More Reviews From Cinequest Film And Creativity Festival 2019

by on March 19, 2019

Julio Hernandez Cordon’s intriguing if ultimately flawed drama “Buy Me A Gun” might be called a coming of age story set in the midst of a living nightmare.  Taking place in a near future Mexico where the drug cartels run everything, the story is told from the viewpoint of an incredibly vulnerable character.

            Huck is a 12-year-old girl who lives with her drug addict father.  Because women and even girls are regularly kidnapped by the cartels (a fate that’s befallen Huck’s mother and a sister), the father regularly has his daughter wear a mask and walk around with a leg chain.  These measures are particularly necessary since the father works as a groundskeeper for an abandoned baseball stadium regularly used by various cartels for recreation purposes.   

It doesn’t take genius to realize Huck and her father are trapped in an ultimately untenable situation.  The indebtedness to a local cartel leader that keeps Huck’s father working as groundskeeper is unlikely to ever be repaid.  Huck’s boy disguise scam would be more difficult to maintain once puberty sets in. Cartel members seem to act according to a “shoot first and ask questions later if I feel like it” ethos.

Relying on her father’s luck may not be a long-term survival strategy for Huck.  Luck and the father’s protection has helped keep her alive so far. But the limits of relying on luck soon become clear when Huck’s taken to a cartel leader’s birthday party, which involves navigating armed checkpoints manned by guards with hair trigger control.

Huck has not been so hardened by her circumstances that she’s become emotionally callous.  Some moments in the film seem the product of her fantasies. A large billowing cloud of purple smoke emerges from the horn played by Huck’s father.  The aftermath of a bloody massacre gets perceived by Huck as a collection of cardboard cutouts and paint splatters.

Such unforgettable images aside, Cordon’s storytelling skills otherwise falls short.  The identity of a girl in a cage who appears in the opening sequence remains unclear, as does her eventual fate.  A night journey by a car caravan feels neither suspenseful nor disorienting. The final reel appearance of Huck’s friends feels more like part of an imposed happy ending than something naturally arising from the story.

Still, the ending of the film can’t really be faulted.  Given Huck’s lack of real world options, perhaps the path she chooses is the only one that will not crush her spirit.

 

***

Rafael Marziano Tinoco’s anthology drama “Little Histories” could have given American viewers dramatic insights into a major Venezuelan political event.  Instead, the resulting film feels like a spectacularly squandered cinematic misfire.

“Little Histories”’ five stories all take place against the backdrop of Venezuela’s abortive 2002 coup.  From April 11-15, 2002, Venezuela was thrown into political disarray after then-president Hugo Chavez was temporarily removed from office.   Life for Venezuelans during those eventful five days is seen through the stories of characters from various social classes. So far so good.

But Tinoco’s film displays two major problems which turn “LIttle Histories” into a boring slog.  Each story follows the same chronological structure of “what happened to Character X on such and such a day.”  Repeating the events of a fixed time period works in a film when subsequent recountings vary in style and tone from what has been shown before.  That doesn’t happen in Tinoco’s film. Each tale generally unfolds in either one fixed setting or a very small number of brief settings. More importantly, the tumultuous events of those five days generally seem to have little direct effect on the characters’ lives.  One character’s mistress unconcernedly shops for luxury clothing. Even the homeless man caught in the middle of a tear gas attack becomes as unobtrusive as possible.

The bigger problem with Tinoco’s film is how its apparent right-wing slant misleads the viewer unfamiliar with the 2002 events.  Chavez’ name is not mentioned at all. Nor is it mentioned that the anti-government protesters wanted to restore the economic inequality existing in Venezuela before Chavez came to power…or that the US government supported the anti-government protests.  Snipers did shoot and kill seventeen anti-government protesters. But the opening titles omit to mention what credible sources have reported about who the snipers were or why the killings happened.  Chavez’ return to power is attributed solely to support by the Venezuelan military.  Yet Venezuela’s poor protested in force against the coup government’s efforts to erase the state Congress and other governmental entities associated with Chavez.    

That sense of right-wing erasure also extends to the stories in Tinoco’s film.  The female characters generally lack agency or don’t stray too far from the madonna vs. whore dynamic.  Antonieta, the film’s only exception, comes across as an emasculating figure. The film’s lower class characters lack names while the middle- and upper-class characters are identified as individuals.  

Despite the sense of rueful absurdity promised by the film’s opening theme, the stories feel consistent in their banality.

“The Rights Of Man” would have worked better had it been titled “The Rights Of Man…Or The Rights Of A Man?”  That’s because it’s the story of a university professor who blathers on about protecting the rights of man during the coup.  Yet the only rights the professor seems concerned with is maintaining his extra-marital affair with Yajaira the office secretary.  Unfortunately, his wife Antonieta already knows what the professor has done when he returns at 2 in the morning.

 

Despite a title of “Women’s Longings,” Fanny the mistress of a military procurement officer is not the main character.  That dubious honor falls to Fanny’s military lover Antonio Mendez. He’s acting as the front man for a vaguely defined collapsing embezzlement scheme which will probably end with him holding the blame bag.  

The film’s first acknowledgment of the lower classes’ existence comes in “The Mysteries Of Love.”   Its unnamed main characters, a homeless man and a street prostitute, try to survive and even love in the face of tear gas attacks, police abuse, and the prostitute’s declarations of independence.  This tale, which feels longer than the five day period shared with the other stories, lacks the context of establishing which side the cops committing acts of brutality are on.

The collision between imaginings and reality seems to be a theme of “Cartoons.”   Teenage lovers Matilde and Pablo share a love of cel animation cartoons. But when the bullets start flying (again the viewer doesn’t know which side the shooters belong to), imaginings matter less than looking out for Number One.

An unnamed cleaning woman working in the Miraflores presidential palace turns out to be the main character of the final tale “Steps To Paradise.”   The middle-aged custodian proves a generally mute witness to the abortive coup. However, her character seems to be nothing more than a pair of strong arms with little interest or curiosity about the historic events occurring around her.  Oddly enough, that description also matches the attitude the upper classes hold towards the working classes.

Ultimately, “Little Histories” leaves an aftertaste of celebrating or at least accepting personal disempowerment.  This anti-Chavismo attitude makes this film the worst film seen so far at Cinequest.

 

***

Far better is Van Maximilian Carlson and A. Shawn Austin’s heartfelt if flawed drama “Princess Of The Row.”  This film pits a daughter’s unconditional love for her father against the dangers of Skid Row and PTSD in her struggle to create a family.

12-year-old Alicia “Princess” Willis (newcomer Tayler Buck) gained a love for writing from her story-telling father.  A tour of duty in Iraq has left Alicia’s father Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Edi Gathegi) with PTSD and a brain injury. Thanks to moments where he alternates among mumbling, bursts of violence, and coherence, Bo lives on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.  Alicia’s convinced that helping her father leave Skid Row will help his recovery and enable the rebuilding of their family. Yet Alicia’s social worker Magdalene (Ana Ortiz, “Ugly Betty”) thinks the girl’s best option is becoming the foster child of award-winning writer John Austin (Martin Sheen).  When it turns out Austin and his wife live 10 hours away from Los Angeles, Alicia goes on the run with Bo to find a place where they can become a family again.

“Princess of the Row” sets out with two aims.  One is to humanize the lives of the homeless men (many of them ex-military) forced to live on Skid Row.  The other is to show the depth of a daughter’s love for her father. Of these two aims, only the second one is more successfully accomplished.  Maz Makhani’s images of Skid Row’s existence in the shadows of Los Angeles’ downtown office towers effectively establish the social and political divide between two different worlds in the same city.  However, the film makes a big misstep in not devoting enough time to even hint at the lives and backstories of some of the other Skid Row inhabitants. That creative shortcoming leaves the viewer without any way to compare Bo’s and Alicia’s struggles against that of, say, a Skid Row resident who might not have a family member like Alicia willing to go the extra mile for him.  At least the writers made Alicia intelligent enough to be a credible protecter of Bo even if she’s still naive about some of the dangers of street life.

But if the film’s sociological aim isn’t pulled off as well as a viewer may hope for, Alicia and Bo’s relationship gives “Princess of the Row” the emotional heft that makes the film worth watching.  The moments when Bo shows signs of his old lucidity happen often enough that they feel like jewels of hope admired and cherished by Alicia. They’re also the moments that plausibly make the girl feel her plan might possibly succeed.  Sympathetic viewers can’t help feeling that Alicia’s desire to be together with her father leads her to make some serious mistakes in judgment. That said, there is something cathartic about seeing a pervert get a well-deserved beatdown.   

Buck’s performance convinces the viewer to accept Alicia in all her annoying and praiseworthy facets.   Viewers will smile at the look of wonderment on the girl’s face when she sees a horse for the first time in the flesh after imagining a unicorn in her stories.  She’s smart enough to use a mace spray when her father gets beaten. Alicia’s instantly joining her father on a restaurant floor as he eats is a quietly loving declaration of support.  

Ortiz takes Magdalene beyond what could have been a long suffering social worker stereotype.  Her concern for Alicia blinds her to the girl’s still potent love for her father. But at least she appreciates the 12-year-old’s personal strengths and provides help when needed.

Gathegi succeeds at rising to the challenge of making Bo a tragically sympathetic character.  The veteran’s use of physical violence persuasively show that his instincts and reflexes haven’t been affected by the brain injury.  His moments of lucidity feel like the mental equivalent of a swimmer breaking through a layer of ice and briefly gasping air.

One of “Princess of the Row”’s messages is that family is always worth fighting for.  But the results matter less than making such a fight a heartfelt effort.

 

***

            The Emilio Estevez-led ensemble comedy/drama “The Public” may not offer a deep dive into its homeless characters’ lives.  But it compensates by offering wider and colorful glimpses of these people. Equally importantly, the film cherishes the timelessness of good prose, encourages viewers to love libraries, and even spurs thoughts regarding what democratic access means in practice.   

            The film’s primary setting is Cincinnati’s Main Public Library.  Here, Stuart Goodson (Estevez) and Myra (Jena Malone) work as librarians.  When they’re not answering requests for a color photograph of George Washington, the librarians interact with the homeless people who come here to escape the harshness of the street.   But when Cincinnati’s winter weather turns lethal and the homeless shelters are full, a group of homeless men led by Jackson (Michael K. Williams) decide to stay in the library after closing hours.  Goodson’s reluctant support of Jackson’s occupation winds up triggering a police confrontation which Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) is forced to negotiate. Hoping to profit in various ways from the crisis are law-and-order mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater in full hissable mode) and ambitious TV reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union). 

“The Public” may be at its core a message movie.  But it’s one which takes care to never shove any parboiled homilies down viewers’ throats.  Also, the frequent use of character humor does wonders for eliminating worries of po-faced seriousness.  Who says a tense moment with the police can’t be defused by a phone ring tone playing “The Internationale?”  And Big George’s unusual reason for not looking other people in the eye is treated with acceptance rather than dismissed.

Estevez’ film recognizes that suggesting glib answers would not do justice to the difficulties of the questions being raised.  Instead, it honestly recognizes its events as representing an ideal stopgap but not a definitive solution. If viewers emerge from “The Public” and have post-film discussions on the problems pointed out in the film, then Estevez has done his job of mixing entertainment and thought.

Take the problem that sparks the confrontation.  It would be inhumane to send the homeless men out into Cincinnati’s winter night and let Darwin sort out who’d live to visit the library the next day.  On the other hand, the library’s not truly set up to be a long-term shelter from the elements for the homeless. What would be the right solution? Personally, this writer would favor Jackson’s plan of using the library as a temporary shelter in extreme cases but add to it the city of Cincinnati providing needed supplies.

“The Public” also asks the viewer to consider who belongs to the public that the library exists to serve.  Is a patron who asks for help with an elaborate or impossible research question more deserving of aid than a homeless person who just wants a comfortable place to sit down and read?  If you favor excluding some people from the library’s services, what makes this public institution different from a private business? Would a “no limits” policy on patrons allowed into the library mean quietly suffering through the presence of a patron whose body odor continually upends another person’s stomach?     

            The film opens with an excerpt from a vintage educational film (or something similar) asserting that the essential characteristics of a librarian are a love of books and a love of people.  “The Public” shows how Goodson and Myra live up to these ideals. To eloquently make the case for the homeless men’s occupation, Myra’s mention of her love for Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” inspires Goodson to quote an excerpt from memory.   Patrons’ inquiries, no matter how weird or impossible, will make viewers smile. Big George (Rhymefest) and Caesar (Patrick Hume) are particularly unforgettable homeless men, the latter because his friends often say “Hail Caesar” after he speaks a truth.

            Estevez’ script has a generous enough heart to find some saving grace in all of his characters.  Davis is amusingly self-conscious about lying down on a cold concrete street for five minutes. Myra finds that actually putting your body on the front line costs a lot more than publishing a post on social media, but she still does what she can to help Goodson.

Some viewers may complain that the resolution of the confrontation between the library occupiers and the police comes out of left field.  But sharp-eyed viewers will realize Estevez has applied Chekhov’s rule about pistols and first acts to make the resolution a plausible solution.  

(“The Public” has been acquired for Spring 2019 American distribution.)

 

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