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El Niño Pez

El Niño PezEl Niño Pez
Lucia Puenzo :: Spain, Argentina, France :: 2009 :: 1h36

Lala (Inés Efron), the daughter of a judge, lives with her family in Buenos Aires. When she is 13 years old, a young outgoing Paraguayan girl by the name Guayi, comes to work in their house  as a maid. It is love at first sight, with their relationship blooming as they grow up. When they reach early adulthood their dreams of living on the shores of the Paraguayan lake Ypoa are on the verge of becoming reality, but a series of dreadful events changes everything, as they cascade into their lives. Going from bad to worse, desperation reaches Lala’s heart, fuelling her determination to get them out.

Two years ago, director Lucia Puenzo had surprised us with the intimate special-girl-growing-up drama XXY and her theme here seems to set off in the same direction. But El Nino Pez (The Fish Child) takes us off on an unexpected tangent. Although it starts off as delving into the complexities of love across the social class barrier, very quickly you find out that that is not where you are being taken. As the story unfolds, we see more and more of the general awkward relationship between the locals and their guest workers, actually sinking into the depths of depravity.

El Nino Pez gives a bleak view of Argentinian society, as  a nation collapsing under the weight of its impotence to protect its people. The corollary of such anarchistic society is that it brings out the worst in people – through the actions of some and the silence of others. You can take comfort in the power the love story, but their love also proves one other thing: that it is not enough for us all. (




James Cameron :: USA :: 2009 :: 2h41

On the faraway planet Pandora, a human mining company wants to move an indigenous population to be able to extract valuable minerals from under their village. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent in to attempt diplomacy before they resort to military force. The villagers get the point, listen to a few inspiring speeches and decide to fight back.

As you will have guessed from the summary, Avatar is not about the story. This is old-school blockbuster cinema: the story is just simple and customary, so that you not only do not have to think but there is nothing to worry about either. The movie is about showing-off special effects, which, as usual, can already be seen in the preview on their website. To fully understand this blockbuster strategy, let us search further for a moment: the site is integrated with YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. And then there is the merchandising, even before the movie starts you will already have seen the spin-offs with Coca-Cola and games on your Playstation, PSP, Xbox or even your iPhone. All this made me check with McDonalds and you can rest assured: they are also ready to cash in. I am sure Fox has taken care of the production of puppets, mugs and T-shirts for the holiday season too. This is all so tacky for a children’s movie, but does it still matter? Well, in a sense: yes it does.

The bad guy in Avatar is the mining cooperation (which incidentally shifts the blame of its immoral behaviour onto their shareholders). It is in their name that the planet Pandora is being destroyed and the villagers killed (or displaced). The xenophobic and ecological disaster which is the cooperation in the film, is reflected by the real life version (a conglomerate of US companies huddled around a copyrighted image cutting out others with an ephemeral, disposable product). The movie criticises what it represents itself – the use of capitalistic power to the detriment of others. The movie just pushes capitalistic behaviour further than its own production house does (with criminal consequences). But are we supposed to take a blockbuster movie seriously? But then if we discard the story and are prepared to ignore the moral message, then why should we bother going in?

There is actually an answer here: the dream world which is on the planet Pandora. It is absolutely magical! A civilisation which is as a mix of Amazonian Indian and African cultures with a holistic Gaia-type world view. They live in the trees in a Jurassic-ish rainforest world with wavy ocean-like properties. It is all credible enough and beautifully worked out (irrespective if you watch the 3D version or just the big screen). In a word, it is spectacular! The memory of the trip through their world makes me want to return. I think they might have a solution for that. On the playstation. Or on the iPhone…

( / / / etc.)

The Box

The Box

Richard Kelly :: USA :: 2009 :: 1h55

It’s 1976 in small town USA. Southerners Norma and Arthur Lewis, a NASA scientist and a school teacher, live a comfortable life beyond their means with their son Walter. At the first set-back, Norma realises they have no financial buffer. A tall stranger appears at that exact moment to test their morals: he offers them a box with a button. If they press it, they will receive a million dollars and someone they do not know will die. They are not told how or who will die, but just that someone –they do not know– will die. The young couple stares at the box wondering what to do.

For those of you who think they recognise the plot, this is a feature length version of a famous Twilight Zone (1985) episode called Button, Button (from the short story by Richard Matheson). The original film was 20 minutes long, with some notable differences: there we were introduced to a stuttering Arthur and a chain-smoking Norma who live as a bickering working class couple in California, trying to make ends meet. The couple, when presented with the perverse choice, take opposing ends. Arthur is morally outraged by the idea while Norma is blinded by the prospect of the influx of wealth, hiding behind the anonymity of the obscure murder.

But the reason to push the button, poverty and misery, are removed in the contemporary version. The contemporary Norma and Arthur love each other, they are both healthy, living in a beautiful house, fully equipped with everything they could ever need, they go out to the theatre when they want to and even have a sports car and fancy clothes to boot. Under such circumstances, even a little set back should make you wonder what could that million add to their lives? Norma explains that it would “make it easier to live the life they want”, which makes you wonder what on earth they are missing. She says it would “provide security for their entire family”, but if they thought that was important, they would not have been living above their means. The final argument, is “are we ever going to leave Richmond?”. If the script had been a little more challenging, Arthur could have responded: “We have to kill someone because we never took the trouble to leave Richmond?” The reason to push the button is not there. Norma is fooling herself, succumbing under her own greed. And she is to realise it very quickly. But of course, too late.

The Box starts out as a stretched Twilight Zone episode brushed up with the contemporary Hollywood feel-good ethos (everybody is beautiful, wealthy, intelligent and loving) even if it does not suit the story. But as the film rolls on it starts to seem more and more like a M. Night Shyamalan movie. But then there are so many tangents, that you lose count. Some of them end up being storyline fluff while others become mysterious supernatural escapades. This is a wild moral adventure, best watched under cover of night, even if it is scarred by obscure lapses in logic. It is none the less enigmatically captivating, leaving the pieces in your head for assembly afterwards – even if you end up throwing the pieces on the floor because they do not fit.

(The Twilight Zone episode:

The Limits of Control

the limits of controlThe Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch :: USA :: 2009 :: 1h56

A tall black man in a shiny suit (Isaach de Bankomé) is sent to Madrid. A few mysterious meetings later, he gets off a train in Seville. And then another stop. He is on a mission, or perhaps on several missions, taking him cross country over the Iberian peninsula. This is a film without a customary narrative, leaving you to paradoxically guess the ongoings. Paradoxically, because every step taken by our hero is meticulously planned and controlled. He, at least, knows what he is doing, with a silent, patient cool.

At times the film looks like an old-school 1970s thriller. At other times, we see carefully chosen images which look more like works of art photography than than part of a feature film. At again other times, the surroundings and characters are so painfully normal that it seems out of place with the rest. As you are taken along, you will notice that the same structure of the scenes is repeated, with little curious reminders forwards or backwards in time to create an overall harmony. Perhaps the aesthetic could have been even more formal than it was, as after all the whole film takes on an experimental role. The background canvases of the countryside might at times even have been fake, as it would not have mattered. Reality is a flexible notion in the film and could easily have been bent a little more.

Reconstructing the film in a cafe afterwards is a lot of fun, so try to avoid seeing the film by yourself. You can take the side characters, the locations and the sparse exchanges to reconstruct a world in which the different characters all have their own obsessions and interests. But somehow they all work together. This succession of characters who are “in” on the conspiracy, even originate from widely different horizons, apparently all motivated to work together against the final puppet-master, whose presence we feel intrusively hovering above us throughout the film. And make sure you are up for it too. If you did not catch it yet, the pace of the film is slow.

La Vida Loca

LaVidaLocaLa Vida Loca
Christian Poveda :: France, Mexico, Spain :: 2009 :: 1h30

In stark contrast to the tranquility of the little painted houses in a tree-lined suburban housing estate in El Salvador, a violent gang culture permanently kills, maims or has jailed the young of the community. With a rate of 9 murders a day amongst the young, the country is caught in a massive gang feud. The gangs, and the feud, originate from the 1980s run-down south central Los Angeles. The problem could have been contained, considers Poveda, were it not that in 1996, the US government (under Clinton) decided to send 100,000 convicted gang members from US prisons to central America. Combined with a foreign policy of supporting dictatorships and financing civil wars, the scene has been set for human tragedy.

The fearless photographer and documentary-maker Christian Poveda submerges himself into central America a decade later, into the underbelly of society. He managed to get permission from the Salvadorian police and one of the gangs, the “18”, to follow them in their lives. Four years later, La Vida Loca sees the light, taking you along the path of violent outcasts of society. And it is very different to what you might imagine.

The documentary takes us from the unfolding of someone’s life to their funeral after a shooting. It is an endless spiral of gang violence, with seemingly no point to the gang war whatsoever, other than that of having an enemy to unite them. Joining a gang is not even an alternative employer for the poor, as the gang does not offer any external symbols of success (wealth, privilege, whatever). In fact, the gang does not seem to offer anything at all but the prospect of death, jail or invalidity. Hardly the attractive option, but these youths are already broken by their lives. And change becomes inevitable with the gang tattoos (voluntary or forced) marking their allegiance. Once you are have your face covered in tattoos, you can no longer send your CV anywhere. They can not back down.

The film lets the youths talk for themselves. They talk about their broken pasts, of growing up without the guiding support of a family. They speak of the love they get from the gang. They talk, with a peculiar detachment, of passing from one social service (juvenile detention) to another (jail), exposing an existential loneliness at the impoverished fringe in which they live. The gang might not offer the flash of fast cars, bikinis and swimming pools, but it does offer loyalty, stability and a shared suffering. The love of the gang is a love which fills an emotional void, giving them a sense of belonging amongst their peers. The gang is so much an end in itself that its members do not even fear death for it, but rather they expect it. The gang is not the path to wealth, status or happiness but rather a goal in itself. An end. But their fearlessness does not come from a feeling of superiority, what you might expect, but rather from an all-round stunted emotional development born out of their misery. They are phlegmatic, almost accepting their fate as a given. And hence they can tattoo themselves, as a confirmation of their fate, as whatever should befall them would befall them anyway.

But some do try. Christian Poveda follows a re-insertion programme, where ex-gang members try to set up a bakery. We see them, the tattoo-ed ex-bullies, kneading the dough, we know they are serious about doing the right thing, of trying to improve their lives despite expectations. We see them pray, and talk with priests, but it is as if the words just float over their heads. When push comes to shove, who knows what they will do.

As tragic as the lives of the gang members are, as surprising it is to see that there is a normal society outside the walls of their lives. When they get hurt, they find themselves in a capable hospital, with all health services paid for by the state. When they find themselves in court, they are confronted with seemingly capable legal actors. When they are confronted with the police, they seem professional and organised. You might expect the gangsters to be aggressive ego-tripping characters, perhaps even with dubious contacts in the judiciary, but they are not like that at all. At least, they are not presented that way. When they are stopped by the police, they let themselves be searched or taken. When in court, they hear the court’s verdicts stoically, accepting their fate as givens. Of course it is that same stoicism which makes them untouchable, even from punishment. Everything is pointless.

Seeing the film today, so shortly after director Christian Poveda was shot dead in El Salvador, makes the film all the more moving. It is a unique chance to meet people you will never meet, and hear words you will never hear spoken. A look into a violent, criminal subculture normally hidden from view. A testament to a culture which so badly needs understanding, to, hopefully, one day rest in the past.

Sin Nombre

sin_nombreSin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga :: USA, Mexico :: 2009 :: 1h36

Sayra is picked up in Honduras by her father, who she barely knows, to take her up north with him to New Jersey (USA). Without money and without papers. Once on her rough and dangerous journey to a prospective better life, she meets the young Mexican gangster Willy. The young man, nicknamed Casper, had grown up in the violent Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS) gang. Their stories begin to intertwine as Casper slowly but surely turns his back on the gang, and Sayra takes his hand so they can run together.

Sin Nombre (“without a name”) drags us through the underbelly of society, along the railway tracks, with the aspiring immigrants, the profiteers, and the omni present gangsters. The dangerous journey they embark on, is one which will define their lifetime. For Sayra, if she makes it to her family in New Jersey, she will be at the beginning of her new life as an illegal immigrant. However it turns out, her story will have started with that continental crossing, on the roof of that train. For Willy, who knows he can not outrun his Casper shadow, his future is as uncertain as the whims which control the life and death of a gangster.

Carefully put together with an excellent cast, Sin Nombre is as a fictional companion to La Vida Loca, with the wider perspective of poverty and migration in North America. Long after you have left the film, you will still see the train cutting through the countryside with, on the roof, a mass huddled together dreaming of a better future for themselves. A dream, which survives through the hardships and cruelty of the world. A tough watch.




Lynn Shelton :: USA :: 2009 : 1h35

Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a quiet life in Seattle with his wife Anna, when his old university friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard)shows up, as the prodigal son. Andrew has been bumming around for ten years in hippy semi-artistic circles, and the two men look at each other as different versions of what they could have done with their lives. From a combination of an “I’m free, you’re not” kind of argument and an amateur porn-as-art festival, comes the idea of the two of them having homosexual sex on film. Although the idea repulses them, neither wants to give in to the other, for the risk of losing face at the challenge.

The idea of a homosexual challenge is both very silly and potentially amusing, but here we are left stranded at the former. And it has silliness written all over it. It has even been shot in a messy way – with an unstable, low quality camera which is sometimes out of focus. The script follows suit, by seeming to be mostly based on improvisation judging by its simplicity. The film is actually the 20 minutes or so in a hotel room (where they are to have sex), the rest could just as easily have been scrapped. The whole amateur approach could have been an added value for a film which needs the “fear-of-gay discomfort” element to work, but we never actually get to some value, to be able to consider any more added on.

The characters act (and dress) as if they are 15 years old, with a matching insecurity, no sophistication (although supposedly with an education), teen-style pushing each other around and with no direction in their lives. They are just permanently uncomfortable with themselves in relation to others.

Ben is supposed to be living a dull bourgeois life, with a wife and house, and Andrew the adventurous drugs and swingers life, but neither are a mentionable success. If being married and having a house is to be considered boring (!?) then the movie could have shown them sitting silently in front of a TV game show, with him taking a grey commuter train to work in the morning and Anna pruning the roses under the auspicious eye of the elderly neighbours. So to speak. Just saying that he has a house and a wife is meaningless.

If the contrast is supposed to be with his country-hopping lost friend Andrew, then surely Andrew should have received a little more credit himself, rather than just a pretension. Already in the introductory scenes, Andrew is shown giving an inappropriate kitsch gift followed by a story of his work at an artistic community in Mexico, which we can only assume to be a failure as he left. Despite his talk about art, he does not produce anything or show any understanding of it. That leaves us with sex and drugs. His uncommitted swingers life should have given him an ease in sexual relations, but even there he does not excel, or have any noteworthy advantage to justify a superiority. The character is just shown as a loveable loser. The contrast does not work.

Basically, we are left watching two cowardly superficial characters fail. If they had wanted to succeed they could have brought along some alcohol. Or some drugs. Or perhaps eased themselves into it with something more accessible first. Or perhaps they should have just set themselves some more constructive goals, closer to their heart to try to grow up. As the director should have done. And remember that this production is marketed as a comedy. Perhaps something funny could have been squashed in there somewhere in too…