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Miss Bala (2019)

At the start of 2019, there were an amazing three Hollywood remakes of foreign films released. It was a peculiar time where we had the American version of France’s global hit The Intoucheables (The Upside), the American version of Norway’s quirky and violent In Order of Disappearance (Cold Pursuit), and the American version of Mexico’s searing beauty pageant crime thriller, Miss Bala. The films didn’t seem like a studio dump job, the new regime quietly dropping doomed movies into the early months of the year to go hopefully unnoticed. The Upside was a $100-million grossing hit, once again proving the durable and international power of that story. The remake I was most concerned about was Miss Bala, which looked via trailers to have strayed so far from the original. It felt like a potent and tragic movie was being turned into an empowerment vehicle, pretty much flipping the artistic intent of the 2011 Mexican original.

Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a pageant makeup artist visiting her good friend in Tijuana. The nightclub they’re in becomes a scene of gag violence and Gloria is a reluctant witness to who was responsible. As a result, the cartel gang kidnaps her and forces her to do their bidding, including unwittingly driving a car full of explosives to a DEA safe house. Gloria is forced to be a DEA informant, a courier for the cartel, and all the while she’s searching to find her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). By the end this new “Miss Bala” (“bala” means bullet in Spanish) will be forged by fire and find her strength to fight.

This is a very different version of the Miss Bala story, and for the purposes of this review and critical clarification, I think it would be helpful to reprint my brief analysis of the 2011 film for easier comparison. So here is my 2011 review in full:

Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film Oscar entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.”

That sounds like a pretty interesting movie, right? It is and is worth checking out regardless of your feelings for the 2019 Miss Bala. The original protagonist was simply a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result she became a pawn in a larger game of leverage between warring factions. Her entire goal was to simply escape the terrible danger she was in, but every refuge just put her back into the fray or used her for their own devious purposes. The protagonist wasn’t completely passive since she’s constantly reacting to the dangers and dangerous men around her, assessing her ability to escape, who she can trust and when, but she is decidedly less empowered.

That is the biggest divergence with the 2019 Miss Bala, making our protagonist an empowered woman who struts in slow-mo in a ball gown and an automatic weapon, the kind of image you’d see in any number of schlocky Michael Bay action thrillers. Over the course of her harrowing experience, Gloria becomes a Strong Woman, a Fighter Who Fights Back, whereas the protagonist of the 2011 film, Laura, was just trying to be a Survivor first and foremost. There’s a distinct difference in intention and execution there. One is curated with more realism and the other becomes a revenge fantasy. One is meant to disquiet and jar a crowd and the other is meant to be a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser.

I’ll admit there was less action in the 2019 Miss Bala than I had feared from the commercials. However, the action that does occur is indistinguishable from other bigger budget crime shootouts. You’ve got grenade launchers, exploding cars, nightclub shootouts, and other cliché moments handled in relatively cliché ways. There is a final confrontation between Gloria and one of her chief antagonists that includes the line, “I did what I had to do. We both did!” I’m stunned they didn’t feel the need to have the villain denote, “You know you and I are not that different.” Actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly certain this scene did exist between these characters, with the guy talking about his American upbringing as a means of making connections with her. What I’m ultimately saying is that 2019 Miss Bala kind of misses the point of 2011 Miss Bala. It’s like using the Iron Giant, a figure of pacifism (“I am not a gun”) into a weapon of war (ahem, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One).

But why don’t you judge the movie on its own merits instead of simply comparing it to its superior source material? That’s a reasonable argument so allow me to do so, dear reader. The new Miss Bala doesn’t work as the fist-pumping crowd-pleaser because it doesn’t know what to do to build its tension and escalation. Take for instance a scene after Gloria is taken in by a rogue DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and told she works for them now. She’s sent back to the clutches of the cartel and then alone in a bedroom with a leader. This guy tells her to start taking off her clothes. It’s certainly an uncomfortable moment, and the camera weirdly lingers on Rodriguez’s breasts as she’s about to remove her bra, but the scene is merely a scuzzy guy wanting to see her skin. What if she was wearing a wire or had been hiding something from the DEA, and then removing her clothes would put her in far more danger than being uncomfortable? To further hammer this home, we have a second scene where he acts sleazy to her, touching her and making her uncomfortable, so why do we need two scenes of this making the same point?

The Gloria of 2019 Miss Bala is also a bit too predisposed to be that figure of empowerment in the face of dismissive and dangerous men. Again, nothing wrong with this storytelling perspective, it’s just the film makes it so obvious and clunky at every turn. Within the first minute of screen time, we see Gloria apply her artistic skills at home, go to work, and be dismissed by a snooty male pageant worker telling her, “We’re not paying you to think.” So, as you can see, subtlety is going to be this movie’s strength. Within the next few minutes she travels to Mexico and gets a friendship bracelet from her BFF and she declares, “You are my family.” Again, subtle. Once the club attack goes down, Gloria’s mission becomes finding her missing friend who she assumes is still alive. In the original (here I go again), the protagonist was only interested in escaping and staying alive, and here we have a main character that must save others. The problem with this development is that the movie, like the above described scene, doubles down needlessly. Gloria is already threatened by the cartel that if she escapes they will harm her godson. Why does she need two personal reasons to stay in the thick of the cartel? She already has the DEA pressuring her to do their bidding or else she’ll never find her way back to the United States. The extra conflicts don’t feel like escalations but more like redundancies.

Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) is the best thing going with the 2019 Miss Bala. She is a luminescent actress with skills and was unrecognizable for her in Annihilation. The best thing director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) does is train her camera closely on Rodriguez’s face to gauge the pained, panicked expressions playing out across her very expressive face and glassy eyes. Rodriguez is a real talent who can carry herself in an action vehicle (her muscular turn in Annihilation was a genuine pleasure). She could headline an action movie, but this isn’t the one for her. Her desperation and fear gives way to a quiet confidence that loses the “quiet” part as she undergoes a slow-mo action hero transformation when the movie needs her to zip to the end of her character arc.

I would thoroughly recommend the 2011 Miss Bala for fans of thoughtful, intense, and affecting thrillers. The paranoia and dread were strong throughout that combustible movie that had more on its mind than some cheap thrills. Comparatively, the 2019 Miss Bala remake feels only designed for cheap thrills and a misguided empowerment message. As the main character is turned from a survivor into a fighter, the edges smooth out, the complexity gets distilled, and the movie becomes any other number of action thrillers where our fragile, scared character becomes an avenging angel by the climax. If that’s your recipe for an enjoyable movie, 2019 Miss Bala still has problems with its execution and poor development. You won’t regret watching the new Miss Bala but your time would be better spent watching the original film and hoping better for Rodriguez.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Red Riding Hood (2011)

In risk-adverse Hollywood, everything old is new again, so why not remake classic fairy tales for a modern audience? After all, there’s no rights fee. While we’ll have to wait on the competing Snow White films until 2012, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke unleashes her stylized retelling of the Red Riding Hood tale, titled easily enough, Red Riding Hood. This messy and incompetent movie may cause you to run away screaming into the woods all the way to grandmother’s house.

In a small village on the crest of the big bad words, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a hunky blacksmith that comes from a family of high standing. She’s rather run away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the town’s resident moody guy who’s also her childhood friend. Valerie’s family is ostracized due to past indiscretions, so her grandmother (Julie Christie) lives in a cottage off in the woods. Valerie’s mother died when she was young and she’s been raised by her father (Billy Burke) and her step-mother (Virginia Madsen). This happy hamlet is gripped with fear after a series of violent wolf attacks. Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) ushers into town with a proclamation that he will find the wolf and slay it. But he clarifies that they are hunting for a werewolf among the townsfolk. During one attack, Valerie discovers that she has an odd telepathic link with the wolf, which makes her further question her identity. Naturally, this makes the town fear her and offer her as a red riding sacrifice. But who is the wolf and what is his or her plan with Valerie?

This is a disaster of epic fairy tale proportions. Red Riding Hood attempts to reshape the oft told tale into a palatable mix of sex and violence for today’s pre-teens (teenagers will surely be bored by this), somehow forgetting that the original tale is filled with macabre violence. The filmmakers have tried to make Red Riding Hood (RRH) hip to a younger generation; this ain’t your granny’s fairy tale, yo. But they’ve really turned the simple story into a lumbering, idiotic, grating, and nearly impenetrable movie. This youthful infusion of hollow artifice and misplaced attitude, as well as a fumbling attempt at ill-conceived edge, makes the movie a metaphorical bratty teenager. You get tired of its taxing nature and empty posturing. It’s trying to be cool with last year’s catalogue. Hardwicke is using every tool at her disposal to appeal to an easily bored teenage demographic, so the movie takes several sidesteps that are only justifiable because someone might think they are cool. The musical score includes grating, churning anachronistic electric guitars. It feels like your neighbors are throwing a party and the music occasionally drifts over. These visual and narrative flourishes only remind you how desperate and out-of-tune this whole lousy production is.

Screenwriter David Johnson (Orphan) takes the familiar woodland frolic and turns it into the world’s worst Agatha Christie-styled guessing game. The wolf is now a werewolf and then the town undergoes a witch-hunt that would make Arthur Miller wince (“I saw Goody Red with the wolf”). It’s here that the movie preposterously attempts to become some sort of important statement on, I kid you not, the war on terror. Solomon brings a metal elephant that he sticks prisoners in to soften them up. He also lights a fire below the belly of the elephant to expedite the process of getting the truth out of a suspect. Solomon’s status as a cleric has to serve as some sort of biting criticism of church authority, especially after he wants to get an inquisition going. I appreciate the wholly misguided attempt at topicality and commentary, but this was not the movie to make statements. Anyway, the plot is convoluted and every scene seems to just further dilute the clarity of the narrative. The movie just descends into a manic game of “Guess the Wolf.” We literally go through just about every speaking part at some point as a potential werewolf suspect. That means every bit part is given due consideration, including the mentally handicapped child. I actively wanted the wolf to be the mentally handicapped kid just for the awkward discussions of what to do next (“We can’t kill the wolf. He’s… special.”). Red Riding Hood works so hard to make like 8 characters look alternatingly guilty. The town seems to be populated by red herrings and not people.

Red Riding Hood is a neutered horror movie and a rather bloodless romance; there’s a lack of blood pumping with either. For a movie about a killer wolf there is precious little blood or wounds even considering some people are mauled to death. It seems the filmmakers had a choice of going with mild gore or mild sensuality to stick the PG-13 landing and erred on the side of hormones. The romantic elements are kept at a pre-teen simmer. For only they will blush at the more suggestive elements, including the table-dance-in-slow-mo shimmy dancing that the town seems to favor during their festivals. At one point Peter unties one of Valerie’s bodice strands. To be fair, in mythical land/mythical time setting, that’s probably like their equivalent of third base. The romantic triangle is desperate to ape the Twilight model, and the male characters are pinup pinheads. They occupy types, one being the brooding “darker” guy who Valerie really wants to be with, and the other is a nice guy from a proud family (sound familiar, Twi-hards?). The movie goes to shoddy lengths to keep these two at odds, when it appears that, like Bella Swan, our Valerie is one flower not worth the trouble of plucking. It’s hard to get involved in a romance when you’d rather watch every participant getting eaten by a wolf.

“What big eyes you have” is something of an understatement when speaking about the saucer-eyed Seyfried (Letters to Juliet). She gets to make good use of her ocular abilities, though who knows if it’s acting or just expressions of disbelief about what kind of movie she is trapped inside. Seyfried does her whole blasé shtick, which makes the character feel more like an annoying know-it-all even when she admittedly knows nothing. Oldman (The Dark Knight) inhales scenery at a dangerous pace, acting ferociously over-the-top and unrestrained.  It’s like he’s trying to channel a wolf in his performance. At least he’s entertaining to watch, which cannot be said for the movie as a whole. Irons (Dorian Gray) is bland but Fernandez (Skateland) is laugh-out-loud awful at a few points. Clearly talking is not this guy’s strong suit. Neither is emoting. The weirdest part of Red Riding Hood is merely seeing Madsen’s face. Clearly this woman has undergone plastic surgery since her Oscar-nominated turn in 2004’s Sideways. She almost resembles a gentler looking Mickey Rourke at certain unkind angles. Another famous face goes to sad lengths to alter her looks to be seen as acceptably good-looking in ageist Hollywood.

Red Riding Hood is a tragic misjudgment on the part of just about everyone involved. The screenwriter thought he must have been making a serious allegory, Hardwicke thought she was making a wild and witchy cousin to Twilight, and the producers thought they were making a film that had genuine appeal. They were all categorically wrong. The reworking of the fairy tale elements is mostly mundane. She gets a red cloak from her granny but otherwise this story might as well just be about a girl and a werewolf. It’s not an imaginative update or a clever reworking, this is just a dumb werewolf story with extra dashes of Twilight for seasoning. The key to unlocking the Red Riding Hood story is not by introducing a sterile love triangle. This hyperactive hodgepodge mistakes setting for atmosphere and a high number of characters for mystery. I was astounded as I sat and watched this movie; turn after turn it veers wildly in tone and execution. I haven’t even talked about the special effects for the wolf, and there’s a reason I am leaving that unsaid. Red Riding Hood is a movie 12-year-old girls might fawn over. If you find yourself outside that marginal demographic, then you’ll likely find this movie to be an irritating, nonsensical, dopey, pitiful bore. You can stuff that in your picnic basket, Red.

Nate’s Grade: D

Twilight (2008)

It’s only been three years since the first book in the Twilight series was published, but man has it already become a phenomenon among young girls. Author Stephenie Meyer was a Mormon housewife who professed to never having seen an R-rated movie, so of course she seems like a natural fit for vampire literature. Meyer has taken the torch from Anne Rice and created an insanely popular series of books that chronicle the lives of humans and vampires in the rainy Northwest United States. I had never heard about the books until the spring of 2008, months before the hotly anticipated release of the fourth and final book in the series. Then again, I’m not a pre-teen girl, so excuse my ignorance. My wife Karen and I decided to bear the hormonal, high-pitched squeals and sit with a packed house to experience the movie with the Twilight faithful. Judging from my screening, I think it might be mandatory for all girls between the ages of 7-14 to go see the Twilight film.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart, Into the Wild) is the new kid in school. She’s moved back to live with her father (Billy Burke), the sheriff of a tiny Washington town with a population of 3,000 people. Bella has her sights set on the Cullen family, a group of weird kids that are pale and keep to themselves. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) goes out of his way to avoid Bella, and of course this just makes him more mysterious. He tells her that they shouldn’t be friends. Then one day at school he saves her life by stopping a van from crushing her. Bella suspects that this Cullen kid might not be a usual teenager. He’s not. He’s a vampire who hasn’t aged since 1918. Bella is smitten with her otherworldly protector. It’s your typical high school relationship. Bella doodles Edward’s name on her notebook and falls in love with an unattainable boy. Edward must resist the constant temptation to drink Bella’s blood (he and his vamp family are “vegetarians,” meaning they only drink animal blood).

Let’s examine the distinctions of the Twilight vampire incarnation. Now, the vampire myth is not written in stone, so it allows for creative interpretation. Some vampires cast a reflection, others don’t. Some vampires are thwarted by garlic and crosses and others are not. Some vampires sleep in coffins and others just prefer a comfy mattress. It seems that the two characteristics that follow every vampire tale involve the insatiable thirst for blood to drink and the fact that sunlight is a vampire’s enemy. Meyer’s vampires don’t even adhere to this. They walk around in the daylight with no concern; in fact, we learn they never sleep at all, which means they must have all the late night infomercials memorized by this point. Removing the danger of daylight from the vampire myth proves to be somewhat troublesome decision. This is because, when you think about it, there are little to no drawbacks or limitations to being a vampire in Meyer’s world. Yeah you’ll live forever and crave an unorthodox beverage, but as a vamp you get super abilities, super strength, super speed, and a laughable diamond-like glow when the sun hits your exposed skin (think of those people that encase cell phones in tacky “bling” jewelry). If this is what it means to be a vampire in Meyer’s world then I wouldn’t be surprised if every freaking teenager in the world was signing up to join the army of the undead. The vampire myth brings with it plenty of baggage but it also helps to patch up holes in a narrative; just introducing the concept of a vampire allows an author some free pass with the details. However, vampire tales bring with them a certain set of expectations due to audience familiarity with the popular concept. I could care less if Meyer’s vampires have fangs or chow down on garlic bread, heavy on the garlic, but she loses me when she has vampires roam around during the day with little to no drawbacks. They just don’t feel like vampires. What they feel like are superheroes with skin conditions and a unique appetite. Which is fine, but don’t call it a traditional “vampire” flick.

I completely understand the enormous appeal of the Twilight series because it’s totally pre-teen wish fulfillment. I’m positive that the majority of the pre-teen readership projects themselves as Bella, the typical Every Girl. She encounters a sexy boy who ignores all the flashy and trashy girls and recognizes that special something in the Every Girl. In fact, he respects her and doesn’t want to be physical with her because he’s afraid of giving in to his urges (a rather obvious abstinence metaphor). He wants to love her forever and protect her. He has a dangerous bad boy angle but yet he’s still safe. In short, Edward Cullen is the idealized male for a nation of pre-teen girls who are just stepping into the world of boys (Bella also becomes an object of affection for no less than three boys at school). The Twilight tale even pulls a gender flip: the girl is pressuring the boy to give in to his carnal urges. And yet I can also understand why the books appeal to an older, mostly female, readership as well. If you remove the vampire angle from the story, it’s that old classic literary tale about a gal falling in love with the rebel, the boy who’s misunderstood. Hollywood has been making those sorts of love stories for decades, and so Meyer is able to tap into this classical romantic appeal.

Twilight never delves too deeply into the dramatic dynamics of a 17-year-old girl dating a 90-year-old vampire. There are a lot of dramatic consequences drawn from dating somebody who cannot age. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show explored the ins and outs of human-vampire relationships with wit and sincerity. Edward is forever seventeen but does that mean he still digs the high school girls? If you’re trapped in the body of a teenager does that mean you are still attracted to teenagers? If I were almost a century old I think I might seek out the comfort and conversation of a more mature woman, which is precisely the notion I’m sure the older female readership also fantasizes about (for all those guilty soccer moms, it doesn’t qualify as fantasizing an underage when he’s undead). Talking to teenagers for the rest of your life seems like a strange form of penance, as does repeatedly completing high school. Are the vampires just bored and attend school to pass the time? Don’t they know that TV was invented?

Twilight doesn’t have much of a plot to fill out a two-hour running time; the bulk of the movie consists of two characters feeling each other out. When the film does introduce an exterior threat (Cam Gigadet as a vamp obsessed with the hunt) it never feels that dangerous or fitting. The outside threat is saved for the very end and is easily dispatched, so the movie would have been better off without forcing a last-minute life-or-death dilemma into its love story. The love story itself doesn’t feel as properly nourished as it needed to be. The whole film experience feels like one long introduction and set-up, not so much an open-and-shut story.

Now, with all of that established, the Twilight film itself isn’t too bad. The movie is well made and certainly has a pulpy romantic vibe. The movie never feels overly burdened by excessive emotion or fake drama. It also follows a leisurely pace but never becomes dull. The actors are a big help. The leads don’t seem like they stepped out of a magazine photo spread; Stewart and Pattinson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) have a palpable chemistry that simmers throughout. Stewart is a terrific actress that embodies a typical teen, and Pattinson has the heartthrob glower down cold. I think there is rarely a scene where Edward isn’t glowering. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thriteen) might as well provide onscreen instruction telling the audience when to swoon. Hardwicke is a filmmaker that doesn’t wallow in pretension, so she knows what kind of flick she has at her disposal. On the other hand, she is able to tamp down the inherent cheesiness that can go with a gooey supernatural love story. Twilight is able to work because it strikes the right balance between romance and silliness.

Fans of Twilight should be delighted by the big screen adaptation of their favorite characters and heartthrobs. Sure the plot is a tad lightweight, the vampires might not be vampires as we traditionally understand them, the characters make giant leaps in their proclamations of love, and the outside conflict is a bit too poorly manufactured, but the movie has some bite. The movie isn’t moody, it isn’t too heavy, and it can come across as entertaining, though I’m at a loss to explain its extraordinary popularity. Now that Hardwicke and company have established the Twilight inhabitants, I hope the inevitable future installments will be better at providing resonating story and characters. If you doubt the certainty of sequels, need I remind you yet again that it is mandatory for girls age 7-14 to see this movie. The Twilight phenom has yet to reach its peak. Get used to it. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood starts cranking out the Twilight knock-offs. Then, perhaps, I will join the armada of pre-teen girls and shriek wildly.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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