Monday, July 18, 2011

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.


  1. Anytime an author pours her imagination into a story that captures the minds of human beings the way this story has its incredible. It’s the same with a Director; Chris Weitz was amazing in his work with New Moon showing his skill with every passionate moment in the film. There was a necessity for the type of directing needed with this film but there was more to it than just a director calling the shots. He put his soul into each scene and created exactly what the actors and the film needed to be the best of all the films yet. I've been driven to turn my blog in the Twilight direction as well. I even found a great tool of the trade that works with my fast paced lifestyle. Because that requires a love of writing and resources that allow me the movies and TV options necessary to give me an array of research choices. It was a bit shocking that when I started looking into different service providers to get that resource, Comcast wasn’t making 100% digital programming available plus had such limitations in their programming and initial free equipment. International channels were quite limited which means my writing would suffer on that level and they were not offering HD free for life. This certainly would not work due to the type of writing I do which is all based off movies and the actors surrounding them. Now I did find that with Dish Network I can get more programming and movie channels for far less money plus a free Sling Adapter which fits me as I travel a lot and need to bring my services with me. I ended up changing jobs and started working for Dish Network, still traveling a lot but understanding better how all this is possible. Now I am clear that whatever makes it easiest to work and enjoy my own hobby is what is necessary which brings happiness to me and my internet family. I really was hoping to see Chris Weitz recalled for the final films but was not surprised when he was not, let’s hope these last films have the passion and aggression required to appropriately recount the story as it was originally told.

  2. While I appreciated your comments about Weitz, even while I disagree with them (the only decent direction in any of the Twilight movies has been by David Slade), and I also think turning the final installment into two movies is ridicilous - the plot isn't that complicated in the Breaking Dawn - I would appreciate if you didn't spend most of your comment talking about dish network. I'm assuming your a troll whose job it is to post comments like this, but next time, I'm simply marking it as spam.