Category Archives: Mexican

La Zona (2007)

“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”

Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this  affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.

Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….

The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’ 

The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.

One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?

Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom).  The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor,  and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.

La Zona is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.


Filed under Mexican

Miss Bala (2011)

Once in a while I come across a film that’s a complete surprise, and that brings me to Miss Bala, a 2011 Mexican film from director Gerardo Naranjo–a film I rented on a whim and which proved to be one of the best crime films I’ve seen recently. This is the story of a 23 year-old girl, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) from Tijuana who wants to escape the poverty of her home town through a beauty contest to crown Miss Baja. The film shows Laura at home in a shack with her father, who sells clothes for a living and a small brother, Arturo. Laura’s father objects to her competing in the beauty contest and his objections arise from the “environment” she’ll be in. Laura, forges ahead in spite of his objections and together with her friend, Azucana, they apply and make the list of contestants. So far so good….

That night, the two girls visit the Millenium nightclub and so begins Laura’s incredible, unintended and fateful descent into the organised drug world. Becoming the pawn of the leader of La Estrella gang, and in particular the object owned by its reptilian leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez), Laura discovers that organised crime opens doors that were once slammed in her face. Trapped between Lino and DEA agents, morally compromised Laura has no escape and nowhere to turn in a country rife with corruption.

Stephanie Sigman as Laura does a fantastic job in this role. At one point, when she first signs up for the contest she’s told by its organiser not to smile so much. That comment wasn’t needed as that is the last time Laura smiles in the film. From this point on, she’s shuffled through various nefarious drug related activities that are so stunningly bold, that by the time the film ends she’s a terrified girl who’s afraid of making the slightest wrong move. What’s so interesting here is how Laura handles the brazen daytime gunfights, shootouts and executions. At one point, she’s handed a thick wad of bills by Lino and told to go buy herself a dress for the pageant. She ends up at a swanky shop where the snooty assistant condescendingly tells her that all the dresses are custom made and run around 1,000. Laura has the money, but instead of lording it over the woman (who’s asking to be brought down a peg or two), Laura, numbed by recent events,  insists she has the money and carries on with the task at hand as if the slight didn’t happen. In one great scene, during the pageant, she’s asked by the host if she wants money or fame–a telling and ironic question as it turns out, and one which she cannot answer. By the film’s spectacular and surprising conclusion, we ask ourselves just how much has been contrived from the very beginning, and Laura who started with just her looks–looks good enough she thought they would take her from the poverty of Tijuana, discovers, the hard way, just where looks take her.

Miss Bala, and Bala translates as “bullet,” by the way, is an inversion of two extremely popular American film themes: 1) the underdog film in which the outsider longs for an opportunity to prove himself/herself and then who beats the odds and rises to the top, and 2) the woman-in-danger who grabs a gun and suddenly becomes some type of super female. I’m thinking Angelina Jolie here, and is it any coincidence that the star of Miss Bala, Stephanie Sigman, looks like Jolie? While Jolie’s roles seem intent on uncovering her inner Assassin/Amazon–complete with skills that frequently defy logic, Miss Bala’s Laura is the opposite.  Director Gerardo Naranjo inverts the American dream–the outsider who makes it against the odds–and converts this into the Mexican nightmare. We don’t see Laura Guerrero discovering (a la Jolie) her inner assassin. Instead we see a terrified young girl who does just as she’s told as she become a wheel-woman, a mule, and an arms runner. This edge-of-your-seat thriller which terrorizes without gore shows that there’s no exit, no fantasy, no choices for someone like Laura–and her looks… well her looks just land her in trouble.

Miss Bala is an entry in Caroline’s and Richard’s foreign film festival


Filed under Crime, Mexican

Sultanes del Sur (2007)

Love, loyalty and compassion are for the weak.”

With every heist film, you know there’s a moment when something is going to go wrong. With a techno-heist, a film in which high-tech knowledge is essential to the robbery, the possibilities of exactly when and where things will go wrong are endless. But if the heist itself goes smoothly, then the viewer knows that the deal is going to go belly-up sometime between the robbery and the divvying up of the loot.  Perhaps it will be a double-cross. Perhaps it will be some tiny detail, but something somewhere along the way will go wrong. The question is…will the operation be recoverable?

Sultanes del Sur (Sultans of the South) is a riveting Mexican heist film that starts with a smoothly run bank robbery. The gang leader, Leo (Jordi Molla) begins the heist while the rest of the gang Monica Silvari (Ana de la Reguera), Carlos (Tony Dalton who also wrote the script) and Leserio Dominguez (Silverio Palacios) take their positions. It’s all very well thought-out, very well run, and Leo, who’s just a mite too cocky, seems to have all the bases covered.

The heist goes smoothly and the next thing you know, the four thieves are on a plane to Argentina where they intend to change the 12 million dollars loot back into pesos. So far so good….

Leo is clearly in charge here, and it’s when the thieves get on the plane that things begin to seem not quite right. For a start, Leo is keeping a tight mouth about all the plans. Leo and his girl, Penelope Cruz looks-a-like, Monica fly first class while Carlos and Leserio fly coach. And then there’s history between Carlos and Monica, but now she’s Leo’s girl. But is she?

It’s in Argentina when things begin to go horribly wrong….

Sultanes del Sur has a couple of violent scenes–not too terrible but a couple of lingering close-ups I could have done without. There were also a few chase scenes and I am not a fan of this sort of filler, but the story kept me glued to the screen. Yes, the film follows the formula, but it wasn’t predictable. The gang members run into some truly evil characters and are out of their depth fast. This very effectively cut the lark aspect out of the caper and turned the film into something much darker.

A couple of words of some of the shots: in one scene, Leo, Carlos, Leserio and Monica face the hoods who are supposed to exchange the money. The camera then switches angles and it’s the same scene and same characters but from a different angle and a different shot. This was a great shot. Another excellent shot occurs as the plane takes off from Mexico.

The very last scenes in which “all” is revealed was the weakest point of the film as too much info was parlayed in a few quick flashbacks, but overall this was an entertaining crime film, suitably bleak, suitably dark, and once again, long may the Mexican Renaissance in cinema last.

From director Alejandro Lozano

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Conejo de la Luna (2004)

“Nobody wants to know the truth.”

Watching the previews leading up to the Mexican thriller Conejo en la Luna, my hopes began to sink. The trailers shown for other films tended towards the romantic, the gang-related, and nothing really appealed. I’ve noticed that often trailers tend to set the tone for the film I am about to watch. Well at least it’s this way for me. If the trailers are unappealing, then it seems as though there’s a good chance that the film isn’t anything interesting either. Has anyone else notice this? Those who select trailers for DVDS must do so with the idea in mind: ‘if they rented/bought this film, then chances are they might like this one too.’

Anyway, here I am watching lousy trailers with my hopes for Conejo en la Luna swiftly plummeting. But as it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by this Mexican film–it is one of those edge-of-your seat thrillers–almost from beginning to end. I’ll admit it did have a few down moments in the second half.

From writer/director Jorge Ramirez Sanchez, this taut thriller begins with the backdrop to the main story–the massive web of police and political corruption in Mexico. Mexican politicians broker weapons deals with rogue British Ministry of Defence officials as millions exchange hands and end up in Swiss bank accounts. When one minister objects–not to the corruption, of course, but to the size of his cut–he is assassinated by a street bum named Crazy Face who’s been set to do the job by the next man on the totem pole of crime, chubby Gordo Corona (Carlos Cobo). The plan is that Crazy Face will make the hit on the greedy politico, and then another assassin will ‘off’ Crazy Face in a Jack-Ruby-tying-up-loose-ends way.

But things go wrong. Crazy Face isn’t killed, and so this leaves the killer live and potentially a danger to those who employed him.

At this point, psychotic police detective Macedonio Ramirez (played with delectable believability by Jesus Ocha) gets his orders to bring in Gordo and exact a confession. Gordo confesses faster than you can say Abu Ghraib, and then Ramirez sets out to haul in two other men who were on the threshold of a shady real estate deal with Gordo. Since Ramirez and his masters needs scapegoats to ‘prove’ a conspiracy surrounding the assassination, these two men fit the bill. One of these two men is Antonio Santos (Bruno Bichir) who is married to British citizen Julie Miles (Lorraine Pilkington).

Julie finds out the hard way that it doesn’t matter if you are a British citizen when you are rotting away in a Mexican jail and no one has the slightest idea where you are….

According to some sources, Conejo en la Luna is touted as noir, but I would describe it as a thriller, and it’s a pretty good one at that. The film has a serious message, which is somehow not quite hammered home. Instead the film seeks the thriller aspects of the tale and abandons the more serious political aspects of the topic and its indictment of the Mexican justice system. While the film explores corruption in the corridors of power, as viewers we certainly absorb the idea that Julie, Antonio and everyone else caught in this cesspool of deceit are completely screwed, but nonetheless this doesn’t translate to the broader picture, so ultimately there’s the idea that there are just a few rogue individuals running amok. On another note, I have to add that I loved the scenes showing politico Nicolas Lopez (Alvaro Guerrero)–a man who drops his undies in almost every scene, and you know that this will be his ultimate downfall.


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The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes (2002)

“Let’s see if we can get back what was stolen from us.”

For the documentary, The Last Zapatistas, Forgotten Heroes director Francesco Taboada Tabone includes interviews with the remnants of General Zapata’s followers who fought in the revolution of 1910. This film was released in 2002, and many of those interviewed were born in the late nineteenth century. They tell their stories to the camera–how they fought for Zapata, and how he died. Many of the survivors were in their early teens when they joined Zapata, and they describe how the army conscripted young men, and exiled adult males, so to them joining Zapata’s army was the only viable choice.

One man remembers how the army used Yaqui Indians to fight in battles–giving each Indian a lump of sugar and a marijuana cigarette prior to being used as “cannon fodder.” Another recalls using homemade grenades packed with dynamite and pieces of metal inside large squash. Some of these old Zapatistas bring out their ancient weapons for the camera and recall the massacres conducted by the army–including one instance of seven young boys being hung from trees near a church. They discuss how the revolution failed to materialize, and that Zapata’s ideals–“Land, water, justice and law” are just as relevant today as they were almost a century ago. These old Zapatistas warn that Mexico’s current unrest and impending agrarian and ecological disasters could very well herald in another civil war. One has only to consider the recent events in Oaxaca and the death of Brad Wills to grasp a sense of this.

Bearing in mind the fact that the Mexican Revolution took place almost 100 years ago, the poverty of the old Zapatistas is startling. What does this mean when considering the 1910 revolution? And what does this mean about current conditions for Mexican peasants? The interviews are invaluable, but some background information could have bolstered the film with structure and context. In Spanish with subtitles.

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Filed under Documentary, Mexican, Political/social films

The Guerilla and the Hope: Lucio Cabanas (2005)

“In the 60s and 70s in Mexico and many other countries, there was a wave of political violence that pitted the governments against popular and student protest movements. The result was hundreds of people dead and missing. In Mexico these years were known as the Dirty War. In Guerrero State, in Southern Mexico, the Costa Grande region was the hardest hit by state repression since that was where the peasant guerrilla movement arose led by teacher Lucio Cabanas.”

The Guerrilla and the Hope (Guerrilla y la Esperanza) is a 2005 documentary about the life of guerrilla leader Lucio Cabanas Barrientos (1938-1974). Cabanas, a schoolteacher, possessed a remarkable ability to “reconcile various parties: teachers, peasants, farmers and students.” Cabanas became radicalized after many friends and colleagues began to ‘disappear.’ After a clash with the army during strike action on May 18, 1967, which left many dead, Cabanas fled to the mountains. Here, forming the Army of the Poor and Peasants’ Brigade Against Injustice, he led an armed rebellion against the oppressive regime. Cabanas morphed from being a “peasant guerrilla” to a “revolutionary socialist guerrilla.” He and his fellow guerrillas survived in the Guerrero Mountains, and at one point, Cabanas kidnapped Figueroa, the Governor of Guerrero and held him for ransom.

The film includes this statement from President Luis Echeverria regarding the guerrillas:

“This small group of terrorist cowards are unfortunately made up of very young men and women who generally come from broken homes. They are mostly slow learners…very maladjusted adolescents with a precocious propensity to using drugs and with a high level of homosexuality.”

I had to include that quote as Echeverria states that the guerrillas turned to guerrilla warfare thanks to perceived social deviance, and of course this is a denial that poverty, torture, disappearances, and oppression have anything to do with this equation at all.

The most interesting aspects of the documentary concern the friction and infighting between the various guerrilla groups, and in one interview, a man states that he didn’t understand why the Communist party got a huge chunk of the loot from a kidnapping ransom. Ideological differences between various guerrilla factions led to problems and arguments. Cabanas was eventually killed by government forces determined to crack down after Figueroa’s kidnapping. The footage of Cabanas’s dead body–including close-ups of bullet wounds reminded me of the way Che’s body was treated like some sort of trophy after his death.

The documentary traces Cabanas’s early beginnings and his short life through archival footage and many interviews with family, friends, historians and fellow guerrillas. In spite of the fact that there’s a lot of information here–including from those who were directly involved–Cabanas remains a somewhat remote and impersonal subject. Various myths surrounding Cabanas are discussed, including the idea that he will return to avenge injustice, and special features include the trailer and interviews.

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Filed under Documentary, Mexican, Political/social films

Herod’s Law (1999)

“In this country, honesty gets you nowhere.”

After the third mayor of the dirt-poor town, San Pedro de los Saguaros is murdered, officials of the PRI party look for an idiot to take over the role. They chose Juan Vargas (Damian Alcazar), and send him off to the town to take control. Vargas and his wife, Gloria (Leticia Huijara) are appalled by the town. The town is basically a collection of dilapidated shacks with a population of about 100 people–mostly Indians. Even the school is stripped bare after repeated looting by various government officials. San Pedro has its own brothel run by the gloriously vulgar Dona Lupe. The town’s doctor swears that all the evil in the town comes from the brothel, and that it’s the mayor’s duty to close it down. Vargas quickly learns that the town operates with bribes–even the corrupt priest demands one peso per sin in the confessional box. Urged on by his wife, Vargas returns to his superior, Lopez and asks for money for the town. Lopez hands him a gun and a heavy law book, and tells him that he’s in charge …

Using Herod’s Law as his guide, Vargas proceeds to develop into a petty despot. An expurgated version of Herod’s Law is “Do it to them before they do it to you.” This handy-dandy motto then becomes the tool by which Vargas deals with the town.

Herod’s Law is a political satire. The story begins in 1948 and the film satirizes the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) that ruled Mexico from more than 70 years until it was replaced in 2000 by the Partido Accion Nacional. There’s a sole American, Sam, in the story who becomes an advisor of sorts after a crafty car repair. Does the American engineer represent America’s symbolic role for Mexico? That you must decide for yourself after watching the film. Note the role of Sam, the American is played by Alex Cox (director of Sid and Nancy and Repo Man). The film illustrates the utter corruption of an individual, and as I watched the film I thought of the quote from Lord Acton, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. “Herod’s Law” was originally supressed by the ruling PRI government of Mexico, and it’s a great tale of one man’s corruption, but at the same time it’s a blistering critique of 70 years of PRI rule. Herod’s Law is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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Filed under Mexican, Political/social films

Without a Trace (2000)

Mexican road trip film

Without a Trace from Mexican director, Maria Navaro, is a road trip film, but the difference here is that the story centres (as one would expect with Navaro) on women. Ana/Marilu (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) is intelligent, educated and has some nefarious doings with fake Mayan art. A border patrol officer is more than a little interested in Ana, and that interest is personal. He drags her into his office for questioning, and lets her leave after he’s finished drooling on her. The other main character, Aurelia, (Tiare Scanda) is a single mother of two. Aurelia works in a sweatshop in Ciudad Juarez where more than 250 murders of women remain unsolved. Her narcotics-dealing beau makes the mistake of leaving a stash at her place. She cashes in this little nest egg, and hits the road with the proceeds. Ana heads back to her fake Mayan art counterfeit centre, and Aurelia heads for Cancun where she hopes to get a job in a hotel. The two women meet in a roadside cafe, and a relationship begins as they decide to travel together.

The relationship between the two women is the great interest here. They are two different types–Ana is constantly mis-identified as Spanish, and she’s quick to correct everyone that she was born in Mexico but educated in Spain. Ana receives both deference for her Spanish looks and derision from others who tend to see her as an outsider. Aurelia is tough and determined, and yet Ana is beyond her experience. The two women need each other, and they silently accept that fact–along with the idea that it’s better not to travel alone (look what happens to women in Juarez, for example). As the two women travel together, Aurelia sees new country for the first time, and she marvels at the sumptuousness of it all. To Ana, it’s nothing new. The film starts off very strongly, and degenerates into standard fare as the two women travel towards Cancun and are pursued by the annoying men in their lives.

Without a Trace is a visually stunning film and worth watching if you’re interested in Mexican cinema. The male roles are–dare I say it–token stereotypical types. There is nothing terribly new here, and the ending is disappointing. That said, I have to add that Mexican cinema is enjoying an energetic renaissance, and I’m reaping the benefits as often as I can. Flawed though this film may be, it still beats most of the pap churned out from Hollywood. Director, Navaro is to be commended for the making of Without a Trace for the film brings attention to the huge numbers of women raped, mutilated and tortured in Cuidad Juarez. The victims are mainly young sweatshop workers who disappear forever from their families–a fate Aurelia wishes to escape.

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Asesino En Serio (2002)

 “It’s the first time a murderer uses the G-spot as a weapon.”

In Asesino en Serio (AKA Serious Killer) detective Comandante Martinez (Jesus Ochoa) begins investigating the serial murders of prostitutes in Mexico City. The corpses are all beautiful naked women found face down, and all of the victims have rapturous smiles on their faces. There are no wounds, no signs of trauma, and according to the coroner, the cause of death is excessive pleasure, or in other words, Death by Orgasm. Martinez is intrigued. He’s having problems in his love life with the nubile and nasty Yolanda (Ivonne Montero). So while he investigates the murders and wants to find the killer, he also hopes to discover the secret of the technique used to kill these women. Meanwhile, corpses of grinning women begin turning up at an alarming rate.

The plot may sound like some sort of tacky ‘adult’ film, but it’s handled here so well, that instead, Asesino en Serio is a light comedy full of quirky characters. Martinez–a great detective character who keeps a bottle of Tequila under the front seat of his car–is soon hot on the trail of the killer, and along the way he finds a very bizarre kinky priest Padre Gorkisolo (played by the talented Santiago Segura), a depressed anthropologist, a transvestite music-addicted prostitute, some ancient sex rituals, and an Aztec Pleasure Chamber. To complicate matters, while investigating the murders, Martinez runs a parallel investigation of his own involving an insurance scam.

Directed by Antonio Urrutia, Asesino en Serio is proof yet again that the Mexican film industry is enjoying a Renaissance. While the film is a light comedy, it’s also full of sly jabs at ecclesiastical corruption–and some of the very best scenes are those with talented Spanish comedian Santiago Segura in a great role as the corrupt Padre Gorkisolo. The DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras–just two versions of the trailer and a filmography. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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Filed under Comedy, Mexican