Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Trio Los Machos: Un Bolero Infinito...

Trio Los Machos opens with the bristling demise of a musical trio, three life-long friends who are being summarily dismissed from their regular gig as entertainers in a Mexican restaurant where they have plied their trade as strolling balladeers for years. Written by Josefina López (Real Women Have Curves) and directed by Edward Padilla at Casa 0101, the play is a warm tribute to the stellar musical repertory of legendary Trio Los Panchos, Mexico’s famous bolero kings. A romantic musical genre that is to love and heartbreak what salt is to savory food and seawater, the bolero, as typified by Trio Los Panchos, is one of Mexico best, if not most well-known exports.

From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero guest worker program brought thousands of agricultural laborers from Mexico to the U.S. to harvest crops which would have otherwise rotted in the field due to the limited supply of U.S. workers willing to work so hard for so little. Trio Los Machos uses popular songs by Trio Los Panchos, as well as original tunes written by Claudia Durán (also Rosario in the play) and Josefina López with music by Danny Weinstein, to propel the story of Lalo, Nacho and Paco, three young braceros who discover their talent for making people fall in love through song and are thus able to leave the indignity of their guest worker status behind.
Now in their twilight years, the trio must come to terms with mortality, masculinity and changing musical tastes. Played by Miguel Santana, Roberto Garza and Henry Madrid respectively, the three are portrayed in moving flashbacks often graced with musical elegance by Gilbert Martinez (Young Lalo), Josh Durón (Young Nacho) and Adrian Quiñonez (Young Paco). While the characterizations among the actors who play the three in their latter day incarnations are marked by better musicianship than acting chops, the reverse is true for the trio as young men. On the whole, however, Padilla is to be commended for his impeccable casting and for his luminous staging, which relies on silhouettes and scrims as much as it does on the ever-present live music fusillade to evoke mood, feeling tone and memory.

Durán, as the fiery, sex-pot singer hired to jazz up the trio after they’re fired for being too old, is played perhaps a bit too much as caricature, but this is countered by the appearance, in flashback, of Rocío Mendoza as Aurelia, Paco’s long deceased wife. With a voice that captures the essence of this timeless music perfectly, Mendoza delivers the play’s truest notes. It is a sound that brims with late night trysts, love hangovers, too many cigarettes and not enough tear-filled tequila shots. It also provides the perfect foil for the comedic twist that gives the story an endearing, if unexpected, jolt of tender, and, yes, politically correct sensitivity.

A world premiere, Trio Los Machos is a reminder of the truly great state of theater on LA’s Eastside under the watchful care of award-winning playwright Josefina López, whose own father first came to the U.S. as a “bracero.” It is a fitting homage to him.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bro': Motocross Mayhem & Redemption

How many times a day do we hear or say the word bro’? Short for “brother,” it has come to us as abbreviated speak from the ’60s era rise of the Black Power movement. Funny how no one ever seems to notice or acknowledge that. And we use it all the time now. We don’t even think about it. The word is understood universally. It has become, arguably, the most widely used three-letter slang designation in the world.  It cuts across all ethnic, racial, class and national divisions. It spawned the Chicano equivalent, “carnal,” a word that even more closely reflects the symbolic flesh and blood nature of bestowing brotherhood on those we choose to call our own.

Filmmaker Nick Parada knows this. He knows how we anoint our closest male friends with special status when we address them in this way. He understands that we also invoke the word as an overture of peace and a willingness to overcome our competitive and territorial instincts as men. He is acutely aware of the fact that in Southern California, the term has an even deeper significance among the skater, surfer, snowboarder and motocross crowd. Here, it signifies an extreme sports elevation to non-poser authenticity. It makes you one of the young men who other men envy; the fearless, ultimate risk-takers who women want to hook up with.

In Bro,' his first full-length feature, Parada focuses his lens on one facet of this world even as he crafts the story of a young man’s descent into  an exotic world of death defying motorcycle stunt riders, drugs, fast money and easy sex with hot girls drawn to the dudes who call each other “bro” only when they’ve proven to be more than mere pretenders.

With a cast that includes veterans such as Danny Trejo, Larry Fessenden and Gunner Wright, Bro’ also marks the feature debut for freestyle motocross champions Beau Manley and Colin “Scummy” Morrison, both members of the Metal Mulisha. Written, directed and produced by Parada, Bro’ is ultimately a story of redemption. At its center is Johnny (newcomer Will Chavez), a tame suburban kid working the counter at an athletic club. Enter unblemished co-worker (Rebekah Graf as Stephanie), and Johnny’s head gets immediately turned. When he finally overcomes his shyness and ask her out, she takes him to the track and introduces him to her older brother Jesse (Beau Manley), a daredevil party animal covered in tattoos who lords over the scene as the untouchable master of outrageously dangerous motorcycle stunts. Unfortunately, Jesse is the perfect antithesis of his younger sister.

Taking his sister’s new boyfriend under wing, Manley as Jesse, leads into the alluring depths of a world he could never have imagined, while inviting him to participate fully in its mayhem. It’s an age-old formula. Boy meets girl. Boy goes slowly bad and falls out of favor with girl while earning stature with the wild bunch. Boy eventually embraces badness with a no guts, no glory, gung-ho attitude. Badness bites boy in the ass. Hard. Parada, however, has graced his solid, straight ahead story with nuanced reflections of honest teen angst, even as he opens a window to a lifestyle and youth culture around a relatively new sport that has not yet been examined to such an electrifying degree in a narrative picture.

Though still a young director, Parada began making short films while still a teenager and was already an award winning regional television producer and director when he invited Kim Mackenzie to help him flesh out a coming of age story based on the pitfalls, challenges and moral dilemmas facing young people today. In Johnny, we identify a symbolic depiction of so many boys who have been raised by single, hardworking and often religious moms. As a result, like him, we are naturally drawn to the savvy, cool attitude and lust for life his newfound “bro” represents, a world of drugs and danger epitomized by Danielle (played perfectly by Alexandra Mason), an under-aged seductress who uses Johnny to break away from home.

In crafting a thoroughly believable thrill ride through the dark side, Parada gets a powerlift from sound supervisor Frederick Howard and a soundtrack that resonates and thrums with vitality. The music, a cross-section of the best contemporary underground alternative grunge core, hyper-hip-hop and cross-pollinated pop available anywhere with Kotton Mouth Kings, Eyes Set to Kill and Brokencyde being the three most notorious. Visually, the film is pristine, with motorcycle stunts, chases working to bolster the intense emotional moments that happen both indoors and out, during daylight and at night.

Working with non-actors and actors alike, Parada has culled surprisingly even overall performances that drive the narrative forward and, at moments, even enhance the gritty, real world plot. If the inexperience evident in some of the characterizations also leads to an occasional slight stumble and sputter as the tale unfolds, Parada remains undaunted in an a nearly invisible effort to show what he is capable of as a director. He succeeds in spades. We feel for his hapless hero and believe in Johnny’s ability to push past the delirium for an honest look at himself and the decisions he has made. At the same time, we root for his mentor and friend, his adopted big bro’ Jesse, a sympathetic, albeit  flawed and self-destructive, anti-hero who confronts equally life-changing choices.

The Crumbles: Coming to Rock LA

It’s Friday night and I’m running late. My friend Francisco Hernández, a filmmaker born in Boyle Heights and raised in San Juan Bautista, has invited me to the L.A. premiere of a film he has co-produced. Written and directed by Akira Boch, one of his life-long friends, the film has a buzz. For the last two years, I have connected with him, and a mutual circle of friends I love and cherish, only sporadically. I miss them, and the opportunity to help celebrate this milestone achievement is reason enough to make the rare trek west, all the way to the West Hollywood environs that glitter with a tangible movie business patina.

It merits mention that Francisco and Akira were reared alongside Kinán and Anahuac Valdez, scions of the Luis Valdez-led Teatro Campesino theater clan, an extended Brechtian guerrilla theater crew forged in the heyday of the Chicano Movement that took shape in the ’60s and ’70s. In support of farmworkers and labor leader César Chávez, Teatro Campesino earned a well-deserved place in the annals of American theater history as the first family of Chicano theater, spawning a score of like-minded Chicano theatre troupes throughout the southwest in its wake.

The company, of course, later became renowned for its production of Zootsuit, a ground-breaking musical which shed light on the heavy-handed police and military efforts to thwart a Mexican American expression of pride and sartorial style. In the ‘80s, Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez wrote and directed La Bamba, a film about pioneer Chicano rocker Richie Valens that hipped Hollywood to the ever elusive box office draw of the Mexican American experience.
Ambitious forerunners of DYI filmmaking, who witnessed the making of Luís Valdez’ La Bamba first-hand as toddlers, Hernández, Boch and the Valdez brothers formed a film company together while still in high school. “It sounds funny now, but, believe it or not, it was called Funky Flicks,” Francisco says about his peer group’s first ambitious foray into media over the phone several weeks in advance of the LA screening at the Directors’ Guild of America theater on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. The screening is part of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival organized by Visual Communications.

So I’m running late because I have to drive to Southgate to pick up table cloths and chair covers for a wedding scheduled tomorrow at the hall where Boyle & Boyle is currently camped out. I suddenly find myself tearing down Franklin to avoid the Friday night 101 and Sunset traffic.  All I know about The Crumbles, Akira’s feature debut, is based on a cursory look at a web-site and Francisco’s excited description of the film’s effusive reception at a recent Bay Area screening. The DGA screening I’m careening to is, naturally, sold out. Francisco has graciously provided a comp ticket at will call.

Luckily, I’m able to nab a still vacant seat on the last row and fall quickly under the spell of a funny but riveting film about friendships, expectations, aspirations, disillusion, betrayal and, ultimately, the infallible belief in the power of music, art and the creative impulse inherent in us all to transcend the challenges and obstacles we face every day. The Crumbles, a fictional indie, alt-rock start up band around which the film is based, resemble the real world in a way that Hollywood still resists. In spite of that sad fact, they become, nonetheless, the band we want to believe in and root for. 
Unfortunately, the industry continues to have an incredibly hard time believing that the Katie Hipol, Therese Michelle Lee and Jeff Torres and are the new Winona Ryders and Brad Pitt, respectively, of cinema.

A nuanced, well-crafted film that features Hipol as Darla, a brown-skinned, ethnicity neutral, guitar-wielding songwriter who recruits her talented, but flaky Asian-American slacker BFF for a musical project with Torres along as “Dante,” the penultimate “awkward and awesome” drummer who crushes on Darla is, despite what so many well meaning young executives (and yes, Scott Budnick, I am talking to you, and believe me, I’m not kvetching) will say about how they can’t sell a movie without a goofy but lovable white boy or white girl in the mix as a lead. All that excuse making and hem-hawing aside, The Crumbles rock. Their story is universal and every bit a part of the mainstream because this is where we live. This is who we are.

I’m watching what is a standard LA reality that, given half a chance, would otherwise be an amazing sleeper box office smash. I understand that it will be studiously ignored by studios and the Fox Searchlight types precisely because it is every bit as good as an early Woody Allen dramedy. And it’s a homegrown, organic expression that has none of the exotic allure of an import vetted by the likes of Diego Luna or Gael Garcia, who are generally sympathetic guys. But they don’t, however, automatically or readily assume that we also grew up reading Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez while we were discovering, unlike them, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Rodolfo Anaya, Corky Gonzales and Americo Paredes. 

Boch has assembled a cast that represents the real Echo Park, the real Boyle Heights and the real downtown L.A. But the industry is loathe to accept that filmmakers like Boch and Hernández are the arbiters of what is quickly becoming the new smart, quirky cool. It is uncomfortable with outsiders deciding what constitutes culture and taste with an edge.

So what? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hipol and Torres and Lee and Seth Millwood as Serge and Ebony Perry as Francine, an independent bookstore manager who just happens to be black, are believable and true and indicative of what this country will become in spite of backward, xenophobic Arizona-style legislation. The Crumbles embody an idea that flies in the face of the ignominious, visceral and latent assumptions that black and brown and red and yellow people are intent on subverting traditional  American values.

The latter is more than evidenced by the recent retard laws which criminalize immigrants and seek to ban empowering studies and books that have led to an increase in graduation rates for all students and allowed for the kind of learning that boosts graduation statistics and college prospects for kids emerging from a community that has the highest drop-out rate in the nation.

As The Crumbles unspools on a screen at a bastion of American cinema, I feel pangs of empathy for Darla, who realizes that her rock star aspirations are perhaps a pipe dream. She tastes the possibility and then sees her hopes dashed because she trusts a girl she cares about. It may be that she has a more intimate interest in Elisa, but she can only recognize them as platonic feelings colored by a need to help a sister trying to make her way out of relationship with a wannabee rock star that has worn thin.
A lucid and cogent musical score by Quetzal Flores bolsters the story of a little band poised to make the big-time that can’t seem to overcome the dead-end inertia that plagues so many in a contemporary generation that has all but given up on real social interaction in favor of safe  iPhone and Facebook distance. In many ways, the music makes the film flow seemlessly. 

Through it all, Boch proves to be a sensitive, gifted story-teller who is, by virtue of his integrity and experience, able to muster the efforts of talented friends who support his vision and believe in the redemptive power of collaboration. There are moments in the film, some of them uncomfortable and ungainly, just like real life, which trigger laughter and others that lend to the sad emptiness that can sometimes invade your spleen with that sick, broken-hearted, almost sinking feeling you get when life seems bleak and insurmountable.

This is what makes the film soar, what makes it resonate with truth. The ensemble cast and crew that gathers for the Q & A afterward gives ample credence to the “awkward and awesome” mantra that has informed Boch’s aesthetic. Their nervous, tentative answers to audience questions are refreshing as a reminder that engaging, independent, underground cinema, which reflects the inevitable veracity of our times, is alive and well in L.A.