BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). The secret behind this adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is that, behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as "the gay cowboy movie," this is as universal as any cinematic love story of recent times. Scripters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee have managed to make a movie that vibrates on two separate settings: It's a story about the love between two men, yes, but it's also a meditation on the strict societal rules that keep any two people -- regardless of gender, race, class, religion, etc. -- out of each other's arms. In detailing the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Brokeback Mountain is about longing and loneliness as much as it's about love -- indeed, loss and regret become tangible presences in the film. Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance, but this is clearly Ledger's show: He's phenomenal as Ennis, and his character's anguish causes our own hearts to break on his behalf. After winning over a dozen critics' awards -- as well as scoring at the box office and tapping into the national zeitgeist -- homophobia within the Academy's own ranks prevented it from winning the expected Best Picture Oscar, though it did manage to earn three statues for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla's haunting theme music was indeed the year's finest). DVD extras include a making-of feature and interviews with Lee, McMurtry and Ossana.
KING KONG (2005). Does Peter Jackson's heavily hyped remake of the 1933 masterpiece improve on its landmark predecessor? Of course not. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any area in which it's better than the original -- even the occasionally crude effects from 1933, crafted from blood, sweat, tears and tiny models, stir the soul more than the CGI trickery on view here. But on its own terms, this box office behemoth gets the job done. In essence, Jackson has taken the 103-minute original and stretched it out to a 190-minute running time. The three-act structure remains intact, however, as filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) journey to Skull Island, meet the great ape and bring him back to New York City. Despite an abundance of thrills, Jackson respects that King Kong is above all else a love story between woman and beast, and it's a measure of Watts' skills that she generates enormous chemistry with an animal that's created out of computer codes rather than flesh and blood. Watts deserved a Best Actress Oscar nod, but the film's four nominations were all for technical achievements; it won three, for Best Visual Effects, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Jackson (pardon the pun) apes his approach with the Lord of the Rings DVDs by allowing viewers access to just about every facet of putting the movie together after filming was complete; these "Post Production Diaries" run 2-1/2 hours. Other extras in the two-disc DVD set include a history of Skull Island and a look at the NYC of 1933.
THE MEL BROOKS COLLECTION (1970-1993). Mel Brooks' three best films are all included in this eight-movie set, but since all three are already available on disc, the big news is the DVD debut of the other five titles. Covering the majority of his film career, the collection demonstrates that, despite occasional hit-and-miss spells, his standing as a comic colossus remains undiminished.
Arriving two years after The Producers (for which Brooks won an Oscar for his script), the middling comedy The Twelve Chairs (1970) casts Ron Moody, Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise as three Russians searching for a chair that contains hidden jewels. Blazing Saddles (1974) is acknowledged as a comedy classic, with black Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) and his easygoing companion the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) attempting to tame Wild West corruption (to say nothing of handling Madeline Kahn's Marlene Dietrich take-off, Lili Von Shtupp). Brooks' best film is easily Young Frankenstein (1974), featuring gorgeous production values (a tribute to Universal's '30s horror flicks), a quip-packed screenplay and marvelous work by (among others) Wilder (as the scientist), Peter Boyle (as the monster) and scene-stealing Marty Feldman (as the hunchbacked assistant Igor).
Brooks lined up an impressive array of stars (Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Marcel Marceau, etc.) to make cameo appearances in the shaky Silent Movie (1976), in which a director (Brooks) and his pals (DeLuise and Feldman) try to revive the art of silent cinema. High Anxiety (1977) finds Brooks on sturdier ground, as spoofs of Psycho, Spellbound, Vertigo and The Birds (a hilarious sequence) are included in this Hitchcock homage that finds Mel playing the new head of an insane asylum. History of the World Part I (1981) remains the reigning guilty pleasure of my moviegoing lifetime (so sue me), with Brooks and co. viewing milestones of world history through a particularly vulgar prism.
A remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic, To Be Or Not to Be (1983), can't match the excellence of its predecessor, but it still provides a grand time as Mel and real-life wife Anne Bancroft portray Polish actors thwarting bumbling Nazis. Lastly, instead of the enduring likes of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, the Sherwood Forest spoof Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) casts poor substitutes Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis and Amy Yasbeck -- it's no surprise that the best scene comes courtesy of a veteran Brooks performer (Dom DeLuise in a brilliant send up of the Godfather).
Only some of the discs contain extra features; among them are interviews and making-of featurettes.
The Twelve Chairs: **1/2
Blazing Saddles: ***1/2
Young Frankenstein: ****
Silent Movie: **1/2
High Anxiety: ***
History of the World Part I: ***1/2
To Be Or Not to Be: ***
Robin Hood: Men In Tights: **
SEVEN BEAUTIES (1976). Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini, in a knockout performance), a dapper slacker in 1930s Italy, sponges off his obese sisters (the seven "beauties" of the title) even as he prattles on about the importance of defending the family's honor. After he kills -- and hacks up -- the pimp who steered one of his sisters into a life of prostitution, he pleads insanity and is sent to an asylum. Released into the care of the army (who needs all the bodies it can round up for World War II), he soon deserts his post, gets captured by the Germans and is shipped to a concentration camp ruled by a frightful (and frightfully large) female officer (Shirley Stoler). Every last shred of Pasqualino's so-called honor evaporates once he decides to butter up the Commandant by putting the moves on her, a choice that leads to a devastating development. Writer-director Lina Wertmuller's audacious art-house hit is at once ruthless, sadistic and cynical -- it's also very funny, using its black comedy trappings to unearth laughs where none should exist. This copped four major Oscar nominations for Best Foreign-Language Film, Actor, Original Screenplay and Director, though it was the latter nod that earned the movie a place in Oscar history: Wertmuller became the first woman to be nominated for Best Director, a feat that's only been repeated twice (The Piano's Jane Campion and Lost In Translation's Sofia Coppola) in the subsequent 29 years. Extras in the two-disc DVD include a 77-minute interview with Wertmuller and a trailer gallery.
AN UNFINISHED LIFE (2005). If Miramax hadn't been so rushed in its effort to clean out its closet before all ties were severed between the indie giant and parent company Disney, it's a good bet that studio head Harvey Weinstein would have held this September 2005 release for a year-end Oscar slot. It's directed by the company's go-to award contender Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat), it stars Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez, and it wrestles with weighty topics like forgiveness, redemption and letting go of the past. Yet a pedigree isn't everything -- it helps if, you know, the movie's memorable -- and for all its small moments of inspiration, there wasn't much here to warrant any serious trophy consideration. Redford stars as gruff cowboy Einar Gilkyson, who still blames his daughter-in-law Jean (Lopez) for his son's death in an automobile accident. Einar, whose spirit seems to have died right alongside his boy, isn't thrilled when Jean shows up uninvited on his doorstep with her young daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) in tow. Spending much of his time tending to the health of his best friend Mitch (Freeman), whose close encounter with a bear left him the worse for wear, Einar at first avoids his new houseguests altogether, though he eventually starts to respond to their presence. It's good to see Redford playing a character who's more ornery than iconic, and the impressive Gardner provides a boost to every scene in which she appears. Yet the camaraderie between the Redford and Freeman characters isn't always convincing -- it plays like an inferior version of the Freeman-Eastwood tag team in Million Dollar Baby -- while the heavy-handed moralizing leads to all the expected epiphanies. DVD extras include audio commentary by Hallstrom, a making-of featurette and a piece on training Bart the Bear.