Buena Vista Social Club: Adios


The music of Cuba is timeless.

(2017) Documentary (Broad Green) Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ry Cooder, Nick Gold, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos González, Barbarito Torres, Gilberto “Papi” Oviedo. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

In 1997, American musician Ry Cooder discovered the seductive rhythms and melodies of Cuban music. Gathering together a group of aging Cuban musicians who continued to make vibrant and amazing music from their native land, he put together an album with literally an all-star group of Cuban musicians in what was a love letter to the island. German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a documentary about the tour that surrounded the album. The documentary he made, Buena Vista Social Club which was also the name of the album, were worldwide phenomena and made international stars out of the musicians that were portrayed, garnering major awards including Oscars and Grammys.

That was then, this is now. 20 years has passed since the first album and many of the musicians from the first film, who were already elderly when the album was recorded, have since passed on. This documentary acts both as prequel and sequel, giving us a little more insight to the development of son Cubano music and the people who made it stars, particularly Ferrer and Portuondo, the royal couple of Cuban music. The first third of the film concentrates on that, showing the two as they appear in variety show footage from the 50s and in Cuban commercials of that era, leading up through the revolution that changed the island forever and the eventual slide into obscurity – Ferrer was shining shoes two doors down from the studio where the BVSC album was recorded.

The middle third chronicles the rise of the Buena Vista Social Club and the effect of the album, tour and film on their lives and the fame it brought both to the music that in many ways defined Cuban culture and the musicians who created it. The concert footage is particularly joyful; there are outtakes from the original Wenders film included here (Wenders was one of the producers on this film although he declined to go behind the cameras for it) that remind us how the best music comes from the soul. Even if you’re not a fan of Latin music you can’t help but be seduced by the lovely melodies, insidious rhythms that almost compel you to dance and the lyrics which reflect the universal struggles and triumphs of life.

The final third is somewhat more melancholy, something of a “where are they now” segment as we follow the lives of the primary people chronicled in the first film in the years after the movie was released. Ferrer and Portuondo are the main subjects and they are engaging and delightful personalities. Ferrer passed away in 2005 and his death was mourned throughout Cuba but also in the international music community as well.

We also see the state of Cuba as being hopeful as it appears that relations with the United States are at long last going to be normalized during the Obama administration; sadly since the making of the film it appears all that will be for naught as the new President seems more inclined to leave things the way they are vis a vis Cuba. That adds to the melancholy.

I am myself of Cuban descent and although my father passed away in 1986 he loved to play the Cuban songs he loved as a young man on the piano in our home. I can still here those lovely melodies echoing in our living room as he would play. As I watched the movie in the theater, I could feel his presence and that of my grandmother who also loved the music well. Perhaps that makes me a little more inclined to overlook the faults of the film which to be quite honest isn’t nearly as good as the original documentary and doesn’t carry with it quite the same feeling of joy.

This is a somewhat bittersweet movie; there is some hope for the music as new musicians have moved in to play the same songs and perhaps writes some new ones. The music continues to thrive in Cuba and although it hasn’t had quite the success here in the States can still be found in places where Cubans congregate, particularly in Florida.

The best music comes directly from the soul as I said – and clearly the music of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios comes from that place inside these musicians that pulses with life and celebration. It also comes from the place that simmers with regret and disappointment. We all know these aspects of our lives and it is somewhat comforting to know that there is a soundtrack for it. Whether or not you are of Latin descent, music like this speaks to you on a primal level. We can relate to it because we are all human. Music like this is timeless and beyond borders; it goes to what makes us who we are. If for that alone, this is a documentary that should be seen. Sure, you can see it without having seen the first but to be honest I would recommend seeing the first if you are only going to see one of the two.- but you should see both.

REASONS TO GO: The music is timeless and amazing. The personalities of the musicians is exuberant and unforgettable.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t quite hold up to the original documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some material that’s a bit suggestive and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original movie and album were named for a Havana dance hall patronized by poor Afro-Cubans. The dance hall no longer exists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hecho en Mexico
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: LA 92

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ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

The Fate of the Furious


Why so angry>

(2017) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju,, Patrick St. Esprit, Janmarco Santiago, Luke Hawx, Corey Maher, Olek Krupa, Alexander  Babara, Eden Estrella. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

There was a big question mark hanging over the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise; with co-star Paul Walker gone, could the series continue to reach the heights it achieved with Furious 7? Well, in terms of box office and spectacle, the answer turned out to be yes. But does it hold up with the best of the films in the franchise?

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is on his honeymoon with his girl Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, doing what most new husbands do on their honeymoon; get involved in a street race. He is also approached by Cypher (Theron), a world class hacker who has something on Dom but we’re not sure what. His wolfish smile, which looks for all the world like he’s displaying his fangs, turns into a world class scowl – see picture above.

During the next mission with his crew, Dom betrays them leaving Hobbs (Johnson) holding the bag, Cypher holding some Russian nuclear codes and the team unable to believe that Dom would turn on them. The world thinks Dom has gone Rogue but Mr. Nobody (Russell) thinks differently, even after Dom and Cypher attack their headquarters in New York City. Dom flees and Cypher uses her special skills to take control over every computer-enabled car in Manhattan, raining down cars on the team like a really bad hailstorm.

Cypher is after a Russian nuclear sub and with her launch codes could hold the world hostage for a tidy amount of cash but Letty, Mr. Nobody and the until-recently-incarcerated Hobbs have other plans, and they’re going to get some reinforcements of the most unexpected kind. Friend and foe will unite to take on this deadly femme fatale.

Now, I’m not going to beat around the bush; the action sequences are absolutely outstanding. The New York sequence is right there as is the climactic scene in which Dom’s crew chase down the submarine over ice – don’t even ask for sense here. Nothing here makes any. What we have is just cars going fast, things going boom and attractive guys and gals at the wheels of cars we couldn’t possibly afford. What better fantasy is there for a red-blooded American?

I think that the instructions here were to go big and Gray as well as screenwriter Chris Morgan may have taken it too much to heart. This is more in the James Bond territory now than what was once a simple underground street racing movie featuring a bunch of LA guys in wife beaters driving some cool midlife crisis compensators. There are gadgets, CGI and not a whole lot of character development which may be because there are way too many characters here. Too many to keep track of, anyway.

I wasn’t a fan of this franchise initially but starting with the fourth installment I began to get into it. Unfortunately, this is a giant step backwards and while it’s billion dollar worldwide box office guarantees an ninth episode (there will also be a tenth which has already been dated by Universal), I’m not looking forward to it with quite the anticipation of the previous few installments.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are great. You can’t go wrong with a heavyweight cast like this one.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest entry in the franchise since Tokyo Drift. There are too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of violence and action, some sensuality and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were rumors that Diesel and Johnson were having some personal difficulties with one another; after Johnson posted his frustrations online, the two met privately and resolved their differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Cyclotron

Mateo


Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

(2015) Documentary (XLRator) Matthew Stoneman, Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano. Directed by Aaron I. Naar

If you go by the assumption that the best individual subjects for documentaries are those who fall furthest outside the mainstream of society, then Matthew Stoneman might well be the perfect subject. A mild-looking red-headed ex-convict mariachi singer from New Hampshire currently residing in Los Angeles, he regularly spends time in Cuba where he has spent seven years recording an ambitious record titled Una Historia de Cuba with Cuban musicians, including members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. He is often described in his press as the “gringo mariachi” which is fitting.

Facially resembling Bill Gates a little bit, Stoneman has a gentle, voice that is at odds with the typical big voices spawned by American Idol that dominate pop music at the moment. His songs express a good deal of longing, a kind of melancholia that cuts right to the heart. This is the kind of music that simply isn’t made in the American and western idioms; this is music from the Latin soul and it isn’t for everybody.

Stoneman, who uses the stage name Mateo and is addressed as such by the Mexican mariachi musicians he hangs out with in Los Angeles, plays in restaurants and scrounging for tips as well as at weddings, quinceañeras and whatever gigs he can find. He lives in an apartment that resembles an episode of Hoarders and saves every penny to fly to Cuba.

It is in Havana that he feels more at home, working with Cuban musicians on his ambitious record which as far as I could tell was original songs by Stoneman documenting the various styles of music in that Caribbean country as well as detailing its history. The Cuban musicians have accepted Stoneman as one of their own, a kindred spirit and praise his work ethic repeatedly, as well as his talent. While some will find his voice a little tentative, his low-key delivery is perfect for the tone and vibe of his music.

The documentary captures Stoneman in all his elements, and not all of them are savory. In the studio he is exacting, knowing exactly the sounds he wants to create but he collaborates with the musicians and accepts their input, sometimes with some contention but the experience looks to be joyful – certainly the musicians are having a good time.

Stoneman himself, though, seems more driven than happy. During the film he admits that he doesn’t have much use for friends and family and prefers to keep to himself which I believe is poison for an artist. He is clearly a lonely man, and his music reflects that; he could use a wider variety of emotions in his music with the caveat being that I’ve only heard what’s on the soundtrack – for all I know the rest of his music is upbeat and fun but something tells me that the melancholy dominates. When you deny yourself all the colors on your palate as a painter, your painting is going to be limited; so it is with music as well, with emotions being the colors that a musician employs. Still, the music I heard here is haunting and many viewers are going to be looking to order the CD the first chance they get although to be honest, I was unable to locate a website that it was available for purchase – my search was necessarily cursory however. If I find one, I’ll be sure to update this review though.

This isn’t a travelogue so the views of Cuba are more of the everyday life of the Cuban people and less of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture that we associate with the island nature, although there are some views of both. Mostly we get a sense of how Cubans live and while they don’t have a lot of the goods that we here in the States have, they don’t seem to miss them (it was refreshing not to see anyone carrying the ubiquitous cell phone around).

Stoneman does have a checkered past and while he doesn’t bury it, there isn’t a lot of detail about it in the film (most of the information as to what he did was culled from interviews I read with the filmmakers). It was while he was doing time for armed robbery that he was first exposed to the ballads that Mexican-American inmates listened to and sang, and he became so enchanted with them that he decided to give up on his career in pop music and concentrate on the beautiful Latin music that he became enamored with.

We do get a glimpse of Stoneman’s darker nature; he has a bit of a thing for Cuban hookers and there are several sequences detailing his search for them, including one fairly graphic scene in which he finds one to his liking. He is also a little bit confrontational from time to time, although you don’t get a sense that he has a temper; he never raises his voice during the course of the film. Not that he doesn’t in real life. Further, he is certainly estranged from his parents and the impression they give is that he abruptly severed ties with them; they seem a bit puzzled about it but the father is a bit fatalistic; he doesn’t expect that they will have any sort of relationship with their mercurial son for the rest of his days. Whatever rift exists between Stoneman and his parents is never detailed in the film.

Neither is the question of how Stoneman can afford to make his album. In Los Angeles he ekes out a hardscrabble existence, and yet the filmmakers state that the album took seven years and cost $350,000 to produce. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change and it doesn’t seem likely that an existence of tips and parties could produce that kind of cash, which if you average out would be $50K per year. Unless Stoneman has another job that isn’t shown in the film, the math really doesn’t add up; Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live.

Stoneman himself is a bit o a question mark; you get the sense that he is mostly a pleasant person and he is certainly driven and his passion for his music is undeniable. On the flip side, he doesn’t seem to let anyone in too deep; he can be affectionate with his friends but onscreen anyway he doesn’t seem disposed to revealing too much about himself. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten to know him better but something tells me that wouldn’t be possible in any case; some people like to keep others at a comfortable distance and Stoneman is clearly of that ilk.

In many ways this is a courageous documentary, and given the recent re-opening of the American embassy and the swelling movement of ending a half century of sanctions that have accomplished nothing and normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it is a timely one. Being the son of a rabid anti-Castro Cuban myself, I can only wonder what my late father would have made of Stoneman. I’m not sure he would have admired the man, but he certainly would have been fascinated by his music.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and beautiful images. An insider glimpse at Cuba. Enigmatic yet fascinating subject.
REASONS TO STAY: Stoneman not really forthcoming about his background, other than in broad strokes. The prostitute sequences may be offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rough language, brief nudity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stoneman was arrested for fencing stolen recording equipment, breaking his leg while attempting to elude the police. He spent four years in prison for his crimes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Park Bench