JWR Articles: Film/DVD - A Better Life (Director: Chris Weitz) - December 18, 2011

A Better Life

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3.5 3.5
98 min.

Of Gangs and Men

The purposely placed, too-pristine-by-half sign, “Too many Mexicans, not enough bullets,” succinctly sums up the plight of illegal “aliens” in just one sentence. Every day, nothing-to-lose, “it’s what we’ve always done” men, women and children sneak into the land of the free and the home of the brave in search of their better life. When the expected riches fail to materialize and grim reality sets in, families fall apart. Many women who still have their looks and sex appeal solve the citizenship dilemma by marrying a bona fide American as their way of coping with the, otherwise, endless cycle of getting nowhere: some of those even abandon their husbands and children (whether or not these offspring were born stateside). Once those sorry children grow up, the allure of more money than they can imagine, designer everything and a family that shows their true colours with body tattoos can be too enticing to resist—even if cut short by a stray bullet in a turf war or takedown gone wrong.

Welcome to the “fictional” world of Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir in a marvellously stoic performance) and son Luis (José Julían soars in the father/son scenes but, happily, can’t find his inner-gangsta when in the ‘hood with his pals and suddenly vanishing “girl”—Chelsea Rendon).

Director Chris Weitz has done a credible job of bringing Roger Simon’s story and Eric Eason’s screenplay to cinematic life. In order to make their narrative points, the events depicted border on the tripe and saccharine: the East L.A. gang members, although sporting spectacular body art, are too clean-cut to ever threaten; their LAPD minders are, likewise, too polite and respectful to deal with ruthless bad guys—so at odds with Rampart: cross-reference below; the “pay it forward” act of kindness by a fellow alien gardener—through no fault of his own, the hapless, traitorous Santiago is semi-convincingly rendered by Carlos Linares. It began well, had a real surprise turn but faded into the realm of Disney during the get-my-truck-back-and-bond-with-my-boy sequence.

Binding everything together is another beautifully orchestrated original score from Alexandre Desplat. The descending scale motif is finely rendered by the London Symphony Orchestra (whose only misstep comes during the credits where the violins aren’t all on the same page in the stratosphere). Deserving special mention are the especially sensitive delivery of the mandolin lines (Jim Ellis, Don Thomas), invigorating guitars (Colin Green, John Parricelli) and Rebecca Gilliver’s delectable cello solo that magically shifts the scene from the despair of prison to the hope of a soccer pitch.

Few will not be moved by this tale of greener pastures that soon become dust bowls, perhaps the most telling moment of all occurs when—without a doubt—the old adage, “blood is thicker than water” sets the stage for the next pathetic act out to escape the mire of misery in one’s own land. JWR

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Director - Chris Weitz
Screenplay - Eric Eason
Story - Roger L. Simon
Director of Photography - Javier Aguirresarobe
Production Design - Missy Stewart
Editor - Peter Lambert
Original Music - Alexandre Desplat
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