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The Perfect Game (2009)
Something true, something false, something missing
The Perfect Game is a nice, feel-good, crowd-pleasing, human values, baseball-packed movie. It is, indeed, based on a true story, but the fictional elements are so heavy and full of stereotypes, that they become a burden for the viewer and for the movie itself. The odd thing about it all is that some of the things that seem the most incredible are true. Yet still, a key character in the story -a Gringo- is left out of it. Why?
Here come the spoilers.
The basic line of the story is true. The 13 straight games won by the kids from Monterrey. The perfect game pitched by Àngel Macías -I watched him play as an outfielder for Poza Rica 7 years later-, some key plays. Things that may ring as an exaggeration are also true. Coach César Faz had been a bat-boy for the St.Louis Browns, the kids did cross the US- Mexico line walking in their baseball uniforms(it was a bridge, though); they ran against some racist behavior; there was an attempt to deport them in Biloxi, as their visas had expired; they were given discounts and even a free meal in local restaurants, as their legend grew; they ran out of money and depended on a fund raising effort in Monterrey; the uniforms they were offered for the final game were way too big for them; most of them were working class kids and even the relationship between coach César Faz and María is true. The little players did meet President Eisenhower and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was more than enough to make a sound film.
You don't make a baseball team in four weeks. The Liga Pequeña Industrial had been set four years prior to the championship. It was a proper Little League, with a proper field and stadium and they, of course, knew what a baseball looked like. The team had been playing together so long that they wore in 1957 the same uniform they had used in 1956 -when they beat other leagues in Monterrey-. Monterrey was an industrial city of half a million people, not a semi-rural town with a steel mill in the middle of nowhere, and baseball was the main sport played over there -in 1957 it had a strong team in the Mexican Baseball League, but not a first division soccer team-. César Faz was a US-born, after being deemed too short for MLB, decided to make a career as a manager. He coached Nuevo León State team to the National finals the year before, and was hired -nominally as a worker in FAMA machinery factory- to take the 12 year olds to the World Championship. There were 14 players, not 9, and there was no priest with them -even though it is said that they were religious children. And, at their arrival from the US, they were received by thousands of admirers both in Mexico City and in Monterrey.
One of the key men behind the Mexican kids' victory was an American, Harold "Lucky" Haskins, a former war-hero who helped fund, with his personal money, the Liga Pequeña Industrial, the working-class Little League where the champions came from. It was Haskins who gave them gloves, bats and uniforms, it was him who intervened to clear the visa problem for the children. It was him, the manager of FAMA machinery factory, who paid Faz. Why is he left out? Probably because he was a bigamist -not good for a religion oriented movie-, or probably because his intervention would prevent a couple of Hollywood clichés from appearing. Anyway, I felt it was an injustice done to a good man.
Miss Bala (2011)
Social collateral damage and hopelessness
Miss Bala tries to deal with one type of the social "collateral damage" of the ongoing Mexican war on drugs: people who are unwillingly thrown into the battle. An interesting premise.
The film starts well, as a beauty queen wannabe gets stuck in the wrong place at the wrong moment, and becomes involved with a gang after making a series of naive and very stupid decisions.
The depiction of violence and corruption is very good in this part, without resorting to the stereotypes of alleged miserable lives. The narcos' communication system as they drive their trucks rings very true.
But after a while, Miss Bala goes down the slope into a crash landing. The main character ends up being an unpaid slave to the narco boss, without ever showing the minimum sign of rebellion and never really having a moment of joy. The reasons behind the narco moves become more and more incoherent, as does the activity of DEA agents and police forces. The last shootout lacks any logic. The director's sense of timing gets lost and the whole film becomes a blurry mess. Loopholes abound in the script.
Perhaps the authors wanted the main character to be totally passive, but by doing this, they portray her as a person without attributes, without real dreams (it seems she didn't even care about being Miss Baja), without true emotions or feelings. Was she a lost dog or a zombie? The acting leads to the second opinion.
Finally, the movie sends a message of hopelessness. It depicts a society of stupid cowards and puppets ruled by criminals and corrupt officials with no way out. I find it odd that it was publicly financed.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The crazies take over
The Dark Knight is deeper than a comic, yet still a comic. It is a pessimistic vision of society, yet fun to watch. It is disturbing, yet full of insights. It is an accomplished film.
There are several things I liked a lot about the movie. First of all, the fact that all major characters are crazy. Both the underworld and the "keepers of the peace" are in the hands of lunatics (The Joker is Chaos incarnated), the only difference being that the authorities are capable of presenting reasonable personae. Batman's mask actually comes off: Bruce Wayne is as obsessed and deranged as the villains he fights: he needs them to keep his alter ego alive.
"Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should be aware of?" asks Harvey Dent. "You have no idea", answers Alfred, who knows too well.
Harvey Dent himself, the white knight of law and order, has clear schizophrenic traits. "Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push", says the Joker, and he's right. Society's liabilities have grown, due to the malign influence of the vigilantes. Masked or unmasked. As they toy with the feasibility of fascism (debating about the need of a new Caesar), the "heroes" don't realize how much they have contributed to the people's passivity and general insanity. No one here gets out unscathed.
Devastating action, fascinating plot twists and also a good set of humor. Not only the acid kind delivered by The Joker's actions and words, but the strictly comic type: Gotham's police is as clumsy and corrupt as can be, the villain's henchmen are suicidally stupid, the mafiosi are all ethnic, and political cynicism is as comic ("We don't know how Lau came back to Gotham") as the people's gullibility.
The film would be perfect were it not for a couple of details. A bit too many plot loopholes one has to get imagination going to fill them with possible explanations- and a miscast among throngs of good performances. Was Maggie Gyllenhaal the type of woman both Batman/Wayne and Dent would fall for? Christian Bale, while a good Batman, barely makes it as a classy billionaire. Other performances are very good. Heath Ledger's is extraordinary and nightmarishly unforgettable.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
A trip, in both senses of the word
"Help!- Cú'u toi vó'i I am lost - Toi lec du ó'ng I am wounded - Toi bi thou'ng"
Say it in Vietnamese, Hoang-Vu Publishing House, Saigon 1963, page 1
Apocalypse Now is a trip in both senses of the word. A voyage trough a river in Indochina and a hallucinating trip that shows the eruption of feelings and sensations provoked by the war in the group that travels trough the river. It is a journey to the last circle of Hell: as you move on, the horror of war advances, makes itself clear in its absurdity. But Captain Willard's intentions are different from Dante's: he is to go to the bottom and kill the devil.
The first half of the movie can be read as a progressive's interpretation of the Vietnam war.The gratuity of American violence, the vision of war as a macabre sport("Charlie don't surf"), the despise of anything alien to American culture (and hence, the intention of bringing the USA with you to the other side of the world). Fear of othernerness as the mechanism that makes the soldier somewhat efficient.
As Willard and his group advance through a bloody Disneyland, filled with corpses of Vietcong and passive Vietnamese, they arrive to the line of front: the bridge that has to be reconstructed every night only to satisfy the needs of the propaganda machine. We are now at the middle of the trip (in both senses of the word), where Zombie soldiers, mad and calm, fight against an invisible and omnipresent enemy.
After the bridge is crossed, the film will become symbolic, and will try to explain Vietnam in a somewhat philosophical way: the forces of the barbarian, with their prehistorical weapons, decimate the supposed rappresentatives of Civilization, and the renegade Colonel Kurtz has installed a reign of terror and atrocities. He does it against himself, only to show (and to show himself) the vacuum that exists in the depths of Western Civilization: a vacuum that can only be filled with horror. The second part of the film is not as strong, not as tight, as the first one.
The music deserves praise. It works not only to put you in the times, but also defines the state of mind, the feelings of the characters and the feeling of war itself. On one side, it clearly shows the social function of music, as the expression of a generation that was involved, against their will, in the most atrocious violence and -uncapable of an organized rebellion against the system- turned their parricide vocation ("Father? -Yes, son -I want to kill you", says Jim Morrison) against other peoples and, finally, against itself.
I smell peroxide
Granted, trying to film a novel based on the sense of smell is a compelling challenge: cinematography, sound and editing must be good enough substitutes, just as words were in Süskind's work. We must praise the filmmaker's courage. Tykwer's effort is generally true to the story, sometimes lavish, sometimes horrid, but fails in its main attempt. It wants to be detached, like the novel, but ends up being too well photographed, too cold. The original capacity to evoke aromas using sight and sound, dwindles into a melodrama with pretty cinematography. Irony is lost. At one moment, the main character smells his victim who is running away in a horseback. The camera asks us to go through the forests in search of her scent. There she is, with her perfectly bright red hair. Suddenly, I smell peroxide. Oh, and it was the essence of innocence, not the essence of beauty, what Granuille was looking for.
War of the Worlds (2005)
A Master Without a Masterpiece... Again
Spielberg is a master filmmaker, when he wants to. He often wanted to, in "The War of the Worlds". I will not dwell into that, but he conveys the more than human grandiosity, the monstrosity of the war and the sense of fear and helplessness.
But he's a prisoner of his own let's-please-the-American-audience device.
The happy ending is terrible. Just about everybody agrees on that. Some one told me the Martians spared Boston because they're Red Sox fans. In both the novel and the aura of the film, it was clear that those who survived were the ones who moved. Well, there is one block in Boston where nothing happened and Granma had time for putting her nice make-up on in the midst of chaos. And the son not only survives a certain blast, but goes back to momma unharmed.
What is not clear for all American audiences, I think, is the absurdity and the morals of the Spielberg film. First, it is a freaking "family history" in the midst of war, just like in "Saving Private Ryan". Can't wars be personal and collective for once? What we see is a family fighting exclusively for themselves, and let the other humans by. I hardly sensed a moment of human solidarity from the Cruise character towards their fellow Americans. Yet he is supposed to be heroic.
There is also a lack of common sense. If mobility equals survival opportunity, then a moving car is the most valuable, coveted and desired commodity. You have to be both selfish and stupid to not carry several people like yourself with whom you can forge a survival alliance. But in the movie, most of the people who flee move like zombies, letting the (supposedly)legitimate owner of a car pass by. Hours pass before the car is taken for what it's supposedly worth. Is the value of private property in America, so important that it would be sanctified even in those moments? (And I wonder, do all kids who attend rock concerts in the US travel in their own car? Doesn't anyone somehow force fellow music lovers to give them a ride?) Finally, there is this ridiculous thing about child rearing. The girls screams, is claustrophobic; the boy is plain obnoxious. And the freaking blue-helmet father is unbelievably incapable of slapping them, showing some authority, even if to save their lives, lest some well-thinker say "Spielberg condones child beating".
You can be a master filmmaker and yet make films that are caged in a non-obvious, but quite distinguishable, ideological trap. That is why Spielberg, a master of cinema, has never, in my opinion, made a true masterpiece
Diarios de motocicleta (2004)
A believable look into a terrible and fascinating character
I think Diarios de Motocicleta is a quite good film, even if not great.
It's a good, believable portrait of the 50s in Latin America. A good, believable psychological portrait of Guevara and his friend Granado. Even if García Bernal is a good actor, De la Serna (as Granado) steals the movie.
I agree with those who say that it's more of a road movie than a political film. It's also entertaining, specially the first half.
For people interested in this terrible and fascinating character, the film makes you understand Ché a little better.
It makes you think about Guevara's individual virtues, and about how reason nurtures monsters when virtues become compulsory.
It also makes you think about the Christian roots in Ché, and in many Latin American left-wingers (the idea of visiting a leper colony, so biblical!). Guevara seems more inspired in St. Francis of Assisi and the Spartan morals than in Karl Marx. I do believe he was (or rather that he re-interpreted the bible with a tinge of Marxism).
At a certain moment, you see Guevara devouring the best known book of José Carlos Mariátegui, and notice that the early reading of the most radical Latin American theoretician (the ideological father of Shining Path), in the context of the trip to Peru, made a great impact on the future of the rebel turned fanatic.
The film makes you think about the place he chose to die (after leaving Cuba, at a time where his differences with Castro were open, since Ché was more radical): Bolivia, the center of the Andean social nightmare.
Of course it makes you think about how little have things changed at their root. A similar voyage would have today better roads, a little more riches, but the very same social injustice.
Finally, Granado's character is a great portrait of the kind of macho, socially conscious, easy tongued, very corny, adventurous, romantic, lyrical Latin American of his generation.
Miel para Oshún (2001)
A "Politically Correct" Return to the Roots
An exiled Cuban goes back to his motherland, 32 years after he was taken to the USA by his father. We witness a return to the roots, as in Alejo Carpentier's classic story. We also witness a road movie, a subtle love story and a mural of Cuban life, in an overall nice little film.
Only the ideological premise on which the film is built is fake. Social criticism of the situation in Cuba is minimum (yet, it is barely at the acceptance level of the bureaucrats who rule the island). If a bike is stolen, it is by a thief who has been in jail; if buildings are half-destroyed, they are being repaired; if a the neighbor is a "jinetera", it's because she wants to leave the country; if the characters are sent wrongly to jail, everything settles finely a few hours later. No hunger (even smiling children with ice creams), no police State who represses santeros, all the houses nicely decorated. We only get one blackout and several transportation problems.
And the key of the film -Roberto's unhappiness because he is at the US where he doesn't belong, in contrast with the "happy" islanders- is impossible to sustain. In the most important scene, in the middle of a town plaza, surrounded by locals, Roberto claims he's unhappy because he's a nowhere man. If that was to happen in the real Cuba, tens of people would tell him: "You can worry about your existential problems because you have three meals a day!", to say the least.
We don't know what happened to Roberto. But I can bet that, if this tormented character decided to stay in Cuba, with his mother, his cousin and his regained roots, he'd regret it loudly.
The direction is feeble at times (is this the same Solás of "Lucía"?), the audio is terrible, but the music is super, some scenes are very good (the Santera, the arrival of the mother) and some of the acting is great (I particularly enjoyed Limonta's portrait of a typical Cuban cab driver)
La ciudad y los perros (1985)
A kick in the groin
The film may have a low budget, a non-existent soundtrack and mediocre acting. Yet the story is so powerful -the movie is loyal to Vargas Llosa's classic novel-, so close to the truth and so well told, it is capable to kick you in the groin.
Hable con ella (2002)
Losses, true love and weird miracles
I liked this film quite a lot, even if it's not my favorite Almodóvar.
While the story is wild, the characters are very realistic. Not black & white, as Hollywood usually likes them.
Of course the film is not mainly about the friendship that grows between Marco and Benigno (stunning performance by Javier Cámara), but rather about losses, true love and weird miracles (life is so capricious!).
While many people (logically) see Benigno's story as the center of the film, I related a lot with tear-prone Marco, who is the one learning about life during the film. (Benigno is Peter Pan, a forever wild child, wise, innocent and perverted, always locked in his mother's sick womb).
The sentimental cuadrangle Marco-Lydia-Niño de Valencia-Marco's exgirlfriend is quite excruciating. Why can't Marco and Lydia be happy together, since they deserve to be? Because Marco can't forget his crazy ex girlfriend and Lydia can't forget Niño de Valencia, their toxic true-loves.
What kind of cleansing must be done in order to make the improbable Marco-Alicia liaison work? What must be lost to regain life?
Another great feature is Rosario Flores (Lydia) the daughter of mythical Lola Flores (the passionate epitome of Spanish folklore). She's far from being beautiful, but exudes tremendous personality. Her face while she's "knelt receiving from the burladero" (a suerte, a 'trick' which has sent many a bullfighter to the surgeon) tells us that she's letting the bull define her suerte, her fate: that this brave woman, torn between two lovers is, in fact, killing herself.