Spare Parts

January 16, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Carlos PenaVega, George Lopez, Marisa Tomei
Directed by: Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”)
Written by: Elissa Matsueda (debut)

While Lions Gate Entertainment’s heart was in the right place when the company created Pantelion Films to help distribute movies specifically for Latino audiences, they’re track record has been less than stellar over the last four years from a critical standpoint. Sure, the surprise 2013 hit “Instructions Not Included” became the highest grossing Spanish-language film to ever open in North America, but the picture itself was riddled with clichés and substandard direction by its popular Mexican star Eugenio Derbez.

Despite some major disappointments over the years (“Casa de Mi Padre,” “Pulling Strings,” and especially the biopics “Cantinflas” and “Cesar Chavez”), Pantelion has managed to release a couple of entertaining projects, the first being the 2013 music drama “Filly Brown” lead by rising star Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”). Its second bright spot on its roster comes this year by way of a true story that took place a decade ago in Phoenix, Arizona.

In the film “Spare Parts,” a group of undocumented Latino high school students decide to build a robot to compete in an underwater robotics competition. It’s an incredibly inspirational story you may or may not have heard about when it happened in 2004, but one that was deserving of a feature film. “Spare Parts” is far from perfect. In fact, with first-time screenwriter Elissa Matsueda penning the script, there are a handful of glaring narrative problems that can only be described as vague and amateurish. Still, it all really comes back to the story of these young men who did what many thought impossible.

It’s easy to root for the protagonists, which makes unnecessary characters and plot holes less bothersome. Everyone involved is so likeable, starting with actor Carlos PenaVega portraying Oscar Vazquez, the leader of the robotics team who brings his idea to enter the underwater competition to new substitute teacher Fredi Cameron (George Lopez). When Oscar finds out he is unable to follow his dream and join the military because of his immigration status, he is committed to finding something else to do with his life. Also on the team: Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián from “A Better Life”) who brings his talent as a mechanic to the group, but is struggling to live up to his strict father’s (Esai Morales) standards; Cristian Arcerga (David del Rio), the brain of the operation; and Luis Arranda (Oscar Gutierrez), the muscle needed to get their ugly, clunky and heavy robot into the water.

The story is strongest when screenwriter Matsueda stays focused on what is truly important, which are the technical aspects of the boys’ robot, the competition at hand and the backgrounds of these four Dreamers. Matsueda strays far too much between this and less interesting relationships between Oscar and his love interest and Fredi and another teacher (Marisa Tomei). “Spare Parts” should have taken a page from two similar films that came before it, “Stand and Deliver” and “October Sky,” and embraced its subject wholeheartedly (like “Stand and Deliver” did with calculus and “October Sky” with rocket building). There will be a few smiles by the time the closing credits roll, but the journey getting there and actually understanding how the boys accomplished what they did is sorely missing.

A Better Life

July 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Joaquín Cosio
Directed by: Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”)
Written by: Eric Eason (“Manito”)

It might be a Mexican-American version of the classic 1948 Italian neorealist film “Bicycle Thieves,” but “A Better Life” could not have come at a more appropriate time, as immigration policy advocates continue to plead with the feds to rule on the constitutionality of a raft of new immigration laws being implemented in a variety of states. The film also comes on the heels of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist José Antonio Vargas’s startling and nervy revelation of his undocumented status in an essay he wrote for the The New York Times.

No matter where you stand on the subject, “A Better Life” offers an honest and deeply moving depiction of a Mexican immigrant’s struggle to provide for his son and raise him well enough to never have to follow the same difficult path he chose. While the themes have been confronted before (it’s comparable to, but less melodramatic than, “Under the Same Moon,” and isn’t paced as gradually as the locally produced 2007 drama “August Evening”), “A Better Life” has its own distinct voice and a tender stroke of humanity that keeps it from being lumped together with any overstated political message.

In a nuanced and award-worthy performance reminiscent of Independent Spirit nominee Pedro Castañeda in “August Evening” and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor,” Mexican actor Demián Bichir (“Che”) embodies a father not only desperate to find a lifeline as a day laborer (his truck and landscaping tools have been stolen), but to also reach his teenage son on a level of emotional understanding and mutual respect.

The stakes are high in “A Better Life” and Bichir matches the film’s tormented tone with a portrayal of a man overcome by both fear and faith. It’s the latter, however, that encourages him to fight for the things that are most important to him no matter what may stand in the way.