Cassandro, Million Miles Away both touching biopics, Haunting in Venice a drawing room mystery

Bernal drives colorful Cassandro

In lucha libre (Mexican professional wrestling), an exotico is a male fighter who performs in drag. This is an outsized entertainer that's purposely campy, their purpose being to undercut the inherent machismo of the sport. Their attire is flamboyant, often consisting of feather boas, tight, suggestive clothing and sequins, all bolstered by elaborate makeup. While welcome for their comic relief, they were not allowed to win any of the matches. Apparently, the tough guys in charge would only allow a joke to go so far.

All of this changed with the coming of Cassandro, an exotico who burst on the wrestling scene in 1988. Born Saul Armendariz in El Paso, Texas, the performer was able to change the public's perception regarding how he and his cohorts were perceived, as well as how their presence could help popularize lucha libre beyond the Mexican border.

Roger Ross William's Cassandro charts his rise, examining his life as an outsider, a status he only came to embrace after much hardship and soul searching. Raised by Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a single mother who continues to pine for the married man who is Saul's father, she makes ends meet by doing laundry and, it is suggested, some illicit nighttime activities. Her son is her world, embracing him for who he is, encouraging him to be who he is, despite societal prejudices.

The tone of the film is completely unexpected. Instead of mirroring the extravagance of lucha libre, Williams takes a more somber approach. An unforced poignancy emerges as we see Saul and Yocasta sit watching his father from afar as well as from a flashback in which he blatantly shuns them both. This longing for a more traditional family leads Saul to enter one doomed relationship after another, pursuing partners and situations he knows are unattainable. This is what drives the young man to seek acceptance, while his mother encourages him to do so without compromising.

Gael Garcia Bernal is perfectly cast, as the actor embraces the flashy nature of the character while providing the heart that ingratiates him to us. He and De Le Rosa are wonderful, not a false note between them throughout, their scenes executed quietly and forcefully, providing the film with a welcome, dramatic foundation. This is welcomed as the film lags during its second hour as the script by David Teague and Williams can't escape biopic predictability. Thankfully, Bernal's fine work and the undeniable power of the story make Cassandro worth entering the ring for. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Miles predictable but effective

Jose Hernandez's story is certainly one made for the movies. The son of a migrant worker, he became one of the chosen few allowed to enter NASA's astronaut program. Ultimately assigned to the STS-128 mission, he spent nearly two weeks in space on the International Space Station. (To put this into perspective, only 372 Americans have been in space.) To be selected as an astronaut is an exceptional event for anyone, but Hernandez's story is distinctive in terms of the many financial and social hurdles he had to overcome.

Based on Hernandez's memoir, Alejandro Marquez Abella's A Million Miles Away, recounts the engineer's story in an inspiring if pedestrian way, a film that hits all the expected biopic beats in the safest way possible. Though not as calculated and sanitized as other genre entries from 50-60 years ago, this is a movie that takes very few chances, leaving us to wonder if Hernandez is, in fact, as saintly as portrayed. Still, there's no denying the power of its theme of tenacity and perseverance.

Beginning in 1969, we see the Hernandezes traveling up and down the California coast during harvest season, going from one farm to the next to help bring in crops. Jose understands his parents' struggle, recognizes they will not get ahead and determines he wants more in life.

Naturally curious and tenacious, Hernandez (Michael Pena) crosses paths with a teacher who encourages him to follow his dream of being an astronaut. He does so but, of course, this does not happen overnight. Getting a degree as an engineer, he lands a job at a private firm and then meets the love of his life, Adela (Rosa Salazar), who he marries after a long courtship. Raising a large family slows things down, but Hernandez keeps his eyes on his prize.

Inspirational films have their purpose, as it's good to be reminded that hard work and a sense of determination does pay off. To its credit, Miles is not as heavy-handed as the recent The Hill and other faith-based dramas, and there's no question that Pena's presence – one of our most likable actors – helps keeps us involved. Still, as bland as it is, Hernandez's story is inspirational and as rendered here, could provide the proper impetus for future star rangers to follow their own dreams. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Branagh shines as a disillusioned Poirot in handsome Haunting

As much a horror film as it is a drawing room mystery, Kenneth Branagh's A Haunting in Venice succeeds in pleasing fans of both genres. The setting is post-war Europe, and the world and its citizens are wounded. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) has become a bit of a recluse, living in Venice, weary with all the death he's encountered during his career, cynical as well about human nature and the evil we are capable of. However, author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who's become rich and famous chronicling the detective's exploits, attempts to get him to leave his self-imposed exile by asking for his help.

Seems a former opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), has enlisted the aid of medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to contact her recently deceased daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson). Oliver is invited and she asks a skeptical Poirot to accompany her. However, once the séance takes place, events occur that even he cannot logically explain, followed by a murder that casts the light of suspicion on the other guests.

The list of usual suspects is a long one. On the surface, shell-shocked war doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (Jude Hill) would seem above reproach, while the dead girl's father, Maxime (Kyle Allen), obviously has nothing to gain by this act. Reynolds' assistants, refugee siblings Nicholas and Desdemona (Ali Khan and Emma Laird) appear to have solid alibis, while Olga (Camille Cottin), the housekeeper, was with Drake when the murder occurred, so it obviously couldn't be her. Would Poirot's bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio) commit such a heinous crime? And it surely couldn't be Oliver.

As with the previous entries in the series, the film is a wonder to behold, the movie's palpable sense of place one of its strong suits. No expense has been spared in the production design or the location. But the draw here is seeing Branagh in a role he obviously relishes playing. While there was a glint in his eye during the previous two outings, here he carries a look of resignation, barely containing the bitterness he feels over the way his life has turned out. When he casually mentions, "the slow extinguishing of my own soul" as the price paid for his continually examining the worst cases of human behavior, it is the declaration of a man barely hanging on. In the end, he is the straw that stirs the drink of these increasingly non-sensical concoctions. It's rather ridiculous, but in the end, the skill with which the story is told and the artistry evident in its rendering make Haunting worthwhile. In theaters.

About The Author

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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