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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!

It’s come to my attention that my Spanish translation of this blog’s title has been wrong since my first post for the 2010 festival. Now that I have corrected it presumably people will actually start reading! Moving on to part two of my coverage of the 2011 AFI Latin American Film Festival. See part one here.

All Your Dead Ones (Todos Sus Muertos), Colombia, dir: Carlos Moreno

You always run the risk with a foreign film of something getting lost in translation. Sometimes literally: slang, a turn of phrase, or joke that fits perfectly in the original language might not have an appropriate translation. A lyrical line in one language can lose its beauty in another. But films also are designed with an audience in mind and they rely on that audience having certain knowledge. A joke about a stereotype won’t work if the audience doesn’t already know the stereotype. A cultural reference relies on the audience knowing the culture.

I think some of All Your Dead Ones gets lost in translation.

A farmer awakes one morning to discover a pile of bodies in his field. He dutifully hops on his bicycle to go to town and report the murders. It’s election day in the state and the politicians, policemen, and officials he meets have little interest in a massacre except to figure out how rid themselves of the problem. Eventually the mayor and some policemen make their way to the farm where they hatch a series of absurd plots to take care of the nuisance.

Many of the farm scenes turn into long, drawn-out episodes filled with uneasy silence. My sense is that they are meant to be tense, presumably because the officials’ intent to cover up the bodies could pose some danger to the farmer and his family. I did not feel this tension. To me they were nothing but long, boring scenes and I think this is where the translation problem comes in. A Colombian audience would have an understanding of the local social and political situations. The filmmakers wouldn’t have to do anything special as the audience would provide its own tension to an awkward showdown between police and lowly farmer.

On the other hand, I found the police more bumbling than threatening. I know of Colombia’s recent history of paramilitary and rebel atrocities, but there’s nothing in an encounter between a farmer and the police that would seem fraught with danger to me.

At least this is how I read it. Maybe it is meant to be kind of boring instead of tense. D.

Hermano, Venezuela, dir: Marcel Rasquin

It’s not often you get a movie that falls into the cliches of not one but two genres. In Hermano, Venezuela’s submission for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar, we get treated to a story of Daniel, a boy growing up in the Caracas slums trying to stay out of trouble while leading his soccer team to the city championships.

There is an interesting foundation to the story in Daniel’s family. The film opens with what he calls his “birth”: when he is discovered in a trash heap by a mother and her young son, Julio. The film skips ahead to when the boys are teens and the family’s interactions are sweet and interesting. The brothers are close and make a great team on the soccer field, but their status as legitimate and adoptive sons always remains just under the surface. Julio is also involved with the neighborhood’s crime syndicate, which Daniel tries to avoid but cannot always.

Hermano is one of those films where every character is allowed to have one emotion at a time and always feels that emotion very strongly. First I am sad but now I am very angry at you and now I love you. It undercuts the appeal of the family’s unique bond. It also checks all the boxes for a poor child trying but not always succeeding to avoid trouble movie and a sports movie, including the usual implausibilities of the latter.

Still, it’s hard to be too annoyed with the film as it is amiable enough. The story kept my attention even if it didn’t always grab me emotionally. Some scenes are thrilling and the limited look into contemporary life in Caracas is welcome. C-.

The Last Commandant (El Último Comandante), Costa Rica/ Brazil, dir: Isabel Martínez

Sometimes you see a movie that isn’t at all what you expected. This was my experience with The Last Commandant. The plot revolves around a former Sandanista commander in the Nicaraguan civil war who surfaces in Costa Rica decades after the war’s end. Judging from what I read about the film, I expected something related to the war’s aftermath and the social and cultural rifts that linger.

It turns out it’s a character study of an asshole. Our commander is just an asshole who didn’t care about the war, didn’t care about his wife, doesn’t care about his former soldiers he encounters, and doesn’t care who he has to screw over to get what he wants. And what he wants is the money to open a cha-cha-cha studio, a dream he’s rather pathetically pursued for years.

Interestingly, the film starts as a story about his former wife as she searches for him before entirely shifting to the commander himself. So this film wants to defy all sorts of expectations!

It’s a somewhat interesting movie that kept my attention even if it didn’t thrill or move me. It’s Damian Alcazar’s lead performance that makes it good enough to mildly enjoy. Movies about assholes can wear on the viewer and Alacazar brings enough of a pathetic air and even some humor to push the film over the line. C.

Clubbing (De Caravana), Argentina, dir: Rosendo Ruíz

Juan attends a concert in Cordoba to take some photos of a music icon. While there he meets Sara and she goes home with him but she steals his camera. He tracks her down to find that she works with a drug dealer who only promises to return his camera once he does some work for him, thrusting Juan into lower-class and criminal worlds he was unaware of in his previously high-class life. Sounds like a gritty crime drama with shifty morals and character-testing predicaments, right?

Maybe at this point I should mention that besides Sara and drug dealer Maxtor, the third member of the crime ring is a sassy but very sweet transvestite named Penelope who wants to open a spa. And that Juan doesn’t really mind his criminal errands. In fact, he rather enjoys his excursions into the criminal underworld. Juan and Maxtor become friends while Juan pursues Sara. It turns out the whole thing is very low stakes. The only real conflict is friction with Sara’s ex-boyfriend who is a competitor both in business and love.

So what’s the point then? It becomes something interesting by the utter bizareness of it all. The characters have interesting and random conversations, especially driven by Maxtor and Penelope. They’re often about nothing important but are still amusingly strange. Rodrigo Savina as Maxtor stands out with his earnest but manic investment in these discussions.

All told, a movie that modestly succeeds by riding its bizarre characters even as the plot fizzles. Not too shabby. C+.

The blog has been ignored for the last month as most of us traipsed around Europe. But now we’re back and we’re kicking off with some film festival coverage! No, not Telluride or Toronto or New York or Venice, but…

Just like last year, I’m on the scene for the 22nd annual AFI Latin American Film Festival at the AFI Silver theater here in the DC area. These little local festivals are great for sampling some new films outside the usual ones that get commercial releases in the US. My choices don’t always work out, but I’ve found some terrific films over the years.

Many of these films you’ll never hear from again. But some will receive US releases and others may well factor in this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race. I’ve also visited some dark corners of the internet looking for guidance when picking what I want to see out of a film festival catalog. Perhaps I can steer a random Googler with a catalog to her own hometown festival to some winners (or warn her away from the losers).

The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana), Mexico/Spain, dir: Trisha Ziff

This documentary featured as the opening night selection for the festival. In 2007, a box of negatives from photos taken during the Spanish Civil War was unearthed in Mexico. The film dives into their progeny, leading to discussions of the war, the photographers, and the nature of photography as art and journalism.

The box contains work from Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and Gerda Taro, three photographers who lived among the Republican soldiers and helped pioneer modern war photography. All three eventually lost their lives in war zones. Several very famous photos from the Spanish Civil War came from them.

It turns out the negatives made their way to Mexico on the same route many of the war’s losers did: they crossed into France, where former Republican soldiers waited in concentration camps before a sympathetic Mexican government granted them asylum. The negatives ended up with a Republican general and then buried in his daughter’s closet.

The film switches among several threads. A story of the late stages of the war and the years after it forms a narrative backbone with discussions of the photographs filling in much of the content. While I was watching I couldn’t help but think that the filmmakers were tackling too much. There is the discussion of the photographers’ innovations, their relationships with each other, and the way their work has been viewed as a one block of work instead of by three distinct journalists. There is also the discussion of the discovery: who found the negatives, their journey to exhibition, and whether their appropriate home is in Mexico. And there’s all the coverage of the war in general.

This broad range of topics is necessary because no part on its own is enough for a feature length film. But at least they flow into each other nicely. I do think an interest in the Spanish Civil War or photography would be necessary to enjoy the film. I am interested in the former so I found it sufficiently interesting, though a few of the more technical photographic discussions tried my patience. B.

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2 – O Inimigo Agora É Outro), Brazil, dir: José Padilha

The first Elite Squad played the DC Film Fest in 2008. I was on a favela – Brazilian slum – film kick at the time after seeing and loving City of God. Not that the kick has necessarily waned since as it’s still strong enough that I went to see the sequel even though I didn’t care for the first. The original followed the travails of a paramilitary branch of the police department that took on tough assignments in Rio’s dangerous slums. The officers find their convictions tested by corrupt cops and moral quandaries. It was meant to be one of those tales where we wonder if the ends justify the police’s ends, but I thought it was too much flash over substance.

The sequel takes several of the original’s main characters and does so much more with them.

Nacimiento, the commander from the first film, has moved up in the world. Now he wears a suit, in charge of part of the state’s security apparatus. He has terrific success pushing the gangs out of many of the city’s favelas. Unfortunately they are replaced by corrupt cops and organized crime. This thrusts us into a world where politicians, cops, and criminals combine to form a pervasive and corrupt system. When Nacimiento realizes what has happened, and its violence hits too close to home, he fights back.

What makes Elite Squad 2 so good is that it starts with terrific action sequences and makes them mean something through its well-developed characters and social conscience. It feels like an intense exposé in the guise of an action film (but don’t worry, I wouldn’t say it ever gets preachy). It’s absolutely engrossing and tugs on the emotions. I left the theater thrilled.

Elite Squad 2 is Brazil’s Best Foreign Language submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. I wonder if sequel aversion will hurt it in this category even though it’s a terrific film, upstages its predecessor, and isn’t reliant on viewers having seen the first. I would be quite excited to see it nominated. It will also receive a US commercial release in November. A.

Of Love and Other Demons (Del Amor y Otros Demonios), Colombia/Cost Rica, dir: Hilda Hidalgo

I probably should have known better on this one. Gabriel García Márquez is a writer I think I enjoy more in concept than in practice. His languid pace projected on a silver screen is a killer.

When Sierva, a teenager in colonial Colombia, is bit by a mad dog, she is sent to a convent to be exorcised, as it was believed at the time that rabid dogs transmitted demonic possession. The young priest assigned to her case begins to think there’s nothing wrong with her, though the long periods of isolation seem to be making her a bit mad. They begin a tentative, very slow, very uninteresting courtship.

Some reviews I read said the slow pace works because there’s so much beautiful imagery on screen. I respectfully beg to differ. The camera finds plenty of little moments to linger over, but they are not beautiful nor interesting enough to make up for the plot. This movie pretty much sapped me of energy for the rest of the day so potent was its lethargy. It doesn’t get much worse than that. D-.

I took a long break between posts about the AFI Latin American Film Festival to go to, well, Latin America. Two weeks eating steak in Argentina make me an expert now, right?

Carancho, Argentina, dir: Pablo Trapero

Here’s a hint to other travelers: don’t watch a movie about how dangerous your destination is just days before leaving. Carancho is set on Argentina’s dangerous roads and made me worried to jump in a cab while I was there.

The plot revolves around a dirty lawyer who chases ambulances in Buenos Aires, signing victims to represent, then pocketing most of the insurance settlements. Or sometimes he skips the chasing and just stages the accidents himself. The life is weighing on him, but his attempts to exit the business are stymied by his criminally-connected boss. Meanwhile, he begins a relationship with a paramedic.

The film is good, but uneven. The lawyer’s plight is more interesting than the paramedic’s and it’s one of those movies that is better thematically than narratively. In other words, it’s more interesting thinking about it later than sitting through it. The lawyer is fascinating and he is more than the simple “bad guy looking to for a way out” stock character. I loved the ending, especially the very, very end, which is a bit deus ex machina but perfect.

Argentina nominated Carancho for the Foreign Language Oscar. It is coming off a win in the category last year with The Secret in Their Eyes and the two films share star Ricardo Darín, so it’s sure to get some attention. I doubt it will grab a nomination, however. Scott Cooper, who directed Crazy Heart, is said to be in line to direct an American remake.

Bad Day to Go Fishing (Mal día para pescar), Uruguay, dir: Álvarao Brechner

This is sort of like the South American The Wrestler. A washed up East German professional wrestler travels around dinky South American towns challenging locals. His manager sets up the bouts and fixes the outcomes while convincing his frustrated star to stick to it and not return home. In one town, a capable opponent refuses to be bought and the prize money the challenger stands to win would bankrupt the traveling star.

This one’s a bit of a bore. I wouldn’t say it fully drags, but the lack of progress in the middle wore on me. Part of that may have been that I thought I knew where the plot was heading. Happily I was wrong and the ending is terrific. All in all a decent film.


And that brings to an end our coverage of the AFI Latin American Film Festival. Also see Part 1 and Part 2. I had a nice time over those few weeks and it was a good way to get ready for my trip (and tune up my Spanish). AFI does some interesting programs throughout the year and hopefully I’ll be able to take some in.

I guess it’s no surprise that the most economically unequal region in the world produces plenty of films about class. The Widows of Thursdays was sort of about that, but the two I’m discussing today are even more explicit.

Southern District (Zona sur), Bolivia, dir: Juan Carlos Valdivia

A portrait of a white upper-class family that lives in a villa in a rich part of La Paz. The matriarch is divorced and her children are a lesbian college student, a teenage son that spends his time partying and having sex, and a five-year-old son. Two Indian servants round out the household.

Vadivia puts the camera in the middle of a room and gives it at least one full rotation as the scene unfolds. The technique is immersive and interesting. It’s also quite effective since the film concentrates on the characters’ interactions and allows the viewer to pick up subtle cues rather than developing much of a plot. There are some visual flourishes that I thought went over the top, but otherwise it’s a fascinating film.

Southern District was Bolivia’s submission for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar race but was not nominated.

Chance, Panama, dir: Abner Benaim

Another movie dealing with a rich white family’s interactions with its native servants, but it’s about as different as possible. When the family is about to head out on a pricey weekend vacation even though they haven’t paid their staff for weeks, the maids decide to fight back. They take the family hostage and demand a ransom. But it turns out the father has blown through the family’s wealth, so the maids have to get creative.

I think the film has designs on being a commentary on class, but I’m not sure it works terribly well in that regard. I guess it has some lessons to impart, but they’re hardly novel. Instead, it works very well as a broad comedy. I think if it was remade for American audiences it would star Tim Allen and there would be at least one flatulence joke. It’s quite funny, though the jokes are pretty obvious. It’s very much an enjoyable crowd-pleaser and it had me happy leaving the theater.

The AFI theater here in the DC area is running its 21st annual Latin American Film Festival this month and I’m el Gruñon de Oro en la escena.

Why? Partly because all of the news out of Venice, Toronto, and Telluride has me film fest-happy and a Toronto trip aborted at the last minute left a hole in my heart. Partly because some of these films will have Oscar aspirations in the Foreign Language category. But also because these little film festivals pull some obscure titles. When I sit down with a film festival catalogue I find guidance on what films are worthwhile from some far-flung internet sites. Hopefully I can turn some random Googlers onto a hidden gem, or steer them away from an elusive stinker.

Optical Illusions (Ilusiones ópticas), Chile, dir: Cristián Jiménez

In a southern Chilean city, six people look for meaning in their lives through science, consumerism, and capitalism. One struggles when he loses his job. Another wants to save up for breast enhancement surgery. A third chases a married woman he catches shoplifting at his job as a mall security job. Another formerly-blind man has his sight restored with a new surgical procedure only to discover he might have preferred staying blind.

It’s meant to be a humorous, wry look at modern life. I didn’t really think it went anywhere. Everyone’s lives intersect, but not in interesting ways. Each character’s story is superficially interesting. A man navigating the ridiculousness of his company’s outplacement phase where he sits in a room all day until he can find a new job is an interesting situation. It just doesn’t really develop. There’s not much in the way of conflict or characters that learn or change. By the time several of the characters end up in the hospital I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to come away with.

It also feels very, very long for its 105 minute run time. Unfortunately, this is one to skip.

The Widows of Thursdays (Las viudas de los jueves), Argentina, dir: Marcelo Piñeiro

I’ll often call something “melodramatic” and mean it pejoratively. But here is a film that’s melodramatic and delightfully so. It’s not overly dramatic, but it revels in its domestic drama without turning over-the-top.

The setting is an upscale gated community near Buenos Aires in the lead up to Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse. The four main families have the full-range of suburban problems: job insecurity, marital strife, unruly children, not to mention some darker troubles. But they also exhibit a lot of love and self-confidence (and self-awareness) so they are not caricatures or soap opera characters.

Three of the men are found dead in a swimming pool and the film uses flashbacks to tell of the time leading up to their demise. I found it very effective as the film is not about how they die but why. It’s an engrossing look at a certain type of community at a certain point in time. The ending didn’t do much for me, but the journey is terribly entertaining and enjoyably – yes – melodramatic that I didn’t mind.

Note: the AFI has it translated as The Widows of Thursdays but the film itself translates the title as The Thursday Widows, which makes more sense and just plain sounds better. Maybe the latter title will be used in the future. Or, Thursday Night Widows, as per some sources. Or Thursday’s Widows.

July 2020