Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Eric’s Capsule Reviews: August

In Film, Reviews on August 20, 2011 at 11:13 am

By Eric Plaag

It has been a crazy couple of months for the northern half of TheSplitScreen, filled with tours of Civil War sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia (in honor of our annual father/son educational camp experience, which this year happened to be themed by the Civil War), a trip to Oklahoma to do preliminary fieldwork for a forthcoming book on cinema culture in rural twentieth-century America, and the ramp-up for our move back to the REAL south (Boone, NC) at the end of September. In short, time has been, well, short. But I did manage to see a few movies along the way that I will not be reviewing in full.

A Better Life

This drama from director Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, About a Boy) walks a difficult line that unfortunately produces exactly the opposite effect of what seems to be intended. Pitched in the fashion that it is, A Better Life immediately draws audiences that are already sympathetic to seeing the story of a hard-working, devoted, but illegal immigrant father named Carlos (Demián Bichir), whose only desire is to improve his lot and thereby send his teenage son Luis (José Julián) to a better, less gang-infested school. With a moving score from Alexandre Desplat (HP7:2, Tree of Life, The King’s Speech) that accompanies some stunning urban landscape sequences that highlight the inequities of an American culture that no longer rewards hard work and instead privileges excess and extravagance, A Better Life hits all of the requisite moral targets while also finally humanizing the subjects of our long national nightmare of blustering, hyperbolic speechifying on the “immigration problem.” The conundrum here is that those sympathetic viewers who will see A Better Life aren’t the folks who need to see this movie, and the hackneyed dialogue, improbable plot twists, and melodramatic family scenes risk alienating those few allies among us that those illegals can count on. If A Better Life were pitched in a different way, though, its flaws might go unnoticed by the vast swath of an American culture that prefers fear-mongering, empty populist sentiments, and nightly melodramatic “reality” TV to serious thought. In their eyes, A Better Life could be a bold revelation rather than the cinematic equivalent of a Lifetime drama, and that just might be enough to make a difference.

Theaters, 3 out of 5 stars

Hombre (1967)

Director Martin Ritt’s tense and intriguing stranger western may be an oldy, but it sure still is a goody. The stranger this time out is John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man raised by Apaches who gets caught up in a stagecoach ride that goes horribly awry. At the center of the villainy is Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone), a monster of a man who bullies his way through everything except John Russell. Accompanied by Alex Favor (Frederic March), an Indian agent who has embezzled thousands from Russell’s Apache tribe, Favor’s wife Audra (Barbara Rush), and Russell’s landlady Jessie (Diane Cilento), the stagecoach passengers are left to die in the desert following a robbery orchestrated by Grimes and his goons. Hombre’s taut, crisp writing never leaves any doubt that each and every one of them is deserving in some respect of their unfortunate lot, a point amplified by the fact that Russell, who certainly has no reason to feel sympathy for any of his fellow passengers, is the only one who can lead them out and protect them from Grimes’s return. Turning his Cool Hand Luke reserve up about a dozen notches, though, Newman’s Russell has no time for silliness or bravado. “Shoot her, then,” he tells Grimes regarding the hostage Audra. “She means nothing to me.” Infused with an important and compelling undercurrent on the obligations we have to help others, Hombre never comes over the top, even though it lingers pointedly on Jessie’s insistent plea, “Isn’t somebody going to do something?” As that question hangs pregnant and unanswered for most of the film’s third act, Hombre proves to be a timeless, must-see film that still kicks us in the gut nearly 45 years later. Americans of any political stripe who are frustrated with what’s happening to our country at present would surely benefit from giving it another look.

DVD, 5 out of 5 stars

Fair Game

This political thriller from director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) may lack some of the punch of its fictional cousins in the action spy genre, but it is no less exciting or fascinating. Based on the true story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), a CIA operative deeply immersed in covert operations in Iraq at the start of the Second Iraq War, Fair Game recounts the ridiculous assumptions and completely false claims made by Bush administration officials regarding WMDs as justification for the Iraq invasion, and the actions of Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (the diplomat, not the Congressman from South Carolina, and played by Sean Penn), to bring the issue to public attention in the New York Times in 2003. Fair Game focuses on Scooter Libby’s outing of Plame–a move that destroyed both her career and her husband’s–and the legal battle that ensued over Libby’s actions. But what might be most revealing from the film is that it covers the territory left out of most media reports about the affair: the devastating consequences for the Iraqi scientists who had been cooperating with the covert operation in Iraq but were abandoned as a result of the publicity over the operation. Fair Game isn’t always precise with the facts–perhaps as a result of artistic license–but it also never pretends to be a documentary. Instead, it is a compelling political thriller that shows in real-world terms that sometimes our government isn’t on the side of its own citizen soldiers and lies to protect interests different from those of the American people. While the marital tensions between Watts and Penn are perhaps too melodramatic for the film’s purposes, it nevertheless succeeds as an edgy political thriller with frightening implications for any of us who still think that our government will look after us when it matters most.

DVD, 3 out of 5 stars

  1. I’ve been looking forward to Fair Game for a while – it’s lurking near the top of my Netflix queue (finally) after many months of being near the middle. On a side note, and the real reason I’m commenting, is that Pauline Kael loved Paul Newman, particularly in the other major Martin Ritt/Newman collaboration Hud. I’ve never seen Hombre, but Hud is fantastic. I also just extended my Netflix waiting list by one. -Matt

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