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Digi@themovies: Snitch, Bless Me Ultima
Snitch didn’t look at all promising -- lousy title, “inspired by real events,” with The Rock/Dwayne Johnson as a beleaguered dad who goes undercover to bust drug dealers when his estranged son gets set up and takes the fall -- but it’s actually a tight, economical thriller that emphasizes character over action and works hard to make a point about America’s draconian drug laws.
I don’t want to oversell it. Snitch is a genre picture, nothing more, but it doesn’t have a wasted scene or sequence – every moment pushes the movie forward. It does have one ridiculous shootout/escape action sequence that feels out of place and ignores physical implications of what we’ve seen, but otherwise this is an agreeable throwback to the “B” movies of the 1940s, with a script that’s generous to an ensemble cast of at least a half-dozen key characters, and a plot that builds to a single climax instead of a series of loosely strung together big budget blow-’em-up sequences.
Effectively directed by Ric Roman Waugh (who co-wrote the script with Justin Haythe), Snitch is suspenseful and creates moments of true tension because the story is character-driven, not event-driven. People’s motivations are defined clearly and believable, with everyone’s decisions ultimately based on what’s best for their son, whether it’s a business owner, ex-con or drug magnate.
The Rock remains an affable screen presence, if not always a convincing one; this is probably his best performance to date, though he’s still got a limited range of expressions. But he’s earnest and surrounded by better actors who support him well. The two best are both TV guys – John Bernthal (from the first couple seasons of The Walking Dead) as an anguished ex-con the dad takes advantage of to ingratiate himself with the drug dealers; and Michael Kenneth Williams as a lower level drug lord, riffing gloriously off his beloved inner city Robin Hood, Omar, from “The Wire.” Benjamin Bratt and Barry Pepper – both unrecognizable to me until the credits – make strong impressions as bad guy and DEA guy, respectively. Only the usually reliable Susan Sarandon doesn’t convince, playing a right wing politico spouting anti-drug platitudes; you can tell the actress doesn’t believe the things her character says.
The last 15 minutes of Snitch are a bit of letdown, with lots of cars and trucks getting demolished and pat resolutions, but the ride to get there is gripping. This is the type of movie people complain nobody makes anymore. (***) – Tom Siebert
Part tale of magic, part coming of age lesson, Bless Me, Ultima straddles worlds old and new while ambitiously tackling the struggle between good and evil. Told from the point of view of seven-year-old Antonio Maréz, actor-turned-director Carl Franklin’s independent film is an adaption of Rudolfo Anaya’s celebrated 1972 novel, set in New Mexico during World War II.
Antonio’s story begins when his grandmother, Ultíma, comes to live with his family during her last days. Ultíma is a medicine woman, but labeled a “curandera” by the townspeople, revered for her healing powers but shunned when she is suspected of being a witch. Antonio quickly becomes an apprentice of sorts, assisting Ultima when she is called upon to heal his uncle from a curse. This begins an ongoing feud with the witches, who seek vengeance once the curse is seemingly reversed.
Death, violence, and the effects of war on his family force Antonio to grow up quickly. He questions the relationship between good and evil while fighting to maintain his devout Catholic beliefs. Meanwhile, as a Mexican American, the boy develops his burgeoning identity navigating between old world beliefs and new world social pressures. The film views California as the land of opportunity—Antonio’s father holds dreams of moving there for the economic promise. In one memorable scene, Antonio is mocked for the tortilla in his lunch instead of bread, before joining other similarly economically disadvantaged kids for lunch outside.
The story has a lot of heart—with Antonio as the protagonist, it’s easy to experience his highs and lows. Overall, however, the film meanders and could use tighter storytelling and a more cohesive plot. Fans of the novel may love the adaptation, but the average movie-goer may want to wait till this is streaming on Netflix. (***) - Nikki Chan
No screening for the supernatural thriller Dark Skies. Proceed accordingly and at your own risk.