Sunday, March 23, 2014

Poster perfect: ENEMY

Whatever you may say about Enemy (and there is a lot to say; I cannot wait for the film to open) the new Jake Gyllenhaal mind-bender from filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies), the poster for the movie gets the job done.

The burden of a whole city rests on Gyllenhaal's head, and there's that spider that appears to be attacking what...the city? his mind? The pastel background, Gyllenhaal's downward glance, the melting edge of the head suggested by the jagged skyline; whatever it is, the poster manages to capture the meditative, surreal, mind-fuck tone of the film.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival finds

[This originally appeared on]

One of the best our city has to offer, the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) is here.

Running across two weekends, the fest features an impeccably curated selection of movies that are likely to suit every taste. Whether you like mainstream cinema, or have an affinity for smaller independent films, or if you prefer documentaries, you will find all manner of gems. And that doesn’t even include the short films program, the Cinegay selection, or the special program of films from Chile that are being highlighted at this year’s SDLFF.

Some people give me a funny look when I mention film festivals. If the idea of seeing a movie at a film festival seems too particular, or too intellectual, or too fringe, can I please assure you that it is none of those things. You show up and buy a ticket just like you would for any other film. You are more than likely to have the filmmaker or cast members in attendance. And witness a Q&A session with them at the end of the screening. Where else can you get the opportunity to hear directly from the creators of a film you have just seen. In many instances, this may be the only opportunity to watch the film because the film may not get subsequent wide distribution. Also if you tell yourself that none of the films will be of interest to you since you are not latino, then you will be dead wrong. Three of the films screening here are already on my list of the best of any films I have seen so far this year.

Below are some of the films that are playing at this year’s festival. It is only when I listed them together that I realized that are all strangely, in one way or another, about brothers and sisters.

SOMBRAS DE AZUL (Shades of Blue, Mexico): A young girl shows up in Havana for the first time, and settles down to spend a few days in the city. As she starts to roam the Cuban sights, you realize from her mental conversations (directed to a lover? father? friend?) that she has run away from her past life. She frequents the city attractions, spends time with another resident at the lodging house, and finds herself surprised at developing a friendship with a local man who she first met when he tried to steal her camera. Part travelogue, part confessional, and altogether authentic, the experience of a person in a strange new land amounts to a film of unexpected depth. This is assured, confident filmmaking, characterized by remarkable acting. An example of how the honest and truthful telling of a personal story is all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths. What a remarkable achievement this quietly devastating film is.

STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS (USA): This is another stellar example of an immersion in the lives of a few individuals that results in a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Mariana is a single parent who makes a living cleaning homes. At the end of each school day, her daughter is entrusted with bringing her autistic younger brother Ricky back home. One day, Ricky wanders off after school and doesn’t return home. How does a parent deal with the nightmare of a lost child, as hours slip into days? How is a mother to forgive her daughter for the consequences of her carelessness? How is a severely autistic child to come home when he isn’t wired to be able to do so? Who can you truly rely on in a difficult time, particularly if you are stationed close to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder? Austere, stark, and almost documentary-like in its quiet observations, this film demonstrates that the best cinema places you squarely in the shoes of someone else and lets you breathe that person’s existence. And by doing so, moves you to contemplate your own place in the world. It absolutely breaks my heart that a film as undeniably brilliant as this will not get a tenth of the exposure it deserves. At the film’s conclusion, the audience I saw it with leapt into applause. I couldn’t join them because I was too choked up to respond. This film is the reason we bother to watch movies at all.

LAS ANALFABETAS (The Illiterates, Chile): This film is a character study of the kind of person we seldom see films pivot around: an irritable, impatient, prickly, and proud individual. The kind of person who has decided that they will not (can not?) play by the rules of society. The kind who is deeply, resolutely set in their ways. And then consider the plot: an illiterate individual learns how to write. This could have been the sort of soggy, insufferable dredge that this premise might dictate, but the movie completely bypasses that trap. After her sublime turn in GLORIA, here is Paulina Garcia again in a completely different incarnation, shorn of all vanity and playing an individual that is instantly recognizable. The film also has the good sense to not provide every answer, leaving it up to the audience to contemplate the reasoning behind certain actions. A movie will stay with you longer if you are left with just enough ponderables to keep you wondering.

HELI (Mexico): This film nabbed the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And I can see why: it creates some of the best sense of foreboding that I have seen in a movie in some time. It is that feeling that something truly awful is going to happen any moment – that is sustained through much of the narrative. This film will resonate with those who admire darkly bitter, deeply violent films. From the very first scene that elicited a gasp from the audience in the screening I attended, this film is unrelenting in its single-minded pursuit of exploring the worst in human behavior. Set in a deeply rural Mexico where government and lawlessness coexist as one, the film revolves around a family whose lives implode when the teenaged daughter has the misfortune of falling for a young army cadet who tries to get away with a stolen batch of cocaine from his superiors. Pulpy and gonzo, the film may not be for everyone, but there is no denying the high voltage charge it carries.

LEVANTAMUERTOS (Death Strokes, Mexico):  This films clocks a few days in the life of a man who works in a coroner’s office. Frequently dispatched to take care of bodies of the recently deceased, things get into a tailspin when he is forced to use many of his vocational skills to conceal a death that may have occurred at this hands. Like HELI, this film carries a foreboding air that is heightened by a morbid tone and dark humor. The relentlessly scorching summer heat in the small town in Mexico that this film is set in almost justifies the extreme actions of many of the characters. Had this film been able to build on these characters and setting, it would have been a great Lynchian outing. But even though the film loses some of its power in the last act, it makes for a good ride to the dark side.

MY SISTER'S QUINCEANERA (USA)A latino family in a small American town is the focus of this film which observes them in the week leading up to the quinceanera of the oldest daughter. What is refreshing about this film is that everyone in it is inherently decent; there are no bad characters here. The younger sister feels a little left out since her turn for a quinceanera is yet to come. Her older brother hangs out with his best friend and is trying to hold off the onset of adulthood and responsibility as much as possible. This is one of the better depictions on film that I have seen of the struggle to decide whether to remain in the same small town one has grown up in versus escaping to another place for college.  The film has a wonderful, gentle understatedness about it; there is nothing overly dramatized or shrill in the movie. Also there is a naturalness about the actors, maybe because many of them are related in real life. This is a quiet gem of a film.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Yes...but not for this film


I have already wondered and vented about this year's Oscar nominations. But one final thought.

Is it just me, or did it seem like there was a preponderance of acting nominations that were deserving, but curiously for the wrong film. This happens often enough. Kate Winslet got nominated in 2008 for The Reader when she was far more indelible in Revolutionary Road. Nicole Kidman was nominated seven years earlier for Moulin Rouge when she had already put in a far more controlled, considered performance in The Others.

This year there were many examples of misspecified nominations:

Leonardo DiCaprio playing The Great Gatsby
  • Leonardo diCaprio picked up a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his all-giving, all-inhabiting incarnation of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street. But he ought to have been recognized for a more restrained, layered take in The Great Gatsby, where DiCaprio took a character that has long been a cipher in American literature and opened him up. To the extent that I finally understood not just Jay Gatsby's behavior but also of those around him. DiCaprio's achievement is one of unlocking an iconic character, and he has not received near enough credit for that. 
Christian Bale in Into The Furnace
  • Christian Bale rode the coattails of American Hustle to secure an Oscar nomination for a role that is memorable more for its physicality than any emotional resonance. But consider Bale's orders of magnitude superior work in Into The Furnace this year, where Bale became his character, by fully embodying the blue-collar integrity and despair of a man trying to do right. It is a wonderfully humanistic performance, but American Hustle so sucked up all of the energy around year-end film discussions that the smaller Into The Furnace went by mostly unnoticed. 
Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond The Pines
  • Bradley Cooper received his second consecutive nomination with American Hustle. But like Bale, his role is patched together from hair and silliness. It is a befuddling nomination. If voters wanted to recognize a supporting actor from that film, wouldn't Jeremy Renner have been the more grounded selection? And if Cooper had to be recognized, should it not have been for his more devastating turn in The Place Beyond The Pines, for a movie that earns its epic feeling chiefly through the arc of Cooper's character. 
Matthew McConaughey in Mud
  • Matthew McConaughey is likely going to walk away with the Best Lead Actor, Male win for Dallas Buyers Club. And who is going to argue with rewarding one of the more fascinating and risky career resurgences of a leading Hollywood actor in recent memory. When he gets the prizer, the voters will be acknowledging the cumulative weight of his work in Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud and even The Wolf Of Wall Street. Incidentally, I fail to understand why McConaughey's work in the past two years has somehow reached that critical mass where he is worthy of being granted a best actor award, whereas someone like DiCaprio who has been putting in consistently high-quality work for more than a decade has yet to have his ship come in. But regardless, McConnaughey has been nominated for Dallas Buyers Club, a film that is not just misguided, but inept. Certainly, there is that tremendous physical transformation by way of losing a frightening amount of weight for this film. But did academy voters not see Mud, which also came out in the same year, and had McConaughey tackling a character far more complicated and amorphous. And dangerous. It is a character that could have crumbled into howling caricature, or worse suggested existence only as a plot device. But McConaughey walks the line in Mud, and comes out having depicted an individual who is heart-breaking in his inability to stop being who he is. Mud was the film for which he should have been nominated. 
Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle is problematic. And the folks at the Film Experience have articulated the problem with this performance so much better than I ever can. So that there isn't much more I can or want to say. Only that while Jennifer Lawrence imbues that role with a truly amazing vitality, it ultimately remains a character that is not very believable. As many have commented, the film might have been more rooted in authenticity if the roles played by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence had been switched. So while I admire, I really do, Lawrence in American Hustle, I do not for a minute believe it to be anything more than Lawrence in American Hustle. Compare that with Lawrence's other big role in 2013, in the obscenely successful second part of the Hunger Games franchise. Katniss Everdeen, the teenaged heroine of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games books is meant to be a wiry naif of a girl. During the course of the three books, Katniss grows up not only physically but also by way of her emotional and ethical construct. Jennifer Lawrence, the actress is neither skinny nor convincingly a teenager. And yet, when you watch Lawrence from the first frame of Hunger Games, Catching Fire, there is no doubt in your mind that this is Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence transcends the character's physical outline and so fully emotionally inhabits Katniss' psyche that it is hard now to imagine anyone else playing this role. What greater argument can then be made in defence of the contention that Lawrence should have been nominated for Hunger Games, Catching Fire instead of American Hustle

The Oscar ceremonies will be upon us in a few days, and this is enough ink spent on ruminating about the nominations already. Lets find out how the reality of the wins match up against the endless prognostications that have been going on for entirely too long.