Plaza-de-la-Soledad-directed-by-Maya-Goded

The new documentary Plaza de la Soledad is an artistic rumination on aging that presents interwoven stories of different low-income Mexican women who are in their golden years. Although the stories told by each of these women vary, what they all have in common is they are facing their later years as prostitutes. The documentary offers an unflinching and intimate examination of everyday life for these women who seldom have a voice and are often judged harshly.

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portada-algo-sucedeThe first thing you will notice about Julieta Venegas‘ new album, Algo Sucede (Something’s Happening), is how upbeat it sounds. Opening with the sounds of a buoyant, airy synth like something out of 1980s new wave, her seventh solo album immediately lets us know this album is not going to be anything like the more contemplative, sometimes somber 2013 album Los Momentos (Moments). Though that album was another excellent display of Venegas’ song craft, presenting a strong woman coming to terms with the end of a meaningful relationship, Algo Sucede is an album that feels luminous, filled with a loving look at the past and a hopeful glance to the future.

“Ese Camino” (“That Road”), the album’s first single released in May, celebrates childhood and how that time in development marks the beginning of a personality that — at its core — remains similar throughout life but it is also marked by one’s own personal history. The tune itself transports us to Julieta’s northern Mexico roots, a Tijuana native who has successfully mixed traditional sounds, like accordion and horns, with modern pop and rock elements enveloped in an up-beat twee vibe.

Another fun track is “Esperaba” (“Waiting”), the album’s opening track, which talks about growing up in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, listening to Argentine rocker Charly García and dreaming about all the possibilities that world has to offer. Indeed, the song is filled with that anxious, hopeful energy that one has as a teenager beaming with ideas and waiting to jump into a new life, one created by oneself. The song’s synth melodies give way to driving guitar lines and rhythms, including hand claps, and brilliantly sets the album’s bright mood.

If there’s any doubt Venegas has moved on, there’s “Buenas noches, desolación” (“Good Night, Bleakness”), which casts away negativity following a bout of depression. The upbeat, festive song offers a close to all that drags one down to the dumps, and literally puts desolation to bed. It’s a song of hope that marks a new beginning to an unknown destination with eyes bright and wide open.

The album is also about finding love and enjoying it as it is, without big demands or pressures. The track “Algo Sucede” explores those emotions we encounter as we begin to fall in love. The instant when we know that “something is happening” as marked by those subtle changes that maybe others are unaware of, but we can feel deep inside, like a change in the tone of voice or changing breathing patterns. The song is an open invitation to get to know one another without changing one’s essence and without hiding certain traits. In the same vein, the delicate, piano-driven “Todo Está Aquí” (“It’s All Here”) offers a love that is present and for the taking today; a love that may make promises it cannot keep for an idealized future. Venegas seems to celebrate the simplicity of giving oneself to the present happiness, without thinking of what comes next.

Though love and relationships are a focal point of Algo Sucede, it wouldn’t be a complete Venegas album without a politically conscious track. Disguised as a perky pop song, “Explosión” (“Explosion”) makes serious demands for those who have disappeared, left to be forgotten without an investigation. They are the faceless crowd that falls victim to everyday violence, something all too familiar for those living in her native Mexico. The song raises awareness and invites the listener to feel the same rage and empathy for those who are victimized, as it could be us one day. You can here the track below:

Venegas has always conjured a wonderful balance between her traditional sound and contemporary alternative rock. Her strong accordion playing is still present on many songs, but it never dominates the album. She spaces out keyboard-driven songs with those featuring the accordion. Some are brilliantly combined, like the album’s title track, which opens with a catchy accordion melody, followed by a bass hook, and flows on a motorik beat decorated with a sparkling trickle of electronic harpsichord and airy synth chords.

The album is a return to the style that made Venegas popular, a singer/songwriter known for a unique sound that melds traditional Mexican sounds with more contemporary songwriting and rock rhythms. The tracks on Algo Sucede fit neatly into the repertoire that made her an internationally known artist, with hit tracks like “Limon y Sal,” “Me Voy,” “Algo Esta Cambiando” and “De Mis Pasos,” to name a few. Algo Sucede also marks an opportunity to see this brilliant singer live, her tour dates — so far — can be found here: www.julietavenegas.net/tour-dates.

Ana Morgenstern and Hans Morgenstern

All images are courtesy of Sony Music, who also provided a preview stream for the album last month for the purpose of this review. We were also invited to attend her performance in Miami at the Flamingo Theater in Downtown Miami, earlier this month, where she previewed some these songs live alongside her hits for Terra Live Music. You can watch the entire show below:

(Copyright 2015 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

posterBalancing humor and poetically stunning black and white cinematography, Güeros tells the story of two brothers: Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) and young Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre). After one too many pranks in his native Veracruz, their single mother sends Tomás to live with his mellow slacker of an older brother in Mexico City. Sombra shares an apartment with Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), who has an anger problem. When the teenage Tomás arrives in Mexico City, he soon realizes that Sombra and Santos may be even more clueless than he. They live in a dilapidated apartment that does not have electricity and are enrolled in the public university (UNAM), which is in the middle of a long strike, which took place in 1999 and lasted almost a year.  The title, Güeros refers to a slang word intended to mean “blonde” or “lighter skinned,” which, depending on circumstances, is used derisively to refer to someone who does not belong in a specific social context.

The loose narrative that Director Alonso Ruiz Palacios utilizes emphasizes the natural flow of the story, which touches on several themes, including inequality in Mexico, the complexity of the mega city, the challenges of public education and the feeling of loss the two brothers still feel after their father’s passing. The beginning of the movie shows several idle moments of aimlessness. For starters, the strike at the University speaks to the idleness and lost moments of Sombra and Santos, who are not engaged in a direct way and seem to be wasting away – as many of those who endured that strike did (they choose to go on “strike against the strike”).

The arrival of Tomás changes this dynamic, however, as the young kid is full of energy and nostalgia for those days when their dad was around. He carries a tape that his father gave him by one of the best musicians in Mexican rock history, an 927allegory for the golden days. He finds that this mythical musician is still around but is close to death, which gives the trio an excuse to venture out from their home. Ruiz Palacios shows the impact of this music without ever revealing it via lengthy shots of the characters using headphones to listen to tape and focusing on their reactions that shift from moved to amazed and ends in a deeply affected state. The genius of this strategy is that it allows the music to be part of the characters, not the focus of the film itself.

Throughout their adventure, the three characters find themselves travailing the city, which at times shows a disconnect between them and the variety of characters found in each of the neighborhoods. Güeros’ portrayal of Mexico City is one of the most honest depictions in the film. An ode to one of the most complex cities in Latin America, Güeros explores a journey of self-discovery that parallels an exploration of Mexico City in an intimate, real way.

The film takes on a self-referential and funny turn once the trio end up in the University campus, where the strike is in full swing. One of the protesters turns his attention directly to the camera and starts talking about the film as it is, in a straightforward way, making fun of the film itself. The conversation immerses the audience in the filmmaking process itself929 and removes the real or perceived barrier between the director and the audience, also doing away with any lengthy expository dialogue. Ruiz Palacios cuts straight through the typical Hollywood conventions and addresses us and his actors in a dialogue devoid of fluff, a narrative that has a sense of humor but questions its social relevance at the same time.

At the protest, we also meet Ana (Ilse Salas), one of the leaders of the student movement and Sombra’s love interest. The encounter is intense at a personal level but is also one of the key moments that Ruiz Palacios uses to showcase the embedded social inequality that exists in Mexico City. The debates at the university ring so true, it feels like one is experiencing the university on a vividly genuine level, in a script that could have only been written by someone who was personally impacted by that protest. Ruiz Palacios has described in an interview that he was close to attending UNAM when the protest erupted but learned first-hand from friends how it affected hundreds of people who both supported and were against the university takeover.

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This self-referential humor happens once more when Sombra has a fit at an elegant party that Ana takes the trio to, and directs a rant to the crowd – and by extension, the film’s audience — about the hypocrisy in Mexican art house films that parade non-trained actors and complain about the country’s ailments abroad. The self-referential awareness of the precarious situation of art that can be at once constructive and destructive reveal a filmmaker who is keenly aware of the sociopolitical issues in Mexico and takes a constructive stand via the same medium he criticizes. This is surely an art-house film that does away with clichés by directly poking fun at them in a playful way.

The black and white film, presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, combined with the naturalistic acting style speaks to the influence of the French New Wave, but this film is so much more. The narrative encompasses an honest account of a sociopolitical reality that is tough to encapsulate. The film also shows a coming of age of sorts for Sombra, who is alienated and detached at the onset of the film but finds the courage to connect to his little brother, his friend and his love interest throughout the journey to finally come to terms and become part of the world he inhabits. In a nod to 400 Blows, Riva Palacio ends the film with a shot of Sombra who turns around to the camera with an all-knowing gaze that signals growth and a recognition of the self. Güeros never takes itself too seriously but remains a poetic film.

Ana Morgenstern

Update: Güeros is coming back to South Florida for an exclusive run in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It opens there on July 17 (details here).

Güeros runs 102 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (it has cursing, smoking and some sexuality). It opened this past Friday, June 26, in our Miami are at the Coral Gables Art Cinema where it plays until July 2. For dates in other parts in the U.S. and Canada, visit this page, where there are dates scheduled through September. All images are courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster 700x1000 AFIn her most recent role as the lead in They Are All Dead (Todos están muertos), which had its U.S. premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, Spanish actress Elena Anaya plays an agoraphobic mother of a teenage boy (Christian Bernal) who lives with her mother (Angélica Aragón). Lupe, a former pop-rock star from the golden age of Spanish rock (la movida), becomes a shut-in after the death of her brother and former bandmate Diego (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Lupe has been in her house for years and the mere thought of facing the world fills her with anxiety. Anaya, who’s probably most widely recognized for her appearance in films by Pedro Almodóvar, gives a powerful performance, one that earned her the Best Actress award at the Malaga Film Festival.

In a recent conversation with Anaya, during a stop at MIFF with the film, she says of her character, “[Lupe] is a sort of princess that is locked up in her tower, fearful to all the outside ghosts that are nothing but ghosts from the past.”

The moving performance shows a woman who struggles for each word, a perfect fit for a former musician who has been through terrible loss and has since abandoned her craft. Without an outlet, Lupe feels constrained by her own body. “At the beginning of the movie, Lupe’s body is tight and contracted. She cannot relax into her own. It was a feeling that cannot be transmitted with words. I used gestures,” explains Anaya.

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While Lupe is in the midst of her own sorrow, her 14-year-old son is being raised by another strong female presence, Lupe’s mother Paquita, a Mexican woman who is as strong as she is filled with folkloric beliefs. Chief among them is her conviction that for Lupe to move on, she has to settle unfinished business with her dead brother. Día de los Muertos provides the perfect excuse for Paquita to try to get her daughter out of the house.

Paquita also feels the pressure of her own mortality, as her grandson will be needing his mother soon. “One of the main themes behind the script is being able to say goodbye to someone that left without saying goodbye,” says Anaya. For director Beatriz Sanchís the theme is a very personal one, as Anaya reveals. “When Sanchís was very young a close friend of hers died suddenly in an accident, and she had fantasized with what would happen if she could run into him and say goodbye.” Indeed, the film has a personal feel to it, filled with nostalgia. It also intimately examines the lives of these characters. However, it is Lupe who has to carry the story.

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It was a challenging role for Anaya, which the actress took to heart. “This film is being told from a woman’s point of view.” And it is in this role that finds Anaya a complex, multidimensional individual feeling the weight of loss, the pressures of motherhood and the need to connect before being able to find her own way. “It’s a story about family, life, about death, about music, about forgiveness, so many different things,” she says in a sweet tone.

She credits Sanchís in helping her prepare, so she could inhabit this character long before shooting began. “I was very lucky to have Beatriz’s help months before official rehearsals began,” she says. “I was able to get to know this character well, being able to live her fears and feel them in every pore of my body.”

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Anaya certainly throws her whole body into this performance, and her transformation through Lupe jumps off the screen, in particular when she is behind the keyboard in footage shot on video of happier times on stage. Anaya found her inspiration for the rock star portion of the role in Ana Curra, a Spanish keyboardist best known for her role in Alaska Y Los Pegamoides. Her personal story is actually similar to the one depicted in They Are All Dead. “It was pure coincidence,” notes Anaya but explains that her look and photos of her melancholic gaze helped Anaya envision what it would have been like to be part of the booming rock scene in Spain in the 1980s.

“It’s a new film for me that was new from all perspectives,” adds the actress. While the role is a new endeavor for the actress, it was also very personal. “I recently lost my parents,” she mentions, but adds, “Death is part of life, and it is something that we all have to accept. That is why the film was so good for me.” With a combination of the rock scene in Spain in the 1980s — a golden age for that movement — imaginative moments through a narrative of Day of the Dead and some very sweet exchanges among family members, both living and dead, the film takes risks and delivers a touching story that shines through Anaya’s performance.

Ana Morgenstern

They Are All Dead does not have U.S. distribution, but hopefully someone will consider this movie, so others can see it. It premiered in the U.S. at the Miami Dade College Miami International Film Festival this week. The festival concludes on Sunday.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

director AmatIn an exclusive interview with Independent Ethos, Amat Escalante, best known for receiving the 2013 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his recent film Heli, talks about winning that award, why his film is so controversial and violence on film, among other topics. A close collaborator with Carlos Reygadas, who also was awarded Best Director at Cannes only a year earlier, Escalante shines a light on independent filmmaking with a conscience. The director tackles one of the more important issues in his country: drug trafficking and the ills it’s surrounded by, such as corruption, power in the hands of the few and suffering.

Although Heli is only his third full-length film, Escalante has a strong voice and a particular point of view. His take on filmmaking includes a deep faith in audience members who do not want to be told how to feel or what to think. The Mexican director shows his own perspective through a realistic style that is closer to his own life experience than what he sees on popular movies or television. He was in Los Angeles when he called Ana Morgenstern, who wrote a glowing critique of the film yesterday (read the review here). They spoke in Spanish. You can read the English transcription below.

Ana Morgenstern: How did you feel about winning the Cannes prize for best director? Were you surprised since Carlos Reygadas won the award the previous year?

Amat Escalante: Well, while being in the competition you are aware that there might be a possibility of winning, maybe one in 20 or maybe more because there are 20 movies competing and five of those get awards. So, to begin, it was quite impressive to be able to be part of the competition for the first time. When they called us the last day of the festival, telling us to go to the awards ceremony, I was very happy to hear the news that we would win something, but we didn’t know what it would be. That’s when I thought that the best director award was out of the question because Carlos, who is a close collaborator and producer in Heli, had just won the previous year. heli.still.0013130I thought to myself, it would be too unlikely to win that prize. So, winning best director was absolutely surprising. It was great for the entire team that the film was recognized with such an important award after working on it for over five years. On top of that, it was so important that Mexico won best director for two consecutive years. In that sense, the experience was very rewarding, and it has helped boost interest in the film. When it opened in Mexico, I think being recognized in the festival helped a lot, because a lot of people showed up to watch the movie, and it’s been selling well in video. It has also been sold to 35 countries. I don’t think the success is due just because of the award. I think it’s because the film tells a story that envelops the audience, and it’s a thrilling movie, but the award has certainly helped a lot.

How have different audiences received the film?

In Cannes, the film was shown on the first day of screenings. Everybody was anxious to start watching the competing films, so being the first one meant that it grabbed lots of the attention. The audience in Cannes is mostly press; there are also industry people but mostly press. The first encounter with the press in Cannes was brusque. I think they did not understand some parts of the film, and they paid too much attention to the violent parts without seeing the love story that the film also tells. heli_still_0008482I was a little surprised by that. Later on, though, the jury, which was mostly composed by filmmakers, received the movie a lot better. They liked the film, including Steven Spielberg who said it was one of his favorite films from the past festival. He was also the president of the jury that year. In Mexico, the acceptance of the film by the public and also the critics was great for me. They understood the movie very well, and they thought it was important that a movie like that was made. We ourselves premiered and distributed the film in Mexico without the backing of millions of dollars, which is what normally happens with other commercially distributed films. Even so, a lot of people went to see the movie, and I’m very happy about that.

What do you think are the different reactions to your film between a Mexican and an American audience?

Paul Hudson of Outsider Pictures, who is currently distributing the film, is taking a risk because he loves the movie, and he wants people to go see it in the States. But this is a big risk to show it in theaters to American audiences. It would be easier to put it straight to DVD and TV. It’s very different, the public’s reaction in the States because when you do not live in Mexico, even if you’ve lived in Mexico or you’ve been living a few years abroad, you start to idealize the country. I think some people are embarrassed to see a situation that is taking place in Mexico. heli_stil_.0014121They do not see why that should be seen outside of Mexico or why to make a film about that. That’s what I’ve encountered in the States. But many people have liked it too, it’s shown in several festivals, and I just showed it at a University in California, and the reactions have been very favorable, to save a few of people who get angry and feel attacked by the sheer force of the film. I’ve seen that reaction abroad a lot, but less so in Mexico because in Mexico, the film came out of Cannes labeled as an extremely violent movie. But people in Mexico have been able to see beyond that, and I think a lot of people in the States will be able to see that too and that they’ll like the film because of the story it tells and because of the characters.

Why do you think the reaction to the violence in Heli has been so visceral?

I think it’s because of how I show violence. I think that we are used to seeing people die in the big screen. It’s the most common thing when you go to the movies that somebody dies or somebody gets killed; that’s what’s normal. If you think about it, it’s rare when you go to the movies and somebody doesn’t die. Out of 10 movies maybe there’s one where nobody dies. The most normal is that people get killed on screen. For example, in Batman Dark Knight about 15 people get killed in the first five to 10 minutes.  But there is a way of showing death that people are used to, but when you show it in a different way, as if you were sitting right there without diversions, it’s different. I didn’t want to make violent scenes that were sexy, or dynamic or cinematic. I wanted to make those scenes un-cinematic. heli_still_0027175For me, cinematic has to do with editing and camera movements but those scenes are shot in an “anti” cinematic way, “anti-Hollywood” let’s say. That’s why people have a bad reaction to it. In a similar way, people are not used to seeing the acting style shown in my film and react poorly to it. For instance, in Mexico, people can watch a lot of telenovelas and never complain about the acting, but to me that acting is completely false and not credible, but when they watch my movie they complain about the acting because they are not like in a telenovela. People have already been so programmed in the way they watch something that they can be upset when they’re shown something that’s not within the parameters they expect it to be. Not everybody, obviously, but when people are very set in a way and a movie breaks with that there might be a clash sometimes. But this is also why this movie is so powerful. It is outside of the way in which we normally see things.

How did you prepare for this film in terms of research, raising funds and pre-production?

It took about four years to raise the funds to make this film. Normally, one would take about two years to get money for an independent film. In that time, I was also writing the script with the other screenplay writer Gabriel Reyes and searching for the cast. We did not do research. Rather, we are very observant. I think of myself as someone who listens and is very sensitive. Everything that is in the film is known in Mexico. For instance, that scene with the DEA officer was taken from a YouTube video that I think you can still get if you look up “cops in León Guanajuato torture another cop.” Everyone knows that it happens, and I’m not revealing anything 7940295312_057c038a31_othat I had to go and look for. We are just simply connecting the dots. There are some things in the film that we took directly from the newspapers and some situations we took directly from real life, and from there we started to construct a story. It was not necessary to do research because everything in the film is taken from the public domain. I wanted to go a different route, not research, but showing humanity and sensibility. That’s also how we did the casting. We got people that are from that area, live there, and could be in that situation in some way. The cast bring with them a lot of the context and the reality that adds to the authenticity of the film. We also changed some of the dialogue to fit the way in which they would say something.

How did you carry out the casting? Are they all non-actors?

Yes, they are all from that region, except for the main actor, who is from Mexico City and was going to acting school when we cast him. My brother, Martín [Escalante], found everyone in the street including the girl and the detective. I interviewed them, took photos and started to get to know them, and that’s how I knew they were right for the part. None of them, except for the main character, had acting experience.

How do you think the drug conflict will evolve?

I live in Mexico and love my country. That’s probably why I made the film, out of concern. I think people with a lot of power in Mexico— that’s just a handful of people— are interested in having this ongoing violence and corruption. I think that it is something relatively easy to eradicate if people really wanted to, but there’s a lot of people that are doing fine with corruption and violence. I don’t mean common people but the top echelons, even from the United States. The conflict is making a lot of people rich. The war against drugs could go another way, drugs could be legalized or something like that to stop the assassination and extortion of so many people. EstelaEscuelaFullThose options simply do not exist because people with power are not interested in things really getting better. I don’t think a movie can really create a change, but I think that it’s important to reflect on the problems in the country. It’s important that we look at our own problems and that we let other people see them as well, and that gets you closer to a change. For instance, when you are sick, the first thing you do is go and tell someone else or show someone where it hurts. I think Mexico has a virus that affects certain parts of the country, or certain sectors of society, and through talking about it we can start to advance. The movie is also about young people, the new generation; that’s where I think hope lies, but we as a society need to look after those young people and those babies through education and care and not abandon them like so many people have been abandoned in Mexico. For example, the girl in the movie that has a baby at 13, the 6-month-old baby that appears in the film was born to a 14-year-old mother. This is not common, but it’s something more or less common in Guanajuato. That situation is related to education and all that. What that child that was born from a 14-year-old mother will become, it’s likely that he will end up doing something not morally correct.

Ana Morgenstern

Heli opens this Friday, May 30, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower TheaterProgram Note: Independent Ethos critics Ana and Hans Morgenstern will introduce Heli on opening night, this Friday, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 9:15 p.m. and again Saturday, at 7 p.m. Let us know if you will be there by signing up on our Facebook event page. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.

Update: Heli is also showing in Broward County Friday and Saturday only at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood … if you absolutely can’t come see in Miami Beach.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster1513Set in Guanajuato, Mexico, Heli tells the story of the crude life the city’s residents endure while dealing with the ongoing militarization of the “war on drugs.” The opening shot augurs the harshness of the rest of the film, as we see two of the main characters, Heliberto, who goes by the nickname Heli (Armando Espitia), and Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). Beaten and battered, they ride half-conscious in the back of a pickup truck. Heli’s bloodied face is pinned down by Beto’s boot. The camera lingers on Heli’s face for an extended shot, allowing a sense of helplessness to seep into the audience. The violent scene is straightforward, stark and shown without music; a style that is carried throughout the rest of the film.

Heli’s director, Amat Escalante was bestowed the 2013 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, only the fourth Mexican director to be recognized with the prize in the 68 years of the film festival. This accomplishment was no doubt a boost for the film but also proves the magnitude of its relevance. Escalante was raised in Guanajuato, the town depicted in the film. His close and personal connection to the area is palpable, as Heli shows the many layers of social disruption the war on drugs has left on Mexico.

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Escalante’s genius lies on his focus on human relationships, as blossoming first love and strong family ties provide the backdrop to the action in Heli, while presenting the merciless effect of the shock waves generated by drug-dealers and corrupt police. Early in the film, we learn Heli is a 17-year-old who tells a census worker he is the head-of-household living with a wife, a baby son, younger teenage sister Estela and his father. He works at a Japanese car factory and cares for his family, struggling to do the “right thing.” Estela (Andrea Vergara) is the picture of innocence. She is involved with Beto, a boy several years older than her. The romance seems harmless enough, filled with clumsy moments of young experimentation, until Beto gets a “smart” idea involving a couple of stolen kilos of cocaine that will allow the two to elope.

Beto is a trainee with the militarized Mexican police force and has easy access to confiscated drugs. The cruelty that befalls him begins as early as the training sequences in the desert, which reveals how deeply-rooted brutality is not only in the streets but also in the groups meant to protect citizens. The irony could be lost, as viewers can easily be swept away from the big picture by one particularly stark moment during training. Beto_Tortura_IMG_2748An American adviser shows a Mexican drill sergeant how to break the wiped out Beto, who has vomited during exercises. The gringo instructs the commander to order the collapsed trainee to roll over his own throw-up. Scenes like this unfold in static wide shots that show the contrast between the broad skyline, complete with beautiful scenes of the desert that seems so open and full of opportunity, against the small world in which Heli and his family struggle alone and left to fend for themselves against overpowering forces.

The director’s raw style allows the audience to feel something different from most Hollywood films and their depiction of violence without being led to a specific reaction. One of the sequences that has garnered the most attention is an extended torture sequence where Heli and Beto face the blow-back created by their entanglement with drugs. They are taken to a safe house associated with a drug cartel where young men (including some boys playing video games) heli_still_0009332are already waiting for them. As the torture begins, we even get glimpses of an older woman in another room, cooking. One of the boys asks, “What did this one do?” The torturer shrugs and tells the boys watching to record the scene so they can later upload the footage to YouTube. The savagery unfolds as if the audience was in that tight space with nowhere else to go. Again, there’s no showy camera use, distracting editing or added music beyond the drone of the video game.

The representation of brutality is one of the main themes in the film. Far from glamorizing or presenting a stylized version of it, Heli presents the raw and unpleasant nature of what it’s like to witness violence. There is no escape from what is happening on-screen. You will not walk out of this movie feeling like drug traffickers are “cool” or that our hero “wins.” Heli‘s take on violence is more faithful to reality and far removed from any Hollywood characterization of violent conflict. One is immersed into the sociopolitical rooting of savagery in what otherwise would seem like a sleepy town in the less developed areas of Mexico. Indeed, the complex social situation that emerges from dealing with corruption, the flaws in an economic system with few opportunities for working class people and the dismantling of trust among neighbors who are either part of the drug trafficking economy or not, are all present in Heli.

heli truck

The ongoing victimization of the characters goes beyond their encounter with drug traffickers who are tightly entangled with police. It shows why many are hesitant about reporting crimes or engaging with the state during such perilous times, as they can be further victimized. The situation is not particular to Mexico; it occurs in many other places, even at home in the USA. A powerful reminder is the recent documentary The Invisible War, which grapples with the story of military rape survivors who are continually victimized by that institution. Few bother speaking out and when they do, it’s like they are fighting a downstream current. Heli vividly characterizes a similar kind of hopeless victimization, though it does offer at least a form of catharsis at the end of the film.

In all, Heli is not subtle about its criticism but shows the intricacies of the current state of affairs in Mexico with a disturbing, visceral flair. However grim depictions are, people in Heli go on as life goes on too. Not all is lost, the human spirit is resilient, and the youth of Estela as well as her brother may symbolize that, for young democracies, it is still a long vertiginous road.

Ana Morgenstern

Heli runs 105 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (the violence may be difficult for some to sit through, however). It opens this Friday, May 30, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower Theater.

Program Note: Independent Ethos critics Ana and Hans Morgenstern will introduce Heli on opening night at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 9:15 p.m. and again Saturday, at 7 p.m. Let us know if you will be there by signing up on our Facebook event page. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.

Update: Heli is also showing in Broward County Friday and Saturday only at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood … if you absolutely can’t come see in Miami Beach.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

31 PlainThe Miami International Film Festival has just wrapped up another year of quality film premieres. Film for film, it may have featured the highest-quality programming I have seen at the festival ever. Unlike last year (Final weekend at MIFF: Trueba tribute, awards and aquatic-themed films), I hardly found a film to complain about at the 31st MIFF, but also I did not find the time to blog a daily diary of film-going experiences. Most of my time this year was spent providing content for the “Miami New Times” and its art and culture blog “Cultist.”

It began with a few preview pieces (Miami International Film Festival Announces Full 2014 Lineup). MIFF Executive Director Jaie Laplante has always made himself easily accessible, so it wasn’t hard to get him to admit to some favorites ahead of ticket sales (Catch MIFF Director Jaie Laplante’s Favorite Picks). We also talked about this year’s Florida Focus element, which featured more local filmmakers at MIFF than I can recall. I provided an exclusive report on that to “Pure Honey” (read it here).

Ectotherms - Still

One local filmmaker I was particularly impressed by was Monica Peña, whose short feature Ectotherms had its world premiere at MIFF. She was the only filmmaker I had a chance to interview at the festival besides actor/director John Turturro (more on his film, Fading Gigolo, which stars Woody Allen, in May). I was struck by the film’s patient, languorous quality, the warm, improvised performances of the actors and the associative narrative that turned death and arson into an incidental subplot. It’s a strange, compelling film that offers an appropriately surreal glimpse of a Miami few outside of the city know (read the interview here).

I had a chance to preview a handful of films before the festival began, which resulted in several reviews. None of these films were weak, but if there was one that was the weakest, it was Web. It’s strength lay in its subject: the One Laptop Per Child Program that began a few years ago. The program was designed to provide laptop computers to children in developing countries. Director Michael Kleiman went to two villages in Peru without running water and negligible electricity, much less Internet connectivity, to see how this program affected these small communities. He came away with an interesting picture about the ongoing effect of globalization. The question was not whether these tools could provide opportunities for people to advance with technology, but whether it would speed them along to irrelevance and ultimately a loss of culture. There were times when the director inserted himself too much into the piece, but when one villager begs Kleiman to not forget his family when he returns to life in the big city, it feels like a moving plea to conserve their culture.

Another startling documentary involving the web featured a more distant perspective, if a bit affected by a morose soundtrack: Web Junkie. Filmmakers Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam were somehow able to get a camera crew into a rehab camp in China for teenage Internet addicts. Web_JunkieCut off from the only thing that provided these male youths pleasure, the kids come across as pathetically desperate. When an off-camera voice asks one child why he is in the camp, he breaks down crying and replies, “because I used the Internet.” What may seem humorous at first gradually reveals a rather sad picture of a country that has taken it upon itself to raise children for families who have grown frustrated with their only kids.

From the extreme of these serious documentaries, there were a couple of truly humorous films from Latin America that added some delight to the mix. Club Sandwich by Fernando Eimbcke, the director of Duck Season, offered a rather shameless look at a young teenager’s sexual awakening while on summer vacation with his mother. What at first felt like an awkward film exploring a Oedipal complex takes a refreshing turn when the boy meets a girl at the resort he and his mom have escaped to. It’s still very awkward, as hormones remain the main motivator and not romance.

Another oddly humorous film in this mix was a U.S. Premiere: All About the Feathers. It came from Costa Rica and stood out as a quality work from a country you might have never thought of as having a film industry. It indulged in a deadpan sense of humor and focused on people often relegated to the periphery of life. All_About_the_FeathersThe film followed Chalo (Allan Cascante) a security guard and his quest to become a cock fighter. Rounding out this vibrant cast that miraculously never went over-the-top and silly, is a house maid who pushes Chalo to try selling Avon products, a young fruit vendor with a talent for the trumpet and a reformed delinquent who now works with Chalo. Featuring brilliantly composed, patient and distant shots, the film reveals just how important sincerity is to humor.

The most impressive film of this group of reviews had to be The Summer of Flying Fish, from Chilean director Marcela Said. A beautifully made, exquisitely patient film. Said, who has only directed documentaries until this film, shows an impressive eye and ear for building atmosphere. The land is often shrouded in fog, and a surreal ambient music permeates the many quiet interludes between the verbose fights between a privileged daughter and her wealthy land owner father, as the indigenous Mapuche people grow more and more restless. It all builds toward a potent finale that reveals a rather dreadful perspective on class divisions.

To read longer reviews in “Cultist” of these interesting films, jump through the titles below:

Web

Club Sandwich

All About the Feathers

Web Junkie

The Summer of Flying Fish

Summer_of_Flying_Fish

Then it was on to the festival itself. I skipped the opulent opening night party and film, Elsa & Fred, on Friday night, and made The Immigrant the first film I saw, on Saturday. The James Gray film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, was one of five films I dared to suggest as must-sees for “Cultist” (read that article here). For me, it did not live up to such hype. Though the film was beautifully staged, the characters felt a bit inconsistent. While Cotilliard’s Polish immigrant character at first felt rather heart-breaking (maybe it was the little voice she used pleading for her sister?), she later turned a tad too feisty to feel believable. Phoenix has returned to acting in fine form, a renaissance which began with the last Gray film he did: Two Lovers. However, whatever dynamism he was granted here did not suit him as well. Sometimes it all just boiled over into too much melodrama.

Another film I also recommended in the article but felt a bit disappointed by was The Sacrament, the latest film by Ti West. I was expecting him to give us something more than a simple take on the Jonestown massacre, but he did not. West was present at the screening and took questions from film critic David Edelstein and some of the audience members. The SacramentI also spoke with him for a bit afterward. He really seemed genuine about his attempt to come to terms with the horror of Jonestown. There were some seeming plot gaps, which he even admitted to leaving open due to budget and time constraints. Who’s to say if it would have ultimately mattered? It’s not like this story needs a gimmick to make it more terrible than it was. As West said, the true horror is what men are capable of doing with followers who have given up everything else.

In between those two films, I squeezed in a documentary: The Notorious Mr. Bout. It was a somewhat humorous film about a rather infamous figure involved with the black market gun trade. He happened to be the man who inspired the Nicholas Cage character in The Lord of War. The film successfully establishes Bout as a resourceful man from post-communist Russia starting an import-export company. He happened to ship guns on the side, but he became a typical easy target when the media began to be intrigued by his persona. Though his morals were loose, there is nothing incriminating Bout as wanting to support terrorists who wanted to kill Americans, but that’s still why he was jailed. By focusing on a person, the film actually presents what’s wrong with a justice system that wants to find blame in a persona when what really maybe wrong is a system that thrives on war.

The following day, a Sunday, began early with an afternoon master class by Chilean filmmaker/critic/author Alberto Fuguet. He’s the director behind one of my favorite movies at MIFF 31: Locations: Looking For Rusty James. Held at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, the hour-plus talk and slide show was entitled “A Very Bright Future: The End of Movies as We Know Them.” Alberto_FuguetIt was an enthusiastic talk by Fuguet that embraced the continuing digital revolution of cinema. It’s something I have been coming to terms with for a while now (To accept the death of celluloid), and Fuguet’s talk just provided another positive argument of not just coming to terms with digital as the replacement to 35mm but celebrating it for its possibilities of making more personal cinema and allowing for a larger range of voices beyond those with a lot of money who are more concerned with profit over art. You can read my full report here.

After his talk, I caught up with Fuguet to let him know how much I appreciated his documentary/film essay dedicated to Rumble Fish, as it too stands as my all-time favorite film (My personal favorite film: ‘Rumble Fish;’ read my ode to Coppola’s underrated masterpiece in AFI). He was thrilled to meet another devotee and shared that he was next headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Francis Ford Coppola shot Rumble Fish, and he, in turn, shot Locations. He was going to receive the key to the city on March 19, a day when his film will screen alongside Rumble Fish during a double feature at Circle Cinema in Tulsa. That day will then be officially declared Rumble Fish Day in that city (read more).

The class and conversation proved an invigorating day to begin day two of MIFF. I would only catch two other films that day, La La Jaula de Oro by Mexican director Diego Quemada-Díez and Fading Gigolo. La Jaula de Oro, which translates to “The Golden Cage,” but is ironically titled “The Golden Dream” for U.S. release, seemed similar to 2009’s Sin Nombre, but felt a tad more harrowing with younger protagonists who seemed to have even less of a fighting chance to make it. Indeed,  La Jaula de Oro was quite merciless in its take on their situation. The film follows four young teens leaving Guatemala in hopes of a better life in the United States. The trip is filled with peril, and only one of them makes it to the U.S. in the end. The way the children dropped out of the action, as if they were metaphorically ground up the inevitable dangers of crossing borders illegally, made for a powerful film.

The director was present for questions and answers after the film. He said the events in the film were inspired by true stories, as he worked closely with many immigrants during his research. la_jaula_de_oroMost of the extras were actual immigrants, and he said he hardly had to direct them. He even hired non-actors for the main parts. His approach is clearly neo-realism, as he worked under Ken Loach before directing this film. It was also beautifully shot and less earthy than you might expect for such a film.

Making it to the next screening proved to be an example of just how difficult it is to attend MIFF screenings at different venues. Miami is a sprawling city and with screenings in Miami Beach, Downtown Miami, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove and Wynwood, it can feel even more difficult to make it on time to screenings in different locations. I dared to have a sit-down dinner in between these two screenings, but ended up rushing to Downtown Miami for the Turturro film and career tribute, which was screened at a sold out Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center. I found a seat during the middle of Laplante’s opening speech, high up near the rafters,  as the lights dimmed for a montage of his film career. My full report on the rest of the evening can be read here.

I enjoyed the film. It maintained its tone throughout as laughs came consistently from the audience. Woody Allen co-starred with Turturro, who played the titular character. It’s a rich film that embraces the complexities of romance for more experienced individuals (read: older) while still maintaining a sense of humor:  Allen, after all, plays pimp to Turturro’s florist-turned-gigolo.

John Turturro at MIFF career tribute. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The next day, I had a one-on-one chat with Turturro outdoors in Miami Beach that went twice as long as it should have, as it would turn out we would have a great rapport. Details of that interview will have to wait until May, when the film sees release in the Miami area and the “Miami New Times” will publish the resulting story.

The rest of that Monday was spent writing, so I could not attend any screenings. The following Tuesday, however, would turn out to be my closing night for this year’s festival, as a previously scheduled vacation loomed for the following day. It would turn out to be a dynamic day, even though it would only include two films, a documentary and a feature.

Supermensch – The Legend of Shep Gordon may stand as the most delightful film I caught at the festival. It was a surreal viewing experience, as I sat right behind the film’s subject at the screening. Gordon, a manager to such celebrities as Alice Cooper and Michael Douglas, seemed genuinely modest about being the subject of a film by actor/comedian-turned-director Mike Myers. The admiration so many celebrities have for Gordon stands as testament as how down-to-earth this man is. It seems to be how he has maintained such trusting relationships with clients over the years. His accessibility seems quite inspirational to Myers who kept the appreciation light and brisk, even with moments of serious exploration that showed that even a lovable character like Gordon can be lonely, too. The editing, also by Myers, featured masterfully interwoven vintage footage synched to voice overs of so many great stories, it never felt as though the film lagged. Gordon received a rousing round of applause ahead of a Q&A with more compelling stories from his past that kept much of the audience in their seats.

The second film of that night was Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive. It made for a great closer for this mini-MIFF. Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving vampires with brilliant respect. Beyond the cute jokes like the names Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) for the leads, Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures who still have a touch of soulful humanity in them. It’s fitting that the youngest of them, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed, is the most troublesome. By the same token, it’s also apt that Adam would tend to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics, “spooky action at a distance.” The sumptuously absorbing score by Jozef van Wissem is an inspired choice for a composer. I was glad I recommended it in my last must-see listicle for “Cultist.”

I was also able to catch Heli in that last list of must-see MIFF films. It may have been the most powerful of all the MIFF films encountered at the festival. Ana Morgenstern will provide a review ahead of its theatrical release in South Florida in the next few months.

Awards for the closing night of the festival were handed out on Saturday night. The winners included many films I did not get around to seeing (I did only attend about half the festival, after all). Some of these will probably appear at other festivals while others will actually see theatrical release. I’ll leave you with the full list of winners, beginning with the audience award winners:

 # # #

Lexus Audience Award:

Best Feature: Fading Gigolo directed by John Turturro (USA).

Best Documentary: The Mountain (La montaña) directed by Tabaré Blanchard (Dominican Republic).

The other awards were announced Sunday:

Knight Competition:

Knight Grand Jury Prize: A Wolf at the Door (O lobo atrás da porta) (Brazil, directed by Fernando Coimbra).

Grand Jury Best Performance: Nora Navas of We All Want What’s Best For Her (Tots volem el millor per a ella) directed by Mar Coll (Spain).

Grand Jury Best Director: Fernando Coimbra of A Wolf at the Door (O lobo atrás da porta) (Brazil).

Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award:

Winner: Mateo written by Maria Gamboa (Colombia/France).

Knight Documentary Competition:

The jury selected two films to tie as winners in this category for the Knight Grand Jury Prize:

Finding Vivian Maier, directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof (USA).

The Overnighters, directed by Jesse Moss (USA).

Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition:

The jury selected a winner and an honorable mention in this category:

Mateo directed by Maria Gamboa (Colombia/France)

Honorable Mention: The jury would also like to give special recognition to We are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) directed by Samuel Kishi Leopo (Mexico).

Papi Shorts Competition Presnted By Macy’s:

Papi Shorts Grand Jury Award for Best Short Film: A Big Deal (特殊交易) directed by Yoyo Yao China of China will receive $1,000. The film made it’s US premiere at the festival this year.

Honorable Mention: The jury would also like to give special recognition to Skin directed by Cédric Prévost (France). The film made its North American premiere at the festival this year.

The above award winning films joined completion winners in other categories, announced earlier in the week at the Festival including:

Miami Encuentros presented by Moviecity

WINNER: Aurora (Chile, produced by Florencia Larrea, directed by Rodrigo Sepulveda) will receive a pre-sale contract offer worth $35,000.

Miami Future Cinema Critics Award

Winner: To Kill A Man (Matar un hombre) (Chile / France, directed by Alejandro Fernández Almendras).

Reel Music Video Art Competition Presented By MTV Latin America and TR3s

Winner: “Around the Lake” (“Autour Du Lac”) directed by Noémie Marsily & Carl Roosens of Belgium. The music video was performed by Carl et les hommes-boîtes. The winner will receive an opportunity to be placed on MTV Latin America and Tr3s websites.

SIGNIS Award

The International Jury of SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, formed by: Gustavo Andújar, president, and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki and Juan José Rodríguez, members, give their SIGNIS Award to Belle directed by Amma Asante for its multi-layered depiction of the challenges to the value of human life and dignity wherever a profit-driven system makes commodification of persons acceptable. Masterly crafted, the film lifts up a variety of issues of conscience which still confront us today.

 # # #

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)