Previewing the Chicago Latino Film Festival - Part I

The International Latino Cultural Center holds the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival from April 3rd to April 17th. The eclectic selection of films includes contemporary releases from Latin America, Spain, Portugal and the United States. In conjunction with the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, the festival will also screen several Academy Award-nominated films from Latin American and Spain - featuring works from renowned directors like Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu. But even those directors needed a launching pad and it’s through a festival like this that new voices can be heard - of the over 70 films to be screened, over 30 of them come from first-time directors.

What the Chicago Latino Film Festival offers is the opportunity to take a glimpse into global cinema that would otherwise be relegated to specialty theaters - or worse yet, failing to receive distribution at all. It provides audiences with the rare opportunity to engage with pictures of a different cultural perspective. With so many first-time filmmakers showcasing the festival, the hope is that we may very well be looking at the next future masters of cinema. In the wake of Alfonso Cuarón’s Academy Award win, it’s an aim worth striving for.

El Amor No Es Lo Que Era/Love’s Not What it Used to Be (Gabriel Ochoa, Spain, 2013)

A scene from Gabriel Ochoa's  Love's Not What It Used to Be  {Photo: TARANNA FILMS}

A scene from Gabriel Ochoa's Love's Not What It Used to Be {Photo: TARANNA FILMS}

Mosaic filmmaking in the vein of Magnolia or Amores Perros tend to vary wildly in quality. The overt thematic headiness of these pictures tends to usurp fundamental narrative qualities whereby an emphasis on arbitrary-ness can become a tough sell. The aforementioned films by Paul Thomas Anderson and Alejandro González Iñárritu worked; Paul Haggis’ Crash did not. Gabriel Ochoa’s debut feature, Love’s Not What it Used to Be, settles in a middle ground.

It’s a romantic comedy of sorts, light on the comedy and a bit too self-serious about its romance, with an emphasis on a grand design that unites people. It’s composed of generational romances between a flighty waitress and an interning doctor, an optical specialist and his recovering wife, and an elderly couple. Ochoa is a light stylist as he conveys this grand design through practical God’s eye view shots peppered throughout. It’s a well-constructed film, with Ochoa proving capable of handling a diverse cast. But like most of these types of films there’s usually a singular narrative that you latch onto (in my case, the youngest couple). And while the conceit is interesting, Ochoa doesn’t really do much with the thematic proposition of a grand design beyond his visual flourishes. A welcome if not particularly remarkable, debut.

El Amor No Es Lo Que Era/Love’s Not What it Used to Be screens at the AMC River East 21 on Friday, April 4 and Sunday, April 6 with director Gabriel Ochoa scheduled to attend for a Q & A session. Click here to purchase tickets.

¿Quien Mato A Bambi?/ Who Killed Bambi? (Santi Amodeo, Spain, 2013)

The beginning of a series of misfortunes in  ¿Quien Mato A Bambi?  {Photo: SONY PICTURES}

The beginning of a series of misfortunes in ¿Quien Mato A Bambi? {Photo: SONY PICTURES}

Joe Mantegna’s character in House of Games notes that if you’re fired from your job, when you’re going home, take something. It’s meant as a keepsake or memento - as a personal marker of a moment in life. Santi Amodeo’s Who Killed Bambi? may as well be considered a cautionary tale against that idea. Two sets of characters are introduced. One a working class bunch and the other a group of middle-men suits. When an elderly janitorial worker is fired, his son and friends seek retribution against the company’s affluent executive. Meanwhile, the soon-to-be son-in-law of that same executive is getting pushback as a result of his relationship to the boss and his daughter. The scripting is a series of misfortunes that bring the two sets of characters inward and out.

The devil’s in the details, or lack thereof, and Amodeo’s script exploits the miscues of his various characters with clever energy. The picture is some weird cocktail of Tarantino-esque violence with the verbal wit associated with Edgar Wright. The film begins to buckle in its stretch and isn’t especially rich thematically or technically, but it works as a concept that’s realized effectively.

¿Quien Mato A Bambi?/ Who Killed Bambi? screens at the AMC River East 21 on Friday, April 4 and Sunday April 6 with director Santi Amodeo scheduled to attend for a Q & A session. Click here to purchase tickets.

Todas Para Uno / All for One (Harold Trompetero, Columbia, 2014)

Flat images, flat dialogue in  Todas Para Uno  {Photo: FACEBOOK}

Flat images, flat dialogue in Todas Para Uno {Photo: FACEBOOK}

They all can’t be winners. In this regressive attempt at screwball romantic comedy, director Harold Trompetero asserts a particularly glib worldview on how men and women function in relationships. The picture deconstructs men as oblivious and oversexed while women are gluttons for punishment and emotional insecurity. Trompetero isn’t especially skilled in his visual presentation, staging his scenes as odd flat surfaces. The film is really just a series of rapid dialogue delivery that reiterates the same point with screeching effect. All for One may have benefited as a stage play rather than something on screen, it would eliminate Trompetero’s clear absence of visual composition while allowing the actors to break free from the tightly confined space of the frame. But as a film, it’s a complete miss.

Todas Para Uno / All for One screens at the AMC River East 21 on Saturday, April 5 and Sunday, April . Producer Simon Ramon Velez is scheduled to attend for a Q& A session. Click here to purchase tickets.

Amores Perros / Love’s a Bitch (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico, 2000)

One of the many striking images from  Amores Perros  {Photo: LIONS GATE FILMS}

One of the many striking images from Amores Perros {Photo: LIONS GATE FILMS}

I saw Amores Perros during my formative years as a cinephile. Tasked with puzzling together the film’s nonlinear structure into linear form for a college paper, I felt that I had conquered the picture. And as familiar as this rewatch may have been, it’s still been at least four years since I had last seen it. My memory of the film’s strengths - its propulsive energy, the eagerness of Gael García Bernal’s debut performance and the intensity of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction (also his debut) - were all clear and obvious. But it’s a mosaic film and with that known it carries its own set of baggage. These films tend to rely on heavy symbolism to realize its thematic intent, often times sacrificing naturalism for staged melodrama.

Amores Perros proves to be the finer example of its genre largely through the naturalism evoked by Iñárritu’s form. In lesser hands, Guillermo Arriaga’s script would be realized for many of its dramatic flourishes. But Iñárritu is more concerned with exploring the gritty milieu that provokes these dramatic circumstances. There’s a darkly vibrant underbelly to the culture that Iñárritu is exploring. He doesn’t shy away from the gory details, but he’s also careful to deploy necessary close-ups on his actors (finding his humanism from Bernal and Emilio Echevarría). And while the film makes many references to biblical passages, particularly the story of Cain and Abel, Amores Perros remains ingrained within its contemporary setting - the subtext is explicit yet never dictates the narrative direction.

Amores Perros has aged especially well in large part because the film’s three narratives are developed as if part of an anthology by other filmmakers. They are so wholly unique and composed that with some fine tuning they could function as their own separate feature. But like any great film, there are usually discoveries to be made on each new viewing. What was my favorite of the three narratives (Bernal’s portion) has now given way to Echevarría’s narrative. It encapsulates the themes and style that the other two narratives seem to be building toward. It also has some semblance of a happy ending which, given the desperation that’s found throughout much of the picture, feels especially earned.

Amores Perros screens in 35mm at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, April 5 as part of the Chicago Latino Film Festival’s “From the Academy” side panel. Click here to purchase tickets.

Los Insolitos Peces Gatos/ The Amazing Catfish (Claudia Sainte-Luce, Mexico, 2013)

A scene from Claudia Sainte-Luce's  The Amazing Catfish  {Photo: STRAND RELEASING}

A scene from Claudia Sainte-Luce's The Amazing Catfish {Photo: STRAND RELEASING}

Sure to be cited as one of the great debut films of the year, Claudia Sainte-Luce’s The Amazing Catfish shares some thematic qualities with another great debut, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat. They both emphasize the importance of family and stirring underneath is a subtext of the pangs that obligation can sometimes have. Sainte-Luce’s method is more dramatically accessible than Zürcher’s work, largely because of the overt issue at hand: the matriarch of the film is suffering with HIV.

Yet this issue, along with the central protagonist’s poverty (an incredible performance by Ximena Ayala), are presented in such a matter-of-fact way without succumbing to over dramatization. As the eclectic family gathers to dinner, the oldest daughter cares for her ailing mother while the others continue their meal in somber silence - painfully attempting to uphold a ritual that’s in its twilight. Shot warmly by Agnès Godard (responsible for most of Claire Denis’ output along with Erick Zonca’s incredible The Dreamlife of Angels), The Amazing Catfish is afforded a level of visual elegance that most directors struggle on their second and third outings. Sainte-Luce is very even handed with her approach and maintains that drama is best extracted through observation of character behavior than setting up scenarios for her characters to work from. It’s an assured debut and required viewing for the festival.

Los Insolitos Peces Gatos/ The Amazing Catfish screens at the AMC River East 21 on Tuesday, April 8, Wednesday, April 9, and Monday, April 14 with director Claudia Sainte-Luce scheduled to attend for a Q & A session. Click here to purchase tickets.