September 18, 2012

Colosio: El Asesinato (2012)

March the 23rd, 1994, the presidential candidate from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), Luis Donaldo Colosio, leads a campaign rally in the neighborhood of Lomas Taurinas, in the city of Tijuana. Colosio finishes his speech and steps down the stage, walking through the multitude of followers who cheer him towards the vehicle that would take him to another event. As he walks, a man gets close with a gun and shoots him in the head. Moments later, Colosio would receive a two more shots in the middle of the chaos, and later he would die in the hospital from the wounds. Colosio's assassination would leave a profound mark in Mexicos' political history, as it left multiple doubts about the identity of those who were behind the candidate's death. While the official version determined that the killing was the work of a lone shooter, the theory of a conspiracy within the Party has always been in the mind of the public. And this theory becomes the basis for a movie directed by filmmaker Carlos Bolado, who tackles the killing at Lomas Taurinas in "Colosio: El Asesinato".

Set in 1994, "Colosio: El Asesinato" (literally "Colosio: The Assassination") begins with the news of the death of the presidential candidate (Enoc Leaño) at Lomas Taurinas, seen on TV by agent Andrés Vázquez (José María Yazpik) and his family. As the official investigation begins, the President (Nando Estevané), through his adviser "the Doctor" (Daniel Giménez Cacho), orders a secret inquiry, running parallel to the official one but specifically aimed to find the intellectual authors of the crime. Andrés is called to lead the operation under the orders of the Licenciate (Odiseo Bichir), to whom he reports the result of the investigation. Andrés gathers his most trusted agents and begin to do research on those close to Colosio's presidential campaign, while in Tijuana, the local chief of police, Benítez (Dagoberto Gama) coordinates his operation with Andres' team. However, things are complicated when a mysterious assassin is killing all the suspects that Andres and Benítez are identifying. Someone doesn't want the truth regarding Colosio's assassination to be known.

Written by Hugo Rodríguez, Miguel Necoechea and director Carlos Bolado himself, "Colosio: El Asesinato" is a political thriller that details on one side the police work of investigation done by Andrés and Benítez around the crime, and on the other unfolds the complex net of secret alliances that run behind the scenes in Mexican politics. While the movie declares initially that the story is a work of fiction, the screenplay of "Colosio: El Asesinato" includes characters clearly based on the real protagonists of Mexican politics of the time and, with certain historical liberties, builds up its plot following the popular conspiracy theory in a way similar to Oliver Stone's "JFK". Beyond the politics, it's interesting the agile way in which Rodríguez, Necoechea and Bolado construct their plot with the goal of keeping the action flowing smoothly without leaving aside their harsh criticism against the Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Nevertheless, there are certain elements that aren't that well done, like the romantic side story, which feels out of place in the film.

The work of directing done by Carlos Bolado is effective and dynamic, moving through the different narratives without problems and showing a skilled use of devices such as montage sequences and flashbacks.In general, the visual narrative that Bolado employs is appropriate and his greatest achievement is the creation of an ominous atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that grows through the film as Andrés' investigation makes progress. Carefully, Bolado builds up the sensation of paranoia that begins to surround Andrés and his team as their work takes them to the inner circles of politics. The work of cinematography done by Andrés León Becker is traditional but effective, using a specific atmosphere for each location in the investigation, though everyone, from the arid desert of Tijuana to the cold walls of the Government's offices, have in common the feeling of desolation. It's worth to point out the work of Sandra Cabriada as production designer, managing to recreate the period of the film with accuracy and verisimilitude.

Leading the cast, actor José María Yazpik makes a good job as agent Andrés, evoking with ease the self-confidence and professionalism of his role. While Yazpik has a somewhat limited range, in the role of Andrés he finds a character that allows him to truly exploit his talent and screen presence. And while the movie has in Yazpik a defined protagonist, the film's plot allows the rest of the secondary characters to have their moment to shine. Fortunately, the cast makes the best of this and deliver excellent performances in the supporting roles. This is particularly note worthy in the case of Dagoberto Gama, whom makes a terrific job as the lonely Benítez, and Daniel Giménez Cacho, truly excellent as the Doctor (thinly veiled portrait of José María Córdoba Montoya), the Machiavellian presidential adviser. Giménez Cacho's acting shines in its restrained intensity, which leaves mark of his sinister presence even when he is not on screen. Without a doubt, the best acting in the film.

There are also pretty good performances by Tenoch Huerta, Luis Ernesto Franco and Karina Gidi, who play the agents working in Andrés' team (Gidi in particular is remarkable). However, there are unfortunately two performances of bad quality that diminish the strength of the film. The first is Odiseo Bichir's work, who results too stagy in his performance as the Licenciate, looking artificial and out of place given the tone of the film. Kate del Castillo is the other one, lacking screen presence in her role as Yazpik's wife and leaving her character like a side note. Nevertheless, in her case it certainly matters that her character is too underdeveloped, limiting her to represent the role of a wife forgotten by an Andrés too absorbed by his work. And this is a problem in the film, as at times it gets lost in its many subplots and leaves more than once without too much development. Also, the film falls in the big problem of conspiracy theory stories (specially those based on real life events): its argument tends to force a bit too much the common sense and the suspension of disbelief.

Nevertheless, it's commendable that director Carlos Bolado manages to create an atmosphere of paranoia so strong that those flaws do not stop the enjoyment of the movie. "Colosio: El Asesinato" may not become a classic of the genre, however, it results a very well done film that dares to touch a subject that mainstream Mexican cinema had not tackled before (in independent cinema there is the low budget "Magnicidio. Complot en Lomas Taurinas" done in 2002). Despite its problems, Carlos Bolado's "Colosio: El Asesinato" is an intelligent thriller that beyond its political agenda, shows how the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio is a huge shadow that still hangs over Mexican politics.


September 17, 2012

Get the Gringo (2012)

Having become one of the biggest movies stars during the decades of the 80s and 90s, Australian actor Mel Gibson was heading to leave his mark as a filmmaker with the making of this epic adventure drama "Apocalypto" in the year 2006, hoping to find again the level of success and acclaim that Gibson had received a decade before with "Braveheart". However. that very same year Gibson fell in a great ditch of negative publicity in which his personal problems, controversial points of view and all in all erratic behavior ended under the spotlight. After this series of scandals, it seemed that Gibson's career was over; nevertheless, little by little the Australian filmmaker has been rebuilding both his life and career with a series of performances in modest films (including Jodie Foster's debut as a director,"The Beaver"). "Get the Gringo", directed by Adrian Grunberg, is not only the return of Gibson as a scriptwriter and producer, but also a return of the kind of character that helped him to conquer Hollywood: the lovable tough bastard.

"Get the Gringo" begins with a high speed car chase near the border between the United States and Mexico, where the American police is after two criminals in a car. With great effort, the two criminals crash the wall and manage to cross the border, seemingly escaping from the American jurisdiction but, to their bad luck, they are received by the Mexican police. The Americans want the criminals but, upon seeing the amount of money the criminals have, the Mexican police decides to arrest them themselves instead of turning them to the Americans. Since only one the driver (Mel Gibson) survived the chase, the police officers decide to keep the money for themselves and sent the American to "El Pueblito", a local jail where a crime lord is the real boss. Inside "El Publito", the American criminal is welcomed with a hard beating, but soon the hardened thief begins to adapt to his new environment, determined to get out and recover his money. In jail, he becomes friends of a kid (Kevin Hernández), son one of the inmates (Dolores Heredia), whom will help him to plan his revenge.

As mentioned before, the screenplay is written by Gibson himself, collaborating with Stacy Perskie and director Adrian Grunberg (whom by the way, worked previously with Gibson as assistant director in "Apocalypto"). whom orchestrate an action film where what initially is a quest for revenge soon becomes a somewhat bizarre trip of self-discovery for the nameless American bandit. What I mean is, "Get the Gringo" is in a way a return to the kind of action films in which the Australian actor played tough and flawed men, but owners of a certain inner nobleness that set them apart from other tough guys. The theme of the American lost in a Mexican prison gives the story a "fish out of water" theme in which the gringo must face the status quo established by gangster Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho). It's interesting that, while the story doesn't really show a nice face of Mexico, it avoids any paternalistic sense of superiority and instead, doesn't hold to mention that the United States of America lives exactly the same degree of corruption, but in disguise.

Now, this doesn't mean that "Get the Gringo" is a deep serious study about the rampant corruption and crime in both countries, on the contrary, Adrian Grunberg's film never attempts to be anything more than an action thriller full of energy, bullets and a quite healthy dose of black humor. What Grunberg employs in "Get the Gringo" is a sly impudence and a cynicism that help him to give the film a well defined identity of its own (to the point that the film's original title was actually "How I spent my summer vacation"), allowing to construct his film around an antihero that, as noble and charming as he may seem, he's still as tough as the other inmates in "El Pueblito". Cinematographer Benoît Debie's camera (responsible of, among others, Gaspar Noé's trippy "Enter the Void") movies smoothly through the walls of "El Pueblito", jail that honors its name by being an actual little community living under the protection of corruption. Benoît Debie makes a straightforward yet effective job. Nothing too fancy perhaps, but still notable nonetheless.

But it's not in the visual where "Get the Gringo" has high marks, it's in the performances by its cast, which by the way is made of mainly by high quality Mexican actors. Heading the cast is of course Mel Gibson, whom as the Gringo of the film's title shows himself again in the kind of character he mastered in his younger years, as the role of bandit allows him to exploit his natural charm and great screen presence. In spite of his questionable real life antics, it's still nice to see this side of Gibson in the big screen again. Gibson seems at ease in the role and carries the film with strength. Nevertheless, the revelation of the film is without a doubt the young Kevin Hernandez, whom as the Kid he makes a great job serving as the counterpart of Gibson's character. Mexican actress Dolores Heredia shows her great talent playing the Kid's mother, and while her role perhaps is a bit lacking in character development, it's interesting to see a capable middle-age woman as the film's romantic interest instead of younger actress.

The supporting cast also delivers very good performances, particularly Daniel Giménez Cacho and Jesús Ochoa, who play the siblings that control the criminal life in "El Pueblito". Also good is Mario Zaragoza's acting as the Mexican border patrol officer that arrests the Gringo and Peter Sormare as a somewhat slow American gangster. Nevertheless, their performances end up a but minimized within the great population of characters that inhabit the story. And this may be one of the main problems in "Get the Gringo": several subplots are resolved a bit hurriedly and the chronology of the events that take place during the last third of the film is a bit confusing, even incongruent at times. that is, events than in theory are supposed to take place at the same time, feel like the aren't due to the problematic rhythm in which both events have been edited (while one involves a long and slow sequences in the United States, the other moves with a frantic speed in Mexico). A severe error on Grunberg's side that harms an otherwise quite entertaining film.

In fact, it could be said that despite its problems, "Get the Gringo" manages to recover quite faithfully that mix of action and black comedy that became the trademark of those films that Mel Gibson starred in the 90s ("Payback" perhaps being the most obvious reference). Agile, fun and without pretensions, "Get the Gringo" is an irreverent action thriller that, while taking a quite typical theme (friendship between a bandit and a kid), gives it a fresh spin by having as background the difference between the United States and Mexico, and while this film isn't particularly serious about this subject, the irreverence that Grunberg employs in his modest film allows him to say clearly an interesting message: deep down both countries are very similar.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in June the 21th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.

September 14, 2012

Act of Valor (2012)

Amongst the U.S. Navy's special operations units, the Sea, Air and Land Teams (SEALs for short) are considered the principal force, due to their rigorous training and high degree of professionalism that have earned the reputation of being amongst the most capable military units in the world. However, despite this reputation as an elite squad, the recent wars in Irak and Afghanistan borough the need of increasing the numbers of SEALs, so with this goal in 2008 a recruiting film was commissioned. The production company that won the project was Bandito Bros., founded by former stuntman Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. The project kept growing and, after having won the support of the SEALs that were collaborating in their video, McCoy and Waugh offered a twist to the project: instead of a recruiting film, it would be a feature length film that served as tribute to the SEALs. The project was a approved and the result was "Act of Valo", film that while it certainly does a great job as a recruiting tool, has numerous severe flaws as a drama film.

"Act of Valor" begins with a terrorist attack to an elementary school in the Philippines, where the American ambassador (Marc Marguiles) is killed as he was there to pick up his little son. The attack has been organized by Chechen terrorist Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle). While this take place, two CIA agents, Walter (Nestor Serrano) and Morales (Roselyn Sánchez) are working in Costa Rica tracking drug smuggler Mikhail "Christo" Troykovich (Alex Veadov). The agents are discovered and Walter ends up murdered while Morales is kept a prisoner by Christo. With this situation, the Bandito Platoon, SEAL Team Seven is called. In their last day at home, Liutenant Rorke confides Chief Dave that his wife is expecting a baby, so Dave decides to get Rorke a vacation as soon as the new mission is over. The SEALs get into action and manage to rescue Morales in Costa Rica, however, they also discover that Christo not only is linked to the operations of Abu Shabal, they find that Shabal is planning a major attack on American soil.

Taking as basis diverse real life stories about the SEALs, "Act of Valor" was written by Kurt Johnstad (scriptwriter of Zack Snyder's "300"), who was hired to tie all those stories in a cohesive plot where the SEALs' courage and valor were honored and praised. The result is a tale that will definitely sound a bit too familiar for those versed in the action film genre: a dangerous terrorist threatens the nation and a special team is sent to stop him, two team members are best friends and of course one is about to become a father and eagerly hopes to finish the mission to be with his family. The resulting conclusion is unfortunately too easy to guess, and that's because to build up the plot of "Act of Valor" scriptwriter Kurt Johnstad seems to have picked every single cliché of the genre he could find. In fact, even the film's villains form a collection of every single group of America's enemies (it has Muslim terrorist of Russian origin with close ties to Mexican drug lords), making up a true "axis of evil" that the SEALs must face heroically.

In a certain way, "Act of Valor" shows a lot the background found in the careers of directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, both former stuntman turned commercial directors. The action scenes are frequent, and are superbly done, with a high quality technique and a quite dynamic style, very energetic. And even when "Act of Valor" is a film of a relatively low budget, McCoy and Waugh manage to take full advantage to the invaluable support of the U.S. Navy, so there's a great showing of the SEAL's tactics and equipment. And that's where the main selling point of "Act of Valor" is: the film is not just a film about SEALs, actual real SEALs play the main roles in the film. So, what is seen in the screen are real SEALs fighting as real SEALs would do, with the same kind of strategies and movements they would do in real life. This realism is the strongest element of the film, and through the lens of cinematographer Shane Hurbult, filmmakers McCoy and Waugh achieve remarkably done action scenes full of a vibrant dynamism that truly transmit the adrenaline of combat.

However, while the SEALs that work in "Act of Valor" are truly at top form when acting like soldiers in the carefully designed action scenes the film has, when the plot requires them to actually act and develop their characters is where their limitations are seen, because their talents is not precisely the most adequate for this mission. And while it's obvious the great deal of effort done by the soldiers to recite their lines, their nervousness and lack of experience can't be hidden, resulting in a series of pretty poor performances that severely harm the resulting film. Nevertheless, this isn't entirely the SEALs' fault, as in all honesty, Johnstad's character are so poorly developed that to make them interesting would be a real challenge even for an experienced actor. A testament of this is the fact that the rest of the characters (played by professionals) are equally as underdeveloped as the soldiers are. Not even a single one of them offers a good chance to their actors to shine, perhaps only Roselyn Sánchez and Alex Veadov, are the only ones able to create something out of the cliché.

And that's why unfortunately the cliché is the dominant element in "Act of Valor", where it seems that the last thing that was developed was the story. This is tragic for the film, as it leaves it as a group of action scenes connected by a series of poorly acted scenes where nothing relevant or exciting takes place. And the reason of this is simple: the characters are mere caricatures. While "Act of Valor" makes clear that the SEALs have a life full of risk where they face the enemy face to face and offer their lives for their countries, Johnstad offers only eight soldiers that lack a defined personality of their own, avoiding a greater identification with them. True, one of them has five kids, and the other will be a father for the first time, but other than those details, there is nothing else to define them beyond their patriotism and their dedication to their job. In a way, what Johnstad has done is a disrespect to any soldier of any country, as his screenplay dehumanizes them and makes them nothing more than an action figure.

At this point, it's unnecessary to mention that besides it's poorly constructed screenplay, "Act of Valor" is imbued by an excessive American patriotism that shows little interest in presenting the reality of the countries in which the action takes place (it happens everywhere except in the U.S.). However, and while the ethics of their propaganda is questionable (and not a bit subtle), at least in this aspect it can be said that "Act of Valor" accomplishes its mission as a recruiting tool. The truly unforgivable sin of the film is that by pretending to honor the American soldiers, it presents them as empty machines void of personality and useful only to do their job. Nothing is know about they like, what they feel or what they think. the only think known about them is that they are good at killing. Not a particularly honorable portrait.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in May the 25th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.