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Straight to Video, Señores

Playmate Alejandra Gutierrez: This is "Latin entertainment"
Colby Katz

A smoke machine fills the doorway with fog as two studs enter from stage left. Looking as if they have just walked off the set of A Night at the Roxbury, they're wearing gray suits and satin shirts with three buttons undone at the top. The camera pans them slowly as they stroll Shaft-like to a bar where Gina waits. Gina's flowing black hair rolls over shoulders that are left exposed by a snug dress with a rose print. A Spanish shawl is draped around her arms bordello-style. "Gentlemen, welcome to my club," Gina says in a sultry voice. "Please enjoy yourselves."

The tall one wastes no time getting to the point. "We'd enjoy ourselves a lot more with a couple of girls."

"Sure," Gina says, summoning a pair of young women who look like recent high school graduates. "Girls, do anything they want." They run their hands inside the guys' jackets and over their ripped abs. The four walk off stage right as Gina turns slowly to watch, the camera turning to catch a close-up of her face. It's a look that's supposed to suggest both evil and overwhelming strength, and, man, does she nail it. Smashes it like a Sammy Sosa home run, in fact. Too bad the tall guy blew his line.

When the director finally calls "cut," the actor realizes his screwup. Even taking hormones into account, he was a little too quick to the point. "Maybe instead I should try, 'Why don't you get us a couple of girls?'" says Celestin Cornielle, who's playing the part of Louis.

The scene, filmed the other day at a Fort Lauderdale dance club, may sound like a perfect setup to a porn movie's money shot (just cue the cheesy music with the '70s guitar riff). But no, this is one of those movies that tease you with near-nudity and lots of anvil-over-the-head sexual innuendo. Nothing explicit. It's one of those movies you find at Blockbuster, its sultry cover displayed right next to the video you've been looking for, if it isn't sold out.

The movie, Carlita's Secret, is a production by a nimble Deerfield Beach-based production company called Breakaway Films, which has been cranking out a movie a month since it opened in October, chasing the hot niche market of the moment. While none of these flicks is likely to end up being lauded at an awards ceremony, the studio expects to double its investment on each one. With a budget of about half a million dollars apiece, that should amount to a profit in the millions in the first year alone. The studio's anticipated success rests not on acting or plot, says Doug Schwab, one of three company founders. These movies live or die based on the enticements of sultry DVD covers. "When we do well, it's when someone walks into the video store and can't find that Jim Carrey movie," Schwab says. "That's when they start looking at our movies."

South Florida became home to Breakaway in part because you can't throw a plantain on South Beach without hitting a 90-pound model or a six-pack-ab actor ready to star in a full-length film. What we have here is known in Hollywood as "runaway production," with low-budget companies like Breakaway leaving town to avoid the high costs of Tinseltown, hiring cheap, nonunion workers. Breakaway will try to sell some of its movies to distributors who could put them into a few of the country's smaller theaters, but most likely, they're destined for rental shelves. Schwab also owns a movie-rental distribution company in Deerfield called Maverick Entertainment that will send the movies to the stores and print those soft-porn covers.

Breakaway began its foray into B-movies with a couple of urban-style flicks shot in Miami, including Miami Tail, starring local hip-hop diva Trina. Now it's aiming for the Latin market with a series of movies starring actors with Spanish accents. "This time next year, we might be doing horror flicks," Lambert says. "But right now, we see a demand for Latin entertainment." Schwab and his two partners, Ron Castell and Pam White, are all trying to learn Spanish.

And just because the movies carry minuscule budgets by Hollywood standards doesn't mean they hire only slouches to play the parts. This is "Latin" entertainment, which still gets second billing on the big screen. Despite the Telemundo soap opera-quality dialogue in Carlita's Secret, Breakaway has landed three major Latin actresses. The lead is played by Eva Longoria, award-winning star of The Young and the Restless and one of People en Español's 25 most beautiful people this year. Alejandra Gutierrez, a playmate Latina for Playboy's Spanish version, graces the screen with a midriff that runs like a ski slope from her tied-off dress shirt to her hip-huggers. And the costar is veteran soap actress Maria Bravo, who stole headlines by briefly being Bruce Willis' rebound girlfriend. It's rare for Latin movies produced in the States to have scripts any better than soap opera-quality, says Bravo, a native of Spain who began her career as a flamenco dancer. "There's a lot of Latinos who are educated and professionals, but the majority in America are new immigrants with not a lot of education," Bravo says. "These movies, they have to make them simpler so that people with not a lot of education can relate to them."

Carlita's Secret does, at least, have the kind of complex story line that makes most Latin television shows look as if they have the plot of a pop-up book. The movie is an updated version of Les Miserables with a Spanish accent and a few sex scenes without any actual nudity. Longoria plays the title role of Carlita, a girl who goes on the run after being accused of a dastardly crime she didn't commit. Gina, played by Bravo, takes Carlita under her wing and turns her into a music star by putting her on-stage at a fictional club in Miami Beach. Enter a detective investigating the earlier crime and you've got drama.

Cheaper than renting out an actual beach bar, Breakaway filmed in Fort Lauderdale's Club 84 on Marina Mile Road. A crew of 30 filled the black-painted inside with rented equipment, pasted leopard-print fabric on the walls, hung colored paper lights, and prettied up the bar and bathrooms with red hues.

Cornielle, playing one of the studs in the scene earlier, says his motivation is simple. He gets ready for a rehearsal with a couple of handfuls of mousse in his hair and a killer attitude. "We're tough guys," Cornielle says. "You fuck with us, we kill you. And this is my partner in crime." He jabs a thumb toward Ricardo Mandini. As in heterosexual porno, the women here are the only widely known talent involved.

In the third take, the scene opens with Gina's chastising her club's bartender, who's (what else?) casually wiping down the bar. "You have to make sure everything is clean," she tells him before asking for a glass of champagne. He hands her a flute he apparently had at the ready. "This champagne needs to be colder," she says contemptuously. Gina has a mean, sneering streak. "You need to serve it colder."

The camera, rolling on tracks, pans along with the men. To keep costs down, the company has only one camera, according to Breakaway partner Schwab. Most scenes are filmed a few times to get close-ups of the actors. "The big productions, they may have multiple cameras," Schwab says. "For now, we have one, and we just have to shoot each scene again and again."

The two Latin heavies saunter in again. At this point in the movie, Gina doesn't know these two are hit men. She'll later hire them to rub out -- well, that'd ruin it for you. "Please, enjoy yourselves," Gina tells the men.

The dialogue has been refined between takes.

"We'd enjoy ourselves a lot more with a couple of girls on our laps," the tall guy says, timing the line he had flubbed earlier just right. You can almost imagine him accepting the Oscar, thanking actors who pioneered similar lines, maybe offering a little tribute to his predecessors, like Ron Jeremy.

Slowly, the men walk off-screen as Gina turns to watch. Bravo raises a carefully plucked eyebrow into a devilish bell curve. Then her eyes meld into a pensively conspiratorial gaze, the kind of look she must have learned on the set of The Young and the Restless. You can almost see that face on the DVD cover for Carlita's Secret (which wrapped last week) -- if only she weren't wearing so many clothes.


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