Chris Weitz Takes An Indie Turn; Plus Mockumentary Hijinks and a Pooh Reboot

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It's not such a stretch that Chris Weitz, who with his brother Paul made millions with American Pie and most recently has been helming effects-laden fantasies like The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon, would direct a low-budget movie about Mexican immigrants in East L.A. His grandmother, Lupita Tovar, was a Mexican movie star (his mother, Susan Kohner, played the daughter passing for white in Imitation of Life) and she's still kicking at 100. For her, perhaps, is A Better Life, a well-observed, quietly moving drama about an illegal immigrant and single father (Demián Bichir) trying to make a better life for his ungrateful and indifferent teenage son (José Julián), who had the good fortune to have been born in America.

Carlos, a gardener who prunes a palm tree in nothing but a harness (he says that's the way they do it in Mexico), can't pass up the chance to buy his boss's truck (and hence his business), the risk of being pulled over without a driver's license less of a threat than his son's flirtation with the local gang. And then, as in just about every drama about illegal immigrants made in the past few years, we are in Bicycle Thief territory. The truck is stolen, father and son bond in the search, and dad turns out to be pretty badass after all.

In the male bonding there are shades of Chris and his brother Paul's About a Boy, in the milieu the hand of screenwriter Eric Eason, whose Manito explored similar tensions in the Latino community in New York's Washington Heights. The hunt for the truck is a tour of assertions of Mexican culture in Los Angeles, from an immigration rally to an honest-to-goodness rodeo, a sprawling nightclub worthy of Mexico City, and the traditionally black neighborhood of South Central, where worse-off Mexicans bunk by the dozens and graffiti chides "Too many Mexicans, not enough bullets." But when Carlos says, "Let's go home," he means the U.S.


teve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the bickering stars of Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, are at it again in The Trip, in which the British comics once again play versions of themselves: Coogan a preening, womanizing jerk, and Brydon the sweet family man, grateful for his late-blooming career. The premise of Winterbottom's mostly improvised mockumentary, edited from a six-part BBC 2 series, is that Coogan has been assigned by the Guardian to undertake a one-week tour of northern England's finest dining establishments. When his journalist girlfriend Misha (Margo Stilley of Winterbottom's notorious 9 Songs) decides they need a break, he grudgingly invites Brydon, and they are off in Coogan's Range Rover for what is basically a Food Network show hosted by a couple of guys who appraise the consistency of a green cocktail as "a bit like snot."

The main joke is that Misha was the foodie; while Coogan and Brydon appear to be enjoying the food, they spend their meals trying to one-up each other with celebrity impressions. Brydon made his name with impressions, and his Michael Caine-from-Harry Palmer-to-Harry Brown is quite a stunt, while there's something sweetly pathetic about Coogan, after telling Brydon that "Anybody over 40 who does impressions should take a long hard look in the mirror" doing just that in his hotel room, trying to do Brydon's Small Man in a Box. But don't feel too sorry for Coogan, who manages to bed most of the women they meet (actors, and like Stilley, uncredited) while contemplating taking a role as a pathologist in an American TV series. The impressions eventually wear out their welcome, but the travelogue keeps things interesting, as the comics sing Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" as they drive through West Yorkshire and Brydon recites the first canto of Wordsworth's "The White Doe of Rylstone" on the grounds of Bolton Abbey. Of course Coogan accuses Brydon of memorizing the poem the night before, just to impress. And the bickering goes on.


or children too young to get all worked up about the final Harry Potter movie (and parents who are likewise too old to care), Disney is offering a gentle reboot of theirWinnie the Pooh franchise, long relegated to direct-to-video releases, in the style of the original shorts, with solid-colored animals getting into mild predicaments against immobile, hashmarked E.H. Shepard backgrounds. Perhaps because the characters look so much sharper this time around (or perhaps because I am not 5) the contrast seems irksome, particularly when a character picks up an object that was nicely shaded and watercolored and it turns opaque and hard-looking, but, as Pooh would say, "Oh bother!"

It's just another day in the Hundred Acre Wood and Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings) is feeling rumbly in his tumbly and Eeyore (Bud Luckey) has lost his tail and the animals, who, truth be told, are all in possession of very little brain, believe that Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter) has been kidnapped by a creature called the Backson. This occasions the freshest part of the movie, a production number rendered in colored chalk on a blackboard; other bits have the characters interacting with the book's text in ways that become increasingly meta. Celebrity voices are minimal (although John Cleese makes the perfect replacement for Sebastian Cabot's narrator), Christopher Robin is now a proper British schoolboy, and there are several serviceable songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon), some of them serviceably sung byZooey Deschanel.

If you stay through the closing credits, which include live-action tableaux reenacting the cartoon's incidents, an illuminated credit scroll and more, your children will think you're aces. A sweet short, "The Ballad ofNessie," in which theLoch Ness monster loses her loch to a golf course developer, and is narrated by Billy Connolly in Dr. Seuss-aping rhyming verse, fills out the brief running time.

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¿¿¿ A Better Life

Directed by Chris Weitz. Written by Eric Eason. With Demián Bichir and José Julián. (PG-13)

¿¿¿1/2 The Trip

Directed by Michael Winterbottom. With Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. (NR)

¿¿¿Winnie the Pooh

Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall. Written by Stephen J. Anderson, Clio Chiang, Don Dougherty, Don Hall, Brian Kesinger, Nicole Mitchell & Jeremy Spears, based on the books by A. A. Milne and E.H. Shepard. With the voices of Jim Cummings, Bud Luckey, Craig Ferguson and John Cleese.


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