Luciferina


There is beauty in wisdom.

(2018) Supernatural Horror (Artsploitation) Sofia del Tuffo, Pedro Merlo, Marta Lubos, Marlena Sanchez, Francisco Donovan, Stefania Koessl, Gastón Cocchiarale, Desirée Gloria Salgueiro, Tomás Lipan, Vando Villamil, Victoria Carreras, Juan José Flores Qulspe, Maru Zapata, Juan Vitali, Silvana Di Sanzo. Directed by Gonzalo Calzado

 

Roman Catholicism is a bit different in Latin America than it is in the rest of the world. In the area from Mexico south to the tip of South America, it is more old school than its counterpart in Europe and North America (above Mexico anyway). In some cases, Catholicism has merged with native pagan religions to form often bizarre hybrids, leading to such things as Voodoo and Santeria.

Natalia (del Tuffo) is a 19-year-old novitiate who joined the convent to escape a chaotic and stressful household. She is happy in her choice – until the Mother Superior (Carreras) who informs her that her mother (Salgueiro) died in some sort of accident and that her father (Villamil) was gravely injured. Natalia is loathe to return home but the Reverend Mother insists.

Back home Natalia finds her more worldly sister Angela (Sanchez) who is not at all happy that Natalia abandoned her. However, the bond between sisters is still strong and when Angela asks Natalia to join her and her friends in the jungle for a Shamanistic ritual involving the psychotropic drug ayahuasca (which some may remember from the documentary The Last Shaman last year) that will allow them to explore their inner selves and maybe, along the way, exorcize some demons. Boy, they have no idea how literally true that is.

So accompanied by Angela’s abusive douchebag of a boyfriend Mauro  (Donovan), the sweet Abel (Merlo), know-it-all Osvaldo (Cocchiarale) and the fragile Mara (Koessl), they trek into the Amazonian jungles of Argentina. There they find the shaman at a ruined and abandoned abbey which Natalia has been having nightmares about – that’s never a good thing – her friends begin to have some horrible visions and it becomes apparent that Natalia is up against a powerful supernatural force that is intent on killing her friends – and having sex with Natalia to father an abomination. Aided by the midwife (Lubos) who delivered the baby in Natalia’s visions, she will have to take on a foe that may just bring about the end of days.

This is a very Catholic film; the attitudes throughout reflect the influence of the religion on the Argentine culture. Natalia is a virgin which is an important component of the story. It is no coincidence that the two who survive to the end are both virgins and deep down in the Catholic psyche that’s the way it should be.

The movie is bookended by CGI images of a baby floating around in the womb. The CGI is a bit primitive but the symbolism is unmistakable when the two images are taken together – I’ll leave that to you to figure out because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In fact, the movie is rife with symbolism (mostly of the Catholic variety). For example, Natalia’s mother before she died drew in her own blood crude drawings of the female uterus. Look more carefully and the shape is not unlike the Satanic ram’s head.

Del Tuffo is an amazing young actress who is absolutely fearless. She is required to be naïve innocent, pure of heart novitiate and eventually self-confident action hero and sexually rampant woman. There is a scene that other critics are referring to as a “sexorcism” (which is a bit cheesy but accurate) which is as graphic a sex scene as you’re likely to ever see from a Latin American film. Natalia is the most deeply defined character in the movie which helps del Tuffo but even without that she really plunges into the role and makes it her own.

Donovan is similarly strong as Mauro, although his character is a bit more cliché; so too is Cocchiarale who is the smart fat guy who is a bit of a know-it-all. Like most of Angela’s friends, he’s a bit of a jerk which is a departure from American norms for that kind of character; had this have been n American film, Osvaldo would have been sweet but annoying. He’s neither here, however.

The movie is a bit slow in the first half and relies overly much on jump scares. The score is a little too earnest, trying too hard to build up a sense of foreboding which is a good idea but could have been executed better. Given the jungle location, the Colonial architecture of the city and the hacienda-like home that Angela and Natalia grew up in, the images here range from really good to really, really good. I think if the movie had been paced a little better, this would have been one of the best horror films of the year. It’s not quite there – this has been a particularly strong year for horror movies – but it’s not far from the top.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are pretty solid all around. The gore and the special effects (for the most part) are spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t as much of a roller coaster ride as I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity, graphic nudity, sex, graphic violence and gore as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in a proposed trilogy entitled The Trinity of the Virgins.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Now, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Swimming With Men

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Hunting Season (Temporada de Caza)


Father and son don’t exactly see eye to eye.

(2017) Drama (Rei Cine) Germán Palacios, Lautaro Bettoni, Boy Olmi, Rita Pauls, Pilar Benitez Vivart. Directed by Natalia Garagiola

The dynamic between a father and a son is never an easy thing. Men, like myself, are great big beasts, growling and sniffing out our rivals – even our own progeny. We circle each other in an endless game of alpha male, doing damage along the way for sure but also from time to time getting through to our sons when they need us most.

Nahuel (Bettoni) is a hot-headed teen; a star on his exclusive Buenos Aires prep school rugby squad, he is angry and bitter and lashing out in the wake of his mother’s death. One of these incidents gets him expelled from the school. His kind-hearted stepdad Bautista (Olmi) suggests that Nahuel spend some time with his biological father in Patagonia. Ernesto (Palacios) works as a game ranger in a state park, also taking in extra cash as a guide to hunting parties. He is considered one of the best in the region for these.

Nahuel isn’t all that keen on heading into what is the equivalent of going to West Virginia after living in Manhattan, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. His mood is further befouled when his father is three hours late picking him up at the airport. By the time he gets to the modest home where Ernesto lives with his much younger second wife (Pauls) and their three daughters, he is about done with any idea of making nice.

He spends most of his time being sullen, sleeping and refusing to do anything he’s asked to do – in short, being a typical teenage boy. But as Ernesto begins to let his guard down and try to understand his own flesh and blood, Nahuel gradually begins to thaw. Nahuel isn’t becoming the man his biological dad wants him to be and Ernesto certainly isn’t the father his son wants him to be but maybe – just maybe – there’s room for both to accept the other as they are.

This isn’t the first film to suggest that the best means for a father-son reconciliation is a trip into the wilderness but the cinematography by Fernando Lockett does make the idea plausible. The background is a stark Patagonian winter and there is much beauty in snow-covered meadows, trees sparkling with icicles and misty mountains rearing their formidable vistas in the background.

Veteran Argentine actor Palacios is perfect for Ernesto; a man who has lived by a certain set of rules all his life only to see his one and only son living by a different set of rules. Palacios plays Ernesto with a hint of sadness as the presence of Nahuel forces Ernesto to take stock on all the really major errors of his life. Palacios can do world-weary like just about nobody else and he has enough screen presence to make his character way more interesting than it has any right to be.

The rock star handsome Bettoni is handed a character that nobody is going to like for about the first two thirds of the film. Nahuel is spoiled, selfish, angry, a bit of a bully and cruel to boot but even he can be redeemed. American audiences may not necessarily want him to be but I suppose within every bad kid is a good kid screaming to be let out, or at least so I’m told.

The dynamic between Bettoni and Palacios is the centerpiece of the film and the two actors do a great job portraying a love-hate (emphasis on the latter at first) relationship between the two men. While there are characters orbiting the two leads who take at least some of the burden off of the two of them, Ernesto and Nahuel dominate the screen time and the movie lives or dies based on how believable their relationship is. Spoiler alert: the movie doesn’t die.

The plot and denouement are pretty much predictable for any veteran film buff so be aware that you’re not likely to be surprised by any of this. However, Garagiola does a good job of making the familiar road an interesting ride and not every director is able to do that. This was one of the highlights of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Palacios has a good deal of screen presence. The cinematography is extraordinary.
REASONS TO STAY: It pretty much goes the way you think it will.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find profanity, violence and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palacios wears a Bass Pro Shops ball cap throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
10 Billion: What’s On Your Plate?

The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once)


The King of Buenos Aires!

The King of Buenos Aires!

(2016) Drama (Kino Lorber) Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zyllerberg, Usher Barilka (voice), Elvira Onetto, Adrian Stoppelman, Daniel Droblas, Elisa Carricajo (voice), Dan Breitman, Uriel Rubin, Dalmiro Burman. Directed by Daniel Burman

 

There are those of us who embrace our roots. Then, there are others of us who want to disconnect ourselves from our roots entirely. Much of that has to do with our childhood and how we feel about it. The traditions of our upbringing can be a prison – or set us free entirely.

Ariel (Sabbagh) is an economist currently living in New York but who grew up in El Once, the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. He is dating a ballerina (Carricajo) and things are getting serious between them. He is returning home to Buenos Aires to introduce his girl to his father Usher (Barilka) who runs a charitable foundation in El Once, serving the poor of that area and providing them with prescription medicine, clothes, food and even arranging for shelter.

Things start going wrong before he even leaves for the airport. His girlfriend has to stay behind because she’s wangled an audition for a major ballet company, so she will be arriving a few days late. Usher asks Ariel to find a size 46 shoe with Velcro instead of laces for a bed-ridden client of the foundation, and although Ariel searches everywhere, he can’t find shoes with Velcro in the short amount of time that he was allotted by his father, who sprung that on him just hours before he had to board his plane.

Once he gets to town, Usher is nowhere to be found although his Aunt Susy (Onetto) shepherds him inside the foundation which is surrounded by angry clients, looking to get meat for the upcoming Purim celebration; the Foundation has none due to a payment dispute between Usher and Mamuñe, a local butcher. Finally Usher calls and has Ariel deliver the shoes, then go to the apartment of a deceased client to find unused prescriptions to take back to the Foundation to redistribute. He is accompanied by Eva (Zylberberg), an attractive but mute Orthodox Jew whose hand he cannot even shake due to the proscriptions of their brand of the faith. It’s this kind of thing that drove a wedge between Ariel and Usher to begin with.

As the week progresses, things begin to fall apart for Ariel who continues to be avoided by his father and who gets roped into performing errands for the Foundation. However, Ariel begins to be inspired by Eva’s spirit and sweetness, and slowly he begins to succumb to the charm of his old neighborhood. What will this mean for the fractured relationship between father and son, and more to the point, between the son and his faith?

Burman has a history of films that deal with the Jewish faith in Latin America that explore similar subjects as he does here, although not quite in the same way. The early part of the movie is a little bit off-center, even a bit surreal as the two most important people in Ariel’s life – his father and his girlfriend – are nothing more than voices on a cellular phone and he wanders about El Once, a bit lost and befuddled. Gradually, though through the rhythms of the neighborhood and its rituals and particularly through the sweet and gentle Eva (who actually does have a voice), he finds a sense of purpose and connection and that journey is at the heart of the movie.

Sabbagh spends most of the movie on the phone, and that can be fairly boring cinematically speaking but the actor, who resembles Jason Alexander a bit to my mind, pulls it off. He plays Ariel as a fairly low-key individual; there are no histrionics, only a sense of frustration that grows as the movie begins, but the more he becomes involved in the neighborhood and with Eva, the more he changes and finds himself. It’s a stellar performance and one you may not want to miss.

I have to admit I was squirming a bit through the first half of the film but the longer it went on, the more it appealed to me. Burman clearly feels a connection with El Once (he is also a resident of the area) and just as clearly a real affection for it. The movie was filmed in the neighborhood and many of the people who live there show up as extras or in small roles.

Most of the time when we see movies about the Jewish experience, we are seeing it either in New York, Eastern Europe or Israel. Burman’s films provide us a look at what Judaism means in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region but certainly with a fairly large Jewish population. The movie isn’t necessarily a love letter to El Once, but it certainly plays a role in the film and is a large part of why I liked it so much.

Given the charm of the neighborhood and Ariel’s evolution (or de-evolution from a certain standpoint) this is the kind of movie that generally appeals to me. It’s low-key, charming and provides a look at life somewhere that I probably will never see. Movies like this give us perspective into our own daily lives and even if you’re not Jewish, you will likely find this as heartfelt and warm as I did.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of movie that grows on you as it plays. Sabbagh plays it low-key and gives a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit overly out there, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed in the Mad About Fabrics store was filmed in the actual store with the owner of the store playing himself. Usher Barilka, who runs the charitable foundation in the area that the one in the film is based on, provides his voice as Ariel’s father.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Putzel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret Life of Pets

Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)


The Secret in Their Eyes

Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin share a tender moment.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella, Jose Luis Gioia, Carla Quevedo, Barbara Palladino, Rudy Romano, Alejandro Abelenda, Mario Alarcon, Sebastian Blanco, Mariano Argento. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella

The eyes are the windows to the soul, or so it is said. There are plenty of people who believe that if you want to find out the truth about people, you simply need to look into their eyes.

Benjamin Esposito (Darin) is a retired prosecutorial investigator who, like many men who have set aside their professional lives, decides to write a book. The subject is the one murder investigation that has been sticking in his craw for 35 years. In 1974 a young woman by the name of Liliana Coloto (Quevedo) is brutally raped and murdered in her home. Esposito is assigned to the case and drives to the crime scene. When he arrives, the sight of the badly beaten body leaves a lasting impression on him.

He is motivated to give the case his utmost attention. His new department chief Irene Menendez Hastings (Villamil) is supportive but there is push-back from Esposito’s rival Romano (Argento) who is corrupt and brutal; he arrests a pair of workers who were employed nearby and tortures them into confessions. Esposito discovers this and immediately has them released; he is enraged and attacks Romano in the hallway of the justice building.

Esposito’s focus goes to a man named Isidro Gomez (Godino), a man from Coloto’s hometown in rural Argentina. The suspicions arise from photographs taken from Coloto’s home supplied by her husband Ricardo Morales (Rago). The expression in Gomez’ eyes are of deep obsessive love. Hastings is skeptical – she doesn’t hold much credence that you can tell that much from a suspect’s eyes. However, Esposito has a gut feeling this is their guy and goes after him, embarking on a road that will lead to unexpected places.

This is a brilliant film. Veteran Argentine director Campanella hooks up with cinematographer Felix Monti for some simply amazing shots (there’s a chase scene in a crowded soccer stadium while a game is in progress that absolutely has to be seen to be believed – it is one of the single best sequences of the sort you’re ever likely to see). While some critics have sniffed that the mystery in the film is more along the lines of an American TV drama, the mystery isn’t the primary component of the movie.

What lies at the center of the film is the unrequited romance between Esposito and Hastings. The film is told in two different time frames, 1974 and 2009 and plainly tells the story of the attraction between the two that might have become something more. There is plainly sizzle between the two that is enacted in glances and looks; the whole conceit about the film is that the story is told by the eyes and the actors both are thankfully possessed of soulful peepers.

I haven’t mentioned Guillermo Francella as Esposito’s alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval, and I remiss in doing so. Francella is one of the top comedians in Argentina and the role is not strictly comic relief. Like any great comedian, Francella is equally adept in inspiring pathos as he is in producing laughs. Yes, Sandoval is a bit of a clown at times but a pathetic clown, lost in the bottle but loyal to his friend who may well be the last person left who believes in him. It’s a great part and well-acted by Francella.

The chemistry between Darin and Villamil is very apparent, even in still pictures like the one adorning this review. They have to play the couple at two periods in their lives; as young, passionate investigators solving a heinous crime, and as older people whose lives have evolved much differently than they expected or wanted (Hastings has become a respected judge by 2009, married to another man and a mother to his children).

There is something to be said for a movie this intricately plotted – the ending sneaks up on you a bit and has a little bit of an O. Henry style to it. The disposition of the relationship between Hastings and Esposito is nicely handled as well.

It must be said that the rape and murder of Coloto is mostly done onscreen (although the killer’s identity is hidden) and it is an intense and disturbing scene which may be too much for some. We are keenly made aware that the scene is playing out the way Esposito imagined it did, and that the crime has haunted him for some time (the doomed woman’s screams echo from 1974 to 2009 in a very nice bit of filmmaking).

The movie is not about the murder as I’ve said before; that is merely the catalyst for the relationships onscreen. This is a movie about Esposito and Hastings, and the murder investigation is merely the context in which we are given to view them. Sure, there are a few images that might seem overly cliché to American eyes but I think that’s done deliberately to set a mood.

This was a surprise winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Films, beating out more widely-regarded movies like A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Both of those are wonderful movies that I have recommended highly, but quite frankly I think that Oscar got it right on this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully plotted with many unexpected twists and turns while leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat. Great love story and some fine performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rape scene may be a little too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense, brutal rape scene as well as some other violent images. There is some graphic nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second Argentine film to win an Oscar; the first was The Official History.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34M on an unreported production budget; this one is a slam dunk moneymaker.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Anonymous