy "Gollum" Serkis yet really just a mass of computer effects -- meant to be heartbreakingly majestic, but without a spec of the danger and presence of the charging primate very briefly glimpsed in Werner Herzog's The White Diamond. Still, Black knows an Eighth Wonder of the World when he sees one, wide-angle lens in hand, and shanghais the big guy to the Big Apple for a climactic thrashing marathon and the rendezvous with the armed forces atop the Empire State Building. The 1933 original could be a white supremacist ode one moment and the return of the oppressed the next, while the 1976 remake was a spoof of the folly of romance; the new King Kong is strictly a commodity, three hours before somebody points out the self-reflexivity of capturing primeval mystery only to degrade it for the box-office. Just as Watts, despite a passable scream, has too much steely reserve in her to match the vulnerability of Fay Wray, so does Jackson fail to match the simple, handmade artistry of original directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, let alone his early, edgier self, the Jackson who made Dead Alive with a ton of Úlan and a Sumatran Rat Monkey, a less fatuous ape. Now, following a diet of hobbits or elves or gnomes or whatever, his edges have been thoroughly rounded off, the better to make gazillions for the bosses at the studios -- never mind the Jackson-as-Black analogy, the director is the fallen one on the pavement in the end.
Much better, therefore less hyped, is Pulse. What King Kong vainly searched for in Skull Island, complete with ludicrous Conradian mumbling, Kiyoshi Kurosawa locates here within the human eye and mind, deformed by the reliance on modern technology. The Internet is the main subject, and also the preferred highway of the film's subtle horrors, built around a looming sense of dread, an abstracting use of space, and a generation's growing disconnection (with the past, with each other, with reality). Tokyo all but disappears underneath smoke, the apocalypse afoot, though Japanese youths remain glued to computer screens; cyberspace strikes back, and ghosts traffic via infested floppy disks, chatrooms, and web images spiked with hazy surrealism. Haruhiko Kato as a long-haired Luddite and Koyuki as a dishy nerdette at the lab provide the narrative anchors, but Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is less interested in plot than in creating a vision of a doomsday long arrived and adapted to quotidian lives, as result of the contemporary numbing of the senses that has degraded notions of contact (blinking signals on a screen versus physical touch) and the way we receive and process images. Are these machines serving us, or are we serving them? Pulse is not just the scariest sample of J-horror I've yet seen, but also the most profound, a purgatory of loneliness on both sides of a computer screen, hence (to the characters) of life itself. In that sense, the film succeeds where Miike's intriguing One Missed Call failed, with Kurosawa's splendid sense of mood and atmosphere stemming from his fears of humanity trailing into the abyss, keyboard and screen-cam and all.
Reviewed December 22, 2005.