This week in movies you missed: One of last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature Film is definitely not for kids. From Spain, Chico & Rita is a stunning evocation of midcentury Havana and its popular music.
What You Missed
In present-day Havana, a lonely elderly man hears an oldie on the radio, clinks two glasses together to suggest an invisible companion, and remembers his past.
Havana, 1948. When talented piano player Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) sees drop-dead sexy Rita (Limara Meneses) singing in a bar, he can’t take his eyes off her. They begin a turbulent, off-and-on romance that leads to musical collaboration and then to a bitter split, when an American producer decides he wants to make Rita a star in the U.S. — and in his bedroom.
The story follows the two lovers (and their friend Ramón [Mario Guerra]) through decades and cities: New York, Paris and Vegas are also lovingly reproduced by artist Javier Mariscal.
Why You Missed It
Widest U.S. release: 23 theaters. You may have caught Chico & Rita at last spring’s Green Mountain Film Festival.
Should You Keep Missing It?
I admit, I’ve always preferred live-action films to animated ones. For me, there’s just something about being stuck in an animator’s surreal world — especially when it’s full of hectic kid-movie action — that can be creepy and claustrophobic. But the more great animated films I see, whether they’re Pixar or Miyazaki or last year’s Oscar winner, Rango, the more that changes.
Chico & Rita reminds us that animation can do things live action can’t, besides give people rubber limbs. It can transport us to places that no longer exist — places extensively documented in historical photos, but far too costly to recreate on movie sets. Gazing at Mariscal’s incredibly detailed drawings of a Havana bristling with corner shops, ornate architecture and giant neon signs is like taking a vacation in the past. When the action moves to 1950s New York, the palette gets colder, grayer, but the detail and ambiance are just as striking.
The story of Chico & Rita is a pretty standard show-biz melodrama, albeit with hard edges Americans may not expect in an animated film. (Neither Chico nor Rita is great at fidelity, and the movie addresses the racist treatment of black musicians in the midcentury U.S. Oh, and there's a nude scene.) But the real stars are the images and the music. Fernando Trueba, who codirected with Mariscal and Tono Errando, is credited with drawing golden-age Cuban bandleader Bebo Valdés (b. 1918) back out of obscurity for his film Calle 54. Valdés contributed an original soundtrack to Chico & Rita and does Chico’s playing; Idania Valdés does Rita’s smoldering vocals. The film also features sound-alikes for Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and others.
Like The Artist and Moonrise Kingdom, Chico & Rita recreates the pop myths of an era as much as its reality, but it’s a recreation many viewers will want to sink into and enjoy at leisure.
Verdict: If you love the Havana sequence in The Godfather: Part II, or really any film set in a smoky jazz club at midcentury, this is for you.
More New DVD Releases
The Babymakers (Paul Schneider tries to steal his deposit back from a sperm bank)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (British seniors in India)
Beyond the Steppes (Belgian drama about woman struggling to keep her child alive)
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (The Duplass brothers bring us the tale of two grown brothers who work out their sibling rivalry through an epic series of contests.)
Hysteria (Maggie Gyllenhaal in comedy about the invention of the vibrator)
John Leguizamo: Tales From a Ghetto Klown (profile of the actor as he mounts a one-man show in NYC)
The Magic of Belle Isle (Rob Reiner directs Morgan Freeman in something heartwarming.)
Salvation Boulevard (Pierce Brosnan in satirical tale about a mega-church.)
Shakespeare High (Documentary about teens in a Shakespeare immersion program with famous alumni)
These Amazing Shadows (Documentary about the National Film Registry — a hot topic as we approach the demise of 35-millimeter film)
The Woman in the Fifth (Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas have a thriller-y romance in Paris.)
Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)