Monday, April 23, 2012

Mictlan (Mexico, 2002)

People have on occasion asked me whether it’s harder to write about good films or bad ones, and the answer is neither. Both types of films are capable of inspiring lively prose, but it’s the movies like Mictlan -- the ones that just kind of sit there and stare back -- that leave me at pains to write something that doesn’t read like I’ve got a gun stuck in my mouth. And that’s unfair, really. Because it’s clear that a lot of competent people put in a lot of honest work on Mictlan, despite the fact that I can find so little to say about it. Meanwhile, I’ve practically made a side career out of discussing other films that are, by comparison, case studies in negligence.

But the sad fact is that few artifacts are less likely to whelm than a late vintage Mexican direct-to-video feature, and Mictlan has the misfortune of displaying most of the hallmark failings of that medium: the soft, overly lit look; the homely interiors; the telenovela pacing; the cheap looking digital effects; and the cheesy synth score. All of which is not to say that there aren’t some unusual aspects to Mictlan that bear noting. It’s just that I’m the least likely person to be won over by a film’s inclusion of a particularly weird looking child actor.

Mictlan begins with a prologue in which a duo of he-and-she magical warriors, Gucumatz (Inaqui Goci) and Xochitl (Julieta Carpinteiro), rescue a young boy from the sacrificial altar of Mictlan (Manuel Ojeda), the Aztec lord of the underworld. A battle rife with digital hand magic follows, during which Gucumatz causes Mictlan’s cave lair to collapse in upon him, the hero himself dying in the process. Flash forward to present day Mexico, and we find that all of this, despite its vaguely ancient aroma, actually took place sometime in the 1970s (some wah wah guitar music might have been helpful to orient us in that respect), because the rescued boy has since grown up to be thirty-something Miguel (Marco A. Orozco), who is still plagued by traumatic flashbacks to the event.

Because this movie is called Mictlan, you can safely assume that Mictlan –- a figure whose garments appear to be made entirely out of Dia de los Muertos souvenirs -- was not killed in that cave-in. And it is soon established that the old bastard is indeed back at his old tricks, preparing for some kind of cataclysmic event that requires his shape-shifting minions to snatch dozens of Mexico’s children from their beds for the purpose of some kind of planned sacrifice-a-palooza. It is for this reason that the entirely unaged Xochitl shows up in Miguel’s life again, doing so just in time to prevent his sacrifice at the hands of his girlfriend, who turns out to be one of Mictlan’s agents (and as such a deft illustration of Bell Biv Devoe’s sage advice about not trusting a big butt and a smile.)

Since epic fantasy narratives are nothing if not paeans to exceptionalism, it of course turns out that there is ONLY ONE person who can defeat Mictlan, and that is Gucumatz. Fortunately, somewhere in rural Mexico, Gucumatz is in the process of being reincarnated in the form of Jimmy (Jaime Huitron), a weird dwarf child with a topknot who looks like the unholy issue of Yoda and Webster. Witnessing Jaime Huitron lead me to consider how popular cinema puts forth an unearthly standard of child adorableness every bit as damaging as its equally unrealistic standard of female beauty. The result of this is performers the likes of Emmanuel Lewis, India’s Master Raju, and Egypt’s Wonder Child Ahmed Farahat, all of whom look like failed experiments at creating a human Precious Moments figurine. Hopefully this trend will someday meet its end and we can look forward to seeing the types of wholly unremarkable children that we encounter in daily life represented onscreen.

Anyway, once Xochitl and Miguel have undertaken a quest to find Gucumatz that ends with them beholding a bizarre looking, levitating pseudo-infant, it is revealed that Jimmy is only capable of transforming into Gucumatz for a few moments at a time, Captain Marvel style. This makes things especially weird because, well, I haven’t mentioned that Xochitl and Gucumatz are also lovers, and when he is not fighting at her side or romancing her, she is forced to carry him in arm like a baby, which is essentially what he is -- albeit a preternaturally wizened one with a borscht belt comedian’s catalog of facial expressions. Happily, Mictlan will soon enough lose itself in its inevitable climactic battle and distract us from all of the discomfiting questions that raises.

Mictlan is a film in which everything is transacted via lightning bolts, be it a smack down, a dog-to-human transformation, or simply someone just thinking really hard. This means that if you are a fan of low end digital razzle dazzle, there is much within it to seduce your eye. And truly, it is these moments of frantic pew-pew-pewing during which Mictlan comes closest to transcending its otherwise fairly dreary level of execution. Beyond that, it just may be that the film’s greatest flaw is that it is made small by its own striving. Its soap opera trappings might ultimately seem less shrug-worthy were they not casting shadows in the shape of an adventure on a mythic scale -- while, at the same time, the movie is too earnest and competent to have the tripod dog appeal of something like Almighty Thor. It’s the kind of shoe-string epic that the Indonesians, during their prime, could have pulled off with aplomb, but only by investing in it a level of reckless energy and outrageous gore that Mictlan’s creators didn’t seem willing or able to muster.

With its depiction of an ultimate conflict between good and evil -- and of super special people coming to grips with their super special destinies -- Mictlan indeed tells an oft told tale. And, to be fair, it can only be called a failure to the extent that one is expecting it to somehow breathe new life into that tale. If one is instead just hoping to see that oft told tale made that much more oft told, then, well, mission accomplished. There are doubtless many people who would be quite content with that -- and, were I one of them, I would no doubt be able to find something far more interesting to say about this movie.


memsaab said...

Yoda and Webster! *falls off chair laughing*

Mr. Cavin said...

You had me at "telenovela pacing." Because nothing sells melodramatic shock like the one-two punch of an optical zoom and a swelling organ.

Todd said...

There are a lot of prolonged scenes of women weeping uncontrollably and screaming "dios mio" in this movie, is all I'm saying.