Miss Bala Wastes Gina Rodriguez's Talent, While Capernaum Rises Above Poverty Porn

Gina Rodriguez in Miss Bala.
Gina Rodriguez in Miss Bala. Sony Pictures Releasing
Miss Bala. When the words “based on a Spanish-language film” pop up in bombastic text the moment Miss Bala’s credits appear onscreen, one quickly becomes aware of how little interest the movie has in either its original version or Mexico, where the film mostly takes place. You don't have to compare director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s remake of Miss Bala to Gerardo Naranjo’s original to notice that the film offers audiences nothing but an onslaught of bad action set pieces, noticeable editing that doesn’t allow any of its laughable dialogue to land, and a brand of pop feminism that tries to be about “girl power” without ever exploring the woman at its core.

But comparing the two is inevitable when Naranjo’s film, all quiet thrills and dark drama, has been repurposed into a lazy, PG-13 action film that eschews every ounce of nuance present in the original. Naranjo's long takes; his borderline-exploitative depictions of violence and sex that serve a grander thematic purpose; and his interest in how Laura, a Mexican woman thrown into working for the La Estrella gang after witnessing a nightclub attack, navigates her troublesome situation, are missing.

It is especially unfortunate considering Hardwicke is typically skilled at telling the stories of women, from Thirteen to the underrated and frequently maligned Twilight. The bones of female friendship and of controlling relationships are present, but Miss Bala barrels too quickly through plot to explore any deeper themes. And the film doesn’t even bother to explore the humanity of those involved in the drug war in both the cartel and the DEA, something even Clint Eastwood did, rather expertly, in his latest, The Mule.

The greatest shame of Miss Bala might actually be wasting the talent of Gina Rodriguez, whose Gloria is changed into a Mexican-American makeup artist from Los Angeles visiting her friend in Mexico. For an actress so adept at melodrama, best shown on the CW’s captivating telenovela Jane the Virgin, it’s especially frustrating watching her forced into a role with no real identity. As she pivots between the action persona who sprints and shoots a gun like Tom Cruise, the manic anxiety of every kidnapped woman on film, and someone who isn’t pretty enough to enter a beauty contest, it’s hard not to wonder if anyone making this movie, or watching it, cares about who Gloria is. Opens Thursday, January 31, in theaters everywhere. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Capernaum. In her stunning third feature as a director and screenwriter, Lebanese actor/writer/director Nadine Labaki examines the most disenfranchised people of her Middle Eastern country: street children scraping together an existence in Beirut’s slums. Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, Capernaum (which means "chaos") predominantly features two child actors who have never appeared in a movie before. Zain Al Rafeea gives a dynamic performance as a 12-year-old runaway who finds himself reluctantly caring for 2-year-old Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) after the toddler's mother, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian immigrant, is nabbed by the authorities.

It’s a bittersweet film that not only depicts the beauty of the nature of humanity to do better despite difficult circumstances, but also presents the harrowing perils facing unaccompanied minors at every turn, from the rumble of traffic to adults who would take advantage of them. Some viewers might consider this film “poverty porn,” a derisive term describing movies with raw representations of social concern. However, this movie has roots that go beyond that smug bit of alliteration critics like to drop in reviews of movies that make them uncomfortable. As the film follows the charming Zain, it recalls the feisty guttersnipe dramas of Bicycle Thieves and Pixote, a pair of classics in international cinema.

From heartbreaking writing to stirring performances and startling mise en scène, Labaki has made an uncompromising movie. However, if there is one misstep, it’s her decision to amp up the drama with overly mournful string music by Khaled Mouzanar, coupled with slow-motion camera work, a contrivance the story never needs. Zain’s situation is sad enough and presented with raw, handheld camera work featuring performances that feel so real that one might confuse its scenes for documentary work. Winner of the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film had its Florida premiere during Miami Film Festival GEMS last October, where it also won the Gigi Guermont Audience Award. Opens Friday, February 1, at Coral Gables Art Cinema and MDC’s Tower Theater. — Hans Morgenstern
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Breaking Glass Pictures
Holiday. A thread of discomfort runs through Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday, a film about sex, violence, and their intertwining in a rather odd but interesting way. Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) mostly enjoys her life as a drug lord's trophy girlfriend. She lounges by pools and dines and drinks extravagantly. But comfort comes at a price: punishment, drugging, misogyny. When a chance meeting with a Dutch traveler develops into something more, Eklöf uses the ensuing love triangle to explore the way Sascha handles her relationships instead of settling for showing a simple romantic tryst.

Holiday’s appealing but clinical aesthetic, favoring long takes and cool tones, feels deeply reminiscent of Michael Haneke, though the film’s sense of humor and characterization of a bumbling drug family living in moderate luxury edges closer to Ulrich Seidl. Not unlike the script Eklöf co-wrote for last year’s wonderfully weird Border, this one seems primed to provoke the audience, but the provocation isn’t without merit.

At its most riveting, Holiday forces the viewer to experience some dicey situations, questioning the limits of consent between two parties, similarly to what Julia Leigh did in her fascinating Sleeping Beauty (about a woman who is voluntarily put to sleep for the pleasure of older gentlemen). Not every moment of this feature debut lands, but it shines when it has to, even if it’s simply the beguiling Sonne watching herself dance to Hercules & Love Affair’s “Blind” at the club. Opens Friday, February 1, at the Bill Cosford Cinema. —Juan Antonio Barquin
The Image Book. Jean Luc Godard pioneered the French New Wave movement in the 1960s, but he didn't stop there. Since 2001, he has been creating progressive cinema that eschews both fictional and documentary narrative. Instead, he sometimes creates staged scenes or shoots banal images only to place them alongside sampled images from other movies, generating a work both self-aware of its medium and the social history unfolding at the time. In his previous film, Goodbye to Language (2013), he experimented in 3D.

His latest, The Image Book, might stand as the purest bit of cinema the 88-year-old has ever created. It was Vsevolod Pudovkin, a pioneer of Russian cinema, who said, "The foundation of film art is editing." And no film in Godard’s career has ever taken the association of images to such a fluid, profound level. The film is a compilation of moving images from his own past, classics such as Vertigo, and obscure, sometimes-horrifying clips found on the internet, like ISIS execution footage. At times, it feels like flipping through channels on an old TV set. The legend often speaks over the images, a technique he’s long used. He references philosophers but also brings up people such as the turn-of-the-20th-century killer priest Hans Schmidt or makes broad statements about time’s creeping nature.

The opening of Yulianna Avdeeva’s “Piano Quintet, Op. 18-1, Moderato Con Moto” often cuts his narrative off before jump-cutting to another scene, often digitally enhanced in a roughshod manner. But it’s in the edits and juxtapositions where meaning arises. From images of chugging trains pumped up to psychedelic levels of high contrast, to silent film footage of actors stabbing each other, there’s a sense of life and death in dialogue throughout the film.

Toward the end of The Image Book, Godard turns his focus to movies of the Arab world, as if to remind viewers that the art of cinema transcends cultural differences. Throughout The Image Book, you are made aware of the medium, from switching aspect ratios to the appearance of rolls or reels of film. One shot of unspooling film features the contrast turned up so high it almost appears to radiate vibrant heat. Godard once said, “Cinema is dead,” but here he confirms it’s radiantly alive. Opens Friday, February 1, at Miami Beach Cinematheque. — Hans Morgenstern
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.
Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.