“A Better Life”: A Better Summer Film if You Like Good Stories


A father and son go on a journey in “A Better Life”

“A Better Life” tells the tale of an illegal immigrant father and his American born teenage son. The father is a sincere and honest man who works exhausting hours as a landscaper so his fourteen year old can live a better life than what would have been available to him back in Mexico. Their relationship is a strained one, as the boy is at an age of natural rebellion and is embarrassed by his father’s profession. But the father quietly endures, not minding the subtle indignations as long as his son stays out of trouble and gets an education. He even buys the truck from his retiring employer so he can carry on his work without standing on the corner waiting to be selected as a day laborer. Unfortunately, the truck is stolen, and the father and son go on a near impossible journey to get it back. Through the course of their search together the son gains a better understanding of his dad and learns what it means to be a father, and an American.  

The father sees a beautiful view just before seeing something shocking.

The story of “A Better Life” is a simple one, but don’t let that put you off. As this well executed tale will prove, simple is sweet. The very first thing you notice about “A Better Life” is the stillness and quite beauty of the cinematography and acting. Unlike other summer releases, this one is not loaded down with a bunch of fancy camera tricks or any kind of special effects other than those provided by the subtle and heartfelt performances so lovingly caught on film. And I do mean film, for this production used an old fashioned camera, providing a warm and intimate feel one can only get when shooting with actual film stock. The choice seems poignantly fitting. An old fashioned feel for an old fashioned film that offers something you rarely get from a Hollywood product anymore; a well-constructed story that entertains and satisfies. This rare achievement is particularly impressive considering that Chris Weitz’s first two films as a solo director include the fantasy extravaganza  “The Golden Compass” and the second installment of the Twilight films, “New Moon” (Weitz’s other directing credits are shared with his brother, Paul). That’s a huge swing of the pendulum; one few would expect from someone use to hundred million dollar budgets. Of course the budgets may have been very large, but the decisions were not always his to make. With a smaller budget the director gets to make more of the decisions, and in this case it appears to have paid off. One of the decisions was to shoot on real locations in Los Angeles with a bilingual cast and crew, even though Weitz himself could not speak Spanish before shooting began. It was a choice he made in order to pay honor to the cohesive intent of the film, a conscious nod to the coming together of different worlds. This thematic homage really shows through, lending the film an added depth of authenticity in every single frame.  

Although seemingly impossible, the father must try to find his stolen truck.

I will not spoil the experience of this film by giving away its ending, or even mentioning one of the most thrilling moments of the film that prompted the audience I watched it with to explode in to applause. I will tell you that the film has similarities to the classic film “The Bicycle Thieves”, which is not surprising since Weitz has mentioned watching a lot of Italian neo-realism and De Sica before beginning production. That being said there is no neat, happy ending. The conclusion is a complicated and realistic one that leaves room for possibilities. But I think intelligent audiences will appreciate the opportunity to think for themselves. Better yet, intelligent audiences will appreciate a good film without a bunch of fancy frills and post-production sweetening. Without a doubt, “A Better Life” is the best bang for the buck so far this summer. With filmmaking this clean and simple, how can you go wrong?  

October 2015 update: By the way, I predicted that the lead actor, Demian Bichir would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance.  And even thought this was a small film that almost no one saw, he was.  Unfortunately, it was the same year a s “The Artist” and Bichir lost the Best Actor statuette to Jean Dujardin.  Hopefully, we will see more of Bichir on the big screen soon.

“Super 8”: All the Best of Spielberg’s 70s and 80s Films Rolled into One, and Yet…

Young friends get caught up in the strange happenings in their town.

From the very beginning of JJ Abrams’ latest film, “Super 8” you are instantly overwhelmed with a terrific sense and feel of the 1970s. The music soundtrack is simply sensational; loaded with so many classic tunes of the era one would almost think this was a Cameron Crowe film. And the wardrobe and production design are just as impressive, never once giving the impression of being anything less than organic. With such genuine surroundings the film does not in the least feel like a period piece, but rather like a film conceived and produced in that culturally precarious time between 1975 and ‘85, just like all the films it seems to be so obviously emulating.

For anyone who is old enough to have experienced the arrival of the first ordained summer blockbuster, “Jaws” (directed by Steven Spielberg) and then have seen for the first time in theaters “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (also directed by Spielberg), “E.T.” (once again, directed by Spielberg), “Poltergeist” (produced and written by Spielberg) and “Goonies” (produced and written by Spielberg), this film will provide a tremendous feeling of nostalgia.

The look and feel of the picture is very Spielberg-ian, with a tremendous use of lens flare and extreme close ups (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Poltergeist”). The story keeps you in suspense wondering just what the creature looks like (“Jaws”, “E.T.”). The world in which we are placed is set in a small isolated town (“Jaws”, “Goonies”), in a neighborhood sprawling with look-a-like houses (“E.T.”, “Poltergeist”), with a bunch of kids on a secret search (“E.T.”, “Goonies”) the government is trying to prevent them from accomplishing (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “E.T.”).

This constant sense of being in another time watching an earlier film by an iconic filmmaker is in no way a bad thing. It’s pretty damn smart actually. By evoking the memories of previous movie watching experiences the audience can’t help but feel as if they are experiencing the same sensations all over again. I did. And as for younger moviegoers who have never seen the early works of the man who is quite possibly the greatest living American film auteur, they’re just going to like “Super 8” for what it is: a terrific summer movie. But one they’re likely to forget about the second they leave the theater. For without the background and history of the older viewer sitting next to them, “Super 8” is not likely to have any sticking power with the younger theater patron.

In fact, “Super 8” hardly had any sticking power with me, let alone the other people with whom I saw it. We left the theater feeling pretty pumped up and shared an overall high level of satisfaction with the film. But we hadn’t gotten very far when we realized we weren’t talking about it any more, mostly because there wasn’t much more to say. “Super 8” is great fun and exactly what a summer film should be, but would we see it again? The answer is not very likely. Will it become one of the all time classic summer blockbusters? Absolutely not. But then again, who cares? If you want to have a good time in a theater this summer you can count on “Super 8”. Just don’t expect too much from it and you’ll be satisfied. After all, it’s not the 1970s. “Super 8” has the distinct disadvantage of having been made in the age of big budgets and computer generated special effects. Let’s not hold that against it.