Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Better Life

A Better Life:  B

 I see this movie, and I think of all the students and the families I've been fortunate to work beside these past nine years.  I think of all the kids I know who aren't in this country with papers or those students who were born in this country, but whose parents were not.  I think of the time I used the expression "illegal alien" during my first year of teaching in Lynwood, CA, and I was coolly informed by a (white) teacher that many of his family members were these "aliens."  I think of students worried about going to college because of their citizenship status, about families living in converted garages because they cannot afford anything better, about the intoxicating allure of gangs, about mothers who work for unfair wages.

In other words, I think about myself when it comes to immigration, and I myopically view events at first glance through a self-reflexive lens.  Which really is pure narcissism, the kind that reeks of hitting a situational lottery.  Because I don't have to hide my identity, I don't have to worry about deportation, I don't have to worry about losing everything during a simple traffic stop, the way Carlos (Damian Bechir) worries when driving around in the pick-up truck he purchased to provide a livelihood for him and his son, Luis (Jose Julian).  A Better Life, directed by Chris Weitz, tells a simple, universal story of a father's love for his son, but it carries it around on the back of a more compelling, frustrating, and terrifying figure: our country's immigration policies.  Weitz and Eric Eason, the screenwriter, do an admirable job of letting the milieu provide a strong backbone for their treatise, and the situations concocted (Carlos has his truck stolen, so he and Luis embark on a journey around (mostly) East LA to recover it) whisper rather than scream their message about the unfair conditions under which so many undocumented laborers toil.

However, the strongest support is provided by Belchir.  I've never seen the man in any other roles, but the highest compliment I can pay him is I now want to see more of what he's done and I look forward to his future projects.  Belchir's handsome face, creased with years of experience, his eyes expressive pools of constant worry, tells the story as well as any of the dialogue.  I often wished the film had less conversational pieces, since the moments where Belchir is simply allowed to be (a shot of him planting shrubbery at an ocean-front mansion lingers) provide the most power.  He's working on another level than Julian and the other adolescent actors, who often recite their dialogue like just that:  actors.  They don't embody their characters the same as Belchir, and I often found myself vexed by their artificial performances.  If you want to see tremendous naturalistic performances by teenagers, rent Raising Victor Vargas.  

The dilemmas presented in A Better Life call attention to the very real lives of the millions of undocumented workers currently living here in the United States as well as the untold numbers preparing to make the journey North (as well as from other countries).  Unfair wages, educational inequity, inhumane working/living conditions, and more corrode any kind of moral high ground the US stakes claim to.  The entire thematic topic of immigration deserves a kind of Wire-like treatment since it encompasses so many strands of the American fabric:  education, economics, culture, language, politics, religion, and more.  A Better Life does not delve much into these systemic quagmires; it's position is more simplistic, but no less powerful: to humanize those men and women who work quietly in the shadows desiring nothing more than a better life for themselves and their families.  These people don't deserve our pity or our hatred; they deserve basic human rights.  They deserve justice.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Video Review: A Single Man

A Single Man: A-

I spent the evening with A Single Man, and I found it to be maddening and hypnotic, not to mention wonderfully sad in a way that I adored.  After letting the film stir in my consciousness for a while, I have realized it to be a potent little film with nothing and everything to share with people.  And it shares it in a way that might prove frustrating for some, but I thought (in hindsight) it did an excellent job of projecting the main character's interior and exterior state of being.

Based on a novel I've never heard of and directed by fashion designer, Tom Ford, the movie tells the story of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor at an unnamed college in Los Angeles in 1962.  While news of the Cuban Missile Crisis is mentioned throughout the course of the film, George has other, more personal issues on his mind such as committing suicide.  As George goes about his mundane daily rituals, from dressing to teaching to spending time with a friend, Charly (Julianne Moore), George also prepares for his death.  He buys bullets for the gun he'll use to shoot himself, leaves money for the maid who will inevitably find his body, lays out a dapper suit for his burial; George does all of this with the precision and single-mindedness of man who knows exactly what he wants and does not want.  Why does George wish to kill himself?  His lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), has died in a car accident.  "My heart has been broken," George declares in voiceover.

At first, I believed the simplicity of the tale to be sabotaged by Ford's film making.  His liberal manipulation of space and time become irritating as he utilizes jump cuts, cross cutting between the past and present, dream sequences, close ups, non-diagetic sound; these vexing stylistic tics became less and less frequent as the film progressed, and they also began to coalesce into more of a formal representation of the main character's fractured state and perpetual dislocation.  I slowly came around to admiring the cumulative effect of these devices, helped in no small part by a number of beautiful performances.

 First and foremost, Firth is deserving of the Academy Award nomination he received for this role, but I can see why he won for The King’s Speech and not here.  The role of George is mirthless for the most part, and it doesn’t project the kind of vanity often displayed by actors when they play historical figures nor the flashy quirks often used for shorthand to portray personality.  Instead, Firth is given the unenviable task of a repressed man struggling to control the flood of emotions he’s drowning in, unable to call for help and (for the most part) unwilling to accept it even if offered.   Despite the inherent obstacles presented by his character, Firth is able to express George’s grief for his lost love, his disgust with society’s lack of acceptance, his attraction to a couple of younger men, and more, all through a carefully calibrated performance built around what isn’t said as often as what is stated outright.  An early scene, where George learns of Jim’s death and he’s told not to attend the funeral services, expertly captures the delicacies of the performance; Firth’s vocal intonation, the quiver of his lips, the slackness of his body as if suddenly the bones have been removed all present the layers of a man suffering not so much a soul-crushing loss, but of the one’s spirit being extracted.  A later, luminous scene (George and one of his students swimming in the Pacific Ocean) further opens up the character in ways that no dialogue would do justice, but continues to add layers to the character.

Firth is supported by a trio of terrific performances from Hoult, Goode, and Jon Kortajarena, but his best accomplice remains Ford.  What could have simply been a series of artful images with no real dramatic heft instead evolves into an emotional collage that presents a portion of a man’s life at his most vulnerable moments.  Ford captures each snapshot into George’s life as a singular, crystalline vision; while the content presented is by no means definitive of George’s life, it succeeds at depicting him during very specific times in order to capture his mood.  And while I have no doubt some might not find such melancholy bearable, I happened to revel in it.  A Single Man reminded me of those memories you have that might be painful in reminiscence, but that have shaped and continue to shape your perspective of the world.  Memories wrapped up in pain and sadness, sure, but also memories so vivid in an emotional language that they speak to you in ways you wish all of life could articulate.  They are the moments that define you and the world you’ve created.  As such, they become life itself.