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Darrel Manson

Miss Bala

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This is a powerful film. Designed to be seen as the way the drug gangs are corrupting and raping all that is good in the country. Stephanie Sigman is wonderful as the woman caught up in all this when all she wants to do is be in a beauty pageant - and how even that is ruined for her.

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I said in the 'Oscars 2012: Best Foreign Language Film' thread that I wasn't as over-the-moon for this film as some people are, but Jeffrey Wells has posted one of those items praising the film (and bemoaning its less-than-enthusiastic reception) that gets me appreciating the film on a whole new level, and wondering if I should check it out again (whenever that chance might come). E.g.:

Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala (20th Century Fox Int'l, 1.20.12) . . . is not "pretty good" or "meh" or "not bad" but incontestably brilliant. It's a combination art film-and-violent action thriller that stays within the P.O.V. and the sensibility of a terrified victim (Stephanie Sigman's "Laura Guerrero"), and always keeps the violence, ignited by a ruthless Mexican drug-dealing gang, at a certain remove. It tells the story without any flash-bang cutting or jacked-up whirlygig camerawork or any other trick that puts you into the danger.

Unlike 97% of the action films out there, Miss Bala never revels in action adrenaline highs. It never pulls a Tarantino by saying to the audience, "Yes, of course, these are deplorable characters indulging in sadistic violence ...but isn't it fun to follow them around? Wheeee!" That's one thing that qualifies it as an art film, and why guys like NY Film Festival honcho Scott Foundas have said it's quite similar to a Michelangelo Antonioni film, or more particularly to
.

I shared the Antonioni analogy with former producer and "Real Geezers" commentator Marcia Nasatir last night and she emphatically agreed.

Indiewire's Anne Thompson, who attended the same screening and after-event, said that Miss Bala is also similar to Matteo Gerrone's
. But unlike that Italian maifiooso film, Miss Bala has a charismatic and sympathetic lead performer (i.e., Sigman) who's front and center during the whole ride while Gomorrah is an ensemble piece, and much darker and grimmer and utterly nihilistic.

Some women are having problems with the fact that Sigman's character is cowed and afraid from the very beginning to the very end. We've all been trained to expect a lead character to somehow take charge of the situation and "do something" by the time Act Three rolls around. I mentioned the same thing about Elizabeth Olsen's character when I reviewed
, to wit: "Once act three began I wanted her to do something, dammit...anything. Woman up!" But Naranjo isn't just telling Sigman's character's story. He's doing social portraiture by showing what a hell-hole Mexico has become since the drug wars began in '06. He's refusing to paste an uplifting ending upon a situation that defies that.

Anyway, I have a solution to try and push Miss Bala into the consciousness of Academy voters. Tell them over and over and over that "it's an Antonioni film manifested through the skill of a brilliant young Mexican director." . . .

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Uh. Wow. This was a fascinating film. I am a bit taken aback by the technical acumen of the director, who manages to sidestep the whole Inarritu vibe for something far more Michael Mann in scope. As he is a relatively new director, I appreciate the humility present in the camerawork here. The script doesn't need the extra bells and whistles. I am struggling for some formal analogies here, but I can't think of any. Wells has it slotted above.

Watch this.

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M, have you seen Drama/Mex or I'm Going to Explode? I've liked each of Naranjo's films less than the one before it. Phil Coldiron's review at Slant is a good overview of Naranjo's career and nails exactly what frustrated me about Miss Bala. I agree, though, that it's worth seeing, as are the two earlier films.

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"Where

Drama/Mex

, which reworked Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga's usual bullshit into something slight and worthy..."

I am an ardent non-fan of Inarritu, so I like this sentence a lot. I have seen Drama/Mex. Frankly, I need to sit with Bala for a while and collect my thoughts. Like I said, I am really drawn to the craft here in terms of an overall sense of depth of field. That sounds a bit inane, but when well deployed - I get hooked. Wish I saw this in a theater.

I like it quite a bit. If AMC ever does a Spanish lang. serial drama, this is what it would look like.

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"Like I said, I am really drawn to the craft here in terms of an overall sense of depth of field. That sounds a bit inane, but when well deployed - I get hooked. Wish I saw this in a theater.

In a year when I've found very little that drew my attention to the screen and held it, Miss Bala took hold with a fury and wouldn't let me blink. Some distance from it now, I can't say that that I came to know or care much about a character so much as I felt sympathy for a person caught in a trap. I think that I was absorbed because of the impressive style, the long takes, the sense of being caught in Kafka-land.

By the way, I followed it up with Soderbergh's Haywire. I'd like to say that I planned that. Turned out to be quite the double-feature.

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What did you think of Haywire? I've only seen about a dozen 2012 releases, but for now it's in my top 5!

Are you all aware of Pablo Trapero? He's an Argentinian director whose first feature, Crane World (1999), caused a bit of a sensation when it hit the festival circuit -- partly because he was only 26 when he made it. If you liked Miss Bala, you might want to see his last film, Carancho, which is a fairly mainstream, action-packed noir.

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I watched this again this weekend, which is rare for me. Funny that you mention Haywire, Darren, as that is the last film I watched twice in the same week just to double-check my appreciation.

If I ever made a film, it would be an action film. But that is all it would be. There would be a crime thriller plot to it at some level, but I am interested in pure action - the movement of people through time and space as they are working out some sort of storyline. Films like Miss Bala, Haywire, and Limits of Control get close to this ideal film. I have read a few reviews of Miss Bala that criticize it for its loose structure and overall lack of narrative exposition, but I think that line of criticism really misses what is going on here. It is true that the actual details of this narco-drama are so complex that there are times where it actually all makes little sense. But we keep on going, locked into the pace of the action itself.

Because we as the audience become subject to this pace, we really begin to feel Miss Bala's terror. What happens to her is relentless, unstoppable. I imagine this is how many Mexican's feel about the current state of their country.

Edited by M. Leary

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Sidebar: There is a doc that is also set in the narcotics wars in Baja California - Reportero. It not so much about the crimes as about the journalists there who report on it.

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What did you think of Haywire? I've only seen about a dozen 2012 releases, but for now it's in my top 5!

I had a blast with Haywire. It felt more like an informational video about three performance artists - Carano and Soderbergh and let's not leave out David Holmes - executing their jig-saw jazz and the get fresh flow, pulling out the jives and the jamboree handouts, bringing out the best in each other, and showing up the self-importance and overstuffed nature of so many other entries in the genre. The story was just amusing enough to give it some structure; I wouldn't have minded a stronger one (I think The Limey has a stronger story, and find the characters in it far more engaging, which brings more spark to the humor and dialogue), but I've become quite content watching films in which the form is the function, the style is the substance. In that sense, this really isn't that much different than the Ocean's series. I can't remember details about the storylines in those films, but the effortless style of them will hold my attention if I stumble onto them while flipping through channels in a hotel room. Two turntables and a microphone will save the day every time.

Hmm. Should I re-post this in the Haywire thread?

Edited by Overstreet

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Have you seen the original 'Bridge'? The character Diane Kruger will play was wonderful in the Scandinavian series, a cheerfully antisocial policewoman who has some form of autism. The series was gruesome, nailbiting, taut and rather severely beautiful - the only real downside was that I had identified the villain within about 30 seconds of his first entrance. This may be a flaw in the story, or simply down to my razor-sharp intuition...

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Thanks for the rec. Anodos. I will track it down.

As far as the series is concerned... I made a comment above about Miss Bala looking like a golden era of TV take on the region and its issues. So, here we are.

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I appreciate the humility present in the camerawork here.

This jumped out at me as I read through the thread.

Really?

I don't see camerawork as humble vs. proud, but I take it you mean that the camerawork is somehow unobtrusive. I, on the other hand, marveled at some of what I saw in Miss Bala. Maybe "marveled" is too strong a word; I certainly noticed the camerawork at times, and in no way hold that against the film. It's a huge plus as far as I'm concerned.

Ah, but I see that you also wrote, "I am really drawn to the craft here in terms of an overall sense of depth of field." Now we're getting somewhere! Do those two statements contradict each other? I'm thinking they do, but maybe "depth of field" means something different to you than does "camerawork." I see the former as a subset of the latter.

I was more enthusiastic about Miss Bala at the halfway point than I was at the end. I'm not sure the filmmakers' spin and the distributor's efforts to sell the story as being about the effects of Mexico's drug war does the film justice, but maybe I'm just reaching, or wanting it to be about something less obvious. I can't imagine telling friends to see Miss Bala because it shows the toll of Mexico's drug war.

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I appreciate the humility present in the camerawork here.

This jumped out at me as I read through the thread.

Really?

I don't see camerawork as humble vs. proud, but I take it you mean that the camerawork is somehow unobtrusive. I, on the other hand, marveled at some of what I saw in Miss Bala. Maybe "marveled" is too strong a word; I certainly noticed the camerawork at times, and in no way hold that against the film. It's a huge plus as far as I'm concerned.

I was groping for a word there. Unassuming may have been better. But compared to the overly-stylized feel of cinema from this region, I appreciated the lack of flourish. I know it is from a different country/era, etc... but comparing this to something like City of God makes Miss Bala look like a documentary.

Ah, but I see that you also wrote, "I am really drawn to the craft here in terms of an overall sense of depth of field." Now we're getting somewhere! Do those two statements contradict each other? I'm thinking they do, but maybe "depth of field" means something different to you than does "camerawork." I see the former as a subset of the latter.

I don't think it is worth reading too much into that. There is a lot of good camera placement here, and I especially like the way he tends to back the camera off of scenes (as in the shootout) rather than present the camera as part of the action. In this way, the camera mimics what is most probably the emotional state of Miss Bala herself. The depth of field at times makes the film hard to watch, in that we are not quite sure where to focus our attention in certain scenes.

I was more enthusiastic about Miss Bala at the halfway point than I was at the end. I'm not sure the filmmakers' spin and the distributor's efforts to sell the story as being about the effects of Mexico's drug war does the film justice, but maybe I'm just reaching, or wanting it to be about something less obvious. I can't imagine telling friends to see Miss Bala because it shows the toll of Mexico's drug war.

I was definitely distracted by the difference between this film and its source material. In the real-life analogue to the story, a regional beauty queen was busted with a bunch of cartel members trying to cross a border (IIRC). At any rate, the real story is far less dramatic than the end of Miss Bala. I am not saying that the film has to duplicate these real-life events, but the way the film becomes so distinctly posed as a state-of-Mexico tract with Miss Bala as the iconic victim undercut a bit of the sense of verite that characterizes the rest of it.

I still think this would all be better as a TV miniseries with more time to dwell on the wider range of people affected by these events. I want to see more of the "pebble in the pond" narrative here.

Edited by M. Leary

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Still no idea whether I think this is any good. I'm not sure I know where to start in figuring it out, either.

How about the last "shot?" A screen informs us of the 35K deaths in the past five years attributable to Mexico's drug wars. I know that stat. I've even got an awful, rote cocktail party line that employs that stat ("Yeah, in fact thirty-five thousand people were killed in the last five years alone. Thirty-five thousand! Imagine PNC Park filled with people...[pause],,,well, first, imagine PNC Park filled with people [incongruous laughter from me and others safely insulated from that awful situation].") So why attach that stat to the film? To reify or quantify the tragedy we've just seen? Thirty-five thousand budding beauty queens readied for their close-up, then left hanging from bridges? We all know the situation is terrible. This is more than just a socio-political awareness film, right?

Her name is Laura Guerrero. That's my favorite part of the film: there are several instances where she is called upon to say her name. The film doesn't really try to make its case as a character study, though. What do any of us really know about Laura by the film's end, apart from witnessing her humiliation? She's not much more than a horror movie heroine, reduced to a series of literal and figurative reaction shots. Her grace note--informing the general of the gunmen--just serves to reinforce how she's in over her head. Yes, she sacrifices herself for her brother and father, but sometimes that feels more like a plot beat than actual human behavior, and for me, this was one of those times. There is that interesting moment when her captor gives her the ultimatum-by-headlights: walk into the abyss and accept gulag/probable death or capitulate/doggystyle. I suppose many of us would choose the known evil over the unknown, likely death. I'm just not talking myself into the idea that the film really means more than what it is-- a tense thriller about a horrible unjust situation that leaves me kind of cold.

It is funny, though, that in the midst of all that institutionalized corruption the Miss Baja audience would be booing a corrupt beauty pageant.

Edited by Russ

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Miss Bala has a promising action-movie premise with its beauty queen and its drug dealers and its guns. It also has a director who seems firmly in control of his craft, at least as far as technique goes. However, I'm not sure this is much more than an awareness movie. Soderbergh's Haywire, mentioned earlier in this thread, owns its action-movie identity in a way that MB never does. In contrast, Naranjo's film always seems to be driving straight ahead into making its profound statement that drugs are bad for humanity, especially in Mexico. As a result, I felt like the film was dragging me to its conclusion, rather than allowing me to discover it. I'm left to coolly admire Naranjo's technical achievement.

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