Friday, November 23, 2012

A Better Life needs A Bigger Audience.

Movie Review: A Better Life

Director: Chris Weitz

Reviewed: 19 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (3 stars)

"A Better Life" slipped past most audiences, and despite an Oscar nomination for Damian Bichir for Best Actor, I have not yet met anyone who has seen this film.  Modest in its scope, director Chris Weitz has crafted a film that weaves the modern post-9-11 politics of deportation into a tender relationship story between an undocumented father Carlos Galindo (Bichir) and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian).  In a year when "self-deportation" was legitimate policy suggested by one of the two presidential candidates, Weitz's film focuses on the reality of illegality, represented in the omnipresent fear of police, the inability to seek legal justice for crimes committed, and the juxtaposition between the Malibu landscapes and the harsh work being done by workers to create that image.  Carlos and Luis see each other rarely; the opening shot is a dissolve of the father sleeping uncomfortably on the couch before departing for work. His son hangs around the edges of the world of Los Angeles gangland violence, chasing down a fellow student, earning a suspension, dating a girl with gang ties, suggesting a possible future reality available to him.  A reality different than the subservient, punishing work that his father endures, climbing up palm trees, working with the land.  Their conversations are brief and harsh, punctuated by open and uncomfortable disdain by the son for the father's type of work.

"A Better Life" keeps a narrow focus on a small cast, and by the forty-five minute mark when something disastrous occurs, I was emotionally hooked and fraught with nervousness for the aftermath. And the aftermath is rooted in logic and the realities of the characters; the stakes are quite real.  Carlos's crumpled baseball cap, hesitant English and his lined face convey a world of pain endured and sacrifices made.  Bichir's performance is the powerhouse here, holding most of the screen time.  His actions suggest a desperate man but a man with his honor intact.    

Weitz has an interesting track record as a director.  He has worked on "American Pie," "The Golden Compass," "About A Boy," as well as "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."  I have on seen "Pie" and "Boy," but both seem preoccupied with a central father-son relationship.  The emotions at the end of "A Better Life" are genuine and earned, yet I don't think that Luis is allowed the same level of introspection that his father is given.  Luis's actions at the end are significant, yet a jump forward four months leaves too many questions unanswered.  Weitz's direction is fine, yet he doesn't reach beyond the melodrama of the final third of the film.  He has made a relationship film and an issue film, yet doesn't seem interested in moving into a more profound realm.  However, Weitz depicts an insular world and its denizens with respect and care, and I hope to see more films like this one.

A film that deserves of an audience, "A Better Life" quietly pushes the question of immigration policy and the disruption of families into the forefront.  It works best in several quiet moments between father and son, as well as some intense scenes of suspense.  Many people denigrated Bichir's nomination last year for Best Actor over the more well-known, flashy performances of Michael Fassbender for "Shame" and Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar." The Academy was right; Bichir's performance is a quiet masterpiece, deserving of such high praise.

From Scotland With Shotguns

Movie Review: Skyfall

Director: Sam Mendes

Reviewed: 23 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--****

As a scholar of both the James Bond novels and films, the psychology of Commander James Bond of Her Majesty's Secret Service has always been of interest to me.  Audiences may have fallen in love with the witty repartee between Bond and Moneypenny or the dazzling displays of innovation from Q Branch or even the cackling laughter of a villain who should kill Bond instead of talking to him.  But me?  I fell in love with the character.  The haunted killer.  The company man.  With a license to kill.  With his pained background and avoidance of close relationships and a ruthless consumption of alcohol and cigarettes and women.  Bond for me was marked by trauma and guilt.  The losing of first love Vesper Lynd, used against him by an unseen enemy.  The holding of the body of his beloved wife Traci, killed on their honeymoon.  The clutching of broken friend Felix Leiter, brutalized by sharks at the whim of a madman.  James Bond is a haunted man, one seeking the solace of a cigarette or a martini in a lonely hotel room with danger lurking nearby.

James Bond never existed for me as an immortal action hero.  James Bond could always die, and his recognizable emotions of rage, bravado, grief, and insouciance are what I search the series for, always hoping that the interiority of the spy will be given as much attention as the gadgets, tropical locales, and underground lairs.  Ian Fleming's writing delves into the psychology of the man, shading him.  Very few Bond films have delved into the man himself.  "GoldenEye" had its quiet moments, as did the fantastic and bloody "Licence To Kill," with Bond as a true avenger who carves out a bloody path to reach the  man who slaughters a friend's wife on her wedding day.  Bond's vendetta and its brutality echoes his grappling with his own traumatic past in the excellent "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" where Bond falls in love and marries, albeit briefly.  I am also a fan of Bond under pressure, facing imminent death and fighting back, not always quipping and smirking, so "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," and moments from "For Your Eyes Only" resonate with me.  The last film begins with a Bond at Traci's grave though it proves to be a momentary respite from the usual plot machinations.  My point is that Bond is a man with flaws and pain, and the best Bond films and stories consider him such.  I reject his invincibility and immortality.  James Bond is a man who can die.  A man who can bleed.  A man with demons.

In "GoldenEye," best-friend-turned-enemy Alec Trevelyan pointedly asks Bond, "I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you've killed... or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect." Bond's former friend deconstructs a coping mechanism of alcohol and sex, a drowning of regret that orders Bond's behavior.  That same film introduces the modern M (Judi Dench) as a bureaucrat who calls Bond "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War" and announces to him in that same film "If you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong," a sentiment put to the test in the bang-bang motorcycle rooftop turned train chase outside of Istanbul that opens "Skyfall."  M's decisions to protect an encrypted list of embedded spy names thrust the film into the dazzling title credit sequence, a swirl of underworld imagery, with Bond being sucked into a whirlpool that dissolves into a skull, a cemetery with an open grave, Chinese red dragons swirling about, and shattering mirrors featuring Bond shooting himself.  Post credit sequence set to the incomparable Adele theme song, Mendes then cuts to M, and this film centers itself on her.  She is the Bond girl in this film, facing an imminent forced retirement from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) as well as an oversight board for her running of MI-6.  M is seen drinking a lot in this film, and Trevelyan's words from Dench's first film regarding drinking to silence the screams could be directed at her.  Her words and actions put her agents in mortal danger, and culpability is hers.  "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," the Bard wrote in "Henry IV, Part 2," and M struggles to relinquish hers until the job is done.

Bond returns to action after a mission gone awry with a bullet in his shoulder and grudge against M.
He returns to a subterranean M1-6 as a result of a terrorist attack on the headquarters itself.  In the tunnels underneath London, M reevaluates Bond and sends him off to China to retrieve the stolen list.  The hunt leads to a shimmering assassination sequence in a Shang-Hai skyscraper with the complex interplay of light and shadow as well as a spooky scene in a Macau casino, all reds and yellows and Komodo dragons.  Bond is shown entering the mouth of the dragon that marks the casino's front (he might as well be crossing over the river Styx with his coin for Charon), and Mendes's film embraces this image: Bond entering death, Bond entering his own past.  Komodo dragons swirl underneath the steps of Bond as he meanders into more and more trouble.  Another ship to an abandoned island.  A bad guy awaits, over one hour into the film, and Javier Bardem delivers a provocative performance filled with verve and fun, as well as pathos.  Bardem is given three powerful entrances as villain (one a long extended monologue as he approaches a captive Bond, one a Hannibal Lecter-style incarceration, and one announced by an Animals cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" as he steps off a helicopter-ride of death, automatic weapon in hand, revenge on his mind).  Bardem proves capable in all three sequences, a lethal Byronic hero who implores M to "Think of your sins" as well as proves a mirror to Bond.  Silva's tortured past implicates M, and he serves as a reminder of her own guilty conscience.  Silva is what Bond could become and also a tie back to Alec Trevelyan.  Silva is the collateral damage of the actions of both MI-6 and M.

"Skyfall" delivers a Bond film of impressive emotional heft.  Mendes has won the Academy Award for directing (and Bardem and Dench, both for acting) and seems as interested in the visual palette of the film (tunnels, abandonment, archways) as he is in letting his small cast dig into the material.  Bond is seen literally hanging on by his fingertips multiple times in the films, and in nods to "Vertigo" is seen endlessly pursuing, always heading downhill.  A shoot-out in an MI-6 hearing room is terrifying.  Overhead shots of Bond and M driving evoke the dread of the beginning of Kubrick's "The Shining," and flourishes in the score touch upon Spielberg's best films.  Mendes seems content to move patiently with his story, understanding that the upper echelon Bond films take their time.

The staging of the final thirty minutes of the film in Scotland at Bond's ancestral home is quite possibly the most exciting Bond action sequence ever put to film.  The less said about it, the better.  Dench is strong here, as is the supporting cast of Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Ben Whishaw, and the great Albert Finney.  There is a sufficient amount of wry humor in the film, ably delivered by Craig; Silva asks Bond his hobby, and Bond spits out, "Resurrection."

Mendes has resurrected the character and the series from the depths of "Quantum of Solace," a nonsensical, muddled  step backwards from the character-driven "Casino Royale."  He has resurrected the notion of a Bond song being a smash hit, something entering the pop culture beyond Bond.  He has resurrected the conceit that Bond the man is infinitely more interesting than Bond the visual effect.  Pierce Brosnan left the series several years back in "Die Another Day" with an invisible car and hang-gliding while a laser sliced an iceberg behind him.  Craig and Dench have, with help from director Martin Campbell and now Sam Mendes, grounded the Bond series in a man, a man who was a child once, wounded and vulnerable by his parents' death.  Bond is a man gripping by his fingertips, yet able to pull himself up.  Bond is haunted, yet capable and confident, able to stand on a train track and ignore the approaching train.  Bond is a lone warrior, staring out from the rooftops at the end, in a nod to the recent "Batman" series, always on guard.

"Skyfall" is about the changing of the guard with the Bond series in many ways, and I am proud to place it alongside "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and "License To Kill" as a masterpiece.

Four stars, my highest rating.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Argo: Best American Film of the Year So Far

Movie Review: Argo

Director: Ben Affleck

Reviewed: 27 October 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

"Argo" features a hidden CIA exfil, a mission into riotous 1979 Iran to rescue six American embassy workers who fled to a nearby Canadian ambassador's home to hide from certain capture and possible execution. Through an innovative introductory sequence with elements of graphic novels and newsreels, Affleck deftly summarizes the role of the US in the propping up of the Shah and his regime, as well as the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni and fundamental Islam. And then, about fifteen minutes into the film, he shows the storming of the embassy. Filmed with a breathtaking blending of news footage (or possibly just incredible attention to detail) and close-up shots of the eyes of the workers within, Affleck brings us deep into the battered embassy as the workers endure the chanting from the street outside and the rattling of the gates.

Ben Affleck is Tony Mendez, troubled CIA agent.
John Goodman is John Chambers, Hollywood make-up man.
Bryan Cranston is Jack O'Donnell, CIA higher-up, searching for options to extract the six.
Alan Arkin is a scene-stealer as a Hollywood producer.

They unite to get hostages out of Tehran in one of the most audacious plots ever concocted.

Argo has elements of "Wag the Dog" in its blending of the political and the entertainment worlds. 
This collision is never more apparent than during a blending of a table reading of the "Argo" script intercut with recitations from the Iranian and American politicians. All is theater, Affleck is saying, and his closing titles run over a panoply of "Star Wars" and "Planet of the Apes" figures.

Affleck holds the tension quite impressively, and the final sequence at the Tehran airport is perhaps the most suspenseful extended scene I've seen all year.  There are cuts back and forth between the turmoil of getting things done in Washington as well as the hostages hiding out.  A minor character, an Iranian housekeeper is not well-developed and late decisions with her have less resonance as a result.  As for Affleck's performance, he seems to be channeling a more is less approach, but the central moment of truth is remarkably boring, lacking any sort of dramatic movement.  Despite its occasional lapses, it is a rousing, pro-government, pro-American ingenuity work of art, and I think it will be the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Picture this winter.