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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BRIGSBY BEAR and the nostalgia of one.

 

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Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017)

 

Over the course of several years, and certainly since I’ve discovered new avenues for seeing lesser-known cinema be it through festivals, independent theaters, and the explosion of various streaming media platforms, I’ve almost always come across the most unexpected movie gems away from your regular AMC multiplex.

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is the best Hollywood movie made in the first half of this year… and you probably don’t even know that it exists. It’s a small independent production, distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by the Lonely Island trio, who have been churning out underrated comedy genius for a while now (seriously, if you haven’t seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a fan of comedy). The fact that this movie hasn’t seen the light of day in regular mainstream theaters is insane because it probably speaks to the pop-culture cultism, and charming nostalgia embraced 90’s millennial kids more than any film in recent memory, and it does so without being too obvious or self-obsessed about it.

The central character, James, is a man-child who’s entire existence since his birth has been inside of an enclosed igloo with his mother and father in the middle of the desert and his only exposure to any form of other human connection is a TV show called Brigsby Bear about a giant stuffed bear and his two identical twin assistants who save the town-people from various evil villains including a Sun God. To call Brigsby an obsession for James is to undersell it. James’s life is consumed by it, to the point that he spends every day watching episodes, breaking them apart, creating mythologies around their characters, and posting his fan theories on the internet.

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

What sets it apart is its consciousness for generational gaps, and that it is, unabashedly, a film for millennials. In the internet age in which my generation has made it a symbol of pride to be a “90’s Kid”, most of us would predictably sympathetic towards James’ militant conviction for his childhood art. For older generations, the film may be a bit difficult to get through. However, McCary never allows his characters to devolve into being one-not. All of them are frustrating and agreeable at different points, and they make mistakes and redeem themselves multiple times throughout the film. This makes Brigsby Bear incredibly enjoyable because unlike many films which pit generation vs. generation or artistic types vs. practical types against each other, this movie understands that they’re all heterogenous entities, with different ideas and views of life, all of which are malleable in the real world.

I try not to send out direct recommendations of movies to people, but I loved this movie. I think you will too.

A Ghost Story

 

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A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

 

When considering David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, there’s a good chance someone brought up mainly on mainstream Hollywood cinema will not have the patience for it and will desperately start staring at the theater exit and checking the time on their cellphones within the first half-hour thinking “fuck… I should’ve just watched War for the Planet of the Apes again.”

The reason I say this is because that was precisely my reaction during the first half hour of this movie. Yes, me. The person who considers both Lav Diaz and Bela Tarr, two of cinema’s directors notorious for the length and ‘slowness’ of their cinema, to be among the best storytellers film history has to offer. I sat through Tarr’s 6-hour long Satantango, a film which is comprised of merely 100 or so shots each with minimal dialogue and completely in black and white, as well as Diaz’s 7.5 hour long From What is Before, similar in style and composition to Tarr’s film and neither of them seemed even close to as long or frustrating as the first half of A Ghost Story.

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So what exactly happened here?

The film revolves around the death of a significant other. Two people, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are in a loving but emotionally rocky relationship in a house which C is very attached to. After C dies in a tragic car crash he becomes a ghost and starts to wander around the house, mute and unable to physically interact with the mortal world, while M greives in increasingly depressing silence. Lowery films all of this with comatose static shots which linger for lengthy intervals with minimal dialogue and sound. Some of them are effective, such as the sequences of M packing up her life and finally moving out of the house that C loved so much, while others are unintentionally funny in their preposterousness.

One of the most silliest moments in the film is a sequence in which M sees a pie that her neighbor left her as a “sorry for you loss” condelence and then out of a fit of silent rage, begins to consume the entire pie. This event occurs in the frame of a single static shot with M crouched on the kitchen floor stabbing at the pie repeatedly with her fork, stuffing large chunks into her mouth and chewing with a lot of jaw-aching effort. It goes on for so long and with such a mechanical monotony that I could feel everyone else in the theater telecommunicating with me, the same exact message: “Are we really going to be sitting here watching this girl binge eat an entire fucking pie?!?”(She ends up stopping four bites shy and vomits it all out in the toilet across the hall)

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What augments the utter banality of the film’s first half is that Lowery’s deliberately slow style here is completely let down by the setting he’s working with. Unlike similarly quiet and paced films such as Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher, Lowery is restricted to the interiors of a rather unremarkable house and its even less remarkable surroundings. The communal farm in Satantango had such a heavy air of depravity that every scene, even if it lasted for long durations and shot in black and white, was rife with detail and texture and a sense of doom. Foxcatcher had the benefit of the DuPont estate being remarkably picturesque as well as haunting in its stillness, beautifully complimenting the deliberate pace of Miller’s style. A Ghost Story takes place in the suburban neighborhood in a house that has almost nothing going for it in its current state post-C’s death.

Luckily, the house doesn’t stay this way, as M eventually moves. Before she does however, she sticks an anonymous note in the cracks of the wall of the house. Lowery plants this seed to keep tying us, and C’s Ghost, back to the relationship he was tragically ripped from. It is gimmicky, but it’s the first hint of intrigue in a rather painfully bad start.

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The second half thankfully moves a lot faster, but it doesn’t get that much more interesting.

As we enter the post-M era of C’s Ghost’s time floating around the house, the film departs from physical reactions of loss and death, into a much more philosophical territory… for better and worse. The changes in tenants, buildings, and landscape of the property elicits a rapid passage of time that leaves C’s Ghost further battered and lost in the memory of the house he has now become a part of. The several instances where C’s Ghost scratches the wall to retrieve the anonymous note remains really the only thing that keeps us caring for his character. There is some serious emotional heft in these scenes and the best parts of the film are those which ties us back to C and M’s relationships, the good and the dysfunctional. Everything else, remains childish.

Another giggle-worthy event is when C’s Ghost peeks at another ghost in a neighboring house and having a vague conversation about “waiting for something”. Is… comic relief? Is Lowery doing this to poke fun, give us a breather from the ghosts and loss, and love? Or is this guy being straight-faced and actually believes this to be good philosophical storytelling?

Perhaps the best description of A Ghost Story’s attempt at profundity is the scene when a group of 20-somethings occupy the house and throw a party. In the kitchen, four of them have gathered around, a bit buzzed, talking lightly about the meaning of “life”. One of them, a bearded hipster one would wager, goes on an incredibly verbose pseudo-intellectual rant which aims to make so many badly concieved points, that it makes none. The critic blurb I see most often connected to this movie describes it as “cosmic”, but its journey to discern our ideas of memory, death, and time sputter out before getting off the ground.

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”.

Colossal Youth: Paintings of a Life on the Brink of Death

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Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

I haven’t come across a filmmaker with an almost Ozu-like dedication to the static shot as Pedro Costa. Throughout his examination of the people and places in the Fontainhas Neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal, we get an almost painterly experience throughout his films. A gallery of frames, sculptures, contained spaces with some moving parts, but mostly still, as they are, in real time, decaying before our very eyes. His characters too, hardly moving and even when in extensive conversation rarely looking at each other or at anything in particular really; mannequins, furniture, remnants of the slowly dying surroundings which they have inhabited their whole lives. Even the clean polished apartments, which Ventura, Costa’s central character in the beautifully understated film Colossal Youth, is being forced into moving into as his slum community is being demolished, look lifeless and dead. The white walls are not really that white, the clean corners are not really that clean. As the “realtor” explains the beauties of the area, Ventura quietly points to a cobweb near the ceiling and matter-of-factly states “there’s spiders everywhere”.

Costa is as much of a visual filmmaker as anybody, but his visuals are not really associated with what we normally see and are used to as ‘cinema’, but more a combination of performance art and modernist sculpture. Lighting plays a role almost opposite that used in the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Kaurismaki puts spotlights on actors to illicit the feel of a theatrical performance, highlighting a dramatic space but then subverting it with a typical Finnish dead-pan subtlety. Costa’s lighting is simply part of the aesthetic. It isn’t highlighting the characters, but blending them into their surroundings. They are part of the scenery, just as much a piece of the greater painting as the furniture or walls they stand beside.

Even as characters shift around and pass by places, the camera and lighting doesn’t follow them. Our eyes and attention is constantly being guided to the details of the buildings, the inanimate monoliths, walls, staircases, roofs, street-corners, alleyways, and witnessing their death in real time. All the scratches, mold, chipped paint, dirt, mud, dust, everything signaling the passing of life. The only time the camera moves throughout the entirety of Colossal Youth is the two sequences in which Ventura sits in a park… the only two places he ever visits which exhibit a sense of vibrant living, a fight for life and against death… organisms, trees, birds, worms, nature at work constantly living, never stopping, never still.

The beautifully decaying images of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth:

2015 Capsule Reviews Part IV

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Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)

Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)

It’s hard to judge this movie on cinematic terms because the issue and topic it deals with is such a devastating one and has such dire sociological and theological implications that it engulfs any dialogue of artistic merit with dialogue on social consciousness, faith, and morality. It’s really the perfect kind of “Oscar” movie because its contribution is towards a social discussion and making a “statement” which people can gravitate towards. It means that the movie is able to skate to victory on its mere competency. As certain critics have pointed out, it’s “just good enough” for the Academy Awards Best Picture, and when the topic of choice is so timely and the story one of triumph against evil, whatever flaws it may display cinematically and by form or structure in making its argument will be set aside and excused for the importance of its ability to make something horrifying accessible. We don’t nitpick a spotlight story on ISIS for its grammatical errors and questions about its rhetoric, and we don’t care of Spotlight’s level of artistic merit so as long as it gets its all important message out clear and light enough to carry and hold with us.

 

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

The cliché “the higher they rise, the harder they fall” is a single sentence explanation which is supposed to be tacked on to every celebrity story like that of Amy Winehouse. We’ve heard it before and we will hear it forever. But Kapadia, with this documentary, attempts to examine the reason for the fall, what is the force of gravity which accelerated Winehouse from the tops of music stardom straight in a grave underneath the ground? Well, there isn’t a single reason, and like physics problems, Amy’s fall is acted on by a number of forces, those trying so desperately to hoist her up (her friends) and those accelerating her decline (media, critics). The “saddness” that we keep hearing about celebrity drug problems and their eventual deaths such as in Amy is not simply due to an addiction, but to the fact that it is never taken with the sort of grave seriousness that other diseases are. We see clips of comedian making fun of her, ripping her for her appearance, juxtaposed with images of her crumbling mentally and physically under the stress of her life. It’s not simply a mechanism of the media but of society as well. Our immediate reaction to celebrities expressing disatisfaction with their life is to ridicule them for feeling so because of their immense wealth, legitamizing the notion that money does by happiness of all accounts.

 

Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

The whole experience is very off-putting and that’s what makes Queen of Earth a fascinating drama. It’s entire duration evokes a sense of dread within you, and its horror is manifested in our own feelings of embarassment, frustration, betrayal, and lonliness. These are human emotions but they are what makes us afraid and what eventually, if we let them fester, can make us go insane. I would say that Queen of Earth is a psychological horror film in the same way that Charlie Kaufmann’s Synechdoche New York is one, where the central characters undergo an emotionally churning chapter of their lifes which makes them fear their own existence. The sequence where Catherine has a complete psychotic meltdown at the gathering of her friend’s house is similar to Caden being confronted with his stage cast and crew finally asking when the hell their production is actually going to be finished. It’s a realization of all out failure by Catherine, and having the last support beams of her sanity knocked to the ground. It’s horror without ghosts and demons… it’s the horror of realizing how vulnerable she is all of a sudden. A queen stripped of her throne.

 

Addicted to Fresno (Jamie Babbit, 2015)

Scripted incredibly amateurishly, with comedy which forces itself through sexual frustration and cursing. It’s the middle-schoolers brand of jokes with everything spelled out at the end and characters regurgitating information that in real life, they would simply already know and is useless information to us anyway. I’m not sure what Jamie Babbit is getting at with her film career, but even her so-called “cult” classic But I’m a Cheerleader was not shy on its heavy-handed symbolism, obvious in its construction and again, spelling it out every bit of commentary it chooses to make just to make sure we “get it”. Well, Jamie Babbit, if you had any semblance of an imagination, we would have gotten it simply through implication.

 

A Hard Day (Seong-hoon Kim, 2015)

Korean mainstream cinema is something I would recommend to a lot of my American friends because it is directly influenced by style and narrative structure of Hollywood’s mainstream cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which works on its own parallel plane only borrowing off the most rudimentary and simple of cinematic technique from Hollywood’s popcorn cinema, the Koreans go all out dedicated with a replica of which 99% of the DNA is the same. Seong-hoom Kim’s A Hard Day could easily be made into a decent Jason Statham January thriller and its cheesy but believable conundrum of a cop who accidentally commited a hit and run and now has to try and cover it up is ripe for directors to experiment with editing and tension building. Its this type of inspired, light-and-airy popcorn material, with ample cheese melted on top that delivers enough to pass the time while still being respectable. If you’re just lazing around on a weekend afternoon and need to kill some clock before heading out for the night, watch A Hard Day.