The poor at the door

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

HEAVEN SAVE us from Hol­ly­wood direc­tors and their trou­bled con­sciences. Ev­ery now and then such a pro­fes­sional will look out the win­dow and no­tice the poor folk toil­ing in the sun. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a gritty, nat­u­ral­is­tic slice of film vérité. If not, we will end up with some­thing like A Bet­ter Life.

Put sim­ply (and grue­somely), the film is Vit­to­rio De Sica’s Bi­cy­cle Thieves re­made by the man who gave us Amer­i­can Pie and the last Twi­light episode.

The im­pres­sive Demian Bichir (good in re­cent Ir­ish pic­ture The Run­way) stars as Car­los, a hard­work­ing Mex­i­can gen­tle­man who, now liv­ing in East LA, is hav­ing a few prob­lems with his mildly dis­obe­di­ent teenage son Luis (José Julián, also strong). While Car­los, an un­doc­u­mented alien, works in the gar­dens of the rich, the boy skips school, idolises foot­ball play­ers and be­comes dan­ger­ously in­ti­mate with lo­cal gang mem­bers.

Then Car­los de­cides to take a gam­ble. He bor­rows money to pay for a truck. On his first day as an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor, one of his em­ploy­ees – an older man on whom he has taken pity – robs the ve­hi­cle and plunges poor Car­los into de­spair. Fa­ther and son be­gin prowl­ing the streets in search of the stolen van. You can see what we mean about Bi­cy­cle Thieves.

To be fair, as well as be­ing wellacted the film makes ex­cel­lent use of its gritty lo­ca­tions. This rarely viewed cor­ner of LA is one of the film’s un­cred­ited stars.

But A Bet­ter Life is so schematic, so sen­ti­men­tal and – with its ide­alised por­trait of “sim­ple peo­ple” – so pa­tro­n­is­ing that it ends up stick­ing awk­wardly in the viewer’s un­lucky gul­let. A dis­mal at­mos­phere of smug­ness hangs over the en­ter­prise. One senses the film-mak­ers yearn­ing to be con­grat­u­lated on their gen­eros­ity in reach­ing out to the un­ap­pre­ci­ated gar­den­ers of Los An­ge­les County.

The in­ten­tions are good but the ex­e­cu­tion is badly mud­dled. Amer­i­can Pie had more to say about the so­cio-eco­nomic dis­con­tents of the un­der­class. KEEP THE lit­tle ones away from the fizzy pop be­fore bring­ing them – if you must – to Nick Moore’s take on Francesca Si­mon’s patho­log­i­cally al­lit­er­a­tive se­ries of chil­dren’s nov­els. The film it­self is so juiced-up that, even with­out Tar­trazine, younger­sters may find them­selves pro­pelled into parox­ysms of hy­per­ac­tiv­ity. Proud par­ents please pro­ceed per­spi­ca­ciously.

As read­ers un­der the age of 12 will be aware, Hor­rid Henry fol­lows a charm­ingly cheeky child (I’ll stop now) as he in­ter­acts with friends shoul­der­ing such re­veal­ing names as Moody Mar­garet, Weepy Wil­liam and Prissy Polly. This par­tic­u­lar ad­ven­ture finds the evil head­mas­ter of a snooty pri­vate school – ku­dos for the class war­fare – plot­ting to close Henry’s place of study and force the dis­tressed par­ents to pay his ex­or­bi­tant fees.

Richard E Grant does good work as the vil­lain. De­spite a shaky Scot­tish ac­cent, An­gel­ica Hus­ton is ef­fec­tive as Miss Battle-Axe, the teacher who might be con­ceal­ing a heart of gold be­neath her rugged ex­te­rior. Other Bri­tish stal­warts (Jo Brand, Prunella Scales, Re­becca Front), hav­ing missed out on the Harry Pot­ter pen­sion plan, ap­pear in the hope that the film might spawn a lengthy fran­chise.

I wouldn’t in­vest in that hol­i­day home just yet, folks. Though the pro­duc­tion val­ues are im­pres­sive for a mid-bud­get pic­ture, Moore’s ap­par­ent de­sire to ape the hec­tic style of Del­i­catessen and Amélie spins the pro­ject to­wards in­di­gestible lev­els of tricksy busy­ness.

Barely a minute goes by with­out some­body launch­ing into a head­spin­ningly chaotic mu­si­cal num­ber. The clothes are all the colour of boiled sweets. The cam­era gets the jit­ters if asked to sit on its bot­tom for longer than a nanosec­ond. The film reaches its am­phet­a­mine nadir dur­ing an ab­surdly elon­gated gameshow se­quence fea­tur­ing the unlovely comic duo Dick and Dom.

Never quite achiev­ing the cool sur­re­al­ism of kids’ shows such as Yo Gabba Gabba!, Hor­rid Henry has the look of a film with a des­per­ate, prob­a­bly fruit­less de­sire to be loved. Chil­dren will see through its in­sin­cer­ity. Adults will leave with headaches and ring­ing ears.

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