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It’s time for the third and final part of my round-up of the films I saw at the 2011 AFI Latin American Film Festival in the Washington, DC area. Also see parts one and two.

No Return (Sin Retorno), Argentina/Spain, dir: Miguel Cohan

Clubbing wasn’t the gritty morality tale I was expecting, but No Return sure fit the bill! After a hit and run death in Buenos Aires, police zero in on a suspect: Federico, a young family man (and ventriloquist!). But, while Federico is not totally blameless, he is not the killer. Matías, a teenager from an upper class family, is the true culprit. His panicked reaction to the accident has him claiming he was carjacked.

The film spends some time with Federico and his legal troubles as he slides from incredulous assertions of innocence to bitterness. The victim’s father plays a role in publicly shaming Federico and forcing the prosecutor’s hand. The film really shines when focusing on Matías and his family as they continuously double down on their cover-up and justify it to themselves. The strain, conflicted emotions, and intense guilt of the situation are portrayed beautifully.

The plot does sort of go off the rails a bit at the end, but even so the film is quite effective and had me totally riveted. The performances are top-notch across the board. It’s not the most pleasant film to sit through, but if you’re in the mood for something a bit difficult this is a very good choice. A-.

Miss Bala, Mexico, Gerardo Naranjao

If there’s one thing that the drug wars in Mexico have given us it’s the ability to use the prefix “narco-” in front of any word. Well, great ready for much narco-tinged discussion this Oscar season as this narco-thriller gets a major push to bring the Foreign Language award back to the narco-torn country of Mexico. Not that I particularly liked it. I just know that everyone else seems to.

Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a Tijuana youngster who aims to compete in the Miss Baja California competition. But she attends the wrong party and crosses paths with a drug cartel. Soon she is an unwilling participant in the cartel’s activities, running errands and even doing its bidding in the beauty pageant.

Over the course of a few days, Laura is thrust into a slew of violent situations. The action sequences are sort of the standard movie shootouts with the nice twist of always keeping the focus on Laura. Rather than showing an entire battle, we see Laura stumble, flee, and hide.

This strict point of view also may be part of what disappointed me. I found a bunch of the cartel content quite hard to follow. I suspect that’s on purpose as we only know what Laura knows and she’s swept up in a much larger force of which she only sees a small part. But the result is that I didn’t end up caring. This made the thrills less thrilling and the tension less tense. So I could watch and enjoy the scenes but never felt invested.

I doubt confusion over plot points was the sole reason I was left cold but I can’t really explain any other factors. I’ll actually be interested to see it again in case I was just having a bad night or something. Everyone else seems to love the film and it’s sure to make a splash as Mexico’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar. I hear Fox is giving it a large commercial push later in the year as well. B-.

Blackthorn, Spain/France/Bolivia/USA, dir: Mateo Gil

Making a sequel to a classic film is an invitation for derision. Thankfully, of the commentary I’ve seen on Blackthorn, a sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not much of it has devolved to the lazy criticism of questioning the point of its existence. I think that if you believe you have an interesting take on classic characters, go ahead. But just know that comparisons are inevitable and it’s a hard bar to clear.

So let’s just judge Blackthorn on its own merits: which is that it’s sort of meh.

Blackthorn imagines a world where Butch Cassidy survived the raid at the end of the original movie and has been hiding out in Bolivia for a few decades. He decides it’s finally time to head home and sets off, just to have his journey interrupted by a Spaniard on the run after stealing from a local mining bigwig. The pursuit takes the pair through the Bolivian landscape, through valleys and across desolate deserts.

The Bolivian setting gives it a slight air of exoticism, but it’s really quite similar to what you’d expect an American Western to look like. The story is decent though not especially compelling. The film really shines in a couple of scenes, such as a protracted chase across an expanse of salt flats. But I’m not really sure this movie needed to feature Butch Cassidy. I admit I haven’t seen the first film so maybe I don’t have the best perspective, but it seems like the narrative would be fine with new characters. Flashbacks to the younger outlaws during the time of the first movie and soon after don’t help the film at all and the reintroduction of a character from the first film in Blackthorn’s third act only serves to convolute things. Consequently, forging it as a sequel seems a little gimmicky.

The AFI calls it a Bolivian film for the purpose of its festival, but much of it is in English and the star and (I think) much of the financing are American. It is playing in limited release in America this fall. Outreach to Oscar bloggers suggests the studio is trying some sort of Oscar push for lead Sam Shepard, but there’s no way that’s happening and it’s for the best. B.

This ends our coverage of the AFI Latin American Film Festival. It was a pretty good year and maybe slightly better than last year. And now my attention shifts to another AFI fest, this one the AFI European Union showcase which includes some Oscar contenders and Foreign Language category submissions. Stay tuned!

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