Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TELENOVELA WATCH: Drug-Themed Series 'Duenos del Paraiso,' 'Tiro de Gracia' and 'La Esquina del Diablo'

Kate del Castillo, José María Torre and Jorge Zabaleta star in
Telemundo super series Dueños del Paraíso.
Dueños del Paraíso
A trio of narco-novelas premiered in the US last week headlined by the highly anticipated Dueños del Paraíso (weeknights at 10 p.m. ET) on Telemundo. A co-production by Telemundo and the Chilean TVN, but mostly produced in Miami, Dueños del Paraíso marked the return of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo to Spanish language television, her first telenovela since La Reina del Sur in 2011, the only genuine hit in Telemundo’s history and, for its first half at least, the best production to come from the network. Any hopes for another La Reina del Sur dissipate in the opening minutes of Dueños del Paraíso – it’s a clunker: boring and clichéd with contrived, lazy plotting and amateurish direction.

Dueños del Paraíso opens with the heroine’s voice over saying, “There are no good guys or bad guys, no heroes or villains,” already a lie as the next hour proceeds through melodramatic devices to tell the audience exactly who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are going to be in this story.

Anastasia Cardona, the heroine portrayed by Kate del Castillo, is given an absolving sob story in the opening scene when her long-absent mother arrives at her birthday party (really, an old woman is able to waltz uninvited into the birthday party of a drug lord’s wife) and it’s revealed she was a prostitute who abandoned Anastasia. Talk about lazy writing – there is nothing organic or believable in the scene, no reason we should care about these women whose names we’ve literally just learned a few minutes earlier, no reason except one is played by Kate del Castillo who we know is the star and needs to be fed constant opportunities to remind everyone she’s an actress. Anastasia Cardona isn’t a character, she’s an actress reel.

Of course, the birthday party is raided by masked gunmen who massacre unnamed non-characters because that is the most predictable and clichéd opening imaginable which we literally just saw in the previous narco-novela in the same time slot on the same network. The massacre is preceded by the birthday girl opening her presents. The first package she opens contains a severed foot. This is meant to shock the audience, but its set up is too predictable – you know as soon as they say they don’t know who the present is from it is going to contain a body part because the scene has been done countless times on other narco-novelas. But examine how stupid this unnecessary grisly indulgence is in terms of plot. What if she had opened her presents an hour earlier? Presumably, the party would have been ruined, guests would have gone home and the planned assault would have been for naught. At the very least, an early discovery of the present would have raised tensions and put the capo’s inept security on high alert.

Thankfully, Anastasia has the courtesy to open her presents just as the assault commences. Telemundo’s staging of action remains incompetent as ever: random shots of guys shooting, random shots of bodies falling, no sense of spatial relationships between the characters, no sense of geography, no suspense, no cliché unutilized - of course a dying body is going to fall on the birthday cake. Funniest bit was when a couple gunmen emerged from underwater to shoot a couple guys, I’m guessing because somebody at Telemundo saw it once in a movie and thought it looked cool; but staged here in the most ridiculous, impractical way conceivable - it appears the gunmen emerge from a pond of about three feet of water. A Naked Gun-like parody with a gunman emerging from an inflatable kiddie pool wouldn’t look any sillier.

How is this sequence expected to have any impact on the audience? We don’t know any of the characters, why should we care about them aside from the fact a few are played by actors we recognize who of course are going to come out of the shootout unscathed?

The aftermath of the massacre finds Anastasia not all that distraught or even concerned about seeing presumably her family and friends gunned down at her birthday party. She’s mostly pissy because her drug capo husband played by Guillermo Quintanilla abandoned her when making his escape from the shootout. This is the first thing that signals him as a “bad guy;” but what really makes him a “bad guy” according to this telenovela’s warped logic is that he cheats on his wife, the heroine. Yes, according to Dueños del Paraíso, adultery is what makes a character a “bad guy,” not the fact he is a drug-trafficking crime capo who has murdered innumerable innocent people.

It is this type of preposterous moral incongruity that prevents me from seeing telenovelas like Dueños del Paraíso, Señora Acero, La Viuda Negra, and El Señor de los Cielos as anything other than trash. I frankly hate most of the characters in Dueños del Paraíso and find the attempts to extenuate their wrongdoing via crude melodramatic devices shameless and insulting.

Anastasia is the most loathsome of the characters the audience is meant to identify with, a woman who lives a life of luxury built on the blood of innocents. I guess the sob story past was not deemed sufficient in wrenching audience sympathy, so Anastasia, like it seems all narco-heroines these days, is graphically raped. The rape makes her the victim and ensures her future atrocities are justified as vengeance. This is exploitative, I Spit On Your Grave garbage, rape reduced to a hackneyed plot device, serving as the heroine’s Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Telemundo repeatedly promotes Dueños del Paraíso, via on-screen graphics, as a “Super Series;” but aesthetically, it is only marginally superior to Telemundo’s typical low-grade Miami product. The direction is lethargic, with dull camerawork and pedestrian editing. The late 1970s setting is barely rendered on screen. The Miami of Dueños del Paraíso is like a ghost town, noticeably underpopulated with no cars on the streets or in the parking lots. The sound is peculiarly dead, dialogue sounds muffled and there seems to be no ambiance added to the soundtrack at all. Most laughable remains Telemundo’s action scenes. A fight scene in the first episode supposedly between Tony Dalton’s character and a random goon featured the worst concealed stunt man I’ve seen in a long time. It was so poor, somebody in post actually attempted to cover the stunt man’s face with an amorphous black blob, but they couldn’t cover the fact the stunt man’s hair was at least five inches longer than Dalton’s. If this amateurish bumbling is what passes for a Telemundo “Super Series,” is it any wonder their run-of-the-mill Miami produced telenovelas are nearly unwatchable?

Tiro de Gracia and La Esquina del Diablo
A pair of Colombian narco-novelas also premiered last week over on UniMás: Tiro de Gracia (weeknights at 9 p.m. ET) and La Esquina del Diablo (weeknights at 10 p.m. ET). Both are better produced, feature more creative stories and are more morally sound than Dueños del Paraíso, but only one, La Esquina del Diablo, is actually any good so far.

La Esquina del Diablo is a straightforward cops versus narcos story, a co-production between RTI in Colombia and Mexico’s Televisa. Mexican actress Ana Serradilla, who had a success last year in Colombia starring as La Viuda Negra, plays a rookie cop who is assigned to infiltrate the title location, the “Devil’s Corner,” the neighborhood stronghold a drug lord played by Christian Tappan.

From the central story line of the cop’s perilous undercover mission spin parallel subplots concerning power struggles within the incompetent and corrupt police force and the drug lord’s inner circle. Serradilla’s good cop superior played by Miguel de Miguel contends with an ineffectual police chief played by César Mora and a self-serving mayor played by Juan Pablo Gamboa, who is also his future father-in-law, with Ana Wills playing Miguel’s fiancée/Gamboa’s daughter. In the drug cartel, the tension lies in the resentment the capo’s hothead, reckless son played by Andrés Sandoval feels toward his father’s chosen second-in-command, an intelligent, ruthless enforcer played by Gregorio Pernía.

The production is first-rate, out in the streets with dynamic, handheld cameras, elliptical, fastcutting, and busy compositions. A shoot out in a warehouse in the first episode, while stretching plausibility, was crisp and well-staged with clear spatial relationships between the participants. The ambition of the makers sometimes gets the better of them as when they decide to show a helicopter crash which is rendered in unconvincing computer graphics. Even worse is the use of computer-generated blood in the shoot outs which unfortunately resembles the splatter effects of grade-Z horror productions like Sharknado.

Tiro de Gracia, a co-production between Colombian channel Caracol and Mexican channel Televisa, produced in Colombia, is the most outlandish of the three narco-series to premiere last week and also the funniest, though the humor is probably unintentional.

Colombian actor Róbinson Díaz has dual roles as an actor kidnapped and surgically altered to serve as a double of the nation’s most wanted drug lord, a sociopath movie buff who always has a harem accompanying him. One of the most recent additions to his harem, played by Greeicy Rendón, is seeking to kill the drug lord because he murdered her sister. Nicolás Montero plays a cop obsessed with capturing the drug lord and Indhira Serrano plays his partner and the only cop he trusts.

Natalia Durán, the beautiful actress who gave a sensitive, intelligent lead performance in Secretos del Paraiso, the best telenovela I saw in 2013 that coincidentally is being rerun on MundoFox weekdays at 3 p.m. ET, hams it up here as a silly character known as “La Vaquera,” the cowgirl, because she herds up women for the drug lord. Durán stalks about like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, brandishing a riding crop in a performance that consists mostly of contemptuous sneers and “I’m crazy” big eyes.

The story moves fast, if nonsensically from climax to climax. There is some interest in seeing how the actor will navigate the dangerous world he finds himself trapped in, his face altered to look like the police’s most wanted, his mother and daughter held by the drug capo’s men to force him to comply. As only the capo’s inner circle is aware of the double’s existance, the actor often finds it convenient to pass himself as the capo to strike fear and compliance from the lower rungs in the cartel, will the newfound power corrupt the actor, a man who always dreamed to be a movie star, but found himself playing to nearly empty theaters?

The production is sunny and bright, its first episodes shot mostly on beaches and boats, but it is largely conventional and unimaginative in its look.

R.G. Morin writes a regular column for We Love Soaps, "Telenovela Watch: A weekly look at the world of telenovelas for non-Spanish speakers." For feedback or questions, you can email R.G. Morin at [email protected].

1 comment:

  1. The best without a doubt is La Esquina del Diablo. I never saw La Viuda Negra so I cannot judge Serradilla's performance from that but so far she has been tolarable. I don't think that until the must recent episode, aired on 1/29/14, she had been given anything that would require her to show greater acting abilities. Her last memorable scene was in the first episode in her interactions with her mother. Ana's budding romance with Eder is very cliche and not build well at all. Every time I watch their scenes I get an employee with her employer feeling and that is due to the fact that this romance is there because the script says it needs to be. Thankfully the romance is not a central focus of the story, yet. The best scenes without a doubt happen in la esquina del diablo. The characters in the cartel are very funny and likable. Gregorio Pernia is absolutely commending in his role as the aloof and intelligent #2 and he and Christian Tappan build excellentlly off each other. I can't wait to see how his character evolves especially as he starts to interact more with his son. I think Eder has a very interesting back story and I read that he and Yago have a very dark past together. I just don't think Miguel de Miguel sells the role. I think he should play those demons betters but only comes off as very bland and dry. Maybe I am asking for to much but in it's 13 episodes it has raised my expectations as something more than a straight forward cop drama so hopefully the script is willing to go above as well as the direction of its actors.