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New films: Snitch and Bless Me, Ultima – plus other film news

Snitch
Co-Written and Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

There are some aspects of “Snitch” that I admire and that aren’t immediately apparent in the lowest common denominator style of previews that tend to get made to promote films. On its face, it’s a story about a father who goes undercover to assist in the capture of drug dealers in return for a reduced sentence for his son. That’s the kind of action film one might expect from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and would probably be enough to draw a respectable action-oriented audience.

But there’s more to “Snitch” than that and the action story is essentially a cover for an indictment of mandatory sentencing laws as they apply to drug offenses. In this case, the son has taken reluctant delivery of a package of pills for a friend and, despite no other convictions, is facing anywhere from 10-30 years in prison for his stupidity. There’s a slide that pops up on screen at the end of the film (which doesn’t spoil the plot) that states that the average sentence for first-time, non-violent drug offenders is now longer than that for rapists, child molesters, and those who commit manslaughter.

This is a little like an attempt at low-rent Soderbergh, in the sense that Steven Soderbergh often makes films in which the surface story exists as cover for some deeper social commentary, as I discussed in this column two weeks ago in relation to his latest film “Side Effects.” And it’s not surprising to see an actress like Susan Sarandon, who is a champion of social justice, getting involved in a project like this and playing the self-interested and generally unsympathetic U.S. Attorney.

But, sadly, none of that motivation and admirable set of goals actually makes the film especially good. The major problem is that the underlying social commentary isn’t actually underlying at all. It’s in your face all the time – it’s like being blatantly bashed over the head with stick labeled “subtle head-bashing stick.” It does get its message across and will probably outrage anybody who isn’t just there to watch gun battles and fast big rigs – but in that sense it’s an odd mismatch for the target audience who aren’t being attracted to the film with promises of a civics lesson. And for those who might find the lesson interesting, the final slide tells us almost as much as the 100+ minutes that precede it and a documentary would have told us and (most likely) outraged us far more.

It’s also at least a little odd in its casting. Johnson is a huge guy and we’re used to seeing him as an unstoppable fighter of some kind. In “Snitch” he plays the owner of a construction company but it’s a role that could be played by an actor of far slighter build. I’m all for him trying new things and not giving in to stereotypical roles but the fact remains that he’s huge and he’s the kind of guy that commands attention when he walks into a room, or who is at least likely to elicit some kind of remark or raised eyebrows based on his physique. And his character is going into some pretty tough situations, and even taking a beating along the way, with no more attention being paid to his appearance than to a man half his width. Kudos to him for choosing (and co-producing) a film with a message, but it’s a little like those films in which a stunningly beautiful actress plays a character who’s supposed to be very plain and overlooked – they’re like orchids playing wallflowers.

Perhaps I’m wrong and this is the way to stealthily impart a political message to an unsuspecting audience, many of whom will be in the same demographics as those who tend to fall victim to the kind of injustice being depicted. But it’s as heavy-handed as the kinds of characters Johnson more typically plays.

 

Bless Me, Ultima
Written (screenplay) and Directed by Carl Franklin

“Bless Me, Ultima” is the screen adaptation of one of the most influential and best selling Chicano novels – a book that has managed to be both widely adopted by schools and colleges and also controversial for its violent and sexual content, as well as its religious commentary.

Set in New Mexico during WWII, the story is told through the eyes of young Antonio who is seven at the start of the film, when his parents allow Ultima, an elderly ‘Curandero’ or healer to move in with them. He has two older sisters living in the house and three older brothers who are away fighting in the war. But he’s drawn to Ultima who is revered by some and feared by more, with her knowledge and curative abilities earning her the label of ‘bruja’ or witch from some in the community.

Antonio’s mother, along with most of their friends and neighbors, is staunchly Catholic and dreams of Antonio becoming a priest one day. She’s the calm, stable parent where his father comes from a family of wanderers and dreams of moving to California when the older sons return. Antonio’s is also a very unsheltered childhood in that he witnesses violent deaths, threats and feuds, and is exposed to such open secrets as the town brothel which, as with many such businesses, is looked down upon but apparently not short of clientele.

His days are divided between the cultural influences of his public school, where he excels, his Catholic catechism classes, and time spent with Ultima as she shares her views of good and evil in a less formalized context. But for every nugget of information she shares, there are other influences such as his school peers who discuss the nature of sin and declare that heaven isn’t just not for atheists but also not for protestants. And his generally ostracized friend Florence who explains his own lack of faith very matter of factly by saying that his mother died young, his father drank himself to death, and his sister is a prostitute – and so he doesn’t find much reason to love a God that could allow those things to happen. It’s an exchange one normally sees between far older characters. So Antonio is caught in the middle of conflicting worldviews, perspectives, and cultures and largely left to himself to synthesize and, perhaps, blend them all.

It’s a hard film to assess objectively because it has both great strengths and also weaknesses. On the one hand it’s reminiscent of other films from assorted genres: When the film is being narrated by the older Antonio, it feels a little like a blend of Sunday School and “Stand by Me” and the idea of a child being influenced by multiple older personalities and trying to determine whom he might become reminded me of the central core of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Similarly, the idea of a young boy being exposed to multiple religious and cultural influences, and needing to make sense of them all to his own satisfaction, brought to mind the recent “Life of Pi.”

But it’s also a low budget production without many bells or whistles. Some viewers may be put off that it doesn’t feel as theatrical as much of what they’ve become used to at the multiplex. For me it felt more like films I see in a Festival context with some of the same flaws. For example, there’s an extended sequence set in a room that’s supposedly lit by a few candles and an oil lamp – and yet the lighting on the characters in all corners of the room is bright and vivid. One of the problems with good lighting is that it’s not always about getting enough light it’s often about not getting too much.

Additionally, it’s a film that’s dependent on the performances of children, with at least some variation in those outcomes and with little visible aging over an onscreen period of a couple of years. And while some of the characters may seem a little crudely drawn, it’s worth remembering that they’re being channeled through a child’s memory.

However, the story is what’s most important here. In that sense it also reminds me of a film like Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” which employed many non-actors and is occasionally a little shaky in its delivery. For some that was an insurmountable detriment yet (at least for me) it couldn’t mask the powerful story, character study, and parallel coming of age themes that the movie provided.

“Bless Me, Ultima” is not always quite polished and the performances are a mixed bag but it’s another film that’s primarily about the central character’s story and arc. And in that sense it’s a powerful depiction of cultures, personalities, and heritage that often conflict with and sometimes reinforce each other, as seen through the eyes of an innocent participant-observer who’s left to make sense of it all.

 

Sacramento French Film Festival Winter Shorts
The Sacramento French Film Festival (described recently by the Sacramento Bee as the “region’s premier film event”) is heading into its 12th season with its main event in June but, because Junes are so far apart, the Festival has a few fun events to fill in the slow months. The next of these is Saturday’s (February 23rd) 6th Winter French Short Film Screening at the Verge Center for the Arts, 625 S Street, Sacramento. Doors open at 6:30pm for free music and pizza (by Luigi’s Slice), with films and discussion to start at 7:30pm. The $7 admission benefits both the Festival and Verge and includes a recap of the César Awards (the “French Oscars” which will have been awarded the night before) and over two hours of short films, including seven Sacramento premieres. The full lineup of films can be found on the Festival’s website at www.sacramentofrenchfilmfestival.org.

 

Oscar Shorts
In a pleasant surprise, the Crest Theatre has managed to squeeze the Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts back into its schedule for an extra weekend – so you can still see all of the Oscar nominated short films (live action narratives, animated narratives, and documentaries) on the big screen. You can even watch them all in a row if you have the stamina. Check the Crest’s website at www.thecrest.com for scheduling and ticket information.
 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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