Mission Park

September 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jeremy Ray Valdez, Walter Perez, Will Rothaar
Directed by: Bryan Ramirez (debut)
Written by: Bryan Ramirez (debut)

Independent director/writer Bryan Ramírez has potential. While that might sound like a backhanded compliment for someone determined to lead a San Antonio film renaissance, it isn’t meant to be. I have little doubt Ramírez can produce something substantial for the silver screen. Unfortunately, the crime drama “Mission Park,” his first solo feature-length project, is not that movie—but it’s close. While Ramírez has a knack for capturing a consistent tone, his script lacks the imagination needed to leave a lasting impression on the genre. It does confirm, however, his significant technical chops behind the camera

In “Mission Park,” Ramírez follows four childhood friends who have grown up and grown apart—far apart—but remain linked by a tragic event they all experienced as kids. Bobby (Jeremy Ray Valdez) and Julian (Will Rothhaar) have graduated from the FBI academy and are eager to start their service as rookie agents. Jason (Walter Pérez) and Derek (Joseph Julian Soria) stay behind to sling drugs and contribute to an increasing wave of crime in San Antonio. With Jason sitting at the top of the drug world, Bobby is assigned to go undercover and bring down his entire operation

Loyalty, friendship and ambition are a few of the themes Ramírez presents in “Mission Park,” but the film is hard-pressed to contribute anything new to a formulaic storyline where brothers/best-friends find themselves on opposite sides of the law. From “Blood in, Blood Out” to “Tequila Sunrise” to Hong Kong’s “A Better Tomorrow” (and countless more in between), the framework is a tired one, especially when the screenplay doesn’t deviate from hitting familiar plot devices (corrupt cops, love triangles, etc)

“Mission Park” starts off well enough. Four teenagers (willingly and unwillingly) participate in the robbery of a neighborhood restaurant. The incident claims the life of an employee and reveals the impetus behind the decisions these young men make as they mature into adulthood. That strong set-up quickly dissolves into cliché and predictable scenes once the audience is introduced to the boys five years after they graduate from high school

Even if audiences can believe Jason has somehow become a powerful kingpin of “the single largest drug trafficking organization in North America” or that the FBI would put a major case on the back of one inexperienced agent, the script doesn’t tie everything together with much conviction. In the movie, Ramírez explains a lot of the choices he makes as a screenwriter (for example, Julian gets involved in the sting because he is “tired of being a fucking desk monkey” and “signed up to see some action”), but details like these are fragile at best and expose plot holes as the film continues. Falling by the wayside is a much-needed scene where Julian informs his superiors about his plans or a realistic reason as to why he isn’t given a cover in the police database. Next time, Ramírez should focus on creating a more organic flow to the plot

Aside from the narrative pitfalls, the film is technically sharp (a dialogue-less airport scene with actress Fernanda Romero looks fantastic) and boasts an impressive overall production value. Ramírez also got a couple of solid performances from Pérez and Soria right up to the final, bloody third act in an abandoned warehouse (someone fetch a straight razor and cue up Stealers Wheel), which is wrapped up in a fairly generic way. Nevertheless, with a little tightening up of the loose ends, Ramírez’s stock will rise. As “Mission Park” teaches viewers, “one day doesn’t define a man.” The same goes for filmmakers and their films.

Fame

September 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Naturi Naughton, Kay Panabaker, Walter Perez
Directed by: Kevin Tancharoen (debut)
Written by: Allison Burnett (“Untraceable”)

Dance movies are a dime a dozen, so there has to be a better reason that MGM Studios decided to modernize the 1980 version of the high school musical “Fame” other than to make it fashion statement by getting rid of the headbands and hot pants. Sadly, “Fame,” without much characterization or attentive direction, leaps right off the stage as another simple-minded and meager addition to the subgenre. 

“Fame,” which spawned a TV show and off-Broadway musical after the success of the original film, follows the talented students of a performing arts academy in New York City where – each year – 200 out of 10,000 applicants to the school are accepted to hone their skills in dance, music, and drama.

In the new version, screenwriter Allison Burnett (“Untraceable”) loses grasp of her characters from the start. First-time director Kevin Tancharoen adds to the miscues by allowing Burnett’s thin script to place too many characters on a pedestal and not tapping into any of their promising personalities.

Instead, everything about “Fame” comes in waves of clichés. For beginners, there’s Denise (Naturi Naughton), the classical pianist who really wants to be an R&B singer but whose parents disapprove; Celia, the little-singer-that-could who must find her passion for her craft if she wants to succeed; Malik (Collins Pennie), the inner-city drama student who lets his emotions get the best of him; and Victor (Walter Perez), a Hispanic kid with raw talent who must learn that discipline will make him a better musician.

If you think that’s all the characters Burnett and Tacharoen have up their sleeves, your right. The rest are in their back pockets. Along with a few more students following their own impossible dreams, it’s the instructors – Kelsey Grammer, Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, and Megan Mullally – that make up the rest of the roster and end up being the best parts of “Fame.”

While the students are off having an uninspired impromptu dance-off in the cafeteria, it’s the teachers making the most sense and delivering the least obvious dialogue of the two groups. A scene where voice instructor Fran Rowan (Mullally) takes some of the students to a karaoke bar and then proceeds to explain why dreams don’t always come true for everyone is significant. But there simply aren’t enough of those moments. And when Burnett attempts to reveal more of the younger characters, they come off transparent and melodramatic.

You’ll definitely realize how much the kids went through the motions when the credits role and each is given a few seconds to wow us with some dance moves before a title card flashes up with their names. Besides their artistic abilities, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember what made any of them special in the first place.

August Evening

September 4, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Pedro Castañeda, Veronica Loren, Walter Perez
Directed by: Chris Eska (debut)
Written by: Chris Eska (debut)

In his first feature film “August Evening,” director Chris Eska is so aware of his surroundings it’s almost as if the entire film was shot without the actors knowing the cameras were rolling. It’s a breathtaking success from a truly poetic and minimalist point of view.

The film follows Jaime (Pedro Castañeda), an undocumented Mexican farm worker, and his widowed daughter-in-law Lupe (Veronica Loren), who is still in mourning for her husband after four years. Because of this, she can’t bring herself to continue on with her life. The family dynamic changes, however, when Jaime’s wife passes away and he and Lupe are forced to move to San Antonio to look for work.

Although Lupe wants to take care of her father-in-law, Jaime feels like he has been enough of a burden on her and considers himself at a crossroads where both can go their separate ways. But Lupe is not ready. It’s almost like she needs to know that she is needed. Even when her brother-in-law tries to play matchmaker by introducing her to one of the neighbors (Walter Perez), Lupe is timid about starting another relationship and how that would affect her ability to care for Jaime. She feels safe with Jaime and that’s all she really wants out of life.

As viewers we also feel safe within the confines of Eska’s creativity. Through gentle and leisurely-paced scenes of everyday emotion, Eska wants us to be part of the family’s life. He wants us to recognize their hopes and fears and experience the same eternal love that Jaime and Lupe share for one another.

Castañeda, who has never acted in a film before, uses his natural personality to make Jaime’s soft-spoken manner come alive, while Loren gives a touching performance as a young woman who learns to allow true happiness to find her. Their characters are placed on a vibrant Texas background created by cinematographer Yasu Tanida, who captures the richness of rural South Texas.

This isn’t a story about immigrants looking for the American Dream. Instead, Jaime and Lupe realize who they are an are comfortable in those roles. “We’re put on earth to make more dirt,” says one of the characters in the film. While it could sound like a depressing sentiment to some, Eska is able to translate it into a statement brimming with authenticity and insight.