Chris Columbus’ Rent (B+) faithfully adapts the Broadway musical about a circle of bohemian NYC friends coming to terms with mortality and having to pay their dues for living life to their own beat. What he gets wrong in awkward transitions, cheesy sets and cast members (many from the original stage production) who look too old to be twentysomethings, Columbus gets right in honoring and immortalizing the heart and bliss of artistic life and friendships. Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Jesse L. Martin are standouts in the cast, and Jonathan Larson’s propulsive music fuels a life-affirming experience.
Finally, the mess of a prequel trilogy gets some moments of badass as George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (B) restores some dignity to the series. Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amadala are still the soapiest of characters – and now they are pregnant with Luke and Leia (guess it’s not a spoiler alert when you’re already in a prequel!) – and Anakin is still ticked at Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) for not making him a full Jedi. Lots of battles occur, and ultimately we get the anticipated volcano fight when Anakin finally transforms fully into part-man, part-machine Darth Vader. Of course, Lucas almost spoils that with a strange Frankenstein homage (the Ewoks weren’t available for a chorus of “Yub Nub”?) There’s at least some symmetry in this film that helps match it to the classic trilogy and foreshadows the continuing Skywalker saga to come. Did we care much about any of these prequel characters? Not really. There were some cool effects, and I guess it’s better to have a Star Wars movie than not (at least in some of Episode II ‘s case and most of Episode III). Fans will appreciate the plunge into darkness and the higher stakes than usual, even though the characters are still pretty undercooked.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (A-) is a thrilling reboot with Christian Bale as the caped crusader. I loved how it began unexpectedly in the Himalayas before settling in Gotham City. Nolan’s particular talents fit nicely with labyrinthine plot devices, elaborate inventions and double-crosses. Cillian Murphy is ok as The Scarecrow and Katie Holmes barely registers as a love interest, but overall the supporting cast is outstanding: Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, to name a few. This is a highly recommended superhero movie that saves the franchise from the clutches of Joel Schumacher.
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (A) pairs brilliant actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as men who fall in love in the Wyoming wilderness of the 1960’s and spend the rest of their life trying to reconcile their forbidden desires to their wives (played by Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway) and hide their emotions from themselves. It’s a heartbreaking reverse-romance as most of the love is unrequited. The cinematography and storytelling are exquisite, and the brittle emotions cut to the bone. The passage of time parallels the creeks and brooks of the gorgeous countryside, even if the emotions run deep and powerful but often unexplored. Ledger and Gyllenhaal may be more daring than they even know for taking on these roles with such abandon, and Lee gives them a narrative that resonates.
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a powerful thriller in which Viggo Mortensen plays a low-key small town merchant who fends off some criminal types that come into town and outs himself as having a bit of a secret past. Mortenssen is dynamite, and Maria Bello is also spectacular as his wife. William Hurt is also great in a creepy extended cameo. Packed with secrets and poignant as a meditation on crime and American life, this was one of the best films of 2005.