I have long been fascinated by beauty pageants, and the whole concept of Miss Bala—a contestant runs afoul of a bunch of gangsters—had me singing hosannas in praise of my local library, which gets pretty much every single movie released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Mexico is turning out not just great directors, notably the holy trinity of Cuaron, Inurritu, and del Toro, but also small gems like Duck Season from Fernando Eimbcke. The wry humor of that movie, about some bored adolescents left alone for a weekend with their mother’s stash of weed, delighted me, and I love love love movies made for tiny amounts of money in adverse circumstances, which pretty much sums up the indie film scene in Mexico right now.
Right off the bat, the title rocks; Miss Baja California is the crown sought by the film’s heroine Laura, played by Stephanie Sigman, but “bala” is also Spanish for “bullet.” Sigman starts off the movie as a dopey, flaky, and unlikely beauty queen; all she’s got are stunning looks and a coltish grace. She’s prettier than the other contestants by a long shot, but she doesn’t have a clue how to play the pageant game.
None of that ends up mattering all that much. Just minutes into the movie, Laura and her friend Suzu are trapped in a seedy garage converted into a club that’s taken over in an instant by vicious drug runners. Separated from her friend, Laura is forced to drive a getaway car, run money over the border dressed in a flippy pink skirt, and then, bizarrely, compete in the beauty pageant that she’s deserted.
More than one reviewer has mentioned the Perils of Pauline aspect of the movie, and said it’s unintentional. Bullshit. This is no game, though it’s utterly absurd, and filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo is smart enough to emphasize that evil can be ridiculous as often as it’s sinister. There’s a wonderful and wonderfully funny scene, in which Laura’s obvious rival for the crown answers the usual pageant blather question with a radiant smile to an eruption of applause. “She fills our stage and our hearts with sunshine!” smarms the host. When Laura is asked if she would prefer fame or money and bursts into sobs, the host, obviously tipped off that there’s more at stake here than a title, says, “Overcome with emotion! She fills our stage and our hearts with sensitivity!”
Sigman is so good, so empathetic, and the movie rockets along, ending with an enormously powerful statement, about which more in a minute. No doubt because Miss Bala was fresh in my head, I was all the more appalled by Savages. Oliver Stone rips off Pulp Fiction so many times here, you start to wonder if a settlement occurred behind the scenes: Salma Hayek sports a longer version of Uma Thurman’s wig and there are the same close-ups of her red lips, there are the same stabs at Edgy Blood-Soaked Humor, and John Travolta does a short-hair version of his goofy criminal, this time on the other side of the law. Wacky! Travolta even said at press outings that the movie was the next Pulp Fiction, and who better to know?
Oh, don’t we all wish? Within a minute of Blake Lively’s wooden drone of voiceover, her character has, I shit you not, proclaimed about her Iraq-vet boyfriend, “I had orgasms. He had WARgasms.” Tarantino might have pulled off a line like that; the guy gets irony. Stone, never known for his sense of humor, doesn’t appear to.
But more annoying is how Stone exploits the tragedy of the Mexican drug trade in this desperate and shrill effort. It’s as if he saw Soderburgh’s Traffic, got none of its biting critique but did register that Benicio del Toro has an authentic Mexican accent, tabled it to make the thrilling Wall Street Two, then on a dark night of the soul dug out his Natural Born Killers script—whoops, make that Tarantino’s script—and thought, hmm, I used to be considered cutting edge politically; this is just the thing to make me relevant again! Ooh, and Day of the Dead masks are way creepy! Awesome! I’m stunned at the love this movie received critically. It’s appalling. It’s not even good for a laugh, although Salma Hayek at least appears to have some fun as a very chic underworld Mommy Dearest.
The end of Miss Bala features a simple onscreen declaration of the nearly 50,000 lives that have been lost in the Mexican drug wars since 2006. Then, the credits crawl, all the same size, filling the screen; they could as easily be a role call of the dead. Naranjo’s point, or at least one of his points, is that the drug business as currently practiced ruins lives, none of which seem to even register north of the border. It’s exponentially more powerful than any movie whose goal is to be the next Big Thing could ever be.