Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In response to Eugene Hernadez's Indiewire article, "Nadie sabe nada"

On August 23rd, Eugene Hernandez, editor of Indiewire, posted this article, eliciting a number of responses from members of the Latin American film community, including this one from yours truly:

Dear Eugene,

A few weeks ago I started my own blog on Latin American cinema: I decided to do so because I couldn't find an online destination in English that focused specifically on the rich bounty of films currently produced in places like Uruguay, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, among others. Indeed, production (and the quality) of films in many Latin American countries has increased exponentially in the last decade. So it is terribly unfortunate that worthy new works cannot enjoy the exposure they deserve as a result of our fragile economy and current distribution woes. I definitely share the concerns expressed in your article, and I believe that there is something we can do.

First, I think it's important to dispel some common misconceptions about Latino audiences. Latinos in this country are not a homogeneous group. Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn't necessarily mean that they will be attracted to a Spanish-language film. In fact, U.S. Latino filmgoers generally have a greater allegiance to films from their country of origin (or descent). In other words, you're most likely to see a Chilean supporting a Chilean film than a film in Spanish from another country. Crossover non-Latinos and cinephiles of every ilk are also important but to the extent that U.S. distribution companies don't observe these distinctions they are destined to miss the mark. Now that the old distribution models are going the way of the dinosaurs it is even more important to take these issues into consideration.

To me, theatrical distribution has ceased to be the be-all and end-all. The younger generations don't seem to have the same passion for watching films in cinemas as some of us, so why beat the theatrical dead horse - especially when it continues to fail foreign films and their audiences? We have to accept our new reality and find new solutions. I commend The Auteurs' Efe Cakarel for creating an exciting new model of distribution and, in that same spirit, I feel that we need to continue to support other non-traditional distribution ideas and grass roots initiatives. A good friend of mine, Ana Joanes - director of the documentary "Fresh," devised an innovative distribution plan where she targeted her audience directly (in her case, people interested or involved in the alternative foods movement) and through her website began to sell DVD's of her films and licenses for "home" and "community" screenings. She's been extremely successful, filling non-traditional venues such as libraries to capacity, and now distributors are knocking on HER door.

Ana's system is perfect for galvanizing specific Latino groups to support a given film. Puerto Rico, my country of origin, produces very few films a year but whenever one is released the groundswell of support can be astounding. This is so because everyone wants to rally around a film deemed as a "local production." The film becomes symbolic of our people and our art, so people flock to theaters, buy DVD's, etc. I believe that Latinos in the U.S. can be inspired in the same way to either go to theaters (if the choice is available) or, using Ana's DIY model, to attend a screening at, say, the local YMCA. And by the way, nationality is not the only common theme that can be of interest to Latino audiences. Films dealing with immigration, politics, gays, and environmental issues can easily find receptive Latinos. The key is to be smart about identifying your audience, and to reach out to them in a way that makes them feel that their participation is important.

Finally, people in the media can be instrumental in increasing the visibility of Latin American cinema and promoting audience engagement. Whether in a small forum like my blog or an influential website like yours, our commitment needs to be reflected in the continued coverage of Latin American films, festivals, news, etc. Otherwise, these films we all love run the risk of languishing in relative obscurity in the U.S. Recently, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced its lineup for the 12th edition of Latinbeat, its annual showcase of Latin American cinema. However, I didn't see any articles about it in any of my trusted film websites (including Indiewire). I actually found the listing by chance when perusing the Film Society's website. Latinbeat was where, in 2003, one of my documentaries ("Viva Cepeda!") was bought by HBO after executives attended a screening. At a time when Latino film festivals are shutting down or close to it, the media's support is more important than ever. Or else, I fear future filmmakers might be deprived of the same opportunity I had.

As you can see from the responses you received, there are many people who share your concerns but who are, in equal measure, working to find solutions. I sincerely hope that you will use your influence to keep the dialogue going.

Mario Diaz

Saturday, August 22, 2009

LATINBEAT 2009 Lineup

Without much fanfare, the Film Society of Lincoln Center recently posted its lineup for the 2009 edition of Latinbeat. I actually came across the listing while perusing the Film Society website, which is a pity because this is a first rate showcase that deserves more attention and publicity. My good friend Marcela Goglio is the curator and this year she's gathered an intriguing selection of films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. With the exception of "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow") which was shown at New Directors/New Films in April, the films are all New York premieres.

This year, Latinbeat celebrates the life of influential writer Julio Cortazar with a seven-film tribute. Other special events include Latin-O-American, a panel discussion with up-and-coming Latino filmmakers that features, among others, Alex Rivera ("Sleep Dealer"), Sebastian Silva ("La nana"/"The Maid"), and Natalia Almada whose lauded documentary, "El general" ("The General") is also included in the festival. The panel will be moderated by Carlos Gutiérrez, co-founding director of Cinema Tropical.

Take it from someone who has shown his films twice at Latinbeat and has attended the festival for many years - there's no better place to watch the best Latin American cinema has to offer. The screenings are held at the magnificently cozy Walter Reade Theater and many of the directors will be in attendance. Also, Marcela has a knack for finding unexpected gems - so be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by films you've never heard of.

Here's the complete lineup. As always, links of film reviews are provided if available.

1. ACNE - Uruguay/Argentina/Mexico/Spain/USA - dir. Federico Veiroj
Reviews: ION Cinema, L.A. Splash, The Hollywood Reporter
2. CHEGA DE SAUDADE (THE BALLROOM) - Brazil - dir. Laís Bodanzky
Reviews: New Times,
3. BLOW-UP - UK/Italy/USA - dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Reviews: NY Times, NY Observer, Variety
4. LA CAMARA OSCURA (THE CAMERA OBSCURA) - Argentina/France - dir. María Victoria Menis
Reviews: Reel Film Reviews, The Depaulia
6. CORTAZAR (CELESTIAL CLOCKWORK) - Argentina - dir. Tristán Bauer
Reviews: Time Out London
7. EL GENERAL (THE GENERAL) - Mexico/USA - dir. Natalia Almada
Reviews: Variety, ION CINEMA
8. LA BUENA VIDA (THE GOOD LIFE) - Chile - dir. Andrés Wood
Reviews: La Mirada FF
9. LA RONDA (LOVE BY ACCIDENT) - Argentina - dir. Inés Braun
10. AMOROSA SOLEDAD (LOVELY LONELINESS) - Argentina - dir. Victoria Galardi and Martín Carranza
Reviews: Nisimazine, By The Firelight, Variety
11. MENTIRAS PIADOSAS (MADE UP MEMORIES) - Argentina - dir. Diego Sabanés
12. LA TETA ASUSTADA (THE MILK OF SORROW) - Spain/Peru - dir. Claudia Llosa
Reviews: Variety, Slant, Hollywood Reporter, Screendaily
13. MUSICA EN ESPERA (MUSIC ON HOLD) - Argentina - dir. Hernán A. Goldfrid
Reviews: Variety
14. CINCO DIAS SIN NORA (NORA'S WILL) - Mexico - dir. Mariana Chenillo
Review: Slackerwood
15. OCEANO (OCEAN) - Russia/Cuba - dir. Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov
16. LA CIFRA IMPAR (ODD NUMBER) - Argentina - dir. Manuel Antin
17. LA ULTIMA Y NOS VAMOS (ONE FOR THE ROAD) - Mexico - dir. Eva López Sánchez
Reviews: Variety
19. ARRANCAME LA VIDA (TEAR THIS HEART OUT) - Mexico - dir. Roberto Sneider
Reviews: Variety
20. TURISTAS (TOURISTS) - Chile - dir. Alicia Scherson
Reviews: SBCC Film Reviews, Hollywood Reporter, Screendaily, Cinemaverytasty
21. UN NOVIO PARA MI MUJER (A BOYFRIEND FOR MY WIFE) - Argentina - dir. Juan Taratuto
Reviews: Variety

See you there!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"La mujer sin cabeza" ("The Headless Woman") in U.S. Theaters - Finally!

For a film that got booed after its premiere at Cannes in 2008 (what were they expecting, "Speed Racer?"), "La mujer sin cabeza" has rebounded quite nicely. On the eve of its U.S. theatrical release (it certainly took a while), critics have given Lucrecia Martel's masterpiece phenomenal write-ups, forcing those who might have initially dismissed it to take a second look. It would appear that film critics still serve a purpose...

I've seen the film three times now and every time I watch it I discover previously unregistered details - precious cinematic clues placed strategically in the periphery of the action - that make me marvel even more at Martel's meticulous construction. In the last viewing I noticed more than ever how her set design helps convey a sense of class decay. Even though the film is set in contemporary times, she places her protagonist Verónica (Maria Onetto) in locations that feel frozen in time, specifically in the late 70's - the dark years of Argentina's military dictatorship. It's just one of many hidden (or I should say, not conventionally obvious) elements that connect to Martel's themes of social inequality and the bourgeoisie's rotting and noxious influence.

Herein, some of "La mujer sin cabeza's" critical champions (and a few detractors at the bottom):

In his review, the New York Times' A.O. Scott delves deep into the thematic aspirations of the film, calling it "a meditation on Argentina’s historical memory. It subtly compares Verónica’s silent disavowal of responsibility for any crime she might have committed with that country’s silence during its dictatorship, when suspected dissidents disappeared."

Film Comment's Editor-at-Large Kent Jones has been a supporter of the film since Cannes (and actually, of every film Martel has ever made since they have all been shown at the NYFF). In this report that appeared last year, he discusses Martel's "forensic" style: "Martel excitingly confines herself to her heroine’s traumatically realigned viewpoint (the scope frame is used in the most exacting fashion, in conjunction with the soundtrack, to suggest a hallucinatory mental space both within and without María Onetto’s character)."

The venerable J. Hoberman, writing for the Village Voice, focuses on the film's texture: "As dense and fluid as Martel's movie is, the viewer—like the protagonist—is compelled to live in the moment. And a rich moment it is. With its shallow focus, chiaroscuro lighting, off-centered wide-screen compositions, and constant background noise, The Headless Woman teems with life."

On indiewire, Eric Hynes seems to withhold judgement, but his review is thoughtful nonetheless. He interestingly talks about how Martel's approach to class has evolved since her first film: "Martel’s approach to class in “The Headless Woman” is both more subtle and forceful. Fewer racist complaints about filthy, shady “Indians” are heard than in “La Cienaga” and “The Holy Girl,” but Vero’s entire existence depends on and is restored by privilege. A young boy whose corpse is found clogging the canals—Vero’s victim?—remains unidentified while Vero’s identity is exhaustively retraced. Even her guilt (itself a privileged emotion), though it prompts her to small generosities toward house staff and day laborers, assumes an interchangeability of the underclass."

Glenn Kenny, from Some Came Running, wrote about "La mujer sin cabeza" last year in Cannes: "Throughout, Martel places the character in shallow focus widescreen close-ups; therein, those people in her periphery—generally servants, workers, and so on—are diffused, hazy. It's an oblique way of reflecting on contemporary class relations, but it's apt, and in point of fact this is one of the few films in the largely-socially-conscious Competition that reflects on class relations as such."

A couple of detractors (actually, Rotten Tomatoes gives "La mujer sin cabeza" a 50% Tomatometer - suggesting that critics are evenly divided. However, a quick online search will get you more fresh tomatoes than splats):

For the New Yorker, Richard Brody (why not Denby or Lane?) writes: "Martel tries to have it both ways, attempting to construct a rich reality by accretion of ordinary and realistic detail, while stacking the narrative deck so rigorously that the characters evaporate into symbols almost upon their appearance."

Slant's Akiva Gootlieb, argues that: "Films that try to convey a state of disorientation live and die by their central metaphors, and the one that lends Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman its title is certifiably lame."

I guess you can't win 'em all!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

San Sebastian Announces Lineup For "Horizontes Latinos" Sidebar

The 57th San Sebastian Film Festival (which runs from September 18-26, 2009) unveiled on Tuesday the selections for their Horizontes Latinos sidebar, a competitive showcase of Latin American films that have gained festival traction throughout the year. 13 films from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay - some of which are co-productions with Spain, Germany, France, Holland, Portugal, USA, and Canada - will compete for the main prize of 35,000 euros.

The opening slot was given to Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre" - in my opinion a hackneyed dual tale of a reluctant teenage gang member from Tapachula, Mexico whose girlfriend was killed by a rival gang member, and a Hondural girl embarking on a long and dangerous journey to the United States. A multiple award winner at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Other titles include: Adrian Biniez's "Gigante" ("Giant), which garnered three awards at Berlin this year, Ciro Guerra's "Los Viajes del Viento" ("The Wind Journeys"), and Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho." The last two were shown at Cannes' Directors Fortnight and Cannes' Critics Week respectively.

However, not all the film selected for Horizontes Latinos have had festival exposure. Several, like Cristián Jiménez's "Ilusiones ópticas" ("Optical Illusions"), came from the 2008 edition of the San Sebastian's Films in Progress lab.

Should you be planning a trip to Spain in September, here is a complete list of films, along with links to reviews (if available):

1. EL ARBOL (THE TREE) - Spain/Mexico - dir. Carlos Serrano Azcona
Reviews: Variety, The Rumpus
2. CONTRACORRIENTE (AGAINST THE TIDE) - Peru/Colombia/France/Germany - dir. Javier Fuentes-León
3. DANIEL Y ANA (DANIEL AND ANNA) - Mexico/Spain - dir. Michel Franco
Reviews: Nisimazine, Huffington Post
4. FRANCIA (FRANCE) - Argentina - dir. Israel Adrián Caetano
5. GIGANTE (GIANT) - Uruguay - dir. Adrián Biniez
Reviews: Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Screendaily
6. HUACHO - Chile/France/Germany - dir. Alejandro Fernández Almendras
Reviews: Variety, Screendaily
7. ILUSIONES OPTICAS - Chile/Portugal/France - dir. Cristián Jiménez
8. LA INVENCION DE LA CARNE (THE INVENTION OF FLESH) - Argentina - dir. Santiago Loza
9. MAREA DE ARENA (SAND TIDE) - Mexico/Argentina - dir. Gustavo Montiel Pagés
10. PERPETUUM MOBILE - Mexico/Canada - dir. Nicolás Pereda
11. SIN NOMBRE (NAMELESS) - USA/Mexico - dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Reviews: NY Times, Variety, LA Times, Cinematical, The Guardian
12. EL ULTIMO VERANO DE LA BOYITA (BOYITA'S LAST SUMMER) - Argentina - dir. Julia Solomonoff
13. LOS VIAJES DEL VIENTO (THE WIND JOURNEYS) - Colombia/Argentina/Germany/Netherlands - dir. Ciro Guerra
Reviews: Variety, Screendaily

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Voy a explotar" ("I'm Gonna Explode") - Review

So I've just returned home after watching "Voy a explotar" at the Walter Reade Theater, where the film is enjoying a week-long engagement. A film that plays more than once is a rare occurrence at the Walter Reade, and I have to say it was great to have a choice of dates and times to see the film. I guess this is a kind of test-run by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in preparation for the two new underground theaters they're currently building as part of a $40 million expansion. The plan is for some of the theaters to operate more like commercial cinemas and screen films for longer periods. As long as the programming remains unchanged, I say the more theaters the merrier!

But I digress. This is supposed to be a review so let's get to it. "Voy a explotar" is Gerardo Naranjo's 2008 much acclaimed, festival favorite, reportedly inspired by Godard's "Pierrot le fou." Naranjo has transposed the story of two desperate French lovers (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina) on the run to Juanajuato, Mexico and substituted Godard's über-sexy protagonists with two disaffected Mexican teenagers. Standing in for Belmondo is Román (Juan Pablo de Santiago), the son of a corrupt politician who has a morbid fascination with gory photographs from traffic accidents and keeps a journal that outlines his plans to commit mass murder and suicide. Maru (Maria Deschamps) is the antithesis of Anna Karina. Sullen and chubby, she lashes out against her mother at every opportunity and cuts all her hair off just because. We're not talking about a sophisticated pair of misfits here, but that's part of their charm. The first time Román catches Maru's eyes, he pretends to hang himself from a noose on stage at the school talent show. While the stunned crowd remains silent, Maru applauds.

The first opening minutes of the film have a terrific, wham-bam energy and appeal. Naranjo unleashes all of the trademark New Wave devices - voice over, a fragmented structure, alternating color treatments, disassociated images, lingering close-ups, etc. The film promises a Godardian romp, Mexican-style. But those expecting "Y tu mamá también 2" will be sorely disappointed since Naranjo is more interested in the messy emotions of adolescence than in adventure. In fact, the stylistic change comes early and abruptly. After pulling off a shoot-em-up escape from school, the kids go on the lam only to end up... in a tent on the roof of Román's house, unbeknownst to the worried parents below.

The switcharoo grows on you, especially because the film finds its footing in the exploration of Román's and Maru's comedown after the thrill of escape and the fleeting fulfillment of childish dreams. It's fantastic to see these two outcasts - trained to guard themselves against ridicule or indifference - try to connect, first through music and eventually through sex. Román is revealed to be innocent and self-conscious, despite his daring heroics. Stripped of her brooding armor, Maru is a scared and tender child seeking a protector. It's a testament to the honesty of their performances that the slow peeling away of their emotional shields is conveyed in an utterly realistic way.

"Voy a explotar" has its contrivances as well. In the service of social and political criticism, the parents and their peons are portrayed as clowns (for what good is a Mexican film nowadays without a dash of social satire thrown in?). And of course, as is always the case in films about lovers on the run, too much time is invested in setting us up for the tragedy to come.

Perhaps it was those conventional plot mechanics that made me feel strangely detached from the story at times. My wife had a similar reaction but her take on it is that the characters didn't show enough desperation. I agree that there wasn't enough tension and after much thought I think it's a result of a miscalculation on Naranjo's part. He thought real teenage angst would mesh well with Godard but unfortunately the experiment split the film in two. The (borrowed) cinematic theatrics Naranjo employs (on occasion) have the effect of pulling us out of what is a beautiful and nuanced study of two teenagers who foolishly put themselves in a situation where they end up feeling even more pressure than they did before and then try to save face by pretending to one another that they're enjoying complete and utter freedom. Maybe the director thought that wasn't an original enough idea (granted) but he is so keenly attuned to his characters' fragile need for connection that I wish he had just trusted his main story without trying to be Mr. Cool Filmmaker.

Still, "Voy a explotar" is wonderfully engaging for most of its 106-minute running time. And I must say that even though it fell short of greatness, it was wonderfully refreshing to see a film where the lead actress wasn't Hollywood-perfect (this is a particular gripe of my wife, so credit where credit is due), or where the lead actor has a unibrow, or where the sex is awkward and painful and real, even in a film as stylized as this. Why is it that American films - indies, even - feel so fucking sanitized? Why are they so devoid of piss, shit, semen, and all the other things that make life disgusting and true? The other day I was watching a film from a Latino filmmaker who will remain nameless and the moment the perfectly angular lead actress showed up on screen, I went "oh, come on!" When people use the word visceral to describe a film, it's always about gore and blood - Eric Roth and Quentin Tarantino come to mind - but to me, it's about getting your insides twisted when confronted by the excruciating nature of real life - which at its most real is both ugly and beautiful simultaneously.

Back in the 70's - the decade considered by many as the best in American cinema - movies had that visceral quality that I'm talking about. Just watch "Panic in Needle Park." It was so because directors were afforded unparalleled creative freedom and because back then people were still unafraid of the human body. Now, America is obsessed with hand-sanitizers, plastic surgery, and shaved pubes. So go to a soccer game in Argentina and endure being pissed on, literally, by a guy from the upper tier, as I was once. Or catch an impossibly crowded bus in Mexico City without air conditioning and smell the sweat from the bodies pinned up against you. Come on, try it! You'll live! And it could also make you a better film director.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

NYFF 2009 - Latin American Films MIA

Last year, the NYFF included a bountiful offering of Latin American films but when this year's selections were announced earlier in the week, Almodovar's "Los abrazos rotos" ("Broken Embraces") was the sole, entirely predictable entry in the lineup. If you want to get technical, Almodovar is European not Latin American so let's just say his is the only Spanish-language film out of 29 selections.

Speaking to indiewire, Festival Director Richard Peña lamented the fact. "Last year, there was a heavy Latin American component. I was personally very happy about that because [that region] is of particular interest for me, but unfortunately there’s nothing this year," he said. I believe him. I know first hand that his commitment to Latin American cinema runs deep. He is the son of Spanish and Puerto Rican parents and he once personally handpicked one of my documentaries for an edition of "Latin Beat," the Film Society's yearly showcase of Latin American fare. So I can't imagine that the omission was intentional. But it still begs the question - why couldn't the selection committee find any worthy titles?

At the beginning of the year, Latin American films enjoyed great exposure in many of the world's major fests. Back in February, Berlin had Adrián Biniez's "Gigante" ("Giant"), and Claudia Llosa's "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow") in its main competition slate. They actually won the Silver Bear (Jury Grand Prix) and the Golden Bear (Best Film) respectively. In March, New Directors/New Films unveiled 5 quality films (out of 25) from Latin American directors, including one of my favorite films of the year, Sebastian Silva's "La Nana" ("The Maid"). Tribeca had a slimmer slate of Latin American fare (4 out of 125) but their selections were nonetheless pretty high-profile. They included Lucia Puenzo's "El niño pez" ("The Fish Child") and Carlos Cuarón's "Rudo y cursi." So there's definitely been lots stuff out there this year but it's entirely possible that by the time the NYFF selection committee started looking at films the well had dried out.

But then I looked at Toronto's slate (which runs in September, slightly earlier than New York) and I realized the well hadn't run dry at all. TIFF has, by my count, 9 films by Latin American directors, including "Gigante," Ciro Guerra's "Los viajes del viento" ("The Wind Journeys"), and Alejandro Amenebar's "Agora." Granted, these nine films are included in a lineup of 199 features (to date) but still...

Since I haven't seen any of those tiles, I'll give the folks at the NYFF benefit of the doubt and I'll consider the fact that maybe these films are not up to par. Also, the NYFF has a much smaller slate of 29 films, which makes the selection process a lot more difficult. But to pick Catherine Breillat's undercooked "Bluebeard" over Gaspar Noe's (he's Argentinian) visionary "Enter the Void" definitely raises eyebrows. Seems to me they're playing it safe.

The NYFF is the Film Society's most important event of the year and it draws many of their biggest patrons. Considering the financial hardships that many similar organizations across the country are going through and the ambitious expansion of their film complex currently underway (at a cost of $40 million dollars), my theory is that the selection committee wanted to maintain a sense of continuity to assure the money keeps coming in. Indeed, this year's slate is mostly comprised of established directors and that's a big let down from a festival that last year promised a more, dare I say, maverick vision.

If this is true, then we also have to look at the other side of the equation - why is it that Latin America has so few established directors? Other than Almodovar, is there a Latin American director whose mere name will guarantee him/her a spot in Cannes or New York? I'm not sure there are. And this speaks to the fact that Latin American cinema is still, in the eyes of film programmers, a burgeoning movement. So I guess we'll still have to wait some years before Latin American directors are a mainstay in prestigious fests.

One last thought - Peña also told indiewire that they were considering certain films that were not finished in time for inclusion. With all the changes being instituted over at the Film Society, why not consider doing what Toronto does - stagger the announcements and buy yourself a little bit more time? Food for thought.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Overreaching: When Directors Stretch Bad Things Can Happen

I make no secret about my admiration for Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. Just check out my top ten list on the left. I think the woman is a genius - nothing I've seen this year even comes close to the visual and narrative rigor of "La Mujer Sin Cabeza" ("The Headless Woman"). The film makes the viewer work hard, no question. It provides no easy answers. But that's the point. She keeps you in the dark about many of the details of the story but her intent is not to entertain you. Rather, she's aiming at your conscience, asking you to put yourself squarely in the shoes of the privileged protagonist. In this way, she makes the audience a full participant/accomplice and elevates the artform to something beautifully experiential.

So naturally, I felt some trepidation when I heard the news that her next project will be... drumroll, please... a science fiction flick! Yup, she has decided to take on "El Eternauta" ("The Ethernaut"), a film based on a popular series of 1960's Spanish-language comics written by Francisco Solano López. The story concerns a deadly extraterrestial invasion to Buenos Aires whereby most of the population was eradicated save for a few survivors.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying Martel is selling out - just that this will probably constitute a radical shift from her elegant, socially conscious films. And to be honest, I'm a little worried. While I applaud her impulse to stretch her cinematic canvas, I also fear that she will never, ever return to doing what she did well. Of course, if she stays on her current track she might eventually grow repetitive and tiresome. So I guess for both our sakes, this is probably the right course of action.

Martel's choice made me think of the many instances in which directors have shifted gears and ended up with awful results. (There are exceptions, of course, like Steven Sodobergh who has tackled different genres with equal skill and made a career of it but those are few and far between). So I decided to compile a list of the top ten films that marked a disastrous change of pace by some of the most important and acclaimed directors of our time. Here's hoping Martel doesn't follow in their footsteps:

10. Jane Campion: "In The Cut" - The worse part about it is Campion trying to explore female sexuality and promiscuity within the constraints of a very conventional, thrill-less thriller. "Holy Smoke" does a much better job of that, even though I'm not a huge fan of it either.

9. Chan-Wook Park: "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok!" - Park followed up his brilliant, tense, and energetic vengeance trilogy with what amounts to a bland chamber piece set in a looneybin. Change of pace? How about no pace at all? Bo-ring! He's now trying to regain his footing with Cannes-winner "Thirst."

8. Robert Altman: "Popeye" - I hope the money was good, that's all I have to say.

7. Francis Ford Coppola: "Captain EO" - Starring the late Michael Jackson (wow- that's a weird thing to write), Coppola made this sci-fi musical on the heels of "The Cotton Club." While his career has certainly been eclectic (his recent indie makeover notwithstanding), this was just way out there and entirely forgetful. I blame it on George Lucas' script, someone I never thought had any talent.

6. Ang Lee: "The Hulk" - A disaster in every sense of the word. The intended anti-war message just didn't register and the psychological father-son subtext was trite. The scale of the film seemed beyond his grasp. And what about that "24"-style picture-in-picture editing. Awful. The saddest part about it is that "Hulk" tarnished Lee's reputation as a director who could tackle anything.

5. Brian DePalma: "Bonfire of the Vanities" - For satire to really work, you need a subtle hand - or else you'll veer dangerously into caricature territory. Every scene in "Bonfire" felt over-directed, as though he was trying to apply the same muscle he used in "Scarface." Obviously it didn't work. DePalma is a noir stylist and he was clearly out of his league on this one.

4. Roland Joffe: "The Scarlet Letter" - After the greatness of "The Killing Fields," "The Mission," and the underrated "Fat Man and Little Boy," Joffe opted to do this Demi Moore studio vehicle. He's never been the same since.

3. Rob Reiner: "The Story of Us" - "Ghosts of Mississippi" was the last film that garnered Reiner any meaningful attention. Apparently he thought he needed to do more serious fare to reclaim his "A Few Good Men" stature and decided to direct Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis in this overblown, melodramatic lemon.

2. Luc Besson: "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" - Granted, "The Fifth Element" was wildly uneven but there was enough originality in it to sustain my interest. But this follow-up is just plain lazy, a by-the-numbers, uninspired period piece made to capitalize on Milla Jovovich's looks. Besson, who arguably made a very original masterpiece, "La Femme Nikita," sure has disappointed ever since "Messenger."

1. Michael Moore: "Canadian Bacon" - Stick to what you know. 'Nuff said.

This list is based solely on films I'd seen so I'm sure there are many worthy omissions. The point is that sometimes directors can take a wrong turn and get lost in the wilderness.

* Update: In a recent interview with indiewire, Martel said that she was working on a script she had been working on before she started "writing 'The Headless Woman.' I think we should put it in the fantasy genre. It is a strange kind of invasion. A threat to [a] garden. Unwanted or unknown relatives that appear in our houses and live in the garden. Real monsters." That doesn't sound to me like the plot of "The Thernaut," so maybe she's dropped plans to direct that film. However, it appears she's switching gears nonetheless so I guess this column is still somewhat relevant.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cuaron's Son Will Be Cananá's First Guinea-Pig

So it turns out that the indie scene in Mexico is experiencing a very similar transition period than the one in the U.S. The good news is that production south of the border has increased dramatically in recent years. The bad news is that their home video market is dead and they are desperate for other sources of revenue.

Variety reported this week that Cananá (the shingle from "Y tu mamá también" thesps and best buds Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) will begin testing a new distribution model using SXSW 2008 selection "Año Uña" ("The Year of the Nail") as guinea pig. Their plan is to follow the IFC model of releasing films in arthouse theaters and weeks later on VOD. They've partnered up with television giant Televisa (my first employer out of college) who owns Cablevision in Mexico for the pay-broadcasts. Cablevision has an estimated 125,000 subscribers who would pay the equivalent of $4 dollars to watch each pic in the comfort of their own home. But will they?

The main issue here is that theater owners in Mexico are not looking upon this new model kindly. In fact, many of them, with the exception of the Lumiere arthouse chain, flat-out refuse to book the films. Their fears are understandable - everyone is scared shitless in this global economic climate. But in my humble opinion, I think they should stop worrying and have a margarita. As IFC has proven, theatergoers are theatergoers and they will pay to see films on a big screen regardless.

When reading about this I though back to earlier this year when an unfinished copy of "Wolverine" was leaked to torrent sites. The media made a big deal about it but the leak had virtually no impact on the film's box office. It won the first weekend handily, raking in $87 million. Either torrents sites aren't as widely known or the X-Men fan base is not as tech-savvy as I thought. Whichever the case, cinemas won.

Let's look at another, less-commercial example. "The Hurt Locker" was also leaked to torrent sites months before it opened. Yet, the film is one of the specialty box-office successes of the year ($9 million and counting). I just don't think the internet or VOD are such terrible foes. I mean, the same thing can be said of the food industry. Just because people can cook food at home doesn't mean they will never go out to restaurants. To me, VOD and sites like Snag Films and Hulu simply serve audiences who enjoy watching movies at home. Restricting availability on those platforms is probably not going to get those people to get off their asses and into their nearest Landmark theater.

To me, the bigger question here is whether Cananá can effectively get people excited about seeing arthouse fare at home. Are they reading the market correctly or are they driven by desperation? It remains to be seen.