May 30, 2008

Tribeca 2008: Fantasy, Reality & Viceversa

What comes first: pain or pleasure? Happiness or sadness? Does it hurt to love and be loved, or because we’re already in pain we need to find love? Will these dualities ever be able to exist separately? Do they happen at the same time? All these questions are presented in a very smart way in Amor, Dolor y Viceversa (Love, Pain & Vice Versa), the new film of Mexican director Alfonso Pieda Ulloa, written by Alex Marino, based on a story by Blás Valdez. They take a step further turning this existential duality into a matrix for the spectator: what if, not knowing if pain or love comes first, we also don’t know if it’s reality or fantasy?

Night after night, Chelo (Bárbara Mori, La Mujer de mi Hermano) dreams about an attractive and mysterious man with an accent. These dreams slowly consumed her life, to the point that after a year, she becomes so obsessed she doesn’t want to meet any other guys. Her friend Gaby (Irene Azuela, El Búfalo de la Noche) tries to tell Chelo to forget about the perfect man of her dreams and come back to reality but one day, Chelo shows up, crying, at a police precinct to give a description of a man who, supposedly, attacked and raped her. Was she really attacked? Is she making it all up? Is she in love with her attacker? Is it the man of her dreams or an ex-boyfriend?

Dr. Ricardo Márquez (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Plata Quemada) has been suffering the same nightmares for a year: a very attractive woman seduces him only to kill him. Even his fiancée (Marina de Tavira, La Zona) is annoyed and jealous by this recurrent woman of his nightmares, but Ricardo swears that he doesn’t know this woman. What happens next, I cannot give away. Their stories cross, the double-searching becomes a paradox, and dreams merge into reality – and viceversa. This dark psychological thriller is wonderfully depicted by cinematographer Damián García (Más Que a Nada en el Mundo), and the escalating, tension and he/she versions of the story accurately supported by editor Jorge Macaya (Fermat’s Room, also showing at Tribeca Festival 2008.) They have created a isolated, atemporal urban setting for these characters, detaching the story from any local references. This could be Mexico or it could be Bilbao or Detroit. I even overheard someone commenting “It doesn’t look Mexican!” due to the film’s Hollywoodesque quality in the lighting, texture and mood. But people shouldn’t be surprised about good Mexican cinema anymore, this is 2008. Mori’s performance is strong and convincing, subdued for a telenovela actress although sometimes a little too monotone. Sbaraglia’s performance? Well, he can’t fail. At his 37 years of age, he has been in almost the same amount of movies, and in some of them with highly emotional and difficult roles (Intacto, En La Ciudad Sin Límites.)

In this his first feature film, Pineda Ulloa jumps back and forth twisting the storyline and forking paths in a puzzle that is re-constructed from two different points of view. Sometimes he abuses the flashbacks, repetition of dreams, and a few obvious images to make some noise – how many times did you seen in movies a desperate man, fully dressed, crying under the shower? In spite of that, the double-way prey-predator game works great, and the evident scenes are balanced with some imaginative ones. This film is the only Latin American film among the twelve selected for the World Narrative Feature Competition, where The Aquarium (Egypt), Quiet Chaos (Italy) and Lost-Indulgence (China) are favorites, though Pineda Ulloa and Marino’s clever and original story has good chances too, and we hope Mexico takes home one of the most important Tribeca awards again, like last year did Enrique Begne with Dos Abrazos winning Best New Narrative Filmmaker award.

Do Chelo and Ricardo finally meet? Oh, they definitely do. But, is it real...?

(Written for Remezcla)

May 19, 2008

Tribeca 2008: Cliché's Room

Let’s just face it: it’s practically impossible to be an innovative storyteller in film. It’s an art that usually re-uses, re-orders, and pays tributes. The magic and originality of cinema lies in the way filmmakers put all the elements together. It’s hard to detach our minds from thousands of images already recorded by our subconscious. The problem arises when the evident becomes too obvious or when re-use turns into overuse: then it just becomes “cliché” (and yes, sorry for using such a “cliché” word.)

Lluís Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña are the writers and directors of their first feature film La Habitación de Fermat (Fermat’s Room), a new Spanish suspense film about four mathematicians who don’t know each other, and are invited by a mysterious host to solve a “great enigma.” Tempted for the challenge, they travel to an unknown house in the hills. The room where they meet ends up being a death machine that shrinks each time they can’t solve a riddle. Sooner or later they will die unless they discover why they are there and who wants to kill them. The film has enclosed itself in the big challenge of making a film mainly in one room. Cinematographer Miguel Angel Amoedo and editor Jorge Macaya (Love, Pain & Viceversa, also showing at Tribeca) helped the writers/directors duo make a good job keeping a steady rhythm and aesthetic quality, but the movie falls early into a series of clichés that give you a claustrophobic sensation of hopelessness.

With performances that are accurate but not convincing enough, the four mathematicians are played by Lluís Homar (La Mala Eduación), Alejo Sauras, and Spanish TV stars Elena Ballesteros and Santi Millán. Some dialogues are not in the level of high IQ scientists, and it’s even disturbing to see these four supposedly genii sweating, excited and worried about puzzles and equations that reminds you of elementary or high school. That doesn’t mean that these are easy problems to solve, but it’s a strange situation. Even Fermat himself, the great Federico Luppi (an Argentine legend that acted in almost 100 movies, most recent one Pan’s Labyrinth) has no space to fully develop his role.

How many times can the characters jump scared from their spots when the intercom announces a new riddle? How much more tense can they get every time the walls move and shrink? How necessary is it to repeat and reveal a tense moment through the device of a zoom or a high-pitched violin? Why do they need to explain everything with flashbacks and leave nothing to the audience’s imagination? Excess is the main sin of this movie: with stereotyped expressions and character development, and even the use of extra saturated color and evident suspense music score to announce….more suspense. All of this can easily turn off an audience, though one of the things this film actually does really well is embedding the riddles into the tight storyline. Proof of this is the number of awards it has won in two fantasy film festivals: Málaga Fantastic (Spain) and Fantasporto (Portugal.)

The beginning credits show a miniature room being furnished by a human hand. It’s probably a way of advancing part of the plot: the walls will shrink. Or it’s perhaps that the film itself has already shrunk at the beginning. The most original element in this film is... the official website! (You don’t have to be a scientist to find it). Fermat’s Room didn’t go well in Spain: it was released in November 2007 with positive reviews, but despite counting with a few star-actors, it did less than a million dollar in the box office. Nevertheless, it has been sold to more than 20 countries, and it faces now a new challenge: IFC Entertainment has acquired the rights to do an American remake. Probably then we can solve the puzzle: can the story be saved? Is there any room for some fresh air, or nobody can make it better than their own creators? What happens at the end is pointless: it has already been (excessively) explained in this review, and the key lies in the title. I’m a sinner too.

(Written for Remezcla)

May 8, 2008

Tribeca 2008: Paraíso Redux

A lot of Latin American countries are considered “paradise:” gorgeous beaches, exquisite cuisines, kind people, cheap clothes, sporting events that become passionate social phenomena, historical architecture, and landscapes that are devotion of National Geographic photographers. Nevertheless, every year millions of Latin Americans believe the paradise is to the north, often embarking in humiliating and risky experiences, far away from their families, friends, language and customs.

Paraiso Travel is Colombian director Simon Brand’s second feature film after Unknown (2006) which starred James Caviezel. Written by Jorge Franco and Juan Manuel Rendón, and based on “Paraiso Travel”, a novel by Franco, it tells the story of manipulative and ambitious Reina (Angélica Blandón) and lovesick Marlon (Aldemar Correa), two teenagers from Medellín who travel illegally to New York looking for a better life. Reina wants to get out of Medellín and her conservative father, and Marlon, the movie’s “hero”…well, he comes from a good and loving family but he just wants to sleep with Reina and so follows her lead. So it is a bit preposterous that these two students steal their way to get $3,000 to buy a “non-guaranteed” ticket to freedom through Paraiso Travel Agency. Their naïve intents are soon crushed as they make the dangerous journey to Guatemala, Mexico and finally through the US border and New York, but soon after the first day, Marlon gets lost. No money, no friends, no family, no Reina... no English.

“New York is a monster to tame”, tells Giovanny (Pedro Capó, one of the best performers in the film) to Marlon while contemplating the Manhattan skyline on a break from work at Mi Tierra Colombiana restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens. Marlon is rescued by fellow Colombian immigrants and he meets generous and affable Latinos such as Giovanny, Milagros (superstar Ana de La Reguera in a disappointing role), a Mexican aspiring salsa singer who makes a living selling CDs outside the restaurant and Roger (John Leguizamo,) his sadomasochist (literally) but kind (and of course being Leguizamo, funny) landlord. Everyone takes Marlon’s hand to make him feel at home and forget about his quest to find Reina. “In this country you have to wait in line for everything…even to be happy” musters Giovanny, who serves as the Voice of Reason throughout the film.

Immigration to the U.S., beyond its legal/illegal condition is one of the hottest and most complex issues in the current political campaigns. It’s also a very important issue to address in a more serious way in Latin American countries, where citizens live immersed in false promises, corruption and poverty. But no matter how huge is the topic of massive Latin American migration to the U.S., lets not forget about the basic premise of the film: it’s a love story. No matter how many friends Marlon makes or Milagros’ seductive hip swivels, he is miserable because in the middle of Queens, he can’t find his Reina. Simon Brand tried to be as faithful as possible to Franco’s novel, and in some way it turns the whole migration discussion into an entertaining soap opera adapted to the big screen: it’s humorous, romantic, dramatic, sexy and has lots of topless shots. Paraiso Travel is a high-quality production (it cost almost $5 million), and drew one of the biggest box offices in Colombia’s history (no doubt it can have the same effect in many Latin American countries.) Thousands, if not millions of spectators will feel identified when a crying Marlon calls his mother asking for her daily blessing. Or will know what it feels like when he discovers commodities that don’t exist in our yet developing countries (like a handicapped-ready bathroom that works), and all the suffering and home-away-from home situations immigrants must face in a new country.

That said, even if the Latin American immigration in this country is a necessary and important topic on screen, don’t expect exceptional acting. Even Leguizamo, who also produced the film and is one of the best Latino actors in the U.S. along with Benicio del Toro, leaves us wishing his character were more developed. And yes, you must deal with some classic novelas stereotypes, including too much of plot explanation and an over-the-top ending. "I wanted to make a film that makes Latin Americans think twice about traveling to the U.S. illegally," Simon Brand told me during a meet and greet with the press at the Tribeca Film Festival, "but one that also makes Americans think twice about how these people are treated once they get here." Simon’s intentions go right to the point: his honest adaptation definitely brings new questions to a very relevant issue.

(Written for Remezcla)

May 1, 2008

Tribeca 2008: Net of Dreams

Who hasn’t felt lonely at some point? Who hasn’t spent endless nights staring out a window? Who hasn’t felt that strange pain in your chest when you spot a group of people screaming, laughing, and having fun while walking alone on the street? Loneliness is one of the most common themes in film, yet nobody has ever portrayed it with the awkwardness, or the poetic and crude sensitivity of Harmony Korine. When he was twenty-two years old, he shocked the cinema world with the screenplay for Kids (1995), a documentary-style story about drug-addled promiscuous youth in New York City. Thirteen years later, he comes back with a maturity unusual for a filmmaker who is not even forty with Mister Lonely, his most important and complex piece to date.

Written in collaboration with his brother Avi, Mister Lonely tells the story of Michael Jackson (Diego Luna), a young Mexican immigrant who roams the streets of Paris impersonating--and living his everyday life as--Michael Jackson. He is delicate, shy, and wears a surgical mask in public spaces. Michael confesses his strong and heartbreaking desire to be someone else to a tape recorder, expressing his disappointment with his personality and looks. While performing in a nursing home, tenderly making the elderly sing and hope to live forever, he meets Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), who convinces him to move to a community of impersonators lead by her husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), as they are getting ready to perform the best show ever. They live in an isolated commune in the hills, and a better place couldn’t exist for this wacky group of impersonators--everyone is accepted by the others devoid of judgment or prejudice, and things run according to their own rules.

In the meantime, a parallel story unfolds in what seems to be a disconnected plot, though beneath the surface they share a common soul. Thousands of miles away, in some Latin American village, a foreign priest (Werner Herzog, the great German filmmaker) works with nuns in a mission to distribute food to the poorest communities. Like the impersonators, all of them are true believers, the purest dreamers: defined by desire, devotion, obsession. From the first scene, the film submerges us in a type of slow-motion dream. Harmony Korine confesses that the story originated as isolated images that later started taking on shape. This is sometimes intricately translated to the screen, but it is exactly what makes the film so interesting: everyone can take the different symbolisms and align them in different directions.

The impersonators share a very particular characteristic: they are all awful performers – yet they believe. Charlie Chaplin behaves more like Hitler than the comic, Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange) curses and screams exaggeratedly, and every other character in the film is taken to another reality through their own impersonations and others’ souls. Their everyday duality is constantly exposed in public and private: in costume yet naked, embarrassed yet happy. The main performances of Luna, Morton, Lavant and Herzog are wonderful and rich, exploding their limits thanks to careful direction by Korine, as well as in subtle improvisations. The cinematography by Marcel Zyskind (9 Songs, A Mighty Heart) is stunning, and it’s no surprise to find the name of editor Valdís Oskarsdóttir (responsible for the masterful work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in this film’s credits.

Dreams come true crossing the frontiers where Michael, Marilyn and the priest travel to other countries to accomplish their goals and live freer--nuns can fly too. In this thorny world, the pursuit of happiness is probably a never-ending search. The answer, if it exists, is deeply within us. “Sometimes the purest dreamers are the ones that get hurt the most,” says Harmony Korine. In a way, lonely dreamers are not alone. Michael rides a small bike with a cuddly monkey toy attached to it, trying to skate with him. Is Michael happy? We can’t see behind the mask. But something is clear: hope is the last thing we lose, and dreams are the first thing we create.

(Written for Remezcla)

Mister Lonely
[MISTE] Spotlight
Feature Narrative, 2007, 113 min
Directed by: Harmony Korine

Thu, May 01, 10:00PM AMC Village VII Theater 2 (Map)