Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Soccer and the sweet smell of success

The new generation of Mexican filmmakers -- led by a trio of Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- is getting older, but the group remains a loose band of cinema brothers who support one another and extend the courtesy to others.

This trio of important filmmakers -- now operating under the rubric "Cha Cha Cha" -- has produced "Rudo y Cursi," a comedy written and directed by Carlos Cuaron, a younger brother of Alfonso. Carlos remains best known for having written the far more engaging "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which was directed by Alfonso. Sorry to bog down in names, but here are two more: Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in "Y Tu Mama,'' are reunited in a story about a couple of half-brothers who win a taste of soccer stardom.

Given all this, it's difficult not look at "Rudo y Cursi" as a kind of reprise, an attempt to capture "Tambien's" art-house magic in a new bottle. Not to worry. The movie manages to carve out turf of its own while offering a sly -- if never scalding -- critique of contemporary Mexican life.

"Rudo y Cursi," the nicknames the brothers acquire when they take the soccer world by storm, barely qualifies as a sports movie. Its insights into sudden celebrity may not be astonishingly fresh, but its depiction of Mexican society comes at us in ways that feel casual, even a bit chaotic. Even in the backwaters of Mexico, there seems to be a genuine longing for fame, and it burns most brightly in Bernal's Tato Verdusco, a young man who'd rather make his mark singing and playing accordion than in booting soccer balls around.

His bother Beto, portrayed by Luna, is the gruffer of the two, a staunch goalie who takes his soccer very seriously. The two eventually wind up in Mexico City. All this happens because a scout (Guillermo Francella) combs the countryside looking for hidden soccer talent. He comes on as agent and mentor to the boys, a role he might have been better suited to play had his character been a little less frayed around the edges. Beto falls into gambling and cocaine. Tato pursues a model (Jessica Mas) who's bound to break his heart in a very public way.

The movie's most ironic flourish remains at home in the provinces where the brothers once languished. A successful drug dealer -- perhaps the film's most stable character - marries their sister and begins providing for their mother, a task the boys had set for themselves. Although much of the story takes place in the world of high-powered soccer, the movie's real target has nothing to do with scoring goals: Its the fizzy, insubstantial nature of get-rich quick capitalism that Cuaron's after. These two brothers are nobodies who turn into somebodies without ever really becoming anybody.

A wry joke at the end helps give the film an airy feeling, and if "Rudo y Cursi" never really goes deep, it's a pleasurable enough pastime.

I don't know which would be worse: to have to write extensively about Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" or to have to sit through it again. Both probably are equally taxing because Jarmusch has made the great non-event movie of the year, so thin in plot that it hardly seems to be there. Meditative to the max, "The Limits of Control" follows a hit man (Isaach de Bankole) on a mission that takes him through Spain. John Hurt woke me with a cameo, but the same can't be said of the other actors who accompany de Bankole on this journey to nowhere: Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal and Paz de la Huerta. By the time Bill Murray shows up at the end, I'd gone numb, having subdued even the impulse to bolt. Limits of Control? I guess where Jarmusch is concerned there aren't any -- at least not when to comes to flat-line minimalism.

Now out of fairness to Jarmusch. whose independence I respect, and his many devotees, some of whom are good friends, I provide this link to critic J. Hoberman's review, which ran in the Village Voice on April 28. If Hoberman, who has given the movie as sympathetic a reading as possible, entices you, proceed. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Both "Rudo y Cursi" and "The Limits of Control" open in Denver Friday.

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