The poor at the door
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.