Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Better Life (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

A Better Life

"A Better Life" is an authentic, somewhat low key film directed by Chris Weitz. Weitz is best known for co-directing the "American Pie" films, but here, he leaves the sex-comedy genre aside to focus on a simple, direct story about an undocumented gardener just trying to stay out of trouble.

There have been several movies about gangs, immigration and the desperate existence of neighborhoods in East L.A., But rather than go for the gunfire Weitz's camera hunkers down to the personal, illustrating in detail the eye-level domesticity between father and son with all of the tension and averted looks. No glocks necessary.

Demian Bechir plays Carlos, the rugged but gentle single father who landscapes long hours every single day. Carlos sets his jaw hard with a furrowed brow almost as if he has swallowed the lemon of life whole and didn't have enough time to make lemonade. Although his chin juts forward and he seems to be grinding his teeth, Galindo eases his hard edge, appearing like a gentle Charles Bronson.

Carlos is up against it, but not beaten down: all he wants is a truck so that he can become the boss of his own operation, get citizenship and send his son to a good school.
Carlos' son Luis, excellently played by Jose Julian, doesn't quite have his dad's work ethic. His good looks and big brown eyes sometimes glaze into tortured turf when he thinks of having to get a job. Luis is mercurial and intense. At times his eyes are open, willing to drink in the world like a mug of black coffee. But also his eyes can narrow to a slit and become a snake screen. At the film's beginning you are unsure of how Luis is going to move. His school is a prison and the lure of money,coupled with sex and peer pressure is everywhere. Jose Julian has a vulnerable quality and a charisma that recalls the early roles of Johnny Depp for his wide eyed looks that take everything in.

Rather than illustrate the story with heavy thugs and grand slang-peppered speeches, "A Better Life" unfolds with small scenes of streets, alleys and splintered neighborhoods: a garden, a rodeo crowd, a dirt road nursery. There are no Gothic Scarfaces with mounds of cocaine here, only heavy lidded schoolchildren with hunched shoulders baggy pants and swagger. Over-muscled Males of indeterminate age drift by the school also, their bodies so heavily tattooed as if to resemble the gray blue scales of some amphibious warlord posse. These men are the sharks in an urban sea. Gender doesn't play nice either. The girls are just as carnivorous as the boys.
There are some quiet telling moments. Once Carlos gets the truck his whole body changes: his jaw loosens, his shoulders expand and he laughs. And to see Carlos atop a tree is to see a person who works with what he is dealt and delights in being human.

Then the dominoes start to fall and the movie turns slightly into a Film Noir thriller when everyone seems to have a secret. Once again, the life of the streets have a story to tell, including the unanswered knocks at the door.

Excusing a bit of melodramatic dialogue between father and son, near the end, "A Better Life" is a film that stays refreshingly punchy with intimate detail. And it will even satisfy the Noir-sighted ones among us. You can't resist the apprehension of the nightclub scene with the soundtrack's sudden chord ala Giorgio Moroder. But just when you might think the denouement might go De Palma, it doesn't. This is a gentle story of people under the radar who must forge ahead or get caught, be they gardener or gang-member.

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