Bel Canto


The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 39 Steps
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Dawn Wall

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La Mission


La Mission

Benjamin Bratt as an aging homeboy.

(2009) Drama (Screen Media Ventures) Benjamin Bratt, Erika Alexander, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Jesse Borrego, Talisa Soto Bratt, Tina Huang, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tatiana Rivas, Cesar Gomez, Neo Veavea, Cathleen Ridley, Max Rosenak. Directed by Peter Bratt

When it comes down to it, pride can be the defining force of a man. Pride is what makes him walk tall, gives him the sense that he is king of all he surveys. Pride can also kill the things he loves most.

Che Rivera (B. Bratt) is one of the cornerstones of his neighborhood in the San Francisco Mission District. He is an ex-con and recovering alcoholic who drives a local bus and in his spare time, details lowrider cars. He is respected and maybe a little bit feared as well. His swagger has caught the attention of Lena (Alexander), a new neighborhood and not in a good way. However as she gets to know Che better, her attitude changes (as does his towards her) and a tentative, awkward romance develops.

His world is his son Jesse (Valdez) who is a straight-A student with a scholarship to UCLA in the offing. Jesse has indeed made his father proud but has a secret – he’s gay. When Che discovers pictures of Jesse and his lover Jordan (Rosenak) in an – ahem – compromising position, Che goes ballistic. He throws his son out of the house and engages in a beatdown that alerts the neighborhood to Jesse’s sexual tendencies.

This shocks and horrifies Lena, who knows men like this through her job. The anger and rage that bubbles just below the surface and erupts into violence that could well one day be directed at her. The homophobia of Che also doesn’t fit well in her ideal. While this is going on, Jesse is undergoing trials of his own. The Latino community, heavily vested in machismo, doesn’t take kindly to gay men and he is harassed – sometimes violently – which Che is very well aware of. Gay or not, he is still his son but can Che find a way past his own pride, past his own cultural prejudices to bridge the gap with his son – and his girlfriend?

This is very much a love story but not between Lena and Che so much or even between Jesse and Jordan but between director Bratt and this neighborhood. The genuine affection and understanding for the culture is exuded palpably throughout the movie. The camaraderie between neighborhood homeboys is organic and even if the dialogue is sometimes clumsy, the feelings between the lines are not.

Benjamin Bratt made a name for himself on the original “Law and Order” series, and has since developed into a fine actor in his own right. Here he captures both the inner rage of Che, the conflict between his heritage and the love for his son but also his natural affability and charm. If you were part of the neighborhood, no doubt you’d be looking up to this man; he is generous with his friends and that friendship isn’t given easily.

Alexander, who was a cousin on “The Cosby Show”, is beautiful still as she was a decade ago in her TV days. She also “gets” the mentality of a Bay Area citizen with all that implies – the liberal mindset and the inclusive behavior. Having lived there for nearly two decades, I have known hundreds of people just like her there; not saints so much as they are passionate in their beliefs. She makes a fine counterpoint to Che’s macho ways.

There is an authenticity here that has been lauded by Latin critics as well as honesty in the depiction of the rejection of the gay son that the gay community knows all too well. There is a dignity here that is augmented by genuine warmth that even though not every aspect of the neighborhood is beautiful, it at least fees like home.

Love may not conquer all but it is a sure route to overcoming anything. The message of La Mission is not always clearly stated, but seems to be genuinely felt and in an era where moviegoers are often hammered over the head with platitudes that seem to be added to movies out of a need to have some sort of moral center, is a refreshing change of pace. It ain’t perfect, but it’s home.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at the neighborhood, its multi-ethnic culture and specifically the Hispanic lowrider culture. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending takes a little long to arrive. The dialogue is a bit clumsy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty rough here; there’s also some violence and a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star and the director are brothers and both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the soundtrack of the film that gives insight not only into the process of selecting the music but the exacting standards that were used in getting the music of the neighborhood right.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or maybe even made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Splice