Coming to My Senses


This is the look of a man who lives life on his own terms.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Aaron Baker, Laquita Dian, Arielle Baker, Taylor Kevin Isaacs, Dan Baker, Katie Devine, Igor Fineman, Adam Rice, Adam Zerbe, Pat McMahon, Dominic Gill, Rick Bobbington, Hollyn Thompson. Directed by Dominic Gill

Aaron Baker had his whole life ahead of him. He was one of the up-and-coming stars on the motocross circuit and the sky was the limit.Then in 1999 he suffered a horrific injury during a race, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

The prognosis was grim. Doctors told him that he had a one in a million shot of feeding himself ever again. Walking was just about out of the question. Plenty of people who have the kind of injuries Baker had suffered essentially sit back and wait to die but Aaron Baker wasn’t that kind of person.

He took the negativity as a challenge and swore to himself that he would walk again someday. Through physical therapy and an innovative concept – his sister painted each of his toenails a different color and he visualized his muscles moving to each colored toe. He began to show signs of movement.

Then the rug was literally pulled out from under him; his insurance company refused to continue to pay for physical therapy, essentially telling him that they weren’t willing to throw money into a situation that was medically hopeless. Aaron grew depressed and even his mother Laquita sank into alcoholism to cope with her son’s pain.

But the funny thing was that this only shored up Aaron’s determination. His mother, infected by that determination, found a kinesiologist that not only Aaron could afford but who proposed a radical program of exercise. Soon he indeed was able to walk again but that wasn’t enough for Aaron. An athlete his entire life, he decided to take up bike riding, riding a tandem bike across country and then later a specially built three wheel bicycle. Recently, he decided to walk 19.6 miles from Death Valley to Baker, California to call attention to the hope that all good things are possible even to those with the direst of injuries.

Gill and maybe Baker as well have an affinity with the desert; it seems to be the landscape in nearly every shot. Some of the cinematography (which Gill also provided) is breathtaking but not as much as the story is. You can’t help but admire Aaron Baker’s determination. He is living proof that doctors aren’t always right and that the human spirit can be more powerful even than modern medicine. These are not lessons we should ignore.

At times this feels a bit heavy on the bro-ness. Maybe extreme sports bring out that reaction in me but the guys and gals who practice these types of sports have a surfeit of testosterone running through their veins. Maybe it’s because they drink far more Mountain Dew than human beings should be allowed to but I found it off-putting in places

That aside, the inter-cutting of Baker’s desert journey with his rehabilitation is mostly effective although there isn’t always a lot of context provided; things like this cost money and while sponsors are vaguely alluded to, we don’t really get a sense of how fundraising was accomplished. There’s also almost no comments from any of Aaron’s peers in motocross or among the paraplegic community. We really see this almost entirely out of Aaron’s and Gill’s eyes and that gives the movie a bit of a hagiographic feel that it would have done better without.

REASONS TO GO: This is an inspiring journey, literally and figuratively.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the movie feels a bit heavy on the “bro.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing there are more than 1.46 million Americans afflicted with spinal cord injuries of varying degrees.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

La Familia


Father and son are on the run.

(2017) Drama (Celluloid Dreams) Giovanni Garcia, Reggie Reyes, Kirvin Barrios, Indira Jimenez, Ninoska Silva, Vincente Quintero, Mariû Favaro, Dixon Dacosta, Tatiano Mabo, Alberto Gonzalez, Morris Merentes, Natacha Pérez, Luis Domingo Gonzalez, Sahara Alvarez, Jesus Rivas, Andy Duque, Miguel Angel Suárez, Franlys Diaz. Directed by Gustavo Rondón Córdova

The economic woes in Venezuela have brought that nation to the brink of collapse. What does that mean to those that live there however? For the wealthy, it’s pretty much business as usual. For the poor of Venezuela, the effects are devastating.

Pedro (Reyes) is poor. He’s a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t attend school which doesn’t seem to alarm anyone. He lives in one of the more impoverished districts in Caracas, the capital. His father Andreas (Garcia) is a day laborer, working whatever odd jobs he can find to squeak by. His mother is nowhere to be found; whether she is dead, deserted or divorced the movie never quite elaborates.

Pedro, essentially growing up without any supervision, runs around the streets with a group of kids, each trying to prove how much tougher they are than the rest. Pedro mostly pals around with Jonny, his best friend. One afternoon they are accosted by a kid with a gun who attempts to rob them of the cheap cell phone they found. Pedro, never one to take anything lying down, gets into a fight with the would-be robber. It ends badly for the young kid.

When Andreas finds out, he knows what he has to do; get the heck out of dodge. He knows that the kid that Pedro hurt has relatives who are in the gangs that run the ghetto, and they are going to make an example of both Pedro and his dad. Andreas takes a reluctant Pedro to a different part of the city and tries to earn as much money as he can so that they can get out of Caracas forever.

But that isn’t going to be easy. Pedro is headstrong and has zero respect for the work ethic of Andreas. For his part, Andreas is not above stealing some bottles of booze from the catered parties he works as a waiter at from time to time when his mostly construction work is done for the day to resell for a little extra cash but otherwise prefers to walk the straight and narrow, preferably crouched down under the radar. Pedro prefers to stand up straight and tall and take on all comers, bowing and scraping to nobody.

The two get along about as well as two brood bulls in a paddock full of cows. Pedro wants to go back to where he belongs; Andreas wants something better and knows he will never find it for himself. Something’s got to give.

This is a terrific character study in that both Andreas and Pedro are given richly developed personalities of the kind we rarely see in the movies anymore. Neither one is cliché and neither one is easily summed up. Neither Andreas nor Pedro can be put into a specific box; they are both complex and imperfect. Much of the realism of the film – which was filmed in some of the worst crime-ridden areas of Caracas – is owed to how well the two main characters are shaped.

Garcia, a celebrated stage actor in Venezuela who has done some memorable film roles as well, owns the screen. His gaze is that of a frightened lamb who knows the slaughterhouse is nearby. His eyes dart from place to place, but he seems to find peace and satisfaction in working hard. Eventually the joys of receiving a paycheck begin to affect Pedro who starts out as a tough guy but shows layers of depth as the film wears on.

.The tone here is pretty bleak, not just for Pedro and Andreas but for Venezuela as well. While Córdova isn’t pointing specific fingers here, there is no escaping that this is a parable for his country from the corruption to the crime to the hopelessness. The realism inherent in this film is sobering and smacks of truth. I can’t speak directly to the situation in Venezuela but I know poverty and how it affects of the souls of those afflicted by it and that’s where this film soars. That this is a first feature for Córdova is impressive; no doubt so long as he doesn’t get into hot water in his native land he is going to be a major talent coming out of Latin America. This movie is a triumph from beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: The father-son dynamic is caught perfectly. The life lessons here are hard-earned – as they are in real life.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this film to be too bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity as well as sexual content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reyes was discovered by casting personnel for the film while playing soccer in a middle class neighborhood in Caracas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running Scared
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Maze Runner: The Death Cure

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?

Cocote


It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when there is no wall.

(2017) Drama (Grasshopper) Vicente Santos, Yuberbi de la Rosa, José Miguel Fernández, Kalyane Linares, Enerolia Nuñez, Pepe Sierra, Isabel Spencer, Ricardo Ariel Toribio, Judith Rodriguez Perez. Directed by Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias

Changing locations can sometimes change a person. Their outlook on the world may evolve and eventually become unrecognizable from the person who left their original home. That person, though, remains inside whether we want them to be there or not.

Alberto (Santos) is a gardener in a Santo Domingo upper class home. He receives word of the death of his father in the village Alberto grew up in. It was not a natural death; he was murdered by a local bigwig over an outstanding debt. Alberto grew up in the Los Mysterios faith, a mixture of Christianity and West African beliefs but has since converted to evangelical Christianity.

He goes back to his village to mourn the loss of his father only to find he has already been buried. His family makes the reluctant Alberto take part in the funerary ritual of the faith which involves music, and a kind of ecstatic grief. There’s a lot of screaming, singing and sobbing and the occasional animal sacrifice.

It soon becomes apparent that it is expected that Alberto will take revenge on the murderer of his father but that is not who Alberto is anymore. It causes a great deal of friction particularly with his outspoken sister (de la Rosa). Alberto is caught in a struggle between who he was, who he is and who he is to become.

This isn’t a movie that follows normal storytelling tropes. There are often changes between film stock, moving from color to black and white, widescreen to almost a Super 8 type of perspective, grainy to crystal clear. Interspersed are grainy video snippets that are something of a cinematic nonsequitir, like a local news report of a chicken that apparently crows “Christ is coming.” I think that de Los Santos Arias is utilizing a new kind of cinematic language but for most filmgoers this is going to look like a patchwork film.

Santos has a passive, scowling face. He doesn’t get violent (until late in the movie), preferring just to endure whatever life serves up to him. The dichotomy of past and present are at war within him but there is no clear winner; it is something like the ongoing wars in the Middle East where there are no winners – only survivors.

The imagery captures the beauty of the Dominican Republic as well as the poverty in her rural villages. There is lots of the Los Mysterios culture on display here but the scenes of the rituals go on interminably, one after the other until far from illuminating they become annoying. The arguments between Alberto and his sisters become more strident and eventually, one loses interest on any sort of resolution. It’s just people shrieking at each other.

I can’t say I liked this film, although I admire de Los Santos Arias’ ambitions. He has no interest in making just another movie and to be sure, that’s not what he made. This is going to appeal only to a very specialized audience, equivalent to music fans who like bands like Animal Collective and Pere Ubu. They seek to transcend the ordinary and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just not convinced that this movie transcends anything.

Tickets for the Miami Film Festival can be ordered online here but hurry; the Festival ends on Sunday.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The ritual scenes are fascinating at first but then they go on and on and on and on. There’s too much shrieking, screaming and pretensions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arias based the story on an incident that occurred when he was a child visiting his aunt and meeting her gardener.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Sun
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Keep the Change

Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre)


Above the ground, it’s a winter wonderland but below is another story.

(2017) Drama (Masterplan) Elliott Crosset Hove, Simon Sears, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lars Mikkelsen, Peter Plaugborg, Michael Brostrup, Anders Hove, Laurits Honoré Rønne, Jannik Jensen, Christopher Lillman, Frédéric André, Mikkel Frederiksen, Stefan Mølholt, Birgit Thøt Jensen. Directed by Hlynur Pálmason

There is something unnatural about working deep underground. Sounds are eerie, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere; your co-workers are mysterious shadows, illuminated only by headlamps and the sparks of pickaxes swung at the walls of the cavern. The air is stale and smells of sweat and despair.

It is in this environment that brothers Johan (Sears) and Emil (E.C. Hove) labor. The Danish limestone mine is located in the middle of nowhere, the height of winter making it even more remote and isolated. A small town has grown up around the mine but there seems to be little or no amenities for the workers; in fact, it is almost like the mining company, having secured the employment of its workers, gives absolutely no thought to the lives they lead so long as the limestone gets processed.

Johan, a strapping young man, is popular with the community; Emil, who is less handsome and socially awkward, less so. At first he seems to prefer being alone but it soon becomes apparent that he craves attention and love, particularly from Anna (Sonne) who is quite possibly the only young woman his age in town but true to form barely knows he’s alive.

So he does little things; he learns magic tricks that are mildly amusing but what threatens to break out his popularity is a home-brewed moonshine that he makes using stolen chemicals from the plant. And if that sounds like a desperately bad idea folks, it definitely is because one of the miners gets seriously ill after drinking the stuff and Emil is blamed. His somewhat condescending boss Carl (Mikkelsen) calls him out on the carpet and while Emil remains employed he is clearly not wanted.

Emil begins obsessing over an M-1 rifle he bartered away from a neighbor (A. Hove) begins to watch a British military training video on how to fire the weapon and while naked begins to imitate the poses taken by the soldiers. This doesn’t bode well for the tight-knit community or for Emil – or for Johan for that matter who comes into conflict with his brother.

Pálmason is from Iceland and when you see this movie, you might figure out the nationality of the director without knowing that in advance particularly if you’re familiar with the indie rock coming out of Iceland these days – beautiful, atonal and evocative. The film is all of those things.

The director comes from a visual arts background so it is unsurprising that the story isn’t told in the kind of fashion filmgoers might be used to. It’s almost more of a textural thing; images that seem to be linked not necessarily by some sort of linear component but more of how it fits in to the texture of the story and of the scene. It can be frustrating sometimes for the audience to connect the dots as it were but once you get the hang of it things start to make sense.

It is for all its stark winter landscapes and bleak industrial interiors a beautiful movie to watch; cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff does a spectacular job. Even the shabby houses of the town residents have a peculiar dignity to them. The score by Toke Brorson Odin melds machine noises, electronic soundscapes and minimal instrumentation to make something lovely and forbidding, perfectly complimenting the visuals.

The one drawback here is the film’s ending. Not to give anything away but it really left a bitter taste in my mouth. That of course may have been the director’s intention – you never can tell with those Icelanders – but then again I might just not have “gotten” it. Sometimes even artsy fartsy critics don’t connect with a particular film as much as they might want to.

As you can guess from the tone of the review, this isn’t for everyone. Those who love a rip-roaring yarn may be put off by this; those who love to be challenged by movies that don’t go down traditional paths will likely be drawn to it. If the latter sounds like it might be you, by all means pursue this one – coming to a film festival or streaming service near you, no doubt.

For those in Miami who want to order tickets to the Festival, click here.

REASONS TO GO: There is some beautiful cinematography capturing plenty of winter desolation.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, adult themes, sexuality and male frontal nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elliott Crosset Hove is the son of acclaimed Danish actor Anders Hove; his father makes a brief appearance in a small role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Matewan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Paddington 2

Wind Traces (Restos de viento)


Grief can spawn its own demons.

(2017) Drama (Conejo Media) Dolores Fonzi, Paulina Gil, Ruben Zamora, Julieta Egurrola, Juan Carlos Vives, Diego Aguilar, Itari Marta, Claudine Sosa, Anajose Aldrete Echevarria, Martha Claudia Moreno, Catalina López, Lorenzo Costantini, Juan Carlos Tavera, Karla Rico, Erwin Veytia, Sofia Fernández, Lara Escalante, Mateo Lujano, Gisola Ruiz, Laura Morett, Ana Morgado. Directed by Jimenta Montemayor

We sometimes believe that life is linear; events happen in a progression from birth to death. That’s not how we perceive it, however. Life is a series of moments, some memorable but most not. Sometimes the most mundane of moments carry with them the most elegance, the most grace, the most meaning.

Carmen (Fonzi) is having trouble coping. She can barely rouse herself out of bed in the mornings and she doesn’t get her daughter Ana (Gil) and son Daniel (Aguilar) to school always. She tells the kids that their father has gone away and will come back but Ana, who’s a bit more world-wise knows instinctively that her mother is lying to her. Perhaps Carmen believes it herself.

Carmen has difficulty focusing on things other than getting dressed up and going to the local lounge. She looks amazing and catches the eyes of the single men (and many of the married ones too) as she struts around the bar but she really isn’t looking for company. She’s just doing something that makes her feel alive. She exists in the semi-twilight of alcohol, cigarettes and shock; she may as well be an extra in The Walking Dead.

Daniel copes as best he can; he imagines fantasy figures; one, a thick shambling creature with antlers and a raggedy cloak. Other times it’s an indigenous North American who appears to resemble more the Indians of American westerns more than the natives of Mexico. Either way the figure shows up regularly around Daniel.

At first Ana can’t see the fantasy figures but soon she begins to see them as well. Carmen eventually goes out on a date with a co-worker to a carnival which bothers Daniel immensely. All three of the family members exist as ghosts within their own lives, haunted by memory and haunted by the future without their beloved father and Carmen’s beloved husband. What can they do to begin living again?

This is not a feel-good kind of film nor is it meant to be. The people in this movie are undergoing some of the worst days of their lives and we’re right there in the trenches with them. Fonzi is one of the most beloved actresses in Argentina; this movie illustrates exactly why that is. Not only is she out-of-this-world beautiful, she is also a tremendous performer; Carmen has many layers to her and Fonzi explores them all. She can be sexy and flirtatious one moment, nearly non-functional the next. She tries to bake a cake for her children to brighten their spirits but only ends up dampening up her own in one memorable sequence. She doesn’t have the emotional resources to help her kids through the ordeal and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around her that she’s willing to call upon for support; in fact there are family members she avoids talking to so that she doesn’t have to tell them that her husband is gone and this is months after the fact.

The children do a lot of acting out which is to be expected. The actors playing them however act like real children in that situation would act and that is unexpected. A lot of times child actors have difficulty with negative and difficult emotions; Gil and Aguilar didn’t seem to have that problem and that’s crucial to the success of the film. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled right out of a movie in which the subject matter involves a family dealing with loss because the child actors were completely unconvincing.

Daniel has almost an obsession with native indigenous figures; he watches American westerns (the fantasy figures tend to resemble American natives rather than the Aztec and Mayan indigenous of Mexico. It does make for some jarring visuals but I can’t see why that wouldn’t be a thing in reality. Some iconic American images have tended to bleed over the border in certain respects.

Cinematographer Maria Secco shoots most of the indoor shots in muted colors; even the exterior shots have a less vibrant look to them than normal; everything is seen through a veil of tears and numbness. It’s very effective in setting the tone. The press material describes the film as atmospheric and that’s the most accurate description you’re likely to find.

Watching the pain all three of these people are clearly in can be excruciating at times. It’s like visiting a friend who isn’t that close who is suffering from intense grief and feeling helpless to do anything about it. I wanted to give all of them a hug but of course that’s impossible; all you can do is endure with them and empathize.

There is a visual poetry here that gathers from a variety of sources. I found the movie to be compelling but not always easy and sometimes those are the best kind there are. Be warned if you’re going to see this there is some work involved and almost expected but the reward is not necessarily insight so much as being put back in touch with your own compassion. That can be a worthwhile endeavor all of its own.

Tickets for the Festival can be bought here.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautifully atmospheric. The filmmakers handle grief in a realistic way.
REASONS TO STAY: Although it accomplishes what it needs to, the fantasy creature isn’t particularly impressive.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult (despite the presence of children) and as well there is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Montemayor isn’t making movies, she conducts workshops for girls recently rescued from sexual slavery to help give them marketable skills and reintegrate them back into society.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Monster Calls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
12 Strong

Killing Jesus (Matar a Jesús)


The gun lobby corrupts yet another innocent youth.

(2017) Crime (Latido/64A Films) Natasha Jaramillo, Giovanny Rodriguez, Camilo Escobar, Carmenza Cossio, Juan Pablo Trujillo, José David Medina, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Jhorvin Ospina. Directed by Laura Mora Ortega

Revenge is one of those things that tend to take on their own lives apart from those who are out to achieve it. They shape lives, become obsessions and often cost more to the one taking revenge than on the one they are getting revenge from.

Paula (Jaramillo) is a college student majoring in photography. She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends, attending meetings of activist groups that are mainly all talk, and smoking way too much dope. Her father Jose Maria (Escobar) is where she gets her social activism from although he is wary; Medellin in Columbia is a rough place to live with violence around every corner. Still, he loves his daughter fiercely and from time to time gives her a lift home from school. That proves to be fatal as when opening the gate to his driveway while Paula is bending down in the front seat to make sure her camera bag has everything in it, a young man on a motorcycle guns down her father. Paula gets a glimpse of the killer’s face although he doesn’t see her.

The police prove to be unsurprisingly ineffective and corrupt, causing a great deal of frustration for Paula and her brother Santiago (Trujillo). Paula grows withdrawn, sullen while Santiago grows fearful for his sister who continues to go out with friends, although she is basically ignored. One evening, she catches the face of her father’s murderer in a nightclub and strikes up a conversation with him. His name is Jesus (Rodriguez) and even though he is drunk, he is clearly attracted to her.

Paula decides to take justice in her own hands, partnering with her dope dealer Gato (Cardenas) to buy herself a gun in order to do unto Jesus what he had done unto her father. However, that proves to be no easy task; stranger yet, she is beginning to see Jesus as a human being who in many ways is as much a victim of the violence and corruption in Medellin as her father was. In a somewhat surreal scene, he even teaches her how to shoot. Will she be able to complete her plan of revenge or will killing Jesus be too much for her?

This had the potential for being a very powerful movie on the nature of violence and how it pervades Colombian culture but Mora chose not to go that route. It also had the potential for being another crappy revenge thriller, but she chose not to go that route either. Rather, she chose to focus in on the relationship between Paula and Jesus and how it changed her…and how she changed Jesus. The thing that Paula expected the least is what happens – she starts to actually sympathize with Jesus but that pain of loss is still deep down and waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Most of the cast is non-professional which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t. Jaramillo is not adept at handling emotional scenes; when she cries for her father it doesn’t feel authentic at all. She’s pretty enough and she says her lines with conviction but she has a hard time getting across the emotional side of her character. Rodriguez on the other hand is a sizzling presence who captures your attention whenever he’s onscreen. Yes he’s a thug with a fatalistic view towards life; he’s fully aware that his life expectancy isn’t very long and yet he has the arrogance of machismo guiding his actions. He also is loving towards his family and towards the girl whom he is developing deep feelings for and might he persuaded to let in where nobody is allowed. The performance has an undercurrent of vulnerability that makes the charismatic thug on the surface all the more memorable and while his brooding thug is no Brando, there is enough there to believe he could become a big star.

There are a few instances of shaky cam abuse and from time to time Paula does things that defy rationality – the dumb teen syndrome which allows certain types of horror films to exist. This does feel like a very personal film to Mora (see Trivia below) and sometimes it can be a bit raw. Having not been to Medellin I can’t say if it accurately captures the reality of street life there but it feels authentic to a non-expert like myself.

The movie has a lot going for it – particularly the social and psychological aspects – although it doesn’t always fulfill its own promise. Still, Mora is a young director and she’ll only get better and this is good enough to recommend provisionally and certainly good enough to warrant keeping an eye out for future projects from the director as well as Rodriguez. If you want to catch them right now, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: The progression of Paula’s perceptual change is fascinating to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Jaramillo isn’t always convincing from an emotional standpoint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug use (mainly marijuana smoking), plenty of violence (some of which is graphic) and more than a little profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura Mora Ortega based some of the events in the film on her own life; her father, also a teacher, was gunned down by a hitman in front of her. She later met the man who murdered her father although not in the way depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lucky

Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

Ashes (Cenizas)


Sometimes an erupting volcano doesn’t hold a candle to the rage in a human heart.

(2018) Drama (Abaca) Samanta Caicedo, Diego Naranjo, Juana Estrella, Estela Alvarez, Pavel Almeida, Maria José Zapata, Emilio Reyes, Julia Silva, Cristina Muñoz, Eduardo Filippini, Martino Pacheco, Arnoldo Sicles, Pablo Villacis, Myriam Valdivieso, Michel Dreyer, Ignacio Lordugin, Pamela Noboa. Directed by Juan Sebastian Jacome

The things that cause families to implode more often than not come from within. Secrets, held close over months, years, decades – they are incendiary devices on a timer with an unknown setting. The longer that the timer takes, the more destructive the blast becomes.

Caridad (Caicedo) lives in a small Ecuadoran town near the base of a long-dormant volcano. When the volcano begins to erupt, she knows she has to get her belongings out of town. Reluctantly, she asks her father Galo (Naranjo) from whom she has been long estranged if he can come help her assemble her things and store them until it is safe for her to come back home.

Galo is only too happy to oblige. The estrangement of his daughters has been very painful to him and he is eager to reconcile with both of them, including his older daughter (Silva) who is a shadowy presence who will only speak to Caridad. Despite Galo’s attempts to try and bridge the gap between Caridad and himself, Caridad is cold to his attempts. Galo’s new wife Julia (Estrella) tries to mediate but is met with similar frost.

It turns out that Galo was accused by his ex-wife and mother of the two girls of horrible acts. Galo swears that the whole incident was the invention of a vengeful wife who was furious at her husband for cheating on her, so he pleads his case and tries to show Caridad tenderness and compassion although his temper gets the best of him at one point when her boyfriend (Almeida) gets a little too aggressive. Caridad now has doubts about the veracity of the rumors that surrounded the accusations that were made against her father. Was he really the monster she believed him to be all her life, or was he a innocent man who faced with terrible accusations sacrificed his own feelings to do what was best for his children?

The slow eruption of the volcano is a metaphor for the slow build towards the climax. The film feels unsteady early on as the story seems to ramble quite a bit but as the film unspools eventually things do come together for patient viewers. Still the story is somewhat difficult to follow early on particularly the first 20 minutes or so. Be patient; it does get better.

It doesn’t hurt to have two extremely proficient actors handling the two main roles. Caicedo is absolutely luminous, a true star in the making whereas veteran actor Naranjo uses an unusually expressive face to get across a whole lot of anguish without saying a word. The two work extremely well off each other and the tension between them is palpable, making the strained relationship believable which is crucial in a film like this.

The erupting volcano covers everything in a soft grey ash which gives the film a kind of winter-like feel, as well as a feeling that an explosion is not very far away. The ash makes things feel cold even though clearly there is heat and humidity going on; it’s an interesting dichotomy. Even the scenes in Quito (where Galo lives) are slightly overlit giving the movie a kind of soft unfocused look, mirroring the confusion that Caridad feels as her long-held beliefs about her dad are called into question.

There are some very powerful emotions at work throughout the film and there are several scenes that will provoke tears, revulsion or frustration. At times Caridad feels unnecessarily cruel and callous to her dad but as you discover the nature of his alleged indiscretions you realize she has good reason. I’m not sure that keeping that particular revelation was necessarily a good thing; it makes it harder to relate to Caridad as for a good half hour the audience is led to believe that she’s just a gold medal-winning bitch. As Jacome manipulates our perceptions of Caridad, we feel a bit cheated. Perhaps others may disagree but I think it would have been better to allow the audience to know what the nature of the accusations against Galo was from the start.

This is the kind of movie that makes going to film festivals so rewarding. It is hard not to come out of this with some feeling of catharsis as we discover the truth behind the rumors that kept Caridad and Galo apart The climactic scene is perfectly played and shows a director, in only his second feature, growing confident in his own skill. Undoubtedly Jacome is going to be an important figure in Latin American cinema for decades to come

While the film doesn’t have an American distributor as of yet it should be appearing on the festival circuit once it makes its world premiere in Miami on the 14th so keep an eye out for it. Their Facebook page (which is mostly in Spanish) promises a theatrical release down the line so hopefully that will happen. This is a movie not to miss. If you don’t want to miss it, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes are raw, emotional and explosive. Caicedo does an amazing job in her role.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is often hard to follow, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Hevia, one of the producers on the film, has an Oscar for being one of the producers for 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: There’s Something About Amelia
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Brawl in Cell Block 99

Miami Film Festival 2018


Today is the opening night for the Miami Film Festival which turns 35 this year. To celebrate, the opening night film will be Jason Reitman’s Tully starring Charlize Theron and Ron Livingston. Reitman and Livingston will be in attendance on the Red Carpet and an afterparty with Miami flair in the Design District.

The MFF – the only major film festival sponsored by a college – has always concentrated on films from Latin America and the Caribbean so there are a lot of films screened during the festival that you can’t see anywhere else or hardly anywhere else. Latin films excel in providing slice of life looks at their culture. I have always appreciated their authenticity; you don’t get young artists living in million dollar lofts in Manhattan with no visible source of income. These are families living in middle class homes, or in wealthy haciendas or in deep poverty. Whatever the situation, Latin screenwriters seem to understand that making things feel real is what connects an audience to a film.

I’ve been honored once again to sit on the jury of the Rene Rodriguez Critic’s Award. Named for the longtime Miami Herald film critic, ten films sit in nomination of the award. I am still in the process of seeing them all but I can tell you that all of the nominated films I’ve seen have been worthwhile, some incredible. It makes for a busy film critic but I like it that way.

I’ll be trying to post two reviews a day for at least the next ten days to keep the backlog from growing unmanageable. Some of the films I’ll be reviewing will be difficult to find but when possible I’ll update the reviews with information on streaming and/or theatrical releases.

For those in the Miami area, I strongly urge you to support this worthwhile festival. For those hearing about it for the first time, you might want to consider attending this year’s (it runs through March 18th) or next year’s. The Festival is a reflection of the Miami attitude; there are a lot of parties and hot spots around the City; I’ve never seen a film festival utilize the nightlife of the host city quite as well as this one does.