Talking Movies

July 25, 2011

A Better Life

Chris Weitz, whose last two directorial outings were the unbearably awful The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon, causes the earth to shift on its axis by following them up with an intelligent drama…

A Better Life could be uncharitably described as ‘The Bicycle Thieves, outsourced to Mexicans’ as the plot is driven by the increasingly desperate search by a father and son for a stolen vehicle vital to the father’s employment. Our hero Carlos (Demian Bechir) is a stolid gardener living illegally in America and working in Beverly Hills, but living far away from such luxuries. He sleeps on the couch while his brattish teenage son Luis (seriously, this kid is as annoying as Damian Wayne in recent Batman comics, and that’s some going) takes their house’s one bedroom. Carlos’ back-breaking labour is all for the sake of earning enough money to give a well-educated Luis a better life, and he seizes the chance to buy the truck of his boss Blasco Martinez (Quantum of Solace’s villainous general Joaquin Cosio). However, Carlos has become American enough to suffer from the maxim ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, and so begins a desperate search for the truck which is his livelihood, and which he cannot ask the police to trace…

Demian Bechir is a huge star in Mexico, unsurprising given that he looks like Ryan Reynolds in ten years’ time; if Reynolds came from below rather than above the American border. Bechir’s character-filled face wonderfully conveys indefatigable stoicism, endless compassion, and steely will. The villain is a subtle mixture of malicious guile and motiveless compassion, something which infuriates Jose Julian’s Luis, even as he convincingly comes to respect his father’s values which he previously despised. Their reconciliation is part of a fascinating examination of identity. Blasco wanted enough money to buy his own farm in Mexico, Carlos just wanted out of Mexico, but he’s quick to rebuke a sneering Luis that with a sombrero on him Luis is instantly another Gaucho, for all his assimilation.

The startling first shot of Luis’s school makes it look like a prison, an impression which the film pointedly does not dispel, as the system has given up hope on these cultural immigrants. The legally resident Latinos, like Luis, communicate solely in the language of gangsta rap, which leads to thinking and acting in ways with only two endpoints – jail or morgue. The stupidity of appropriating this culture and rejecting their own is exposed by the blind terror Luis displays when he has to venture into South Central, the source of the culture he’s adopted, where he sees a slogan daubed on a wall – ‘Too Many Mexicans. Not Enough Bullets’…

Weitz and originating producer Paul Junger Witt have crafted an affecting story of the people who live in the shadows of a sun-kissed world, and this is well worth seeing.

3.5/5

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June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

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