Friday, December 6, 2013


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

Narco Cultura—“We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill.

This is a lyric from a narcocorrida, a popular Mexican song form celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers. That specimen—a translation—may not seem like anything you wouldn’t hear in, say, gangsta hip-hop; what the gives the Narco music a particularly bizarre flavor is the juxtaposition of the grim, gruesome murder and torture that make up its subject matter with its sound—a cheerful, brassy polka beat, often carried by an oom-pah-ing sousaphone.

Shaul Schwartz’s documentary Narco Cultura contrasts two figures from the Mexican drug wars. On one side is Edgar Quintero, a singer and songwriter for the rising Los Angeles band Bukanas de Culiacan. On the other is Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator for the police in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso.

Edgar is an infectiously enthusiastic kid with a lovely voice, which he employs in romanticizing killers—sometimes he’s paid, handsomely, by a particular thug to customize a corrida just for him. He’s a happy young artist reveling in his growing popularity, and itching to spend time in Mexico and gain street cred in the gangster lifestyle he’s mostly written about from internet research.

Richi, on the other hand, spends his days collecting evidence from his city’s innumerable daily murders, most of which will be filed away and never investigated further. He works methodically, but he seems defeated, and he’s afraid to leave his house at night—several of his colleagues have been assassinated.

Schwartz bounces back and forth between these two, and the people they deal with. In Edgar’s case, it’s big crowds of smiling, dancing fans—one music industry guy refers to them as “Regular people, they go to a club, and they feel Narco for the night, you know? The next day they have to go and work.

He’s probably right. Like gangsta rap, the music has its appeal, and the fans offer perfunctory apologetics, halfheartedly claiming that the Narcos are like Robin Hoods, or that the music can be excused because it’s part of a “lifestyle” or “culture.”

Schwartz is having none of it. Against such catchphrases he shows us Richi’s workday, full of distraught mothers, wives and daughters, keening and moaning as the police pick up their loved ones—sometimes in multiple pieces—from streets which in some cases literally run red with blood. Schwartz doesn’t want us to forget that the men Edgar’s music glorifies are responsible for this awful grief.

Superficially, of course, none of this is new. You can trace it from The Sopranos through New Jack City through Scarface through "Mack the Knife" to the Cagney gangster flicks, through the odes to Bonnie and Clyde and the OK Corral and Billy the Kid and pirates and highwaymen, all the way to the medieval murder ballads. What feels different about the narcocorridas is their seeming shamelessness—most criminal rhapsodies, no matter how clearly their real pleasure derives from their seductive power fantasy, make at least a nominal pretense of being cautionary tales. The Narco songs don’t seem to bother with that obligatory element.

An industry guy claims that the songs represent “…an anti-system rebellion that’s makin’ a hero out of somebody that operates outside of the law.” But this doesn’t seem quite accurate—the songs are full of lyrics like “We follow orders.” They seem much more like propaganda for an extra-legal but very rigid system. A Juarez journalist suggests that it’s really a measure of the listeners’ sense of defeat—the songs represent the closest they can realistically imagine to a success story (the genre is banned on Mexican TV and radio, but is hugely popular in that country anyway).

Narco Cultura doesn’t have the strange, surreal feel of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, another disturbing documentary about an unembarrassed culture of slaughter. Schwartz’s movie is more straightforward and angry. It’s an extraordinary film, but be forewarned: It’s full of hideous real-life gore and violence. Sometimes to a polka beat.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—Jennifer Lawrence returns as heroine Katniss Everdeen in this sequel to last year’s monster hit The Hunger Games. The setting is a dystopian future America built around televised annual games that are basically a to-the-death version of the “reality series” Survivor.

In the new film’s first half, Katniss and fellow survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) take a PR victory tour; in the second half they’re forced to compete again. As in the original, I must admit to a distaste for the premise—I don’t necessarily doubt its plausibility, but I’m troubled by the way we seem to be asked to root for some participants in this vile sport over others, as if we were viewers of the Games ourselves.

But also as with the original, it must be said that Catching Fire is well-made and very well-acted by the sensational cast. The new film seems to be a lot about the costumes—Lawrence is a compelling beauty, and she wears over-the-top outfits better than just about anyone in movies right now. Designer Trish Summerville keeps putting Lawrence in one outrageous get-up after another, and she doesn’t look ridiculous, she looks beautiful—or, at least, she looks more beautiful than ridiculous. Summerville should win an Oscar.

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