Monday, April 20, 2009

HFFNY ’09: La Mala

Lena Burke (a.k.a. just plain Lena) is the daughter and grand-daughter of famous Cuban singers: Malena and Elena Burke, respectively. So, it is fitting that in her motion picture debut, Burke plays a singer who could be described as the legendary vocalist La Lupe’s spiritual heir. She generates plenty of musical and dramatic heat as the budding Latin music superstar protagonist in Lilian Rosado & Pedro Pérez-Rosado’s La Mala (trailer here), screening at the 10th Havana Film Festival New York.

As the film opens in provincial Puerto Rico, Yolanda’s very pregnant mother has just married her ostensive father, while her La Lupe worshipping aunt Candela belts out a tune that would make her idol proud. Yet, “Yoli” will be the true musical talent of the family. Of course, as in every rags-to-riches story, her childhood will not be easy, requiring her to endure her father’s serial philandering and the tragic death of a young lover. Actually, suffering in silence is not her strong suit, but she can definitely sing, adopting Candela’s idol as her role model.

Yoli’s family relations might be torturous, but her musical ability is clear. Indeed, there are some thoroughly entertaining musical numbers, including a smolderingly hot Latin version of Cooley & Blackwell’s “Fever,” Peggy Lee’s signature song. The originals certainly have their moments too, featuring lyrics that slyly reflect Yoli’s off-stage drama.

One of the real surprises of Mala is the humor of its screenplay. This is not Terms of Endearment with a Latin score. The dialogue can be viciously cutting and downright ribald. While following the general story-arc of musical dramas, Mala has its own distinct sensibility. However, it fumbles somewhat a particularly dark turn of events late in the film, largely ignoring the emotional consequences, which creates credibility problems.

In general though, Mala is surprisingly enjoyable, featuring some excellent ensemble performances. Burke displays strong acting chops in addition to her dynamic vocals. As her cigar-chomping father, Jorge Perugorria has a certain Robert Pastorelli quality, nicely fleshing out what could otherwise have been an unsympathetic stock character.

Despite its family chaos, Mala never bogs down in melodrama. It chugs along at a brisk pace, staging plenty of high-energy musical performances. If not high cinematic art, it is an expectedly fun film. It screens again Tuesday afternoon at the Quad Cinema.