Monday, January 23, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Bala to Ballet

Drug trafficking is estimated to be a $40 billion a year industry in Mexico, where most people live on the equivalent of only $2 in US currency per day. No one is immune -- not even children -- from being victimized by the country's pervasive and violent drug cartels, which have seemingly infiltrated the Mexican government itself.

Gerardo Naranjo's hard-hitting Miss Bala, now playing in Los Angeles and New York, provides a discomfortingly intimate glimpse into the complexities of the Mexico-US drug trade. Inspired by a true story, the film focuses on the unfortunate Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a young woman who yearns for beauty pageant victory but becomes the unwitting pawn of a vicious drug lord, Lino (the very impressive Noe Hernandez, previously seen in Sin Nombre and the Mexican HBO series Capadocia).

The scary yet protective Lino initially spares Laura's life during a dance club massacre. Laura feels compelled, however, to find out what happened to her best friend, who was at the disco but is missing post-attack. This brings Laura back into Lino's path. He exacts increasingly dangerous, degrading demands from her even as he works to help Laura achieve her dream of being crowned Miss Bala during a nationally-televised broadcast.


Laura serves as the naive lens through which viewers get an inside look into a dark, all too realistic world. As a character, I found Laura's cluelessness frustrating at times but Sigman's performance can't be faulted. Also worth noting in a brief role is James Russo, memorable as Axel Foley's loving but doomed best friend in 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. Naranjo stages the initial dance club attack, as well as a showdown between police and Lino's cartel in a freeway underpass and the assassination of a federal agent, with effective intensity.

Miss Bala was produced by Y Tu Mama Tambien acting duo Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It is Mexico's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in this year's Academy Awards but was excluded from the list of finalists in the category announced last week. Although I can't say I'm surprised by its absence, Miss Bala shouldn't be written off by adventurous moviegoers. It gives new meaning to the term "fashion victim."


From Bala to ballet, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is a revealing documentary about the groundbreaking dance troupe. It is having its sold-out world premiere this Friday, January 27th, as the opening night selection of NYC's Dance on Camera film festival and will make its West Coast debut on February 1st at LA's Colburn School. Whether one is a dance fan or not, gay or straight, it shouldn't be missed.

Narrated by Mandy Patinkin and produced, intriguingly, by Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day fame, the doc relates the biographies of dancer-choreographer Robert Joffrey and his longtime partner, Gerald Arpino, as well as the history of the company they founded. Though their romantic relationship had ended by the time of Joffrey's death from AIDS-related complications in 1987, the two men continued living together and remained virtually inseparable. The film incorporates considerable vintage footage of Joffrey at work in addition to interviews with former members of the company who trained under him. As one of them says of the closeted early years of Joffrey's and Arpino's love affair, "Everyone knew they weren't cousins."


And then there are the fantastic dance segments, past and present, through which the evolution of the Joffrey Ballet's unique mix of classical and modern dance styles are chronicled. They include "The Green Table," an anti-war composition that cemented Joffrey's reputation for daring excellence in the 1960's, and several scenes from the blockbuster, Prince-inspired "Billboards."

The company went through an inevitable period of decline in the wake of Joffrey's death and with the rise of modern masters Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp, but it has more recently rebounded following a move from New York to Chicago and under new leadership. Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance serves as a fitting if arguably too brief testament to an art form and its founders.

For more information about these and future US screenings of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, visit the film's official website.

Reverend's Ratings:
Miss Bala: B-
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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