>’Sleep Dealer’ stars Luis Fernando Pena, Leonor Varela



Rating: 3 stars (good)

By Michael Phillips | Tribune critic
June 5, 2009

Present-day Tijuana is one of the most compelling places on earth. It’s a symbol of the push-pull co-dependency of America and Mexico, a city defined by a fence that runs straight into the Pacific Ocean.

Alex Rivera’s overstuffed but intriguing feature debut, “Sleep Dealer,” takes a speculative leap into Tijuana’s near future, imagining the next evolution of cheap labor. Its protagonist, Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), comes from a farm in Oaxaca. The region’s water supply is controlled by a federalized, heavily armed dam, and the price of a jug of clean H{-2}O has skyrocketed.

A born hacker, Memo’s homemade radio surveillance activities attract the attention of the military. After tragedy strikes, in the form of remote-controlled bombers, he sets off for Tijuana. En route he meets an aspiring writer (Leonor Varela) who sells her diary entries and computer-visualized memories on the Internet. So much remarkable technology; so many dubious results.

The writer introduces Memo to the underground world of node implantation — he must decorate himself with metal thingies to plug into the global workforce grid. Memo operates a robot, via virtual-reality gizmos, high atop a skyscraper under construction in San Diego. Finally! America has solved the undocumented worker problem: work without the workers.

It’s dizzying, this premise, and Rivera doesn’t always make it easy on his audience. Conceived and filmed in the Bush era, Rivera’s film is a despairing one. It is, however, pretty effective science fiction, with one foot in its imagined world, and the other in the one we know.

Rivera creates a neon-soaked Tijuana that grabs the eye without settling for pretty pictures. One drawback: Even when Rivera sets up an elegant composition, often he undercuts it with antsy editing. Leave that manic edge to Robert Rodriguez. If a budding filmmaker can fashion a detailed, low-budget vision of the near-future, an adventurous audience can afford to spend more than a second or two with an individual shot.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexuality).

Running time: 1:30. Opens: Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2424 N. Clark St. Chicago.

Starring: Luis Fernando Pena (Memo Cruz); Leonor Varela (Luz Martinez); Jacob Vargas (Rudy Ramirez); Tenoch Huerta (David Cruz)

Directed by: Alex Rivera; written by Rivera and David Riker; produced by Anthony Bregman. A Maya Entertainment release.


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