Mexico's "Casi Divas" (Almost Divas) is the third south-of-the-border film in recent weeks to center on a big TV contest. "Tony Manero," which featured a competition for impersonators of John Travolta's iconic character in "Saturday Night Fever," became a scathing allegory of the evils of Pinochet's Chile; "El Tinte de la Fama" (The Color of Fame) charted the confusing effect of imitating Marilyn Monroe on a young Buenos Aires woman, who in losing herself in Marilyn came to discover herself.
While all three films inevitably touch upon the craving of people trying to escape into a better life through winning the contests, Issa Lopez's "Casi Divas" is a funny, exuberant entertainment in which four young women enter a competition to star in a movie based on a long-running telenovela, "Maria Enamorada." "Casi Divas" is, in a sense, a soap opera itself -- and is very successful as such, a comedy with just the right blend of satire, social comment, myriad complications, romance and heart-tugging to give it some deft shading and variety.
The young women are Francisca (Maya Zapata), a naive Zapotecan Indian beauty from a mountain village in Oaxaca; Ximena (Ana Layevska), a svelte, rich blond from Guadalajara for whom winning the contest would be a gratifying reward for her struggle to lose 50 pounds; Yesenia (Daniela Schmidt), a glamorous, brassy, fearless Mexico City hairdresser with a rowdy family -- and an unexpected secret -- and Catalina (Diana Garcia), for whom winning the contest might well save her life, for she is a factory worker from the murderous city of Juarez.
Even though Alejandro (Julio Bracho), the suave producer of the TV series and now the movie, has deemed his series star -- and sometime lover -- Eva (Patricia Llaca) too old to re-create her role on the big screen, the tempestuous actress is geared to fight back with all she's got. In only her second feature, Lopez reveals an assured command of her medium -- inspiring trust in her marvelous cast, revealing a mastery of tone, pace, structure and characterization. In short, all the ingredients necessary for a terrific entertainment.
Kevin Thomas --
"Casi Divas." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature sexual content, language and thematic material. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. In general release.
A contradictory view on AIDS
As documentaries go, Brent Leung's "House of Numbers" is not especially well-organized or focused. It plays as if the producer-director decided -- and rightly so -- that it was time for a "state of HIV/AIDS" update, hopped the globe to interview researchers, physicians, journalists and other experts (as well as several of the disease's victims), and then figured out what his film would really be about. No matter, Leung manages to present a barrage of intriguing theories debunking our generally accepted beliefs and misperceptions about how HIV/AIDS is acquired, tested, diagnosed, defined and treated. It's a vital yet thorny approach whose inconclusiveness is bound to sadden or infuriate anyone who's lost a loved one to AIDS.
Leung serves as the movie's on-camera narrator and conscience, but, best efforts aside, the filmmaker's lack of screen presence undercuts the energy provided by his impressive range of interviewees, whose contradictory positions on HIV/AIDS become the project's raison d'etre. There's no denying, however, the value of exploring such game-changing topics as how HIV-infection numbers are cooked for monetary and political gain; how the effects of global poverty may have led to so many AIDS-related deaths; how such widely used AIDS drugs as AZT have, themselves, often proved fatal; and whether HIV really exists.
Gary Goldstein --
"House of Numbers." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Westwood Crest Theatre.
Where a gun takes a teen
Had it been crafted with a bit more depth and finesse, writer-director Piyush Jha's involving thriller "Sikandar" might have had the potential to reach beyond the average Bollywood import's core audience. Still, the film boasts a significant story with several effective plot twists that make it worth a look.
Set in the predominantly Muslim, northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the movie follows the spiral of events that befall 14-year-old Sikandar (Parzaan Dastur) after he finds a gun in the road and, as his new friend -- and conscience keeper -- Nasreen (Ayesha Kapoor) notes, it becomes "a part of him." At first, Sikandar, who has lived with his kindly aunt and uncle since his parents' murder by jihadists a decade ago, thinks the gun may come in handy to fend off school bullies and the like. But darker forces are at work, and the teen soon becomes enmeshed in a power struggle among local army officers, militants and political and religious leaders.