Wednesday, March 29, 2017

6th Annual Czech that Film Tour [2017] - Part 1


Among the films playing as part of the fifteen city 2017 Czech That Film Tour [Variety] that is passing through the United States over the next several months (the tour began here in Los Angeles over the past weekend and will end in Chicago in June), I was able to view and review the following:


The Teacher (orig. Učitelka) [2016] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*(directed by Jan Hřebejk [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, written by Petr Jarchovský [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) a CZECH / SLOVAK CO-PRODUCTION opened the 2017 Czech That Film Tour  with yes, LITERALLY "WITH A BANG."  Director  Hřebejk [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* is certainly one of the best Czech directors of this generation and the story presented here is a compelling, even spine tingling, HORROR story (yet THOROUGHLY BELIEVABLE / WITHOUT NEED FOR ANY FAKE "MONSTERS").

Set in mid-1980s (hence still thoroughly Communist Era) Czechoslovakia it's a story that could TO SOME EXTENT _honestly_ happen just about anywhere.  "TO SOME EXTENT" is, of course, THE KEY to the compelling nature of this film.

Yes, TO SOME EXTENT this story could take place ANYWHERE, BUT ... mid-1980s Communist Era Czechoslovakia WASN'T JUST "ANYWHERE" ... it was a still thoroughly entrenched Communist country where it was VERY HARD for REGULAR PEOPLE to do _anything_ in the face of even CLEAR-AS-DAY (and thoroughly EVIL)  abuse of power. 

At issue was a _burrowed-in_ CORRUPT 8th grade teacher at an utterly random Bratislava, Slovakia grade school who would begin each school year "quite innocently" asking her students to introduce themselves and then SAY A WORD-OR-TWO about WHAT THEIR PARENTS DID FOR A LIVING while she carefully "took notes."  She would then EXTORT said parents throughout the ensuing school year, asking them for quite inappropriate favors and sometimes for utterly inappropriate ones, with, well, their kids' futures HANGING IN _HER_ BALANCE.

Ah, one may say, "My kid's not going to be a rocket scientist or neurosurgeon, so who cares?"  Well ... that may be, but maybe one's kid wants to be on a sports team, or drama club or simply wouldn't  want to be "on the authorities radar" THAT OBSCENELY EARLY IN LIFE.

A school teacher, anywhere, honestly has a lot of power ... A thoroughly burrowed-in, connected, knows-how-to-game-the-system, school teacher, here even a "Comrade" (also "by chance" head of the local Communist Party Committee ... so even the Principal of the School (!) was scared of her) HAS AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF POWER.

But WOULD YOU SUBMIT to "running contraband" between Bratislava and Moscow because (1) you happen "to work at the local airport" and (2) your kid could suddenly fail her grades at school and be put in a "remedial program" for the "mentally distressed" simply because "Teacher" had the power to do it  AND most heartbreakingly (3) HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN TO A THIRTEEN YEAR OLD (!) THAT HER GRADES HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH HER ACTUAL SCHOOL PERFORMANCE -- that literally "one plus one" equals IN HER CASE _whatever_ the teacher wants it to be.  And that "one plus one" could RETURN to being "two" ONLY AFTER HER PARENTS DO WHATEVER TEACHER WANTS THEM TO DO ...

Well, the film begins with said "scared to be doing this at all" Principal and her Assistant, calling in the parents of the students of said school teacher (played by Zuzana Mauréry [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) for an extraordinary meeting, after said thirteen year old girl TRIED TO COMMIT SUICIDE (is one really surprised?) because she simply _could not understand_ why she was failing RUSSIAN (of all subjects) when she DID HER HOMEWORK, DID "ALL HER DECLENSIONS" RIGHT and STILL WAS GETTING "FAILING GRADES" simply because "Teacher didn't seem to like her _now_  for some reason ..."

Many / most of the parents actually knew what was going on.  Many / most had been "visited upon" by said teacher asking for THEM for various favors as well, BUT ... WHAT THE HELL TO DO?  Standing up to her could just make the situation much worse, for them, and especially their kids.  But _now_ SOMEONE (ELSE'S) KID JUST NEARLY DIED BECAUSE OF THIS TEACHER.   What to do?  What honestly to do?

Again, this is one heck of a HORROR STORY without any (fake) MONSTERS -- 4+ Stars.  




Intimate Lighting (Intimní Osvětlení) [1965] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* (directed and cowritten by Ivan Passer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* along with Jaroslav Papoušek [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* and Václav Šašek [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) played as the LEGACY ENTRÉE for the  2017 Czech That Film Tour.

Each year, the CTF tour organizers offer a film like this to help Viewers appreciate the remarkable 100 year+ history of Czech Cinema (such a small country, yet with a heck of a lot of talent ;-).  In recent past years, the legacy entrées included the truly remarkably made medieval historical epic Marketa Lazarová [1967] (to prepare for the film's making, the acting troupe actually _spent a year_ living in the medieval conditions portrayed -- cooking / eating the same food, making and sleeping on the same beds, making / wearing the same clothes) and Invention for Destruction (orig. Vynález Skázy) [1958] a truly visually spectacular 1/2 animated 1/2 live-action (in 1958!) rendering of a Jules Verne story. 

The current "legacy entrée" was one of the first films of 1960s era Czechoslovakian "New Wave."  On hand here in Los Angeles, was the film's smiling director Ivan Passer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, now in his 80s talking of how the Czechslovakian "New Wave" [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* came to be: Basically he, life-long BFF Miloš Forman [wikip] [IMDb] and others came to the conclusion that to make _good movies_ in Communist-era Czechoslovakia they had to _get out of the studio_ and "go to the Provinces", USE non-professional actors, keep the lighting-and-sound as simple as possible (ALL THIS TO HONESTLY "keep them away" FROM PEOPLE WHO COULD "TURN THEM IN" ...) and then "keep things light" ... Passer noted that there was some random "Politiburo" member back then who said that he "liked comedies" and that "The People" should "be entertained."  So as long as one kept the people smiling ;-) ... one could say just about anything ;-) ... OMG ... I'VE BEEN SAYING THAT AND LIVING THAT IN MY MINISTRY AS A CATHOLIC PRIEST FOR YEARS ;-) ;-) ;-).

[I would add here that the whole creation of the the "Independent Film Movement" in the United States -- from Robert Redford's creation of the "Sundance Film Festival" / Robert Deniro's "Tribeca Film Festival" to film critics Roger Ebert / Gene Siskel's SUPPORT of "Independent Film" in their reviews (coming from "way out in Chicago...") -- was motivated by a similar if perhaps _somewhat less urgent_ need for film-makers to get away from the Politics / inevitable Restrictions (Censorship or one kind or another) of the Big Studios].

So then, the current film, Intimate Lighting (Intimní Osvětlení) [1965] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, is really just a SIMPLE story about a Czech family living out _somewhere_ "in the villages" (na venkově, na vesnici...) being visited ONE WEEKEND by some of their relatives "from the city" (Prague).  And it's not even a particularly "mean" picture (as it might have been if it had been made in the United States today).  It's just about two sets of relatives getting together one random weekend during the summer.  And they do have something in common ... they're all (classical) musicians.

Now this will stun many contemporary American viewers: How could it possibly be that "people in a village" could have a small chamber orchestra?  Well folks, THIS WAS ENTERTAINMENT in Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.  EVERYBODY had SOMEBODY in the family (at times EVEN THE ENTIRE FAMILY) who could PLAY THE VIOLIN (or the Bass, Cello, etc) AND PLAY IT WELL.

So I found the film to be a joy.  I "see" my own beloved Czech relatives in it (as they were back in the 1960s-early 70s), and even the house in which the story plays-out with its garden (with its angrešt (gooseberry) shrubs ... a kind of indigenous "kiwi-fruit"-like bearing tree) looks _spectacularly_ like the house that my paternal grandfather DIED building for our family in a small town outside of Prague in the early 1960s.  So I can assure Readers here that this film is absolutely authentic. 

This then is a remarkable quality of this kind of "independent" film-making: It lends itself to a kind of simplicity / authenticity that larger productions, anywhere, often lack.  So congrats to the filmmakers (and to the organizers of CTF this year).  You picked a Legacy winner here ;-) -- 4+ Stars




The Devil's Mistress (orig. Lída Baarová) [2016] [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]* (directed by Filip Renč [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*, screenplay by Ivan Hubač [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) tells _a good part of the story_ of CERTAINLY (!) the MOST CONTROVERSIAL CZECH FILM ACTRESS IN HISTORY -- Lída Baarová [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* [IMDb] (played excellently in the film by Táňa Pauhofová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) who, while striving to become (and actually largely succeeding in becoming) a quite successful actress in Babelsberg, then (Nazi...) Germany's "Hollywood" of the 1930s, entered into what became a truly infamous affair with Nazi Propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels (played in the film by Karl Markovics [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*).  Yup.  And by _all accounts_ Goebbels was apparently smitten enough by her that he was willing TO LEAVE HIS WIFE / CHILDREN, that is, HIS "PERFECT NAZI FAMILY," as well as HIS POST AS NAZI PROPAGANDA CHIEF (and even apparently offered to Hitler to take a random ... and distant ... post as "Nazi Germany's Ambassador to Japan") so that he could leave with Miss Baarová. 

Well this could not stand... and it did not.  Magda, Goebbels' wife (played in the film wonderfully by Lenka Vlasáková [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) took the matter up with Hitler himself (played in the film  _fascinatingly_, though apparently again _historically accurately_, as a really sexually troubled / repressed prude by Pavel Kříž [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*).   And so Hitler himself put the kabash on the whole matter.  Baarová's [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* [IMDb] film career in Nazi Germany was _summarily_ brought to an end (and it was also 1938, just as the Czechoslovak-German Sudeten Crisis was heating up as well ...).  She was able to return back to the (then) rump of Czecho-Slovakia in the months after the the German taking of the Sudetenland and apparently did some films in (Fascist) Italy during the War [IMDb].

After the War, Lída Baarová [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* was, needless to say, arrested and investigated by the (by then Communist dominated) post-War Czechoslovak authorities as a Traitor / Collaborator.  Worse, HER OWN MOTHER (played by Simona Stašová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*) DIED UNDER INTERROGATION by the post-War Czech (again Communist dominated) authorities and her younger sister Zorka (played in the film by Anna Fialová [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDb.cz]*), also an actress, though one who _never left Prague_ for "higher dreams" COMMITTED SUICIDE after being told that she would simply NEVER have an acting role again in post-War Czechoslovakia because she was ... Lida's sister.

For her part, Lída [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* ended-up "landing on her feet" after this several year post-War freefall, managed to get out of post-War Czechoslovakia before the February 1948 Communist Putsch definitively _slammed_ the Iron Curtain down on the frontiers of the country, and ... ended-up having _a moderately successful acting_ career IN FRANCO'S FASCIST DOMINATED SPAIN [IMDb] before retiring to (and apparently dying) in Salzburg, Austria in 2000 at the "ripe old age" of eighty six.  

Honestly, ONE _HELL_ OF A WOMAN ...  -- As for the film, honestly, it's top quality.  I do wish that the film explored more of what Lída Baarová [en.wikip] [cs.wikip]* had thought during the 1938 Sudeten Crisis, as she was a _Czech actress_ in Nazi Germany (!) at the time (and HER PEOPLE were really _on the line_), but it's certainly ONE HELL of a compelling story about a woman who either made A SERIES of WORLD-CLASS BAD CHOICES (!) or one who EARLY-ON in her life really did make A PACT WITH THE DEVIL - 4 Stars. 


* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

24th San Diego Latino Film Festival [2017] - Part 3


 Among the films that played recently at the 24th San Diego Latino Film Festival, held at the AMC Fashion Valley 18 Theater at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego, CA I was able to view and review the following:



The Darkness (orig. Las Tinieblas) [2016] [IMDb] [FA.es]*(directed and cowritten by Daniel Castro Zimbrón [IMDb] [FA.es]* along with Denis Languérand [IMDb] and David Pablos [IMDb]) proved to be a quite "fun" / quite well-executed low-budget post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi horror movie coming from MEXICO.  Inspired in Lord Byron's similarly post-Apocalyptic poem "The Darkness," the story centers on a family - father (played by Brontis Jodorowsky [IMDb]), older teenage son named Marcos (played by Fernando Álvarez Rebeil [IMDb]) and the younger son, about 10-12 y.o., named Argel (played by Aliocha Sotnikoff [IMDb]) and then a cute-as-a-button if rather sickly 8 y.o. daughter named Luciana (played by Camila Robertson Glennie[IMDb]).  At the beginning of the story, they find themselves holed-up in a random cabin somewhere deep in a forest, and they were, in effect, "hiding."  Hiding from what?  Well something, unclear, had happened in the world outside.  Indeed at the beginning of the film, the father and sons would don gas masks (!) whenever they stepped outside.  There also seemed to be giant spider-like (alien?) monsters outside.  However, these monsters are never really seen even though they are occasionally heard (the whole shack _shakes_ violently whenever one of the monsters seems to be foraging outside).  However, since these monsters are _never_ really seen and about midway through the story, the 10 year old son Argel discovers that he doesn't really need a gas mask when he walks out outside, both he and his younger sister (the older son disappears early in the film) begin to wonder IF THE FATHER IS JUST "MAKING IT ALL UP." Maybe HE'S making the whole house shake in some way -- blaming this on "the monsters" -- to keep his two remaining children "scared."  And there it is: Throughout the whole film, the audience also wonders if the GIANT spider-like monsters" are REAL or whether the father is somehow faking it all, in an attempt to keep his remaining children "in line." Fascinating film ;-) -- 3 Stars




Jules and Dolores (orig. O Roubo da Taça) [2016] [IMDb] [AC]*(directed and cowritten by Caito Ortiz [IMDb] [AC]* along with Lusa Silvestre [IMDb]) is a TRULY FUNNY Brazilian comedy about the circumstances surrounding the actual 1983 theft of the REVERED Jules Rimet World Cup Soccer Trophy by, it turns out, two Rio de Janeiro "good old boys" (one with a large gambling debt, owing money to a local mobster called "O Reverendo"....).  The film begins with the words: "Some of this actually happened..." ;-).    The two small time crooks (one known by all his friends in the neighborhood as "A Barba" (The Beard ... and he didn't wear a mask ...) _really_ "didn't think things through" ;-).  But then neither did the Brazilian Soccer Federation: They put the trophy in a prominent display case in their central offices "behind a plate of bullet proof glass." But THE DISPLAY CASE ITSELF was of the kind that one could "buy at Walmart."  Hence "O Barba" just took-out his keys and pried-off THE LITTLE PIECE OF WOODEN FRAME that held the "BULLET PROOF GLASS" in place.  The plate of "Bullet Proof Glass" fell to the floor (it _did not_ break ;-) ... and there they were, a grasp away from the most revered trophy in 3/4 of the world ;-).  Okay, they successfully ran-off with the second most revered object in all of Brazil, the most revered being the similarly quite small (and initially headless) image of Our Lady of the Aparecida, the Patroness of Brazil.  Where the heck does one sell it?  Who'd buy it?  One of the "gold dealers" in Rio (but also, needless to say, A SOCCER FAN) pulled out a shotgun and wanted to shoot them right then and there ... ;-).  But they do finally find a buyer ... a smiling, kinda swarmy if also kinda simpathetic ... ARGENTINIAN ;-).  Much ensues ... ;-) ... Honestly, the characters in the film were brilliantly drawn -- including the two small time crooks, the mobster "O Reverendo," the smiling / swarmy Argentinian, the "no nonsense" local police detective put on the case who generally found the easiest way "to get a lead on a case" was to just _step-on_ (well STOMP ON) the toes of some random two-bit thug "brought in for questioning" ;-) and then the never seen but often heard (by said local detective) disembodied voice of the "policia militar" (Brazil was under a military dictatorship at the time ...) offering "their assistance" to said "pansy a..." local Rio police detective if he couldn't break-open the case.  Finally, there was the girlfriend of one of the small time crooks named, Dolores (played wonderfully by Taís Araújo [IMDb] [AC]*) who, in fact, narrates the story and who was the ONLY ONE in the saga will _any_ REAL BRAINS ... ONE SPECTACULARLY FUNNY MOVIE -- 4+ Stars.



Where I Grow Old (orig. A Cidade onde Envelheço) [2016] [IMDb] [AC]*(directed and cowritten by Marília Rocha [IMDb] [AC]* along with João Dumans [IMDb] and Thais Fujinaga [IMDb]) is a small BRAZILIAN / PORTUGUESE "indie piece" set entirely in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte (the third largest in Brazil) about two women, Teresa and Francisca (played by Elizabete Francisca Santos [IMDb] [AC]* and Francisca Manuel [IMDb] [AC]*) in their later-20s from Portugal, one already living in Belo Horizonte for a while, the other just arriving at the beginning of the story, both trying to decide throughout the whole of the story WHERE they'd each like to "settle down."  Now though this film is about two women in their later-20s living together, neither is gay.  Both have boyfriends / reasonably good, caring / sensitive men in their lives.  But neither sees a true / serious / enduring future with any of them.  On the other hand, the "clock is ticking" (not necessarily "the biological clock" but simply _the clock_).  Where does one want ... to grow old?  Each may be in their later-20s, but both are realizing that serious _decisions_ will begin to have to be made.   A very nice, _thoughtful_ reflection worthy of young adult (and even Church) reflection. -- 3 1/2 Stars


* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life [2017]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  RogerEbert.com (2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (K. Turan) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review


Life [2017] (directed by Daniel Espinosa, screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is perhaps best understood as a SciFi story whose creators really didn't know what they wanted:

On the one hand, they wanted the respectability of well-made recent SciFi films with thoughtful / believable scenarios like Gravity [2013], The Martian [2015] and even Contagion [2011].  On the other hand, they invented a monster -- the AV Club's reviewer A.A. Dowd (above) calls it "A Space Octopus" -- that really deserves to be in a B-movie. 

Now don't get me wrong, I generally like / review favorably high budget fantastic stories like those Marvel Superhero Universe.  I even enjoyed -- smiled from ear-to-ear actually -- watching, mesmerized, two races of GIANT Transformer Robots SMASHING THINGS (buildings, cars, everything really) LEFT-AND- RIGHT while THEY BEAT the daylights out of EACH OTHER on-and-all-over the streets of Chicago in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon [2011]

But this film didn't seem to fit in any of the these three SciFi universes: the respectable / believable if generally Dystopic kind; the "attack of the race of intelligent lobsters" low-budget B-movie kind, or the GIANT high-budget Super Hero / Super Monster / Super Villain kind.

So what's the film about?  Well, researchers on the International Space Station successfully capture a sample-return pod arriving to Mars, and begin analyzing the sample for evidence of life.  Well, something starts to grow.  Initially it seems to be growing like a colony of single celled organisms but, to the researchers horror, it coalesces into what becomes a very smart (and very hungry) multi-apendaged "space-octopus" -- everyone of its cells is BOTH a muscle and a nerve cell ...

Well, needless to say ... much ensues ...

 I would have settled for "a space virus" ;-) ... The space octopus proved just weird if, I suppose, "really really frightening."

Anyway, it just seems that the creators of this film really couldn't settle on the monster that they wanted to present. So ... sigh ... not exactly a "must see"



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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

24th San Diego Latino Film Festival [2017] - Part 2


 Among the films that played recently at the 24th San Diego Latino Film Festival, held at the AMC Fashion Valley 18 Theater at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego, CA I was able to view and review the following:



Time Riders (orig. Los Jinetes del Tiempo) [2017] [IMDb] [FA.es]* (directed and cowritten by Jose Ramon Pedroza [IMDb] [FA.es]* along with Alfredo Mendoza [IMDb] and Violeta Salmón [IMDb]) is a DOCUMENTARY (from MEXICO) that followed a group of rural re-anactors from southern Mexico who organized themselves to commemorate the centenary of the march of Emiliano Zapata and his Liberation Army of the South in 1914 from Quebrantadero, Morelos to Mexico City where he and his army met with Pancho Villa and his Division of the North to help determine the course of the Mexican Revolution.  Many of the re-enactors were actual descendants of those who members of Zapata's army who made the march.  The documentary offered an opportunity for the re-enactors to reflect on Mexico's course over the Century since and offer a critique.  One of the most interesting reflections came from the re-enactors playing Villa and Zapata noting: "A century ago [Zapata and Villa] led a popular Revolution against the "scientíficos" in government (technocrats) but today we have a government largely run by incompetents (those 'scientificos' were not necessarily all that bad)."  On the other side of the coin a lot of the re-enactors, coming from rural southern Mexico after all, lamented the post-NAFTA decimation of Mexican agriculture and the current dominance in Mexico of various genetically engineered hybrid corns that farmers are effectively forced to grow: "The Revolution fought against Paternalism and the dominance of 'scientíficos,' but today they are in control again telling us once more what we can and can not do."  The juxtaposition of concerns of the past, present and even about the future give the film its title and make for an interesting and colorful documentary and certainly helps one to appreciate the heart-rending poignancy of the Mexican Revolution which was largely about Peasants rising-up and demanding to be respected. -- 4 Stars




El Malquerido [2015] [IMDb] [FA.es]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Diego Rísquez [IMDb] [FA.es]* along with Emiliano Farías [IMDb] and Robert Gómez [IMDb] based on the book [WCat] [Amzn] by Eduardo Fernández [es.wikip]*[IMDb]) is a BIOPIC about ever smiling Venezuelan singer (bolerista) Felipe Pirela [es.wikip]* (played in the film by Jesús Chino Miranda [IMDb] [FA.es]*)who was immensely popular across the Caribbean in the 1960s.  Yet as is often the case with artists, a combination of personal failings / naivete conspired to eventually destroy him.  For instance, at 23 he married a 13 year old wide-eyed fan (named Mariela and played in the film by Greisy Mena [IMDb] [FA.es]*).  Note that while this would simply shock the contemporary Viewer / Reader, North American Rock-and-Roller Jerry Lee Lewis [wikip] [IMDb] actually did roughly the same thing, marrying a 13 year old cousin, at roughly the same time, the late 1950s.  Needless to say, that marriage could not and did not go well, and caused him other difficulties that eventually set him on a course where he was murdered in Puerto Rico in 1972 by a mafioso to whom he apparently owed money.  Fame, particularly easy / early fame ... is rarely a blessing. -- 3 1/2 Stars  


Califórnia [2014] [IMDb] [AC]*(directed and cowritten by Marina Person [IMDb] [AC]* along with Francisco Guarnieri [IMDb] and Mariana Veríssimo [IMDb]) is a truly heartrending "COMING OF AGE" STORY from BRAZIL.  Set in the early 1980s, the film's about a random 17-year-old high schooler from a relatively rich family from São Paulo named Estela (played by Clara Gallo [IMDb] [AC]*) with a "cool" / fun-loving uncle named Carlos (played by Ciao Blat [IMDb] [AC]*), still single and in his early 30s living in California.  The plan was that as soon as she finished high school, she was going to go out to visit him.  Indeed, she had foregone her "15th-birthday party" so that she could go on that trip once her high school was finished.  Well ... 10 days before she was supposed to go, she gets word that her uncle was going to go back to São Paulo instead and he's going to be staying with them for a while (Carlos was Estela's mother's younger brother).  Well, when Carlos arrives, he's the fun-loving uncle that Estela always knew -- and she still didn't fully understand why he was suddenly there and she was suddenly not going to see him in California -- 'cept ... he was ... noticeably ... thin.  The rest of this just utterly heartbreaking tale takes it from there -- 4 Stars.  



The Ornithologist (orig. O Ornitólogo) [2016] [IMDb] [AC]*(written and directed by João Pedro Rodrigues [IMDb] [AC]*) was billed as an "experimental" take on the life of Saint Anthony of Padua (Lisbon).  Playing quite late in the evening and at the Latino Film Festival San Diego (an hour and a half away from where I live), the film proved _too_ "experimental" for me to watch all the way through -- Set apparently in rural modern day northern Portugal, I left after the Ornithologist / Antonio (played by Paul Hamy [IMDb] [AC]*) was tied-up by a couple of Chinese (!) pilgrims, lost on their way to Santiago de Compostella, with said Chinese pilgrims (played by Han Wen [IMDb] and Chan Suan [IMDb]) threatening to castrate him.  Say what??  Yup ... perhaps it all would have come to make sense but I simply ran out of patience.  So I picked myself up and left.  Sigh ... -- 1/2 Star


* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

24th San Diego Latino Film Festival [2017] - Part 1


 Among the films that played recently at the 24th San Diego Latino Film Festival, held at the AMC Fashion Valley 18 Theater at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego, CA I was able to view and review the following:



Guilty Men (orig. Pariente )[2016] [IMDb] [FA.es]* (written and directed by Iván Gaona [IMDb] [FA.es]*) is a well written "small indie" COLOMBIAN drama-to-dramedy that plays out in and around a random village in the Colombian jungled moutnainous hinterlands (Santander Department) -- the countryside portrayed was ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL.  The year was 2005 around the time when the "Paramilitaries" were beginning to "demobilize," the Paramilitaries being right wing, essentially vigilante groups that arose to "help" the government combat the Communist FARC insurgency in the 1980s.  Honestly, these Paramilitaries would not be altogether far, both tactically and ideologically, from the Klan in the States.  They "helped" "keep order" in the countryside _through terror_ (and above all extortion).   Eventually, even the Colombian government came to the recognition that these groups ended-up simply adding to the chaos existing in the countryside and eventually sought to "bring them home," that is, "demobilize" them, essentially telling them "thanks, but no thanks..."

Well, this is then when this story is set, during the "demobilization" process.  And so, in the beginning scene, three or four local men from the village are sitting in a truck, at night, at some random, though previously agreed-upon location on some muddy-dirt road out in the "Selva" (jungle) some distance from their town.  Two are small-time ranchers, one's the owner of the truck, the fourth another random local from the village.  They were there to "deliver their (final) payment" to the local Paramilitary.  Well, perhaps because this may have been _the last_ of such payments that the villagers were to make to the Paramilitaries, one of the ranchers, and older guy, decides to do what he and the others from the village probably wanted to do for a while now -- he decides to "call it even" right-then-and-there and _shoots_ the Paramilitary's bagman so that he (and presumably the rest of the villagers) could keep his / their money.  (I guess it's NOT "a good thing" to assigned to be the Paramilitary's "bag man" when things "are set to wind down ...")

Well, the village saved itself some money, BUT ... and this is then the rest of the film ... the Viewer slowly discovers that pretty much EVERYBODY in this random village is a petty crook / criminal of one kind or another.  Hence we come to see that the Paramilitaries "kinda had (their) point."  Yes, they tried to "bring order" "Medieval style" -- cutting-off the hands of petty thieves, killing insurgents and drug dealers -- but ... well ... "look at the village(rs) that they were dealing with." ;-).  

It's a (mildly) disturbing film (if one chooses to think about it at all ;-), but it's also quite funny (and about human nature, along the lines of the Romanian "Spaghetti-Eastern" comedy Afferim! [2015] of a few years back: "look at where we come from / who we are"): Among the most honest men in the village was the owner of said truck that the various "prominent men" from the village were sitting in at the beginning of the film.  But HE was looked-down-upon by his girlfriend and especially her mother because -- HE HAD "TO WORK" FOR A LIVING.  The others all owned land ... he simply owned his truck (which he used to make deliveries for the rest of the village).  

Anyway, this proved to be a lovely, well written, well acted and well shot film that will remind viewers of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, and perhaps even of the funnier scenes of Quentin Tarrantino's Pulp Fiction [1994].  Excellent job -- 4 Stars




La Casa Rosada [2016] [IMDb] [FA.es]* (written and directed by Palito Ortega Matute [IMDb] [FA.es]*) is a PERUVIAN historical drama set in the Peruvian Provincial University town of Ayacucho at the beginning of the Shining Path Communist Insurgency that began there.  The film centers on Adrián (played admirably by José Luis Adrianzen) a philosophy professor at the local university.  Note here that Abimael Guzmán, the FOUNDER / Leader of the Shining Path during the insurgency was ALSO "a (Marxist) philosophy professor" at the local university.  SO, on the one hand, it should be clear that the two would have almost certainly known each other.  On the other hand, given that Adrián's two cute as a button 8-10 year old children were named _Juan de Dios_ and _Maria del Carmen_ (both played wonderfully by Ricardo Bromley López and Shantall Lozano Rodríguez) and among the first things they do when their father disappears is try to go to the local Priest for help (who ends up being _shot dead_ right in front of them by Shining Path insurgents / terrorists), it's obviously "complicated."  It should be clear that someone like Adrián would have known a number of the leaders involved in the insurgency.  On the other hand, it should be clear that someone like Adrián and his family would have wanted -- and throughout the whole of the film TRIED -- to just get / stay "out of the way."  Throughout the whole of the film, Adrián just wants to pick-up and try to take his family OUT OF THERE, Ayacucho (even though his beloved wife was buried there), and JUST GET TO LIMA.  Does he (and his family) succeed in doing so?  Well that's the rest of the movie ... and to the North American / Western European Viewer, it plays arguably like a TRUE TO LIFE _HORROR_ film -- just when you think he / they are going to get out, SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS ... -- 4 Stars



El Techo [2016] [IMDb] [FA.es]*(written and directed by Patricia Ramos [IMDb] [FA.es]*) is a small CUBAN film about three friends, in their late-teens to early 20s in today's Havana who, like many (especially young) Cubans today are trying to make sense of the more liberalized economic possibilities available to them in Cuba today.  In this case, the three decide to try their hand at starting a small neighborhood Pizzeria -- on the rooftop of the tenement in which they live.   Indeed, part of both "the humor" and the "sadness" / "frustration" expressed in the film is the discovery on the part of all the characters in the film that "it's been A LONG TIME" since ANY OF THEM (or ANYONE IN THEIR FAMILY) had _actual EXPERIENCE_ in starting and maintaining a business.  (Interestingly enough this past spring, I had a conversation with a cousin of mine in the Czech Republic WHO EXPRESSED THE EXACT SAME PROBLEM / FRUSTRATION: "You know Zdenku (Dennis in Czech) one of the difficulties here is that (due to Communism) we had a gap of nearly two generations where there were no family owned businesses.  So no one really knew how to really start one.  A lot of small businesses failed and others fell into all kinds of other problems (facing mob-like extortion, etc)."  So the current, Cuban film is about some of these pitfalls.  One of the most amusing problems that the three face is that about 90% of their neighbors are happy to "buy" the three's pizzas but promise to pay for them "tomorrow" ;-).  Anyway, it's a light film (perhaps still tainted by Communist ideology) that touches on the problems of trying "to set out to make it on one's own" even as it expresses an optimism that there three will end-up okay -- 3 1/2 Stars



La Vida Inmoral de Una Pareja Ideal [2016] [IMDb] [FA.es]*(written and directed by Manolo Caro [IMDb] [FA.es]*) is a fun if definitely R-rated MEXICAN ROMANTIC COMEDY (not for teenagers, even though much of the story plays out at a private (Catholic sponsored) school in the "D.F." (Mexico City) of the 1980s).  It's about a two late-30 to early-40 somethings, Martina and Lucio (both played wonderfully by Cecilia Suárez and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who met and FELL HARD in LOVE with each other in High School in the 1980s (they are played again wonderfully as high schoolers by Ximena Romo and Sebastián Aguirre).   Then BECAUSE THEY FELL so hard for each other, they were forcibly separated from each other -- Lucio was expelled from school, and Martina was forbidden by her mother from ever contacting him again -- for well, 25 years.  Then suddenly Lucio shows up one day at the door of Martina's gallery in San Miguel Allende.  But it's been 25 years.  "A lot of water has run under the bridge," right?   A lot, often very endearing if, let's face it, quite inappropriate / scandalous ... again the film's NOT really for teens ... plays out.   Not necessarily the easiest film FOR A CATHOLIC PRIEST TO WRITE ABOUT ;-) ... but certainly a fun and endearing film that reminds us that SOMETIMES a young "LIGHTNING BOLT / Romeo-Juliet-like" love really can be for a life-time. -- 4 Stars.



* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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Beauty and the Beast [2017]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (L)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
Los Angeles Times (J. Chang) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review


Beauty and the Beast [2017] (directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) is a lovely _race neutral_ update of the traditional French fairy tale.

Parents of children of color will probably like seeing several of the characters, though dressed in 17th-18th century garb, played nonetheless by actors / actresses of color including Audra McDonald as Mde. Garderobe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette (characters in the beloved Disney 1991 animated film).  Given that as I was entering the screening that I attended, in front of me was a cute as a button Hispanic family -- mom, pop and their FOUR YEAR OLD GIRL dressed in a golden dress like that of Belle's -- it seems clear me that Disney's clearly onto something _nice_ and I'D CERTAINLY WANT TO ENCOURAGE THIS FOR THE FUTURE, especially since NEARLY HALF OF THE CHILDREN IN THE UNITED STATES ARE "OF COLOR" NOW.   (I'd also like to note here that the CNS/USCCB's reviewer above spent _nearly half_ his review complaining that the film portrayed _one_ of the characters in the film, Lefou (played by Josh Gad) as being _possibly gay_ ... and the reviewer made _no mention at all_ of the lovely _race neutrality_ of the whole production ...).

What then to say about this live action update to the traditional French Fairy Tale / beloved 1991 animated film?  I do think it works.  The combination of CGI and live actors which already worked spectacularly well in Disney's much more thorough re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland [2010], IMHO worked well here as well: Lumiere, Cogsworth, Plumette, Mde Garderobe, Maestro Cadenza, Mrs Potts and Chip (voiced and then played by Evan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson and Nathan Mack) all stepped-up and hit-the-mark, often spectacularly.

For many contemporary viewers, especially mothers / women, the bigger preoccupation would be how did the script / Emma Watson (as commoner / villager Belle) and Dan Stevens (as the cursed Beastly prince) navigate these roles which _could be_ quite easily dismissed today as messaging to young girls to "settle" and PUT-UP WITH _beastly_ misogynist behavior.  Here I do believe that the script / Emma Watson did a very good job in portraying Belle as _not_ "a door-mat" who had _a good reason_ FOR CHOOSING sacrifice her freedom for the sake of her father (already having lost her mother, if her father (played wonderfully by Kevin Kline) had been incarcerated by the Beastly Prince then SHE would have been left with nobody ... I totally understand why she chose to do what she did).  Further, Belle actually _chose_ to warm-up to the Beastly Prince only after she realized that _he_ really had something that she had been looking-for all during her time growing-up back in the village -- easy access and respect for knowledge.  She had been laughed-at back home for being "too much of a bookworm," for being "too smart" for her own good.  Here the Beastly Prince (with his castle's giant library) offered her a chance to be more _freely_ who she always wanted to be.

So it's an interesting film about freedom and choice, and (with freedom of choice) ... choosing wisely.  I really can not but applaud it.  Good job!


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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island [2017]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  RogerEbert.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Los Angeles Times (K. Turan) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Kong: Skull Island [2017] (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, story by John Gatins) ON ONE LEVEL does to / for the King Kong [wikip] [IMDb] story what Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now [1976] did to / for Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness [wikip] [GR] -- both moved stories about turn-of-the-20th century colonial Africa to 1970s era South East Asia in the context of the Vietnam War.

Now the King Kong story about great and misunderstood Ape was always campier than Conrad's far darker parable about the "limits of Civilization," but in truth the two treaded on similar territory.  And so it is here.  As one of the reviewers I cite above already noted, King Kong is really only one (qualifying) adjective from Viet Cong ;-).  And while it _may be_ that for _some_ A GIANT (!) HUNDRED FOOT APE would _immediately seem_ like "an enemy," it's _probably_ worth taking the time to figure out whether _either_ sheer brawn or mere strangeness would AUTOMATICALLY _make_ someone (or SOMEthing) such.

But there are actually _more_ send-ups, conflations and homages present here than just mashing up the King Kong story with Conrad's Heart of Darkness / Coppola's Apocalypse Now [1976].

There's a Back to the Future [1985] / Forrest Gump [1994]-ish aspect to the film as two truly goofball "scientists" -- a burly, confident (with no particular reason to be) Trump-ish, Paul Randa (played wonderfully by John Goodman) as his quieter, if just as loopy Ben Carlson-ish "Hollow Earth" theorist assistant Houston Brooks (played by Corey Hawkins) get out of a taxi by the Washington Mall (crazy anti-Vietnam War Protests taking place at every side).  They were there to hit-up some Senator in his office for funding for their expedition). "Mark my words," Randa tells his colleague in typically confident form, "There will NEVER BE a goofier time in Washington D.C. than now."  People at the screening that I attended audibly laughed ;-)

The two were going to the random Senator's office because the (then) new Landsat imaging satellite had supposedly discovered some previously uncharted island somewhere in the South Pacific (an island previously undiscovered because it was surrounded by a perpetual hurricane storm system).  They wanted to go there, why?  Because they believed that it could be precisely _there_ that an entrance into the two's postulated "Hollow Earth" could be found.  Such an entrance could not be found _elsewhere_ across _the known reaches- of Earth, so it had to be located a place such as this ... a place previously undiscovered.  Needless to say, the Senator was not impressed.  However, when Randa suggests that the Russians have satellites of their own and could soon discover the island themselves, he gives them the go-ahead ... and the rest of the (ever campy) story ensues.

To get to the previously unknown island, the two "scientists" ask the Senator also for military helicopter escort.  Why?  Well to _test_ whether or not the Island is an entrance to "the Hollow Earth" they hope to "scientifically bomb" it ;-).

This escort is led by a Col. Preston Packard (played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson) who was previously quite depressed that the U.S. was pulling out of Vietnam ("After all the sacrifices, why are we leaving now?" he asks rhetorically at one early point in the film).  Well, this mission gives him and his men something still to do (even if a fair amount of his men were just hoping to get home -- alive -- soon). 

Well _bombing_ said island, "scientifically" or not, WAKES UP SAID ONE HUNDRED FOOT GORILLA ... KONG who starts flailing at the Helicopters.  Well, Col. Preston Packard knows an enemy when he sees one (even if he does not understand it, or even doesn't really have the resources to defeat it), and directs the remainder of his helicopter squadron to attack said ONE HUNDRED FOOT GORILLA, which makes a short course of them, swatting them around and around like flies.

What to do now?  Well poor Col. Packard becomes really pissed off (to a CAPT. AHAB / MOBY DICK-like level) and spends the rest of the story trying to find _some way_ to defeat this MONSTER, even as he (and the others in the group) are being given more and more information that would suggest that the GORILLA wasn't really an ENEMY but ACTUALLY SOMETHING OF A HERO ... keeping even more vicious / reptilian monsters from entering our world from below (well, what do you know?  Randa and Brooks were right ;-).

This information came from a jolly ROBINSON CRUSOE-like WW II vet named Capt Hank Marlow (played wonderfully by John C. Rilley) who the expedition encounters on the island after it had been brought down and scattered by Kong.  Capt. Marlow had been shot down over the island during World War II and stuck there ever since.  He (and a Japanese pilot, shot down at the same time) had come to see Kong as a friend. 

What to do?  It becomes clear that there are multiple ways to look at Kong.  Col. Packard keeps trying to fight him.  Others, who come to see some of the reptilian monsters that stranded WW II vet Capt. Marlow was talking about start to see that Marlow may have a point.

As goofy as this film is, it leaves one with much to talk / think about ;-)


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