While everyone else seems intent on writing up their lists of movies they've seen this year, I'm drafting up a list of the movies I'm hoping to see at next month's Palm Springs International Film Festival ("PSIFF"), whose line-up was officially announced today on-line.
Along with the Awards Buzz programs, of equal interest to me is PSIFF's Cine Latino selection of 17 films representing Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. Some—like Brazil's Baptism of Blood (Batismo de Sangue) and the North American premiere of Oxen's Eye (Olho de Boi), Mexico's Burn the Bridges (Quemar las Naves), and Uruguay's Kill Them All (Matar a todos) arrive stateside with so little buzz that maybe it's time to start generating some?
On the other hand, the anticipated jewel of the Cine Latino program in its U.S. premiere is the critically touted In the City of Sylvia (En la ciudad de Sylvia), Jose Luis Guerín's Spanish homage to cinema, painting, love, and women. In a moment of what can only be called a serious lapse in judgment, I let go of my ticket at the Toronto International in order to enjoy—dare I confess it?—an outdoor piece of apple pie at the Queen Mother Cafe. I've never regretted a pastry more in my life! In a nutshell, Darren Hughes at Long Pauses hailed In the City of Sylvia as "a masterpiece." There I was with crumbs all over my face while colleagues were emerging from this film stunned for words. Of which there have been many. Dave Hudson has gathered these into Toronto and New York aggregates for The Greencine Daily, of particular note being Boyd Von Hoeij's Cineuropa interview with director Guerín and his subsequent interview with both Guerín and his lead actress Pilar López de Ayala for European-films.net. Acquarello likewise sifts sweetness from abstracted memory at Strictly Film School and describes how "the seemingly incidental, interstitial sequences of passing shadows become a reflection of a resurfaced, dislocated past—a transformed memory that not only grows more ephemeral with the passage of time but also continues to reinsert its own vitality in the present." David Bordwell contributes some astute observations regarding the film's visual narratives rendered through Guerín's "sustained and varied use of optical POV" and his "teasing style" of "layered space." The external reviews at IMdb promise further reading.
Equally beguiling to me are the reports on two Spanish films: Icíar Bollaín's Mataharis and Jaime Rosales's Solitary Fragments (La soledad). Both have been recently reviewed as part of James Van Maanen's impressive octet of dispatches to The Greencine Daily from the Spanish Cinema Now series running at New York's Walter Reade Theatre. Of Mataharis, Van Maanen writes it is a deft study of surveillance "while stirring up a meaty stew of economics, corporate policies, family lives and sexual attraction." Graham Keeley concurs at The Hollywood Reporter and states, "[H]ere is a private eye movie that makes us ponder the morality of that eye." Variety's Jay Weissberg is less enamored with the film but concedes Bollaín "manages to capture the ultimate irony of detective work: They may be masters of surveillance, but they don't know what's inside people's heads."
As for Solitary Fragments, Van Maanen claims it may be "the best corrective you'll encounter" to those who toss out the dismissive phrase—"It's only a movie"—and to those who idly argue that "no movie can approach the breadth and depth of 'real life'." He praises Oscar Durán's "knockout" cinematography and his effective technique: "Generally, the camera is placed back a distance at the point of maximum inclusion and beauty of design and composition. It is then left stationary, so that characters enter and leave the frame as needed." Dan Sallitt, who also caught the film at Spanish Cinema Now, writes at Thanks For the Use of the Hall: "[Solitary Fragments] is unashamedly arty and really impressive. It's truly shocking at times, and yet one comes away thinking about the sun and breeze on the patios of shady apartments." Then commence a series of pro and con comments on his entry that furthers appreciation of the film. Dispatching from the Cannes Film Festival, Boyd Van Hoeij highlights Rosales's effective usage of split screen or "polyvision" and concludes: "Remarkably, Rosales's rigid sense of composition and impeccable attention to technical detail (the images, the sound design, the elliptical editing) actually help to locate it in an everyday reality rather than elevate it into the realms of art and artifice." Variety's Jonathan Holland describes Solitary Fragments as a "superbly understated, gripping study of women as mothers, daughters, partners and victims" handled with "rare intensity." At Strictly Film School, Acquarello understands the frequent usage of "split-screen" as "a recurring aesthetic that also reflects the film's parallel stories of separation, isolation, loss, and the randomness of fate." With customary poetic insight Acquarello concludes: "Rosales demonstrates a keen eye for observation and for capturing the quotidian beauty of these seemingly cursory, often inelegant, momentary interruptions of life—the petty arguments, procrastinated plans, quiet sacrifices, acts of compassion, and conciliatory gestures—the insightful 'solitary fragments' that capture life at its most intimate and honest expression of struggle, loneliness, and validation." Accepting that—though the film is "amazing" for him—Eye For Film's Andrew Robertson acknowledges that it won't be for everybody. Notwithstanding, if audiences accept and go with the film's aesthetic conventions, they will assemble its solitary fragments into "an astonishing whole."
James Van Maanen has also written up Chaotic Ana (Caótica Ana), more fairly than enthusiastically. For one thing, he says Charlotte Rampling's performance comes off like "she could have phoned in (and from the looks of things, did)." Though he has admittedly enjoyed Julio Medem's work, Van Maanen finds Medem's "visuals to finally be more interesting than his content." He's not alone in his staged ambivalencies. Graham Keeley dispatching to The Hollywood Reporter from the Toronto International complains that "[t]he plot veers annoyingly from one scene to another with little explanation" even as he allows that the film's real charm "is that it keeps the viewer guessing what strange turn it will take. Or indeed, what it is all about." Variety's Jonathan Holland describes Chaotic Ana as "memorably intense, abstract and unfocused" and that though it is "[r]angier and more dazzling—visually and conceptually—than anything Medem has tried before, the movie unfortunately lets the chaos of the title permeate its second half." Holland warns that Chaotic Ana "shuns traditional narrative logic in favor of a system of parallels, echoes and sometimes symbols (like the doors of caves opening)." Jonathan Marlow, on the other hand, shuns ambivalency, clearly stating in his Toronto dispatch to Greencine that "over the course of its two hours, [Chaotic Ana] takes you from mild dislike to gradual limited appreciation and then all the way to intense disappointment by its resolution." All that being said, I'm already feeling quite ambivalent about this film.
Fernando Sariñana's Mexican comedy—Charm School (Niñas Mal)—about youthful rebellion and adult intolerance strikes me as a Rosalind Russell/Hayley Mills vehicle done south of the border and—along with Argentina's City in Heat (Ciudad en cello)—might be purposefully placed crowd pleasers in the Cine Latino line-up. The latter, in fact, won audience favorite at Argentina's Mar del Plata film festival. The Guardian's Claire Rigby describes it as a "wisecracking, tango-drenched script [that] had audiences roaring and clapping."
City of Men (Cidade dos Homens) likewise seems a likely candidate as crowd-pleaser. Following up on the critically-acclaimed 2002 City of God and the equally-lauded 2003 Brazilian television series City of Men, this filmic adaptation has less to do with City of God and launches off from the characters introduced in the TV series (backstoried by Salon's Heather Havrilesky and Austin Chronicle's Josh Rosenblatt). City of Men: The Movie has a lighter, more emotionally satisfying take, according to Variety's Derek Elley that "could attract more mature arthouse auds, drawn by character rather than the minutiae of guns 'n' drugs." Certainly its youthful cast is pleasantly attractive.
Good looks abound in Boystown (Chuecatown) as well, especially with Pablo Puyol pumping himself up as evil realtor Victor. I've already written this one up for The Evening Class when it had its alleged "premiere" at San Francisco's International Latino Film Festival. All I might add at this juncture is Dennis Harvey's review for Variety. He's far more objective about this misstepping "quasi-farce" than I am.
Rafa Cortés's debut Me (Yo) comes with solid mixed reviews. Named "Revelation of the Year" by FIPRESCI, the international association of film critics, at this year's Rotterdam International Festival (plus a Málaga fest award and other nominations), James Van Maanen writes Yo "plays around to little effect with themes of identity, community and the immigrant life." Maanen admits: "By the finale, what Cortés hoped to achieve with this story seemed to me to be so obvious—and so tired—that I had to mull over the whole movie before setting thoughts to print. The mulling did not help." Final conclusion? Yo is a whipped-up "so-so soufflé." When Todd Brown at Twitch caught the film at Toronto he said "nothing much happens" and concluded, "Well shot and well performed, Yo suffers from a general lack of focus and narrative drive. Ultimately a film about what a man will do to earn the acceptance of those around him it is not nearly thrilling enough to be a compelling thriller, its lead character far too bland for it to be effective as a character piece. Motivations are never clear, the overall point of the film even less so. It just sort of happens and then it's done. The core material could be the basis for a solid noir, a mystery, or a dark thriller but the film chooses none of these options—a non-choice that can leave the audience every bit as baffled as Hans himself is through most of the running time." Mileage varies, of course. Boyd Van Hoeij at European-films.net sees Yo as an "intriguing non-sequitur character drama", an "atmospheric head-scratcher" that has "more in common with atmospheric British mysteries such as Hitchcock's Rebecca and Roeg's Don't Look Now, in which atmosphere and strong performances count for more than logic and narrative force." He claims the film delivers. Variety's Jay Weissberg respects the film as a difficult balancing act but admits it's only partially successful, primarily in the lead character's performance. Neil Young agrees Alex Brendemuhl's central performance "is very much the picture's strong suit" but warns that "Cortes and Brendemuhl retreat into a gnomic, stylish zone of deadpan obfuscation, the pace slackening in the final third so that the picture feels like rather hard work for what turns out to be minimal tangible reward." Angus Wolfe Murray suggests generously at Eye For Film that "Co-writer/director Rafa Cortes has something of Antonioni about him, especially during the L'Avventura period. He creates an atmosphere as thick as blood, which he slowly stirs. He likes the handheld camera, close intimate visuals, suggesting an emotional connection, but, as with the late Michelangelo, there is none, only the cold, cold lens and an understanding that fear festers like the cut of a rusty scythe."
As if that doesn't sound befuddling enough, I'm still trying to figure out what the PSIFF program capsule for Sandra Gugliotta's Possible Lives (Las vidas posibles) has to do with its mixed reviews, which are a far cry from Rembrandt in Amsterdam 1642. Surely this is a misprint in the program? I'm not much interested in a historical reconstruction of Rembrandt's life; but, note that Ray Bennett at The Hollywood Reporter finds Possible Lives to be an "engrossing" mystery. Variety's Jay Weissberg, however, finds it "implausible" and "plodding." "Possible lives yes," he quips, "but improbable ticket sales."
Though I think they all three agree that the topic of Carmen Castillo's documentary Santa Fe Street (Calle Santa Fe) is important and carries weight, Variety's Jay Weissberg, Slant's Nick Schager, and ReelTalk's Donald Levit find fault in the film's execution; Weissberg perhaps less than the other two.
I'll write about the two films Manoel de Oliveira has in this year's festival in a separate entry.
And, finally, I save Brazil's The Best Of Me for last because Variety's Jay Weissberg describes it as "a shoulder-shrugging liver transplant tale from freshman helmer Roser Aguilar that plays like a standard TV movie."
Cross-published on Twitch.