Friday, June 24, 2011

Heavy-Handed Help

A Better Life       WWW Score: 80%

It sounds quite elementary but the man that helms the camera is crucial to a film. If a name other than David Fincher were attached to 'The Social Network', it's highly likely that we would not be discussing it as one finest movies of the past decade - the guy has an undeniable and unteachable gift. I can't place Chris Weitz in that category, he's given us the decent 'About a Boy' and most recently 'Twilight: New Moon'. This much I know, it's pretty clear that the process of making "studio pictures" has tainted him. What should have been an impactful statement about America's illegal immigration debate in 'A Better Life' has been rendered much less compelling courtesy of a mound of melodrama that weighs down the proceedings.

Demian Bichir is a lesson in low-key efficacy playing Carlos Galindo, an illegal barely getting by in East Los Angeles, working six-days per week as a yard maintenance worker. His teenage son, Luis (Jose Julian) is more enamored with the "thug life" culture than becoming anything like his pops. While Carlos is scaling 200-foot palm trees and sawing their fronds off, Luis is edging closer to inking with the neighborhood gang and its own sawed-offs. In an effort to push the pair past their current state, Carlos purchases his boss's business, i.e. the pickup truck and tools - only to have things take a quick left turn - setting up the core of the film's conflict. The importance of pride and making it on your own are central to 'A Better Life'; sacrifices become the very backbone of the older Galindo, striving for things that the majority of Americans consider God-given rights. In this regard, 'A Better Life' succeeds - the pride that beams through Carlos when he first becomes the "boss" reminds us not to take so much of our existence for granted.

But while director Weitz presents an engaging story, it veers into melodramatic territory too unnecessarily often. Weitz needs to watch the work of Asghar Faradi, the director of the brilliantly minimalistic 'A Separation'. While it's a study in the strength of a bare bones approach, 'A Better Life' is a half-step removed from the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Weitz foists the "Hollywood system" approach on his film - ferociously over-scoring the thing one of his chief crimes. It would seem that Weitz learned some bad habits the last time he sat in the director's chair, when a vampire and a werewolf battled it out for Bella's heart. 'A Better Life' isn't a bad movie, it's just in need of a director that understands the power of subtlety. Ironically, all Weitz needed for that lesson was to look through his lens at the leading man.