Film Review: Miss Bala (dir by Catherine Hardwicke)


About 75 minutes into the American remake of Miss Bala, Gloria (played by Gina Rodriguez) is inadvertently responsible for getting a totally innocent women killed by a Mexican drug cartel.

After I finished watching Miss Bala and I was trying to figure out why exactly this remake did not work for me, my mind kept returning to that scene.  It’s a very dramatic scene and yet, at the same time, it has almost no emotional impact.  Some of that’s because the woman only appears in one other scene before she gets executed and it’s obvious that the only reason the character was included in the film was so she could be killed.  The film itself doesn’t really seem to care about the innocent woman.  Instead, its focus remains on Gloria and how she feels about the violence.  While we get some scenes of Gloria looking distraught and, at one point, vomiting over a balcony, it still doesn’t seem as if Gloria is really that upset about the fact that the woman’s been executed.  Instead, she mostly seems to be annoyed by the fact that she had to witness it.  In the scene afterwards, you never really get the feeling that Gloria’s carrying around any sort of lingering guilt for the role that she played in the woman’s death.

However, I think that what really bothered me was that, in this film that took place almost entirely in Mexico, the executed woman was one of the few positively-portrayed Mexican characters and she was killed off as almost an afterthought.  The film was more concerned with how the American Gloria felt about the woman’s death than about the woman herself.

Miss Bala is a remake of a Mexican film.  The original Miss Bala came out in 2011 and it starred Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero, an aspiring beauty queen who finds herself caught in the middle of the never ending war between the DEA and the Mexican drug cartels.  The original Miss Bala was a violent and often lurid film but it was also an unusually powerful examination of what it’s like to be an innocent trapped in the middle of war.  Stephanie Sigman played Laura with the sad-eyed stoicism of someone who knew that she had little choice but to do whatever the cartel ordered her to do.  In the original Miss Bala, Laura stood-in for every innocent who had been victimized by either side of the War on Drugs.  The film ended up a note of cynical ambiguity, suggesting that survival had less to do with skill and everything to do with luck.

In the remake, Laura is transformed into Gloria, an American makeup artist from Los Angeles who comes to Tijuana to help her friend compete for the title of Miss Baja.  By changing the lead character’s nationality, the remake also changes the story’s focus.  It’s no longer the story of someone trying to survive living in a war zone.  Instead, it becomes just another film about an American getting into trouble while traveling abroad.  Interestingly enough, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the aspiring drug lord who kidnaps Gloria, is also an American who happens to live in Tijuana. I assume this was done so the film would have an excuse to have everyone speaking English but it still feels odd to watch a movie about the Mexican drug war in which we rarely hear anyone having a substantive conversation in Spanish.

Gina Rodriguez plays the role of Gloria with a sort of open-faced blandness that occasionally makes Miss Bala feel as if it’s an extended episode of Jane The Virgin.  While the remake tries to make Gloria into a more proactive character than the original’s Laura, Rodriguez never suggests that there’s much going on below the surface.  Far more impressive is Ismael Cruz Cordova, who plays Lino with a sexy and dangerous swagger.  Cordova bring so much charisma to the role that it’s not until the end credits role that you realize that nothing Lino did made much sense.

Director Catherine Hardwicke is responsible for one of my favorite film of all time (Thirteen).  She also directed the enjoyably melodramatic Red Riding Hood.  And, of course, she’ll always be known for directing the first Twilight.  With Miss Bala, though, Hardwicke seems to just going through the standard action film motions.  She never captures the original’s outrage about what the never ending drug war is doing to the people of Mexico.  Instead, for the most part, the remake of Miss Bala shrugs off any intentional subtext and instead focuses on building up to a sequel that will probably never come.

Skip the remake of Miss Bala.  The original is all you need.

Horror Film Review: From Within (dir by Phedon Papamichael Jr.)


Strange things are happening in Grovetown, Maryland.

Sitting out on the dock, Sean (Shiloh Fernandez) reads from a book while his girlfriend, Natalie (Rumer Willis), waits.  After he finishes reading, he promptly shoots himself in the head.

Natalie staggers back to her father’s dress shop and says that someone is following her.  She then ducks into a backroom and stabs herself in the neck with a pair of scissors.

The next day, Natalie father (Jared Harris) hangs himself in the back of his shop.

And the deaths continue, one after another.  One girl crashes her car while screaming that someone is following her.  Another cuts her wrists on a broken window.  A recovering alcoholic drinks drain cleaner….

Normally, all of this death would be a cause for panic (or, at the very least, a sudden surge of people moving out of town) but the citizens of Grovetown are all confident in their ability to survive.  That’s because almost all of them are members of the same megachurch, led by the charismatic Pastor Joe (Steven Culp).  They believe that the deaths are the results of witch’s curse.  Perhaps all they have to do is kill the witch’s descendants….

Now, the witch’s son, Aidan (Thomas Dekker), is willing to admit that yes, it’s possible that his mother put a curse the town.  And it’s also possible that it was the suicide of his brother Sean that unlocked the curse and activated all of the deaths.  But Aidan still swears that it’s the townspeople themselves who are choosing to commit suicide.  If anything, the curse is just pushing them toward the inevitable….

Of course, complicating things is the fact that Aidan has kind of fallen in love with Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) and Lindsay is dating Dylan (Kelly Blatz), the fanatical son of Pastor Joe.  Aidan and Lindsay think that they may have found a way to stop the curse but Dylan is more interested in just killing Aidan.  Working with Dylan is a white trash pyromaniac named Roy (Adam Goldberg) and you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Adam Goldberg play a white trash pyromaniac.

Anyway, From Within is a film about which I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the film is full of creepy moments.  On the other hand, it keeps getting bogged down in its attempt to say something meaningful about religious fanaticism.  I mean, we know that Pastor Joe, Dylan, and Roy are all bad news as soon as they start talking about how religious they are because this is a movie and religious people are always evil hypocrites in movies.  At times, this movie comes across as if it thinks it’s the first movie to ever suggest that maybe not all religious people are as perfect as they claim.

Far more effective are the scenes involving the curse.  Whenever someone falls victim to the curse, they find themselves being chased by their own doppelgänger, which leads to some incredibly creepy moments.  (When the doppelgänger appeared in a mirror and compelled one woman to drink bleach, it totally freaked me out.)  These scenes reminded me a bit of It Follows, though it’s important to note that From Within was released in 2008, seven years before It Follows.

From Within is an uneven film, a bit frustrating in its pretensions but undeniably effective in its scares.

Horror Film Review: Village of the Damned (dir by John Carpenter)


At the risk of getting in trouble with at least a few people around the TSL offices, I am going to say something right now.  It may be controversial.  It may be shocking.  It may even make you question your belief in whatever it is that you believe in.

Ready?

Here we go:

I do not think that the 1995 version of Village of the Damned is that bad.

Now, please notice that I didn’t say that I thought it was that great, either.  However, when you listen to some people talk about this movie (which, admittedly, doesn’t seem to happen a lot), they make it sound as if Village of the Damned is one of the worst films ever made.  It is usually cited as being a waste of director John Carpenter’s abilities and Carpenter himself has said that he’s indifferent to the film.  Carpenter has gone as far as to call the film a “contractual assignment.”

Of course, one reason why people dislike the 1995 Village of the Damned is because it’s a remake of an acknowledged classic.  Even worse, it’s an unnecessary remake.  I would not disagree with that opinion.  The 1960 Village of the Damned holds up remarkably well, featuring George Sanders at his best and a lot of creepy little children.  (If anything, the fact that the original is in black-and-white makes the children look even creepier in the original.)  Having recently watched both versions of Village of the Damned, I can say that the remake doesn’t really improve on the original.

And yet, I would still argue that John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is an underrated and crudely effective little movie.

The film tells the story of the town of Midwich, California.  (The original film took place in the UK and Midwich doesn’t really sound like the name of a town you’d find in California.  Incidentally, my favorite town in California is a place named Drytown, specifically because the town bar advertises itself as being “the only wet place in Drytown.”)  Midwich is a nice, little town.  Everyone is friendly.  Everyone knows everyone else.  Carpenter spends a while establishing Midwich as being the idealized coastal town.  But then, one day, the skies turn dark and everyone in Midwich loses consciousness.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out well for some people.  Frank McGowan (Michael Pare), for instance, is driving when the blackout occurs and he ends up dying when his truck goes off the road.  Another unfortunate fellow was manning the grill at the church picnic and, when he passed out, he ended up burning to death.

When everyone does wake up, it’s discovered that ten women are now pregnant.  One of them, Kate (Linda Kozlowski), is the widow of Frank.  Another, a teenage girl named Melanie (Meredith Salenger), is a virgin.  Nine months later, all of the babies are born on the same night, though Melanie’s is stillborn.  The 9 babies eventually become 9 very creepy children.  They have pale skin, white hair, glowing eyes, and no emotions.  Soon the government, led by Dr. Verner (Kristie Alley), invades the town so that they can investigate and experiment on the children.  You know that once the government shows up and takes over, everyone’s screwed.

And, while all of this is going on, the once friendly and vibrant town of Midwich becomes a far different place.  We watch as the citizens of the town die, one after another.  Melanie finds herself ostracized and abandoned.  The local reverend (Mark Hamill) goes insane and ends up perched on a hill with a rifle.  The town doctor (Christopher Reeve) loses his wife when she walks into the ocean.

And the children continue to coldly and unemotionally kill anyone who displeases them.  One man is forced to shoot himself.  In perhaps the film’s most disturbing scene, a scientist is forced to dissect herself.

Admittedly, some of the actors do a better than others.  Meredith Salenger gives the best performance while Mark Hamill definitely gives the worst.  At first, Kirstie Alley seems miscast but she actually gives one of the better performances in the film.  As the nominal hero, Christopher Reeve is boring but then again, many small town doctors are.  Of course, nearly everyone in the movie is dead by the time the end credits roll.

It’s a seriously dark movie and, when taken on its own terms, it’s definitely effective.  Carpenter does such a good job of establishing Midwich as a place where anyone would want to live that it does carry an impact to see the town suddenly isolate from the world and the once happy citizens resorting to suicide just to escape the town’s children.  In the end, John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned does capture the anguish of feeling as if there’s no escape from the present nor hope for the future.

Village of the Damned is crudely effective but effective nonetheless.