Eugene Weekly : Movies : 9.1.11

Food for Thought
Cookie-cutter Colombiana a meager advance for female action heroes
by Molly Templeton

Zoe Saldana as Cataleya

COLOMBIANA: Directed by Olivier Megaton. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamon. Cinematography, Romain Lacourbas. Editor, Camille Delamarre. Music, Nathaniel Méchaly. Starring Zoe Saldana, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis, Lennie James, Amandla Stenberg and Callum Blue. TriStar, 2011. PG-13. 107 minutes.. Two and a half stars.

I thought about food a lot while watching Colombiana. I thought about food not so much because I was hungry but because my brain seemed to need something to think about, and the moving pictures on the screen weren’t offering much. They were pretty enough, especially the ones with Zoe Saldana, but Colombiana is so cookie-cutter a revenge flick that I began to wonder if Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, District B13) wrote it in his sleep, or perhaps just allowed someone to put his name on a script he only saw in passing.

That’s not to suggest that all of Besson’s creations as a writer — which include The Transporter, Taken and Angela-A — are brilliant works of art. Still, the only work of art on display in Colombiana is Saldana, slim and catlike as Cataleya, a young woman who dreams only of avenging her parents, who were murdered when she was very young by some sort of underworld boss. (Amandla Stenberg plays a precociously graceful young Cataleya.) Saldana sells everything, from her faux-drunken stumble into a police station to her wrenching sobs when yet more people she cares about are taken from her. 

She sells, but that doesn’t mean we’re buying. Colombiana gets very dull in the stretches that don’t involve one of Cataleya’s cleverly plotted murders. The film fills in the space around these murderous capers with three things: Utterly standard speeches from her uncle, who trains her to be a killer; moments of coincidence that would have you believe the FBI only ever finds serial killers when the mail guy happens by and recognizes their tags; and fairly chaste make-out sessions between Cataleya and her super-sensy artist boy toy, Danny (Michael Vartan). If Vartan has parlayed his role on Alias into a career making out with stunning badass women, more power to him, but he’s barely even window dressing here. 

Nothing about Colombiana is entirely wrong; nothing about it is entirely right, either. The movie looks fine, and an opening chase sequence pitting a generous handful of thugs against a small girl in her school uniform borrows nicely from the parkour Besson so entertainingly showcased in District B13. Saldana and her supporting cast are game enough that you never quite want to roll your eyes in disgust (though the tired all-Latin-Americans-are-thugs trope did bring me close). You may, however, let out a disbelieving snort or two. 

For all the ways Colombiana is cut from worn cloth, and made by men who can’t conceive of female action-hero traits beyond “aggressive” and “sexually aggressive,” I still dread seeing its box-office showing held up as another reason why women can’t open big films. (Oddly, you never see anyone blaming men as a whole when shitty dude-movies fall on their faces.)  It’s fine. This kind of movie defies star rating systems and defies critics. It’s shiny and dumb and makes you think about dinner, but it also stars a Latina woman as a Latina heroine — a rare thing indeed — and didn’t require a burly, super-famous male love interest to get made. That counts for a few points, and a few topics of discussion over dinner.

THE BIG UNEASY: Written and directed by Harry Shearer. Cinematography, Arlene Nelson. Editor, Tom Roche. With Robert Bea, Ivor van Heerden and Maria Garzino. 2010. 98 minutes. Three Stars.

Harry Shearer’s The Big Uneasy is not, the filmmaker would like you to know, “a ‘Katrina documentary.’” Hard words to avoid when you’re discussing what happened in New Orleans in August of 2005, but Shearer has a point: The Big Uneasy isn’t about the people, or the fleeing, or the FEMA trailers, or the rebuilding. Instead, it takes on the Army Corps of Engineers, making the case that much of the Katrina-related devastation could have been avoided were the city not at the mercy of a deeply flawed, insufficient protection system. 

Shearer’s film takes some time to find its feet, weaving first through a dizzying series of Mardi Gras images and skipping through a handful of talking heads before settling on three central figures: UC Berkeley professor Robert Bea, a former employee of the Corps, who co-led an investigation of the levee failures; former Louisiana State University Hurricane Center deputy director Ivor van Heerden; and Maria Garzino, a Corps engineer who investigated the water pump system put in place after Katrina and found it defective. 

The Big Uneasy contains a wealth of information pulled from news broadcasts, newspaper articles and the report Bea and his colleague Raymond Seed wrote after their investigation, as well as talking-head testimony from Corps employees, journalists and others. From time to time, Shearer veers off into “Ask a New Orleanian” segments introduced by a slightly crazed John Goodman. The bitterness and frustration hiding under the polite, technically focused surface of the film seeps through in Goodman’s tone and in the tight, practiced answers given by the residents Shearer assembles to take on typical questions: Why does the city stay there? Aren’t people just sitting around waiting for handouts? 

Using the experience of Bea, van Heerden and Garzino, Shearer builds a quietly damning case against the Corps, uncovering a culture of ass-covering and equivocation that puts too much value on easy solutions, even when such solutions are nothing but a Band-Aid over a gushing wound. In a disturbing segment, Shearer reveals that a contractor took the Corps to court over flawed plans — but lost, and was required to build the way the Corps directed. 

Bea and van Heerden’s findings detail weaknesses in the systems that existed before Katrina; Garzino’s unheeded warnings about the water pump system put in place after the hurricane suggest that there’s still little interest in getting it right. From time to time, a voice sympathetic to the Corps appears — one man says there are too few actual engineers in the Army Corps of Engineers these days — but whenever the Corps has a chance to speak for itself, it’s in a stubborn, bureaucratic tone that says nothing is wrong. It was just too strong, that hurricane. 

In his filmmaker’s statement, Shearer writes, “Media coverage of tragedies can become so pervasive that we no longer remember the tragedy anymore, we only remember the coverage.” The Big Uneasy attempts, with moderate success, to return to the tragedy, and to shift the accepted narrative about what really happened in New Orleans. Certain directorial choices weaken Shearer’s message: the decision to use section headings is more confusing than clarifying, and editing blunts some of Garzino’s most pointed commentary. But if the filmmaking often feels unpolished, the story, as Shearer has pieced it together, has undeniable weight.   


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