Twice in the past week I've watched movies I really wanted to like, movies that featured elements dear to my heart, but that, as wholes, left me unsatisfied.
The first one, the one I actually sat all the way through, was Bajo la Sal (Under the Salt, 2008), a Mexican serial-killer mystery. This one starts off really well. During salt harvest, workers uncover a woman's dead body. She turns out to be one of several young women who've gone missing from the small town over the last five years or so.
The bright, sprawling, bleached landscape of the salt flats contrasts powerfully with the shadow looming in the characters' minds: the memory of the mass femicides committed around the maquiladoras of Juarez, Mexico. The male workers gather at a respectful distance around the body, their heads bowed. They know they are at ground zero of a tragedy. Several times, men ask the detective from the capitol if these murders might not be like what happened in Juarez. They are and they aren't. I admire how the movie invokes the femicide epidemic without sensationalizing it or exploiting it. Rather, the Juarez murders are depicted as a blight in Mexican memory; a mental bruise that isn't healing—and it shouldn't.
I also like the young main character, Victor. The son of the town mortician, Victor is not exactly coping with his mother's recent (unrelated to the serial killings) death, and his father less so. Victor is a Mexican emo/goth type, which I love because the personality is treated respectfully, without the ironic sneer that most movies aim at teen goths, especially Hispanic ones. Victor is a horror movie afficionado, but what he seems to respond to is old-school Dracula stuff, not grisly slashers. Nevertheless, Victor is clearly working something out as he makes his own homemade horror movie, a stop-motion animated slasher film called “Revenge of the Valley of the Dolls.” The lurid stop-motion work is painstakingly created with Barbie and Ken dolls, and interesting in itself, as well as for the characterization and the contrast it offers in color and pace to the rest of the film, which glides along as slowly and inexorably as an obsidian glacier.
Sadly, the film doesn't amount to much. There's no mystery as to who the killer is—and any mystery is stomped out when key dialog is repeated in multiple voiceovers. If the film is intended as a character study or coming-of-age story, then the key revelations or discoveries remain below the surface, as it were (pun!). If this were a book, I'd say the words just aren't on the page. Something deeper than the plot climax occurred, but I don't know what.
I tried to watch La Mission (2009) last night, but I got only halfway through this story of a Hispanic father who discovers his son is gay and reacts badly (to say the least). The father is played by Benjamin Bratt, who I've always liked (though in recent years he's been too thin for my tastes). The film has macho melodrama written all over it and that, plus the loving depiction of car culture, was what drew me in. But I just didn't feel it.
The movie-of-the-week style earnestness turned me off, and there was no depth to the characters. I mean, in my experience, part of what sends Hispanic fathers into homophobic rage at their gay sons is that deep down, the dads knew all along and preferred to ignore it. This papa seems genuinely stunned.
I liked that the film drew parallels between the homosocial low-rider subculture and the homosexual clubbing scene; I liked the few risks the movie took during the father-son confrontation: the son suggests the father must have some experience with gay sex after having been in prison; the father bristles at the idea of his son bottoming for a white guy. Wow. O_O
But aside from those strokes outside the lines, I didn't care about the characters or feel any urgency about their situation. These afterschool specials all have happy endings, right?
ETA: Today, Bradley James Nowell would've been 43. RIP, baby.