The movies have brought us enough underdogs with big showbiz dreams to fill well over a hundred Chorus Line auditions, but the familiar, done-to-death ingredients we’ve come to expect from backstage musicals and competition-driven song-and-dance extravaganzas have never been assembled quite as deliriously as in the Uruguayan/Argentinean/Spanish import Miss Tacuarembó. South American Gleeks and show tune freaks with a penchant for eighties kitsch have just found the ideal companion piece for the current word-of-mouth sleeper Pitch Perfect, which is required viewing for readers of this column.
The loopy charmer, which opens Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, throws a handful of disparate follow-your-bliss elements at the screen in the hopes that something will stick. Ostensibly, the film tells the story of dewy-eyed small-town girl Natalia Prato (Natalia Oreiro), 30 years old and still pursuing her lifelong goal of making it in Buenos Aires as a professional singer, but writer-director Martín Sastre keeps taking us on thematic detours bursting with cultural references that will go sailing over the heads of viewers who were not raised in a Latin American country during the eighties. (Cacharel’s bourgeois-chic perfume Anaïs Anaïs, for instance, is so ubiquitous that it should have gotten co-star billing.)
Sastre, who adapted the film from Dani Umpi’s novel, also keeps shifting back and forth between time periods. “Color first came into my life when I turned eight,” Oreiro’s voiceover wistfully reminisces as her eight-year-old self (Sofía Silvera) gasps at the TV set her mother Haydée (Mirella Pascual) has given to her on her birthday. The precocious girl, who, like many residents of the north Uruguayan town of Tacuarembó, are devout churchgoers, remains convinced that this gift actually came from the semi-naked man up on the cross. Before we can react to such a proclamation, li’l Natalia is putting on her leg warmers alongside equally idealistic bestie Carlos (Mateo Capo) to go over their dance routine set to – wait for it – “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” The song becomes Natalia’s anthem throughout her decades-spanning journey, and this all-too-short sequence elicited a smile from this reviewer that never quite faded during the remainder of Sastre’s feature-length sugar rush. Its more effective moments bring to mind Baz Luhrmann circa Strictly Ballroom and John Waters in Hairspray mode.
The film’s mid-eighties sequences are the heart of the film, and by far the more successful portion. Natalia’s thorn in her side arrives in the form of Cándida López (Oreiro, pulling double acting duties), her uptight catechism teacher. The character, recognizable to anyone who has ever attended Bible camp, is a walking compendium of traditional family values. “Fame is not a Christian value,” she chastises Natalia regarding her illusions of grandeur. Sastre hits paydirt when Cándida forces Haydée to tell her daughter to stop hanging out with her, um, peculiar BFF. The church lady has her way, which leads to a rift in Natalia’s relationship with the crucified carpenter sporting a crown of thorns. (JC gazes at the irate child from his vantage point with poker-faced amusement.) Even worse, the nosy watchdog meddles with Natalia’s access to her favorite telenovela Cristal. (Sastre borrows plot elements from the Venezuelan soap opera, a notable pop culture staple for the era’s latchkey kids.)
Flash forward over 20 years. “Cristal” (aka Natalia’s stage name) attempts to score an appearance on “Todo por un Sueño,” a Buenos Aires-based reality show hosted by the fabulous Patricia Peinado (beak-nosed Almodóvar diva Rossy de Palma). And yes, that is yellow eyeshadow she’s wearing to match her dress. The wacky TV personality agrees to let Natalia have her moment in the spotlight without telling the unsuspecting career girl about her ulterior motives. So what has happened to Natalia since she bid adieu to her culturally barren hometown? She still hangs out with Carlos (Diego Reinhold), and both of them toil away at Cristo Park, which is exactly the sort of Disneyesque conceit that its name suggests, and it would be implausibly outlandish if The Holy Land Experience in Orlando didn’t already push a similar concept with a straight face. When she isn’t dressed up as a commandment tablet alongside Carlos, Natalia delights kids as Mary Magdalene, and the sudden addition of new hire Enrique (heartthrob Boris Bakst) as a possible love interest brings on the catchy showstopper “El perfume del amor” (“Love Perfume”), a blast of bubble-gum cheesiness that drills a hole inside your brain and refuses to budge.
Needless to say, Sastre needs to work on his narrative skills. The energy in Miss Tacuarembó never flags, but a more streamlined structure could have worked wonders crystallizing the filmmaker’s ideas. Is it a coming-of-age fable? A parody of denominational bullying? A satire of our obsession with reality-TV oversaturation? A romantic bauble with a spring in its step? You can feel Sastre eagerly attempting to explore all these options, and it me feel as if I were being pulled in several directions at once. How does he tie this merry mess together? In a word: Jesus. A climactic encounter with a very sharp dressed Son of God (Mike Amigorena) is alone worth the price of admission. The sight of a shirtless Christ putting the moves on a willing Natalia might have prudes collectively shaking their heads in disapproval, but it’s just the kind of payoff Oreira’s despairing chanteuse – and, by extension, the audience – needed to walk out of the theater on a fizzy high that only a movie as offbeat as Miss Tacuarembó could deliver. Call it inspirational junk food for the soul.
Like Sastre’s candy-colored daydream, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie trades in Gen-X nostalgia. Like the wonderful 1984 live-action short on which it’s based, the 3D animated feature, rendered in glorious black and white, gives James Whale’s 1931 Boris Karloff classic a whimsical boy-and-his-dog makeover. It’s the Beetlejuice auteur’s bid to introduce his eerie/quirky brand of mischief-making to a new generation of impressionable outcasts, but what came across as genuinely subversive and inspired more than twenty years ago plays in its current incarnation like a pale Xerox of the real McCoy. Indeed, Burton has made his own monster out of spare parts of his earlier work, but this is a watered-down version that takes the creepy sense of menace of his most memorable films out of the equation. It’s not very scary, and it’s not very funny.
Here’s the story, for the uninitiated: Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan), a resident of the picket-fence burg of New Holland, loves two things above all others: science and Sparky. His canine companion, the star of his Super-8 home movies, loves one thing about as much as his master: retrieving objects. The mischievous bull terrier races to catch the baseball that Victor has just hit out of the park during a little league game. It’s a pity he didn’t see the car heading straight for him.
Sparky’s death scene, a wrenching moment in the original short, doesn’t register in the remake. It’s an emotional flatline, and with the exception of some bright monster-mash B-movie shenanigans (a welcome addition to the source material by screenwriter John August), the same goes for the rest of this tedious disappointment. Even more dismaying, a new storyline involving Victor’s science teacher (a thickly accented Martin Landau) denouncing the perils of small-minded small-town groupthink, felt uncharacteristically preachy. I could feel Burton wagging his finger at his target audience, a condescending change of pace that goes against the short’s tireless creativity. (The old Frankenweenie, which in one of those only-in-Hollywood ironies, was the very film that got Burton fired from Disney, is available as a special feature in the most recent DVD/Blu-ray release of A Nightmare Before Christmas.)
I actually thought the first hour of this past summer’s flop Dark Shadows featured some of Burton’s liveliest work in years. Okay, so that movie ultimately fell apart in a barrage of Grand Guignol excess, but at least you could detect a glimmer of the director’s impish glee. This is not the case with the new, and definitely not improved, Frankenweenie, which feebly tries, and fails, to avoid feeling like a disposable Disney product.