mexican cinema

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Untamed”

The Untamed (2017; Dir.: Amat Escalante)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, August 4, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

More dreary provocation from Heli director Escalante, this time an intriguing but no less deadening blend of sexually charged sci-fi and kitchen-sink social drama.  Impressive newcomer Ruth Ramos stars as Alejandra, the flustered and unsatisfied wife to Ángel, a macho scumbag who is secretly sleeping with Alejandra’s gay brother Fabián.  Creeping in from the margins comes Verónica (Simone Bucio), a strangely soothing outsider who worms her way into Fabián’s life, eventually enticing him to a cabin in the woods that houses a strange presence.  When Fabián is found dead, Ángel is accused of the murder, but Alejandra finds herself drawn towards that same strange presence in the woods…with sexy results!  (Not really, it’s super gross.)  The film earns maximum points for sheer “What-the-shit?!”-ness, offering an unholy blend of Cronenberg-ian body horror and domestic misery porn, and yet it all feels unusually empty.  As was the case with Heli, there is a potentially fascinating and wholly original film flickering on the fringes of The Untamed, but Escalante’s navel-gazing sadism still takes center stage.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “A Monster with a Thousand Heads”

rsz_a-monster-with-a-thousand-headsA Monster with a Thousand Heads (2016; Dir.: Rodrigo Plá)

GRADE: C

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.

You won’t find a stronger proponent for unconventional running times than this critic – in the world where I rule you like a god, the multiplexes play 50-minute movies right along with 500-minute movies, and everyone eats a flavorless mush I call “root-marm.”  Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s crusty anti-HMO screed A Monster with a Thousand Heads clocks in at 74 minutes, conspicuously short by today’s standards but longer than some of William Wellman and Charlie Chaplin’s best films, so fuck you, today’s standards.  Unfortunately, Plá’s iron-fisted approach to the thriller genre wrings out any possibility of tension or mystery, leaving only an over-baked and undernourished gimmick movie, and a fairly laughable one at that.  While her husband wastes away at home, unable to obtain the uncovered medication that he desperately needs, his wife Sonia (Jana Rulay, limited to one expression) takes matters into her own hands.  After a doctor brushes her off, she follows him home and abducts him at gunpoint, but even with hostages in tow, Sonia is still forced to navigate an obstinate bureaucracy.  Plá’s one trick is to follow a sequence to its conclusion, then reset from an incidental participant’s point-of-view, usually accompanied with narration ostensibly culled from a future deposition or trial.  It probably sounds a lot cooler than it plays, but for the most part this dud feels like a Dog Day Afterthought.

IN THEATERS (SF) – Heli

indexHeli (2014; Dir.: Amat Escalante)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opening today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

The term “Southern miserablism” has been bandied about lately in film culture as a way of describing films like Mud and Joe, movies that roll around in a fetid atmosphere of Deep South suffering and abuse. Amat Escalante’s unforgiving and largely unrewarding Heli, which won Best Director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is a grueling exercise in a new-fangled sort of “Mexican miserablism.” It unfolds as slowly and bleakly and cruelly as possible in an unnamed Mexican pit of hell, as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story unexpectedly thrusts a working-class family into the drug war.

Heli is largely shot in a sickly gray-green hue, and while pitiless violence and a bleak tone hardly feel out of place in a story of Mexican drug cartels, the film also has a somewhat self-righteous lack of personality. Even worse, Escalante’s film is just as likely to wallow in festival circuit clichés as it is scenes of graphic genital torture and dog murder. Long, slow, static driving and bike-riding scenes are one of the favored overused time-fillers here. Escalante also defiantly disavows any notions of character-building – all we ever know about the titular protagonist is that he is quiet and determined and loves his family; about the rest of the characters, we learn even less.

index2The movie opens on a lengthy shot of Heli riding unconscious in the back of a truck cab with duct tape over his mouth and a boot pressed against his head.  When they finally arrive at their location, Heli is pulled from the truck and seemingly hanged from a bridge with his pants pulled down around his ankles. From there, Heli circles back to the events leading up to that dehumanizing moment of wanton butchery, and that’s when things really start to get ugly.

On the fringes of all this sadistic navel-gazing, Escalante paints an interesting portrait of the drug war, with cartels and paramilitary groups and police officers seemingly indistinguishable in their corruption.  There are also a handful of strange and disturbing images that have imprinted in my mind, and I liked how the movie gradually coalesced from random slices of life into an urgent narrative, but overall it’s too gratuitous in every direction.  In one scene, a young cadet is forced by his superiors to roll around in his own puke, ostensibly in the name of personal betterment, and Escalante forces that same level of it’s-good-for-you torment on his audience.

March Up All Night Movies – ESFS Classic

imagesThe Exterminating Angel (1962; Dir.: Luis Bunuel)

GRADE: A

By Daniel Barnes

NOTE: On the original 2008-10 blog incarnation of ESFS, one of my favorite programs was the Bunuel festival, in which we watched L’Age d’Or, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and my personal favorite, The Exterminating Angel.  This is a combination of two different reviews written in March 2009, which sort of explains the reference tZack Snyder’s Watchmen.

Watching all three of these Bunuel films in such a short time span, you can see the common threads that run through fifty years of filmmaking – a compulsive urge to belittle piety, conformity, and bourgeois society; a penchant for the shocking, inexplicable moment; and the constant intermingling of dream life, waking life, and movie life, the last of which Bunuel would probably consider a combination of the first two.

If, as I’ve said earlier, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is like hearing someone talk about their dream (turgid, rambling), then The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is like seeing a performance of someone’s dream (clever, mannered), and The Exterminating Angel and L’Age d’Or are like peering into someone’s head and watching their dreams (paranoid, strange). In the latter two films, the action, however ridiculous, proceeds from a demented sort of coherence, just as dream narratives are usually compelled by a mysterious urgency.

Bunuel tended to pile gags on top of gags, almost like silent comedians or the Marx Brothers; he was as influenced by Groucho and Buster Keaton as by any other filmmakers. There is almost a self-aware acknowledgment of this method at the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel – a waiter trips and spills the food before serving, and all but one the upper-class guests applaud and laugh uproariously, thinking the pratfall was a joke. At first, we assume the nobs are being callous and juvenile towards the servant class, but when the waiter returns to the kitchen, we find out that it WAS a joke, and the man who DIDN’T laugh was the jerk. However, this explanation only muddles the logic of the situation further.

Shot in France after a long tenure in Mexico, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is by far the drollest of the three pictures, but you can see the same anarchic, gag-heavy comedy in the film’s best sequences. It’s consistently playful and fascinating, although perhaps a bit rote and formal compared to the other two movies. Discreet Charm… FEELS like the career-capping work of a great director, a little safer and more familiar, so naturally it won Bunuel his only Oscar.

The Exterminating Angel is the real apex of Bunuel’s brand of anarchic, surrealist satire, a genuine masterpiece that springs uncannily to life with every succeeding scene. The plot is razor thin, but with endless variations – a blabbering group of aristocrats convenes for a dinner party, only to find that all of the servants have fled, like forest creatures supernaturally aware of an impending disaster. This leads to one of my favorite scenes from the film, in which the well-dressed mob, with no servants to guide them, wanders into the same room over and over again.

Bunuel’s style is deceptively simple – almost all of the action takes place in one room, but the movements within the frame have the rigorous, hilarious, and almost poignantly beautiful choreography of great slapstick.  As the evening winds down, the guests grow outrageously weary and find that they cannot leave the parlor, even though there is nothing physically impeding their exit. It’s as though even the mildest diversion in the master/servant social order leads them directly into madness, despair, and a complete loss of faith.

Eventually, the nobs form a makeshift refugee camp in the lavishly decorated parlor (fittingly, paintings of angels gaze at these damned creatures from the wall), and within a few hours revert to drug use, savagery, and paganism. The layers of civility peel away to expose both petty fears and existential dread, and as the partygoers start dying of some unnamed plague, there are intimations of a great extermination bearing down upon them all.

While the motivations in The Exterminating Angel are mysterious and the situations are ridiculous, they are propelled by a queer inner logic that makes the film utterly dreamlike. Of course, the puckish Bunuel can’t resist undercutting and deflating this dream “logic”. Just as it starts to seem like the trapped party guests are engaged in mass delusional hysteria (one has a vision of a detached hand), we get a peek outside the mansion, and see that crowds and police have gathered. The “spiritually/morally trapped” guests are actually in a tangible but unresolvable hostage-like situation – no one can get inside the house, either.

The Exterminating Angel is like watching Bunuel’s subconscious unspool before our eyes, and the ending sequence is one of the most toxic satires of religion I’ve ever seen. Every black-and-white image in the film is saturated with a feverish immediacy; many scenes have the anything-goes self-awareness of the Marx Brothers or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker; and the performances are bizarrely pitch-perfect.

It’s especially bizarre because we never get to “know” any of the characters; no one ever emerges into a complete or even remotely sympathetic figure, and yet Bunuel has a buried empathy for them that almost matches their latent savagery. For the image-conscious bourgeois partygoer, it’s a savagery that only seems to emerge deep into the night.

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