'Miss Bala' remake, 'Serenity'

By Tom Von Malder | May 05, 2019
Photo by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Gina Rodriguuez and Ismael Cruz Cordova star as kidnap victim and cartel boss, respectively, in "Miss Bala."

Owls Head — Miss Bala (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 103 min.). This is an English language remake of a 2011 Mexican film, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, who recently has directed episodes of "Fear the Walking Dead" and "Narcos." Most of the basic plot points that set up the movie are the same, as are at least two of the main characters; however, the central character, now played by Gina Rodriguez (TV's "Jane the Virgin"; the films "Deep Water Horizon," "Annihilation"), is changed from Laura Guerrero to Gloria Fuentes. This time the director is Catherine Hardwicke ("Lords of Dogtown," "Twilight").

In the original film, Laura was Mexican and a contestant in the pageant. In the remake, Gloria is Mexican American and goes from Los Angeles to Tijuana to help her friend (Cristina Rodlo as Suzu) participate in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. In this film, which is more about female empowerment, Gloria is a Hollywood makeup artist who has ambition and bright ideas to do more, but her ideas are brushed off by her supervisor.

When Gloria and Suzu go out to the Millennium Club, so Suzo can schmooze with a public official who could help her with the contest judges, they witness members of a drug cartel try to assassinate Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Worse yet for Gloria is that she was in the bathroom as the shooters entered and therefore saw their faces. Gloria escapes during the chaotic mayhem, but Suzu goes missing, and Gloria's dogged efforts to track down Suzu the next day bring her to the attention of the Los Estrellas cartel members.

Kidnapped, Gloria is brought to their leader, Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Cordova of TV's "Berlin Station," "Ray Donovan"), who later reveals  that he was once an undocumented immigrant living in Bakersfield, Calif., before he was deported and just about pushed into a life of crime. Lino is portrayed as a sensitive bad guy who warms up to Gloria to gain her trust. There is some subtle romanticizing of his manipulation and attempts to control Gloria. First though, the cartel forces Gloria to drive explosives to what had been an American Drug Enforcement Agency safe house. This brings DEA heat, in the form of Agent Brian Reich (Matt Laurie of TV's "Traitors," "Kingdom," "Parenthood"), who also forces Gloria to work for him. Reich proves to be basically a worthless character. With pressure on both sides, Gloria has to learn quickly how to handle herself, and some of her mistakes are deadly ... for others. (The original film was much more bleak and minus the female empowerment angle.)

There are several action sequences, the best of which takes places in the parking lot outside the Tijuana bullring. "Bala" is Spanish for bullet; hence, the title is a twist on the name of the beauty pageant. While the film has franchise potential in the Gloria character, I doubt it did well enough to spawn any sequels.

Extras include audio commentary by director Hardwicke, executive producer Jamie Marshall and associate producer Shayda Frost; a look at Rodriguez playing a strong character (4:03) and closer looks at four action sequences (7:31), both with Hardwicke and Rodriguez interviews; a making-of that focuses on the locations and the 8-week shoot (7:05); a look at wardrobe tests (7:30) and action scene rehearsal (4:59), both with interesting commentary by Hardwicke; and four deleted and four extended scenes (7:31 total). One deleted bit has Lino kiss Gloria to mark her as safe in the eyes of his men, while a funnier one shows a few crew members trying to ape the beauty contestants' practice dance moves. Grade: film and extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Serenity (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 106 min.). Writer-director Steven Knight (writer of TV's "The Detectives" in the mid-1990s, writer-director of the film "Locke") came up with a very interesting idea for this film, but presents it as an unbelievable -- make that even laughable -- twist. Before that, one has to suffer through Matthew McConaughey being saddled with one of the most boring characters ever. McConaughey plays impoverished fisherman Baker Dill, divorced, separated from his teenage son and forced to take out  paid clients for fishing, when he would much rather go all Captain Ahab on one particular giant tuna that he now has hooked four times, but never been able to land. He calls the tuna "Justice" (no symbolism there, ha).

Into this unexceptional life comes Baker's ex-wife (Anne Hathaway as Karen), who asks Baker to take her current husband out fishing, get him drunk and throw him overboard for the sharks. As if to save Baker's son from an abusive father (Jason Clarke as Frank Zariakas, who beats up Karen and is connected to a Cuban mob) was not enough, Karen offers Baker $10 million if he does the deed.

The film starts to get weird about an hour in when a character in a suit and carrying a briefcase (Jeremy Strong as Reid Miller) finally tracks Baker down. But then again, the film has been weird all along, with several strange cuts to Baker's son and, oh yes, an abundance of McConaughey's backside as he likes to dive naked off a cliff into the ocean and call it a bath. There also are naked scenes of him leaving Constance's (Diane Lane) bed after lovemaking that she apparently pays him for.

There are no bonus features. Grade: film 1.5 stars

Mission of Honor (Cinedigm, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 106 min.). The film is competently made and deals with a lesser known story of British history that deserves to be told, but the film is far too bland. The story of the Polish fighter pilots who helped stop Nazi Germany's bombing of England during the Battle of Britain in World War II would have been much better served as a documentary. There are many aerial combat sequences in the film, but the special effects are rather mundane.

The film, directed by David Blair ("The Messenger"), does point out some of the prejudice that the Polish pilots faced as they were turned into the 303 Squadron, which ended up with 126 kills in six weeks. Its best bit is its whimsical opening. It is June 1940 and Jan Zumbach (Iwan Rheon of TV's "Vicious," "Inhumans") is stopped by a Nazi patrol in occupied France. Pretending to be a Swizz watch salesman, he convinces the Germans to give him a 24-hour pass, then he saunters into a French hangar -- while a flight crew is seated in another portion of the hangar -- and steals an airplane, so he can fly to Great Britain.

Given command of the 303 Squadron is John Kent (Milo Gibson, son of Mel), a Canadian who was helping the British. This was before the Americans entered the fray. In the bonus features, it appears the film was called "Hurricane" overseas.

Those extras include a Q&A with the director (15:39) and on location interviews with Rheon (13:32), Gibson (1:58) and actresses Rosie Gray, Stefanie Martin and Emily Wyatt (2:09). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Level 16 (Canada, Dark Sky Films, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 102 min.). Yet another film with an ending that makes one rethink everything that has gone on before, only in this case it works as a solid foundation has been laid. The film was written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy ("Black Field"). The title refers to a level of schooling, based on age, at an all-girls school that offers the promise of adoption after Level 16 is completed.

The girls at Vestalis Academy seem to be mostly taught obedience and good hygiene. Punishment for uncleanliness is apparently extreme. Video monitors watch the girls, who are reformed into different groupings throughout their time at the academy, and washing of the face and taking pills are done in lineup fashion.

Vivien (Katie Douglas of "Eyewitness," "Every Day") once was punished for being late to wash her face, a discipline that ended her friendship with Sophia (Celina Martin of TV's "The Other Kingdom"). Now, however, Sophia is in the same new grouping of Level 16. Sophia tries to renew their friendship and reveals some secrets she has discovered about the academy. Sophia's goal is to escape. Keeping the students in line are headmistress Miss Brixil (Sara Canning of TV's "A Series of Unfortunate Events") and Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge of TV's "The Umbrella Academy," "The Expanse," "12 Monkeys," "Designated Survivor").

As the film is rather morose throughout, and the setting bleak, the viewer highly anticipates a not-so-happy ending. It comes, but it also is a shocker. Extras include a brief making-of (5:02) and a bevy of interviews, including with the four principal actors (10:48, 12:40, 9:23, 10:27), a group of the female student actors (4:58), Esterhazy (30:53), production designer Diana Magnus (16:02), costume designer Jennifer Stroud (3:08) and executive producers Judy Holm (6:28) and James Weyman (5:10). Grade: film and extras 2.75 stars

The Deadly Mantis (1957, Scream Factory Blu-ray, NR, 1978). We now fall back into the 1950s, when science fiction films bursting with ideas and Cold War analogies were popping up everywhere, but whose special effects are laughable compared with what films today use. In "The Deadly Mantis," it is not atomic power that creates a huge, mutant praying mantis, but rather a bit of global warming, although one really cannot believe a volcanic eruption near Antarctica would cause enough shaking at the other end of the planet to release some ice into the sea, one slab of which contains the deadly mantis of the title that had been frozen for eons.

The film's slow start literally travels over half of a map of the world with narration about "an equal and opposite reaction" -- I'm sure that would not mean that heat would be met by cold. Anyway, after the narrator goes on to explain radar and the various lines of its defensive use along the Canadian border and within Canada, we finally get some action as Col. Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens of TV's "Peter Gunn," "The Invisible Man") arrives at Red Eagle One base at the center of the Dew Line. It is the same time as a two-man weather shack is destroyed, with both bodies going missing. Then a C-47 plane is wrecked in flight, again with no bodies found, but there is a piece of cartilage that Dr. Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper of TV's "Perry Mason"; films "Rebel Without a Cause," "20 Million Miles to Earth"), a paleontologist in Washington, D.C., identifies as from an insect. Then a bit later, helped by photographer Margo Blaine (Alex Talton of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Rock Around the Clock"), who is around to let loose with a couple of memorable screams of terror, it is identified as from an apparently giant praying mantis (twice as big as the C-47 plane).

The monster, finally seen 33 minutes into the film as it attacks an Eskimo village, looks silly when flying and it comes with a drone buzz. It gets some action climbing the Washington Monument -- but does not destroy it, leaving such historic artifacts for Roland Emmerich to destroy in the future -- and turns over a bus, until hiding in a tunnel for the ending, which is similar to "Them!" (1954).

A couple of interesting things to point out: the military, both on the ground and in the air, has really bad aim; and one of the newspaper headlines as the creature makes its way down the East Coast reads, "Mantis Reported at Bangor." Go Maine! Bonus features include audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver (he points out borrowed scenes) and David Schecter; the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" take on the film (1997, 92 min.); and a stills gallery (7:56). The film, which has a lot of padding, was shot in 13 days, with one additional day for close-ups added three months later. The director was Nathan Juran ("Attack of the 50 Foot Woman"), who uses a documentary film style much of the time to lend some credence to the plot. This is a new 2K scan of the original film elements. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Queen of Outer Space (1958, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR, 79 min.). This time the menace is provided by man-hating, mini-skirt-wearing Venusians, who, under Queen Yllena (Laurie Mitchell of "Attack of the Puppet People," "Missile to the Moon"), have killed most of the men on Venus and sent some scientists to an orbiting prison. A three-member U.S. space crew is transporting a scientist to the space station he designed and helped build, when the Venusians' Beta Disintegrator ray destroys the space station -- after quite a few misses (can't anyone shoot well in these films) and then is tempered enough so it only disables the rocker ship and makes it crash land on Venus.

The crew of the spaceship are Cmdr. Neal Patterson (Eric Fleming of TV's "Rawhide"), Lt. Mike Cruze (Dave Willock of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?," TV's "Hogan's Heroes"), the funny one, and Lt. Larry Turner (Patrick Waltz of "The Silencers"), the one always kissing his current girlfriend. The scientist is Professor Konrad (Paul Birch of "Not of This Earth," "The Beast With a Million Eyes," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). On Venus, not all the women support Queen Yllana and her man-less society. Chief among the "rebels" is Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor of "Moulin Rouge," "The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear").

Overall, the film is too silly -- especially the giant spider -- and definitely falls into the category of camp. At times, it seems more of a romance than a sci-fi film. Mini-skirts on Venus, indeed. The year is supposed to be 1985. There is a lot of noise in space --where no one can hear you scream, or really hear a Beta Disintegrator ray, let alone a rocket firing -- and the Americans' space rocket, when flying towards Venus in scenes borrowed from another film, looks nothing like the spacecraft that is shown launching from Earth. Gabor's gossamer gown looks very nice, though. It has a slit that goes way up the thigh.

Once again there is an audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, and this time he is joined by actress Mitchell. They discuss her career as well as the film; the audio commentary appears to be from 2007. By the way, I highly recommend Weaver's books, especially "Interviews With B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Actors, Directors, Moguls and Makeup" and "Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946." Grade: film 1.5 stars; extra 2.5 stars

The Donna Reed Show Season 1-5 (1958-63, MPI, 25 DVDs, NR, 80 hours). The Fifties also was the golden age for family TV shows, including this sitcom that aired on ABC-TV. Reed was an Oscar-winning film actress, having appeared in "From Here To Eternity" and "It's a Wonderful Life," among others. Here she plays homemaker Donna Stone, married to pediatric husband Alex (Carl Betz). Their children are Mary (Shelley Fabares) and Jeff (Paul Petersen). Later, the Stones adopt Trisha (Patty Petersen, Paul's real-life younger sister).

The set includes all 186 episodes from the show's first five seasons in complete, remastered versions. Now seen on Nick At Nite, TV Land and MeTV, the show is as wholesome as they come. Guest stars include Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Buster Keaton, Bob Crane, Marion Ross, Gale Gordon, John Aston, Ted Knight, Richard Deacon, Don Drysdale, Esther Williams, Tony Martin and Jimmy Hawkins.

Extras include new featurettes and interviews with Fabares, both Petersens and Hawkins; vintage promotional spots; an interview with music producer Stu Phillips; song outtakes; original cast and sponsor commercials; the 1959 cast Christmas greeting; Reed's public service spots; the Reed tribute on "This Is Your Life"; and rare footage and photos.

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