499


The conquistadors of colonialism still haunt Mexico.

(2020) Documentary Drama (The Cinema Guild) Eduardo San Juan Breña, Alicia Valencia (voice), Jorge Sánchez, Martha González, Sixto Cabrera, Lorena Gutierrez. Directed by Rodrigo Reyes

 

The lines between documentary and feature are normally well-delineated. Sometimes, truth and fiction can blur and through the use of both, we can discover the greater truths that lie beneath the mere facts.

A nameless conquistador washes up on a Veracruz beach. The last he knew it was 1521 and he was sailing home with the ill-gotten riches of his expedition. Suddenly, he finds himself in 2020, 499 years later, in modern Mexico. Something inside him is urging him to retrace his steps, the march that Cortes took from what is now Veracruz to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, what is modern-day Mexico City. Along the way, he loses the ability to speak and is forced to listen to the sadness of others caught in their own tales of woe.

We hear from those who search for loved ones who have disappeared at the hands of the drug cartels, often with the complicity of the police and federal law enforcement that is supposed to be protecting them. We are shown the overwhelming grief and horror as they describe atrocities that seem foreign to us, but are everyday events where they come from. There is a brutality, a barbarity that is present in these acts that make them more than mere violence.

But the conquistador is not without his own madness. He brags about his own atrocities, committed against the indigenous tribes of Mexico. He talks about manipulating them to join the cause against the all-powerful Aztecs, enabling a small band of Spanish soldiers to conquer a nation. He brags about promising them heaven with no intention of keeping any of their promises. Inelegantly and subtly, Reyes draws a direct line between the brutality of colonialism and the violence of the modern cartels.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia captures lovely vistas that are both familiar and alien as the conquistador wanders through natural settings and man-made, through pueblos and garbage heaps. The further he travels, the more stories he hears, the more he is forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions five centuries previous. In that sense, this is true for Mexico as well, a country that has never adequately reconciled their native heritage with their colonial one. For that matter, neither have we.

Reyes also tackles the immigration issue and portrays the Central American immigrants not as hordes of ravening murderers nd rapists, as an ex-President of this country portrayed them, but as people fleeing violence and poverty, willing to undertake an extremely perilous journey to hopefully make it to a country where they have a shot at a decent life. When I think of what these people have seen, what they have endured, it just makes me heartsick for their suffering, and enraged at the callous disregard by the demagogues who demonize them. Karma is coming at those sorts like a freight train.

Through all of this we witness the sad-eyed figure of the conquistador. He is both anachronistic and completely belonging in this culture, for it is a product of his brutality. He is to be scorned and pitied, becase for all his posturing about carrying the cross before him, there is nothing Christ-like in his actions, and he gradually comes to realize it. The film ends in a somewhat unexpected way – I won’t share any details, but it did take me by surprise and quite frankly, upon reflection, makes perfect sense.

IOne thing worthy of mention; the sound here. Reyes leans heavily on natural sounds; the waves of the ocean, the wind through the grass, the soft patter of rain. The movie is entirely in Spanish (with subtitles) so those who don’t speak Spanish may well find themselves being seduced by the sounds of the film; even those who do speak Spanish will appreciate the way sound plays a role in the film.

I have visited Mexico numerous times, and have many Mexican friends, both Mexican nationals and immigrants to this country. Those that live here now are proud of their heritage, but proud to be Americans as well. They preserve as much of their culture as they can while trying to navigate this one. There are conflicts from time to time and it isn’t easy – but that’s true of any immigrant to any country. I know this firsthand from the experiences of my own parents, who emigrated from Cuba and Canada to make lives here.

But Mexico haunts us like a quiet ghost, lurking at our Southern border and I don’t use the description lightly; Reyes has given us a movie that is almost otherworldly in nature and of course it invites such similes. We are aware peripherally of the violence, of the corruption, and we think of the citizens as backwards savages who deserve it. In our arrogance, we repeat the attitudes of those who came to Mexico in 1521 and fail to learn the lessons that history teaches us, if we only open our eyes and see.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very intense, firsthand emotional testimony about the atrocities committed by cartels. Wonderful use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find the weaving of fiction and fact off-putting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and vivid descriptions of violence and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: 2021 is the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes. The title of the movie reflects the year of conquest when the movie was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
They/Them/Us

The Fountain


The Fountain

Just another 26th Century Icarus.

(2006) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Marc Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Sean Patrick Thomas, Donna Murphy, Ethan Suplee, Richard McMillan, Lorne Brass, Fernando Hernandez, Cliff Curtis, Janique Kerns.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky

There are some mysteries that fire the imagination and others that are so immense that they’re terrifying. Eternal life is like that. We as a species fear the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknown as death. We try to avoid it, we shrink from it, we fight to stave it off and yet inevitably, it claims us all. Some come to embrace it, others in time learn to accept it. Others, however, never quite come to terms with it.

The Fountain is an attempt to breach the mystery and it is done in a way that reading a plot won’t really shed a lot of light as to what the movie is about. The storyline is this; in the 16th century, a conquistador named Tomas Creo (Jackman) has been given a mission by Isabel (Weisz), the Queen of Spain who has been beset by the Grand Inquisitor (McHattie) for her heretical thoughts which are a tad more liberal than his liking. A priest, Father Avila (Margolis) under her control has discovered the location of the Biblical Tree of Life which grants eternal life to all those who drink of its sap. Returning to Spain with such a treasure would shift power from the Inquisitor to the Queen, who has pledged that should Creo return successful he would have her hand in marriage. However, to get to the Tree he must fight his way through a bunch of annoyed Mayans in a heretofore lost pyramid.

In modern times, Dr. Tommy Creo (Jackman again), a brilliant medical researcher, is racing against the clock to find a cure for the extremely aggressive brain tumor that is slowly killing his wife Izzi (Weisz again), an author who is writing a book about a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life. She has left the final chapter unfinished, wanting her husband to complete the book for her when she is gone. Tommy, for his part, is driving his team relentlessly, causing his boss Dr. Guzetti (Burstyn) to remonstrate with him. She wonders if he shouldn’t be spending more time with Izzi in her last days rather than on this fool’s errand to find a cure. His teammates Antonio (Thomas), Betty (Murphy) and Manny (Suplee) are concerned that he’s lost his perspective. Tommy, however, is working on a plant from South America that may yield the cure he desperately needs for his starry-eyed wife, who is trying to make her peace with her eventual fate.

Five hundred years from now, a hairless astronaut named Tom (Jackman a third time) hurtles through the void in a transparent bubble-like spaceship with a dying tree with the intention of flying it into the center of a dying star. His motives are unclear; whether he intends to restore life to the star, or life to the souls of those the ancient Mayans believe went to this place to rest or perhaps some other theory altogether. He hallucinates the presence of his lost love who looks suspiciously like Izzi, practices yoga and meditates as the sphere speeds towards the nebula.

Director Aronofsky has made not so much a movie you watch passively but an event to be experienced. Critics and audiences alike have lined up on either side of the coin; the movie was roundly booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere and has received a critical pasting. However, those who get this movie absolutely love it. Aronofsky really doesn’t give you much room for anything else but absolutes here, which is ironic since the movie has a tendency to be vague with its message.

That message is left open to interpretation, with Aronofsky asking the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the movie. There is a certain 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, particularly to the 26th century sequence and there has been some grousing that this is a movie best encountered while stoned out of your mind. Not being a stoner, I can only imagine what this movie would be like whilst altered.

Jackman does his best work to date as the three Creos (which is Spanish for “I believe,” by the way). All three characters are alike in that they are extremely driven, but different in that they are driven in different ways. Jackman is at once a brutal conquistador, a brilliant but bereaved researcher and a serene Zen monk-like astronaut. Weisz, who at one time was not one of my favorite actresses but has been on a roll lately, makes the best she can out of a role which really doesn’t require much from her other than to smile beatifically most of the time and give soulful looks from a warm bath.

The effects are not CGI on purpose, as Aronofsky felt that would date the movie (not mentioned is that his budget was cut in half by the studio; undoubtedly he had to get a little bit more imaginative with the effects in order to pull it off, and cutting expensive CGI shots would seem to be the right way to go here). Still, there are some spectacular sequences, particularly on the Pyramid and then again as the spacecraft reaches the dying nebula. The whole she-bang is framed by one of the most beautiful scores you will ever hear, penned by Craig Mansell and performed by the classical group the Kronos Quartet and the rock band Mogwai.

This is not a movie for everybody. Several audience members walked out after about 20 minutes and the teenagers expecting some sort of space opera were completely baffled by what they saw. This is the kind of movie that requires an intellectual commitment, and a lot of people who go to the movies are out to turn their brain off, which is fine – I do it all the time. However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, exploring the mystery of eternal life and our attitudes towards it can make for a fine evening’s mental exercise. I realize I’m something of a voice crying in the wilderness, but The Fountain is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, but not many will share that opinion, and that’s fine by me.

WHY RENT THIS: Great performance by Jackman and thought-provoking script. Despite the lack of CGI, still beautiful to look at. Outstanding score by Mansell and performance by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The triple timeline story is often confusing and frustrating to follow.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some surprisingly violent action sequences as well as some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Xibalba Nebula refered to by Mayan astronomers as the place where departed souls enter the afterlife, is located in the constellation Orion.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The movie’s torturous journey to the screen included an aborted first film that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that was halted not very far into production after creative differences between Pitt and Aronofsky and budgetary concerns from the studio led to the cessation. The feature “Australia” discusses this, although not in as much detail as we’d like.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.0M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Happy Feet

King of California


King of California

Michael Douglas is clearly up to no good.

(First Look) Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II, Laura Kachergus, Paul Lieber, Kathleen Wilhoite, Anne Nathan. Directed by Mike Cahill

Don Quixote tilted at windmills and searched for the perfect woman, and for his troubles was labeled insane. Even today, those who search for the impossible dream are often considered lunatics and are treated as such.

Miranda (Wood) has a fairly atypical and comfortable existence. She’s managed to fool the authorities and her estranged family into thinking that she’s living with relatives. The truth is that the teenaged girl is living alone in her family home, her mother long since deceased and her father Charlie (Douglas), an ex-jazz musician, is spending his days at his new address in a local mental institution.

One day however, Charlie is released from the nuthatch and she is forced to deal with him again. He has a peculiar gleam in his eyes and an appetite for things that makes her think he’s up to something. He denies it at first, claiming he’s just going for a job interview at a local Applebee’s.

Except that he’s not. He is, in fact, up to Something and it is not in error that I capitalize. Using the internet for research, he has locked into the idea that a Spanish conquistador once buried a treasure full of gold in the Santa Clarita valley, where the two of them live. He is positively giddy with the idea.

Miranda doesn’t have time for the lunacy, at least not at first. Their ramshackle house, virtually falling apart around them, is theirs only by the skin of her teeth. She is working double shifts and overtime at McDonald’s to make ends meet. She has managed to purchase a car – nay, a hunk of junk that runs by the grace of God – and it is her pride and joy. It is the one tangible proof that she has accomplished anything in life.

Soon, Charlie’s quest, like Don Quixote before him, overruns her life and begins to take it over. He discerns, using the translated maps and adjusting for the terrain changes in the intervening years that the gold is buried beneath a palate of toys and a slab of concrete at the local Costco. He hatches a plot to go retrieve the treasure, but is there really anything there or is this just a product of Charlie’s mental illness?

This movie came and went on a limited release and now is getting a bit of airtime on cable. The allusions to Cervantes’ iconic character aren’t lost on Michael Douglas, who plays Charlie with a wild, unkempt beard (making him look oddly Spanish) and a gleam in his eyes that could be madness or could be Gordon Gekko messin’ with ya. It’s been years since we’ve seen Douglas perform as well as he does here, having mostly done mediocre supporting roles in forgettable comedies recently. This is certainly a comedic role, but Douglas plays him in a sympathetic vein, making it very easy to root for the clearly unbalanced Charlie, even though we know he’s probably out to lunch.

Against this backdrop we have Evan Rachel Wood, a competent actress in her own right and she makes the best of a thankless role. Although she narrates the film, still the movie is Charlie’s and it is him you will remember from the movie, which is the way the filmmakers want it. Wood is no Dulcinea here – she’s far too worldly for that – but she plays the role as a girl wise beyond her years. Miranda humors Charlie mainly to give him something to do at first, but eventually she buys into his madness. It is charming to watch, and some of the later scenes in the movie are some of the best Wood has ever done.

The difficulty here is in balancing the story with the impulse to over-emphasize Charlie’s quirks, an impulse Cahill fails to resist. At times, Charlie’s screwloose charm dominates the movie overly much, making it nearly impossible to follow the story because the movie stops dead in its tracks in those instances. Still, for the most part, it moves nicely at a pace that isn’t too fast which might irritate those of the post-MTV generation who don’t like staring at the same shot for more than five seconds.

The story doesn’t really mine any new territory, and that’s okay. What matters here is that the movie’s point about the mind-numbing blandness of modern suburban life is well-taken and well-illustrated here. Few of Costco’s customers notice the wild-looking man pacing about Costco with a metal detector, all lost in their own banal nightmare. Charlie is a spark of life in an ocean of conformity, one who embraces life and seeks out adventure even when such acts are frowned upon and thought insane. One wonders if perhaps Charlie is the only sane one of all those living in a colorless world of interchangeability in which people all over the country in cities and suburbs identical to this one buy the same products in the same stores and eat at the same restaurants afterwards. If Charlie’s insane, then commit me now. I’d rather live in his world than in the other.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas gives one of his best performances in years. The film pointedly illustrates how bland, banal and interchangeable modern suburban/city life is.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie sometimes goes a bit overboard with the quirkiness. No new territory is really mined here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of off-color language and references to past drug use but the kicker here is the portrayal of mental illness. More mature kids might be okay with this, but certainly fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed in a working Costco during the nighttime hours when the store is normally closed. A cash register was kept open so that the crew could make purchases during the shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This carries with it one of the strongest audio commentary tracks you are ever likely to hear. Highly recommended for that alone.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Mountain Patrol: Kekexili