Friday, September 25, 2015


It's been several years since I've attended the Mill Valley Film Festival—a consequence of timing more than anything else—but, for their 38th edition, I'm making a concerted effort to participate and my timing couldn't be more fortuitous. This year's line-up includes a rich sidebar of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American entries—which remain my favorite "national cinema(s)" to date—and several of these entries are award winners on the international film festival circuit. What follows are the festival's program capsules supplemented with critical overview, where available. My thanks to capsule authors Rod Armstrong, David Fear, Michael Fox, Carol Harada, Shari Kizirian, Lucy Laird, Margarita Landazuri, and Brendan Peterson for their enthused guidance.

Alias Maria (dir. José Luis Rugeles Gracia, Colombia / Argentina / France, 2014)—Child soldiers risk their lives to ferry their commander's newborn baby to safety in director José Luis Rugeles' tense drama. The children are part of a band of leftist guerrillas battling right-wing paramilitaries in the Colombian jungle. Thirteen-year-old Maria; her boyfriend, Mauricio; Afro-Colombian Byron; and Yuldor, a scrawny preteen, face constant danger in trying to protect an infant whose very cries could alert the enemy to their presence. The pressure on Maria is even greater as she tries to hide her own pregnancy from her comrades. In her screen debut, Karen Torres makes palpable Maria's terror, tenderness, and determination, while Rugeles' camera captures both the claustrophobia and lush beauty of the jungle. No mere war drama, Rugeles and writer Diego Vivanco made Alias Maria to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of children—according to Human Rights Watch—recruited to fight in Colombia's decades-long civil strife.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

Alias Maria screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it was respected by the trades for its efforts to expose the plight of child soldiers in Colombia, but criticized for failing to do so in a way that could emotionally resonate with audiences. As Boyd von Hoeij states at The Hollywood Reporter, "[I]ts unusual angle on the ongoing war in Colombia is certainly worthy of attention. But the filmmaker's tendency to pare back his narrative to its barest essentials makes it very hard to identify with anyone, with all of the characters despondent archetypes rather than real people." He adds that Rugeles' approach "comes down to removing practically all references to not only personal lives—which these extremely young guerrillas don't really have anyway, the occasional bout of sex between fighters notwithstanding—but also private thoughts or emotions. The 'cause' does indeed seem to be their only raison d'etre, which might be lifelike but doesn't necessarily make for a good story." Peter Debruge concurs at Variety: "In contrast with numerous recent child-soldier stories, from the manipulative Salvadorian drama Innocent Voices to the entire mini-genre emerging in response to similar issues in Africa (like the Oscar®-nominated short That Wasn't Me), Rugeles opts for an austere art-film style, rather than the more conventionally accessible melodramatic approach that might help the film reach the widest possible international audience. Though informed by research, Diego Vivanco's script withholds much of the essential context viewers need to make sense of its long, wordless stretches, while Rugeles' execution fails to generate the tension that approach requires." In gist, Debruge complains, "this film drags when it should electrify."

Blue Blood / Sangre Azul (dir. Lírio Ferreira, Brazil, 2014)—Mythological themes are mined from petty human dramas when the circus travels to a volcanic archipelago two hundred miles off Brazil's northeast coast. Exiled as a child by his mother, the Cannon Man returns home to find the years have not diminished the taboo attraction between him and his sister. Natural opposites—the brother is shot into the air in nightly performances while the sister spends her days deep-sea diving—their reunion completes a cycle of fate. Director Lírio Ferreira hails from Pernambuco, the Brazilian state currently incubating a spare, compelling regional cinema, but his inspiration seems to come from elsewhere, borrowing the make-believe aesthetics of Fellini and the soap-operatic intensity of Cacá Diegues. Conscious of its theatricality, the film employs disorienting camera angles, direct address, and stock characters (including a ghost rider and a blind seer played by Cinema Novo's Paulo César Peréio and Ruy Guerra) to ensure the fulfillment of preordained destinies.—Shari Kizirian. In Portuguese with English subtitles. IMDb. Facebook.

Winner of Best Film, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, and best Cinematography and Costume Design at the 2014 Paulínia Film Festival, and featured in the Panorama section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, Blue Blood is deemed "gorgeous-looking yet narratively weak" by Variety's Jay Weissberg, who further qualifies that "the lack of script cohesion means that mood is better evoked than character." Jonathan Holland perceives the same at The Hollywood Reporter whose bottom line is that Blue Blood is "[v]isually stunning as film but largely unrelatable as drama." "High on style but low on substance," Holland continues, "The film is thus best enjoyed for its full creation of an isolated, remote and offbeat world, a world, however, in which it's hard to engage emotionally because of the broad brushstroke characterization." Lia Fietz interviews Lírio Ferreira for Indiewood Hollywoodn't.

The Club / El Club (dir. Pablo Larraín, Chile, 2014)—Wayward priests live their lives in shadow in Pablo Larrain's darkly comic allegory of long-delayed, fittingly carried out justice. The tension builds slowly in a drama where the clerics live among the dogs, gamblers, and beachcombers along the shore of a Chilean village. Shortly after a fifth reverend joins the household, their lives are thrown into turmoil first by a visit from a disturbed young man who levels shocking allegations against the newest arrival. Then when a church investigator appears after a shocking incident to "counsel" them, it's clear that the priests' isolated life of comfort and denial cannot continue. After examining the trauma of Chilean life under Pinochet in three recent films, including Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® nominee No (2012), Larraín turns his critical eye on the Catholic Church's cover-up of its most shocking scandal. The Club won the Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. Co-presented by Latino Council and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. IMDb. Wikipedia.

It's a shame that this Silver Bear winner has been booked exclusively at the festival's Mill Valley Sequoia Theatre venue. I don't drive and the venue is near-to-impossible to access by public transit. Why couldn't such an important title be shared among venues to increase availability? Cordoned off by restricted scheduling, it's further disappointing that the title is not available as a DVD screener or streaming link. I'll defer to Dave Hudson who has rounded up the reviews from Berlinale at Fandor's Keyframe Daily. The Club has been selected as the Chilean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®. For that alone, it would have been preferable for the programming team at MVFF to make the film more broadly available with at least one screening in Mill Valley and the other in San Rafael.

Dirty Wolves / Lobos sucios (dir. Simón Casal de Miguel, Spain, 2015)—Under ancient yew trees in the Nazi-controlled tungsten mines of northwest Spain, a single mother decides to fight someone else's war—and ends up risking everything. Known mockingly as "The Widow," Manuela was abandoned by her baby's father and now works processing the wolfram (aka tungsten) that the Germans will use to tear through Allied flesh. But it turns out there is more than just the wolf of poverty to keep from the door as Manuela comes to realize that—unlike her country—she cannot remain neutral in a time of war. In a thrilling first feature inspired by actual events, director Simón Casal de Miguel imbues the unrelenting grayness of the Galician countryside with a mysticism as old as the twisting yews and howling wolves that roam beneath them. And in Marian Álvarez's steely, nuanced Manuela, along with the terrific supporting cast, he has mined rich and subtle talent.—Lucy Laird. In Spanish and German with English subtitles. IMDb.

Embrace of the Serpent / El abrazo de la serpiente< (dir. Ciro Guerra, Colombia / Venezuela / Argentina, 2015)—This urgent tale startles in lush black and white. Karamakate, "the world mover," is a lone shaman, the last of the Cohiuano people living in harmony with the rainforest. On two separate occasions 40 years apart, he's summoned to help a white man heal his soul sickness, his lack of dreaming. Despite the incursion of missionaries and rubber robber barons, he attempts to reassert traditional ways. The winner of the 2015 top prize at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight, Embrace of the Serpent's crosscutting stories are based on the travel diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. In 1909, Karamakate attends to deathly ill German ethnographer Theo and accompanies him into the Amazonian heart of darkness in search of a fabled sacred medicine plant. Decades later, ethnobotanist Evan seeks the same plant with an older, less assured Karamakate. As colonialism cuts even deeper than before, will they be saved? Will we?—Carol Harada. In Amazonian Languages (Cuebo, Huitoto, Wanano, Tikuana), Spanish, German, Portugese, and Catalan with English Subtitles. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Along with its significant Cannes win, Embrace of the Serpent has likewise picked up honors at the 2015 Lima Latin American Film Festival (Best Film and a Critics Award) and the 2015 Odessa International Film Festival (Special Jury Mention in the International Competition). The film has been selected as the Colombian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®. David Hudson has rounded up the critical response from Cannes 2015 for Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

Havana Motor Club (dir. Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Cuba / U.S., 2015)—Declared an elitist pursuit after the revolution, auto racing in Cuba survives as a clandestine, cop-dodging activity on remote streets and highways. Drivers endlessly tweak the souped-up, tuned-up engines in their 1950s U.S. hotrods, dreaming of the day their underground sport is sanctioned again by the authorities. This vibrant, street-level documentary follows a handful of obsessed grease monkeys through the course of the Cuban Motor Federation's stop-and-go exertions to stage an organized drag-racing event. The top competitors setting engines—and hearts—racing are Reinaldo "Tito" Lopez Fernandez, the fierce gray-haired patriarch whose son drives their classic red-and-white 1955 Chevy Bel Air, and Carlos Alvarez Sanchez, blessed with Clooney-esque looks and a Cuban-American partner who flies in parts for their late-model red Porsche. To overcome the myriad bumps in the road, they and their fellow enthusiasts rely on a uniquely Cuban mix of determination, sacrifice, and macho swagger.—Michael Fox. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

At Vice, Brandon Harris talks to Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and driver Armando "Pity" Lorenzo Munnet at the film's Tribeca premiere. Most press on the film has been anticipatory from gearhead aficionados and racing publications.

Ixcanul Volcano / Ixcanul (dir. Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala / France, 2015)—With an indigenous cast and the power of a classic fable, Ixcanul tells the moving story of a Mayan family living in the shadow of a volcano in the Guatemalan highlands. In a rustic cabin, Maria and her parents eke out a living by harvesting coffee with hopes of improving their situation after the local overseer, Ignacio, proposes marriage. Pretty but naïve, young Maria has her eyes instead on a handsome itinerant worker who wants to travel to the States, and a rash decision imperils everyone's plans. In his beautifully shot debut film, writer-director Jayro Bustamante shows a world where nature is preeminent and rituals a part of daily life. An infestation of snakes that menaces their livelihood provides a rich metaphor for the various threats that face the family in a moving drama that was inspired by Bustamante's interviews with Mayan people about their daily lives.—Rod Armstrong. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Winner of the Alfred Bauer Award at this year's Berlinale, David Hudson offers his review. Ixcanul has been selected as the Guatemalan entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®.

La Tierra Roja (dir. Diego Martínez Vignatti, Belgium / Argentina, 2015)—A stunning ecological thriller and intense love story, director Diego Martinez Vignatti's third feature explores the effects of harmful farming techniques on a rainforest community in northern Argentina. Workers cut down trees and haul them to a paper company for processing, then they cover their faces with kerchiefs and spray poisonous weed killer to increase production. Pierre, a Belgian supervisor for the multinational company, is involved in a passionate relationship with local teacher Ana, and neither can ignore the growing evidence that people are being sickened by the chemicals they're using. As Ana helps mobilize protests and gather evidence that cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses are related to the agrotoxins, Pierre must make a choice. Vignatti, a former cinematographer, captures the region's beauty—and menace. With a cast that mixes seasoned actors and local indigenous people, the film culminates with a dramatic face-off that changes the community, and Pierre, forever.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. IMDb. Facebook.

Marshland / La Isla Minima (dir. Alberto Rodriguez, Spain, 2014)—A mesmerizing and moody psychological journey into the underbelly of a small town in 1980, Marshland evokes the energy of True Detective and the tone of Twin Peaks to create a fascinating and haunting first-rate thriller. After teenage sisters disappear from a marshland town in southern Spain, two contrasting Madrid detectives are on the case. As their investigation unfolds, we take a twisty, turbulent ride filled with colorful characters, offbeat situations, and surprising moments of personal revelation. From the opening frames, featuring breathtaking aerial shots of the marshland, it's clear that filmmaker Alberto Rodriguez is in complete control. Each scene is perfectly crafted to capture the emotional and physical reality of that moment while an eerie, understated soundtrack seeps into our subconscious. This meticulous, multilayered cinematic puzzle rewards careful attention by doling out information on a need-to-know basis, assembling a suspenseful and magnetic experience that gives the best kind of movie thrill.—Brendan Peterson. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

As reported by Alfonso Rivera to Cineuropa, Marshland swept this year's Goyas. At Variety, Jay Weissberg works with the film's plot failings to appreciate it as a "satisfyingly atmospheric neo-noir ... [s]teeped in a brooding transitional world of distrust, perversion, and disillusionment." Jonathan Holland's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter: "This superbly crafted, richly textured thriller is one of the strongest Spanish films of the year." Holland adds: "Marshland merits international exposure as an example of ... how to fold significance into genre." At The Guardian, Jonathan Romney recommends this "slice of Ibero-noir" for those "weary of Scandi crime" and lays out the film's two distinctive elements: "One is the setting, the swamp regions of the Guadalquivir River in Andalucía: we could almost be watching a Spanish-language dub of a Hollywood thriller of the Louisiana bayous. The second is that the film is set in 1980, with the Franco legacy still a raw wound and causing divisions between the film's two homicide cops: younger, leftist Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) and his hard-boiled ancien regime colleague (Javier Gutiérrez)."

The Pawn / La Prenda (dir. Jean-Cosme Delaloye, Switzerland, 2015)—Guatemalan teen Astrid was kidnapped and held for ransom. Her family paid and she was released, but the family still gets phone calls from her abductors, calling her a pawn and threatening to snatch her again. Desperate, she enters the U.S. illegally and faces deportation. In Guatemala, one person is kidnapped every day. Targets are frequently children who have family in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of the kidnappers are never punished. Swiss journalist and documentarian Jean Cosme Delaloye examines the problem of abductions for ransom by focusing on Astrid's case, and two others. A father mourns the murder of his kidnapped wife and struggles to raise two young sons who witnessed their mother's death. Fifteen-year-old Kelly was snatched, brutally raped, and murdered. Most of Kelly's family has fled to the U.S., but her cousin Karin remains in Guatemala, working with the Survivors Network group to put Kelly's kidnappers in prison. The film follows court cases that will decide the fates of Astrid and some of the kidnappers.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

Eviator Bach and Jane Shi interview Delaloye and his subject Astrid Elías Macario for The Talon.

A Perfect Day (dir. Fernando Léon de Aranoa, Spain, 2015)—Humanitarian aid workers attempt to improve conditions despite facing bureaucracy, violence, cynicism, distrust, and a shortage of necessary materials in this tragicomedy, a kind of M*A*S*H comes to the Balkans, set during the waning days of the Bosnian War. The drama begins with Mambru (Benicio Del Toro) and Damir (Fedja Stukan) trying to fish a corpse out of a well. Lack of a proper rope complicates the situation—just one more absurdity for the two men and their co-workers, including wise-cracking B (Tim Robbins), as they go about the business of trying to survive while helping the region thrive once again. Spain stands in for Bosnia in Spaniard Fernando León de Aranoa’s gorgeously lensed, funny, and compassionate first English-language feature, a film as attuned to the comic potential of a booby-trapped cow in the road as it is to the challenge of doing the right thing in an impossible situation.—?. In English, Bosnian, Spanish, and French with English subtitles. IMDb. Wikipedia.

David Hudson has aggregated the Cannes reviews at Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

Viaje (dir. Paz Fárega, Costa Rica, 2015)—After 20-somethings Pedro (Fernando Bolaños) and Lucia (Kattia González) meet cute on the stairs of a costume party—he's in a bear suit; she's in schoolgirl overalls—the twosome spend the night together. The next morning, they impulsively decide to go on a camping trip; since he's heading out to work at a remote biological research facility and she's leaving the country, this may be the last chance they have to get to know each other. Filmmaker Paz Fábrega's romantic character study is like a Costa Rican Before Sunrise: The longer this couple muses about their dreams, desires, and how much this chance encounter has dinged their emotional defense systems, the downright sexier this film gets. Between its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the leads' breezy chemistry, this modest little gem of a movie packs more beauty, melancholy, and body heat into its 70-minute running time than most films twice its length.—David Fear. In Spanish with English subtitles. IMDb.

At The New York Times Stephen Holden anointed Viaje as the best entry in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. At The Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore's bottom line: "An unpretentiously beautiful look at youth and how-casual-is-this? coupling." He adds: "Fabrega's script demonstrates the kind of feminist storytelling in which it goes without saying that men and women are equal participants in social life. ...The man and woman are peers in a way that's uncommon in romances directed by young men, working out in words and action the questions on both their minds: Is casual fun all there is? Is our youth ending if we make stronger bonds? What now?"