Small Movies With Big Hearts: The Illusionist, Quinceanera, Bandidas, Idiocracy

The Illusionist Box ArtLet's face it, for every blockbuster that succeeds, there are several that don't. What keeps the film industry robust [besides DVD sales] is a constant stream of low-budget films that carve out niche audiences and generate profits in the hundreds of percents. They do this, generally, by connecting with their audiences on a more personal level – the battle of wits that gives The Illusionist its zing; the emotional discovery that coming of age is not merely a ritual in Quinceanera; the hell bent for leather energy of Bandidas, or the lowbrow satire of Idiocracy [I didn't say they'd all be gems…]…

The Illusionist Box Art

The Illusionist

This tale of deception, ambition, greed, love regained and the battle of wits between an illusionist and a semi-corrupt police inspector is mesmerizing from start to finish. Edward Norton [Eisenheim The Illusionist] and Paul Giamatti [Inspector Uhl] play a game of cat and mouse in which we can never be certain which is which – even after the closing credits begin to roll.

The tale features an ambitious prince [Rufus Sewell], the aforementioned regained love [Jessica Biel], some lovely illusions [the orange tree is one of my favorites], and a possible murder. Every key cast member gives an excellent performance, and Neil Burger's direction beautifully evokes the film's period, and his script [co-written with Steven Millhauser] is filled with all kinds of plausible hints, clues and red herrings – the dialogue is also extremely precise and very well developed.

The result is a film that holds the attention, provokes thought, stretches the imagination and causes long conversations afterward. The Illusionist builds a world of possibilities around heart – at its core, it's a Romeo and Juliet story that might actually have surmounted the class and political problems that obstruct it – or maybe not. As Eisenheim notes, "Everything you've seen in my theater has been an illusion" – or has it…?

Features include: an excellent audio commentary from Burger; a making of featurette; Jessica Biel on The Illusionist, and the theatrical trailer.

The Illusionist – Grade: A

Features: Grade: A-

Final Grade: A

Quinceanera Box Art

Quinceanera

Sometimes, a coming of age ritual is not that important. For Magdalena [Emily Rios], though, her Quinceanera is all-important. The ritual, which heralds her fifteenth birthday – and announces to the world that she is officially a woman – is already affected by having to wear the dress her cousin Eileen [Alicia Sixtos] wore. A dress that she discovers won't fit – even after alterations.

Suddenly, her desire to ride to her Quinceanera in a Hummer Limo is replaced by dread – she's pregnant! Worse, she has never actually had sex – but her father won't believe her! Thus she winds up living with her much-respected Tio Tomas [Uncle Thomas – played with grave and humorous eloquence by Chalo Gonzalez] and her black sheep cousin, Carlos [Jesse Garcia].

From there, things get worse – Carlos' affair with one of the family's new landlords has nasty repercussions, and a family tragedy lies just ahead. Now, no longer protected from the world by her parents, Magdalena discovers that coming of age means learning to deal with the events of real life.

Shot on a budget of a quarter of a million dollars, in three weeks, Quinceanera is a film that will ring true even if you're not of Hispanic descent. Indeed, it was written and co-directed by two white guys who fell in love with the titular ritual when they witnessed it for their neighbors' daughter. The film was shot on high-def video – which cut out film costs – and the result is that the film's look has a greater intensity.

Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland capture the life the rapidly changing Echo Park, as well as the importance of ritual and family in this award-winning film [Sundance Audience Prize and Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2005] that was actually shot in Echo Park.

Features include: an entertaining audio commentary featuring the directors, Rios, Garcia and Gonzalez; coverage of the Los Angeles Premiere; Behind the Scenes [a very good making of featurette], and Mis Quince Anos" the complete Quinceanera video that was created for the film.

Quinceanera – Grade: A+

Features: A-

Final Grade: A

Bandidas Box Art

Bandidas

Apparently, Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz had wanted to do a film together for a long time. The result is that desire is Bandidas, a frequently silly but always entertaining riff on the Zorro-type of vigilante that substitutes two female bank robbers for the black-clad avenger.

When a railroad baron decides he wants to control the railroads in Mexico, he sends Jackson [Dwight Yoakum] to take care of it. Jackson forges a deal with Don Diego, father of the cultured Sara [Hayek], then kills him. He also "buys" farm mortgages from farmers he's killed – for one peso – leaving the receipts on their dead bodies. One of the farmers is father of Maria [Cruz], who [simultaneously with Sara] comes up with a way to make the gringos pay – rob their banks and give the money to the remaining farmers so they can pay off their mortgages.

When they both decide to begin their careers as bank robbers by robbing the same bank, fireworks ensue, but they eventually decide to work together. Thanks to some instruction from master bank robber Bob [Sam Shepherd, in a terrific cameo], the railroad baron sends a master detective [Steve Zahn] to foil the robbers. Unfortunately, he's too good at his job and changes sides when the women prove that Jackson and his backers are the real criminals.

Bandidas is a light comedy that pokes a bit of high-spirited fun at westerns and various incarnations of the Robin Hood/Zorro, rob-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor story. Produced and co-written by Luc Besson, the film is notable for being one of a very few westerns to have female leads, and for its balance of humor and action. There is even a bit of romance, as Sara uses Zahn's character to teach Maria about men – and a rivalry is established.

Suffice it to say that Bandidas is not a candidate for any awards – but it does do one thing very well: it entertains. Hayek and Cruz have terrific chemistry, and both have great chemistry with Zahn. Yoakum has established that he can play a bad guy, and his Jackson is one of his best efforts. The stunts and explosions are worthy of a film with a much larger budget, and the script is smart enough to keep an audience engaged for ninety minutes.

Features include: a bubbly audio commentary by Hayek and Cruz; Burning Up The Set [Hayek and Cruz discuss how Bandidas came to be], and the theatrical trailer.

Bandidas – Grade: B-

Features – Grade: B-

Final Grade: B-

Idiocracy Box Art

Idiocracy

It seems like such a wonderful concept: an average man is placed in hibernation for year, but when he wakes up, a thousand years later, humanity has became so stupid that he's the smartest man alive. Unfortunately, despite having its heart in the right place, Idiocracy runs out of gas [unfortunately, not literally] before the second act.

Pvt. Joe Bowers [Luke Wilson] is chosen to test a top-secret hibernation chamber. Unfortunately for him [and us], the commander of the project is court-martialed and the project forgotten. Instead of a one-year snooze, Bowers wakes up in 3001 – thanks to a landslide of trash that deposits his hibernation chamber in the living of a guy who's watching a comedy called, "Ow! My Balls!"

The story of how Bowers becomes registered in this brave new world as "Not Sure," and escapes jail by simply inquiring which line is for prisoners who are being released, is pretty clever. Unfortunately, his rise to power in Uh-merica, where the president is a former pro wrestler and porn star, rapidly goes downhill from there. What bright spots there are come mostly from the woman who was also used in the hibernation experiment – a hooker named Rita [Maya Rudolph], who discovers that she can make money without actually having to do anything for it…

Considering that Mike Judge gave us the classic Office Space, this has to be considered a major disappointment – and a film for which, thank whomever, there is no audio commentary [though it might have been funnier than this mess]. Indeed, the only special feature is a handful of deleted scenes.

Idiocracy – Grade: D

Features – F

Final Grade: D-

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