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San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF)

2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival Finds

One of the best our city has to offer, the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) is here.



Running across two weekends, the fest features an impeccably curated selection of movies that are likely to suit every taste. Whether you like mainstream cinema, or have an affinity for smaller independent films, or if you prefer documentaries, you will find all manner of gems. And that doesn’t even include the short films program, the Cinegay selection, or the special program of films from Chile that are being highlighted at this year’s SDLFF.


Some people give me a funny look when I mention film festivals. If the idea of seeing a movie at a film festival seems too particular, or too intellectual, or too fringe, can I please assure you that it is none of those things. You show up and buy a ticket just like you would for any other film. You are more than likely to have the filmmaker or cast members in attendance. And a Q&A session with them at the end of the screening. Where else can you get the opportunity to hear directly from the creators of a film you have just seen. In many instances, this may be the only opportunity to watch the film because it may not get subsequent distribution. Also if you tell yourself that none of the films will be of interest to you since you are not latino, then you will be dead wrong. Three of the films screening here are already on my list of the best of any films I have seen so far this year.


Below are some of the films that are playing at this year’s festival. It is only when I listed together here that I realized that all of them are strangely, in one way or another, about brothers and sisters.


MV5BMjA0NTI2Nzk2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDEyODExMTE@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_SOMBRAS DE AZUL (Shades of Blue, Mexico): A young girl shows up in Havana for the first time, and settles down to spend a few days in the city. As she starts to roam the Cuban sights, you realize from her mental conversations (directed to a lover? father? friend?) that she has run away from her past life. She frequents the city attractions, spends time with another resident at the lodging house she is staying at, and finds herself surprised at developing a friendship with a local man who she first met when he tried to steal her camera. Part travelogue, part confessional, and altogether authentic, the experience of a person in a strange new land amounts to a film of unexpected depth. This is assured, confident filmmaking, characterized by remarkable acting. An example of how the honest and truthful telling of a personal story is  all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths. What a remarkable achievement this quietly devastating film is.


Unknown-31STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS (USA): This film is another stellar example of an immersion in the lives of a few individuals that results in a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Mariana is a single parent who makes a living cleaning homes. At the end of each school day, her daughter is entrusted with bringing her autistic younger brother Ricky back home. One day, Ricky wanders off after school and doesn’t return home. How does a parent deal with the nightmare of a lost child, as hours slip into days? How is a mother to forgive her daughter for the consequences of her carelessness? How is a severely autistic child to come home when he isn’t wired to be able to do so? Who can you truly rely on in a difficult time, particularly if you are stationed close to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder? Austere, stark, and almost documentary-like in its quiet observations, this film demonstrates that the best cinema places you squarely in the shoes of someone else and lets you feel that person’s existence. And by doing so, moves you to contemplate your own place in the world. It absolutely breaks my heart that a film as unquestionably brilliant as this one will not get a hundredth of the exposure that it deserves. At the film’s conclusion, the audience I saw it with leapt into applause. I couldn’t join them because I was too choked up to respond. This film is the reason we bother to watch movies at all.


Unknown-32LES ANALFABETAS (The Illiterates, Chile): This film is a character study of the kind of person we seldom see films pivot around: an irritable, impatient, prickly, and proud individual. The kind of person who has decided that they will not (can not?) play by the rules of society. The kind who is deeply, resolutely set in their ways. And then consider the plot: an illiterate individual learns how to write. This could have been the sort of soggy, insufferable dredge that this premise might dictate, but the movie completely bypasses that trap. After her sublime turn in GLORIA, here is Paulina Garcia again in a completely different incarnation, shorn of all vanity and playing an individual that is instantly recognizable. The film also has the good sense to not provide every answer, leaving it up to the audience to contemplate the reasoning behind certain actions in the film. A movie will stay with you longer if you are left with just enough ponderables to keep you wondering.


Unknown-33HELI (Mexico): This film nabbed the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And I can see why: it creates some of the best sense of foreboding that I have seen in a movie in some time. It is that feeling that something truly awful is going to happen any moment – that is sustained through much of the narrative. This film will resonate with those who admire darkly bitter, deeply violent films. From the very first scene that elicited a gasp from the audience in the screening I attended, this film is unrelenting in its single-minded pursuit of exploring the worst in human behavior. Set in a deeply rural Mexico where government and lawlessness coexist as one, the film revolves around a family whose lives implode when the teenaged daughter has the misfortune of falling for a young army cadet who tries to get away with a stolen batch of cocaine from his superiors. Pulpy and gonzo, the film may not be for everyone, but there is no denying the high voltage charge it carries.


Unknown-34LEVANTAMUERTOS (Death Strokes, Mexico):  This films clocks a few days in the life of a man who works in the coroner’s office. Frequently dispatched to take care of bodies of the recently deceased, things get into a tailspin when he is forced to use many of his vocational skills to conceal a death that has occurred at this hands. Like HELI, this film carries a foreboding air that is heightened by a morbid tone and dark humor. Set amongst the inhabitants of a small town in Mexico that is cooking under the relentlessly brutal summer heat that almost justifies the extreme actions of many of its characters. Had this film been able to build on the rich characters and setting, it would have been a great Lynchian outing. But even though it diffuses in the last act, it makes for a good ride to the dark side.


Unknown-36MY SISTER’S QUINCEANERA (USA): A latino family in a small American town is the focus of this film which observed them in the week leading up to the quinceanera of the oldest daughter. What is refreshing about this film is that everyone in is inherently decent; there are no bad characters here. The younger sister feels a little left out since her turn for a quinceanera is yet to come. Her older brother hangs out with his best friend and is trying to hold off the onset of adulthood and responsibility as much as possible. This is one of the better depictions on film that I have seen of the struggle to decide whether to stay in the same small town one has grown up in versus getting away from home for college.  The film has a wonderful, gentle understatedness about it; there is nothing overly dramatized or shrill in the movie. Also there is a naturalness about the actors, maybe because many of them are related in real life. This is a quiet gem of a film.



2013 San Diego Latino Film Festival Round-Up

The San Diego Latino Film Festival is running through its final lap, and there is still an opportunity to sample many a film before the fest concludes this weekend on Sunday, March 17th.

Here are some of the films playing at SDLFF that I watched. The diversity in the scope of these films speaks to the richness of the festival catalog.

7_Cajas_P_ster7 CAJAS (7 BOXES, Paraguay) This was one of the highlights of my Toronto Film Festival  experience last year (original review here). Here is the premise of 7 BOXES (directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori): in a teeming shanty market in Paraguay, seventeen year old Victor is one of many people making a living by carting merchandise on wheelbarrows through the maze of busy streets. One evening he is asked to deliver 7 wooden boxes to a location he will be informed of at a later time. Hoping to finally be able to afford the used cell-phone he has been lusting after, he accepts the task. And thus begins what will be the breathless remainder of the film as Victor realizes that there are many who will go to any extreme to get their hands on the 7 boxes. If this film sounds like a Premium Rush knock-off, let me assure you this is a far smarter, grittier and layered movie that is as close-to-the-ground unpolished and hard-scrabble as they get. The more relevant comparison would be withRun Lola Run which also featured a protagonist persistently on the run against time. 7 Boxes features an ingenious plot (wait till you find out what’s in the boxes) that expertly weaves together more than a dozen characters who interact in unexpected ways in a story that is as labyrinthine as the market streets through which Victor dashes with the seven wooden crates tethered to his wheelbarrow. Every actor here achieves a reality to their character that makes it impossible to imagine them in other roles. We have seen movies like this before, but ultimately what elevates this film is the notes of cleverness that are liberally scattered throughout; this is the work of unquestionable talent. To give an example, there is a scene in the film where in the middle of his running, running, running, Victor stops outside an electronics shop to catch his breath. There are multiple televisions in the storewindow, each fitted to a camera. As he sees his face projected through multiple perspectives he can’t help but stare, probably seeing his face from so many angles for the first time in his life. Something terrible has happened immediately before this scene, but Victor stops for a moment to stare. To be a kid. To be a human being, suddenly fascinated by something simple. It is touches such as this which demonstrate that this is the work of a gifted filmmaker. All of the pieces of the plot ultimately snap together with a pleasing click, and the movie has a final scene so perfectly rendered it had me cheering at the screen. To discover a movie like this is the reason one goes to film festivals. Unpredictable, frenetic and utterly entertaining, this folks, is how you do it.

images-4DE JUEVES A DOMINGO (THURSDAY TILL SUNDAY, Chile) I had a chance to catch this at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival; original review here.  Helmed by first time director Domingo Sotomayor Castillo) this Chilean film covers a four-day road trip (hence the film title) taken by a couple, their daughter, and young son.  The movie is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of the teenaged daughter. Approaching neorealism, this is a work of stark austerity, which may tempt a viewer to assign it hastily to the genre of films where nothing happens. The studiedly documentary feel, the naked abandon of traditional plotting and story arc, and the patient, unrushed, lingering of the camera over these four characters, may at first seem unsettling. But when one stops trying to deduce the film on a minute by minute basis, one settles into its rhythms. And you realize this is a film that trusts the intelligence of the viewer enough to not provide easy answers. And demands that the viewers bring their own experiences to glean what they will from this story. Slowly the cracks in the relationships come into focus, sometimes ever so briefly. More than anything else the movie evokes a sense of nostalgia – about a time, when being a child meant not having the tools to decipher what the behavior of the adults signified. The young daughter is never precocious, or all knowing, and the actor who plays her (Santi Ahumada) brings an effortless naturalism that belies any knowledge of a camera being around her, and captures all the complexities of being a teenager: distracted, self-involved, impatient but always well-meaning. In the Q and A after the film, the director revealed that the four-year old who played the younger brother was obviously not up to acting in the traditional sense, and the other actors learned to ad-lib and work around his natural behavior on camera. No wonder the film evokes a feeling of purity about it.

images-7EL ULTIMO ELVIS (THE LAST ELVIS, Argentina)Armando Bo, the first-time director of this film which also screened during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival (original review here), has no trouble coaxing an altogether believable performance out of Margarita Lopez, who plays in this film, the young daughter of an Elvis Presley impersonator in Argentina. But it is John McInerny, playing Carlos, the lead, who impresses most by managing to transcend the kitschiness associated with celebrity impersonators. He plays a blue collar worker struggling to make ends meet while dealing with an ex-wife who does not think much of him, and a daughter who is uncommunicative. On the side, he plays Elvis tunes at local gigs, and the film makes it clear from the very first scene that this is not a man lacking in talent. His single-minded admiration for Elvis is so complete as to be entirely immune to irony. Or pity. Or perverseness.  This man simply believes in Elvis. And it is to the director and lead actor’s credit that this character never becomes laughable. Carlos is 42 years old, the same age as when Elvis died, and things spiral even further out of control as a set of events leave him having to become the primary caretaker of his distant daughter. As he labors to stay afloat, the movie quietly shifts into an uncompromising character study of a man under duress. And the final scenes of the film, invested with a sense of inevitability, cunningly hint at a mystery left for the viewer to solve. The kind that should trigger a reconsideration of all that has transpired earlier in the film. The day before the screening of the movie, we were fortunate to run into the completely disarming young director of the film, Armando Bo (who previously co-wrote the film Biutiful). Please come see my film tomorrow and tell me afterward whether you liked it, he said. I have been doing one better than that, Mr Bo. I have been telling anyone who will listen to find a way to see this uncommonly accomplished film. And I can hardly wait for what Armando Bo does next.

UnknownFECHA DE CADUCIDAD (EXPIRATION DATE, Mexico). More than anything else, I admired the underlying darkly morbid tone of this film. You watch most of it with a sense of dread, even as you are faced with acrid humor at every corner. The film reminded me of Delicatessen in terms of that mix of the mythic and the gruesome and for its regard for characters that are deeply damaged. I also liked the structure of the film which in the second half revisits the same events from the individual perspective of the three main characters. And finally I was completely taken by the amazing performance from And Ofelia Murguia, who plays the mother. What an actor! Her wordless reactions single-handedly kept the film compelling through the first half, and she was utterly believable at every step. In that way, the film also reminded me of the Korean movie Mother from a few years ago, which was also about a woman who will go to any length to find out what happened to her son. This film is being endorsed by the San Diego Film Critics Society, which will host a Q and A sessions after the 5 PM screening tomorrow, Saturday March 16th.

LA PLAYA DC (Columbia).  It is difficult to do good coming-of-age films. And I appreciated the spare, almost documentary like treatment of this material. It is also an opportunity to see a part of the world, that we are seldom exposed to in cinema: that of life in the shanties in Bogota. I was fascinated by the entire subculture of men patterning their hair as a way of expression in an otherwise brutally criminal society. This film could have been undone if it had made the slightest concession to sentimentality, but it does not. In many ways the film is just a character study of someone growing up in an environment most of us are unfamiliar with, in the underbelly of society where death is matter of fact, and criminality has taken its hold even within the very young. I like how the film settles in its last act, of being about a teenager who hesitantly finally finds a place for himself within the confines of an environment he is unable to change, or escape from.

MV5BMTU1MjU1NTgxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTgyNTg0NA@@._V1._SX100_SY133_NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT (Chile) This film it something so altogether its own. It is also one of the most successful documentaries I have seen. What it covers is something that I had no prior knowledge of, something that has little to do with my own life experiences. And yet, the deep and authentic emotional resonance of the movie cannot be denied. It starts off by focusing on the largest density of observatories in the world that have been built in the deserts in Chile, in the middle of nowhere. The uncommonly dry desert conditions and the lack of humidity or neighboring light, make this region one of the few places in the world from which to most clearly observe the skies and the astonomical bodies within. Every astronomer in the world (and many aim to make their way to the Chilean observatories) is trying to decipher the origin of the world we live in by studying the imprint of the galaxies around us. Deeply philosphical, the film achieves the altogether impossible task of making metaphysical inquiry glow with clarity and wonder. How fascinating to find, as is mentioned in the film, that the calcium in our bones is the same calcium that was present at the formation of our planet. We are literally the universe. As it turns out the film is interested in not just the scientists in these observatories, but also on another group of individuals who happen within the region. For the past twenty, thirty years even, many women have been wandering these deserts, in search of human remains. Human remains of their loved ones, brothers, sons, husbands who disappeared mysteriously during the Pinochet regime. The political backstory informs us that tens of thousands were quietly executed and their bodies scattered around the desert. Every once in a while a body is recovered, the intense, dry heat preserving clothing and shoes on the skeletal results. Unable to find closure from the disappearance of a loved one, these women set out on regular pilgrimages in the hopes of locating evidence within these deserts. In the skies of these deserts, there are those who are trying to find the origin of humankind, and in the sands are those that are trying to locate the end of human lives. All of which makes this is a gently, powerfully devastating film.

Unknown-1POST TENEBRAS LUX (AFTER DARKNESS LIGHT, Mexico) The divisive director Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle In Heaven, Still Light) has made a name for himself for constructing films that are amorphous, unstructured, meditative, and often wordless for long periods of time. Like Michael Haneke, Raygadas’ films appear to be offered as a puzzle to the audience, and the director is not one to offer much by way of clues. His films are immersive, without tether, sexually graphic, and bearing no submission to the traditional demands of plot. Highly polarizing, these are films that demand introspection and vigorous debate after a viewing. Post Tenebras Lux (from the Latin, for ‘Light, After Darkness’) is no exception. It’s a fool’s errand to try and describe what the film is about. An affluent couple move to rural Mexico, with their two children (played by the director’s own kids). What seems like a veritable Eden (there is no denying the visual brilliance of the first fifteen or so minutes of the movie, featuring the young daughter in a rapturous state of being around the natural splendor of her environs), soon becomes a setting for a tentative playing out of class struggle between the ‘have’s who have moved in, and the ‘have not’s who are the residents of this seemingly idyllic location. The movie resolutely disavows chronology, and as the film plays out, it becomes increasingly unclear as to what is real, what is imagined, and what might simply be the delusional stream of consciousness of a dying man. This should have been frustrating, and I suspect the film will test the patience of many. But I couldn’t help being pulled into the tidal languor of the movie. Unlike say The Tree Of Life, to which I had a greater difficulty surrendering, this movie elicited in me, a quiet wonder. I willingly took the journey, fully aware that it may not have a destination at all. What to make of the animated red devil-like creature that shows up in two scenes of this otherwise rigidly realistic movie? Are the abruptly set rugby scenes in an English boy’s school, simply an autobiographical concession to the director’s own experiences, or is one of the boys in those scenes meant to be the grown up child of the couple in the film? Trying to deduce the answers to these questions is the movie’s own reward. What should have been insufferable and indulgent, was surprisingly not. Like Holy Motors from last year (compared to which, this film is far more accessible) I am glad that this too is what cinema can be.

2103 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF); What’s Your Excuse For Not Going?

187790_132560869837_1553025927_qThe 2013 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) is on, folks! The fest is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and it includes a particularly well curated selection of movies. The full schedule is here.

The film '7 Boxes' from Paraguay

The film ‘7 Boxes’ from Paraguay

Yes we all like to go to the multiplex to watch the latest blockbuster. At other times, we visit the Landmark Cinemas to catch the smaller films – you know, the ones that have the misfortune of not being backed by Hollywood megastudios or to have gone through a blitzkrieg of advertisement and promotional marketing. But, there is that other movie experience that no true film lover (and who doesn’t love movies?) should miss out on: the film festival experience. You might just discover that little gem of a film that is unlikely to get a traditional release. Or if does find eventual distribution, you will have the bragging rights to say that you saw it before anyone else. For example, there is a film screening at SDLFF called 7 CAJAS (7 BOXES). If there is any justice in the world, it will soon find distribution for general theatrical release. But until that happens, how wonderful that you can watch it. Right now. Locally. By paying the same price as a regular cinema ticket. And you will be supporting your local festival scene.

l_2112148_225904b5This year, the San Diego Film Critics Society (SDFCS) is endorsing two films playing at the festival. On Saturday, March 16th, FECHA DE CADUCIDAD (EXPIRATION DATE) from Mexico will be screening at 5 PM. Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader, Brian Lafferty of East County magazine, and I will be conducting a Q and A session after the end of this screening. If picking the films to watch from the substantial festival catalog intimidates you, here is an easy decision: catch FECHA DE CADUCIDAD. Leavened by the darkest of dark humor, and featuring a mix of the mythic and the gruesome, the movie is elevated further by its regard for characters that are deeply damaged. On Sunday, March 17th, the SDFCS will be championing the 8 PM screening of the Brazilian film FATHER’S CHAIR, which will be introduced by SDFCS members, who will also moderate a Q and A session after the screening.

There is literally something for everyone at the SDLFF. In addition to the selection of new films there is also a 20th Anniversary Retrospective of well-regarded movies from the past, including Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, CRONOS, AMORES PERROS, CITY OF GOD, CENTRAL STATION, OBRE LOS OJOS and ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER. Each one of these is exceptional, and if you have seen them, here’s your opportunity to catch these films on the big-screen again. There will be screenings of documentaries, Short Film programmes, a Para La Familia selection of age-appropriate films for children, a program of Science on Screen which showcases films with an emphasis on Science and Technology, a Cinegay program, the Un Mundo Extrano program of extreme films that prize their shock value, and a Cine Mexicano program. This is easily one of the more extensively planned and organized film festivals in San Diego. If you live here, what is your excuse for not going?

I will be discussing my take on some of the films screening at 2013 SDLFF in a subsequent post.

All films screen at the Digiplex Mission Valley Cinemas (formerly Ultrastar Mission Valley Theatres, 7510 Hazard Center Drive), with a few additional screenings at the brand new Media Arts Digital Gym Cinemas, 2921 El Cajon Boulevard).