Monday, March 25, 2019

Tears For Fears: The Crying Lame

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2007
Director: Benjamin Williams
Cast: Tom Parker, Ana Patricia Rojo, Dee Wallace
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

One of the reasons I love exploring low budget cinema is the people making it. They exist in a space entirely separate from Hollywood. Sure, this means sometimes (in fact, most times) the films aren't particularly well made and frequently aren't very "good," by the most objective measurement of cinema it's possible to use. But the stories these people choose to tell tend to be entirely personal and unique, free of the rules, restrictions, and tampering of the studio system. Even when they're doing their best to imitate Hollywood genres and tropes, it's distorted through the lens of an entirely non-professional person in a distinctly non-Hollywood place.

This was true of 1991's atrocious La Llorona, which was a lovely exploration of a Mexican fishing village that thought it was a scary movie about La Llorona. 2007's J-ok'el (pronounced "Joe-quelle") is certainly better, but works in a very similar anthropological vein. From square one, in fact. J-ok'el is a name for La Llorona apparently taken from the indigenous Mayan dialect of Tzotzil, something I never would have learned if not for this deeply bland, mediocre film.

Whoops, did I show my hand too early?

When his half-sister joins the ranks of a rising number of missing children in Chiapas, Mexico, American George Christensen (Tom Parker) arrives in town to investigate her disappearance. He enlists the help of Carmen Romero (Ana Patricia Rojo), a local woman who has offered to translate, and pointedly does not receive the help of his estranged mother Helen (Dee Wallace), who resents him for not having visited her in a decade.

What he's being doing for all these years, we'll never know because this movie doesn't care about such pretty things as his life before, how he can afford to spend so much time away from work, or what he's interested in beyond denouncing superstition and religions bullshit so Carmen can hem and haw and give this film its only minuscule scrap of conflict. Of course George is wrong. J-ok'el is haunting the town, snatching away children who live in broken homes.

The sheer amount of broken homes in this small town is not subtext, nor something the film remotely wishes to explore. In case you were wondering.

So! J-ok'el is, almost completely by accident, an expression of the racial and social strata of Chiapas. Its plot primarily follows the separation between a white American family and the town itself. Though Helen has lived in town for many years, married a high class local, and is an honorary member of the community, she rarely strays away from her resort-like mansion. And though George assures himself he cares about all the children in town, not just his sister, his refusal to accept the beliefs and traditions of Chiapas is a constant impediment to his investigation (in one of the first scenes, the police worry about how it would look if they gave preferential treatment to the needs of a white stranger more than that of the locals - in fact, its depiction of the police is frequently J-ok'el's most intentional and interesting facet throughout).

But on top of that, J-ok'el also depicts the strained relationship between the local Mexicans and the indigenous people who live just outside of town. The Llorona figure haunting this movie is implicitly blamed on them, and that's no accident. 

Of course, this is all Yours Truly reading between the lines on a tedious movie that mostly wants to be a Lifetime mystery about Mexican folklore. But the fact is, everything I mentioned is present, purposeful or not. Benjamin Williams' choice to film and set the movie in Chiapas (presumably a town the producer lives in or at least has some familiarity with or access to) gives it a texture and complexity it wouldn't have has if it was a Hollywood production set in some nameless desert town.

And though Parker would be surely cut out of a full-on Hollywood production, weirdly, Dee Wallace would probably still be in it. That woman has noting but hustle.

And now, the hammer falls. J-ok'el is a rough watch. It has decent cinematography and an almost too good score, but it lacks even a frisson of horror. The bulk of the movie involves itself with George wandering around being an asshole to natives, but when the alleged scary scenes creep in, they deflate even the milquetoast, flabby tension the film drums up between its characters. It's astonishingly lame; J-ok'el is depicted almost entirely by a bit of white cloth flicked in front of the camera by some offscreen P.A. 

This is arguably in service of a third act twist (a twist that both destroys every potential coherent theme the film might have built while simultaneously redeeming the whole affair by centering a totally batshit performance and hilariously out of left field), but in this cassette end utterly fails to justify the means. The means still could have tried to be scary or atmospheric, instead of flat and ploddingly edited.

By the time it gets to the bizarre interludes where George chats up a random French woman in a bar, or awkwardly interacts with a stock footage leopard, you're begging on your hands and knees for the torment to end. And the plot's complete failure to be interesting does little to distract you from how much it's riddled with holes (why exactly are there still children playing outside alone at night two weeks deep into an unprecedented spate of kidnappings?).

J-ok'el at least had the slightest sense of what it was capable of, which blows the '91 Llorona out of the water. But literally the only viable reason to watch this is if ou want to follow along with my marathon but hate subtitles and are thus incapable of watching the many other, better, non-English entries therein.

TL;DR: J-ok'el is surprisingly well made for such tragically tedious BS.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1035

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tears For Fears: The City That Puts You To Sleep


Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2007
Director: Bernadine Santistevan
Cast: Roberto Quintana Jr., Jayden Vargas, Adriana Domínguez
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Now that we're in the 2000's, the media landscape has shifted considerably. The Internet made the lines between countries a little more porous, and the ease of digital filmmaking allowed more small productions to take place. Both of these factors probably contribute to the fact that we've been getting our first Llorona films that were actually shot in English rather than dubbed or subtitled. And The Cry, our topic for the day, seems to my knowledge to be the very first of any of these pictures to be created by an American. Maybe that's why it sucks, or maybe it's just because low budget digital filmmaking in the mid-2000's was for the most part a completely unchecked running tap of sewage.

Brace yourselves for another handful of the only random screenshots I could find for this movie! Hooray 2007!

So, the plot, insofar as there is one. This film transposes the Llorona into modern New York City, as played by an endlessly recurring exterior of some random block as shot by a guerrilla cameraperson in the back seat of a moving car. There is a rash of child murders going on, where women kinda stare at the river for a bit then go off their progeny in a fit of Llorona-driven madness, which gives them eyes that are supposed to look tear-stained but mostly give the impression that they're fist-deep into an untreated bout of pinkeye.

Detective Scott (Christian Camargo) and his partner Detective Perez (Carlos Leon) are on the case, driving around town investigating all sorts of deadly incidents. Scott has a personal connection to this case (his son was murdered by his wife several years ago) so it's kind of driving him mad. That's generally how these things seem to go, alas. They refuse to believe La Llorona is responsible for a huge chunk of the running time, despite the frequent calls from psychic Maria (Adriana Domínguez), who keeps calling them to say she knows exactly what's happening. They steadfastly refuse to give her any attention, to the point that they literally don't meet one another in person until the final ten or fifteen minutes of the film.

Also she has a son, because if you're in a Llorona movie and you don't have children to be imperiled, what are you even doing here?

The most exciting thing about this movie is that it's the second in this marathon to have a female director. The first, 2004's Las Lloronas, was a triumph of taking a feminist approach to the material, but true equality means that women can fail just as hard as men. Director Bernadine Santistevan began her career in the world of venture capital and private equity, which you might conclude didn't quite afford her the skills necessary to bring together a horror production.

That said, after a lot more experience on sets, I'd like to see what she could come up with, because there is exactly one scene here that has a spark of zany joy that really speaks to me. I'm speaking of the sequence that reveals exactly how Scott's son came to shuffle off this mortal coil: [SPOILERS] He opens up a new jar of chocolate sauce instead of using the one that was already open, so his mom murdered the crap out of him, a reaction I'm sure most mothers can relate to [END SPOILERS]. There's also a pretty solid bit of black comedy involving a body that has been nibbled beyond recognition: "The good news is, the fish population is back!"

Beyond that unfortunately, we just get a lot of aimless meandering with a bunch of emotion conversations that circle around the point of the film endlessly. This is interspersed with too few, too tedious Llorona kill sequences, though we're at least treated to a spot of what I've dubbed "Llorona-vision."

Do I have a screenshot of that? Of course not! But at least you can have the pleasure of looking upon how woefully underlit this movie was, on top of everything else.

It's inept at pretty much every level of filmmaking it's possible to be. The scare scenes lean on weird close-ups that are completely illegible, Scott's motivations are equally murky (the moment he finally comes across Maria he pulls a gun on her, as if they haven't been speaking to one another this whole time), and the Llorona never really shows up as anything more than an allegedly creepy whisper spouting stilted dialogue like "cry with meeeeeee..."

This movie also commits the sin of putting in a fake scare at the worst possible moment, destroying every ounce of character they've attempted to build up until now. While investigating at what I believe to be Central Park, or something the filmmakers desperately hope we will assume is Central Park, Perez jumps out at Scott. Right in the middle of an investigation that has nearly cracked him in half, and when they believe there might currently be a ticking clock over a young boy's head. It's unprofessional, it's uncouth, and even worse it's unbelievable. These aren't exactly searing portraits of American manhood to begin with, and when the movie itself is attempting to demolish every scrap of character credibility they've built up, it's an astonishing disappointment.

So that's about that with The Cry. It is the movie that most challenged my commitment to this project, even one as surprisingly rich with quality as it has been before this moment. It is an insufferable slog that fails to properly transplant the Llorona to America, fails to terrify, and even fails to engage on the slightest, most minuscule level.

TL;DR: The Cry is a tedious movie with about half a redeeming quality.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1002

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Tears For Fears: Masacre en San Jacinto

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2007
Director: Paul Miller
Cast: Seth Michaels, Roger Cudney, Nadia van de Ven
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Well, here's a first for the Llorona marathon! A sequel! Look, it's no shock that a crappy direct-to-video horror movie got a sequel. Crappy direct-to-video sequels are the backbone of the genre. It's only surprising that it took this long to get one. We've been making these things since 1933, for crying out loud! Anyway, this is our first and it won't be our last, but we finally get to compare one of these films to a previous one that was actually made by the same production team with the same intent. Won't that be fun?

A word of warning: The screenshots are going to be exactly as low quality as the previous one. Already we're being consistent, wouldja look at that!

The Wailer 2 actually picks up exactly where the previous left off, with the lone survivor Julie (now played by Nadia van de Ven) now possessed by the spirit of La Llorona and wandering around the town of San Jacinto seducing and murdering random men she finds on the street. You know, typical behavior for the ghost of a woman who drowned her children. Julie's father Professor Tomas McBride (Roger Cudney) has come to Mexico to find her and follows this trail of bodies along with helpful cab driver and anthropology student Chava (Seth Michaels). 

This is an actual screenshot from the scene where Tomas buys a handmade skeleton from a a kid at a street fair. The juxtaposition of death and a pile of garbage was just too strong a metaphor to ignore.

One thing I immediately noted when the movie began is that, somehow, it's better than the original. In the way that a slice of moldy bread is better than a slice of very moldy bread, but still. That's not nothing. For one thing, it's better shot. Shadows are used for more than just obscuring the actors' faces (were we trying to preserve their anonymity in the last one?), and more than a few times the camera does tricks (canted angles, backlit figures in fog, etc.) to increase the tension instead of just plunking itself down a few too many paces away from the action. The tricks director Paul Miller uses are the oldest tricks in the book, but at least he's read the book.

And while I'd hesitate to say that the acting is good, it's also a marked improvement. Roger Cudney seems to have been told he would be auditioning to play Liam Neeson's role in Taken, but his gravel-voiced intensity provides a consistent WTF factor that is engaging, and Seth Michaels is totally decent, alongside Antonio Manuel del Asco and Pepe Romay who play his uncle and his uncle's compadre (the two of whom receive a totally uncalled for emotional beat shoved into the middle of this movie, a surprisingly tender and moving scene that actually made the uncle's death have an impact - a first for this franchise).

Lastly, the kills are a massive improvement. Instead of smearing characters with strawberry preserves offscreen, we get a couple reasonably well-executed effects gags, including a drunk's head being ripped right the hell off his shoulders. 

Good work, girlfriend.

Unfortunately, even though this still uses a slasher format (just expanded to a city-in-panic subgenre instead of the classic cabin in the woods) The Wailer 2 has embraced tropes of the genre that are even more misogynistic and poisonous. For one thing, the hag/temptress dichotomy that La Llorona exploits in her kills is a hoary and unpleasant cliché. From The Shining to American Horror Story: Murder House to a million other titles, a scene of a sexy young vixen suddenly transforming into an aged crone has been done to death, constantly reinforcing negative stereotypes about female aging, manipulation, and fears of women expressing their sexuality.

On top of that, the film literally objectifies Julie as a vessel to be filled up by La Llorona and nothing else. The screenwriters couldn't care less about her as a character or a survivor of trauma. [Spoilers] As soon as La Llorona is exorcised from her, she is shunted bodily offscreen so the surviving men can complete their character arcs. It's a horrible habit for a horror franchise to fall into, and it doesn't do much to make an already mediocre film more watchable.

You see, even though it's incontestably an improvement on the first entry, it's still not a particularly fun time. The film moves too slowly through its plot, and a random scattering of pretty good deaths doesn't do much to give it enough energy to cross the finish line. Especially when the finish line is a third act that introduces a trio of old women out of nowhere for a bit of deus ex nun-ina who save the day for reasons that are totally unclear to me.

What I'm saying is don't watch this. I did, and I wasn't in active pain for any amount of time, but that's not really worth a recommend, is it?

TL;DR: The Wailer 2 is a surprising improvement on the original, though it's still a vapid slice of low budget sleaze.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 903
Reviews In This Series
The Wailer (Navia, 2006)
The Wailer 2 (Miller, 2007)
The Wailer 3 (Barbera, 2012)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Tears For Fears: The Lonely Road

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2006
Director: Rigoberto Castañeda
Cast: Iliana Fox, Adrià Collado, Raúl Méndez
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We're going to be spending quite a bit of time with La Llorona in the 2000's, but the interesting thing is that so far, no two films have matched. We've gotten a family melodrama and a cabin-in-the-woods slasher so far, and many more interpretations are coming down the pike. To further prove the flexibility of the Llorona legend, here we have KM 31. It is many things, but first and foremost it's a modernization of the character as a roadside urban legend.

I know cars don't seem especially modern, but this legend is oooooold,, my friend.

KM 31 takes place on and around the 31st kilometer of a highway spanning the Desierto de los Leones. When driving up to visit her twin sister Catalina (Iliana Fox), Agatá (Iliana Fox) runs over a young boy whose body vanishes seconds before she's hit by a truck and left in a deep coma. Catalina teams up with her Spaniard friend Nuño (Adrià Collado) who is obviously totally smitten with her, and her sister's boyfriend Omar (Raúl Méndez) to find out what happened. Over the course of a twisted psychosexual love triangle and a lot of ghostly shenanigans, they trace a series of mysterious accidents to the source, La Llorona, the ghost of her drowned son, and their dominion over the river that runs underneath the highway.

Being from L.A., I was shocked that the river hadn't just dried up and become a road, because that's pretty much how it goes over here.

The first thing that comes to mind about the film is that it's fabulously luscious when it comes to visuals. Director Rigoberto Castañeda and cinematographer Alejandro Martínez work together to create a slick and gorgeous environment, with a camera that glides with ethereal ease through every space. They splash the landscape with cool blues and mysterious shadows that actually create atmosphere rather than blocking out your ability to see anything like some movies I could mention.

It's pretty obvious why they're doing this: The Ring was a huge hit in 2002, and they're doing everything they can to imitate what Gore Verbinski was doing there. But it's a good look to want to steal, and they steal it well. And that's not where the J-horror influences end, nosireebob. The ghostly boy that takes the place of La Llorona in many scare sequences is straight from The Grudge, and the entire storytelling style is in general very Eastern. To the point that the third act makes hardly a lick of sense, but that pretty much comes with the territory with Japanese horror imports.

If somebody tells you they understood the ending of, say, Ringu 2, you've just met a liar.

KM 31 is a blend of cultures I could never have expected, but in execution it works quite well. It lends an air of spookiness and supernatural gravitas to the proceedings that La Llorona has lacked since at least 1960. The scare sequences are well-crafted (they work wonders with shadows and implication - the vague shape of a woman behind a curtain in the hospital is chilling), and the practical effects work is subtle but effective. I especially love a moment in the third act involving dozens of hands bursting from the water.

Unfortunately, the reveal of La Llorona herself involves some especially tragic 2006 CGI. It's dodgy and rigid in all the worst ways, and it completely deflates every ounce of tension the movie has built up over the course of a narrative that already has a tendency to meander a little more than you'd want.

While we're on the subject, Castañeda certainly has an eye for direction but his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. It populates its tale with interesting characters with layered motivations and compelling conflicts both internal and external. All of whom are portrayed by capable, engaging (in some cases unspeakably attractive) actors. But it leaves most of its toys in the box, preferring to play with the "Catalina hears or sees something that isn't there" gag more than anything else.

Its character arcs show promise, but they're stunted by the need for them to be bent into a J-horror framework that values ghostly spectacle over well-drawn human beings. Thus, the movie leaves you with the feeling that it was enjoyable but thin, an impression that the invigorating aesthetic certainly doesn't deserve. This sort of waste is a cruel fate for a movie that has so much to offer, but I can't wish away its problems. KM 31 is solid, but it deserves to be so much more than merely enjoyable.

TL;DR: KM 31 is a movie that doesn't quite do enough with all the ideas it presents, but it's slick and stylish along the way.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 843
Reviews In This Series
KM 31 (Castañeda, 2006)
KM 31-2 (Castañeda, 2016)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Tears For Fears: Cabaña En El Bosque

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

Year: 2006
Director: Andrés Navia
Cast: Vanessa Rice, John Patrick Jordan, Hugo Medina
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

As I've learned from running many a horror movie marathon, the mid-2000's were a very important time for the genre. The rise of digital cinema technology really expanded the accessibility of filmmaking, and for some reason people still think horror is the easiest genre to make so it tends to be the first one they jump to when they buy a prosumer camera from Radio Shack and assemble some random friends and neighbors to make a film.

Anyway, what I'm saying in a very roundabout way is that The Wailer (which is either a Mexican-American co-production or a Mexican film that hired English-speaking actors to appeal to a wider market) might be just our second foray into the Llorona works of the decade, but it's certainly not the last. While the five movies we previously covered before 2004's Las Lloronas spanned the eons between 1933 and 1991, the span just between 2004 and 2007 includes seven. So prepare yourselves to spend a lot of time in the era of The Pussycat Dolls, sagging jeans, and Christopher Nolan's meteoric rise to power.

It hopefully goes without saying that none of these movies will match the quality of a Nolan film, even the later, more self-indulgent ones.

So, The Wailer is a very peculiar Llorona movie in that it maps exactly onto one of my other movie marathons: it's a dyed-in-the-wool cabin in the woods slasher movie. We gather some expendable meat (including an especially odious comic relief Token Black Character) and send them on a vacation to Mexico to a remote cabin that might just be the site where La Llorona drowned her children centuries ago. She destroys them one by one with her razor sharp nails (???) over one catastrophic night.

The Meat in question is as follows: Michelle (Nicole Danielle), the promiscuous mean one; her boyfriend Jay (Eltony Williams), the aforementioned token character who - guess what - dies first; Mike (Hugo Medina), about whom I remember nothing; his girlfriend Ashley (Brenda Mejia), who makes even less of an impression; Julie (Vanessa Rice), our designated Final Girl because she doesn't do drugs and is boring; and Andrew (John Patrick Jordan), a semi-polite young man who is being transparently set up with Julie by their friends, and he wears a black sweat band alarmingly close to his elbow which he never takes off, even when swimming.

OK, you can NOT blame me for the quality of the screen grabs here, I had to dig through the trash heap at my local video store to even bring you this review. But witness the sweat band in all its mildewy glory.

As I'm sure you can surmise, this movie isn't particularly good. It's not even that good as a slasher movie, come to think of it. I love the weird Freddy Krueger rip-off design of La Llorona, but there's only one sequence that manages to drum up a single tingle of suspense (a slow, creeping sequence where she emerges from a bathtub, announcing her presence with a dripping faucet, a floating boat, and finally a face pressed against the shower curtain). It's too much to ask that the movie's effects be convincing in the slightest, but it hardly even has them. We mostly get the oh-so familiar "scream, then cut to a dead body covered in strawberry jelly" technique, over and over and over again.

But there's something charming hiding in the familiarity of the slasher movie formula that I fall for again and again (there's a reason I've reviewed over a hundred of the godforsaken things), and The Wailer delivers a certain amount of that bad movie charm in between the scenes where it's trying and failing to scare me. Whether it's the sex scene where they're just staring at themselves in a mirror, the aforementioned sweatband, or the comically large spliff that one guy rolls for himself, there are little golden nuggets of unintentional humor sitting around for anybody willing to pan through the watered-down genre trappings.

And the cherry on top is the fact that The Wailer delivers heaps of shirtless men. The characters in this movie are allergic to covering their nipples, and when they're not lounging around the living room in the middle of the night sans tee, they are frolicking around in a waterfall like some forgotten outtake from Call Me By Your Name. This is almost the sole reason I like the slasher Girls Nite Out, and I'm always down for a movie that objectifies the men equal to, if not more than, the women.

I personally took this photo on my phone for your enjoyment. You're damn welcome.

The bad-good atmosphere certainly extends to the acting as well, though the script is doing none of these unknown actors any favors. Since this is technically a slasher movie even if it isn't a proper Census Bloodbath title, let's borrow a quick segment from that there marathon.

Champion Dialogue: "That weed got me horny as shit."

These types of horror movies usually bring out a shred of talent once all hell breaks loose, and the one who proves why her audition tape was picked this time around is Nicole Danielle. When it's her turn to actually be scared, she turns it on and is generally satisfying in a real way.

But look. The Wailer isn't really worth your time. You didn't need me to tell you that. Hell, I didn't need me to tell you that. But my brain works in very sinister ways and I can't just skip a movie or else it will punish me. At least in spite of the crappy dim lighting, the incoherent third act, and the lackluster kill sequences, The Wailer gave me something to look at that didn't feel actively painful. La Llorona 1991 this ain't, and if there's one thing my completist instincts have taught me, it's that there's always a much worse movie on the horizon, so there's no sense complaining about one that's merely toothless.

TL;DR: The Wailer is an unimaginative horror movie, but at least it's an unimaginative slasher, so that's in my wheelhouse if nothing else.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1073
Reviews In This Series
The Wailer (Navia, 2006)
The Wailer 2 (Miller, 2007)
The Wailer 3 (Barbera, 2012)

Friday, March 1, 2019

Reviewing Jane: It Is Not Everyone Who Has Your Passion For Dead Leaves

In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2011
Director: Angel Gracia
Cast: Camilla Belle, Alexa Vega, Nicholas D'Agosto
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Lionsgate's Pantelion Films was created in 2010 with the mission to create and distribute Latino films to wider audiences in the U.S., a noble goal if there ever was one. Over the years, they have brought us films both good and bad, like this year's Manolo Caro remake Perfectos Desconocidos, last year's Overboard, Ken Marino's How to be a Latin Lover, the biopic Cantinflas, the animated film La leyenda de la Llorona (coming soon), and basically everything you'll see on the Spanish language shelf in Walmart. 

Their arrival on the scene was heralded by From Prada to Nada, an update of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility set in modern East L.A. (there's nothing a budding production company loves more than a popular property in the public domain). It's both good and bad, so in terms of a debut it couldn't have been more appropriate. 

Also the opening is scored to Katy Perry's "California Gurls" to remind everybody just how 2010 it was.

The sisters going from riches to rags in this film are Nora (Camilla Belle) and Mary Dominguez (Alexa Vega). After their father passes away and their mansion is passed into the hands of their long-lost brother and his venal wife, they must move to a house in East L.A. Nora, the more capable of the two, is a law student and gets an entry-level job in the office run by their sister-in-law's brother (it's just as complicated to explain in the original Jane Austen, don't worry) Edward Ferris (Nicholas D'Agosto).

And while Mary chases the hot T.A. at her university, she is initially fearful of their thuggish neighbor Bruno (Wilmer Valderrama) but learns that he has a heart of gold. Can the buttoned-down Nora learn to embrace her feelings and vapid superficial Mary learn to approach the world with a little more good sense, both finding love in the process? Yeah, probably.

Also, when did Wilmer Valderrama get hot and why did nobody tell me?

OK, let's start with the good, shall we? As an update of the Austen material, From Prada to Nada does quite a fine job. Like Clueless and Bride & Prejudice, this movie finds a way to keep pretty much the exact same characters and plot structures, but completely translate them into a new culture and apply modern context that revitalizes the concerns and dramas of the text that might seem trivial or outdated in this century.

Every Jane Austen novel is about class either explicitly or implicitly, but Sense and Sensibility is especially ripe for reinterpretation around that theme. For one thing, there's the fish-out-of-water aspect, which modern comedy-goers still love. But by translating the Dashwoods' fall from grace into a modern Latino context, it gets to grapple with the divide between whites and Latinos, but also between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (Mary, raised completely American, doesn't speak Spanish at all), also exploring how minorities in this country are too often forced to the poverty level by the structures in place.

There's a beautiful scene where Nora helps organize a class action lawsuit against an employer who is cheating their workers, where the Latino staff of many major firms come together, showing how much reach and power they have even though the higher-ups ignore the menial laborers they see as beneath them. This film is certainly no racial manifesto, but it's taking a hot-button American cultural issue and putting it front and center, showing us how little the class structures have really changed between Austen's time and now, they've just moved into a different area.

Yes, stay cheerful girls! The not-so-nice things I have to say are about to come tumbling out.

So... this is definitely a first-time film, both for the production company and the director, and it shows. There is a lot of shoddy work here, even in the script. As I mentioned, the central nugget of the plot is terrific, and I can't really fault the comedy which is generic but fine. But it loses itself a little too much in imitating Austen, with Nora's final romantic resolution making absolutely no sense in a modern context and a weird devotion to representing their dead father as a topiary bush for reasons I will always fail to understand.

There are bad filmmaking decisions here literally from the title card on down (there's a failed attempt at comedy in the drop of the title card, which hits right after their father's death and thuds against the sincerity and gravity of that moment). The lighting is flat (just like the acting), but in certain scenes especially at night you can't see anything, and the colors all bleed into a dreary wash of grey. And the physical comedy is terrible. There is a moment where Mary is supposed to fall out of bed, but set design made the bed too big and she has to roll a couple feet "in her sleep" in order to properly fall out. It's just so effortful, ditto Nora's big drunk scene.

And don't even get me started on the jaw-dropping number of needle drops we have of the classic song "Cielito Lindo." It's played in the intro, the closing, in between scenes, recontextualized as score, translated into a minor key, and just about everything one could possibly do to disguise the fact that they blew all their soundtrack budget on that one Katy Perry song.

So no, it doesn't land in the pantheon with the films I compared it to earlier. It wasn't an insufferable travesty like some films I could mention, but it doesn't do more than just exist in two dimensions for one hundred vaguely pleasant minutes.

TL;DR: From Prada to Nada is an interestingly faithful update of the material, but it's just not a very strong comedy.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1013
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)
Sense, Sensibility, and Snowmen (Winning, 2019)