Friday, July 29, 2011

the Directors: Steven Spielberg

Although he hasn’t done anything very good lately (and be honest, with few exceptions, you know he hasn’t) it remains utterly impossible to have a serious conversation about film without mentioning Steven Spielberg.

In drafting this list, I was struck with something profound: I actually don’t like a great deal of Spielberg’s movies.  For every classic, there seems to be two letdowns.  Again, this argument is fruitless, given the fact that one name can be billed to so many indisputable masterpieces.

After a three year break from directing, Spielberg has two films set for December releases, a movie about our 16th President next year, and Jurassic Park 4 in the pipeline.

For better or worse, here’s a breakdown of Spielberg’s entire storied career.  And be forewarned: fantasy/sci-fi isn’t my preferred genre, apathy will be common among these reviews.

Duel (1971)
Technically a TV movie, but one most definitely worth mentioning, as it paves clear way for the suspense Spielberg would soon capitalize on.  The plot is simple: a rushed businessman cuts off an 18-wheeler and is hence chased by the truck for the duration of the film.  Although the film has aged badly, and it relies too heavily on Murphy’s Law, Duel is still a breeze.  B

The Sugarland Express (1974)
A woman sneaks her husband out of a minimum security prison, in hopes of rescuing their child from his foster parents.  But the film isn’t in the destination, it’s in the journey, which goes on and on and on and on.  Lou Jean and Clovis kidnap a cop and are chased by about 200 more for what feels like an eternity.  If the film didn’t have a harrowing Goldie Hawn anchoring it, it would be all but forgotten. C-

Jaws (1975)
The first bona fide blockbuster remains as engrossing as it did upon its release, for exactly the same reasons.  A horribly frightening opening scene, credible acting, music that’s synonymous with terror, a delay of shock, and much more.  Famously, the shark was supposed to be in the film’s first scene, but Spielberg and his crew couldn’t get it to function.  The result spawned an immeasurable suspense that many horror films consider the standard: wait to show the villain, for that what we don’t see is that what we most fear.  A+

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
During the making of this film, George Lucas visited the set and started complaining to Spielberg about a sci-fi flick he was working on.  They both agreed to give each other 1 percent of the total grosses of each other’s films.  Spielberg’s was a great success, while Lucas’ was the ultimate success.  My point is, Close Encounters is often out shadowed by Star Wars, which is understandable, seeing as how it’s the less flashy of the two.  Upon revisiting this film recently, I found myself oddly underwhelmed.  Its climax (thanks much in part to François Truffaut’s spirited performance) remains essential to the Spielberg name.  Overall, it feels long winded, but ultimately worth it.  B+

1941 (1979)
My god, what a truly awful film this is.  You know you’re desperate when you start making fun of your own work (a Jaws parody?  Really?).  1941, which, you’ll forgive me for not fully remembering, concerns a slew of annoying Californians and an impending Japanese invasion post-Pearl Harbor.  The movie is unconvincingly staged, laughably acted and just all around phoned in.  Not at all worthy of anyone’s time.  D-

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Well this isn’t going to gain me any friends.  I am not, nor ever will be, a fan of the Indiana Jones films.  I know this kind of speaking is sacrilege in some circles, but I cannot help it, they simply don’t do it for me.  I’ve tried time and time again (I’ve forced myself to watch all of them four times), and I always find myself counting the minutes until they’re done.  Of course, the opening of this film contains one of the most exciting openings in film history, but beyond that… I’ve never enjoyed the Kool-Aid that everyone else seems to swear by. C+

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
No matter what mood I’m in, or where I’m at, or what I’m doing, if I come across E.T. on television, I watch it through its duration.  E.T. is one of the few quintessential science fiction films ever made.  It is necessary and worthy on so many levels, digital effects being secondary among them.  Its acting redefined what children can bring to a picture, its music demonstrated how two mediums can work seamlessly together, and its story continues to move beyond words.  There quite simply isn’t enough praise you can throw at E.T.  It’s an essential American film, and, dare I say, the finest of Steven Spielberg’s career. A+ 

Twilight Zone: The Movie, Kick the Can (1983)
Often forgotten alongside John Landis and George Miller’s superior installments (about a bigot trapped in places he wishes he wasn’t, and a paranoid passenger spotting an alien at 20,000 feet, respectively), Spielberg’s small tale tells the story of an old man who discovers that by kicking a can around, he and his friends are instantly turned into playful youths.  It’s like Cocoon but dull.  C

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
If you offered me a handsome sum of money to tell you what this movie is about, I couldn’t do it.  I honestly have no recollection concerning Temple of Doom.  Everytime I watch it, it seems to immediately escape from my mind, and without cheating (via IMDB or Wikipedia) I can only say that I’ve given the film its fair number of chances and it simply does not stick.  C-

The Color Purple (1985)
Spielberg’s first attempt to be taken seriously was a courteous misfire. Meaning, its heart is most definitely there, but the resulting film is a (mostly) sluggish bore with (mostly) bad acting and far too much exercised restraint.  It’s as if the movie wants to be bold, but is more concerned with shielding our eyes from all the bad stuff.  The Academy Awards confirmed this, nominating the film for 11 Oscars, and awarding it with nothing.  It was a gentle pat on the back.  A “better luck next time,” if you will.  C+

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Capturing yet another flawless adolescent acting performance (this time by a very young Christian Bale), Empire of the Sun takes its sweet time showing the hellishness of Japanese-occupied World War II, and its duration (a long two and a half hours) is ultimately worth the reward.  This can be credited to Bale and John Malkovich’s performances, among others.  Again, it’s as if Spielberg desperately wants to tell a brutal story, but doesn’t have the heart to show the full brutality.  That was coming, but it’s fair to consider Empire of the Sun another, albeit more successful, trial run.  A-

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
This is the one with Sean Connery right?  And Nazis?  C-

Always (1989)
Another shit movie.  There’s really no other way to describe it.  While it isn’t as bad as 1941, Always is arguably Spielberg’s weakest and most forgettable film.  The movie, about a firefighting pilot who is killed in action, only to return as a curious ghost, rests solely on the shoulders of star Richard Dreyfuss.  And, unlike his previous efforts with Spielberg, Always turns Dreyfuss into a whiny mess.  One slight wave of redemption: Audrey Hepburn, in her final film role, as Dreyfuss’ fairy God mother.  D

Hook (1991)
After failing to be taken seriously, and relying too much on sentiment, Spielberg went straight kid all over again, with this revamped version of Peter Pan.  And while the casting is beyond spirited (Robin Williams lives up to the role, and I still, for the life of me, cannot recognize Dustin Hoffman behind that hair), the film runs a little too long, and bogs itself down with excessive dialogue.  Not a bad film, but get to the fun stuff already.  B-

Jurassic Park (1993)
Spielberg’s best film since E.T. brought dinosaurs back to life, scared and delighted both kids and adults equally, and reaffirmed his status as the go-to director for smart action thrills.  Jurassic Park is as entertaining as movies get; endlessly accessible and compulsively rewatchable.  Am I the only one who thinks Spielberg’s dinosaur robotics look more lifelike than, say, the CGI in Peter Jackson’s King Kong? A

Schindler’s List (1993)
In 1993, Spielberg delivered the greatest one-two punch in the history of American cinema.  Jurassic Park was released in the summer, and soon became the highest grossing film of all time.  Schindler’s List was released during Oscar season, and justly swept every major awards race.  While E.T. may be Spielberg’s finest accomplishment as a director, Schindler’s List is by far his most personal.  After half-assed attempts at convincing melodrama, Spielberg went all in with his holocaust drama.  The result is a perfect film, one that never feels dated, and remains incredibly difficult to stomach.  The ending of this film never fails to move me.  For the people out there who have been purposefully avoiding Schindler’s List: I understand your hesitation, but you’re missing out on a definitive American masterpiece. A+

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
This sequel has its moments (the dangling bus, the San Diego rampage, a campy Jeff Goldblum, a crazed Pete Postlethwaite) but it in no way delivers beyond its predecessor.  It’s better than Jurassic Park III (which Spielberg wisely declined to direct), but not at all necessary. Does anyone really think part four will be good?  Here’s to hoping.  B-

Amistad (1997)
Whether intentional or not, Spielberg was clearly trying to capitalize on the good fortune brought his way in 1993: one popcorn flick for them, on serious drama for me (he did this again in 2005, and he’s doing it this year).  Amistad starts off incredibly strong, and for good reason: it initially focuses on the slaves, not on white people trying to set the slaves free.  To be fair, his first action flick after Jurassic Park (no matter what it was) was bound to pale in comparison.  Similarly, no dramatic film can really live up to Schindler’s List.  But Amistad is overlong and consistently sluggish.  Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins are terrific, and if their roles were more prominent, the movie would’ve received a more welcoming reception.  C+

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Upon release, Saving Private Ryan became an instant war film classic, and was justly touted as the best war film ever made, a shoe-in for an Oscar sweep (it isn’t and it wasn’t, more on that here).  It’s true, Saving Private Ryan deserves every bit of acclaim that it continues to receive.  Its D-Day invasion sequence remains one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in film history.  But, as with all of Spielberg’s great films, the true beauty of the picture is found in its silences.  Such as when Tom Hanks cowers behind a hill to cry in solitude, or Edward Burns nods acceptingly at Matt Damon before they’re attacked. Like Jaws, E.T. and Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan is an integral part of the American cinematic landscape. A+

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A.I. was Stanley Kubrick’s brain child for decades.  He was waiting for the moment when technology caught up with his vision (he wanted to use actual robots, not actors).  But in the late ‘90s, frustrated that he wouldn’t be able to implement his strict vision, he passed the project to his good friend, Steven Spielberg.  After Kubrick’s sudden death, Spielberg made A.I. his next project, resulting in a science fiction masterpiece that would have been greatly admired by his departed friend.  I love everything about A.I.  I love its three act structure (family, escape, serenity), the acting (Haley Joel Osment high off The Sixth Sense, Jude Law high off The Talented Mr. Ripley, plus William Hurt and Frances O’Connor), and its eco-future premise (that parts of Earth are underwater due to melted ice caps). Everytime I watch it, I fall into its world with such ease; always the mark of a great film.  A

Minority Report (2002)
Where A.I. focused on the sentimentality of our future, Minority Report, rather brilliantly, chronicles the dark side of our futuristic human nature.  Living in a world in which murders can be seen, and stopped, beforehand, Minority Report shows how the system could work, but not without a little sacrifice of independence.  Tom Cruise, in a rare, post-Magnolia great performance, perfectly embodies Chief John Anderton.  And while I may not always care what he’s doing (the film does get temporarily bogged down with a weak back story of Cruise’s kidnapped son), it’s damn fun to see how he gets there. A

Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg’s throwback to the Golden Era of pre-Vietnam – a time when the music was jazzy, the women were dolled-up, the men wore hats, and the drinks flowed like wild – is always a breeze to take in, thanks much in part to Jeff Nathanson’s shifty screenplay and evolving performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken.  But, as Spielberg often has a tendency to do, the film tries to cram too much in.  Take out some of the subplots and side schemes (thus eliminating 20 minutes or so of its 141 minute runtime) and the movie would undoubtedly flow better.  The pacing isn’t a major problem in Catch Me If You Can, but it was obviously a hint at what was to come.  A-

The Terminal (2004)
The biting-off-more-than-he-can-chew pacing troubles couldn’t be more evident than in The Terminal.  The premise, based on a real man who was stuck in a French airport due to diplomatic nightmares, is unique, and the presentation is delightful.  In terms of craft, The Terminal is damn near flawless, with John Williams’ score matched effortlessly with Janusz Kaminski’s photography, all under the guidance of Alex McDowell’s expansive set design.  But the movie simply takes on too much: the Trekie bit, the disgruntled janitor, Catherine Zeta-Jones; just focus on Viktor, limit the rest.  B

War of the Worlds (2005)
Here’s the quick breakdown of War of the Worlds: great action scenes, bad everything else.  Well, okay… Dakota Fanning is good, and the movie flows well.  But Tom Cruise is seriously overselling here and Tim Robbins’ cameo is utterly disastrous.  And the end (both on the human and alien side) is laughable.  A good action flick, but not much more. B-

Munich (2005)
Much like Schindler’s List, Munich is a movie that takes its damn sweet time moving along, but the lasting result is a film of indelible power.  The film is a series of set pieces: we get much needed exposition dialogue, followed by a harrowing action sequence, most of which draw fair comparison to Hitchcock.  The opening Olympic hostage sequence is so authentic, it feels like were actually there, and when Jim McKay says “they’re all gone,” it’s as if he’s telling us directly.  Munich is a great, patient film; a necessary component to the Spielberg name. A

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
At least this time around I have some people in my corner.  Seriously, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is completely ridiculous.  And I’m not just saying that as a naysayer of the Indy franchise, I’m saying it as a film enthusiast.  Escaping a nuclear bomb in a refrigerator, Shia LaBeouf, aliens (wtf?)… we should probably all just forget this ever happened.  D-

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec. 23, 2011)
Spielberg has two films set for Oscar-bait releases this year.  First is The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s first animated flick, which he collaborated with Peter Jackson on, followed by…

War Horse (Dec. 28, 2011)
Which looks just plain dumb to me.  More on this here.  Will Spielberg achieve financial and critical success with the “one for them, one for me” model he perfected in 1993?  We shall see.

In summation:
Masterful
Jaws
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Schindler’s List
Saving Private Ryan
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Minority Report
Munich

Great
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Empire of the Sun
Jurassic Park
Catch Me If You Can

Good
Duel
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Color Purple
Hook
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Amistad
The Terminal
War of the Worlds

Eh
The Sugarland Express
Twilight Zone: The Movie, Kick the Can
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just Plain Bad
1941
Always
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Last night, when I was about halfway through HBO’s searing documentary There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, I tweeted that the film was “riveting as all hell.”  Little did I know that my scale of rivet would be drastically altered by the film’s conclusion.

Every Monday night, HBO airs a new film as part of their Documentary Films Summer Series, and damn if some of them haven’t been great.  The first I saw was Hot Coffee, which examines four popular cases, highlighting areas in each that you may be unfamiliar with.  For example: you probably think the woman who sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee on herself was just some quack trying to make a buck.  Well, did you ever see the pictures of what the coffee did to her skin?

Next was Sex Crimes Unit, a hard-to-stomach look at the day-to-day workings of the New York’s Sex Crime Unit, which overseas roughly 300 pending sex crimes cases every day.

While Hot Coffee and Sex Crimes Unit have managed to linger in my head since I viewed them, I suspect There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane will continue to haunt me for weeks.

Two years ago yesterday, Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old “hyper-perfect mother” and hard-working professional, packed her minivan full of kids (two of her own and three nieces) and headed home after camping in upstate New York.  Four hours later, she drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway for 1.7 miles, eventually hitting another car, killing herself and seven others.  Days later, Diane’s toxicology report revealed she had had roughly 10 alcoholic drinks and an extremely high level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her blood at the time of the crash.

Diane’s family, particularly her husband, Danny, and sister-in-law, Jay, immediately cried foul.  Diane, her husband tells us, rarely drank and would have never put the kids at risk under any circumstance.  Other family members agree, but as more facts begin to reveal themselves, our perception of the accident begins to curve as well.

By seeking permission from the Shulers to film their story, it initially appears that director Liz Garbus is siding with the family; believing their every word.  But as the film progresses, we realize that isn’t the case at all.  At one point, Garbus (off camera) asks Jay what she hopes to gain from doing another set of toxicology tests.  Jay says she wants answers; she wants to prove that Diane wasn’t on drugs or alcohol.  “And if the results come back the same as before?” Garbus asks.  “Well… yeah… that’s what has me worried,” Jay responds.

This denial of evidence is not only what the film relies on for dramatic merit, it’s what keeps the film in evocative motion.

Danny and Jay assert that Diane hardly drank, why then was a smashed bottle of vodka found in the van after the crash?  Danny admits that Diane used marijuana rarely as a way to relax, Jay says she used it liberally.  If Diane couldn’t see the road while driving (as the kids in the van told their other relatives via cell phone), why didn’t she simply pull over?  Why did Diane stop just after a toll booth on the Tappan Zee Bridge and leave her cell phone on the side of the road?  And what, most obviously, caused her to drive 70 miles per hour the wrong way on a major highway?
The Shuler's minivan after the crash
While the film implores dozens of interviews – from renowned psychologists, witnesses, friends, relatives of victims, police investigators, celebrity lawyers,  toxicology experts – we’ll most likely never know the answers to those questions.

The black and white is: Diane Shuler, the $100,000 a year breadwinner who was by all accounts a dedicated “supermom,” killed eight people that day.  She had no history of alcohol or drug abuse, no history of depression, and no signs of a chemical imbalance.  She rarely discussed her personal life and was assumed to function well at a high level of stress.  She was a perfect mom, and a devoted wife.  But as Garbus told HBO: “Life is often messy.  We want answers.  We want black and white, but often times the truth lies in the gray.”

I’ve rarely seen the explorations of that gray to be as haunting as it is in There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.  This is a disturbing film.  From the eyewitness calls of panic in seeing a minivan drive the wrong way on a highway, to the calls of sheer terror at the scene of the collision, to gruesome photos of the accident, to the tearful memories of what was, and what will never be. 

If you have HBO, I implore you to watch this film (OnDemand or otherwise).  In a year already filled with fantastic theatrical documentaries, the best one yet is airing on premium cable television. A

For more about the film, click here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What’s With All the Lame Trailers? - Part II

Dream House – to be released Sept. 30
Christ how many times have we seen this movie? Haunted house, mistaken identity/lapsed personality; it’s the same old song, expect now with better actors and an acclaimed director.  Which is what I most take issue with.  After a string of modern classics (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, In America) Jim Sheridan has been seriously striking out.  His choice to helm Get Rich or Die Tryin’ still has me scratching my head and Brothers was a complete waste of time, despite some solid performances.  Here’s his take on The Madman Must Be Sane.

Haywire – to be released Jan. 20
Okay, this looks like a perfectly decent, clichéd action thriller with a great cast, but much like Contagion, the Haywire trailer reveals the presumed death of a main character.  Gwyneth Paltrow I can take, but offing Michael Fassbender in the trailer!?  What gives?  And just listen to that Lem Dobbs dialogue:

“Hmm, I don’t think so.”

“Is the divorce final?”

“I haven’t shut my eyes since you were born.”

To be fair, this is Steven Soderbergh, which means I’ll be in the theatre regardless.  And... Gina Carano does look pretty badass.

The Amazing Spider-Man – to be released July 3, 2012
Am I the only person who laughed their ass off when they first saw this?  Everything was going fine – the talented cast, the dark photography – until 1:43, when an extended POV sequence made my jaw drop in stunned humiliation.  This is aiming to be one of the biggest movies of 2012 but it looks like the filmmakers have completed their special effects using PowerPoint motion graphics. 

I’ll be the first to admit that the shot is unique, but the execution is laughable.  I’ve seen better graphics from most video game systems made today.  Hopefully, they’re doing what the original Spider-Man trailer did: shooting something specifically for the preview, and not including it in the final film.


Loyal readers were fired up about my initial post, in which I lambasted a slew of new trailers.  Many agreed with me, many thought I was being too harsh.  So in closing, I’d like to offer two superb trailers for two upcoming big budget movies.  The first makes me interested in a movie I could care less about; the second makes me count the days until Dec. 21.  The feel bad movie of Christmas?  See you there.



Monday, July 25, 2011

Friends with Benefits

Which is worse: a movie that follows the formula of its genre to a T, or a movie that makes fun of the formula only to end up following it exactly?

The former describes No Strings Attached, the incredibly idiotic friends with benefits romantic comedy that came out in January, the latter describes Friends with Benefits, the pretty decent friends with benefits romantic comedy that came out on Friday.

No Strings Attached, for better or worse, never pretended to be anything more than it was.  And honestly, I can respect that.  The main fault of Friends with Benefits is that, by slapping it with an R rating, it pretends to be something much better than it is, which is a formulaic romantic comedy.  Period.

So why then does the film, mostly, work?  The same reason director Will Gluck’s last film Easy A did: the cast.  Easy A, while being restrained with a PG-13 rating, was effortlessly witty and made worthy by the performances of Emma Stone, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci.  Friends with Benefits simply ups the ante: the sex is raunchier, the language is more colorful, and the stars shine brighter.

The timing couldn’t be better for Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis to be in a movie together.  They’re both coming off game-changing performances that (probably) should’ve landed them Oscar nominations, but have instead made them legitimate movie stars.  And in Friends with Benefits (which, come on, doesn’t really need a thorough plot description) they reaffirm their star power, and assert themselves as serious players in the A-list game.  SNL and Family Guy proved, respectively, that both of them could be funny, but it’s nice to see that their unique brand of humor (i.e. blunt as all hell) can sustain a two hour film.

In short, Timberlake and Kunis, and their terrific chemistry, carry this otherwise generic film.  But they’ve got help, as most of the supporting performances are scene stealing wonders.  After a pair of excellent, pre-credit cameos (which you probably already know about, but I see no need in mentioning here), the film features Clarkson, Jenna Elfman (where the hell has she been?), Woody Harrelson (hysterical as a GQ queen), and Richard Jenkins (the man can simply do no wrong).

I want to make specific mention of a scene that has nothing to do with what I’ve written, but simply deserves recognition.  Many scenes in this film take place in a bedroom, the most memorable is an extended conversation in which the camera begins at the foot of the bed, and slowly tracks its way up to the two stars’ faces.  In a genre filled with over-caffeinated editing, it is wholly refreshing to just stop and observe.  It’s a great, tender moment, shot with perfect restraint; unlike anything I’ve seen in a romantic comedy in the past several years.

As mentioned, it would’ve been nice if (spoiler… I guess) the film didn’t follow the same stock clichés as every other romcom, but I suppose this journey was more enjoyable than others, given that the destination is always the same.  B

Captain America: The First Avenger

By now, most of us know that we have to suspend a few beliefs in order to enjoy a movie featuring a super hero.  The beliefs of say, physics, gravity, chemistry, and logic, just to name a few.  I’m completely fine giving up all those notions as they relate to the super hero in question, but here’s my problem: when a super hero movie is rooted in reality (as so many now are, thanks to Christopher Nolan and his truth-seeking ways), then why is reality completely disregarded once the super hero attains his powers? 

If you like these sorts of films, then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy Captain America.  You’ll enjoy, yet again, another weakling-to-global-hero story, another the-geek-gets-the-girl quest, another look-I-just-discovered-my-new-powers montage, and so on.

Me, I need them about as much as I need a Katy Perry song, which is to say, not at all.  So when I walk into a flick like Captain America, I’m more than willing to suspend the fact-based scientific notions mentioned earlier, but I do feel the need to nitpick.

Captain America begins at the dawn of America’s involvement in WWII.  And while every able man is enlisting, scrawny asthmatic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, rail-thin behind Benjamin Button-style computer graphics) can’t fight against the spread of Nazism due to his diminutive stature.  He is soon recruited by a German scientist (played by American Stanley Tucci) to undergo an operation that involves a lot of injections of blue liquid, thus becoming a “super soldier.”  After the operation, Rogers, now big and strong and fast and able, is soon off saving the world by stopping a rouge Nazi (played by Brit Hugo Weaving… why weren’t German actors cast in the German roles?  I suppose Christoph Waltz is through playing Nazis).

Now, before Rogers’ transformation to Captain America, the film itself appears to be rooted in some sort of reality, or at least the hyper-stylized one that director Joe Johnston (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji) is often so fond of.  War bonds are sold tirelessly, soldiers take orders from commanding officers, military operation rooms appear to be, kind of, normal, etc.  But once Captain America starts flinging his giant shield around like a fatal Frisbee, all logic is suspended.  Suddenly, every room involving military action is some sort of giant fortress, soldiers disregard orders like kids ignoring the dinner bell, and everyone who is associated with Captain America is as invincible as he is.

Which brings me to my last point.  Why is it that once Rogers becomes Captain America, everyone else around him apparently becomes a super hero too?  (I don’t hold a doctorate in physics, but I’m pretty sure if you’re traveling 15 mph on a zip line and you try to jump on top of a train going in excess of 50 mph, you’ll not only break your legs, but you’ll, you know, bounce off, too.)

Much like Thor (actually, exactly like Thor) Captain America is the latest circle-jerk that will inevitably result in the geek-boy fantasy come to film known as The Avengers.  And despite the current domestic crazed (or is it maniac) fascination with super hero movies, I’m actually looking forward to that film.  Captain America, like Thor and Iron Man II, doesn’t feel like a film that can live on its own.  It’s part of something bigger.  Here’s to hopping the waiting is worth it.  C

Note: The best part of Captain America takes place after the credits, so stick around.   

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Trip

There’s a scene late in The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s new, hilariously off-the-cuff road comedy, where one character stands by the passenger side of a car, waiting for the driver to unlock the door.  The man stands there, patiently, and once the driver is within earshot, the passenger reminds him politely to open the car.  “Oh, I thought I had,” the driver replies.  He unlocks the car, they both get in, and off they go.

If this scene seems unnecessary or slight, that’s because, on the surface, it is.  But for the duration of the film, I couldn’t get this scene out of my head.  Why did Winterbottom include this?  What was its significance?  It hit me much later: the scene, however simple, demonstrates the random shuffle of human behavior.  It’s significant because it happens in life, and that’s the only reason.  As Ricky Jay reminds us in Magnolia, these strange things happen all the time.

The Trip is filled with moments exactly like this one.  That doesn’t mean it’s a boring film full of inconsequential sequences.  No, far from it.  The Trip is hysterical, thought provoking, and strangely moving.  It’s a significant film that highlights human insignificance.

British actor Steve Coogan (played by Steve Coogan) is tasked by a magazine to conduct a food tasting tour around rural England.  When his American girlfriend (Margo Stilley) bails out at the last second, Steve invites fellow thespian Rob Brydon (played by Rob Brydon) to join him.  Minutes into their trip, utter hilarity ensues. 

Now, here’s where it gets tricky.  Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are indeed actors in real life.  You know Coogan from The Other Guys, Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2 and more.  Brydon is not as well known here, but is widely popular in his native UK.  In The Trip, they appear to be playing hyperbolic versions of themselves, much like Larry David does on Curb Your Enthusiasm

Before long, we are privy to the conversations Steve and Rob have over lavishly posh food.  Rob, it appears, has made a name for himself as an impressionist, and he often breaks into different voices with no notice.  Whether Rob does his impressions very well (he does a killer Michael Caine and Woody Allen) or not good at all (Al Pacino, Sean Connery), the point is that he’s doing them.  And if they aren’t annoying the shit out of Steve, then they’re making him jealous.  In summation, the film is essentially about two colleagues who continually try to one-up each other through different facets of their comedic craft.

This method, I assume, was achieved through countless hours of on-camera improvisation, resulting in what will end up as one of the funniest films this year.

Throughout Winterbottom’s layered career, he has directed films that are very good (24 Hour People), very sexual (9 Songs), very bad (The Killer Inside Me) and very gut wrenching (A Mighty Heart), but never has he directed a film as uproarious as The Trip.

I’ve only touched on the comedic aspects of the film, but there is indeed something else lurking here, which would be a shame to indulge further on.  I will say that, like most comedians, Steve Coogan, the character, is using comedy as a way to escape himself, to bury his personal angst.  This doesn’t reveal itself in obvious ways, but in the end, Coogan’s sinking solitude is what stayed with me. 

Everyone can recall a time when they had to put on a happy face and act like they weren’t upset. Some of us even put on a show around people to achieve some sense of normalcy.  There’s a great line in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that I think Steve, the character, would identify with.  When asked if he’s ever lonely, his response might be similar to Sean Penn’s in Malick’s film: “Yeah, only around people.”  Afterall, what’s lonelier than being around people and trying not to act lonely? A

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stop Complaining About the Dark Knight Rises Teaser

When The Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer (finally) arrived online a few days ago (yes, those of us who refused to see Harry Potter 7.2 had to wait), the blogosphere went into a battling frenzy of comic book boy wetdreams vs. analytical fans.

People, people, this is a teaser.  It’s meant to, you know, tease and allure you.  Not that this final installment of Christopher Nolan’s disarming Batman trilogy needs any help, but still.

And if people aren’t bitching, then they’re scrutinizing.  MTV, Entertainment Weekly, and countless blogs are taking the time to analyze every frame of the teaser.  That’s a lot of work for something that lasts roughly a minute and a half.

Sure, the teaser for Batman Begins showed a little more than its successors, because the filmmakers were actually trying to convince people that their comic book movie was going to be different.  It was, which explains why The Dark Knight teaser was so ominous, and showed virtually nothing.

In short, let’s all just hold our horses and not get all wound up over a messily trailer.  We’ve got a year to go, people.

Batman Begins teaser:

The Dark Knight teaser:

The Dark Knight Rises teaser:

Page One: Inside the New York Times

On the surface, Page One: Inside the New York Times details issues that have been beaten to death: the print media news model is dying, blogging is huge, and WikiLeaks may have singlehandedly catapulted social media into the big leagues, demonstrating how unnecessary (and outdated) a New York Times newspaper is when it arrives on your doorstep.

But director Andrew Rossi’s documentary isn’t concerned with chronicling crusty old journalists’ inability to keep up.  There’s no “Err, what the hell is this Twitter thing?!”  Instead, Page One shows the rat race that the Times staffers face to beat an immeasurably bigger empire: that of online media.

Page One mostly follows around the Times’ media desk and their fight to, 1.) be accurate, 2.) be first, 3.) be on the front.  It’s astonishing, for instance, that when the New York Times first got wind of Julian Assange’s game-changing WikiLeaks, the media desk editors had to fight and claw their way to make it a page one story.

Now, I can fully understand how this all may sound… well, boring.  A bunch of newspaper editors bitching about how their story is better than their colleagues’.  But Page One is far from dull.  Its scope is massive, which turns out to be its best and worst attribute. 

Best of all the Times personalities we meet is David Carr, an ex crack addict with a wicked wit, and a limited tolerance for bullshit.  Watching Carr ream out a source he’s interviewing (who has unwisely insulted the Times) is jaw dropping.  The man curses, raises his voice, slams on his keyboard, and out articulates everyone in the room.  Basically, he’s the antijournalist.  And if he wasn’t so goddamn good at his job, I’m sure he’d be out of one.

Carr’s personality is enough to fill this entire 88 minute film; he’s the most engrossing, and by far the staffer with the most lasting power.  In hindsight, I wish Rossi would’ve limited his scope, and focused solely on Carr.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe Carr’s story can’t sustain an entire feature length documentary.  Regardless, Carr’s scenes are the most memorable.  When he’s off screen, you’re waiting for him to come back.

The rest of the film, wisely, does its best to not take a stance.  For every staffer praising the necessity of print media, there are five people who urge that social media is the way to go. 

Page One may not open your eyes to what you already know is coming, but it does a damn fine job of chronicling how it got there, and where it's probably going. A-

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tabloid

Exhibit A: In 1977, Joyce McKinney, a former pin-up model and Miss Wyoming winner, fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a conservative Mormon who, despite his strict religious upbringing, fell hard for McKinney. Weeks later, Anderson was ordered by his fellow Mormons to move to England, abandoning his ties with McKinney, and reaffirming his faith.  Days later, McKinney came to England, rescued Anderson, drove him to a cottage hundreds and miles away, and made passionate love to him for three days.  When the two returned to England, they soon learned that Anderson had been declared missing, so he turned himself in and was convinced by the Mormons to say McKinney had kidnapped and raped him.

Or.

Exhibit B: In 1977, Joyce McKinney, a former pin-up model and Miss Wyoming winner, fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a conservative Mormon who, despite his strict religious upbringing, fell into a mutual courtship with McKinney.  Weeks later, Anderson was sent on his Mission (a duty of all Mormons) to England, abandoning McKinney and reaffirming his faith.  Days later, McKinney came to England, kidnapped Anderson at gun point, drove him to a cottage hundreds of miles away, tied him to a bed, and forced him to have sex with her for three days.  When the two returned to England, Anderson turned himself in the minute he could and told police and his church that McKinney had kidnapped and raped him.

There’s a common maxim which states that there are three sides to every story: Yours, Theirs, and The Truth.  Exhibit A is, more or less, McKinney’s version of the events that made her a tabloid sensation.  Exhibit B is, more or less, the adverse spin on the story that we get from other principals involved. Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  I’m not entirely sure. And this being an Errol Morris documentary, that isn’t really the point, anyway.

Errol Morris, who shares the title of best living documentarian with his mentor, Werner Herzog, never seeks to differentiate fact from fiction, truth from reality.  He gets subjects in front of a camera and lets them speak, often showing reenactments of their version of the story.  And, because people are people – meaning they remember and reflect the same event in different ways – Morris’s films often show many versions of the same story.

Are the people of Vernon, Florida really cutting off their limbs to cash in on their insurance policies?  Did Randall Adams really deserve to be on death row for the murder of a police officer?  (No, as The Thin Blue Line discovered, he did not, and he was later acquitted.)  Were the soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib really just following Standard Operating Procure?

To Morris, I believe, the truth isn’t as interesting as the reason.  We may not ever know why McKinney did what she did (Anderson wisely declined to be interviewed for the film) but that doesn’t mean that Tabloid isn’t one of the most entertaining documentaries you’re likely to see this year. On top of telling compelling stories, Morris is a master filmmaker.  He’s help shift the perception within the genre that documentaries can too be technically flawless, in addition to telling a striking story.

Tabloid wastes not one second of the viewer’s time. At 87 minutes, it’s paced swiftly while still making room for some lingering questions.  McKinney’s story (which she recorded for Morris during a single day) is incredible in and of itself.  But with a master behind the wheel, it becomes riveting. A-

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

(Editor’s note: The Harry Potter franchise has always interested me as much as measuring the height of my neighbor’s grass.  So in my apathy, I dished this review out to admitted Potter freak, Cassie Wells.  Enjoy.)

As an avid Harry Potter reader (Yes, I was one of those weirdos who would line up outside a bookstore to get a copy of Harry’s newest adventure… no, I did not dress up) I was excited for the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. In my humble opinion, the seventh book was a literary version of the Sistine Chapel. It was the perfect ending to the series that was over a decade in the making. Every twist and turn kept you engrossed and yet all the questions I had formulated over the years were answered. Everything made sense.

With that being said, this latest movie was better than okay, but not great. I loved everything about it – from the costumes and magic to the dialogue quoted directly from the book – until the last half hour. In short, the filmmakers completely screwed up the final fight. The ultimate climax of an epic eight movie series (that’s 4,176 pages!) was magical and enchanting but only subpar to those of us who have read and reread the books. Even my 17-year-old brother turned to me at the end and said, “That’s it? That’s how he dies?” There was no grand finale to the fight, it just sort of subtly ends, like a train slowly rolling to a stop, which is completely opposite of the book.

Some of the book’s best scene – whether funny, tearful, or gut-wrenching –  were either hinted at, glanced over, or complete rewritten in the film.

Visually, it’s a beautiful film. Action-packed from the beginning as Harry, Ron and Hermione race to find and destroy the Horcruxes. What seemed to be an impossible task in Part 1 becomes a domino effect, with one Horcrux leading to the next, inevitably leading to the final battle between He Who Shall Not Be Named and Harry at Hogswarts. Every action scene is enthralling, with camera angles and visual effects that make Harry’s magical world come to life.

The few moments without wands casting curses are used to answer lingering questions, though not to the extent of the book, which may leave those who haven’t read the books a little confused.

The best part about this film was how director David Yates and his team were able to capture the emotional feelings the book gave you. The one-liners and funny moments are timed perfectly. The use of music, and even the conscious decision to have silence, helped you feel Harry’s loneliness as he bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, or his excitement as he triumphs and is one step closer to his goal.  Even the few scenes that aren’t in the book, my favorite being where Neville and Seamus are given permission to blow up part of Hogwarts to help defend it, provide humor and depth.

While Part 1 focused solely on Harry, Ron and Hermione, Part 2 engages all the Harry Potter characters and their essential roles in the fight against Lord Voldemort. It captures how Harry relies on so many people to help him and yet is ultimately left alone to face Voldemort and decide the fate of the world.

If you are a fan of the books, this final installment is definitely worth seeing.  If you’re a Harry Potter novice, you will walk away with more questions than answers. B

Friday, July 15, 2011

What’s With All the Lame Trailers?

Three trailers for three movies by three masterful directors should send me into Oscar-bait bliss.  Spielberg is doing a war film, Scorsese is doing 3D, and Soderbergh is doing disease the same way he did drugs.

But when the trailers for War Horse, Hugo and Contagion dropped this past week, I was left with a collective wince of puzzlement.  They all (well, mostly War Horse and Hugo) look undeniably lame.  Granted, family friend films are not my preferred genre, but still… what’s going on here?

Hopefully these trailers are the result of failed marketing tactics, and will in no way reflect what he final films deliver.  At any rate, the trailers are below. 

Contagion – to be released Sept. 9
There’s no denying that this is a great cast, the majority of who seem to be ready to rock.  But the movie looks so damn conventional.  Also, why reveal the death of a main character?  Also, no “A Steven Soderbergh Film” title card?  Also, is it just me, or does Matt Damon look like he never lost all that Informant! weight?




Hugo – to be released on Nov. 23
Look, I’m just as excited as the next guy that Martin Scorsese is attempting a 3D flick, but I wish this trailer offered something more.  To me, this just looks like a pretty Oliver Twist, with much better actors.  The first time I watched this trailer, I couldn’t even finish it, I was that bored.



War Horse – to be released on Dec. 28
And talk about boring… what the hell is this?  The dialogue is terribly cheesy, the music is bad John Williams melodrama, and are we sure Janusz Kaminski photographed this?  Because it looks awfully flat.  Spielberg needs a serious boost.  Sure, he’s earned a career pass given all the classics he’s responsible for, but the man hasn’t released a decent film since 2005’s Munich.  If War Horse doesn’t deliver, I suppose there’s always Lincoln

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Best Movie Openings (that EW Left Out)

Entertainment Weekly’s new list of “30 Classic Opening Movie Scenes” touches on some masterful movie introductions – both classic and contemporary – but paves way for a shocking number of omissions.

I’m no proponent of Entertainment Weekly, a publication whose film criticism has gone from steady to mediocre to poor to laughable, but Breia Brissey’s list is worth mentioning.

First off, she wisely leaves out impressive title sequences (a category that has been listed to death) opting instead for genuinely impressive introductions. There are the obvious (Citizen Kane, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Touch of Evil), the commendable (Reservoir Dogs, The Godfather, Manhattan, Scream, Up), the welcome surprises (The Dark Knight, The Departed, Strange Days), and the baffling (Contact….? The Notebook….?).

Brissey also does a rare thing by highlighting that the real opening to Saving Private Ryan takes place in a massive graveyard, not on a beach.  Hell, she even included  my favorite film opening of all time

A list like this could go on forever, but here are a few of my favorite movie openings that EW left out:

Boogie Nights/Magnolia/There Will Be Blood
Boogie Nights brilliantly introduces all of its main characters in one extended steadicam shot, while Magnolia chronicles three popular urban legends before frantically, masterfully intruding on the lives of its many characters, and There Will Be Blood begins with a nearly wordless, elegant short film.  Watching these movies again, it’s clear that the only character development we need is presented in the films’ opening scenes.


The Player
And speaking of extended steadicam shots…


Persona
This opening has been debated and twisted and pulled every which way since the film’s release.  Books have been written about it, and popular filmmakers have stolen from it. (What does the music remind you of?  Who else used quick inserts of the male reproductive organ?)  As good as movie openings get.

(opening technically ends at 6:42, but if you finish the clip, you've watched an eighth of the whole film)


2001: A Space Odyssey 
The jump cut from The Dawn of Man to the year 2000... come on. 


Memento
Starting at the end never looked so good.


Trainspotting
Iggy Pop+frenzied monologue+heroin-thin Ewan McGregor+being chased by the police= bliss.

(plays after advertisement)


Blue Velvet
Bobby Vinton, blue skies, red roses, white picket fence, a Leave it to Beaver sentimentality... is this a David Lynch movie?  Oh, a rotting human ear.  I knew I was in the right place.

(credits end at 1:39)



400 Strong, 400 Long

My review of A Better Life marked the 400th post on And So it Begins.  And, if you include the subsections of this blog, such as the Directors, Listings, My Favorite Scene, and various Oscar coverage, then it’s closer to 450 posts. 

Regardless, I started this blog in September of 2007 (for some fun, check out my first review, of In the Valley of Elah.  My writing, I feel, has…improved, to say the least), as a way to share with people what I had, until that point, kept scribbled in spiral notebooks.

The blog, and my writing, have come a long way since then, and with my recent admission to the LAMB, my page hits are higher than ever.

About once every two weeks, I get an e-mail or a Facebook message from a friend I haven’t spoken to in some time, complimenting me on this blog.  Sometimes the messages are from complete strangers, who have wondered onto my site despite the infinite abyss of movie blogs online. Those messages, coupled with all of the post comments, are what keep this site going.  I’ll always have things to say about movies, but knowing that other people are interested in those thoughts, well, that’s about as much affirmation for living as I need.

Melodramatic though it may seem, it couldn’t be truer.  So thanks to each and every person who spends part of their day reading what I write. To paraphrase Dirk Digger, I guess the only thing I can say is… I’ll promise to keep rockin’ and rollin’.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Endlessly Rewatchable: Point Break

People are often stunned to find out that I’m a Point Break fan of hyperbolic proportions.  And I suppose, given my penchant for the works of Bergman, Herzog, Truffuat and the like, an action-thriller whose two most spoken words are “fuck” and “brah” wouldn’t really seem up my alley.

Nonsense.

Point Break is the embodiment of film entertainment.  It’s sleek, funny, engaging, and, yes, endlessly rewatchable.  And, according to /Film, it was released 20 years ago today.  This knowledge is worth discussing for two reasons: first, because for fans, me writing about it (and you reading about it) will undoubtedly spark our interest in going home and rewatching it as soon as we can.  We want the guns, the masks, the banks, the waves, the dives, the Swayz; we want to be mindlessly entertained for 120 minutes in a way that no other film of the genre has been able to for the past decade.

Secondly, the anniversary is worth mentioning because there are, I regret to speculate, a wide number of you who have (gulp) never seen Point Break.

But this can’t be true, can it?  Surely everyone knows the story of undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves, playing Keanu Reeves to perfection), and how he is tasked by his horrible boss (John C. “Why Don’t You Astonish Me, Shitbrains” McGinley) to catch a slew of bank robbers who disguise themselves with masks of ex Presidents.  (Quick trivia question for fans: what four Presidents do the robbers emulate?)
"Lose something, brah?!"
Coming up short in ways to crack the case, Utah’s over-the-hill, in-constant-need-of-a-meatball-sub partner, Pappas (Gary Busey, playing Gary Busey to perfection) suggests that Utah exercise a theory of his (that the ex Presidents are surfers) by learning how to hang ten on the rad beaches of L.A.  Utah soon becomes tight with Bodhi (Patrick Swayze, playing Patrick Swayze to perfection), but things aren’t what they appear.  People aren’t who they say.  Definitely… definitely. 

But, no.  Unfortunately it is true.  Many misguided people my age have never had the luxury of relishing Point Break. I know this for a fact, because I experienced it firsthand.  In October, I convinced a friend of mine that we should dress up as Johnny Utah and Bodhi for Halloween.  My friend, being the good sport that he is, shaved his beard, slapped some fake blood on his face and walked around for the whole night with a spot-on “my name is Keanu Reeves and I’m confused” expression on his face.  Me?  I dressed in a tux, put on a Ronald Reagan mask and was good to go. 
My buddy Brent Hunt (left) flexing his inner J. Utah, and yours truly (right) minus the .44 magnum 
But not really.  At the party we attended, I was asked repeatedly why I decided to dress like Reagan the President, and why I was wearing white gloves.  My friend just got looks of “who the hell is this guy, and why didn’t he dress up” confusion.  I spent the whole night taking off my mask and explaining to people who I was.  The party was a bust, and I was heartbroken.

So, back to the film at hand.  All kidding and geeking-out aside, Point Break is a genuinely perfect action-thriller.  If I’m turning on my film theory, I can tell you that it contains many of the best action sequences committed to contemporary film.  The surfing scenes are vivid and crisp, there’s a fight scene that is intense and, intentionally, hilarious (thanks much in part to Anthony Kiedis’ cameo), a search-warrant-gone-terribly-wrong scene that never fails to produce a gasp, a chase scene that seems impossible to achieve with a film camera (and not digital), and two skydiving scenes that, thanks to Mark Isham’s score, are supremely exhilarating.
"Amazing! Fucking amazing!"
Point Break was directed by Kathryn Bigelow (aka Mrs. James Cameron at the time of shooting), who recently became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her incredible Hurt Locker.  Watching Point Break, it’s clear that we’re watching a film by someone with a keen eye for popping action, and someone who has no qualms with crafting a film of simple entertainment.  The film doesn’t take itself seriously, yet it is seriously awesome.

If you haven’t seen Point Break in a while, watch it again, it really has held up well over the past 20 years.  If you’re feeling extra devilish, buy the Blu-Ray, the surfing and skydiving scenes alone are worth it.

If, for some odd reason, you haven’t seen Point Break, do yourself a favor and watch it.  Then (I suppose you can wait a day or two), buy a case of beer, invite some friends over, and watch it again.  In no time at all, you’ll experience Point Break the way it is meant to be experienced: screaming lines of dialogue at the television while reaching for another beer, all without missing a frame.  Vaya con Dios.


(An excerpt from the badass fight mentioned earlier.  Back off, Warchild, seriously.)

A Better Life

When a director’s resume includes, but is not limited to, movies with titles like Down to Earth, The Golden Compass and The Twilight Saga: New Moon, audiences don’t sit around waiting for said director’s moment of please-take-me-seriously prestige to show itself.

But Chris Weitz’s A Better Life deserves every accolade – of which there are many – currently being thrown its way.  It’s a film with a stance, but not overtly so.  It’s a film with a heart, but not in a way that’s melodramatically overbearing.  In short, A Better Life, far more than Weitz’s other films (which also include About a Boy and American Pie), is a film with a soul.

With so many heavy assertions and strong pontifications coming out of Hollywood message movies recently, it is wholly refreshing to see a movie that deals with such a hot-bottom topic (that of illegal immigration), in such a micro way.

Carlos (Demián Bichir) is a quiet, honest man, working all day every day in East Los Angeles, landscaping rich people’s homes.  He keeps to himself, doing the worked that’s required, eating from small food carts, never making a fuss.  At night, he comes home and sleeps on the couch, letting his 14-year-old, angst-ridden son Luis (José Julián) occupy the only bed in their small home.

Carlos’ boss, looking to retire and move back home to Mexico, offers to sell his landscaping truck, tools included, to Carlos for a modest price.  But Carlos fears that, because he is an illegal immigrant with no driver’s license, taking over the truck could put him at risk for being deported.

If you’ve seen the trailer, and I really hope you haven’t, then you know Carlos soon finds himself in a bit of a pickle, which for our purposes will go left unexplained.

On the surface, A Better Life is a film about immigration; about the hardships and follies an illegal immigrant has to go through in this country to attain what the title suggests.  But, thankfully, the film never takes a deliberate stance, there are no gasping-for-breath monologues about how bad Carlos has it and how he prays that everything will work out.  The film is far too subtle for that.

Dig deeper and you find that A Better Life is, more significantly, a heartfelt father and son story. Carlos spends the little free time he has tending to his tiny garden and sleeping.  He trusts that his steady work ethic will set a good example for Luis, a hothead who is inches away from being peer pressured into joining a gang.  Luis, like most 14-year-olds, is angry at life.  He’s mad that his dad is working all the time, mad that his mother isn’t around, mad that he goes to a shit school, and so on. Also, like most 14-year-olds, he takes his teenage aggression out on his father, who casually dismisses his son’s ploys for help, almost to a fault.

Now, we’ve seen this all countless times – the mad as hell teenager butting heads with his father – and there is only one real reason to attempt it yet again: casting great actors.

In his first film role, José Julián does steady, multilayered work as Luis.  He nails the teenage angst well beyond what is required in the script.  His subtle transformation from angry to confused to curious to vengeful to remorseful is perfectly graceful.  But Julián is just one half of the puzzle.
On the other end, we have Demián Bichir, who now justly deserves to be billed as great.  Bichir (who did fine work as Castro in Soderbergh’s Che, and Mary-Louise Parker’s drug lord husband on Weeds), does understated wonders with Carlos.  He’s a man confounded by his status (as an immigrant, as a man, and as a father) but puts in the work despite it all.  He’s a man that, I think, realizes he’ll never have what he wanted for himself, but still has a chance to give that to his son.  He’s a man of love, a man of soul. 

Near the end of the film, Bichir delivers a monologue with such restrained passion, that I was moved to tears.  It would be selfishly simple to scream and shout and let the tears flow wild, but Bichir holds back, in a way that is honest and authentic beyond words.  A Better Life isn’t a great film, but it’s anchored by a flawless performance, one that will surely top award’s lists at the end of this year. A-

(Note: I made slight mention of the film's trailer earlier, but to be clear, if you can avoid the trailer, then do.  It shamefully reveals far too much of the film’s plot.)