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Miss Bala (2012)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Beauty Amidst The Beasts"
5 stars

When the shortlist of films qualifying for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film was released last week, few observers were surprised to learn that the highly touted Iranian drama "A Separation" made the list--it has been considered the presumptive front-runner for the prize for a while now--and many were relieved to discover that the heavily promoted but indescribably awful "Flowers of War" failed to make the cut despite its large budget and profile. However, what did come as an unpleasant surprise was the discovery that "Miss Bala," an absolutely stunning and spellbinding entry from Mexico that had been receiving raves on the festival circuit ever since it premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Inspired by true events, the film stars Stephanie Sigman as Laura, a sweet young lass from a small Mexican town who ventures into Tijuana in order to compete in a beauty pageant. After making it through the initial round, she follows a friend of hers to a party in a local bar that becomes the sight of a massacre. She escapes the slaughter but through no fault of her own, she finds herself trapped in an increasingly surreal nightmare of violence and corruption that sees her being used as a pawn by both the head of the local drug cartel and the police trying to bring him down. As she bounces from one misadventure to the next, events become increasingly violent and bizarre and every time Laura tries to extricate herself from her situation, she winds up digging herself in even deeper in the process.

The first time I saw "Miss Bala," I knew virtually nothing about other than the fact that it had caused a stir at Cannes (in fact, I think I may have actually begun watching it thinking that it was something else entirely) and was immediately knocked out by the sheer visceral impact of what director/co-writer Gerardo Naranjo had created with this brutal and breathlessly exciting work that takes a familiar enough narrative and breathes new life into with his flawless cinematic skill. The film is action-packed but this isn't simply the "Scarface" knockoff that some might expect--the combination of stark documentary-like reality and exquisite style is truly striking and invigorating. In one especially audacious and virtually seamless sequence, Laura goes from being trapped on the streets in the middle of an elaborate gun battle between the cartel and federal agents to posing on stage as part of the beauty pageant.

The second time I saw it, however, the shock of those action scenes had inevitably faded away a bit and I was able to better realize that the film had more going for it besides them, chiefly Narnanjo's obvious skill behind the camera--his work is reminiscent of what Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu once effortlessly achieved in "Amores Perros" before getting bogged down in the dreary plot complications of "21 Grams" and "Babel"--and the compelling central performance by Sigman as the ordinary girl trapped in an extraordinary situation. More impressively, it truly captures the chaos and insanity wrought by the drug wars south of the border--so much so, in fact, that I never knew where it was going next and was thrilled by the fact that such a potentially predictable premise still had the power to surprise when placed in the right hands.

Brash, brutal, horrifying and occasionally darkly funny, "Miss Bala" is a knockout in more ways than one and it would be a shame if its inability to score a Foreign-Language Film nomination leads to its U.S. release being scuttled because this is one that deserves to be seen and on the biggest screen possible.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22502&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/23/12 18:40:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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