It's hard to expect great things from Spanish-language films that fail to secure U.S. theatrical distribution in the post-Y tu mamá también period, when art-house audiences are clamoring for anything with a hint of Latin spice. The three titles newly added to 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's "Cinema Latino" series don't do a lot to allay that natural suspicion. From their box art which trumpets the various films as the recipients of various negligible awards and nominations to contents that are only sporadically inspired, these features accomplish little more than putting a vaguely foreign gloss on movie-watching experiences that are already available stateside.
The best of the bunch, director Eduardo Mignogna's Cleopatra, acknowledges its debts upfront, with Fox's promo copy promising "a Latin spin on Thelma and Louise." You might even call it an improvement, especially if you had a problem with some of the more controversial implications of Ridley Scott's distaff buddy/road picture. In Mignogna's version, a retired Argentinean schoolteacher (Norma Aleandro) and a petulant, younger soap star (Natalia Oreiro) team up on a cross-country voyage of self-discovery. Expect a milder trip than the one Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis took: Our heroines get the jaunt underway by joking about their potential for being raped, and the possibility never really resurfaces to any significant degree. Instead, the focus is on mutually enriching conviviality, as senior partner Cleopatra who's put herself on temporary leave from selling cosmetics door-to-door and taking care of her mopey, unemployed husband becomes an ersatz mother figure to the truant, defiantly self-shorn Sandra.
Sympathy for the latter isn't the easiest thing to sustain, given that all she's running from is the prospect of a lucrative Telemundo deal and a movie role opposite Andy Garcia. What she really wants, see, is to be loved for herself. (Boo-hoo, bonita.) You'll find more to admire in Cleopatra, a devoted mother and frustrated wannabe actress who exhibits a winning self-assurance when dealing with the subjects she knows well bad spelling really cheeses her off and a childlike wonder toward the things she doesn't know, which is just about everything else. Aleandro's appealing Cleo is alternately relieved and challenged to discover that some of Sandra's longest-standing resentments may be the result of simple misunderstandings, rather than the wages of living in a man's world. That's not a feminist call-to-arms, exactly. But it sure beats driving off a cliff.
Vidas privadas (Private Lives), meanwhile, is notable largely as proof of an emerging tenet of foreign cinema: If you throw the boxes to three Spanish-language DVDs against a wall, Gael Garc'a Bernal will fall out of one of them. This time, the omnipresent heartthrob gets to play footsie with All About My Mother's Cecilia Roth, supplying stud-muffin services for a businesswoman who returns to her home of Buenos Aires after two decades of self-imposed exile in Madrid. Unable to experience sexual pleasure directly, Roth's character hires Bernal's model/gigolo to read erotic literature aloud as she masturbates vigorously in an adjoining room. Something awful happened to Carmen all those years ago, something that has rendered real intimacy out of the question for her. But wanna bet that Bernal's puppy-dog sensuality rousts her out of her funk?
The nature of Carmen's torment has political overtones that position the film as an intriguing cross between Death and the Maiden and Last Tango in Paris; as executed, though, it's more like an episode of Red Shoe Diaries directed by Brian De Palma. Particularly irksome are the sub-Hitchcockian music stings that punctuate the reading of salient lines of dialogue, passages that director Fito Páez apparently fretted might otherwise escape our attention. (Those stings are still better than the atonal, kitten-on-the-keys piano noodlings he employs to a similar purpose.) The story at first dawdles, then builds to a decent level of intrigue, then races willy-nilly toward an absurdly melodramatic conclusion. The lead characters discover the true extent of their relationship by connecting dots at lightning speed; unfortunately, they're dots we've already connected ourselves, about half an hour earlier. We're thus afforded the rare and disquieting feeling of being ahead of a movie and behind it, all at the same time.
Disquiet gradually descends to distaste in Dos tipos duros (Two Tough Guys), filmmaker Juan Mart'nez Moreno's problematic contribution to the venerable subgenre of mismatched-gangster comedies. To settle a debt, a hired assassin named Paco (Antonio Resines) agrees to baby-sit the nebbish-y nephew (Jordi Vilches) of a powerful crime lord. Their first collaboration a kidnap job that arrives with the promise of an enormous paycheck is complicated enough to warrant the addition of a third partner, a spunky young prostitute (Elena Anaya), who is naturally street-savvier than both of them put together.
Director Moreno's swipes are proudly mainstream: a forsaken spouse/hostage from Ruthless People, a pair of gay hit men from Diamonds Are Forever. Still, the film occasionally manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, no more so than when it's getting good mileage (figuratively if not literally) out of that most dependable of comedic tools, the fish-delivery van. Meeting the demands of the form, there's a madam with a heart of gold, and even hookerette Tatiana (Anaya) is endearing beneath her self-interested conniving.
Yet as dearly as one would wish to classify those stereotypes as harmless, they denote a mounting misogyny that marks Dos tipos duros as a pretty ugly piece of work. At one nauseating juncture, we're invited to laugh at the sight of a middle-age woman being shot in the head and having her hands sawed off. She's a murdering, manipulative shrew, so Moreno seems to feel that her dismemberment is nothing to lose sleep over. Point taken. But what we're seeing is still a middle-aged woman getting shot in the head and having her hands sawed off. And the only thing funny about the sequence is how effectively it fuels our own negative stereotypes of Latin masculinity. ("They kill their wives and get away with it," you find yourself whispering in bigoted condemnation.)
Viewers seeking a healthier immersion in Latin culture will be pleased to learn that the English subtitles on all three discs are sometimes fleeting, flashing on and off before it's clear that anything has been said, let alone what. Consider this flaw the impetus to turn the titles off, let the audio track run untranslated and begin a crash course in Spanish. Or you can just enjoy the opportunity to lean more about the "still-frame-advance" feature on your DVD player. It all depends on how many new hobbies you're planning to embark on this year.