Cold Nights, Hot Salsa


Latin passion.

Latin passion.

(2015) Documentary (WDR Productions) Victor Contreras, Katia Morales, Eddie “Mambo King” Torres, Tito Ortos, Tamara Livolsi, Edson Vallon, Albert Torres, Billy Fajardo, Katie Marlow. Directed by Edwin Gailits

Some years ago as a rock critic, I did a cover story for the newspaper I worked for on the salsa scene locally. It was concentrated mostly in the Latin Quarter of the town but I wanted to show more than just what preconceptions of the scene might bring; I chose as the person through whose eyes my readers would enter the scene through was an affluent tech company administrator; he was third generation American, had graduated from Stanford and loved to go to the clubs on weekends and dance to the beat of the irresistible music that was played in his home the entire time he grew up. He was young, forward-thinking and often brought his non-Hispanic friends with them. Some went once and never returned but quite a few, he told me, came back almost every time he went dancing and some even on their own.

This film gives us a glimpse at why that happened to a very large extent. Salsa is a form of dance that is sensuous and requires virtually no instruction to become proficient in it. Salsa isn’t about formal moves so much as it is about passion; you either have it in you or you don’t and quite frankly, most of us do. I’ve heard it described as sex without getting naked, and that’s about as accurate a description as I’ve encountered.

An entire competitive salsa dancing scene has sprung up over the past decade or so with a world championship event being broadcast on ESPN. Victor Contreras and Katia Morales are two Canadians living in Montreal who met in a dance company and found a mutual love for salsa that brought them into a romantic relationship. The two became dance partners as well as boyfriend and girlfriend, and tried to hone their craft in a city which isn’t known for its Latin population, although there is a fair portion of Hispanics there.

With the help of teachers like Albert Torres and supporters like fellow dancers Billy Fajardo and Katie Marlow, who are semi-retired from competition and have become head judges for the World Salsa Championships, they hone their craft and eventually win the Canadian championship, earning them the right to compete at the World Championships.

The film follows the couple through their first international competition and through bitter disappointment at the 3rd Annual World Championship. Their relationship undergoes severe stress as they return home to lick their wounds and start over, ever-striving to improve until they are ready to tackle the 4th Annual World Championships in Orlando.

We see an awful lot of rehearsal, but the scenes from the competitions are the most compelling; we see the fluid movements, the almost erotic body positioning, the colorful costumes and the incredible interaction between partners; the rehearsal footage serves to put the finished routines in context as we get a sense of the work that goes in to perfecting these routines.

The trouble is that towards the end we see couple after couple at the championships and it all begins to blend together a little bit. There are a number of different divisions within the Championships and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the differences were between them; some seemed to be more athletic and others more romantic. I would have liked a bit more explanation as to what these different divisions were and how the dancers were judged.

Like a lot of documentaries that take place in competitive environments, the dramatic tension comes from getting to know the participants and gaining a rooting interest in their success. Contreras and Morales are both engaging young people who clearly love to dance and just as clearly love each other, although at times the road is a bit rocky, romantically speaking. While Victor is a bit more outgoing, I found myself more focused on Katia not just because of her beauty but because she has a kind of genuineness that Victor occasionally doesn’t; at times he sounds like he’s reading a promo script rather than speaking from the heart, but that isn’t a bad thing. He’s more articulate in a lot of ways than his partner when he is speaking genuinely.

This is a short documentary, just under an hour long. It is just entering the festival circuit so expect to see it at your local film festival this fall and spring. Likely it will also find it’s way onto either TV broadcast or online streaming service or both; keep an eye out for it when it does.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the dance moves are incredible. Victor and Katia are engaging subjects.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the different dance routines begin to blend together. Could have used an explanation of the different divisions of competition and how the competitions work.
FAMILY VALUES: Some dance-based sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker was inspired to pursue this as a documentary subject after a trip to Havana when he noticed during a walk back to his hotel after a night in the clubs how music was coming out of nearly every open doorway and he observed people dancing on their balconies and in their living rooms.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Turbo Kid

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A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material