Archive for July, 2013

936full-ferris-bueller's-day-off-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Jeffrey Jones, Jennifer Grey, Lyman Ward, Cindy Pickett, Edie McClurg, Ben Stein, Del Close, Charlie Sheen, Richard Edson, Kristy Swanson, & Jonathan Schmock

Directed by: John Hughes

Written By: John Hughes

With Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the late writer/director John Hughes managed to catch lightening in a bottle. Sometimes, luck and timing will perfectly combine all the elements of a movie (plot, casting, setting, etc) to produce a result that becomes seminal and helps define a generation. Such films include Back to the Future, Field of Dreams, American Graffiti, Forrest Gump, Dazed and Confused, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There is an unexplainable quality to these films that cannot be quantified, but one recurring element that they all share is a “coming of age” theme. These films may not rank among the best films ever made, but what makes them unique is how they so intimately connect with our romanticized memories of our own key life moments.

Facing a looming writer’s strike, it took less than a week for Hughes to write Ferris Bueller and he essentially shot the film based on the first draft of his screenplay. The film was Hughes’ love letter to his hometown of Chicago (“I really wanted to capture as much of Chicago as I could, not just the architecture and the landscape, but the spirit.”) and he wrote the story with Matthew Broderick specifically in mind for the lead role of Ferris Bueller. The story takes place in 1 day in the life of Ferris Bueller, a high schooler whose philosophy on life is, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” As the film’s title says, Bueller decides to take the day off from school and have some fun with his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and girlfriend (Mia Sara). However, there are those who want to spoil Ferris’ fun, namely the Dean of Students at Ferris’ high school, Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and Ferris’ sister, Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey).

That saying, “They don’t make them like they used to” is no more apt than it is for Ferris Buller. Not to sound like some grumpy old guy, but if Ferris Bueller were made today, it would undoubtedly be full of sexual innuendos, drug use, wall-to-wall product placements, and the comedy would probably be mean-spirited and sarcastic. Furthermore, in this day and age when major studio productions cost a minimum of $100 million to make, no risk-averse studio would have allowed John Hughes to take the creative liberties he did with Ferris Bueller by allowing him to insert such introspective scenes like the one that takes place at the Art Institute of Chicago. Unfortunately, Ferris Bueller would probably have to be funded as an indie movie through Kickstarter to have any chance of seeing light.

Like every single one of John Hughes’ film, Ferris Bueller’s appeal is not the story, but the characters. In fact, Hughes’ plotlines are really nothing but simplistic setups for his characters to grow into. The Breakfast Club was just about a group of high schoolers spending a detention Saturday in the library. Home Alone is simply about a boy who finds himself fending off a pair of burglars after being accidentally left behind at home by his parents. Weird Science is about two nerds who create the perfect woman with their computer. And Ferris Bueller is nothing more than a privileged suburban Chicago kid who ditches school to have a bit of fun. However, with all of these, what we most remember are the richly developed and very memorable characters that John Hughes created. Have a conversation with anyone about any John Hughes film and I can guarantee the focus of discussion will be on one of the characters.

The character of Ferris Bueller sort of reminds me of Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton character in Family Ties. Keaton was a dyed-in-the-wool Reagan Republican who always advocated the values of the Republican Party. Ferris Bueller doesn’t make any mention of the Republic Party nor Ronald Reagan, but his view on life clearly reflects the qualities of the Grand Ol’ Party. At the beginning of the film, when Ferris Bueller introduces us to his methods of faking out parents into thinking you are sick, he effectively tells us that life is all about experiencing the goods things in life (eating at nice restaurants, driving a Ferrari, going to ball games, etc.). This obviously requires money and it is safe to say that Ferris Bueller’s only reason for wanting to go to college and getting a job is to earn enough of it to maintain the rich lifestyle that he got to experience for 1 day in this movie. That was the essence of the Reagan 80’s where, as Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko famously said, greed was good.

Ferris Bueller is a privileged white kid who lives in a nice, suburban Chicago neighborhood. He lies to his oblivious parents, he skips school, his classmates think he is dying so they raise money that he doesn’t need, and he convinces his best friend to take his father’s prized Ferrari out for a spin even though he knows this will probably land his friend in deep shit. How can you possibly make such a character likable? And somehow, he is. Matthew Broderick imbues the character with an earnest innocence that prevents Bueller as coming off as being an arrogant, smarmy asshole. Ferris Bueller invites you to join in on the fun with him and it is difficult to not be taken in by his confidence and enthusiasm. Hughes succeeds in this partly by having Bueller break the 4th wall and talk to the audience directly. Due to it being a comedy, it is very easy to overlook how difficult it is to write such a character without making him totally unlikeable. The serendipitous casting of the boyish and mischievous looking Matthew Broderick certainly helped in that regard, but the credit mainly goes to John Hughes for walking that precarious balance between easily fucking up the character and accomplishing the far more difficult task of pulling it off.

However, I am probably not alone in saying that my favorite character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Ferris Bueller’s best friend, the neurotic and awkward Cameron. It is amazing to think that when Alan Ruck was cast to play this high schooler, Ruck was almost 30 years old! And yet, never are you in doubt that Cameron is in high school. Many of the film’s greatest moments are those with Cameron (like the funny faces he makes at the fancy restaurant, his classic turn convincing Principal Rooney that he was Simone’s father to get her out of school for the day, and lest we forget, the film’s best scene in which Cameron decides to finally face up to his father). Cameron is the voice of caution and reason, but there is very little room for caution and reason in Ferris Bueller’s world, especially if caution and reason mean that Ferris has to go to school and be like everyone else.

The weakest character in the film, but the one every adolescent male in the 80’s probably masturbated to (along with Who’s the Boss’s Alyssa Milano…admit it) is Simone, played by Mia Sara. Molly Ringwald was reportedly interested in playing the role, but Hughes refused to cast her because he felt the role was too small for someone like Ringwald. He was right. The Simone character has very little to do except to dote on Ferris and follow the two guys around. She has very few lines and she is by far one of the most underdeveloped characters Hughes has ever written (even the small supporting role of the fucking school secretary, played by Mrs. Poole, has more dialogue and personality!).

As for the film’s antagonists, I never really dug the Edward Rooney character although I am a big fan of the actor, Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus, Beetlejuice). Principal Rooney is far too one-dimensional and the humor of having an idiotic authority figure no longer holds up. I would have preferred a less slapstick, less over-the-top approach to the character such as what Hughes did with the principal character in The Breakfast Club. On the other hand, as similarly one-dimensional as Ferris’ sister is, it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to not fall in love with Jennifer Grey (a pre-Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey I might add). Unlike the caricature Hughes created with Ed Rooney, Jeanie Bueller realistically portrays every older bully sibling that every kid sibling has had the misfortune to live with. Her likeability is enhanced by the wonderfully hilarious and sweet scene where she finds herself at the police station and meets Charlie Sheen’s stoner character. Not only is it a funny scene (Sheen kills it), but we finally witness a thawing of Jeanie’s ice cold bitchiness and see a sweet side to her that adds a nice added layer to her character. Sidenote: Grey and Matthew Broderick ended up dating for awhile after this film.

One of the great things about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is that there is no romantic subplot involving a boy and a girl (unless you count the very brief Jeanie/Charlie Sheen encounter as a romantic plot, which it really is not). I think the real reason for this is that such a subplot would distract from the film’s true love story – John Hughes’ romance with his hometown of Chicago. Like I stated before, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ love letter to his city. Frame by frame, you can sense Hughes’ excitement to play tour guide with his audience and show them not only the geographical aspects of Chicago, but to also give us a sense of the city’s spirit. All of this culminates in the now iconic scene where Ferris Bueller sings Danke Schoen in downtown Chicago. This may be a little too cheesy for today’s jaded audiences, but for me, it remains a memorably cheerful and wonderful scene that continues to bring a smile to my face despite how many times I have seen this movie.

It is impossible to quantify the brilliance of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. On the surface, this appears to be a fun, whimsical, and disposable teen comedy. But to shrug this film off is a huge mistake. This film offers it all – it is funny, smart, charming, insanely quotable, and it represents John Hughes at the peak of his career. By the way, I have not even mentioned the film’s great soundtrack, which is highlighted by the song that will forever be associated with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Yellow’s Oh Yeah. To appreciate the impact of this movie on our popular culture, think of this – Matthew Broderick has made MANY MANY other films throughout his career (WarGames, Election, Godzilla, The Producers) and yet, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains what he is best known for and I think it will forever be that way.

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Monte Carlo (2011): Grade: D-

MonteCarloPosterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Aurora is fortunately not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Starring: Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester, Katie Cassidy, Pierre Boulanger, Catherine Tate, Luke Bracey, Cory Monteith, Andie MacDowell, Brett Cullen

Directed by: Thomas Bezucha

Written By: Thomas Bezucha, April Blair, Maria Maggenti

How the sheer fuck did a novel called “Headhunters,” which was about four middle-aged women from New Jersey who prowl for rich husbands, turn into a script about three lonely Midwesterners in their 30’s (one of whom included Nicole Kidman) to then become a throw away pile of shit about three young women getting involved in a case of mistaken identity and starring ex-Bieber Selena Gomez? Where did that severe lapse in imagination and judgment occur?

Now you may be wondering why this fool ass would even consider watching a movie intended for the tween crowd, ESPECIALLY after having just reviewed a serious and critically acclaimed foreign film by a director who launched his country’s first cinema movement?!? Let us just say that I had a bet with a friend and I lost that bet with a friend and the losing of that bet with a friend meant I would watch Monte Carlo from beginning to end without fast-forwarding and then review it for this blog. Look at it this way: you get to now see me vent my rage at having to watch this movie so that should provide you with a bit of entertainment.

As goes with the rest of this film’s unsubtle approach (subtext is clearly not in this movie’s vocabulary), Selena Gomez’s character is named Grace as in Grace Kelly, who starred in that other film set in Monte Carlo, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (and I am sure Grace Kelly is rolling in her fucking grave at the thought of Selena Gomez attempting to pay her tribute). Anyway, Grace is about to graduate from high school in her small Texas hick town. She and her best friend, Emma (Katie Cassidy), have been saving up their tips from their waitress job for a graduation trip to Paris. However, her mom (Andie MacDowell) and sort-of stepdad (Brett Cullen) throw cow shit all over Grace’s fairy tale trip by forcing her and Emma to have her stepdad’s difficult and negative daughter, Meg (Leighton Meester), accompany them on the trip. The three of them get to Paris and accidentally run into Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also Selena Gomez), an ungrateful and undeserving British heiress bitch. After the paparazzi mistake Grace for Cordelia, Grace’s friends realize that there is nothing wrong with their friend impersonating another person for a few days and living the rich life. Hot sex, violence, and profanity ensue. Actually, none of that happens, but you will wish it did after (or if) you get through this film.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head as soon as the film’s opening credits rolled. For one, how the mighty have fallen when someone as formerly great as Andie MacDowell decides to take a thankless 5-minute role of playing a boring mom. Well done managing that career, Andie. Second, who did Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, The Incredibles) owe a favor to in order to be saddled with composing this film’s music score? More importantly, why the hell was he even hired when most of the film’s music is (a) comprised of songs (and admittedly very good ones at that) and (b) the orchestral music is barely noticeable and when it is, it sucks?

I am not a complete prick and I understand shitty, brainless films like Monte Carlo are not intended for my demographic or for people with high IQs. I am also perfectly comfortable with myself to give credit to the elements that work in the film. Monte Carlo really boils down to being a travelogue and like any good travelogue (i.e. see Rick Steves), it has pretty cinematography (by DP Jonathan Brown, who is the son of the inventor of the Steadicam) that shows off the wonders of Paris and Monte Carlo during their best moments (in the spring season). If you, like me, have lost a bet and you are forced to watch Monte Carlo, I suggest you purchase the soundtrack and watch the movie on mute with the soundtrack playing in the background. You will have a far better cinematic experience than I did.

I was obviously already aware of the train wreck viewing experience I was about to embark on with Monte Carlo, but my fears and expectations were confirmed during a high school graduation scene in which a character quotes from Gandhi. The quote is: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” This becomes the theme of the movie and it defines Grace’s journey. I have no problem with Gandhi serving as an inspiration for a character, but when it is being used in a tween comedy that is made by people with TV backgrounds, you should excuse my lack of faith in their ability to come up with a meaningful and original way to incorporate this quote into the story and characters. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers would use this quote and just as I suspected, they fuck it up – at the very end of the film, almost as something the filmmakers tacked on in order to justify Grace’s materialistic and shallow goals and interests, we find Grace in Romania as a volunteer at an elementary school. She is asked by her supervisor to go out and run some errand when she runs into the French prince who she had a romantic fling with earlier in the movie. Presumably, she will now quit her volunteership that probably didn’t do dick for that school and its poor Romanian children and live the life of a golddigging trophy wife to a prince.

There are many reasons why I normally cannot get into romantic comedies, especially those that are made for younger audiences. I can understand why Hollywood would want to have its main characters to be conventionally beautiful looking because audiences who watch these films want to see a fairy tale romance they can escape to and in their shallow, brainwashed, undeveloped minds, this means the lovebirds must look pretty. However, what I do not get is why all the other characters have to look pretty as well and why every piece of scenery and setting has to look perfectly clean and polished? Grace, Emma, and Meg come from a small town in Texas that is populated by people who clearly all came from Los Angeles. Places such as the diner and high school look like the quaint places that we city folk imagine small country towns to look like. It was impossible for me to imagine Grace coming from a poor, working class family when her mom is former Vogue model Andie MacDowell.

The plot to Monte Carlo smacks of something that was cobbled together by Selena Gomez’s publicists, studio executives, and a focus group comprised of ditzy teenage girls. Shit happens that either does not make any sense or its simply a stupid creative decision. For example, why did Grace have to save up for her high school graduation Paris trip by waiting tables when her older sister (who already graduated from high school) had dad not only pay for her trip, but she also got an upgrade on her flight? That would be enough to set my own sister on fire. Another general thought: If these girls are so hard-up for visiting Paris, then why the hell do they spend like half a day in the city and then spend the rest of their vacation in Monte Carlo (a city that dumbshit Emma has never heard of and yet she seems to have heard of Reykjavík)? What ultimately disturbed me about Monte Carlo was how the film clearly celebrates the excesses of wealth, social status, and the attainment of a rich husband above everything else. For these girls, becoming rich is the end goal. Sure, the film throws out a bone about saving poor Romanian children, but it spends no more than a few minutes mentioning it without going too deep into the issue for fear of boggling the minds of the film’s target audience. Ladies, if you want to see this same story, but with a bit more intelligence and better humor and dialogue, check out Only You (1994) instead.

If Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester, and Katie Cassidy are going to represent Hollywood’s next generation of thespians, then it is safe to say that film is already dead as an art form. To be fair, the three screenwriters who wrote Monte Carlo did not help in the least bit to make these “actresses” look good. The dialogue is so cringingly fucking horrible that I can now see why the director figured it would be best to distract his audience away from the characters by focusing the film more on beautiful scenery. The three girls are obnoxious, one-dimensional, and Selena Gomez should never be allowed to use a British accent again (despite the fact that she reportedly spent weeks training herself to speak British).

Monte Carlo is, predictably, a nuclear disaster. I would not wish this film on my worst enemy and if you have even an ounce of self-respect, you will avert your eyes from the title and move on down the aisle to something that will be more nourishing for the body, mind, and soul. This film is like a sexless version of Sex and the City that sputters before it even has a chance to take off. Skip this colossal waste of time.

Aurora (2011): Grade: F

auroraIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Aurora is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime. It is currently available for rent only through DVD/Blu-ray.

Starring: Cristi Puiu, Clara Voda, Valeria Seciu, Gelu Colceag, Luminta Gheorghiu, Gigi Ifrim, Lucian Ifrim, Carmela Culda, Ileana Puiu

Directed by: Cristi Puiu

Written By: Cristi Puiu

Why does every Eastern European film have to be dark, emotionless, and depressing? Was life under Communist totalitarian and repressive regimes so bad? Obviously, Eastern European filmmakers are not in the business of entertaining their audiences unless ruining your day and boring the complete shit out of you is your idea of entertainment. Today’s Eastern European cinema is what avant-garde German cinema must have been like in the 1970’s. I can imagine a smoke-filled movie theater somewhere in an industrial part of Romania where everyone is dressed in black turtlenecks, sporting shades, and sharing the same dour outlook on life as the filmmakers obviously do. If you cannot tell from this little diatribe, I am a firm believer in the not-widely-adopted notion that movies serve to primarily entertain, even when they intend to educate their audience.

Acclaimed Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu’s 2010 film, Aurora, falls squarely into my above description. Puiu is considered one of the pioneers of Romanian New Wave cinema, which began in the mid-2000’s with Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) (winner of the Un Certain Regard at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival). Films of the Romanian New Wave are usually either set in the late 1980’s at the end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime (stop me if this is too much history for you) or in modern-day Romania where they deal with how capitalism and democracy have changed the country since 1989. These films are characterized by an aesthetic look that is stark, minimalist, and realist. One thing to keep in mind about the Romanian New Wave is that this movement came much later than it did in countries like Britain, France, and Italy and that is due to the Romanian government’s tight control over its filmmakers. Up until Ceausescu’s fall, the only filmmaking that really went on in Romania was propaganda pieces. However, a decade and a half after Romania became democratic, the Romanian New Wave emerged and it has gained worldwide recognition among film art house audiences and critics.

Aurora is about an engineer named Viorel (Cristi Puiu), who has just gone through a messy divorce and (I think) is having problems at work. He now lives by himself in a small apartment that appears to be in an abandoned state of renovation. Viorel is distraught over his divorce and so he methodically plans out the murder of his now ex-wife.

The premise sounds interesting enough and one would imagine that such a simple story would not take more than an hour and a half or two hours (at most) to tell. Let me be the bearer of bad news by dispelling both of these assumptions. Puiu, who produced, directed, and starred in Aurora takes THREE HOURS to tell a story in which very little happens. If I could time how long it takes for all the significant scenes to occur, it would probably not be more than half an hour. For the remainder of that time, we literally see the main character of Viorel walking or driving from one place to another with no or very little reason or he is staring at some object or a person without saying a word. Cristi Puiu’s aesthetic style is to shoot very long shots through mainly static camera angles that gives the scenes a fly-on-the-wall perspective. A scene in this film can seemingly take forever in which absolutely nothing happens. I know it is cliché when one compares something to watching paint dry. However, Aurora is as appropriate a film as any to fit that description – for the vast majority of this film, it would have made no difference whether I watched Viorel lumber about doing God knows what or if the camera had simply focused on a wall covered with fresh paint.

The long stretches of boredom are punctuated by very brief moments of intensity, which when they occur, it is akin to being given food and water after enduring days of torture. I really got into these scenes, but I could not tell whether my interest in them was because these scenes were genuinely interesting or whether my boredom made me desperately yearn for anything remotely interesting that would break the boredom. Viorel is clearly a disturbed and angry individual, but so little of the character’s feelings and thoughts are revealed. During the entirety of the film, he does not utter more than a few lines of dialogue. Not that being silent is a bad thing because after all, some timeless classics have been made from the silent era of cinema. However, here, so much of what we see Viorel do goes unexplained and there is not enough information to understand what he is doing. We are left with watching a depressed man go through the mundane rituals of life, albeit a life where he makes preparations to blow his wife away.

Normally when I see a movie that lacks in both story and character development, I put out some hope that the film can at least be salvaged in its visuals and music. I’m sorry to disappoint you on this front as well. Like I stated before, like other films of the Romanian New Wave, Aurora uses a muted, cold, and monochromatic color pallet in which the imagery is grainy and highly textured. Puiu employs a static camera approach to give his film a quasi-documentary feel so you don’t see any crane, dolly, or steadycam shots or any quirky angles. As for sound, since the film’s style is documentary, there is no sound design and any music you hear is incidental background music that is played on the radio or television. In short, don’t be expecting to see any beautiful cinematography or hear a beautiful film score by a Romanian composer.

I perfectly understand that Cristi Puiu intended to give us an antiseptic and mundane look at random violence. What I do not understand is why he would do such a thing? Why would audience members want to see anything mundane on the screen when they just simply observe their own lives if they want that effect? The director goes way too far in making his film’s violent undertones feel like one more bit of the modern malaise. At times I felt that Puiu holds a snobby disregard for the principles of entertainment or patience. He offers zero insight into his character and the things his character does (taking a shower, waiting in line to buy his meal, drive to some drab location, or hide behind trucks to spy on people) is hardly compelling. Even when the film’s plot thickens during the halfway point (where Voirel kills his wife), the film fails to generate an ounce of interest and by then you will have already given up on the film. If the Romanian New Wave cinema is anything like Aurora, it will be a short-lived movement.

A-Better-Life-Movie-PosterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? A Better Life is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime. It is currently available for rent only through DVD/Blu-ray.

Starring: Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Carlos Linares, Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, Joaquin Cosio, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Kimberly Morales, Lizbeth Leon

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Written By: Eric Eason (story by Roger L. Simon)

Its not that the city of Los Angeles is somehow unique in its ethnic or socioeconomic makeup that so many movies have been made about its citizens. It is simply because those who make movies tend to live in L.A. and have lived there long enough to make observations and opinions about the various groups who live in the City of Angels. Steve Martin’s 1991 whimsical tale about Los Angeles, L.A. Story, presented a decidedly white, upper class (basically Steve Martin’s) interpretation of L.A. In the same year, we got to see a starkly contrasting view of life on the “other side of the tracks” in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, an eye-opening film about the dangerous lives of black youth living in Compton. Other films have also shined a spotlight on L.A. – Crash, Grand Canyon, and The Player to name a few.

However, since 1983’s El Norte, few films have dealt with L.A.’s substantially large undocumented community of Hispanics. Shot in the city’s largely Hispanic East Side and featuring a cast that is virtually all Hispanic, A Better Life shines a spotlight on the struggles of being an undocumented Hispanic in post-9/11 America. It is the story of Carlos (Demian Bechir, who played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che), an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who performs gardening services for Los Angeles’ well-to-do, and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian). Carlos’ friend offers to sell his gardening truck along with its tools to Carlos so that Carlos may continue to make a living. Although he does not have a driver’s license, Carlos takes a loan from his sister and buys the truck. However, Carlos’ enjoyment of his new purchase is short-lived as it becomes stolen soon after he buys it. Desperate to reclaim it, Carlos and his son explore the multicultural environments of Los Angeles in search of their truck.

If you are a film history buff, you may immediately recognize the plotline in A Better Life as being similar to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief. Both films deal with a financially struggling father who desperately needs the bicycle/truck in order to work and support his family. The Bicycle Thief uses its plot as a device to show us post-World War II life in Italy. A Better Life uses Carlos’ story to showcase the precarious existence undocumented Hispanics lead when they come to this country. It is always an uphill battle for a filmmaker to present a social or political lesson to general audiences who only want to be entertained. Although documentaries serve as the most obvious way of providing these lessons, far fewer people watch documentaries and those who do tend to already agree with whatever message the documentary intends to convey. A better approach is what director Chris Weitz (American Pie, Antz, Twilight: New Moon, About a Boy) does here and what Oliver Stone has very effectively done with his movies: give the audience a story to impart the filmmaker’s message.

Americans, especially those in the Western states, have strong opinions about undocumented immigrants from Mexico and whether they hurt or help the U.S. economy. There are strong arguments that these immigrants are indeed helping our economy. It does not take a rocket scientist to see this when $25 billion in taxes are paid by these immigrants, but very few of them use this country’s tax-funded social services. However, regardless of whether or not you think undocumented immigrants belong in this country, no one can deny that these people come to this country because they believe whole-heartedly that they can obtain a better life in America. They come here and perform the jobs that no one else will do (or at least not for the pittance that immigrants get paid to do them). They work hard and they scrape and scrounge every penny they can to support their families and hope that some day they will rise out of their current situations. At the same time, especially in a place like Los Angeles where its so easy to avoid seeing the types of people you don’t want to see, the plight of undocumented immigrants goes largely unnoticed. We don’t want to know how our food gets to our table, whether the nanny we employ to take care of our kids is undocumented, or whether the gardener who comes to mow our lawns has health insurance in case he gets injured on the job.

The story of Carlos is the story of countless undocumented immigrants who live in L.A. Up until I saw A Better Life, I had never seen Damian Beshir. A huge movie star in Mexico, Beshir’s American work has only been seen by a few (Steven Soderbergh’s Che and a recurring role on the TV show Weeds). Here, Beshir’s Carlos does not say much at all during the opening sequence of the film, but he makes an immediate connection with the audience. His daily life consists of a dawn-to-dusk ordeal of non-stop work. By the time he gets home, he is too exhausted to spend any time with his son Luis. However, everything he does, every ounce of effort he puts forth, is for his son. He may not be able to articulate his love for Luis, but it clearly exists and it is evident in the simple fact that he chooses to sleep on the couch while giving the bed to his son and the joy he has in picking out a present for his son. With his weary eyes and personable charisma, Beshir inhabits his role so completely that you spend most of the movie seeing him as a real undocumented immigrant who just happened to be hired to act in a movie.

Chris Weitz’s portrayal of Los Angeles is a true portrait of the city. It wisely avoids the touristy version of the city where you see the Hollywood sign, beautiful Beverly Hills mansions, and the beach. The L.A. you see is an uncompromising, harsh environment in which people struggle to keep their heads just above water, but where they help each other out when they can and with the very limited resources that they have. There is a beautiful and memorable scene in the film where Carlos is riding to work and he watches a diverse Los Angeles population go by him. Later in the film, he takes Luis to a Mexican rodeo that will amaze you that such a place exists right in Los Angeles.

A Better Life is an emotional film, but its one that takes a few stumbles in an effort to be sentimental. The film relies too much on clichés and stereotypes to produce this effect and it beats you over the head with it. For example, we have already seen various portrayals of Latino gang culture and I would have preferred to have seen Luis deal with a different problem than the pressure of joining a gang. Even the idea of making Luis into a rebellious teenager (despite it creating narrative conflict) and the father-son lectures are clichéd and overused. Lending to this problem is the film’s processed look. Although the director took pains to hire an unknown cast, A Better Life continues to feel like Hollywood’s notion of Carlos’ world. In contrast, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief felt so authentic that it was almost as if you were watching a documentary. This film needed to look less polished and to not have resolved its story in so tidy a manner. Like its Italian predecessor, A Better Life should have adopted a more neorealist style. All in all, however, the film remains one that is worth seeing for its beautifully simple story and great performance from Damian Beshir.