Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sin Nombre (2009) ****½

Whatever you may think about illegal immigration, you have to admit that many of the people who manage to sneak into the U.S. to live and work do so against great odds.  “Sin Nombre” (Without Name) is a thoughtful, heartbreaking tale of those challenges.  It’s also a story of the violence wrought by drug gangs in Mexico.  This is not light-hearted fare.
The movie follows the stories of two young people.  Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) lives in a Honduran slum with her grandmother.  Her father long ago emigrated to the U.S., but when he is deported back to Honduras, Sayra is reunited with a father she doesn’t really even know, who wants her to sneak back into the U.S. with him.  Meanwhile, in southern Mexico, we are introduced to Willy (Edgar Flores), known to his fellow gang members as El Casper.  He is part of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang, one of the most violent and widespread gangs in the Americas.  Willy’s story for us begins with him helping to recruit a young boy into the gang, a process that involves being beaten by other gang members, then having to help murder a member of a rival gang.  Willy is no hero; he is basically comfortable with these brutal aspects of gang life.  He has a secret, however, a girlfriend from a middle-class neighborhood.  Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) is aware of Willy’s gang affiliation, but has no idea what that really entails, and Willy works to keep her separate from that part of his life.  For a member of the Maras, however, there is no life outside the gang, and Willy’s gang-brethren brutally remind him of that reality.  Willy leaves the gang and gives them plenty of reason to want him dead, making his flight across Mexico a journey through a minefield of local Mara groups who are all on the lookout for him.
Sayra, meanwhile, hikes across Honduras, Guatemala, and into Mexico with her father and uncle.  There they hop a northbound train, which speeds up the travel but exposes them to abuse from Mexican locals and extreme victimization from gang members.  Ultimately, Sayra and Willy’s paths cross, and they wind up trying to help each other reach the U.S. border.
In theme and in tone, “Sin Nombre” reminds me of another award-winning Spanish-language film from 2004 called “Maria Full of Grace.”  This movie has that same heartbreaking motif of an innocent (Sayra) being completely surrounded by evil, but managing to maintain some hope.  Yet it is the story of Willy that is most gutting.  His character is completely without hope.  He grew up knowing only the brutal world of the Maras, and now he knows only that he doesn’t want that world anymore.  He does his best to help Sayra while he waits for death to find him.  We get a feel for how Willy became what he is through the tragic story of Smiley, the kid Willy recruits into the Maras.
If “Sin Nombre” sounds like dark material, it is.  This is not a movie for those who don’t like to see violence in films, and in truth, the violence in this film is of a kind that no one will want to see.  This is not action-movie violence; it is real, sickening brutality.  For viewers who can handle that, however, “Sin Nombre” is an exceptionally well-told, thought-provoking story.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Seres Queridos (Only Human, 2004) ***½

     Leni (Marian Aguilera) and Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) are freshly in love, and since both live in Spain they are unconcerned with the fact that Leni is Jewish and Rafi is Palestinian.  Hell still breaks loose, though, when they visit Leni’s family for the first time.  Things are uncomfortable enough with Leni’s Israeli-army veteran grandfather, her controlling mother, her horny sister, and her newly religious brother, but when an accident occurs, things really get out of control.
A Spanish, screwball comedy about the Arab-Israeli conflict sounds like a long shot, but “Only Human” makes it work.  The comedic cast keeps the outrageous story crackling along.  Guillermo Toledo is especially good in his straight-man role, and it is with him that we identify as we bump along from one crazy situation to the next.  He reminds me of Ben Stiller in “Meet the Parents.”  The message of the movie, “Love conquers all,” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and I don’t think any light is ultimately shed on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it’s a fun time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Thor (2011) ***

Of all the superhero movies to watch, you would have to figure this would be, hands down, the dumbest one; and you would be right.  It really is a story about Thor, Norse thunder god and son of Odin, coming down to earth to meet some girls, have a little R&R, and save the planet.  And yet, the film actually kind of works.
At least half the movie takes place on other planets or dimensions, in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods, and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants.  You have to hand it to the filmmakers; they really don’t skimp on the Norse mythology.  They detail the epic war between the gods and the giants, and the uneasy peace that follows.  Then Thor (Chris Hemsworth), foolishly breaks that peace, setting the stage for another war.  Odin is so angry at the vain, impulsive Thor’s folly that he casts him down to earth and wedges his hammer in a rock, with an incantation that Thor won’t be able to retrieve it until he becomes worthy.
Now you might think Thor would speak Swedish or Norwegian, but conveniently he is fluent in English, which works out well when he makes landfall in the western U.S. and gets picked up by cute girls.  Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings are the least convincing scientific researchers ever.  They are both good actresses, but they make no sense in this movie.
Fortunately, none of that matters, because the movie is all about Thor, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Thor’s Asgardian entourage, and they all kick ass.  In fact, “Thor” is actually two movies squished together.  The longer, dominate one is full of gods and ice monsters who all take themselves way too seriously, but are still kind of awesome.  The second movie, where some earthlings are in peril, is smaller, lamer, and really kind of insignificant.  The only notable aspect of this second movie is that it introduces a government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., which presumably will play a role in later comic-book movies, including “The Avengers,” which I haven’t seen yet.  (They even give us a peek at Jeremy Renner as the bow-and-arrow toting Hawkeye.)
Make no mistake, “Thor” is as dumb as they come.  The movie has no deeper subtext, and this is not a cult classic.  Still, all the major players give the impression of having a splendid time, and despite my doubts, I had a pretty good time, too.

3 stars out of 5

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bullitt (1968) ****½

If you want to know why Steve McQueen is STEVE MCQUEEN, this cop thriller  is a good place to start.  As Detective Frank Bullitt, McQueen is as cool as they come.  Men want to be him; women want to have him; and no one wants to get on his bad side.
Bullitt is a San Francisco cop who is tasked with protecting a Mob witness so the  guy can testify.  Despite the protection, Mob hit-men manage to get to the guy.  With egg on his face, Bullitt sets out to catch the hit-men.  The search culminates in an iconic movie car chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco, with Bullitt in his Ford Mustang pursuing the hit-men in their Dodge Charger.  The famous scene is long, heart-pounding, and thrilling, with the cars reportedly topping 100 mph at times.  It has become a piece of muscle-car history.
The only weak point in the film is Jacqueline Bisset, as Bullitt’s wife.  If she just walked around wearing nothing but a button-down shirt, it would have been fine, but the problems start when she opens her mouth.  Her beauty doesn’t compensate for her poor acting, and the film tends to grind to a halt during her scenes.  Fortunately, the rest of the film is captivating, an engrossing piece of action-noir.  Besides that car chase, there is a great foot chase through the airport tarmac.  “Bullitt” also works well as a police procedural, as Bullitt methodically retraces his murdered witness’s tracks to solve the case.
“Bullitt” tries, in a clumsy way, to get philosophical.  The film’s noir edge comes from the fact that Bullitt is completely surrounded by evil in various forms.  From the Mob hit-men to the low-life witness to a sleazy politician, there is no one to root for but Frank Bullitt.  In one scene, Bullitt’s wife berates him for becoming as cold and callous as the world in which he works, but the scene is clunky due to Jacqueline Bisset’s acting.  The theme is better handled obliquely in the rest of the movie, as at the end, when Bullitt washes his face and looks in the mirror, probably wondering if he can ever feel clean again.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 02, 2012

First Blood (1982) **

As hard as it may be to believe, I had never seen any of the Rambo movies until just now.  I think these are the  kind of movies that if you don’t see them as a kid, they just slip by you.  I had heard, however, that the first film, “First Blood,” was halfway decent, so I decided it was time to catch up.  I would agree that there is a decent film here, but it is hidden inside some serious ‘80s schlock.
Sylvester Stallone, of course, plays John Rambo, an emotionally scarred Vietnam vet and Green Beret, wandering the country trying to find his old army buddies.  When small-town Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots the shaggy-looking drifter wandering  into town, he politely warns him to keep moving.  Rambo isn’t one to be pushed, however, so he heads right back into town, where Teasle arrests him for vagrancy and for carrying one big-ass knife.  The abusive, redneck deputies make Rambo flashback to his torture as a prisoner of the Vietcong, and next thing you know he is kicking ass and taking names, then escaping in a pretty thrilling chase sequence into the Cascade Mountains.  There his Special Forces training kicks in, and when the Sheriff and his crew give chase, the hunters become the hunted.
I recommend watching “First Blood” with the TV muted.  The movie is a ton of fun when the characters aren’t talking.  It’s a blast watching Rambo unleash his goody bag of commando tricks.  Stallone can’t act, of course, and he has only one facial expression, but it happens to be the perfect facial expression for this character.  Brian Dennehy brings some class to the cast and manages to lend a human side to the flawed Sheriff Teasle.
Unfortunately, every time a character recites a line, it takes the film down a notch.  The dialogue is so cringe-worthy it is below even Stallone’s level.   The musical score is also pretty bad, although not as bad as the soft-rock song they play at the end.  (“It‘s a Long Road“)  Also, while Stallone and Dennehy carry the movie off pretty well, the rest of the actors are mediocre at best, including the sneering Richard Crenna as Rambo’s former Special Forces commander.
It’s a shame that “First Blood” was not better done, because the story of a damaged war veteran is one that needed to be told.  America’s sometimes shabby treatment of our Vietnam vets was not one of our finest moments.  Movies like “First Blood” helped shed a light on that situation and maybe fostered some compassion for those vets.  Also, the film sold about a bazillion of those survival knives with the compass in the handle.

2.5 stars out of 5