WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Julia is a down-on-her-luck fortysomething alcoholic. She’s at her wit's end when she meets a woman at an AA meeting and is soon immersed in a kidnap-for-ransom scheme involving the woman’s nine-year-old son Tom the victim of a nasty custody battle. Events quickly careen out of control and Julia finds herself on the lam in Mexico kid in tow trying to stay a step ahead of low-life local hoods who believing Tom to be her son nab the boy and demand the money in return for sparing his life.
WHO’S IN IT?
Although the entire cast in this low-budget thriller is excellent Julia is really noteworthy as an Oscar-worthy tour-de-force display of sheer acting brilliance by the dazzling Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) who throws herself into this blowsy ballsy role with such abandon it will make your head spin. Swinton easily delivers the year’s best performance -- male or female -- so far and it’s a shame that this independently-made tough-minded melodrama will likely get only limited theatrical exposure. Acting honors are also owed to Saul Rubinek who plays a key role in the film’s climax as Julia’s ex-boyfriend and confidante. Kate del Castillo (Under the Same Moon) really only turns up in the film’s establishing scenes but is wonderfully effective as Elena the boy’s volatile and colorful mother. As nine-year-old Tom Aidan Gould is understated and neatly effective in a role that requires a range of emotions. Bruno Bichir is amusingly one-note in his best baddie mode as Diego the lead Mexican bandit.
Making his English-language debut director Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife Of Angels) keeps things moving at the pace of a speeding freight train never letting his star come up for air and allowing her to bring many different shades to this fascinating unsympathetic woman whose life is a complete mess. Zonca effortlessly turns what starts out as a character study into some outrageously juicy stuff. The shift is tone is seamless and will blow you away. This is one hell of a ride.
At 138 minutes the film is overlong and could have used some tightening in the latter portions when Julia and Tom get to Mexico. The portrayal of Mexico’s criminal element also borders on stereotype and is mostly played in one dimension by a group of fine local stars who aren’t given much opportunity for subtlety.
A scene in the bus station where Julia arranges the ransom money to be dropped off is nail-biting sweat-inducing suspense at its finest allowing Swinton an ace-acting showcase to boot.
DIDN’T JANE FONDA ALREADY MAKE THIS MOVIE?
Don’t be flummoxed by the film’s title. It has nothing to do with the Oscar-winning Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave drama released in 1977. In fact although not a remake this Julia much closer in tone and spirit to the 1980 Gena Rowlands film Gloria which was later remade in 1999 with Sharon Stone. Have we sufficiently confused you now?
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Considering the indie style and minimal marketing budget your best chance will probably be on DVD where it is not to be missed.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Half-brothers Beto and Tato Verdusco live at home with mom work as fruit pickers and play for the local Mexican soccer team. Beto juggles a wife two kids and a gambling habit while Tato dreams of a singing career. One day fate intervenes when a soccer talent scout gives Tato the opportunity to try out for a big Mexico City team. Eventually Beto gets his own opportunity to play in the second division and the brothers’ new success and lifestyle will have significant changes and challenges for both guys as the contrast of sibling rivalry and brotherly bonds send them into an uncertain future.
WHO’S IN IT?
After first gaining worldwide attention in the 2001 sleeper hit from Mexico Y Tu Mama Tambien Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal have each gone on to significant individual success and are now delightfully re-teamed in a film written and directed by Y Tu writer Carlos Cuaron who certainly knows how to get the best from his stars. As Beto Luna presents a three-dimensional portrait of a guy whose flaws threaten his future while Bernal is fun as Tato a goodhearted and friendly soul with misguided dreams of a musical career. The nature of the scripting finds each actor on screen alone much of the time but together or apart the teaming works just like it did the first time. Standout in the supporting cast is Guillermo Francella as Batuta the talent scout who sets the story in motion. He’s superb. Dolores Heredia as the mother and Adriana Paz as Beto’s wife ably round out the featured female roles.
While Rudo y Cursi never seems to take itself too seriously it’s not a mindless exercise concocted simply to get Luna and Bernal back together. There’s real heft in the underlying theme of the cryptic nature of real brotherhood and the film makes some surprising conclusions that add gravitas to Cuaron’s engaging screenplay.
Luna and Bernal are such an attractive team it’s a shame that the storyline separates them for a good portion of the picture. The separation may be necessary for the narrative but the scenes when they are on screen together are the ones that really crackle.
WORST CANDIDATE FOR MEXICAN IDOL?
Bernal gets his chance to sing a wretched Spanish version of “I Want You to Want Me” in a dopey video as his misguided character Tato proves sports talent doesn’t necessarily equal musical ability. It’s the movie’s most amusing scene.
NETFLIX MULTIPLEX OR TELEMUNDO?
Beyond obviously the Spanish-language audience Rudo y Cursi may cross over into other markets providing a much needed boon for foreign-language films in America. Give it a shot at your local theater first.
The heartbreak of illegal immigration is vividly displayed in this poignant story of nine year old Carlos (Adrian Alonso) a boy living in Mexico with his grandmother while his mother (Kate del Castillo) works as an illegal domestic in Los Angeles trying to make enough money to send home so the son she has been separated from can live a good life--even if it means being without her. When the grandmother suddenly dies Carlos decides to cross the border and look for mom. As his journey continues he encounters a woman (America Ferrera) and her brother (Jesse Garcia) who make tuition money taking babies into the U.S. In this instance she decides to help smuggle Carlos across by hiding him in her van. Once he lands in Tuscon he meets a sympathetic middle- aged migrant worker named Enrique (Eugenio Derbez) who accompanies him to East L.A. Once there they try to locate his mother--their only clue being a vague description of the area around a pay phone she used in her weekly calls home to Carlos. The film which is shot mostly in Spanish with some English language scenes as well offers great big screen opportunities to some of Mexico’s biggest television stars including telenovela favorite Kate del Castillo. She delivers a moving performance as a mother living separated by borders with her only son but living “under the same moon.” The film really belongs however to young Alonso--a natural in front of the cameras who impressed American audiences as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas’ son in The Legend of Zorro but breaks out here as the determined Carlos. Both create a touching mother-son relationship even though they are never in any scenes together. Also playing against type is superstar Derbez unquestionably one of Latin America’s most popular actors who develops a winning chemistry with Alonso making every moment of their screen time count. Ugly Betty’s Ferrera also turns up for some effective moments including a heart-stopping sequence in which she is questioned by border guards while the van carrying the hidden Carlos is searched. Although she has made some award winning shorts Under the Same Moon represents the first feature length film for Mexican-born Patricia Riggen. She succeeds on all levels emphasizing the characters in the story over the potentially political hot button topic of immigration which her film so eloquently humanizes. Working with screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos the two women give urgency to the tragic separation of mother and son caught between two disparate cultures. Given the time restraints and low budget Riggen’s command of the camera is impressive particularly in the inventive and almost spiritual ways she manages to bring mother and son together on screen even though they never share a shot. Use of music is also hugely effective with Carlos Silotto’s melodic score recalling a similar film about a young dreamer Cinema Paradiso. Ultimately though Under the Same Moon lives or dies with the actors and Riggen’ spot-on casting decisions--particularly in the case of Alonso--really lift it to new levels. Most of the actors have extensive TV followings and Riggen knew by casting them she would risk the wrath of Mexican film critics who uniformly look down on television. Doesn’t matter. Under the Same Moon has universal appeal and should find approving audiences around the world.
Three Burials is languid simplicity at its best. The story starts off as a murder mystery of sorts when a Mexican man Melquiades Estrada is found shot dead outside a dusty Texas town near the U.S./Mexican border. Without any family he’s written off and unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave. This is not at all satisfactory for Pete Perkins (Jones) a local ranch foreman and Melquiades’ only friend. Pete decides to investigate his friend’s murder on his own and finds out the culprit is a young hot-headed border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). He kidnaps Mike and forces him to disinter the body. With his captive in tow and the body tied to a mule Pete then undertakes a dangerous and romantic journey into Mexico to give Melquiades a proper burial. The older he gets the more Tommy Lee Jones excels at portraying a man of few words. Maybe its because his face--filled with years of deep lines and crevices--can explain everything just by staring off into the distance or by coldly glaring at an enemy. As Pete (for which Jones won best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival) the actor hands us a lonely cowboy who finds a friendship with an unlikely amigo (played by Julio Cedillo). These two don’t head towards Brokeback Mountain territory but the bond is there. And when Melquiades is killed it sends Pete into a spiral of pain revenge and eventual self-discovery. As Pete’s captive Pepper (25th Hour) turns in an amazing performance as the bewildered border patrolman who goes on his own journey towards redemption. And on the sidelines is January Jones (American Wedding) as Mike’s wife and Melissa Leo (21 Grams) as Pete’s sometimes girlfriend who give boredom a whole new outlook and aptly show just how stuck a beautiful woman can be in such a nowhere town. It’s clear Three Burials is indeed very close to Jones’ heart. Shot almost entirely on his sprawling West Texas ranch Jones’ directorial debut was apparently born out of years of deer-hunting trips he took with Three Burials’ screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote the happy little film 21 Grams). “You don’t have to spend much time along the Rio Grande before you realize that [Arriaga’s] country and mine and the same ” Jones told Entertainment Weekly. Jones paints a vivid picture of this land--and the people--he obviously loves dearly while also depicting the racial and political tensions brewing along the border. But it’s Arriaga’s script that deftly changes the film’s pace. It’s a Western a dark comedy a revenge thriller that eventually turns into a Don Quixote journey of sorts--and the whole thing just keeps you glued save for a few extraneous moments here and there. This could be the start of a beautiful collaborative team.
We've all heard the tale: In 1836 a motley group of brave Texan soldiers aided by American legend Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) defended The Alamo to their bloody deaths at the hands of Mexican General Santa Anna's well-trained army. That's pretty much the same ground covered by the film so don't expect any surprises. What you can expect early on is some fairly convoluted political back story centering on aspiring nation-builder Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) plenty of soap opera-quality bickering between leading characters Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and knife aficionado Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and a good amount of pompous preening on the part of Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria). Like Glory The Alamo takes its time (about 90 minutes) to lead up to the pivotal battle using the rest of the time to introduce major characters and conflicts; unlike Edward Zwick's masterful Civil War drama Hancock's epic wanna-be loses the audience's attention in the process.
Poor Dennis Quaid -- all of the good subtle work he's put in over the last couple of years in smaller movies like The Rookie (also directed by Hancock) and Far From Heaven could well be swept from filmgoers' minds in an instant if enough of them remember The Alamo instead. As Houston one of Texas' almost-mythic heroes he blusters orates and generally overacts his way into becoming a living cartoon. Meanwhile Wilson Patric and Thornton are all given one-note characters: Col. Travis is an uptight by-the-book goody-two-shoes (until naturally he gets his one big chance to redeem himself) Bowie is a hard-drinkin' hard-livin' man's man and Crockett is the consummate good ol' boy relying on his aw-shucks demeanor to make friends -- and disguise the true depth of his pithy insights -- wherever he goes. (Thornton does what he can with Crockett but subtlety is lost in this movie.) On the other side of the trenches Echevarria's Santa Anna might as well be Dr. Evil for all of the sense he makes or the respect he earns from his lieutenants. Screenwriters Hancock Stephen Gaghan (an Oscar winner for Traffic) and Leslie Bohem must have taken the general's "Napoleon of the West" nickname literally when it came time to craft his petulant volatile character.
Hancock -- who stepped up to helm The Alamo after original director Ron Howard wisely bowed out -- is a newbie in the realm of historical epics and it shows. For all the time and money that obviously went into the film's costumes sets and effects (the re-created fort is wholly convincing and some of the nighttime battle sequences are pretty impressive) too little was spent developing characters that were equally realistic. Just because people like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie have become larger than life in the American pop mythology doesn't mean they didn't have their faults (as presented in the movie Bowie's resolutely dissolute lifestyle is almost as trite as the rest of his character). And just because these martyred heroes were so colorful doesn't mean that watching them slouch around a dry dusty fort for an hour before anything really happens can be considered entertainment--even the best true stories can use a little help from the editing fairy now and then. Carter Burwell's heavy-handed Braveheart-meets-Glory score (Crockett's catchy fiddling notwithstanding) just underscores the fact that the movie is trying to bully you into feeling certain ways at certain times; when the music swells you gear up for something exciting only to be left hanging again and again. Looks like the suits at Touchstone Pictures knew what they were doing when they delayed The Alamo's release date from Oscar-bait December to dead-zone April.