Inside Three Films From the Latin American Film Fest

The AFI Silver theater was doing the Latin American Film Festival, and I decided with time restraints and busy schedule and all, to pick three movies playing at convenient times and watch them. I’m glad I did because they represented a good distribution of what you’d expect to be playing at most festivals around the world…  most of the selection was picked off from bigger premier fests from earlier in the year including Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Locarno, Rotterdam, etc. All in all, it was a good experience and the audiences at these films are much more “there for the movie” than your regular theater audiences so the screening experience is almost always enjoyable.

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Vazante (Daniela Thomas, 2017)

I guess I should jump straight into extolling about what I thought was the clear standout of the three, Daniela Thomas’s Brazilian romance-thriller Vazante. Premiering at Director’s Fortnight earlier this year, and getting rave reviews there, the movie certainly lived up to its pedigree. It was without question the most accomplished of the films I watched, and also the most singular in its vision. Shot in a stunning black-and-white, there is a clear influence of Terrence Malick and other visually poetic directors that laces every frame of the movie. Centered around a Portuguese slave-trader Antonio and his new child-bride Beatriz, the film takes a unique approach to studying a historically dark and violent time for the South American continent. What would have undoubtedly been turned into an exploitation tale filled with torture and sex if Hollywood were to get their hands on it, instead becomes a quite understated (but still emotionally affecting) film. The tranquility of its setting, where Beatriz walks elegantly through grass fields to the sound of tropical birds, belies the reality of each characters existence. The brutality of slavery is kept as a looming, threatening undercurrent in the film, and the violence kept to a bare minimum. Similar to a sequence in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave where a young child plays with her dolls in the cotton field while we know, somewhere unseen and unheard, slaves a being savagely whipped, so too in Vazante is the majority of bloodshed implicit.

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When Beatriz falls in love with a slave boy named Virgilio, we know that sooner or later their luck of running away together unnoticed is going to run out. We know the terrible consequences of their actions. Yet, the glimmer of hope for them taunts us in many ways; in the traits of each character, such as Antonio’s seemingly lazy behavior (he sleeps in a hammock all day) at the plantation and his frequent long trips out into the jungle, as well as the technical choices of Thomas and her editor and cinematographer, who keenly keep the presence of Antonio felt throughout exchanges between Beatriz and Virgilio.

While both of the young lovers face similar peril in their relationship to Antonio, with Virgilio being a bought-for slave and Beatriz as bought-for bride, Thomas makes a clear distinction that Beatriz’s whiteness remains an inherent privilege. The class and racial consciousness Thomas infuses through simple gestures is markedly different from most American treatments of slavery, which usually features white characters “with a heart”.  Here, Beatriz is not shy about her disobedience to Antonio because even as a young girl, she is very much aware of her status while Virgilio’s life becomes more and more in danger as their relationship becomes more passionate.

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The Night Guard (Diego Ros, 2017)

A quieter entry in the fest was  The Night Guard, the debut film of Mexican filmmaker Diego Ros. Obviously working with budget restraints and helmed by a director clearly still getting his feet wet in the art of making cinema, it is set in a single location; a construction site near a hillside overlooking a large city. A security guard named Salvador is about to become a father, but instead of being with his wife as she’s going through labor, he is stuck tending to a police investigation of a dead child in a van which appeared near his construction site. As the night progresses, police corruption, shady activity from his co-worker Jose, an encounter with a hooker, and other obstacles keep Salvador in a reverse-Waiting-For-Godot situation where, as he is about to finally leave, he keeps getting pulled back. The movie aims to at once present a clever ruse necessitated by its budget constraints while also giving us a look at crime and security issues rife within Mexico. It has its share of flaws that usually befall a first-timer, with some strange editing, questionable acting, and a script which seems to be a little too thin and light for its full feature length, but it also flashes moments of Ros’s technical knowledge. He develops his aesthetic well, playing with light and shade and utilizing long shots to showcase both the isolation of his characters and the ambiguity of their surroundings. But with an ending that just leaves many of its ideas laying on the ground, the movie remains an unfinished product with potential.

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The Desert Bride (Cecelia Atan & Valeria Pivato, 2017)

Finally, from Argentina, is Cecelia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s The Desert Bride, which was an Un Certain Regard Selection at the Cannes Film Fest. Featuring a terrific central performance from Paulina Garcia, the movie is a charming buddy-road-film about a maid who loses her bag at a bazaar and goes in search of it with the help of the last person she remembers having it with, a merchant named Gringo. It’s a breezy entry that is incredibly easy to digest because its narrative follows an arc I am well accustomed to growing up on Hollywood cinema, and its central focus on the chemistry between its “mismatched pair” is basically custom-built to please audiences. While the movie is certainly enjoyable, it is a dime a dozen of the road-trip genre. Not much more to say here. You know what to expect.

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Making bad decisions and having a GOOD TIME

 

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Good Time (The Safdie Brothers, 2017)

 

There eventually comes a time where I witness an undeniable talent in the film world. Last year it happened with Moonlight and its director Barry Jenkins, and this year it happened with Good Time and its directors Josh and Ben Safdie. It’s a beautiful thing really to see filmmakers who inject such a personal serum into every fiber of a film. It’s beautiful because it has become so rare. It’s beautiful because barely anyone has a fucking imagination anymore. Many are too scared to reveal a whole deal about themselves.

Centered around a drug-rattled and morally questionable protagonist named Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson, who, like Ryan Gosling before him, has officially transitioned from cheesy teen heartthrob to an actor you actually want to pay attention to), the film takes us on a winding journey through Connie’s pathetically desperate attempt to save his brother Nick (Ben Safdie) from a botched robbery for which he was sent to jail.

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The Safdie Brothers don’t hide their artistic flair, and their inspirations, influences, and general view of the world are on full display. The opening shot, a robotic, thundering zoom into a glass building next to a sunny coastline, is like something directly out of a Michael Mann film. Everything that comes after subverts expectations of what I’ve become accustomed to being fed by “traditional” action thrillers.

Ironically, there is hardly anyone in Good Time who is likable. Nobody is lionized as some criminal hero. Connie manages to skirt many an attempt by police to stop him, and weasels his way through a number of fortunate situations, but there is hardly a reason to root for him especially since his actions are at the detriment of innocent civilians (It’s worth also noting that, whether intentional or not, the film perfectly showcases how black individuals end up being collateral damage and scapegoats in majority of criminal activities conducted by white perpetrators). The sad and easily-combustible cesspool-like environment here is a tamer version of the Safdie’s pervious much more gutting and much lower-budgeted film, Heaven Knows What (which I reviewed here).

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During Good Time, I found myself subconsciously wishing for Connie to get caught. He’s not Tony Montana, nor Don Corleone, nor Henry Hill. He has no air of superiority. He has no larger-than-life personality. He’s not charismatic. He’s just a slimy bumbling prick who needs to get what’s coming to him. His victories are luck, not an act of strength. His moral ambiguity and lack of clear lines make for an interesting introspection into how we perceive criminals in movies. Is the bumbling dirty poor criminal, who acts against the law out of desperate survival deserving of more sympathy, as a bit player scheming a system built to crush him? Is the organized white collar criminal, with power and wealth at his fingertips the one we should be tearing down?

Social and cultural undertones included, GoodTime provides a thrill ride that doesn’t rely on set pieces and pre-conceived situations as much as its characters’ decisionmaking. Connie and the rest of the cast’s fuzzy standing on the scale of “hero and villain”, which changes almost every sequence, change the way we’re supposed to think of action movies. There are no “keys to the city”, no “damsel in distress”, no “beating the bad guy”. Everyone in this movie is there for one reason: Surviving, for themselves, at all costs.

THE BEGUILED – Civil War, without the War.

 

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The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola, 2017)

 

What I felt most surprised by in The Beguiled was the simplicity of its story arc and setting. The atmospherics Sophia Copolla creates seep out of the screen so well, with its quiet malevolence, moody lighting, and the on-edge performances of its characters, that by the movie’s end, that same technical brilliance completely outweighed any attempt at a rapturous story.

Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, The Beguiled has been done before, by Don Seigel in a Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page starring film in 1971, but to very different ends. Seigel, an action director, was very much in favor of creating a film that amped up the drama and twists of the storyline, giving Eastwood a meaty role and playing the sexual and violent nature of the characters, to the backdrop of the Civil War that much more in-your-face. In other words, Seigel and Eastwood envisioned a clear political and social motive to the film, and that was not to be mistaken or forgotten.

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Copolla’s rendition is closer to a beautifully decorated stage play. The backdrop of the Civil War, which features prominently in the Cullinan novel, remains a far distant event here, sputtering in and out of our ears with soft booms. The fact that McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a Union soldier and the Girls Home is clearly South-aligned is merely an inconvenience between the sexual tension that is unmistakable from the get-go. The politics of the war, the people who’s livelihoods it is centered around (black slaves), and the idea of war, the death and destruction and loss and hate that surrounds it, are all either thrown into the back as minor topics or erased from the film’s world altogether.

Instead, the biggest nod to any politics in the film lies in the gender-relations at play between different girls reactions and perceptions of the Corporal, which can be thought of in stages of how we experience and react to love growing up. The youngest girl looks up to Corporal McBurney as a father figure, the second-youngest has a kiddie crush, the middle girl is skeptical and antagonistic towards him, the teenager (Elle Fanning) is experiencing sexual attraction lit by a sense of rebellion for the first time, the second-oldest (Kirsten Dunst, easily the films best performance) really falls in love and imagines a future with him, and the oldest (Nicole Kidmann) treats him as a stranger only later warming up to his presence.

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Not much is made of these, however, as the film follows a familiar path of a man caught between the love of multiple women. Instead, Coppola’s visual canvas remains the central artistic pillar of her film. The movie grows darker, literally in its lighting and art direction, as the passions of the girls start to swell up into maddening jealousy and a singular decision by the Corporal flares up into an impending doom for everyone. The sunlit gardens and bright pink and white dresses waving through the Virginia greenery give way now to faded dull pastels and a monotone cloudy sky. Normally I’m incredibly favorable to films which centralize their visuals, but those still need to be at the service of the story. If the look of the film and the building of its world are its greatest strengths, they need to be complimented with themes and ideas of equal vibrancy.

This is not to say that The Beguiled isn’t good, but considering the densely political layering of Cullinan’s novel, and the brooding intensity of the Seigel adaptation, Coppola’s decision to go minimalist in terms of story here seems less a brave decision and more a head-scratching one. There’s no Tarkovskian metaphysics at play, so what we end up with is a decent story of jealousy and fear played with a straight face and beautiful scenery, but lacking in the density needed to make a lasting impression.

Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.

Personal Shopper

 

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Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2017)

 

The triumph of Kristen Stewart’s highly-touted performance in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is both a result of great casting and Stewart’s pressure situation for having the film’s entire plot be dependent on her character’s emotional reactions to situations. Stewart plays Maureen, a “personal shopper” for an uppity French designer. Her monotonous job involves going from store to store picking out outfits that her boss wants for her next runway show. However the film’s meat comes from Maureen’s real reason for being in Paris… finding her dead brother’s ghost. Olivier blends the melodrama of familial relations with a supernatural thriller but the film maintains a fully character-centric focus. The plot chugs only as fast and as slow as Maureen wants it to, making Stewart the center of attention in virtually every moment of the film. This speed conditioning is manifested quite literally in the long sequence in which Maureen receives anonymous texts in riddles. Throughout these sequences our perception of “time” in the movie is dictated completely by the pace at which Maureen responds to the texts. Our emotions are dictated by her’s facial response to each one she receives and the wait-time between the anonymous texter’s responses. Assayas’s deliberate subversion of American horror film tropes also play directly into Stewart’s ability to act. Ghosts, sex, and murder are all siphoned through Stewart and the camera concentrates on her personal encounters with these instances more than the instances themselves.

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The ending sequences concludes with a line uttered by Maureen which explains Assayas’s entire approach to the film as a pedestal for Stewart and her character: “Is it you… or is it just me”. The phantom thumps a “yes”.

From What is Before

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From What is Before (Lav Diaz, 2014)

In continuing with my series on Lav Diaz, a filmmaker who I have just begun to discover and now revere as a modern giant after having seen Norte The End of History, the next film I decided to embark upon was the 6 ½ hour historical epic From What is Before. A solid two hours longer than the already lengthy Norte, this Diaz feature was a bit sparser, a little more dependent on sound and atmospherics of a geographic location and a cultural “whole” than an individual character study. Nonetheless, this film was yet another entrancing offering from Diaz, and his ability to weave so much unspoken socio-political density and insight through silent static imagery of the Filipino countryside, this time in gorgeous and haunting black and white, is something that rivals the cinematic artistry Bela Tarr (who I can only assume had at least some influence on Diaz’s career).

The exploration of The Philippines as a nation, politically, socially, and religiously continues here, but now from a historical context: The year 1972, when military dictator Ferdinand Marcos initiated Martial Law onto the nation. Much like Norte, the specter of political corruption and brutality existed during this time, but we don’t really feel it until we get towards the end of the film. Instead, the Philippines which exists for majority of the movie seems like a relic of the ancients. A hunter-gatherer society, only gradually showcasing its ties to the more modern world with, amongst other things, a saleswoman pitching mosquito tents and electronics, and the small technological gadgetry in the village shacks like a coffee maker and an iron. But this is still a place where clearly, the metaphysical and the spiritual phantoms of a pre-colonial era Philippines that once existed permeate through every frame of the film, be it figuratively through the pitter patter of the rain in the ominously dense and barely inhabited or disturbed jungle, the more reactionary death of livestock and unknown villagers automatically deemed an act of dark magic, or the literal shamanistic chantings of what seemed to me at least, a female witch doctor.

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The characters in the film can be thought of as moving parts connected by a singular rural organism, similar to the communal farmers in Tarr’s Sátántangó. They live, move, and die together and their actions are wholly dependent on the fate of the land they reside in. Several actors from Norte make up the caste here as well, but in very different roles. Sito and his mischievous son Hakob try to make a meager living tending to buffalo for a landlord. They fall on even harder times when some of the buffalo are found dead and Sito is wrongfully blamed. Itang is a hard-working but naïve young woman who is burdened with tending to her mentally disabled sister Joselina, who she believes has the power to cure peoples ailments. She gives people in the village medicines and “magic” from Joselina’s powers to help cure them in exchange for money. The livelihood of the Philippines rural community, throughout the film, is self-sustaining, and although there are clear hardships and deprivations for many of the people there, they still seem to gravitate towards its comfort and a routine way of life they don’t mind living.

Also similar to Sátántangó is the sense of impending doom that that gradually starts to grow more and more real as the film goes on. What is unique about Diaz’s narrative is how our perception of this village community as isolated and in a sense “pristine” in its lack of shackles to any of our modern political weights changes to a realization that even this dense jungle of folks does not go unnoticed for possible blackmail and slaughter by a borderline tyrannical government. In a sense, visually, Diaz forms a timeline throughout the film that slowly shifts from pre-industrialization into a political military state. This seismic shift hits us without our knowing (in six and a half ours, the movie works in small increments like the changing of the hour-hand on a clock), and much like the villagers, it devastates our souls once we realize what has happened. Then, all of a sudden, in one sequence, it is slapped across our face. Just like in Tarr’s film, the nasty schemer Irmiás drops a hammer on the villagers in one devastating scene at a funeral, Marcos’s military encroachment is unveiled in a speech by a lieutenant who implores the villagers that what Marcos is doing is for “the good of the nation” (a claim that we can automatically assume means the opposite).

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Diaz is as searingly unforgiving in this film as in Norte, but he is giving us a real context here. For those who don’t know the history of the Philippines, we get a sense of understanding through the fading of village life into a military-controlled hell that there is much suffering amongst the people of this nation that has not yet washed away. Sito is the only villager at the end of the movie who refuses to leave the village, staying in its dense jungle as a lone hermit, a Thoreau for who the Philippines that once was is his own personal Walden to which he is latching on for dear life. Lav Diaz, with From What is Before, makes his case for holding on as well.

Tale of Tales : Fairy Tales for Adults

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Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015)

From the moment I saw the impeccable world-building that I witnessed in Gomorra, I knew that Matteo Garrone was both a talented and ambitious filmmaker. While his Italian crime drama was signature in its portrayal of the many different facets of the violence and drug smuggling of a single “kindgom” (the notorious Italian mafia Comorra), in his latest feature, one completely stripped from the real world into into its own parallel universe fantasy, Tale of Tales sees Garrone juggling many kingdoms at once. The title of the film is a play on words, it both implies that the particular “tale” this movie tells is comprised of several tales, and also, that its creator, Matteo Garrone, is a bit of a showman, a confident auteur declaring that this particular movie, is one above all.

Well, as they ask in the sports world, can you back up your talk? In the case of Tale of Tales, Garrone more than achieves the magnum opus its title suggests. This movie is a wonder, a horror, a weird and disgusting, but at the same time warm and endearing little bed-time story for grown ups. It follows in the same footsteps as Guillermo Del Toro’s 21st century masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth in that it imbues a world of terrible violence and nastiness of character with a whimsicle child-like wonderment and dazzling visuals that could easily pass for Lord of the Rings. There is nothing cheap about this film, despite its relative obscurity (mainly due to lack of a wide release in the U.S. insofar), and it manages to create terror and mystique in equal amounts, guided by Garrone and company’s off-the-hinges creativity, adapted from European folk-tales collections from the 1600’s, titled Pentamarone penned by poet Giambattista Basile, but also original in its own way of taking these many sources and weaving them into each other to create one tale or many tales.

The movie is structured in 3 different parts.

The first is the story of a Queen (Salma Hayek) who longs for a child. Her husband, the King cannot give her one, so they seek the advice of a Necromancer (dark wizard) who tells the King he must defeat a giant sea-monster, rip out its heart, have it cooked by a virgin and give it to his wife to consume thus she will bear a son.

The second is the story of a pathetic, weak, and short statured king (Toby Jones), who grows attached to a pet flea he keeps and feeds. His attachment to the flea is so strong it comes at the detriment of his own daughter who is left neglected. His daughter seeks a husband to run away with, but the King, a posessive and lonely man, does everything he can to prevent his daughter from leaving the castle.

The third story is that of a nymphomaniac King (Vincent Cassell). He sleeps with many women every night, multiple at the same time, yet feels empty that he has not found a single women who he deems worthy of committing to. He hears a voice one night of a sweet girl, who he is instantly aroused by. Little does he know that the girl is a hideous wench. The wench attempts to trick the King into sleeping with her using only her voice. Their dangerous game leads to unexpected consequences.

These premices are juicy in and of themselves, but Garrone’s ability to tangle them along with each other makes them that much more fertile ground for building a seductive fantasy world. Coupled with lush painterly cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (known for: Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back, and a bunch of Cronenberg films) that makes you wish these places and castles were real, Garrone’s direction and plotting set up suspense perfectly, like the end of episodes where things are left hanging and switches to a different channel to build that story up, and then goes back to tie things together.

The weirdness of the the film also cannot be just shrugged aside. There are moments of abject horror and strangeness that occur in the movie that border on surreal. It’s interesting though because this film is supposed to be a fantasy movie, yet, in many stretches feels like a period-piece. The juxtaposition of staged historical drama (political power play, family issues, love, sex) with moments of strange other-worldly powers (wizards, giant flees, magic spells, trolls, etc) keeps us on our toes. Unlike Lord of the Rings and more like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film switches between a world which we can relate to stories we’ve heard about empires and kingdom’s past with stories we’ve read in ficitional novels. This keeps both aspects of the film ripe and provides many moments of ample surprises. Just when we think the movie is settling down like a James Ivory character drama, it shakes us up with something out of the worlds of Dante or Beowulf.

Richly layered and illustrated, Garrone’s Tale of Tales is the best fairytale for adults I have seen since Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth plus one of this years greatest cinematic marvels, and its creativity and immensely beautiful world-building is worth investing your time into. It is confrontational, and its weirdness and uniqueness of character can surprise you if you are expecting your typical Hollywood fantasy movie, but that’s what makes this tale, of many tales, worth remembering.