Friday, July 29, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) ***
Directed by: William A. Wellman.
Written by: Leopold Atlas and Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson based on the books by Ernie Pyle.
Starring: Burgess Meredith (Ernie Pyle), Robert Mitchum (Lt. / Capt. Bill Walker), Freddie Steele (Sgt. Steve Warnicki), Wally Cassell (Pvt. Dondaro), Jimmy Lloyd (Pvt. Spencer), John R. Reilly (Pvt. Robert 'Wingless' Murphy), William Murphy (Pv. Mew), Sicily and Italy Combat Veterans of the Campaigns in Africa (Themselves).

William A. Wellman was a solid, respectable filmmaker of the studio era. He made a few great movies – The Public Enemy (1931) and The Ox Bow Incident (1943) are the first two that come to mind, but he considered The Story of G.I. from 1945 to be his finest film – even if after completing it, he wasn’t able to watch the film again. He had become friends with Ernie Pyle, whose story the movie tells, and as the film was being completed, Pyle died while covering the war in Japan. A war veteran himself, Wellman wanted to bring realism to his war movie. Watching the film today, there is no doubt that it has aged a little. That at times, it is too sentimental, and if a film like this were released now, it would be criticized for being old fashioned. And yet, if you look at The Story of G.I. Joe in context to the war movies being made at the time, Wellman’s film seems gritty and realistic by comparison. This is not the typical flag waving, America Fuck Yeah war movie we are used to seeing in American films made during and right after WWII. This is a film that does its best to depict what the soldiers on the ground are really going through, and while it has been surpassed many times since, it deserves praise for doing so while the war was still going on.

The movie centers of Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), a war correspondent and his adventures with Company C of the 18th Infantry in Italy during the war. Although Pyle was 20 years older than most of the soldiers, he marched right along side them, to get an idea of what they went through. Most war correspondents stayed back from the front lines – writing stories about the Navy and the Air Force – but Pyle wanted to get right into the war itself, and cover it honestly. Although he covered many aspects of the war, he always considered Company C to be “his” company – he felt at home there.

It is through Ernie that we get to know the men of C Company – most notably Captain Walker played by Robert Mitchum in the role that made him a star, and brought him the only Oscar nomination of his great career. Amazingly, even this early in his career, Mitchum already had the wounded masculinity, the look of regret in his eyes, and the realization that death was right in front of him at all times that would come to define his persona. The depiction of Company C would follow him in this regard. This is not a movie about heroics, but about a group of men who are simply trying to do their job and get home alive. Death hangs above the entire movie, rarely commented on, but a constant, unspoken presence. It is these scenes where the movie is at its strongest.

The film was highly praised in 1945 – Dwight Eisenhower, a man who knew war, even went as far as to call it the greatest war movie he had ever seen. But it has been largely forgotten since then. I think this perhaps because it walks an uneasy line between the more patriotic films like Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) and Samuel Fuller’s grittier, more realistic The Steel Helmet (1951). At times, it seems that Wellman wants to have it both ways, and this makes for a not completely successful film. For every scene of gritty, realistic death, there are scenes like the soldier constantly trying to play a record of his son speaking, or scenes involving the dog the company adopts as their own that don’t quite fit. Despite how good he is in the film – and he is very good – and almost think the movie would have been better had they dropped Burgess Meredith’s Ernie Pyle character out of the movie altogether. It is his voiceovers of the stories he wrote (that brought him a Pulitzer Prize) that seem most dated and out of place. Had Wellman concentrated on bringing more scenes like the ones where Pyle is absent, and the men of Company C take center stage, this could have been one of the great war movies of all time.

That it isn’t, is the movies failing. And yet, I still think that the film deserves a lot of respect. Wellman is stretching himself here, and trying to drag the war movie along with him, into a grittier realism than had been depicted on American screens in the 1940s before. It isn’t surprising that he wasn’t able to quite pull it off. But I admire the film for at least attempting to do so.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Night of the Iguna (1964)

The Night of the Iguana (1964) *** ½
Directed by: John Huston.
Written by: Anthony Veiller and John Huston based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
Starring: Richard Burton (Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon), Ava Gardner (Maxine Faulk), Deborah Kerr (Hannah Jelkes), Sue Lyon (Charlotte Goodall), Skip Ward (Hank Prosner), Grayson Hall (Judith Fellowes), Cyril Delevanti (Nonno), Mary Boylan (Miss Peebles).

The characters in a Tennessee Williams play are always damaged. Even when it appears that there is a healthy character in his play, by the end whatever their weakness is has been exposed for the audience to see. His characters struggle, often in vain, to try and have some sort of human connection, but are left just as damaged at the end as they were at the beginning – in some cases more so. This could describe many of the films of director John Huston as well, who liked his characters broken or wounded. And it’s why the pair of them make a good team – and why The Night of the Iguana is such a fine movie.

The movie stars Richard Burton as Reverend Dr. Lawrence Shannon, who ran into some trouble in his Virginia congregation because of his relationship with a young pupil. He wasn’t defrocked or charged with a crime, but he may as well have been, as life there became impossible. He has moved to Mexico, and now gives religious tours on a low end for a low end tour group – and things here haven’t gotten any simpler. His most recent group is a women’s group from a church in Texas – and he seems to be in trouble again. The youngest woman on the tour is Charlotte (Lolita herself, Sue Lyon), who is underage and sent on this trip by her father to get away from a boy she was infatuated with. Now, she is infatuated with Shannon. He tries his best to resist her charms, although his lust for her makes it difficult. The chaperone on the trip is Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), a dour, stick in the mud, who doesn’t like what she sees going on – and makes it clear that she is going to report Shannon on their return. To avoid this, Shannon deliberately makes their bus breakdown just outside a small hotel, run by his old friend Maxine (Ava Gardner). Thinking that a few days in her beautiful hotel may quell Miss Fellowes mood, he gets them to stay there, but of course, Miss Fellowes will not go quietly.

It goes without saying that all of these characters – plus two others, the “oldest working poet in the world” Nonno (Cyril Delevanti) and his niece, a caricature artist Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who happen upon the hotel themselves, are all damaged, all reaching for human connection, and that love and lust has been confused in their minds. If they can’t have one, they’ll settle for the other for the time being – it sure beats the hell out of being alone.

Huston gets the most out of his actors here. Burton, a explosive personality and one of the great actors of his generation (whose work was at some points marred by his excessive drinking) delivers one of his best performances here. Shannon is a man well past his breaking point, who is simply trying to hold onto the last shred of dignity he has left – and that Charlotte is trying to take away from him. Lyon is wonderful as the precocious teenager, all raging hormones and lust, who falls in love in a heartbeat, and right back out of it just as quickly. Ava Gardner’s earthy beauty and lust has never been on such display as it is here. She was always uncomfortable with herself, and that shows in much of her work, but here, channeling those insecurities, she may just deliver the best work of her career. Deborah Kerr has a rather thankless role, but it gets deeper as it goes along – climaxing in her sad speech about her two “love affairs”, if you can call them that. She may just be the healthiest one of the lot, because at least she recognizes her deficiencies, and is dealing with them. The only cast member who has nominated for an Oscar back in 1964 when the film was released (and a case could be made that they all deserved to be) was Grayson Hall, who at first appears to simply being a shrewish, party pooper but even she gets a genuinely great moment late in the film – when something she has suppressed all her life is thrown in her face.

Huston loved to shot on location – something many filmmakers didn’t bother to do in the studio era. His exploits on The African Queen (1951) set are legendary, and even inspired a wonderful movie in its own right (Clint Eastwood’s underrated White Hunter, Black Heart). Here, he was taking a risk bringing these people to a remote era of Mexico. Burton had an explosive personality to begin with, and he brought along his girlfriend Elizabeth Taylor on the shoot – even though she was still married to Eddie Fisher at the time. Ava Gardener could be explosive herself, and the rest of the cast was experienced enough to perhaps be off put by the rustic, not at all glamorous surroundings. Yet, Huston was able to pull them altogether, and he ends up with a wonderful movie. The movie is a howl of pain from these characters, reaching out, trying to connect, and being rebuffed. The movie has a somewhat hopeful ending – everyone seems to be where they belong. I just doubt that any of them are going to wind up happy for very long.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Wind (1928)

The Wind (1928) **** Directed by: Victor Sjöström.
Written by: Frances Marion based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough.
Starring: Lillian Gish (Letty), Lars Hanson (Lige), Montagu Love (Roddy), Dorothy Cumming (Cora), Edward Earle (Beverly), William Orlamond (Sourdough).

It always amazes me how some silent films seem extremely modern when they are watched today. After all, silent film was abandoned in the late 1920s, and despite a few people like Guy Maddin who makes some of their films into silent, they haven’t been heard from since. And yet, some of the silent films, made before censorship and ratings became an issue, have a shockingly modern attitude about many thing – more modern than anything we would see in American film until the 1960s. Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 film The Wind – one of the last major silent films produced in America – is a film like that.

The film stars Lillian Gish – one of the first movie stars in America – in what many consider to be her finest performance. She plays Letty, an innocent girl from Virginia who comes out to Texas to live with her beloved cousin Beverly (Edward Earle). When Beverly’s parents died, Letty’s took him in and raised them like their own. But this does nothing to persuade Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) from thinking that Letty is trying to steal her husband. The fact that their children take an immediate liking to Letty doesn’t help either. Cora decides to throw Letty out – even though she has no place to go. Yet, Letty does have three admirers. The first is Roddy (Montagu Love), a rich man she met on the train out from Virginia, who took an immediate shine to Letty – and Letty to him as well. The other two are locals – Lige (Lars Hanson), a big lug of a woman, and Sourdought (William Orlamond), an comic foil. Letty decides to marry Roddy – only to discover that Roddy already has a wife – he wants Letty to be his mistress. Distraught, Letty tries to return to her cousin’s, but Cora will have none of it. Distraught, she marries Lige instead, but the sight of him disgusts her. It doesn’t help that their area of Texas is in a seemingly constant state of high winds that howl around their small house, slowly driving her insane. Or that Roddy continues to show up in hopes of getting Letty into bed with him one way or another.

The Wind was directed by Victor Sjostrom, born in Sweden, and raised partly in America and Sweden, he started directing in his native country, before coming over to America in the early 1920s when Louis B. Mayer offered him a job. He directed Gish in The Scarlett Letter (1926) and when she read The Wind, she immediately wanted to make it with him. Sjostrom’s visual prowess is on full display in this movie – the constant wind storm must have presented a challenge to film, but it brings it off without a hitch. There is also a dynamic sequence involving Gish having an hallucination which is also masterful. Sjostrom would have trouble adapting to sound filmmaking, which is a shame because he is more sure handed behind the camera than most silent moviemakers. Most art house audiences will undoubtedly best remember him for his performance in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957), but he was a truly great director as well.

The only problem with the movie is the ending. The original ending has Letty, after being raped by Roddy and killing him, wandering off into the desert, having completely gone insane, and surely about to die. This ending would have brought The Wind more in line with films like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, which is also about the male lust, and how it destroys a repressed woman. Yet test audiences hated that ending, so instead they shot one where Lige returns to the house after Letty has killed Roddy, and the two makeup – Letty confessing that she has grown to love Lige, and the two live supposedly happily ever after. Watching the movie, not knowing that this was not how it was originally intended to end, I felt the effect was quite jarring. It flies in the face of everything that went before it. I am glad that Sjostrom and Gish originally intended to end it the proper way, although obviously I am disappointed that the original ending no longer exists for people to see know. It is the one flaw that mars the whole movie.

And yet, I still think The Wind is a great movie. Everything up until the last three minutes or so is so masterfully handled by Sjostrom and Gish that this still ranks among the greatest silent dramas I have ever seen. Perhaps if you see it, you should stop watching when Lige comes home, and imagine the ending that should have been.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Movie Review: Submarine

Submarine *** ½
Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne.
Starring: Craig Roberts (Oliver Tate), Yasmin Paige (Jordana Bevan), Noah Taylor (Lloyd Tate), Paddy Considine (Graham Purvis), Sally Hawkins (Jill Tate), Darren Evans (Chips), Osian Cai Dulais (Mark Pritchard), Lily McCann (Zoe Preece), Otis Lloyd (Keiron), Elinor Crawley (Abby Smuts), Steffan Rhodri (Mr. Davey), Gemma Chan (Kim-Lin).

When all is said and done, I think Wes Anderson may turn out to be the most influential director of his generation. Not the best, although he has a rock solid resume, but the one whose career influences the people who came after the most. Take Richard Ayoade’s Submarine for example. The film has the same type of deadpan comic brilliance that is on display in the best of Anderson’s work. It looks at a dysfunctional family in Wales, and is a coming of age story about a smarter than normal 16 year old boy. Yes, to a certain extent, Submarine could be called Rushmore in Wales, except that the film works. It is funny and well acted, and debut filmmaker Ayoade has an interesting visual style. In short, I had a blast at Submarine, like I do whenever I watch a Wes Anderson movie.

The movie stars Craig Roberts, as Oliver Tate, who helpfully informs his American viewers in a letter than opens the film, where Wales is, and what is it best known for (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Jones), and that the film we are about to see is very important, and we should give it our outmost respect. At the moment the letter came on the screen, I knew that Submarine was either going to be one of the funniest comedies of the year, or yet another insufferable bit of naval gazing for hipsters. Luckily, it’s the first.

It’s the 1980s, and Oliver is an only child, living with his depressive father (Noah Taylor) and chipper mother (Sally Hawkins). He is concerned, and rightly so, that his parents marriage is going through a tough time, and it only gets tougher when Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), a new age guru who talks incessantly about how we are all made of lights, moves in next door. He was once his mother’s boyfriend, when they were teenagers, and perhaps he can woo her back again. Oliver makes it his business to spy on them.

But he has other problems as well. In his mind, he is popular (he imagines the National outporing of grief that would greet his death), but in reality, he’s one of those teenagers in the middle. He isn’t really picked on that much, but he isn’t really popular either. He wants to lose his virginity, and needs to find a girl willing. He sets his sights on Jordana Breven (Yasmin Paige), because she isn’t overly popular, and available, since she was recently dumped. She is also quite cute, with only a mild case of encyzma being a flaw. He figures the simple fact that she is a girl, will elevate his social standing. And so Submarine sets off on its dual tracks – Oliver trying to hold his parents together on one hand, and trying to get into Jordana’s pants on the other. And of course, nothing is quite as simple as Oliver plans it. Other people, it would appear, have plans, thoughts and feelings of their own.

In Craig Roberts, Ayoade has found the perfect actor to play Oliver Tate. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert compared Roberts to a young Bud Cort, of Harold and Maude fame, and the comparison is apt – just like it would be to compare him to Jason Schwartzman, the star of Rushmore. What all of these young me share is an intelligence that is perhaps slightly greater than their peers, but still the product of young minds, who haven’t quite figured out life yet. Oliver is shy and quiet, yet he likes to try to put up a tough façade for others, but it simply comes out awkwardly. Yasmin Paige is equally great as Jordana, who slowly brings Oliver out of his shell a little bit, realizing he’s awkward, and decides to take the lead. She storms out on him one day, but then reads the note he gave her, and comes back. Not because the letter is romantic – it isn’t, it is the creepiest letter ever written by someone who isn’t a stalker – but because his heart seems to be in the right place. It’s only when Oliver realizes that she may have problems that are outside his control that he starts to falter.

And the adults in the movie are gloriously clueless and awkward in their own ways. Noah Taylor is quite good as Oliver’s quiet father, who seems to blend into the furniture in their house, and never once raises his voice over a bare whisper. Sally Hawkins is excellent as his wife, who may have finally had enough of it. And Paddy Considine is absolutely hilarious as the guru, who spots off complete nonsense, but does so with such confidence, that people believe him. By watching these three, Oliver realizes life isn’t going to get any simpler.

There are moments in Submarine as funny as anything I’ve seen this year (a highlight is when Oliver’s parents sit him down and explain exactly what happened in the back of Graham’s van), but the film is also surprisingly, touchingly honest. Ayoade suffers a little bit, like many first time directors do, is perhaps trying to be a little too stylistic, but that is only a couple of moments. And while the film at times walk the fine line between clever and hip and simple pretensionious, it never quite goes across it. Overall, Submarine is one of the best comedies of the year. I look forward to seeing what Ayoade does next.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger *** ½  
Directed by: Joe Johnston.
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans (Captain America / Steve Rogers), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Sebastian Stan (James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes), Tommy Lee Jones (Colonel Chester Phillips), Hugo Weaving (Johann Schmidt / Red Skull), Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), Richard Armitage (Heinz Kruger), Stanley Tucci (Dr. Abraham Erskine), Toby Jones (Dr. Arnim Zola), Neal McDonough (Timothy 'Dum Dum' Dugan), Derek Luke (Gabe Jones), Kenneth Choi (Jim Morita), JJ Feild (James Montgomery Falsworth), Bruno Ricci (Jacques Dernier), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).

I was surprised how much I liked Captain America. I was fully prepared to hate the film, as more often than not, I get annoyed with gung ho, pro-America films that allow for no real subtly to come into play. I’m not against patriotism, but more often than not, films like that eliminate all grey areas, and become boring. But Captain America pleasantly surprised me. Yes, it is certainly a pro-American view of WWII, but surprisingly the two films that entered my mind while watching Captain America were Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. No, Captain America isn’t quite in their league, but it does share some similarities. It has some of the same glorious, alternate history of the Tarantino film, and some of the same questions of American patriotism and heroism of Flags of Our Fathers. Yes, it remains steadfastly a superhero film, but it is certainly one of the best in recent memory.

The film stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a skinny, 90 pound weakling, who in the days of after Pearl Harbor tries again and again to enlist in the army, and is continually rejected. He is too small, too weak, has too many ailments. And yet, he wants to fight. He considers it his job to lay his life on the line to help protect the country he loves. He gets his chance when Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) sees him on his fifth attempt to enlist. Erskine is a German scientist, who sickened by the Nazis, came to America to offer his services. He has come up with a serum that could create an army of super soldiers – it apparently amplifies everything inside the person. He sees Rogers as the perfect man for the job – because he has heart and class, and isn’t just a bully. Of course, when Rogers gets the serum, he turns into Captain America.

The enemy is Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, doing a killer Christoph Waltz impression); a former colleague of Erskine’s, and the first test subject for what was still an unstable serum. He has his own unit within the Nazi science system – Hydra – and dreams of world domination. Not for Hitler or the Reich, but himself. He is developing a weapon that will allow him to do just that. And Captain America is the only one who can stop him.

As superhero origin movies go, Captain America has to be one of the best. I liked what director Joe Johnston did with the movie (he is now forgiven for screwing up The Wolf Man last year). He gives the film a wonderful, desaturated color palette, and I quite liked the art direction and costume design, which looks straight out of a 1940s movie. Surprisingly, the special effects in the movie fit in nicely with the surroundings – the blend is seamless. And Johnston also perfectly cast the film. Evans is quite good as the square jawed Rogers, who he makes a little more human than most superheroes. I loved Tommy Lee Jones as his superior officer, who is even more square jawed, and is hilarious in his humorlessness. Hayley Atwell is smart and sexy as the British agent, who functions as his love interest and more. And Hugo Weaving has a blast playing Schmidt. The supporting cast – Dominic Cooper as Iron Man’s dad, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s weak willed underling, and all of Captain America’s Allied underlings, are in fine form as well.

Oddly, I liked many of the earlier scenes – before Captain America becomes battle tested – a lot more than the actual special effects driven fight sequences that end the film. At first, the Army doesn’t know what to do with Captain America, and make him into a marketing tool – which gives us a great, comedic sequence of him travelling around the country selling war bonds, and heading to USO shows. These are the scenes that reminded me of Flags of Our Fathers, which offered a complex look at what heroism in war is all about. The special effects sequences are well handled, but I’ve seen them before. The rest of the movie was more intelligent than I was expecting.

I must say I am somewhat saddened that Captain America is now simply going to become a part of The Avengers is modern day America. I didn’t like the finale of the movie, which is essentially a trailer for next summer’s superhero extravaganza. The weakest moments in most of these Avengers themed films have been when they push too hard to set up next year’s movie. But what really bothers me is that we will never again see this Captain America in the time period – WWII – where he makes the most sense. Some superheroes update effortlessly. Captain America is not one of them. He makes sense in the 1940s, and I wish I could see him in further adventures in that time period, rather than simply bringing up to date. Oh well, at least we got this movie.

Movie Review: Friends with Benefits

Friends with Benefits ***
Directed by: Will Gluck.
Written by: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck.
Starring: Justin Timberlake (Dylan), Mila Kunis (Jamie), Patricia Clarkson (Lorna), Jenna Elfman (Annie), Richard Jenkins (Mr. Harper), Bryan Greenberg (Parker), Woody Harrelson (Tommy), Nolan Gould (Sam), Andy Samberg (Quincy), Shaun White (Himself), Emma Stone (Kayla).

I am now fully convinced that Justin Timberlake has the makings of a real movie star. When he started his acting career, he was smart, taking on supporting roles and improving as an actor before jumping to lead roles. He is actually quite good in movies like Alpha Dog, Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan, but he was smart enough to pick smaller roles in smaller movies, so that even if he wasn’t good, his acting career wouldn’t become a joke. He has improved his comedic skills by countless guest starring roles on Saturday Night Live, and last year, he really did deserve an Oscar nomination for his great performance in The Social Network. In Friends with Benefits, he gives what I like to call a perfect “movie star” performance. No, it isn’t a deep performance, nor perhaps a great one, but he is charming and funny and likable – he sucks the audience in, and makes you care about his character, which is nearly impossible to do with romantic comedies these days. Not to be outdone, his co-star Mila Kunis – quietly building a very solid resume – matches him step for step. Yes, Friends with Benefits is as clichéd as the romantic comedies it pokes of during the course of the movie. But I enjoyed every minute of it.

Timberlake stars as Dylan, born and raised in LA, and making a name for himself running a news blog there. He is young, energetic and creative, and that is why Jamie (Mila Kunis) headhunts him for a job as GQ’s art director in New York. She meets him at the airport, and takes him to his interview, but he isn’t sold on moving to New York yet. So, she takes him around town and sells him on the city. He loves it, agrees to take the job, and moves out. He knows nobody in New York except for Jamie, and the two quickly become best friends. The both have just gone through breakups, and don’t want to date anyone, but they do want sex. The figure they can have sex with each other – just as friends. And we all know how that is going to turn out.

Yes, the plot of the movie is very similar to No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman from earlier this year. That movie was okay, but immediately forgettable. Friends with Benefits is funnier and smarter. It reminded me of the Judd Apatow movies in recent years, which mocks the clichés of the genre they are in, while still being a fine example of one. It works here because of the charm of the two leads, who are perfectly suited for each other. The supporting cast – Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s aging hippie mother, Woody Harrelson as Dylan’s gay friend, Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s stricken father and Jeanna Elfman as his ever supportive sister are all fine, but forgettable. What we want is Timberlake and Kunis, and they do not disappoint.

This summer has had a lot of R-Rated comedies – some quite good (Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses), some being blasé (Bad Teacher) and some downright bad (The Hangover Part II). Friends with Benefits is better than any of them, because it sustains the laughs throughout the whole movie. Yes, you know before you walk into the theater just what is going to happen. But for me, I didn’t care. The leads sold the movie, and they did an excellent job. If more romantic comedies were this good, I could actually start enjoying the genre again.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939) ***
Directed by: George Marshall.
Written by: Felix Jackson & Gertrude Purcell &  Henry Myers based on the novel by Max Brand  
Starring: Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), James Stewart (Thomas Jefferson 'Tom' Destry Jr.), Mischa Auer (Boris Stavrogin), Charles Winninger (Washington Dimsdale), Brian Donlevy (Kent), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Warren Hymer (Bugs Watson), Irene Hervey (Janice Tyndall), Una Merkel (Lily Belle), Billy Gilbert (Loupgerou), Samuel S. Hinds (Judge / Mayor Hiram J. Slade).

Jimmy Stewart is one of the most likable actors in movie history. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, which is why he cast Stewart is dark films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) because he knew audiences would follow Stewart anywhere – even into becoming a peeping tom, or into his obsession with a dead woman. After all, Stewart played Mr. Smith, George Bailey and Elwood P. Dowd. Another of Stewart’s pure, awe shucks good guy roles is in Destry Rides Again, as a new Deputy in the Wild West Town of Bottleneck, who comes in and tames it, mostly without using a gun. Destry has a lot of stories about a “A guy I knew once”, which explain why he doesn’t believe in violence. And it is Stewart who makes Destry Rides Again so entertaining.

The movie opens in Bottleneck with the murder of the old Sheriff by Kent (Brian Donlevy), the owner of the saloon, who runs the town as his own personal playground. He has the mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) in his pocket, and can do whatever he wants. He is currently scamming all the local ranchers out of their land, so he can charge absorbent rates for other who want to graze their cattle there.  The Sheriff doesn’t like it, so he’s gunned down. Everyone knows it, although they do not question the “official” story that the Sheriff had to leave town in a hurry. In order to avoid any messiness in the future, the Mayor decides to name the town drunk Wash (Charles Winninger) the new Sheriff. But Wash surprises everyone. He wants to be a law and order man – he once worked under the legendary Tom Destry, and now decides to bring out his son Tom Destry Jr. (Stewart) to be his new deputy and tame the town. That is precisely what Destry wants to do – although he shocks everyone by informing them he doesn’t care a gun. He saw his father shot in the back, and doesn’t want to go out the same way. He quickly becomes a laughingstock.

But Destry has a plan. He likes the fact that everyone underestimates him. That will make his job easier. So Destry sets out to cleanup the town, winning people, including Kent’s girl, the tough pool room singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) to his side. Eventually however, non-violence only gets you so far before you have to pick up a gun to get the job done.

Directed by George Marshall, Destry Rides Again is a perfectly fine, entertaining old school Western. Made in 1939, when the Western was still an innocent genre devoid of the darkness that would seep in later decades, Destry Rides Again is feel good entertainment. It is one of the films, along with John Ford’s Stagecoach from the same year, that I would recommend to parents who want to introduce their children to the Western genre. Start them with the adventure, before you introduce the dark side the genre would later offer.

Stewart was in quite a few of those darker Westerns during his collaboration with Anthony Mann in films like Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie. I have not seen all of those films (hopefully soon), but what I have seen I have loved. I prefer my Westerns darker, which is perhaps why I didn’t enjoy Destry Rides Again as much as those other films. And yet, I have to admit that before you can subvert a genre, you have to have the standard. And Destry Rides Again meets that criteria. And with Stewart as likable as ever, Dietrich playing the tough girl, singer and a supporting cast full of fine character actors, I can’t complain too much about the film. A great film it isn’t, but it is wonderfully entertaining.

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Force of Evil (1948)

Force of Evil (1948) ****
Directed by: Abraham Polonsky.
Written by: Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert based on the novel by Ira Wolfert.
Starring: John Garfield (Joe Morse), Beatrice Pearson (Doris Lowry), Thomas Gomez (Leo Morse), Marie Windsor (Edna Tucker), Howland Chamberlain (Freddie Bauer), Roy Roberts (Ben Tucker), Paul Fix (Bill Ficco), Stanley Prager (Wally), Barry Kelley (Det. Egan), Paul McVey (Hobe Wheelock).

Force of Evil was the first film directed by Abraham Polonsky – and would be his last for more than 20 years, as a few years after its release, he was blacklisted by the Joseph McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee. John Garfield, who starred in the film, had a few more roles after it, before he himself was blacklisted. Unlike Polonsky, he didn’t live to work again – dying in 1952, a year after he was blacklisted. Watching Force of Evil, it isn’t hard to see why Polonksy and Garfield were suspected of being Communists – out of all the films I’ve seen from the 1940s, this is the one most sharply critical of Capitalism. Almost a quarter century before Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather would draw comparisons between gangsters and businessmen, Force of Evil did the same thing. And it contributed to ruining the careers of two very talented men.

In the film, Garfield stars as Joe Morse, a lawyer whose major client is Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), a gangster who runs the numbers racket in New York. The police and DA’s office is breathing down their neck about the numbers, but Joe sees a way that he can make it legit – a real lottery that is perfectly legal. He convinces Tucker to go along with his plan. On July 4th, they’ll rig the drawing so that the number 776 hits. This is the one day of the year that they can guarantee that people will place money on a specific number (1776 being the year American was founded). When the number hits, all the smaller banks who run their own numbers game will be bankrupted by having to pay out so much in one day – and they will come running to Tucker to bail them out. Tucker and Morse will decide who they want to support, and who they will let collapse. Thus consolidated, the numbers game can be legitimatized, and the police cannot touch them.

Things are never as simple as they seem however. Morse’s older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) runs one of those smaller banks. Joe doesn’t want to see him go bankrupt, so he tries to convince Leo to sign on with Tucker. Leo wants no part of it however – and no part of Joe for that matter. Leo dreamed of being a lawyer as a kid, but when their parents died, he went to work to support Joe, and send him to law school. Having Leo’s dream within his grasp, Joe has thrown it all away to be just another gangster for Tucker – although one that hides behind his law degree.

Force of Evil is a movie about a corrupt system – one that cannot help but taint everyone who comes in contract with it. Joe is trying to manipulate the system for his own gain, whereas Leo is simply trying to make a living off of it, but both are dragged deeper and deeper into the corruption. Leo’s secretary, Doris (Beatrice Pearson) initially admires Leo for his honesty, but she finds herself drawn to Joe just the same. He can provide fast money and easy living – the American Dream – but of course their relationship is doomed from the start.

Watching the film, I could not help but think of the recent financial scandals that have rocked Wall Street, and brought the economy to the brink of collapse. Is there really any difference between what the Wall Street executives did, manipulating the system for their own personal gain, and what Joe is doing in this film? Leo tries to stay out of the muck, but ultimately he cannot. He’s as dirty as the rest of them.

Lest I have made Force of Evil sound like a pretentious diatribe against capitalism, I should also point out that the film is supremely entertaining – a perfect example of the film noir genre, stylishly directed by Polonsky and shot by George Barnes. In particular, the films last scene, where Joe walks down, further and further to the waterfront (representing just how low Joe has fallen) is a masterful example of filmmaking at its finest. John Garfield’s performance is one of his very best – he even handles the roles multiple speeches wonderfully well, and makes sure that they do not sound like sermons. Pearson is excellent as the young, innocent girl corrupted by the lure of fast cash. And Thomas Gomez is a tragic figure as poor Leo.

Polonsky continued to work in Hollywood under various pseudonyms during the period he was blacklisted – although what movies he had a hand in remains unknown. Although Force of Evil represents one of the great film noirs of all time, he was only able to direct two more films – the mostly forgotten Tell Them Where Willie Boy Is (1970) and Romance of a Horse Thief (1971). He continued to write after that – including the original script for Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion (1991) about the Hollywood blacklist – but objected when Winkler turned Robert DeNiro’s character from a Communist into a Liberal. HUAC wasn’t wrong about Polonsky – he was a Communist, and remained one his whole life. But that doesn’t excuse their treatment of him. He was an extremely talented filmmaker, who had his career ruined because of his political beliefs. As for Garfield, there is no proof that he ever was a communist – he was liberal to be sure, but that doesn’t make him a Communist (well, to Fox News maybe). But again, his career was ruined by the blacklisting, just as he was starting to get some juicy leading roles. Many believe the stress caused by the whole ordeal is ultimately what led to his heart attack and death in 1952.

For both of these men, Force of Evil could just be what they are ultimately remembered for. It was the only time Polonsky got to make the film he wanted to, and it gave Garfield perhaps the best role of their career. It is one of the most important American films from the 1940s.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Ripley's Game (2002)

Ripley’s Game (2002) ** ½
Directed by: Liliana Cavani
Written by: Charles McKeown and Liliana Cavani based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: John Malkovich (Tom Ripley), Ray Winstone (Reeves), Dougray Scott (Jonathan Trevanny), Evelina Meghnagi (Maria), Lena Headey (Sarah Trevanny).

One of the things about Patricia Highsmith’s famed sociopath “hero” Tom Ripley is that he can be a completely different character in each and every cinematic version we see. Matt Damon played him as a man uncomfortable in his own skin, who lashes out when cornered and rejected in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Dennis Hopper played him as an enigma – and man impossible to get a true read on in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (which was also recently reviewed for this series). John Malkovich, who plays Ripley in Liliana Cavani’s 2002 film Ripley’s Game (based on the same novel as The American Friend) plays him more as a straight forward psychopath – a man who can kill without feeling or remorse, and simply does not understand why people behave the way they do. Like all psychopaths, Ripley in this incarnation as a brain that just doesn’t function the same way as everyone else’s. This makes it great fun to watch the ever talented Malkovich rip into his role like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. But it also makes Ripley’s Game the least interesting of the Ripley movies I have seen so far. If Ripley is just an unrepentant psychopath, what makes him all that interesting? The Silence of the Lambs was smart enough to make the main character Staling, and use Hannibal Lector sparingly – which is also what Wenders did in The American Friend (Minghella does highlight Ripley in his film, but the character is much more complex there). The problem with Ripley’s Game may just be that he is surrounded by idiots.

If you read my review of The American Friend a while back, or saw the movie, the story will be familiar. Ripley is now living a life of leisure in Italy, but he can never quite get away from his past. A former associate of his, Reeves (Ray Winstone) shows up at Ripley’s house one day with a proposition for him to kill a rival of his. Reeves wants someone clean, outside the organization, to do this job so it won’t be traced to him. Ripley doesn’t want the job, but knows someone he may be able to manipulate into doing it – his neighbor Jonathan (Dougray Scott). At a recent party, Jonathan insulted Ripley’s taste when he didn’t know Ripley was listening. This is a slight Ripley will not let pass. He knows Jonathan is dying of leukemia, and wants to take care of his wife and young son – so he tells Reeves how to play it so that Jonathan will agree to the job. Things, of course, spiral out of control from there.

The reason to see the film is Malkovich, who is excellent as Ripley. True, he takes a more straight forward interpretation of Ripley as an unrepentant psychopath, but Malkovich plays it brilliantly. The main joy in watching the movie is hearing Malkovich deliver lines like “If my watch breaks I’ll fucking kill everyone of this train”. However, it must be said that there is a reason why most psychopaths like this are supporting characters – like Malkovich’s own brilliant performance in Wolfgang Peterson’s In the Line of Fire. It’s because when fore grounded like this, the character becomes repetitive and not nearly as interesting (see the Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs which has the same problem). Ripley is at his best when he is backed into a corner, and has to think his way out of it. The problem here is that no one in the movie is even close to a match for him. Ray Winstone is a talented actor, but his role as Reeves is underwritten badly. Dougray Scott never amounts to much of a character – certainly not the level that Bruno Ganz brought to the role in The American Friend. The two women in the movie Evelina Meghnagi as Ripley’s girlfriend Maria and Lena Headley as Jonathan’s wife Sarah are also underwritten. It is clear for example that Maria knows something darker lurks within Ripley, and this in some way turns her on, but the movie never explores this – it becomes a missed opportunity. As for Headley’s Sarah, she immediately hates Ripley, and blames him for everything than is strange with Jonathan, and while she’s right, the movie gives her no reason to suspect this. The women of the men that Ripley draws into his games always mistrust him, but at least Gwyneth Paltrow had ample reason to detest him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Not so much here.

The film was directed by Lilana Carvani, whose most famous film is The Night Porter from 1975 (still unseen by me), in which Charlotte Rampling plays a Jewish woman who enters into a sadomasochistic affair with the Nazi officer (Dirk Bogarde) who raped her repeatedly in the Concentration Camps years before. Obviously, she is driven to darker material, and Ripley certainly qualifies as that. Here, she has mounted a handsome film – it is certainly well made, and movies effortlessly, and makes the most of the beautiful Italian scenery. And yet, to me, the film is ultimately a letdown. The film was supposed to go into theaters, but the American distributor held onto it for so long after it was completed, that eventually they gave up and simply released it direct to DVD. Roger Ebert fell in love with the movie, and named it to his “Great Movies” series a few years later. What Ebert loves about the movie is that Malkovich’s performance as Ripley matches the man he envisioned when reading the novels. He doesn’t match my idea however (although it must be said I have only read The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I am making my way through all five Ripley novels). There is a cold logic to Ripley that sucks you into along with him – makes you complicit in his actions. Malkovich doesn’t tap into that in this movie. It isn’t his fault – he played the role the way it was written for him. But Tom Ripley is much more complex than this movie makes him seem.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Americanization of Emily (1964)

The Americanization of Emily (1964) *** ½
Directed by: Arthur Hiller.
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky based on the novel by William Bradford Huie.
Starring: James Garner (Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison), Julie Andrews (Emily Barham), Melvyn Douglas (Adm. William Jessup), James Coburn (Lt. Cmdr. Paul 'Bus' Cummings), Joyce Grenfell (Mrs. Barham), Edward Binns (Adm. Thomas Healy), Liz Fraser (Sheila).

Paddy Chayefsky was one of the best screenwriters in movie history. He is, of course, best known for his amazing screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), which was a daring and funny satire at the time, which has come to look more like prophecy today. No matter what he did, he did it his way. When he wrote the screenplay for The Americanization of Emily, he was given a serious book, and turned it into a sly, cynical, at times downright hilarious look at patriotism, war, heroism and cowardice. The book wasn’t meant to be read that way, but that’s how Chayefsky read it, and that’s what he wrote in the screenplay.

The movie stars James Garner as Lt. Cmdr. Charles Madison, who acts as a “dog runner” for Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) – essentially meaning that Madison does all of Jessup’s dirty work for him, getting the supplies the Admiral needs, whether that’s liquor, food or women. He is brash and charming, and very good at his job. It is 1944, and they are all in England, preparing for D-Day. Madison doesn’t have to worry about fighting and dying for his country – he has a cushy desk job. But Jessup has been acting really strange lately- the stress of his wife dying, and the upcoming invasion may well have pushed him over the brink of sanity. He is determined that the first man to die on D-Day be in the Navy – and what’s more that they capture that death on film – in order to use it to get more money and attention for the Navy, who has been overshadowed by the infantry this war. He assigns Madison to get the job done – but the job is simply put, insanity and a suicide mission. But Jessup is determined to see the movie completed, and he has powerful friends who don’t want to cross him, and so, Madison has to do it.

This plot thread is offset against a more sweet love story, between Madison and Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a young Englishwoman who works as a driver on the base. She is initially offended by Madison – the casual way he slaps the ass of every woman on the base (and how they all seem to love it) – so when he tries it with her, she slaps him. But of course, she is no match for his charms, and soon the two are in love.

What I loved about The Americanization of Emily is how cynical it is towards war and death. Madison rejects the idea that dying for your country is heroic in itself, and hates that everyone in the country has a romantic view of war. His brother died in battle, and they made such a big deal of it at home that his other brother cannot wait to turn 18 to get his chance to die as well. Madison does not reject the idea of war, or of fighting and dying for your country, but wants people to go into with their eyes open – that war is ugly, cruel and violent, and death is not heroic but tragic. He doesn’t want to go along with the boys on D-Day to film the initial invasion because he doesn’t think that dying for the sake of Navy PR is a worthy enough cause. They still do not make many movies that show American soldiers in a truly horrible light, and I cannot recall another one where the “hero” of the movie is quite clearly a “coward” as Madison is.

This cynical realism extends to the relationship between Garner and Andrews as well. This is not some fantasy of the innocent British girl falling in love with the heroic American. For one thing, Madison is far from heroic. For another, Emily is far from innocent. Early on the in the movie she admits that she “just can’t say no” to men who are about to go off and fight for their country. The movie paints a darker picture than most of the relationships between the men and women on the base – essentially it is a slightly more innocent of prostitution, where the women sleep with the men to get some more luxuries out of them – luxuries that they would not have a hope of getting otherwise. I also love how this is the only time in any Julie Andrews movie that I have seen that someone calls her a bitch. Take that Mary Poppins!

Garner and Andrews play their roles pretty much perfectly. I understand better now than ever before why Garner was a star. He is charming, good looking and funny throughout this movie, delivering Chayefsky’s lines the way they were meant to be delivered. Andrews, in only her second movie role (after Mary Poppins, right before The Sound of Music), is less wide eyed and innocent, and much harsher here. Yes, she is still lovable, but in a different way. James Coburn, as Madison’s best friend, who turns out to be a little more gung ho than anticipated, and Melvyn Douglas as the crazed Admiral, lend excellent support.

The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, who has had a checkered career. Along with The Hospital (1971), also written by Chayefsky, I think The Americanization of Emily is the best film of his career (infinitively better than the ever popular soap opera Love Story). The best thing Hiller does in this film is get out of the way – he lets Chayefsky’s screenplay and the performances by Garner and Andrews take center stage, and he merely stands back.

You don’t hear people talk about The Americanization of Emily much anymore. Perhaps its because Hiller isn’t thought of as a great director, and people don’t take Garner or Andrews as seriously as perhaps they should. Or perhaps its simply because the film came out the same year and Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant war satire Dr. Strangelove, and any satire next to that one looks tame by comparison. But the film is rock solid, funny, cynical, witty and expertly written and acted. It certainly deserves a re-evaluation.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

Harry Potter and the Death Hallows Part II *** ½
Directed by: David Yates.
Written by: Steve Kloves based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Professor Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Warwick Davis (Griphook / Professor Filius Flitwick), John Hurt (Ollivander), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Kelly Macdonald (Helena Ravenclaw), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Ciarán Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom),  Devon Murray (Seamus Finnigan), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Maggie Smith (Professor Minerva McGonagall), Jim Broadbent (Professor Horace Slughorn), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Emma Thompson (Professor Sybil Trelawney), Geraldine Somerville (Lily Potter),  Adrian Rawlins (James Potter), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black).

After 10 years, and 8 movies, the Harry Potter franchise has finally come to an end. What is remarkable about the franchise is how consistent it was. I’m not sure I would call any one movie in the series a truly great film, and yet, as a series, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Yes, not all the movies are as good as the best in the series, but there isn’t one of them I wouldn’t gladly watch again – and it never ceases to amaze me at how quickly I get wrapped up in one of the movies when I come across it on TV. Certainly there are “flaws” in the movies, but overall I find it extraordinary that all 8 movies turned out to be at the very least very good. This is after all in an age where most movie series lose steam in by their third entry.

This last chapter in the Harry Potter franchise is among the best in the series – an is certainly the most exciting chapter. Eliminating the need for setup or explanations, because that was all done in Deathly Hallows Part I, this movie simply dives right in full force into the story. Almost all of it save for a couple brief side trips to start the movie – happens all in the course of one night at Hogwarts. Harry knows the final horcrux is there, so he Ron and Hermione head to their old school, and are terrified to discover what Headmaster Snape has done to the place. Voldemort finds out pretty quickly that Harry is there, and he and his minions descend on the great castle. What follows is a battle royale between good and evil – which of course climaxes where Harry and Voldemort finally go toe to toe with each other.

The film works because of what we know from the other movies. I always felt that someone stepping into any of the previous movies without any knowledge of Harry Potter could follow the plot – sure they’d miss some of the nuances, but they’d get it. I don’t think the same can be said about this final installment. Director David Yates (who took over the reins for the fifth movie, and hasn’t looked back) dives headlong into the action in this movie, and really never lets up. Some of the movies feels almost like a “greatest hits” collection, as we spot major characters from previous installments in the background, even though they aren’t really given anything to do. If you don’t already know their back stories, or their motivations, for the most part you won’t discover them here – the movie simply moves too quickly to really pay attention.

Having said that, the film works remarkably well. I think one of the reasons they hired Yates, a TV veteran, for the fifth film and kept with him, is because as this series moved along, and the plots became more complex and intertwined, they needed someone who could look at the bigger picture across hours of screen time – someone like a TV director. And this is the installment where it really pays off. Yates, who has improved his visual prowess with each entry, here has crafted an extremely exciting, fast paced action film. The emotional moments hit hard, because of what we know before we walked into the theater. The special effects, art direction, costumes and music are typically top notch. This is easily the most exciting chapter in the series, and the best one directed by Yates.

And finally, there are the performances. By now, these actors have spent so long playing these characters, that they could do so in their sleep. But no one does. Daniel Radcliffe, who has grown tremendously as an actor, really is excellent in the lead role. And Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are fine as his sidekicks. Michael Gambon is quite good, once again, as Dumbledore, and Alan Rickman finally gets to give Snape a soul. Best of all, of course, is Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, who seems to relish every moment he gets to play every child’s worst nightmare.

Now that the series is over, I can admit that I’m really going to miss it. I think the first two installments suffered a little bit from coming out the same years as the first two Lord of the Rings movies – and they weren’t nearly as good as Peter Jackson’s epic. But now, they have certainly stepped out that shadow, and the series can stand as one of the best sustained series’ in movie history. I can’t believe I’ll never step into a theater to see a new Harry Potter movie again.

Movie Review: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times *** ½
Directed by: Andrew Rossi.
Written by: Kate Novack & Andrew Rossi.

Anyone with a brain can tell you that the news industry has changed remarkably over the past 15 years. Nightly newscasts on the major networks don’t draw anywhere near the number of viewers they once did, because anyone interested in TV news can turn on any number of 24 hour news networks. The effect in print has been even greater. With the internet around, fewer and fewer people are reading physical newspaper. They are more sources of news and information than ever before. Same internet companies can “aggregate” the news – pull stories from everywhere, offer commentary, and do it all with a small staff and little overhead. But what about an institution like the New York Times. They employ hundreds of people in offices around the world. They survived for years on ad revenue and the revenue from those who bought their paper. But now, advertisers aren’t spending as much on them, and fewer people are buying the paper. The Times is in trouble. But do we really need the New York Times, or is it an outdated, entitled company that adds little to our discourse?

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times is a remarkable documentary in many ways, and over all, it argues that yes, we need the New York Times. You can track back many news stories from any outlet back to reporting initially done by the Times. They have a staff of excellent writers, who know what they are doing, because they’ve done it for years. They are not perfect – and the documentary does not shy away from recounting some of the Times recent failings (like the Judith Miller fiasco), but without the Times, the national discourse would still be radically different.

The Times finds its greatest defender in David Carr – a Media reporter who has led an interesting life, including years as a crack addict, before finding his way to the Times later in life. Watch how quickly and decisively he takes down the executives of Vice TV, essentially calling them idiots to their faces, and watch how they immediately back down and look foolish. Or watch a debate he participates in, where the head of Newsr, one of those aggregate sites, talks about how they no longer need the mainstream media because of what people like him do. Then watch as Carr shows what Newsr would look like with the mainstream media to glam onto – it isn’t pretty. Carr is a colorful character – one of those old school newspaper men who take no crap, and can still inspire fear when he calls someone on the phone to get a comment on a story he’s working on. He smokes, he swears, he walks with a little bit of a hunchback, and has a voice that always seems to be about to give out.

But if we need the New York Times, and it is no longer making money, how the hell can it survive. This is the question that hangs over Page One – the question that does not have an answer yet. Newspaper all over America are failing – victims of the same disappearing ad revenue and lack of readership that is sending a scare into the Times as well. When one reporter tells the camera that the Times is going to put up a pay wall on their website – essentially requiring readers to pay a monthly fee if they want to access more than 20 articles a month – he justifies it by saying that the Times has always survived on two things – ad revenue and money from the readers. And if you give away your paper online everyday, who is going to pay for it. This argument makes sense.

And yet, I know I’m a hypocrite in many ways. When I hit the Times pay wall, as I have done numerous times over the past year, I don’t sign up and pay. I simply don’t read the article, and come back when the month is up and I can access 20 articles again for free. And, of course, I’m one of those stupid bloggers that get derided in the film (although I doubt me and my 13 followers have affected the Times at all). But, personally, I think we still need the New York Times, and other papers. We need to professionals to do a lot of work, so the rest of us can argue about it, and give our commentary. I hope the New York Times survives.

Movie Review: A Better Life

A Better Life *** ½  
Directed by: Chris Weitz.
Written by: Eric Eason.
Starring:  Demián Bichir (Carlos Galindo), José Julián (Luis Galindo), Gabriel Chavarria (Ramon),
 Chelsea Rendon (Ruthie Valdez), Carlos Linares (Santiago).Richard Cabral (Marcelo Valdez), Joaquin Cosio (Blasco).

When I hear the constant debate on TV about illegal immigration, I often wonder about whether or not the hardliners – the ones who want to build a giant fence, and defend Arizona’s racial profiling law, understand that there are real people behind all the numbers they spout off. People who come to America and work hard, for little money, doing jobs that most Americans would not do. That these “leeches” and “parasites” are husbands, wives, sons, daughters, etc simply trying to make a better life for themselves. I’m not suggesting that America should simply throw open the gates and let everyone in, but what about some compassion? I doubt the hardliners will watch A Better Life, or dismiss it as propaganda if they do, but I do hope that people do see the film, and watch it with an open mind.

The film stars Demian Bichir, in one of the best performances of the year, as Carlos Galindo. He crossed the border illegally with his wife and sister years before, and had a son, Luis (Jose Julian) in California, thus making his son an American citizen. But now, Luis is 15, his wife is long gone (tired of living on his small income), and Carlos is still an illegal immigrant. He works for another Mexican as a gardener. Every morning, they get into his truck and drive to rich people houses where they mow the lawn, trim trees, do the gardening, etc. His boss wants to move back to Mexico, and is trying to get Carlos to buy his truck, and all the equipment, from him. But Carlos is scared. He got burned by a lawyer who guaranteed him citizenship, only to scam him out of his money. If he were to buy the truck, he still couldn’t get insurance, and getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation could mean deportation. He doesn’t want to risk it – but he is worn down. Reminded of what life will be like if he doesn’t buy the truck – waiting at a bus stop and hoping to be picked by someone who needs manual labor for the day – he relents and buys the truck. And then, the unthinkable happens.

The movie was directed by Chris Weitz, who until know has mainly made larger budget movies. They include The Golden Compass, what I thought was an excellent fantasy film, but no one seemed to agree, so it tanked, and the second Twilight movie, which I thought sucked, but no seemed to agree, so it was a success. Here, he has scaled his production way down, to tell a simple, human story. The obvious inspiration for the film is Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, about a father in post WWII Italy, who gets one of the few jobs around because he owns a bike. But when his bike gets stolen, he has to try and track it down himself, or lose his livelihood. He brings his son along on the quest. That is pretty much what happens in A Better Life. And how sad is it, that a story about post WWII Italy can be updated to modern LA, with the only real change being a truck for a bike?

The film provides a nice tour of Los Angeles, but not the LA of big shopping areas, glitz, glamour and Hollywood, but the underbelly of LA – a world where there are a lot of illegal immigrants who keep the city running, although everyone pretends that they do not. Carlos is just one of these nameless faces in the crowd, keeping his head down, doing his work and trying not to get arrested. All he wants is his son to have a better life than he has had. So far, it isn’t working. Luis hardly ever goes to school, and is in danger of falling in with a gang. He sees his father as a loser, probably because he never seems to have any money, although he leaves and comes home from work when it’s dark outside. The movie, which is about a search for a truck, is really about these two getting to know each other. Carlos has done everything he can to raise his son right, but when you have to work so at least 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to make ends meet, it’s hard to be there for your kids. And MTV Cribs and the local gangsters seem so much more exciting than cutting some rich person’s lawn.

A Better Life tells a simple story, but one that works remarkably well. Yes, it is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t diminish its impact. Demian Bichir gives an honest, heartbreaking performance. He has had a long career in Mexico, but the only movie I have seen him in before was Steven Soderberg’s Che, where he played Fidel Castro. It is a an excellent performance – the type that a film like this needs to be as good as it is. A Better Life is a low budget gem.