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Taco Chronicles (2019)
Netflix's newest attempt at building its library's foodie options
This 6-episode treatise on the many types of tacos available in Mexico differentiates itself from their producer's efforts like "Street Food" and "Chef's Table", "Taco Chronicles" gives a voice to the food itself, with every episode featuring a narrator as the tacos' "voice". These narrators also follow the specific origins of the tacos themselves, with the Mexico City taco al pastor speaking in typical chilango accent and slang, carne asada following with norteño and so on.
While the gimmick of these voices wears thin at times, they serve for more than just narrative as they emphasize the diversity of cultures and ingredients that have lead to there being so many and wildly different variants of tacos in and out of the country. It's only the Los Angeles Mexican diaspora that's been represented so far and to me said representation seems quite fair and balanced. Another clever trick by the series is its use of animated segments for the more historical background of the tacos, relating them to pre-Columbian cuisine and the changes brought about by Spanish conquest and further Old World immigration.
Overall, the series achieve a good balance between being informational and entertaining, just doesn't offer much to make it stand out. While an initial 6-episode offering makes sense, it does lead to some glaring, noticeable omissions like not featuring a single taco from the South of the country (despite being such a gastronomic force that the name Oaxaca is constant through this first batch) or any featuring seafood from the country's many coasts. I'm sure however, that if there are further episodes, these tacos will eventually be showcased.
Boyz in the Wood (2019)
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something wild
The sort of films that get called "anarchic" have to strike a tricky balance, often when it's clear the cast and crew were having as much fun as possible MAKING a movie, the actual result gets lost and the audience ends up watching a rambling, aimless and pointless collection of footage. If the balance is struck however, we can end up with a blast of a film that entertains the viewers at least as much as the filmmakers were entertained making it. Thankfully, "Boyz in the Wood" gets it so, so right.
The closest reference of what one could expect coming into this movie is Taika Waititi's brilliant hit "Hunt for the Wilderpeople". Like the NZ film, here we have a showcase of the rugged scenery of the country (the Scottish Highlands in this case) serving as the backdrop for a crazy story involving too-urban-for-the-bush, hip-hop obsessed, cursing teens and overzealous, bored police, along with other random characters that are more set-ups for the next punchline and crazy plot point than they are "real people living in their world" (and there's nothing wrong with that). There's some "Hot Fuzz" (and general Edgar Wright-ness) thrown in for good measure what with its very exaggerated conflict of old and traditional British values and the new generations taken to the extreme and the "big-budget Hollywood flair in small-budget Britain" attitude. Ridiculous psychotropic imagery that is the natural step after the cartoony drug sequences of "21/22 Jump Street" finishes off the cocktail.
If this review comes off as more of a list of references than an analysis of the film, that is because this is not the kind of movie that invites that depth of thought (although like with all forms of art, if you dig you'll find, and there's plenty to dig here with the very old-fashioned villains chasing our young protagonists, echoes of young Scots' ever-stronger desire for independence resounding through the glen, but... meh). This ride is wild, hilarious, brave in its indifference to convention and best when served cold, without too clear an idea what to expect. The previous references are little more than an "if you enjoyed these titles, we suggest the following" algorithm, if you DID enjoy the previous titles, you definitely want be in the hunt for this new game.
P.S., while the soundtrack is brilliant, I must say that for a hip-hop-heavy, Scottish film, this was sadly light on Young Fathers and thus one of the reasons for the just-less-than-perfect score.
Scattershot but still packing some impacts
Being the directing and/or screenwriting debut of a well-known actor always loads a movie with a lot of baggage and expectations, for every critical darling like "Good Will Hunting" and "Gone Baby Gone" you get a forgettable "In the Land of Blood and Honey" or "Déficit". The baggage only gets heavier when it also happens to be openly based on the actor's own life story. The last such case of this double-duty debut I can think of lead to the multi-award winning and nominated "Lady Bird" by Greta Gerwig, so... no pressure.
"Farming" is British actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's telling of his own life story having been "farmed out" as a baby in the late 1960s to a couple in Tilbury. This was a common practice with African, mostly Nigerian, couples in the UK, where they would hire white, British foster parents to care for their children in the hope that it would lead to better lives for them. Many of these white families were working-class, not indifferent to the pay involved in fostering and unprepared for the unique challenges that the race relations of the practice could lead to. Adewale's film avatar Enitan is also farmed out, taken back for a few years by his biological parents to their native Nigeria, has constant identity crises after his return to England and these result in him joining a white supremacist skinhead gang.
As a testament to its staying cultural impact, Dave Chappelle's "Black Klansman" character is probably the first thing that comes to mind when picturing a black person joining a white supremacist group, but the situation is not even remotely played for laughs here. For the most part, "Farming" is brutal, Enitan's crisis and isolation, strong enough to make him want to join any group that'll take him even if it's just to hate on him, is greatly portrayed in all its troubling phases by Damson Idris (the actor playing him as a child, along with the rest of the child performers are unfortunately a lot less successful). Damson is not alone in carrying the movie, his strongest peer being an electrifying John Dagleish, playing the skinhead gang's leader with such power that one could understand Eni's wish to follow him, even through the obvious hate. Keeping the film from becoming monotonously bleak is an incredibly stylish production design (even if some locations are clearly too modern for their time setting) and the occasional gorgeous, almost classic, grainy stock, high-contrast photography coupled with a great selection of songs related to the Black British experience.
Among the rest of the cast, Kate Beckinsale is to be noted as she's never before been seen playing a character like this toxic-yet-watchable mother, and she does it well, it's just a shame that the character itself is almost a stock one in modern drama thanks to "Tonya", "The Fighter" and the already-mentioned "Lady Bird". AAA playing the avatar of his own father is interesting too, for the role this might have in his own process of dealing with the events depicted.
For all its audiovisual strengths the movie unfortunately falls short on the story department specially near the end. In an attempt to make the previous brutality end in less of a downer note, the final minutes try to wrap everything up a tad too nicely. This along with some unsure pacing decisions denote the nature of this movie as an opera prima, fortunately not to the extent of detracting from the end result though. Finally, considering the U.S.'s role as the leading cultural force in the world, where most of the art related to the race relations of black people originates from, it is refreshing to see a different aspect of these as they happen in other countries, specially when they're told so vividly by creatives who've lived through and been inspired by them.
The Professor and the Madman (2019)
An endeavour of unanticipated heft
Unforeseen: when a movie about people LITERALLY writing a dictionary turns out to be captivating, specially the further it strays from the actual dictionary-writing. "The Professor and the Madman" features Sean Penn and Mel Gibson both retaking characteristics from some of their better-known, pre-controversy roles, with Gibson going back to the "Braveheart" Scottish accent and Penn to the "Dead Man Walking" maybe-redeemable inmate murderer; resulting in a very strong on-screen chemistry.
By the time this movie is released in most markets, its fame will likely stem from its legal issues which lead to Mel Gibson basically disavowing it and director Farhad Safinia doing so in full (the movie is credited to "P.B. Shemran", an Alan Smithee-like alias if there's ever been one). I find this decision suprising as for most of the film I could have easily bought this as a Mel Gibson-directed work. As a filmmaker, he might not have the strongest of auteurial signatures, but said signature that can most easily be defined in the depiction of gore, a fascination with language and Christian faith elements (most obvious in "The Passion of the Christ" and "Hacksaw Ridge"), definitely makes an appearance here.
Not content with Gibson-like directorial decisions, the screenplay fortunately digs deeper into some topics than any Gibson script has. Penn's character's arc in particular is well-developed in creating empathy towards the mentally ill, which is still not common enough nowadays, nevermind in a time when phrenology was still a valid study. The word "redemption", so rare yet supposed to be the most Christian of virtues as well, gets a very strong definition with this character arc. Obsession is touched upon as well, not to Aronofsky-an levels, but still enough to be worthy of a mention.
Considering the unforeseen depth of the treatment of these topics, it's truly unfortunate that there are some cases where the movie relies of the most shallow of tropes to force tension. The worst case of this is the almost-mustache-twirling-villain characters, with no depth or motive beyond antagonizing and foiling our brave heroes. One case in particular is not as tragic when a (until then) well-developed and rounded character inexplicably takes that villanous turn, at least having given us a solid base before. Additionally, the visuals suffer with some establishing shots clearly having made with inferior digital video quality, creating a jarring effect that takes you out of the movie. All in all, despite these shortcomings, "The Professor and the Madman" is a worthy story that goes into unanticipated and fortuitous depths, intensities, profoundities.
Absolutely a companion piece
"Patria" ("Fatherland") is a book trilogy written by the famously outspoken Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II about this country's history during the crucial period between 1854 and 1867 when Mexico, as a relatively new independent country, faced some of its largest external and internal conflicts. This documentary, hosted by Taibo himself, is a visual companion to the books, where he visits some of the actual locations where Mexican history changed course.
Taibo is a generally charismatic and sometimes controversial personality in modern Mexico, which works to keep the documentary from becoming too dry as the majority of it consists of him on-location speaking directly to the audience. The book trilogy deals heavily with how the historical period had such major consequences that they still impact and shape the current state of the nation, but in the documentary this is only mentioned in passing.
Onscreen, Taibo focuses almost exclusively on the historical facts and events without making the strong connections to the present that have given the books their fame. Overall, while this is a good explanation (if not introduction) to a watershed moment of Mexican history, it still pales as a comparison to the work that originated it, functioning exclusively as a companion piece rather than a standalone.
Let them see
Elderly people have a fame of being mis- and under-represented in media. Often times just wise, comforting figures to younger protagonists, they are hardly at the center of the stories. "Candelaria" challenges that by not only being very clearly protagonized by an elderly couple, but showing them as complete characters too. Despite their age and wisdom, they still make mistakes, lie, lust and altogether, LIVE.
The title character is part of the laundry staff in a Havana tourist hotel and she lives in a typically Habanero apartment (kind of falling apart) with her husband Victor Hugo, and their illegally-obtained chickens, during Cuba's "special period" in the 1990s (when the U.S.-led economic blockade on the country tightened and food became scarcer). After a guest at the hotel misplaces his camcorder and it happens upon Candelaria's hands, who takes it home, its novelty eventually leads to her and Victor Hugo rediscovering each other and their relationship.
The character flaws and their decisions work explicitly to make them more human, relatable and likable. As their chemistry rekindles, Victor Hugo finds himself in touch with a European expat in Cuba who "milks the crisis", letting cash-short Cubans come to him desperate to sells possessions for dollars. In Victor Hugo's case, his private video recordings with Candelaria are what the black market dealer is interested in. The absurdity of Victor Hugo and Candelaria finding themselves as somewhat unwilling porn actors at their age is played somewhat for humor, but with an underlying current of dignity and respect.
Unfortunately this and other plot trends in the movie don't get developed or resolved that much, making this a mostly pleasing and original mood piece than a plotted narrative. The voyeuristic commentary is meta, with Victor and Candelaria's videos, as well as the movie itself being almost slice-of-life, resulting in an interesting portrayal of an under-represented demographic, aided by a fair amount of Cuban flavor and flair for life.
Amalia the Secretary (2018)
Most comedians will gladly elaborate on the idea that "comedy is more difficult than drama". This concept does tend to ring true specially when considering how universal drama tends to be: loss, betrayal, love, almost all cultures and people react similarly to these feelings. But humor? Wordplay depends not only on language, but on pronunciation and accent. Some cultures tend to like comedy DARK and offensive, while others' ideas of taboos and respect are too strong for that. Timing is tricky as hell. These are just a few of the reasons why it seems crotch-shots and farts are pretty much the only universal forms of humor and "Amalia the Secretary" has neither.
As I watched this film, with Spanish being my first language, I was hoping for one thing above all: that the people in charge of translating it know what they're doing. Having mentioned how humor can sometimes be very culture-specific, I do not think this one leans on too Latin American a style of comedy. It does rely heavily on dialogue, awkwardness and timing though, for which the correct translation is crucial. The type of real-life awkwardness on display in this movie, with its near-painfulness, has its closest relative in Gervais's "Office", while its uplifting narrative does skew more NBC, both of which have managed huge success worldwide thanks to their relatability.
Amalia is, of course, a secretary. She runs a tight office for her boss, Don Bernardo. She is a bit of stickler for order and procedure, but not to the point of alienation as she clearly does care for her boss and family. She lives with her mostly-mute elderly mother and hired a friend to basically be her nurse, while her own grown-up daughter is studying in the U.S. She also has never been able to dance.
A meeting with Lázaro, a new janitor at her company, does not lead to what other movies would exaggeratedly would call "her life being turned upside down", but it does lead to an interesting change of pace. A change of pace with less office work and more Salutations to the Sun and martial dance instructors, taking her from one hilarious bit of awkwardness to the next, all while keeping a good deal of heart. This is not a wacky, wild ride, but it's still a hilarious one, the kind that one can only hope is not to be lost in translation.
Pájaros de verano (2018)
You no longer live as Wayuu
Gangster films are one of the most clearly-blueprinted genres of fiction. From "Scarface" to "The Godfather" saga to Netflix's "Narcos" series, we usually start with a protagonist outside the criminal life though very aware of or close to it, suddenly tempted by something beyond their means to enter that world. Economic and professional growth follows; loss, revenge and grudges do too. A moment of reckoning usually comes near the end, with the protagonist dying or being caught at a personal low. We can commonly include other stock characters: the wild one that is close to the protagonist but dangerous to all due to their explosive nature, a consigliere father figure for guidance, the betrayer. The uniqueness of "Birds of Passage" is not in doing anything meta or original with this blueprint, but rather in following it in its own terms, bringing a lot of heavy themes along for the ride.
The movie, set between 1965 and 1980, is mostly spoken in the Wayuu language of the indigenous people of the same name of northern Colombia's La Guajira region and features several actors of that ethnic group, with the characters' decisions never being free from their culture and norms. This is clear from the start, where we are introduced to Zaida, a young woman of a high-standing Wayuu clan. When Zaida is allowed to leave her traditional one-year seclusion as she's now considered fit for marriage, she catches the eye of Rapayet. A Wayuu man of a lower family standing, Rapayet decides that Zaida is to be his wife, either because of the possibilites offered by her family prestige or out of genuine attraction (most likely a mixture of both).
Zaida's hand will only be available with a large dowry of tens of heads of cattle. Rapayet sees the opportunity to obtain the dowry by buying marihuana from his cousin and selling it to a drug-dealing U.S. hippie. These familiar relations (mostly built out of distrust to non-Wayuu) and traditional norms are what set this story apart. As business deals go wrong and Rapayet finds himself forced to kill his best friend and original business partner, things rapidly escalate in the traditional gangster movie narrative (with some elements of films like "Blue Ruin", with the stubborness and sheer willpower that goes into eye-for-an-eye family grudges) and the protagonists' completely human greed leads to major change. Designer watches become more fashionable than loincloths. Hammocks give way to beds. Huts give way to mansions. Wayuunaiki gives way to Spanish.
The commentary is strong in this movie; we have the obvious context of Indigenous peoples abandoning their ways of life in favor of the mainstream, Colombia's foreign and self-image being so influenced by drug traffic, the little-seen developed-world consumers of these drugs. My favorite however, is the simple flawed humanity in the characters. It is very easy to look at cultures in real danger of extinction and place them in a pedestal, but "Birds of Passage" intelligently avoids this by portraying these Wayuu people to be as greedy, ambitious, lustful and definitely not above using their cultural norms to get their own self-interested way, as any other group. In the "moment of reckoning", a group of Wayuu elders declares to Rapayet's family matriarch: "you no longer live like Wayuu". It is true... but they DID LIVE that way. They lived the Wayuu life and CHOSE the alternative, clearly showing the process by which not only Indigenous peoples, but most people are CHOOSING a more globalized, standarized way of life, for better and worse.
"Birds of Passage" is the perfect example of this, it chooses a well-known Western narrative path and follows it down to a t. Along the way, we get just enough "flavor" for it to feel unique. The Wayuu customs, including songs, are not the only element used here, as some magical realism imagery that seems pulled right out of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" makes an appearance, usually in the context of Wayuu supernatural beliefs, to remind us of one of Colombia's most important cultural contributions to humanity. Mentioning this "flavor" is in no way meant to be disparaging, since it is the single best and most important element of the movie. This is not an artificial flavoring agent, but rather a slow-cooked, organically-sourced, complex, balanced and deep flavor, the kind that will linger on for a while.
The world is a stage
The relationship between theater and film has always been very close. Vaudevilles are often seen as direct precursors to film and the amount of plays-turned-films and films-turned-plays/shows is staggering. This connection is perfectly clear in "Siempreviva", a play in film form... that apparently was never a play before a film. Set in the mid-1980s, at the height of Colombia's guerrilla attacks, entirely in a Bogotá apartment building where several families live next to each other and share spaces like the bathroom and the dining room, where most of the action takes place, "Siempreviva" (the Spanish word for liveforever plants, and with the same literal translation) economizes on locations and characters to be able to expend on their relations instead.
Three main families live in this building: Lucía and her children: Julieta and Humberto, Sergio & Victoria who make a volatile and short-on-money couple and finally lonely Carlos whose son is off to school in the USA. These families relate by sharing spaces, their respective debts and money lendings and by living in a troubled city in troubled times. These relations and the personal problems of their participants are the main edge of the movie for the first third, allowing us time to get to know them well. After this period we find out that Julieta has gone missing after an attack on the Colombian Palace of Justice where she interns, causing the rest of the characters to start an investigation to find out what happened to her.
This is not an investigative thriller however, so we eventually go back to mostly interpersonal conflict under the same roof, marked by a very Latin American sense of resignation. By having all the action occur on a single location, director Klych López follows on the footsteps of another very literally theatrical film, "Birdman", and tries to shoot the entire movie as if appearing to be a single continuous shot, although also not in real time (every shot "fade" leads to a time skip of a few weeks or months). Much like in that other movie, the result in "Siempreviva" is of a strong immersion and, to summarize, a feeling very similar to that of a play.
While the movie does not necessarily exploit every "cinematic" resource at its disposition and could probably work as well or even better on stage, it is still a very cleverly-realized telling of a story that uses the microcosm to reflect on many aspects of the inevitably political, socially complicated macrocosm that most of Latin America shares and knows well. "Siempreviva" reminds us that faith, conflict and pain have and will continue to liveforever with our human condition.
El refugio de los insomnes (2018)
"The Insomniacs' Club" is a story with 3 core characters, less than 20 characters total, few settings and hardly any fanciful film-making. It is a simple movie... and also a nice one. With a bit of a throwback vibe to those 1990s US indie dramedies from the likes of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith as well as similar home-grown films like "Temporada de Patos" and "Almacenados", "Insomniacs'" aims to keep it fairly slice-of-life, with the drama and laughs coming from realistic dialogues and situations that are just absurd enough to seem pulled out of genuine "convenience store in the wee hours of the morning" anecdotes.
The trio is conformed first by Danny (my personal favorite, wonderfully played against type by Cassandra Ciangherotti), the almost-obligatory indifferent, young, artsy one who, being the night-shift clerk at the convenience store that serves as the meeting point for the Club, also functions as its core. Santiago follows, perhaps the clearest Insomniac, office clerk by day, and tormented by a recurring and inconclusive dream at night, his insomnia leads him to chat with Danny during her shift. Finally we have Estela, the newcomer veterinarian who is only just starting to find herself unable to sleep since discovering her pregnancy.
Each character has a main driving force, some more time-critical (Estela having something of a deadline to go through with her planned abortion), others less (Danny wanting to leave the store for a photography school... someday). From here, the plot follows a fairly natural flow as it hints at a vague love triangle situation, which is then replaced by a certain equilibrium, then the "everything seems to be going wrong" moment and finally a nice conclusion where not everyone gets what they wanted originally nor is everything wrapped up perfectly but in which the trio is still mostly able to move on and find themselves in better places emotionally.
By this point the film makes it very clear it is perfectly content in being nice (at least in terms of the Trio). The conflict moments are hardly caused by malice from their part, they mainly originate from dealing with the jerks that surround them. Controversial topics like Estela's possible abortion are treated with a quiet respect rather than the melodrama and shock that other Mexican media would usually go for. With this overall aura of niceness permeating throughout, it's difficult to have particularly strong feelings towards the movie, it is as difficult to hate as it is to love it. It's a nice movie, that at the end leaves you feeling nicely... and sometimes, nice is nice enough.
El ángel en el reloj (2017)
This movie, whose title translates to "The Angel in the Clock" is a very brave proposition from Mexico's animation industry, which has had a very marked tendency of continuing to believe that animation is "for children", with stories that usually fall within the stereotypes of very childish humor, non-fluid animation with plain character designs and boringly simple plots (see: most of Ánima Estudios' output). "The Angel" sets itself aside from most of these from the very start by making it clear that Amelia, the protagonist, is a young girl undergoing cancer treatment.
She cannot exert herself too much (a pain since her biggest passion is dance) and she sports a shaved head (this, along with her animation made it impossible for me not to think of her as "girl Aang") throughout. With this in mind, the plot has lofty aspirations for being a Very-Important-Family-Movie-About-Emotional-Maturity, like "Bridge to Terabithia" or even "A Monster Calls". It doesn't succeed entirely, mosty due to some narrative hiccups, but Amelia's situation leads to the movie being overall surprisingly philosophical about the subject of time (clearly a key topic for anyone with such a heavy illness, and for those who surround them).
The movie is also distinguished by visuals that, again, are unlike those of most of its peers. The character and background designs owe a massive debt to sources as diverse as The Legend of Zelda, Guillermo del Toro and Studio Ghibli (at times a bit TOO massive, while I loved the character of No-Time, its name and design blur the line between homage and plagiarism to No-Face), leading to an original and very pleasing visual cocktail. A significant portion of the budget must have gone to the SFX animation because it is truly world-class for this type of cel-shaded animation, I do not exaggerate in saying that it is as good as that in a GOOD anime. All this in addition to an effective soundtrack make "The Angel" one of those rare Mexican movies that fully understands the importance of audiovisuals in cinema.
I mentioned the budget mostly going to SFX and this brings me to the weak spots of the film, one of which is that the rest of the animation doesn't live up to its high points. This is a relatively cheap production, and it shows. While there are methods to make limited resources go a long way, the character animation usually just scrapes by. While the plot manages to cleverly handle some heavy, bold themes, the actual narrative is cobbled together and the seams of where tension or coincidences are forced in definitely tend to show. Some characters, specially the typical "comic relief companions" aren't that funny and don't really transcend those roles.
This is not a perfect movie, its flaws are undeniable and noticeable, but it is also importantly brave and novel for its context. Mexican animation rarely dares to try something so different from its usual toothless, hard G-rated fare, so to see a project like "The Angel", with imaginative visuals, philosophical dialogues about time and a very atypical protagonist really makes one hopeful for the possible future of the industry (yes, even when the Here and Now are what matter most).
"Almacenados", basically translating to "In Storage", is a deceptively simple story with two characters, pretty much a single location and a short logline: young Nin lands a job as the caretaker of a warehouse on a Monday and must learn the ropes from the lone, veteran employee Mr. Lino before he retires on Friday. In this simplicity lies an unexpectedly great story with some heavy thematic depth, think "Locke" or "My Dinner with Andre" for comparison.
For starters, Lino is EXTREMELY by-the-book, while Nin is very inquisitive, specially considering the mystery of the job. What is stored in the facility? How often do shipments come in? How are the shipments unloaded? When in the mood, Lino answers Nin's questions and fires back with a few of his own (just what kind of name IS "Nin"?). Slowly, their relationship starts to build... and then ebb, as they find out the small lies they told each other.
The real depth of the film is not really in dealing with the act of lying to others, but rather the lying to oneself. As Nin and Lino reveal more about their lives, the clearer it becomes that the lies they tell are not for the other, in lying they expect to make the realness of their own reality, well... less real. Lies are also at the center of the most heartwarming moments of the film, so the film cleverly avoids making things too clean-cut.
Just as their simple lives allow both Nin and Lino learn from each other, so does this simple story allow us to learn about unexpected relationships, lies and most importantly, what our work can be in this often-empty warehouse that is modern life.
That is a glimmer of hope. Put it back.
"World of Tomorrow" not only was an emotional bag of bricks that caught even die-hard Don Hertzfeldt fans unaware, it was also another proof of his brilliant and successful penchant for playing with form. "Rejected" and "It's Such a Beautiful Day" both deconstruct and homage the handcrafted nature of pencil-and-paper animation, but with a new all-digitally animated project, the trick was to deconstruct something else: narrative and screenwriting. The core of "WoT" is his then-4-year-old niece's unscripted ramblings, challengingly turned into a spanning, coherent and devastating 20-minute narrative. For the sequel, Hertzfeldt decided to repeat the behind-the-scenes formula and continue the narrative from the original... now based on the ramblings of a 5-year-old.
While I still prefer the original short's more ample and undefined musings on people's relation with technology and the endless possibilites of the future of this relation, glimpsed through Hertzfeldt's usual manic-depression-tinted lens, "Episode Two"'s decision to focus on a clearer theme (the relation of people with their memories and "living in the past") and a more emotional line are still undeniably fruitful in creating a masterpiece and a worthy, yet different enough sequel. Both parts share the most important characteristic of being at once cerebral and filled with powerful emotional uppers and downers that alternate in the blink of an eye.
While Hertzfeldt's niece Winona Mae is the sonic heart of the shorts, the incredible talent of Julia Pott as the brain cannot be understated. Her ability to infuse the mostly monotonous voice performance with all manner of tiny nuances to show the heartbreakingly limited emotional capacity of protagonist Emily's clones, as well as her excellent comedic timing (along with Winona's childish charm and random wit) keep the films light, fun and extremely re-watchable. Hertzfeldt's animation is brilliant as usual, with a gifted ear for rousing classical music, gorgeously trippy visuals and simply hilarious gestures on his characters' faces standing out.
Carne y Arena (2017)
Virtual, magical reality
To review a new medium can be a daunting task. How to keep your familiarity with the previous form from influencing your impressions of the newer one too much? When film started to establish itself, the common references were to vaudevilles and stage shows; with VR we have film and video games. Iñárritu's "Flesh and Sand" (translation of the original title in Spanish), is a cinematographic and interactive work, but with clever additions that add to the experience beyond what film and video games usually offer. With tactile elements like sand you walk on and refrigerated rooms (which could be site-specific to the Centro Cultural Tlatelolco, where I attended the experience), in addition to the VR audiovisual elements, "Sangre y Arena" becomes something of a museum-like installation or happening.
We are placed somewhere in the desert along the Mexico-U.S. border with a group of Latin American migrants as they are detained and questioned by U.S. border police. This being a post-"Biutiful" Iñárritu work, what unfolds doesn't just stick to reality, and magical realism takes hold when the migrants start telling us their stories and reasons for braving the crossing. This audiovisual segment is somewhat short at 11 minutes, but it is of note how fast these 11 minutes go by thanks to the storytelling being so engaging (and the novelty of it all). After the VR short, the experience is not over as the installation aspect continues with interviews with the real migrants whose stories inspired and informed the entire experience.
Overall, "Carne y Arena" is an innovative way to experience storytelling. While the low probability of most future "auteur VR" having the means to provide the tactile elements of this experience somewhat puts in doubt the viability of this specific type of storytelling, the possibility of a bright future is definitely heralded with this work, not just for viewers but hopefully for migrants and other vulnerable people as well, whose shoes we are closer to being in thanks to the immersiveness of stories like this one.
Horrors are not unreal
How do you craft horror for an audience that knows a reality that is often scarier than anything they've seen on-screen before? If you're writer/director Issa López, you take that real horror and, by adding a little magical realism, you end up with a brilliant piece of on-screen horror where tangible humanity is scarier than ghosts could ever be. Set in a lower-class neighborhood of an unnamed Mexican city taken over by a criminal gang known as Los Huascas, who have left a trail of abandoned children in the wake of their many murders and executions, "Tigers Are Not Afraid" follows recently-orphaned Estrella as she tries to find a new family in Shine's gang of street children while supernatural forces seem to follow her.
The film is very much a homage to Guillermo del Toro's filmography, with a symbolic insect right at the start of the film, magical chalk, scary-because-they're-hurt ghosts, clear references to well-known fairy tale tropes, horror elements used more to reflect on humanity than to scare and the overall style of mixing brutal humanity and brutal fantasy in an oddly hopeful way. It is also very much its own thing as, while Guillermo del Toro has usually chosen wars (specially the Spanish Civil War) as the perfect setting to showcase the evil in all humanity, Issa López's focus is squarely aimed at the own brand of evil of an specific human demographic: Mexicans.
GdT's ghosts are often things of gory beauty; López's ghosts and corpses, covered in blankets and plastic bags are just savage (and savagely real at that), considering real drug cartels' penchant for dramatically using corpses covered this way to "send messages" and create their self-images in Mexico. López also tackles Mexican street children and their curse word-ridden slang, Mexican politicians and their unbelievable PR-cultivated images, Mexican police ineptitude and a number of other idiosyncrasies of this culture. The end result is a film crafted in a way that does not necessarily alienate those outside the culture, but is still very clearly made by and for people belonging to it. The way it is made is also worthy of note as López's approach to filmmaking is refreshingly total. She embraces set design, costume design (I particularly loved the character of Chino wearing what is now well-known in Mexico as a preppy "politician's vest" at a key period of the film), camera-work, music (some dramatic moments are clashingly scored with the most popular of popular Latin American music styles, to brilliant effect), acting and CGI to tell her story the best way possible. In these aspects, her unquestionable MVP is young newcomer Juan Ramón López, who plays Shine. In a movie full of surprisingly good child actors, Juan Ramón simply runs away with the movie in one of those on-screen debuts that captivates and makes the viewer hopeful for all future work by this force of nature.
The movie is not perfect: some of the CGI, while brave, just doesn't work on either the technical or creative levels; the editing is a bit choppy at crucial moments; the script's usually high standard only makes the instances of bad plotting and dialogue stand out much more but these issues only hurt the end result minimally. While this is not Issa López's first movie (it is her third feature film as director), it does feel as something of an opera prima of a new stage of her career, one that "Tigers Are Not Afraid" suggests could be promising. As it stands now, to this Mexican cinephile, the film is a brilliant work that succeeds in making one confront and recognize personal and cultural demons, monsters, ghosts and tigers.
Art is a bang
One of the best signs to gauge your engagement in this documentary is whether you find the idea of an artist whose main medium is fireworks and explosions original and brilliant or not. Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese-born artist from an artistic family, his father did traditional calligraphy and painting and, during the Cultural Revolution, somewhat found himself in hot water for it. As a reactionary posture towards this social context and the personal one stemming from their complicated relationship, along with the symbolic weight of fireworks and gunpowder as iconic Ancient Chinese inventions, Guo-Qiang rejected these traditional mediums and embraced this unexpected new one.
"Sky Ladder" does an excellent job of showing these personal and cultural dimensions to his work, specially in following the development of the titular performance. A conceptual pyrotechnic ladder extending hundreds of meters into the air tethered by a balloon, already failed on 3 attempts, Sky Ladder seems to represent Guo-Qiang's most personal work. The narrative of the film isn't entirely dedicated to Sky Ladder but it remains a constant topic and is crucial to the third act as it mostly deals with the 4th attempt to execute it, this time in a small Chinese fishing village significant to the Cai family for a number of reasons. Along the way, the documentary lets us know plenty about the artist's personal life, his early work, what art critics and personalities think of him and his work both in the East and West as well as give him plenty of opportunities to show his candor in one-on-one interviews. One such interview of note is the one where he questions why his work for the Chinese government (he designed the fireworks shows for the 2008 Olympic Ceremonies) is questioned while most Western artists' isn't, despite no government being free from sin.
The documentary is extensive and thorough (as is usually the case with director Kevin Macdonald), dealing with the politics of China as influence and sometimes foil for this artistic creation. An emotional narrative is also followed to show the artist's relation to his art becoming hugely successful and how this might clash with his original iconoclastic vision, as well as moments with his family, friends and collaborators. The profile is completed by showing that Guo-Qiang's art consists of more than fireworks displays, we see plenty of his museum-packing multimedia installations as well as his also-iconic "gunpowder paintings". Overall, "Sky Ladder" works as a very complete profile on an interesting, innovative artist, without leaving his human size unexplored and as a very small window to peek into the massive landscape of modern China and specifically its art, which has produced figures as well-known as Zhang Yimou, Ai Weiwei and yes, Cai Guo-Qiang.
The Bomb (2016)
Experimental yet effective documentary
On the same page as the Qatsi trilogy, Baraka and similar impressionistic documentaries, "The Bomb" is somewhat less challenging as a piece of film. With a far more lenient 55-minute run-time and something that more closely resembles a plot/central theme in atomic/nuclear weapons, their history and dangers than those other films' more hazy themes, "The Bomb"'s ultimate purpose and effect is less scattershot. The usual suspects of footage used practically whenever nuclear weapons are discussed (Oppenheimer's "I am become Death" line) do make their necessary appearances here, but the great soundtrack and editing do re-contextualize them somewhat. Ultimately, what could've been a boring, pretentious experimental film is significantly less so than expected thanks to its clear aim, the importance of what it has to say and the cinematic tools of its clever soundtrack and relatively fast-paced editing.
La Habitación (2016)
A tale of two cities, one room
To say that Mexico is defined by duality is certainly a cliché, but one with a very true basis. Since the concept of the country being born out of the mixture and tension of Indigenous and European (mostly Spanish) peoples and cultures, many other divides and mixes have come (but never gone), defining historic periods and "Mexicanity" to this day. "Normal"/less-fortunate, government/governed, rich/poor, Mexicans/foreigners, criminals/"good people", Mexico City/Provincia, have all been definitions of the self and others that most modern Mexicans constantly deal with on some level.
"The Room", as it's originally titled in Spanish and fortunately changed to "Tales of Mexico" in English to avoid confusion with the infamous Wiseau film, also uses its translated title to set itself up as something of a lesson in Mexican history. An anthology film where 8 directors each tackle a segment based on a historically significant period, all taking place almost entirely in the titular room of a mansion in Mexico City from the early 1900s to the modern day, occasionally sharing characters and actors. This isn't a "primer" in Mexican history but more of a "seconder"; if terms and dates like Porfiriato, 2 October 1968, 19 September 1985 or Colosio aren't immediately identifiable to you, the film does only the bare minimum to explain them and their importance. For those of us already familiar, the film does a good job of depicting the time periods, with the idea of setting most of the action in such a limited space proving brilliant as minimal set dressings allow to represent the period without falling into the low-budget production values that usually plague Mexican period films. Seeing the mansion evolve from a single-family dwelling to a multi-family apartment building, to something of a collective commune also does wonders for this concept. The film not only works as a historic film but also on some level as being about FILM history, specially with the last 3 segments working as a clear throwback to the Mexican grimdark misery so common on-screen in the late 90s/early 00s.
The same pratfalls of the majority of anthology films make themselves known here as well, with the end result being unfortunately uneven. Some segments seem too concerned with pushing an agenda that they let storytelling behind, the Chinese and street kid segments being the clearest examples. A real shame considering what better storytelling could've done to actually help their agendas more and how important these agendas are, given that to this day, Mexico has a troubled history with immigrants and "others". Ethnic stereotypes are still present in nearly every example of Mexican humor on all media and, ironically considering our usual reactions to anti-migrant attitudes in countries like the U.S., a definite trend of anti-migrant attitudes aimed specially at the recent waves of people from Central and South America has risen among some Mexicans. Regarding the poverty represented by the street children segment, social class stereotypes in media still abound as well and the stratification of Mexican society is very evident even in modern times. In contrast, the segment with the little person is one where I think the balance between agenda and storytelling works, as the character is humanized, making us question such common cultural expressions in Mexico as "midget wrestling" and "circus dwarfs".
Part of the unevenness of this as a film comes from the casting and performances as well. While choosing some actors whose first language isn't Spanish makes characters more authentic, it's the delivery that usually fails and some really seem at a loss for what their lines mean and where to emphasize. Ultimately however, "The Room" comes off as an original, interesting film project that questions and reflects on a troubled country's identity and sense of self and hopefully in doing so can help viewers from outside the culture reflect on theirs as well. A film of many films from Mexico's irrefutable capital, a city of two cities and many more, of billions of stories through the years of millions of rooms.
The Cempasuchil Bridge
"Coco" is unquestionably a movie about bridging gaps. In the film, a literal bridge of marigold petals links the Worlds of the Living and the Dead for a night. In the real world, Pixar has tended a symbolic bridge with this film to link Mexicans, Chicanos (U.S.-based Mexicans and their descendants), U.S. nationals and the world via one of our most difficult shared human experiences. This isn't a movie spearheaded by Mexican artists to introduce the world to one of our beloved idiosyncrasies, like the inevitably comparable "The Book of Life" (a movie that I like but have far more issues with as a film fan than "Coco", regardless of nationality) but to simplify it as "a culturally appropriative work by a non-Mexican" would be to not only miss the point of the story told in it but to miss the point in its creation as well.
Lee Unkrich and the team at Pixar clearly went at great lengths to not only understand the holiday itself but also how to best present it to those unfamiliar. There's also a clear effort to try and understand the culture(s) that originate, adapt and celebrate the holiday (or as much as one can "understand" Mexico in anything less than a lifetime). Why so much effort? What one can infer from interviews with Unkrich is that his decision to make the movie came from a place of genuine admiration and curiosity. Filtered through Pixar's famously thorough work ethic in the service of storytelling, you end up with a film fruit of both love and intelligent, hard work, clear in many of the filmmaking decisions.
For those in the know, Mexican Spanish expressions are uttered without subtitles, national celebrities (or at least their skeletal avatars) appear and are paid tribute, the cultural differences between regions of Mexico are alluded to, the movie is clearly set in the modern day and respect for the country, its people and sometimes complicated family dynamics is on display. Regarding our relatives north of the border and elsewhere, the cast of the film is more Chicano than Mexican-born and the more internationally-popular term "Día de LOS Muertos" is as common as our preferred "Día de Muertos". For those complete outsiders to the holiday, its emotionality and symbolism are explained just the right amount to follow the plot yet leaving some air of mystery while Santa Cecilia is not too far from that most-familiar depiction of small, dusty colonial towns as the face of Mexico. All these compromises show that the film is intended as a message of unity and understanding. Yes, some references will definitely fly over many audiences' heads, but the Pixar magic lies in that, making some parts of the film so specific, they've managed to turn the whole universal.
Mexicans, a people defined by a tug-of-war between indigenous, European, personal, global and other identities that work best when balance between them is achieved, are a prime example of the importance of finding what's universal. Our holiday dedicated to "let's turn mourning into joy" may seem incongruous but it comes from the observation of joy and death as being equally unifying. We're all united by knowing joy, some of it courtesy of those who've passed on. We're all united by and equal in death, to every being that's ever lived. The death of beloved ones brings us memories, their memories bring us joy, this is the essence of Día de Muertos. "Coco"'s noble essence, par for the course of the Pixar canon (perhaps not as bold as "Wall-E" or "Monsters University", but bold enough) is to bridge the relatively small gaps between personal passion and responsibility, Mexas and others, on the same level as those huge gaps between joy and mourning, death and life. Thanks to the respectful research and collaborations behind the film, its essence not only aligns with that of the holiday, but hopefully will complement and strenghten each other, for years to come, for every early November night that we remember... and smile.
Aquí sigo (2016)
An uneven doc saved by a brilliant subject choice
We've all gotten those chain e-mails and texts about people who've lived to be over 100 and are now exclusively sharing their "longevity secrets" with us. It's one thing to easily dismiss these messages and entirely another to hear them coming from the mouth of the very octage-, nonage- and centenarians who've made it to those ages and noticing how much their respective outlooks on life share in common.
"Still Here" consists of interviews with many of these remarkable people, hailing from 6 countries. The subjects of the doc are all fascinating although there are some clear standouts (a certain Costa Rican lady drew laughter at my showing every single time she showed up on screen) so it's a shame that the filmmaking lets them down sometime. The camera-work and sound are not just good but at times surprisingly innovative, so it's really the editing that's at fault here. The frequent and overlong fade-to-blacks excel at taking you out of the film.
The film also shows something of a "Latin culture" bias. While this cultural character stereotype does seem to somewhat come true here with most of the subjects from Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain and Italy showing definite candor and humor in contrast with the more serious and reserved Quebecois and Okinawan subjects, this is still no reason for the very limited screen time this last group receives in the film by comparison. The Okinawans in particular are unfairly treated almost as an afterthought and an item from a checklist someone just felt forced to include due to these islanders' famous longevity.
Fortunately, by the end, these questionable filmmaking choices aren't enough to overshadow the unexpected optimism of the documentary. The section where the subjects talk about how they keep themselves healthy and their outlook on life shows a definite similar mindset of taking life as it comes and not worrying too much. This might seem a lot like the usual conclusion of those chain messages, but hearing it from them, having known a little bit of their lives, histories, relationships, makes it a lot more unforgettable than a Whatsapp wall of text on your family group chat.
Theater of Life (2016)
A bit all over the plate
It's always a balancing act when reviewing documentaries. How to judge it mostly on its cinematic terms without letting personal opinions on the subject matter have too much influence? Making a documentary is a lot more unpredictable than a fiction film, where practically every story decision is conscious. As far as edition, direction, camera-work and all other artistic aspects can go to present a story, it's still only SO far. It's not rare for a documentary's story to go in all sorts of unexpected directions thanks to the people, subjects and/or events depicted.
As a documentary focused on a specific place (Milan's Reffetorio Ambrosiano soup kitchen) during a specific time (Expo Milan 2015), "Theater of Life" would seem to have a limited focus, useful to prevent the film from becoming too dispersed. The subject being food waste, which is personally one of my biggest pet peeves, would've apparently made me judge it favorably as I agree with most of the opinions on the matter shown on the film. However, despite the focus being so limited and the subject so personal, the film unexpectedly ends up following a few too many threads and boarding a few too many subjects to be an in-depth portrayal of any of them.
Then again, it never really seems to want to be that. This is a humanist documentary, about human emotions (Bottura's ambition not to see leftover Expo ingredients go to waste like so much food around the world does on a daily basis, the diners' different desires, including the ultimately humanistic one of not wanting to be judged by one's conditions and habits but for WHO THEY ARE) from all sorts of humans (top chefs like Bottura and René Redzepi, refugee, migrant and Italian diners, religious and charity workers involved in the Reffetorio). Its humanist agenda might ultimately make the film feel like a somewhat superficial look of it subjects and not as engrossing as it could've been but it still seems to be the filmmakers' actual target.
Much like most of the chefs' ideals, which come off as a bit naive and idealistic when contrasted with the diners' not hopeless but more realistic and jaded ones, "Theater of Life" might seem that way in comparison to far more in-depth and objective food and food waste documentaries. It is still an emotional look into the lives of the "less fortunate ones" and with this focus, it might actually end up being more effective in portraying the absurdity of the current worldwide food waste and homelessness crises than other "drier" ones. There's also a balancing act in documentaries between emotion and objectivity, specially in terms of which works best for a specific purpose. While I might not have fully agreed with this film's balance, I can still understand and respect it.
Woke writing in wondrous Wellington
"Chronesthesia" is a bit of an odd beast; part magic realism, part love story, part "Forrest Gump"-esque conversations with strangers, part "City Symphony" celebration of New Zealand's cool little capital, part plight for the understanding and non-judgment of people afflicted with mental illness. If it sounds like these parts would make for an unbalanced, clashing concoction, then you wouldn't be counting on the clever script director/star/screenwriter Hayden J. Weal has come up with. A tricky balancing act kicked off by Weal's character Dan finding a message written on his bedroom window one morning. Following the instructions on the message lead him to a series of events breaking his routine and a very fortunate encounter. The morning after, another message, this time with some mental images that he's not sure if are dreams or memories.
Dan's life takes a turn thanks to these messages and he starts to realize their nature as time-traveling prompts from his future self. Why, how and how far into the future they're coming from are some of the questions he'll try to answer in-between dealing with their present consequences. While this general description might make it sound like a mystery film, it differs from most films of that genre in that the main driving force isn't on the third act revelation, but rather in the journey as a whole. The plot does have a few revelations up its sleeve, but for the most part they're spread out, a bit telegraphed and not shocking enough to make it to the category of "twists", leaving the most satisfying moments to be those almost devoid of mystery. Dan's new-found willingness to help and listen to (former) strangers who could really use a pair of ears, how this changes his mindset, the Wellington-and-its-surroundings scenery and, most importantly, his budding romance are what make the journey of "Chronesthesia" worth your time.
In Psychology student Sophia, Dan finds a great inspiration to change his life and the chemistry between the actors playing them makes for awkwardly natural dialogue that is at once honest, heartwarming and at times hilarious; specially since it reflects some of the deep-seated fears of trying to woo a psychologist some people might harbor ("oh god, what if they're psychoanalyzing me right now? what if they can just tell I'm bullshitting? what if they already know my weirdest fetish?", etc.). Sophia's object of study also makes for some of the dramatic weight of the plot, as her understanding of mental illness and openness to people afflicted with them clash with Dan's; and this ultimately becomes one of the main themes of the movie.
In general, "Chronesthesia" is a sweet little movie unafraid to try its hand at some heavy subjects as well as some left-field plot choices. In terms of realization it does suffer from a few issues (voice sync being a bit off, grainy low-lighting photography, shaky camera-work, those Wellington time-lapses that, while stylish, usually seem out of place) that make the end result feel a little "student film"-ish, but nothing that's ultimately distracting or detracting from the story. As a love story dealing with "mental-temporal" issues, one of the easiest comparisons would be to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" but, while that film focused almost exclusively on romantic relationships, Weal's work also deals with other relationships: those we usually (don't) have with the people we see on the street everyday and never exchange a conversation, or even a few words, with, specially when we deem them to be "less fortunate". While the 2004 film has a sci-fi edge with memory machines, this film's more outlandish elements are closer to magic realism, which might be unsatisfying to some. For those who are willing to give it a chance, however, it could be like taking the leap and asking a stranger their name: a choice you just might be very glad you made.
Print the Legend (2014)
Technological Revolution, meet Human Condition
"Print the Legend" may, on the surface, seem like a dry documentary about technology and innovators using buzzwords to talk about utopic futures. Instead, it is a truly fascinating film that takes a step back from the programming of 1s and 0s to focus instead on the results of that "programming" of neurochemicals, nature and nurture that give shape to our human behavior. The documentary starts around the time MakerBot (presented in the film as the first 3D-printer company to focus on consumer rather than industrial products, to become well-known) is starting to fill its niche and make a name for itself. Shortly after we are introduced to Formlabs, another 3D-printer company presented in the documentary not too long after its founding. Personalities from both companies as well as elsewhere in the technology and 3D-printing spheres talk about an upcoming "technological revolution", based on 3D-printers potentially becoming a household item, as a future reality that will come smoothly. About 30 minutes into the film, jealousy, interpersonal tensions, ambition, resentment, greed, fame, all start to take hold of some of these initially-idealistic entrepreneurs and make it clear that the coming of this revolution will be anything but smooth.
The documentary does not veer into melodramatic territory however, as the emotional moments are balanced with actual discussions about the technology and its potential impact. In fact, one of its most interesting thread-lines is based on Cody Wilson, an anarcho-activist with an ideal for a world in which 3D-printed deadly weapons are accessible to anyone, and the reactions of the industry and authorities to such a radical concept. The film likewise benefits from very fortunate timing as showing Formlabs's relative "infancy", MakerBot's "teen and early adult" years and the "middle-age" of older, established industrial-3D-printing companies like 3DSystems and Stratasys (now wanting to enter the consumer-level market too) allows us to compare how the companies and personalities that form them change with their personal aging as well as the fast aging of the market and technology. One particularly notable case is MakerBot's definition period resulting in a shift from its early ideal of open-source engineering (in which anyone can collaborate in hopes of making a better product rather than in hopes of monetary gain) to the closed-source version of it (in which work is traded for a salary and the ultimate goal is for the company to make profits, better products along with copyright and intellectual property-based incomes, being only means to that end). This contrasted to 3DSystems's supposed shift away from taking legal action for the use of their IPs in search of a freer environment for development of the industry and products (a shift that by the end of the documentary seems to have had more ideological than practical results).
Altogether, I found "Print the Legend" to be more surprising and interesting than expected, although dragged down a bit by its edition, mostly in the form of a somewhat overlong runtime. The film brings to mind other historical cases of emotional, human actions perhaps getting in the way of technological progress (and perhaps fueling them a bit too), like the now famous rivalries of Tesla/Edison, or Jobs/Gates, in the progress showing how the human condition is so incongruous. It is completely human to be emotional and illogical, to put personal ambitions before "greater good"s; it's also completely human to believe in the greater good, to have ideals and to want to make a better world; but perhaps there is nothing more completely human than drawing a blank when trying to come up with ways to reconcile these two sides, specially without losing even a bit of what makes us human in the way.
Malos hábitos (2007)
A very flawed but admirably unique effort of Mexican cinema
Director Simón Bross probably never won any big awards for Best Direction with this, his first (and so far only) movie, but if there were awards for MOST Direction I'm sure that even now, 8 years after its release (and first time I saw it), "Malos Hábitos" would remain unrivaled amongst Mexican cinema in that field. Due to relatively low budgets and inexperienced crews, Mexican films have a tendency to significantly lack ambition in some way, be it excessively simple screenplays, bad performances, low production values, unremarkable visuals or any combination of those and others. Sure, from time to time (specially in the decade of the 00s) a Cuarón will show up doing impressive long takes that had long been forgotten in our national cinema, or an unwieldy Arriaga screenplay will be masterfully executed by an Iñárritu and together they'll help define hyperlink cinema before there even was a name for it. For the most part however, Mexican directors will usually keep their ambitions too low resulting in unremarkable films. Bross's "Malos Hábitos" doesn't even TRY to keep its ambitions low, resulting in something downright unique. For starters, its screenplay tackles a multitude of themes with an emphasis on three pretty heavy ones: religion, family relations and eating disorders. These themes are tackled in a surprisingly confident way considering their weight (no pun intended) and for the most part the movie actually has something to say about each of them.
It's in its direction that "Malos Hábitos" actually stands out, however. Bross seems to be one of the rare Mexican directors that understands the importance of visuals in film to the point of even making conscious decisions about details as small as the placement of water drops on objects. While the cinematography definitely follows what was trendy back then (dark, gritty image at least partially influenced by "Amores Perros") and thus is starting to look dated, its execution is still spot-on. The performances range from serviceable to very good, with a couple of downright great bits of acting and not a single one that can be deemed "bad". The film is defined by taking place almost entirely during a very heavy wet season and the rain just doesn't stop. Either the film's production was entirely dependent on waiting for the right weather for almost every shot or they rented every single rain machine in the country but the result is that, in the movie, rain truly feels like the unrelenting and unstoppable force of nature it can be. The locations and production design are one of those rare cases where they're very noticeable but because of how good they are (interesting architecture playing a particularly important role). The film is bold enough to even include full-on SFX-dependent dream sequences for one of its characters, and they're surprisingly well-executed.
On the other hand, edition is definitely this film's weakest aspect, with it being a bit overlong and featuring some downright weird editing choices (the doorknob/teeth-brushing montage being the clearest example). Unfortunately, for all its successes, the film never really becomes more than the sum of its parts. Even if the parts are pretty good on their own, the way that they never really form into an actual whole definitely damages the end result. For "Malos Hábitos", ambition is both what makes it ultimately notable and its greatest flaw, just fortunately not enough to keep it from being an interesting, unique film, worth watching for anyone who's into Mexican cinema and could do with a break from the usual political/comedic stuff.
Aimlessly existentialist (but in a good way)
First of all, there is a simple question to ask yourself in order to find out if you're likely to enjoy this movie: have you seen and enjoyed films like P.T. Anderson's "Inherent Vice" and "Punch-Drunk Love"; or the Coens' "A Serious Man" and "Inside Llewyn Davis"; or even that other work in the oddly specific Mexican cinema genre of "Mexico City's disenchanted youth living in unidades habitacionales (low-income housing complexes, similar to the British council estates or the U.S. projects), going from action to action without much ambition, peppered with existential and black humor and shot in black and white" that is "Temporada de Patos" ("Duck Season")? If so, boy are you gonna love this one!
"Güeros"'s title referring to white people might make one think that this is a politically-charged deconstruction of racism and classism in Mexico, but much like the film makes a point of saying how difficult it is to define who IS a "güero" in Mexico, it also makes a point of saying how difficult it is to define pretty much ANYTHING in this culture. Politics and society unquestionably play a role in the film, but more as a backdrop (an inescapable one if you happen to live here) than as a main subject. Overall, the film is content in hopping from place to place and short mission to short mission, only offering glimpses of the reality it is set in, in order to make its grandest statement that is about, well... nothing.
Much like most of the films mentioned at the start, "Güeros" is existentialist at its core, the aimlessness and lack of a point IS the point. Unlike other pointless films however, "Güeros" is rarely boring. The chemistry between the main characters, the tiny mysteries woven into their world, the gorgeously simplistic imagery, the unexpected twists (including some weird meta references and even an instance of the fourth wall being broken) and, most of all, the amazingly witty dialogue ("Güeros" is FAR more, and more universally, funny than the vast majority of Mexican films that have the gall to call themselves "comedies") make the experience of watching this film more enjoyable and more likely to stay with you than most other films of its kind.