Monday, March 5, 2012

Chico & Rita and Wanderlust

          Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
                    Review by Ken Burke                      Chico & Rita
Feature-length animation is rarely so adult and sensual but this story of love begun in Cuba then interrupted by politics is a musical delight if a bit of a melodramatic story.

An urban couple stumbles upon a rural hippie colony attempting to rethink their personal and romantic lifestyles only to realize that for them traditional love conquers all.

            Now that the Academy Awards have been given out for 2011 films we know that the one chosen for Best Animated Feature was Rango (Gore Verbinski)—a plea for community bravery in support of ecological balance against the evils of personal and corporate greed, all done with an entertaining combination of Johnny Depp’s vocal work, a cast of reptiles, amphibians, and birds, an old-west-across-the-highway-from-the-new-west-of-Las-Vegas setting, a lot of action and well-timed comedy, and even a guest appearance by a character meant to evoke Clint Eastwood’s westerns persona—we’ll likely soon forget about the other nominees, including the franchise installments of Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, now the box-office champ of all female directors with her two installments of Jack Black voicing a martial-arts mammal) and Puss in Boots (Chris Miller), although their producers won’t forget anytime soon how profitable they were (#15 and #16 respectively for 2011 US returns, with the former at over $165,000,000 [plus over $500,000,000 overseas] and the later at over $149,000,000 [plus almost $384,000,000 from foreign markets]) increasing their chances of another go-round in the future (Rango was no slouch either, coming in at #22 with over $123,000,000 domestically and almost $122,000,000 internationally), and we may have little chance of even seeing the French-made A Cat in Paris (Une vie de chat, Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, produced in 2010 despite being an Oscar contender for 2011 [understanding those eligibility rules has never been my strong suit]).

            But the other nominee, from Spain (the first animated feature from there to be nominated for an Oscar and this year’s winner of the Spanish Goya Award for Best Animated Film), Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, and Fernando Trueba’s Chico & Rita is available in some theatres and well worth your time for the excellent Cuban music and the pleasing flow of the visuals if not for the rather common love-lost-and-regained storyline typical of traditional musicals (and the warning that even with an animated film there are viewers who don’t care for subtitles—the film is in Spanish, for those of us who aren’t bilingual)Chico & Rita has a Las Vegas connection, just like Rango, as well as a narrative that spans many decades from 1948 to present.  I can see why you’d enjoy watching the fluid, stripped-down animation style of this film as an active accompaniment to the constant flow of the music, but I can also say that you could probably get almost as much pleasure by just listening to the soundtrack on a CD, so decide for yourself if you’d prefer Chico & Rita in aural or multi-sensory mode.

            Maybe I should say “multi-sensual” mode because this is clearly a cartoon for adults, with lovemaking, bare bodies (even full-frontal female nudity), and the real passions and problems that confront humans rather than the abundance of anthropomorphized animals in the other Oscar nominees.  Chico and Rita are Afro-Cuban musicians—he a fabulous pianist and band leader (voiced by Eman Xor Oña), her a mesmerizing singer (dialogue performed by Limara Meneses, songs by Idania Valdés)—who meet in Havana, join forces (and bodies) in pre-revolutionary Cuba to international acclaim, find themselves separated twice as their careers are rising through a combination of jealous misunderstandings, Chico’s deportation on false drug charges, and the U.S. embargo on Cuba, but then they finally reunite in old age at the dumpy Vegas motel where Rita has languished for years after her career came to an end, seemingly along with their troubled but all-consuming love.

            But we know that love must conquer all here, because this is a musical essentially of the old-time constant-performances-by-multiple-artists Revue variety with modern trappings of the plot that would have to look back to pre-Code musicals of the early 1930s such as Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) to find parallels with the honest depiction of adult foibles on screen found in Chico & Rita.  Certainly other musicals have also shown the harsh side of life such as big Oscar winners Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) and Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002), but these are a different sub-genre, the Modern musical, where the sweetly sappy taste of The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) has been replaced by a more acrid flavor, even as the tunes are still compelling.  Revues began as just overwhelming audiovisual collections of little more than one number after the next as early sound films needed to showcase something else besides poor dialogue recording and delivery (parodied marvelously in Singin’ in the Rain [Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952]) and continue to find life occasionally as biographies in more recent works like Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004) and Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005)—films again with Oscar connections for acting by Jamie Foxx in the former and Reese Witherspoon in the latter—but Chico & Rita enlivens the Revue form with a fictional structure based in cultural reality that incorporates the music and animated likenesses of such mid-20th century jazz stars as Chucho Valdés, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Chano Pozo, Tito Puente, Ben Webster, Theolonious Monk, and Nat King Cole, with Chico’s music performed by contemporary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and the later revival of Chico’s artistic life done by real-life flamenco singer Estrella Morente.  The music is almost constant here, but when the voices quieten down there’s lots of action imported from other genres to keep your adrenalin up with throw-away car chases, shootings, montages of performances in New York and Paris, and romantic intrusions from Chico’s former girlfriend Juanita and Rita’s new manager/lover Jon.

            Chico & Rita has an animation style characteristic of its mostly 1950s setting, with simpler line drawings and more abstraction (made even more flat and cartoon-like in the opening credits to set them off from the film proper) than the lush three-dimensionality of the 1940s-50s Disney classics and the more visually complex films of today such as Rango or Pixar’s Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010).  This fits the mood of the film, though, because it allows the storyline to fly along without need for rapt attention to the details of the many settings or to dwell on the historical accuracy of depictions of pre-Castro Cuba (although much research did go into what is shown on screen).  It’s also a style that complements the active energy of the near-constant music and feels very Caribbean in its colorful simplicity (it also helps to downplay the details of our protagonists’ bodies in their moments of birthday-suit directness, both in and out of bed).  Altogether, it’s easy to watch, great to listen to, and certainly a deserving recipient of all of the critical accolades it’s received and a fit contender for the Oscar, although it likely never stood a chance against Rango’s Hollywood-heritage sensibilities.  I’m not a big fan of traditional musicals and this one’s melodramatic story twists are too reminiscent of what has disengaged me from much of this genre in the past, but it is a great listening experience, a satisfying love story, and a useful acknowledgement of the realities of how cruel racism (Rita’s career essentially stops in Las Vegas when she drunkenly complains on stage about being able to perform in a fancy hotel but not being allowed to sleep there) and hardened ideologies (Chico can’t perform “imperialistic” jazz in his new Communist-ruled home nor can he return to the U.S. after his phony drug-bust because of the mutually-imposed travel restrictions) that exist in society outside of the view of more escapist musicals.  We get fictionalized versions of such institutionalized cruelties in live-action performer biographies such as Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972) and Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974), but this acknowledgement that black Hispanics face a double dose of difficulty in our society, not only as depicted in the 1950s scenes but implied also for our contemporary real world, is a very adult aspect of this unrated film (likely not submitted to the ratings board to avoid problems with the frank depiction of intercourse), not intended to occupy your children on a weekend afternoon.

            As noted above, you might enjoy its essence enough if you simply let yourself flow with the powerful rhythms of the music but you do get a bit more with the active animation of the visuals and occasional aspects of the story that manage to rise above the seemingly gratuitous romance problems, streetwise life-threatening action scenes (although the depicted death of Chano Pozo over a drug deal gone bad is based in alleged fact [if that's not too much of an oxymoron]), and travelogue montages (when Chico slips into Manhattan to try to reunite with Rita he goes into a dream sequence that seems borrowed full-on from the dream ballet in An American in Paris [Vincente Minnelli, 1951]) that seem to have bled over from other movies.  Certainly the love that Chico and Rita maintained for each other despite their 47-year separation should warm your heart and encourage you to feel that any hope is possible to be realized, even when the odds seem horribly set against you.

            Similarly, in David Wain’s Wanderlust the odds of romance finding fulfillment constantly seem to be stacked in hilarious manners against young married urbanites George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), whose careers aren’t connecting in Manhattan (maybe they should have tried being jazz musicians); their options are dim for improving when they try moving in with George’s belligerent brother Rick (Ken Marino), his distracted (read margarita-filled) wife Marisa (Michaela Watkins), and their briefly-seen, obnoxious son in their Atlanta McMansion neighborhood; and their world goes completely underwater (as does their car) when they stumble onto a rural commune—excuse me, “intentional community”—run by—excuse me again, not run (just dominated in every aspect)—by Seth (Justin Theroux), an archetypal (non- [according to him]) hippie whose technology awareness seems to have been frozen in the 1980s (considering this movie is set in current day with our tight job and housing markets I can only imagine Seth was whisked off to this Elysium forest enclave as a child and he hasn’t ventured further than the connecting highway turnoff ever since). 

            To use Thomas Schatz’s terms about our prized American formulaic entertainment movies in his Hollywood Genres book, both musicals and romantic comedies are example of “genres of integration,” where the social structure is established and the main story arc deals with reining in the too-independent rebel (who is more at home and needed in a “genre of order,” such as a western or crime film) and re-establishing the social norms that were in place before the story finds its necessary narrative conflict.  One way to bring about the problem that must be resolved so that the movie’s world can become tranquil again is to somehow separate the romantic pair, the protagonists in these genre movies, which allows resolution to come upon their reuniting and assumed social continuance via marriage—as with Singin’ in the Rain or Chico & Rita—although sometimes an unexpected twist comes and the only way for social/interpersonal stability is through separation of the seemingly-intended lovers so they can go further and find someone more suitable—as with Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) or The Break-Up (Peyton Reed, 2006), also starring Jennifer Aniston.  Another “genre of integration” plot structure is to begin with the marriage already in place but threatened by outside forces that may spell doom for the supposedly-resolved couple, just as the Hangover films (Todd Phillips, 2009, 2011, and likely another one in 2013) give us reason to wonder how anyone who could get married after going through what these guys do could possibly remain with a sane mate.  In Wanderlust that’s what we’re dealing with, the old “Can we survive this?” complication.

            Specifically, the complication in Wanderlust is the rural extended family of Elysium and its initial attractions for George which are challenged by Seth’s attraction to Linda, especially as she gets increasingly at home in the place while previously hip hubbie is finding his dream of escape from the rat race is just turning him into a rat, at least for some of the residents of this alternative society.  Despite George’s initial desire to break away from the world of overpriced Manhattan “micro-lofts” (realitor-ese for “too tiny to turn around in”), careers that can collapse without warning as your CEO is led off in handcuffs, oppressive relatives who have built a fortune on port-a-potties (toilets feature prominently in this film at times), and—without previously vocalizing it—a wife whose interests keep changing faster than their finances can accommodate, Elysium proves to be more confining than George had assumed yet it’s also liberating for Linda who finally seems to find her focus on the land.  Soon George is overwhelmed by the total lack of privacy which includes no doors on any of the rooms in the large communal house, horses and sheep wandering around indoors at leisure, and casual conversations from fellow residents as George attempts some natural action on a toilet.  (I told you there’s a constant “earthy” undertone to this film. My wife related well to this scene because it’s a recurring nightmare for her, although she reports that the dream people who wander by unconcerned while she’s trying for a dump are just as blasé as the ones who wander by and talk with George—maybe everyone concerned saw that same episode of “Seinfeld” where another George doesn’t follow his boss into the restroom, thereby missing important instructions for a major project for the Yankees, and Jerry reminds us all of President Lyndon Johnson’s tendency to carry on staff briefings even while nature called, just like Mr. Wilhelm in the TV episode.)

            In Wanderlust, George’s (anal-retentive?) hesitancy to just go with the flow (so to speak) is countered by Linda’s ease of connection with this organic band of farmers, musicians, and free lovers, so much so that when our transplanted couple is invited to a Truth Circle intended to further integrate them into the community Linda is given free reign to express her feelings but George can hardly get a word in edgewise because of the tribe’s constant interruptions even as they’re pushing him to speak up.  He finally does let it all out, including his frustrations with working at a brain-deadening job that he hated in order to finance her forays into filmmaking and apartment buying, resulting in his decision to depart Elysium, especially after his agreement to open up their marriage sexually goes awry.  He’s very tempted by Eva’s (Malin Akerman) attraction to him so he convinces Linda to discard the bedroom door in a very literal way, but when Linda quickly connects with Seth and George finds himself incapable of being anything but a misguided, anxious pseudo-stud (there’s a fantastic scene as George looks himself in the mirror and tries to whip up a frenzy of machismo) with Eva (who rejects him, as she had something more sincere than meaningless intercourse in mind), he decides to leave the whole scene and limp off back to Atlanta, leaving Linda to Seth which isn’t seeming like such a bad deal to her, as she’s become a local breast-bearing celebrity by leading the group in a televised protest (as “a topless Norma Rae”) against a developer who wants the property for a ghastly commercial casino.

            All of this eventually comes around to social integration and true love ways, as a non-threatening romantic comedy should, when George realizes that Linda means more to him than anything so he returns to the non (?)-commune to ask forgiveness; Linda sees Seth for the conniving entrepreneur that lurks under that pile of hair when he agrees to steal the deed to the property from old, addled founder Carvin (Alan Alda) and sell it to the developer for a mere $11,000 (he’s even more out of touch with current inflation than thawed cryogenic Dr. Evil [Mike Myers] was when he wanted to hold the world for ransom of a measly $1,000,000 in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery [Jay Roach, 1997]) so that he and Linda can get beachfront property in south Florida; George and Linda find financial security by becoming publishers of commune-nude-winemaker Wayne’s (Joe Lo Truglio) novel which becomes a best-seller; Marisa finally confronts, then leaves, Rick over his constant affairs and writes her own “novel,” I Hate You, Rick; and, among other happy ends I don’t even remember, Carvin finds that his memory was fooling him and his several commune co-founders are still alive including one with another copy of the deed so all’s well that ends well in this formulaic froth that’s at turns active, energetic filmmaking (particularly nice is the early montage of George and Linda driving to Georgia with quick alternations of radio sing-a-longs, romantic connections, sulking disconnections, and snoozing that implies they hardly ever even took a restroom break at one of those ubiquitous toilets), traditional romantic comedy tropes of alternating attractions and altercations, original comic situations and dialogue that’s really biting at times (especially Marisa’s deadpan deliveries), and some rapid-fire wrap-up jokes that even manage to work Ray Liotta into the mix (maybe you can find the last five minutes somewhere on the Internet [see below], possibly the best part of the whole film).
            Like Chico & Rita, Wanderlust has a lot going for it even if you have to admit that with their traditional genre structures so well in place these films aren’t absolutely the best things out there right now, especially with all of the Oscar winners taking their victory laps.  Still, both of these films are effectively entertaining whether you’re in the mood to shake your body a bit by grooving along with some marvelous music or by loosening up with some consistent laughter.  If you’ve had enough of watching hatchet-job political debates and worrying about when the Mideast is going to explode, you’re probably ready for some diversionary relief, which either of these romantic tales can provide in good measure.  But if your mood gets too mellow, don’t forget to close the door to the bedroom; you never know who might wander in, from Cuban ex-lovers to Georgia farm animals, all of whom caused intrusions in these films that you wouldn’t want to duplicate if you can help it.
          If you'd like to know more about Chico & Rita here are some suggested links:  (This is the first segment of watching the entire film with English subtitles but you’ll have to locate the rest of it on your own.)
          If you'd like to wander more through Wanderlust here are some suggested links: (This is one of dozens of sites where you can watch the entire film for free if you fill out a survey, try to qualify for a prize, etc.; help yourself if you are interested. Supposedly if you choose to watch through
you’ll be doing it legally and free but I take no responsibility for those claims.)

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