The Infiltrators


On the inside of a national debate.

(2019) True Life Drama (Oscilloscope) Claudio Rojas, Viridiana Martinez, Samuel Soto Marco Saavedra, Manuel Uriza, Chelsea Rendon, Dennis Mencia, Mohammad Abdollahi, Lilian Tapia, Robert G. Streit Jr., Jason Stuart, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Maynor Alvarado, Adelina Saldana, Roman Arabia, Luis Richard Gomez, Fernando Martinez, Garland Scott, Cassandra Relynn. Directed by Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera

The question of illegal immigration is a polarizing one without a doubt; some take a hard line at the word “illegal” and point out that there would be no problems if only these immigrants would come here legally. Others counter with the fact that it is incredibly difficult to enter the country legally for the purpose of working, despite the fact that immigrants fulfill many of the jobs that Americans can’t or won’t do, from picking crops to mowing lawns to washing dishes to cleaning toilets.

=Activists in the National Immigrant Youth Alliance are looking to change things. They decided to put their own freedom in jeopardy and purposely get arrested to be detained in the for-profit Broward Transitional Center in South Florida, owned by George Zoley of the GEO Corp, who is paid taxpayer money for each deportee he houses, often without trial or even access to a lawyer.

Ibarra and Rivera take the fascinating step of blending documentary interviews with those who actually took part in the affair, as well as some of the detainees. This is mixed in with actors playing those roles, re-enacting other incidents inside the BTC. The actors are identified on-screen when they are taking over from the real people, so we have Maynor Alvarado playing the charismatic Marco Saavedra, Dennis Mencia playing Samuel Soto, Manuel Uriza playing Claudio Rojas (more on him in a minute) and Chelsea Rendon playing the courageous but nervous Viridiana Martinez.

The movie has a bit of a thriller aspect to it, as tiny mistakes can get the activists discovered as time works against the detainees. Ibarra and Rivera weave actual footage from the 2012 infiltration along with contemporary news footage, interviews and re-enactments to tell a tense story that is as good as ay Mission: Impossible movie. Some of the activists, particularly Saavedra and Mohammad Abdollahi, a gay man who fled Iran, are particularly eloquent. Incidentally, the film also points out that while Latins make up the bulk of the illegal immigrants in detention centers, they are by far not the only ethnic group here illegally; the movie has detainees from the Middle East, Africa although coincidentally not Europe, where statistically the largest number of illegal aliens are from – mainly people with temporary visas who stay beyond the deadline.

Shortly before the movie’s Miami Film Festival premiere last year, one of the subjects – Claudio Rojas – who had been released from the facility and was attempting to gain legal status, was arrested during a routine appointment with the INS and later deported to Argentina amid much outcry, certainly as retaliation against his appearance in the film. What we witness in this gripping film serves to show just how unjust and corrupt the system is, and that people of good conscience are still willing to risk their own freedom to protect the liberty of others. That at least is somewhat hopeful.

REASONS TO SEE: An interesting mix of documentary and narrative. Timely insight into the Trump Administration’s response to immigration. Feels like a spy thriller in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used an update at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes as well as some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ibarra and Rivera had previously directed films on their own – Sleep Dealer for Rivera, Las Marthas for Ibarra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Impossible
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth

The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau

Ema


Meet Ema.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Josefina Fiebelkorn, Giannina Fruttero, Paola Giannini, Antonia Giesen, Susana Hidalgo, Paula Hofmann, Mariana Loyola, Paula Luchsinger, Eduardo Paxeco, Cristián Suárez, Catalina Saaedra. Directed by Pablo Larrain

In this post-#MeToo world, I think it’s safe to say that the concept of femininity is changing. We are seeing less and less of the traditional female attributes of acceptance and submission, as a society that has largely been misogynistic has forced women to stand for themselves and become more aggressive.

Ema (Di Girolamo) is the perfect example of that. A reggaeton dancer in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, she is enigmatic, her on-again, off-again relationship with her husband Gaston (Bernal) who is also her dance group’s choreographer almost defiantly off-again at the moment. They are the parents of an adopted pre-teen boy named Polo (Suárez) who after a disastrous time in their home has been returned to the adoption agency, after he set a fire in their home that badly burned her sister’s face. The dead cat in the freezer is also attributed to Polo.

Her adopted son’s penchant for burning things might come from Ema, who prowls the streets of Valparaiso at night with a gang of girls from her troupe, setting cars, traffic signals and other things on fire. Ema sees herself as above conventional morality – assuming she recognizes any sort of morality at all – and has hatched onto a plan to get her son back, even after she herself had decided to return him. The plan, half-baked as it is, includes getting to know Polo’s new adoptive parents and seducing the both of them. Ema uses her body as a means of getting what she wants. I guess that passes for empowerment.

Larrain, one of Chile’s premiere directors with such movies as Neruda, No and Jackie under his belt, goes the experimental avant garde route here and your enjoyment of this will depend very much on your tolerance of such things. There really isn’t a story as such here; this is more of a character study through a series of incidents.

Part of the issue lies with Ema herself, and herein lies my dilemma as a reviewer. Di Girolamo delivers an outstanding performance, ice-blue, red-hot and alternately vulnerable and distant. She can be vicious, generally lacking any sort of impulse control, and has that arrogant artist thing down pat. We are riveted by her, enthralled by her abject freedom but then repelled by her utter disregard for nearly everybody else. If Polo is, as he is made out to be, a psychopath, Ema is absolutely self-absorbed to the point of psychosis. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a commentary on the current generation or not.

Bernal, one of Latin America’s most gifted actors, is largely wasted here, given little to do other than react to whatever is going on with Ema, but after all, the name of the film is NOT Gaston. He does the best he can, as does Cabrera as Polo’s new adoptive father.

The visuals are striking, as are the dance sequences which look competitive to what you would find in New York. Those who are more into the visual side of film than anything else will enjoy this. Those who are looking for a story…not so much. This is a movie to be admired, but not loved.

REASONS TO SEE: Ema is a complicated character. Stylized and at times visually stunning.
REASONS TO AVOID: I admire the movie more than I like it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s debut at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her Smell
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Sleepwalkers

Los Lobos


21st century latchkey kids.

(2019) Drama (Animal de Luz) Martha Reyes Arias, Maximiliano Nájar Márquez, Leonardo Nájar Márquez, Cici Lau, Johnson T. Lau, Kevin Medina, Josiah Grado, Marvin Ramirez, Alejandro Banteah, Edwin Ramirez, Aylin Payen, Shacty Diaz, Maria Teresa Herrera, Amy Puente, Robert Louder, Celine R. Lopez, Jeanette M.. Loera. Directed by Samuel Kishi

Often, particularly these days, we see movies about immigrants from their direct point of view. If there are children, they are either separated from their parents or essentially secondary aspects of the story. We rarely see the immigrants’ story from the point of view of their children.

Lucia (Reyes-Arias) has come to Albuquerque from an unnamed Latin American country with her two children, Max (M. Nájar Márquez) and his little brother Leo (L. Nájar Márquez) in tow. They follow her as she looks for a place to stay, finally settling on a ratty furnished apartment where the Mrs. Chang (C. Lau), the landlady, doesn’t require references. The kids are mollified because their mother promises that they will go to Disney.

>However, she needs to work and she gets a pair of jobs that keeps her out of the house all day. She gives the kids a series of rules to follow, taped English lessons that they can listen to on a battered cassette player, and hope for the best.

Kids being kids, they get into all sorts of mischief, drawing pictures in crayon on the walls and generally making a mess for their exhausted mother to pick up when she finally gets home from work. Mostly, though, they get bored, the drawings of their alter egos the “ninja wolves” decorating the walls and what paper they can find (and there are some charming animations based on those drawings as well).

This is something of a personal film for Kishi, who also wrote the film who experienced very similar circumstances as a five-year-old child. His kids-eye view is helped by some surprisingly strong performances by the two child actors playing Max and Leo. Their performance is completely natural and they seem to relate very well to Arias as a mother-figure.

Kids being kids can be a double-edged sword; while it does feel authentic, there are times where it feels like you’re babysitting while unable to speak or communicate in any way with your charges. All you can do is watch them do their thing and your tolerance for this will depend on how tolerant you are at watching other people’s kids.

Still, this is a decidedly different viewpoint and one which deserves to be seen (and heard). I also found the ending to be enchanting and magical, although be cautioned that there are some moments which are far from either. Still, this is a solid and laudable effort that is likely to be making the rouds on the Festival circuit once things return to normal.

REASONS TO SEE: Mostly, kids being kids.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are stretches where it feels like we’re watching a nanny-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is fairly family-friendly and might give kids the opportunity to look at kids from other cultures and how they react to the United States (or children of their own culture).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Max and Leo are played by real-life brothers who had no previous acting experience.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Florida Project
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Inside the Rain

Pacified (Pacificado)


You have to grow up fast in the favelas.

(2019) Drama (ReAgent MediaBukassa Kabengele, Cassia Gil, Débora Nascimento, Léa Garcia, Raphael Logan, Jefferson Brasil, Rayane Santos, José Loreto, Thiago Thomé, Shirley Cruz, Rod Carvalho, Murilo Sampaio, Mariana Lewis. Directed by Paxton Winters

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro have long been the home of the working and poor classes of the city and as such a breeding ground for crime. They have also been a fertile location for some of the best films to come out of Brazil over the years.

Prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the Brazilian government decided to crack down on the favelas, making sure that the image of the city wasn’t tarnished. Several of the more notorious crime bosses were rounded up and tossed into jail. Among them is Jaca (Kabengele) who is released just after the closing ceremonies of the Games. He receives a hero’s welcome in the favela for as the boss there he took care of the residents and was their arbiter and go-to guy when they needed help, since nobody else gave a toss about them.

Jaca, however, doesn’t want to resume his old life. He knows that his reappearance has made the man who took over for him after he went to prison, Nelson (Loreto), somewhat nervous. He reassures Nelson that he, Jaca, has no interest in resuming his former life and that Nelson will remain in charge. Nelson, though, isn’t buying it.

What Jaca really wants to do is open up a pizzeria, something that Nelson finds amusing. However, Jaca’s former partner (and brother) Dudu (Logan) isn’t laughing. Dudu is eager to have the position of power and prestige he enjoyed when he was Jaca’s good right hand. Jaca’s wife Andrea (Nascimento) has become a drug addict and sells stuff to get buy, although now that Jaca is out, nobody wants to sell to her anymore for fear of being in Jaca’s crosshairs.

Then there’s Tati (Gil), his 13-year-old daughter who longs to emerge from the shadow of her parents and spread her own wings. However, the cops don’t believe that Jaca has gone straight, neither does Nelson and things are going to blow as soon as the pacification project is discontinued – which will be soon.

=Winters gives us some rich characterizations; most of the main cast are well-drawn and come off as three-dimensional people rather than one-dimensional clichés. Kabengele has a quiet intensity that makes him perfect for the role of Jaca, while Gil expresses a wisdom beyond her years, born of a harsh life in the favela. As for Nascimento, she just might be the most beautiful woman on Earth right now; but she is also an exceptional actress, giving what could have been an unsympathetic role a kind of dignity and pathos.

The camera is always moving in the film, sometimes to the point of vertigo-inducing. Strangely, the pace of the film doesn’t match the kinetic movement of the camera, giving the movie a kind of dichotomy of speed. It is a little bit off-putting.

Still, this is a solid tale of life in the favelas blending a kind of 1930s Warner Brothers gangster aesthetic with gritty modern urbanism. It’s a heady combination that, with a little judicious editing, might have been one of the cinematic highlights of the year.

REASONS TO SEE: Kinetic camera work.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced despite the above.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winters is an American director working for the first time in Brazil with a Brazilian cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of God
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Dog Doc

Workforce (Mano de obra)


Taking what they’re giving ‘coz we’re working for a living.

(2019) Drama (Lucia FilmsLuis Alberti, Hugo Mendoza, Jonathan Sanchez, Horacio Celestino, Rodrigo Mendoza, Ramiro Resendiz, Jessica Galvez. Directed by David Zonana

It’s a scene that could be taken from any city in the world; construction workers building a house they could never ever afford, building materials scattered around the site, the sound of hammering competing with loud music on the radio. Then a body plummets down from the sky…

The body belongs to roofer Claudio, brother to Francisco (Alberti), a mason. Claudio’s death leaves his widow Lupe (Galvez) pregnant and without any possibility of a breadwinner to take care of her and her baby. Worse yet, the homeowner (Mendoza) insinuates that the reason Claudio fell was because he was drunk, a lie nobody believes but everyone accepts. What are they gonna do?

When the homeowner mysteriously hangs himself, Francisco decides to take possession of the mostly finished house, along with the families of several of the workers including the volatile Shorty (Sanchez). Francisco has a lawyer looking to get the house for the families living in it as the homeowner had no heirs. Soon, the dynamics between the workers now living in a luxury home in one of Mexico City’s toniest neighborhoods begins to change.

First-time feature director Zonana proves to have an excellent eye for shot composition, from the opening frames to the closing reel. The production design is also a great aid in that it takes the very modern house and gives it a sense of surrealness; sleek and modern but unfinished and rough-hewn in places. Along with cinematographer Carolina Costa, Zonana has a discerning eye; the opening shot is perfectly framed, allowing the body of Claudio to hurl from above just out of frame, landing out of frame, all the while observing the construction activity in the courtyard. The final shot is a wide-angle overhead shot that captures the despair and inhumanity of the situation. Both make for powerful bookends.

Alberti gives a nuanced performance in the lead role, starting out as a kind-hearted and socially aware man, but changing as his position of authority within his communal home begins to take its toll. By the time of the movie’s abrupt but inevitable ending, he has almost faded from the picture.

In these days of rising right-wing nationalism, there are more and more films coming out about the plight of the working class and more to the point, how they are exploited by the wealthy class. This movie has elements of satire to it but it is very much grounded in reality; the workers essentially accept late pay-checks, over-zealous fines for breakage and the condescension of the owner because they need the paycheck. Even the mini-worker’s revolt shown here re-emphasizes that the poor, as always, has the forces that are meant to protect them also against them.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely shot composition.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the plot points came off as a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and sexual content here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beneath Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Exit 0

White Lie


There’s nothing worse than a bald-faced liar.

(2019) Drama (Film Forge) Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Thomas Olajide, Connor Jessup, Sharon Lewis, Christine Horne, Darrin Baker, Zahra Bentham, Shanice Banton, Spencer Glassman, Hershel Blatt, Carolina Bartczak, Matthew Owen, Dedra McDermott, Julia Knope, Tameka Griffiths, Deborah Tennant, Jamilah Ross, Lanette Ware. Directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas

“O, what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive” said Scottish author Walter Scott and he had the right of it. As we have seen from the behavior of our President, eventually the truth shall find you out, something that as parents we try to instill in our children. It doesn’t always work.

Katie Arneson (Rohl) is a campus celebrity at her Ontario university. Majoring in dance, she is managing to keep up her studies despite undergoing chemo treatment for an aggressive cancer that she has been fighting for a couple of years. She has received some help from charitable events held in her honor to help defray her expenses but it is a daunting task to face, particularly when your mother is deceased and your father isn’t a part of your life anymore. She is determined to survive, however and the truth is that the only thing that could stop Katie from beating cancer is the fact that she doesn’t have it.

That’s right; she’s made the whole thing up, fooling her professors, donors, classmates and even her girlfriend Jennifer (Anderson) who has been one of her staunchest supporters. However, a foundation supplying a much-needed grant that will ensure that her education is paid for is requiring some medical information which of course she doesn’t have. Her solution is to find a doctor willing to falsify records for her and she finds one in Jabari Jordan (Olajide) but first she needs to meet his price to supply the documents, which means she has to approach her father Doug (Donovan) for the two thousand needed – and let’s just say he is skeptical about her state of health and as it turns out, has good reason to be.

The movie has an almost thriller-like tone and the reason is largely Rohl, who takes a part that is absolutely unsympathetic and manages to turn the audience in her favor. Even as we hate what she’s doing, we still root for her not to get caught. A Hollywood production might have had her discovering the error of her ways and making amends but thank God for independent films because the director team of Lewis and Thomas don’t go that route. Rather, they explore the repercussions of her actions.

The largely discordant score gets intrusive at times, but this is offset by the fine eye of the directors and cinematographer Christopher Lew who utilize bleak, wintry backgrounds, cold grey skies and sterile hospital/doctor’s office environments (often overexposed to further highlight the bleakness of the environment) to give a sense of the world Katie inhabits. She desires the money she’s getting out of it, of course – a girl’s gotta eat, even if they ARE on chemo (sort of) – but moreover she desires the attention, the sympathy, the feeling of being enveloped by caring people, something she never apparently got from her Dad who eventually blows the whistle on her, causing her world to crash down around her.

The ending is actually pretty nifty although it is stretched out a bit too long by the writer-directors, but aside from that quibble the movie is a fine piece of cinematic work. It hasn’t gotten the attention of a distributor despite having played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but something tells me that sooner rather than later that is a situation that will be remedied. In the meantime, seek it out at your local film festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely subject in the era of “alternative facts.” Morbidly fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The nifty ending is dragged out a bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Katie Arneson wasn’t based on a specific person but is an amalgam of a number of high-profile cases.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes:100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Over the Rainbow

Los Ultimos Frikis


Heavy metal thunder.

(2019) Music Documentary (Cinema Tropical) Diony Arce, Hansel Arrocha Sala, Eduardo Longa, Ivan Vera Munoz, Yamil Arias, Alberto Munoz, Dario Arce. Directed by Nicholas Brennan

When thinking about where great heavy metal originates, the first place that would come to most people’s mind would not be Cuba. Yet Zeus, an iconic band in their home country, has been (head) banging away for thirty years in an atmosphere not always favorable to rockers. Early in their career, the band was often hassled by police and frontman Diony Arce spent six years in jail for unspecified violations. Rock and roll was considered a capitalist tool and was effectively illegal in Cuba.

Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan spent ten years in Cuba documenting the band as they are affected by the tides of political trends; eventually the Cuban government relented and allowed the band to play at a Havana venue called Maxim Rock once a month; for their 25th anniversary the group was even allowed to tour the island (which makes up the bulk of material in the documentary.

The band members are individually interviewed with Diony coming off as introspective and a little less egotistical than his American counterparts. Lead guitarist Hansel Arrocha Sala is the musical force in the band and his dedication to his music is obvious. Drummer Eduardo Longa is candid about his love for drumming, but also about his drug and alcohol problems (apparently that is a rock and roll universal). Guitarist Ivan Vera Munoz is the young buck, happy to be a part of the band and bassist Yamil Arias rounds out the band.

It is notable that the band comes off looking and sounding like their counterparts anywhere else in the world. While Zeus does sing obliquely about political topics, they have to tread a very careful line lest the hard-fought government approval they enjoyed suddenly dry up; Diony speaks of the band having to essentially reflect Cuban revolutionary ideals in order to exist, even though the band often protests what they see are deficiencies in the Cuban government.

The tides of political change do effect the band; the death of Fidel leads to the relaxing of restrictions, allowing the band to play “officially” in Havana and occasionally outside of the capital. It even allows them to embark on the anniversary tour. Obama’s movement to normalize relations with Cuba further improves things for the band, although Trump’s reversal of that policy leads to a more restrictive policy towards American musical idioms. Currently in favor is the reggaeton form which the band members individually detest; additionally, rock bands are often assaulted by reggaeton fans who look with equal disdain on rock music.

When the Maxim Rock venue suffers roof damage, Zeus is left without a place to play and go more than a year without performing. This creates a good deal of despair within the band, who begin to question their future. Diony says flat out “the (government) made a fool of me,” referring to the years that the band compromised their message in order to be allowed to play.

However, the very short (73 minutes) documentary ends on a hopeful note and that should leave the audience exiting the theater on a bit of a high. I’m not a particular metal fan but their music sounds pretty strong. In a lot of ways, they are very much like a metal band anywhere else in the world; mugging for the camera, banging their heads in time to the music, enjoying the human demolition derby of the mosh pit, but they are unmistakably Cubano.

There is some lovely cinematography and some of the landscapes of the hinterlands as well as the urban cityscapes of Havana do show off the uniqueness of the country; one sees the Colonial-style architecture of Havana with the classic cars rolling around and one can only say “Ah, Cuba!” The film isn’t particularly hagiographic towards the government of Cuba but they aren’t necessarily hostile to it either. I would have liked a little more context in the movie; although we are told that Zeus is iconic  and essentially the godfathers of the Cuban metal scene, we never get an idea of how extensive the scene is. We also don’t get much of an idea of how their music is recorded and distributed. One wonders if it can be downloaded here.

The movie was going to be screened this very evening at the Miami Film Festival but sadly coronavirus fears have led to the remainder of the Festival being canceled. Hopefully the film will be screened in some way in Miami; there will likely be a fairly strong audience there for it.

The tittle translates roughly to “The Last Freaks” and it doesn’t quite convey what the term Freaks means in Cuban culture; it generally refers to long-haired rockers and is not quite affectionate; think how the term “Hippies” makes you react and you’ll have the general idea. Rock and roll was never a respected form of music in Cuba and it is on the decline there as we speak. Still, the movie is a fascinating look at Cuba which in many ways remains as mysterious to us Americans as Antarctica is. Maybe it’s time that changed.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to make Zeus look like a typical heavy metal band while not shying away from their differences in circumstance. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little sparse on context.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originated as a short film, Hard Rock Havana, which Brennan turned into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Anvil! The Story of Anvil
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
White Lies

Journey to a Mother’s Room (Viaje al cuarto de una madre)


Mother/daughter relationships can be complicated.

(2018) Drama (Loco/Alfa) Lola Dueñas, Anna Castillo, Noemi Hopper, Ana Mena, Susana Abaitua, Marisol Membrillo, Pedro Casablanc, Silvia Casanova, Lucia Muñoz Durán, Adelfa Calvo, Maika Barroso, Beatriz Cotobal. Directed by Celia Rico Clavellino

Letting go is one of the hardest things a parent has to do – but they have to do it in order for their children to become independent, self-sufficient adults. Some find it much harder to do than others.

Estrella (Dueñas) lives in a small Spanish town in a small Spanish apartment with her daughter Leonor (Castillo) who works at the same dry-cleaning plant that she herself once worked in. The two watch telenovelas on the tube, sharing snacks and often falling asleep together on the couch. As for the dad, whether he’s deceased, divorced or deserted, it all amounts to him being absent and unremarked upon; his non-presence makes him no better than a ghost.

But like many young people, Leonor longs for more and after a friend returns from London and speaks glowingly about her experiences there, Leonor determines that she is going to have those experiences for herself. However, telling her mother that is another thing entirely; she’s sure that this will lead to an unpleasant confrontation. Estrella turns out to handle it a lot better than her daughter expects her to although she’s not wild about the idea; still, she realizes that her daughter needs to spread her wings and she can’t do that inside the nest.

Estrella is lonely without Leonor and lives for her daughter’s infrequent calls on What’s App. Still, when the boss of the dry cleaning plant (Casablanc) approaches Estrella with a request to make some dresses, Estrella finds a new lease on life and a purpose that until then had completely revolved around raising her daughter. As for Leonor, London turns out to be a lot different than she had anticipated.

This slice of life film is unusual in that it takes the point of view of the mother; rather than follow the younger woman to the big city, it stays in the small town with the mom and examines what happens with her when the walls close in and there is nothing but the silence to fill it. Fortunately for us, two brilliant Spanish actresses – frequent Almodóvar collaborator Dueñas and promising new face Castillo both deliver compelling and understated performances that smack of authenticity.

Most women are going to recognize the civil friction between the two, either from the mother’s or the daughter’s point of view. Each are clinging to something; the mom to memories of the past, the daughter to a vision of an unattainable future. Both have their delusions in their own way; both are resolute in sticking to them. The one thing that is certain though is that the two love each other and need each other.

My problem with the movie though rests with the pacing which is very slow, as well as the often-meandering story that sometimes chases its own tail. There seems to be a lot of script that could have been judiciously trimmed to make the story a bit more succinct. The ending also comes a bit more abruptly than I would have liked.

Then again, life generally doesn’t move in those cadences; life moves to a beat all its own and it is rare that we are in sync with it. There is a lot to recommend this film (and I do) but I can’t do that unreservedly without telling readers that there is a good chance that they will find the movie difficult. Still, I think an awful lot of mothers and daughters would benefit from giving this one a whirl.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very realistic portrayal of a relationship between mother and daughter.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unfortunately, the film is prone to meandering and then ends abruptly
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Clavellino’s feature film debut, she has directed a short film which won the Gaudi Award for Best Short Film, the equivalent of an Oscar given for films in the Catalan language of Western Spain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mothers and Daughters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Gloria Bell

Los Reyes


Chasing after tennis balls can be exhausting.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Football, Chola, Sebastián “Negro Seba” Añiguel, Paulina “Pauly” Herrera, Sebastián “Chico” Alcalde, Tomás “Wence” Alul, Victor “Lulo” Bañados, Ignacio “Nachito” Bañados, Charlye Joses Rey Zapata, Elizabeth “Eli” Cabeza. Directed by Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut

Santiago (the capital of Chile) like most other urban metropolises is both busy and often chaotic, sometimes leaving residents with heads spinning and hearts pounding. Lives move at hyper-speeds through the busy streets that are choked with automobiles and foot traffic. Towering office buildings, towering apartment complexes and bright neon shopping districts jostle one another for the attention of the eye.

Parque de los Reyes is an oasis in the urban ballet. Located on the Mapocho River, it contains within its green borders Santiago’s oldest skatepark. At any given time, the skatepark has its share of skaters, mostly adolescent males. Their conversation is pretty typical for skaters; issues with parents, getting stoned, wondering why expectations are set for them when all they want to do is skate and of course, girls. Their same conversations could be overheard at any skatepark in the world.

However, the uncrowned kings of Los Reyes are Football and Chola, a pair of stray dogs who live in the park. With often disinterested eyes they observe the goings-on, sometimes sleeping and sometimes sunning themselves. Rarely do they interact with the skaters although the skaters will from time to time throw a ball around, a game the dogs thoroughly enjoy – just like dogs everywhere.

In many ways the two dogs are like the skaters themselves, living a life of simplicity, interested mainly in food, drink, sex (when they can get it) and taking it easy. Football and Chola don’t need a lot to survive and the city has thoughtfully provided them with dog houses to offer shelter during the rainstorms that are a regular occurrence during the winter months.

We almost never see human faces in the film other than as reflections in water or shadowed inside hoodies, although we hear the skaters chatting in the background. While we hear the skaters talking about the things important to them, we are almost looking at the dogs, concentrating on their indolence, enjoying the insect and bird life that also lives in the park. This is as close to being a dog as you are likely to ever get.

It’s hard not to be enchanted by these two dogs, even if you aren’t particularly a dog lover. The bond between them is absolutely genuine and they each have definite personalities; Chola is an extrovert whose favorite game is to take a tennis ball (or other ball) and coax it to the lip of a one of the skating areas, and then gradually nose it down the ramp whereupon she chases after it. Football loves to bark, so much so that he gets hoarse by the end of the movie. He has a bit of an oral fixation; he’s always got something in his mouth from a plastic beverage bottle to a tennis ball to a rock. Both of them are as sweet as pie.

I did have a bone to pick though; near the end of the film one of the dogs (neither of whom are named until the end credits) shows signs of being terribly sick. We get close-ups of insects infesting the dog’s ears, larvae emerging from the skin – it’s not a pretty picture. Dog lovers – including this one – are going to be wondering if the camera crew took the dog to the vet or gave it any sort of comfort beyond filming the misery of its final days. It is a difficult sequence to watch, made even more poignant by the plaintive howl that the surviving dog makes after their buddy is gone.

The relationship between the dogs isn’t a made-up one nor are the canines anthropomorphized at all. We see them being dogs, doing what dogs do. This isn’t a DisneyNature documentary meant to dumb things down for audiences of kids. The life of these dogs isn’t always pretty but all in all it isn’t a bad life either. For a dog nut like myself, this is absolute candy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is about as close as you’re ever going to come to seeing life through a dog’s point of view. The interplay between the dogs is poignant.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dog lovers may find the last third troubling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was originally intended to focus on three of the skateboarders but the filmmakers found the dogs to be a much more fascinating subject.
CRITICAL MASS:
As of 3/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kedi
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Birds of Passage