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Posted by on Sep 30, 2014

The documentary that made me a Mariachi fan: Que Caramba Es La Vida

The Denver Film Society recently held the inaugural CineLatino film festival, a 4-day celebration of Latino cinema that included new and old feature films and documentaries. The only film I had the opportunity to see was Que Caramba Es La Vida, a portrait of female singers in the male-dominated world of Mariachi music. Directed by German Filmmaker Doris Dorrie, the film made it’s world premiere at SXSW in March 2014.
I’ve been exposed to Mariachi music quite a bit, but never really paid much attention to it or became a fan. Thanks to Que Caramba es La Vida, I can now pinpoint the moment in time I was converted to Mariachi fandom. (September 28th, sometime between 7:00 PM and 8:30 PM MST) The film not only offers impassioned scenes of Mariachi performances, its 82 minutes are packed with snapshots of the music’s connection to everyday lives and moments in Mexico City. The premise—the struggles women singers face in the world of mariachi—is only the starting point. The story showcases the famous Plaza Garibaldi while examining a history of female mariachi singers, the veneration of Santa Muerte, and the national pride in the music. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when a group of women who make up the group Las Pioneras de Mexico, one of the first all-female Mariachi groups in the 1960s, get together to belt out a soulful rendition of “Canción Mexicana”.

Hay canciones extranjeras
que alborotan la pasion,
pero ninguna se compara
con esta linda canción!

There are foreign songs
that stir up passion,
but none can compare
with this beautiful song.

Dorrie does an excellent job of balancing street shows, rehearsals and formal performances with quotidian moments that bring us into the lives of the characters. Indeed, these were some of my favorite moments. When María Del Carmen, a singer in Plaza Garibaldi, picks up her daughter from school.  Or when she demonstrates how she shapes her eyelashes with a heated metal spoon. In another scene, a young performer in female-based Mariachi group, Las Estrellas de Jalisco, helps her son pick out a film to watch on their TV. A poignant graveside serenade of a young mother who recently lost her daughter. When you examine Mariachi lyrics heard in the songs in this film, you hear songs of nostalgia, irony, loss, pride, love and joy. Doris Dorre’s cinematic style compliments perfectly the emotion of the music, and my summary here cannot compare to the marriage of music and image in the film. I hope to see this documentary picked up at more festivals.
Until then, here’s the trailer, in German (I haven’t been able to find an English version).

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Posted by on Sep 23, 2014

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

I rarely see a film twice in theaters anymore. Call it a combination of price, time, and the overwhelming amount of films being released that I’d like to see. The only two exceptions in the past few years were Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Despite its 2 hour and 45 minute run time, it has one of those qualities that few films, even some really good ones, have: I didn’t want it to end. The film’s unique production process—it was filmed with the same cast over the course of 12 years, beginning when the protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) was 6 years old—definitely contributed to this. In a way, Boyhood had me on the edge of my seat. I had to see what happened next. Where would Mason be next year? What music will he be into? What books will he be reading? I wish the film would’ve just kept going long after the final scene, when Mason begins his freshman year at college. I’m curious to see how Mason adapts to college life. Would he adopt to study abroad? Would he feel uncomfortable at frat parties? How would he handle his first job interview?
Linklater presents every scene in Mason’s coming-of-age with equal weight. Every moment, not just the most dramatic, counts; every instance forms part of a Mason’s story. A violent drunken outburst from a stepfather. A bedtime discussion with his biological father about the existence of elves. A flirtatious after-school conversation with a classmate who we never see again. A Harry Potter book premiere. Other seemingly important moments are noticeably absent. Mason’s first kiss. His mother’s(Patricia Arquette) third divorce. His loss of virginity. Linklater skims over moments like these. Mason and his family become like our relatives living in Texas and that we check in with every so often: Aunt Olivia is getting divorced again. Does Mason still date that nice girl? Oh my god, Mason, you hair is so long!
Linklater has an ability to identify everyday moments, often the mundane, and make them something we want to keep watching. He turns these moments into poignant, relatable and beautiful scenes, the way Edward Hopper would do with his canvas. Two of Linklater’s other notable works, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, fall into that category of “films I don’t want to end.” I feel like I can listen to Celine and Jesse of the Before trilogy stroll through the streets of some European city while conversing about the very things we all converse about yet we believe to be our own original thoughts.

Jesse: “You know what drives me crazy? It’s all these people talking about how great technology is, and how it saves all this time. But, what good is saved time, if nobody uses it? If it just turns into more busy work. You never hear somebody say, “With the time I’ve saved by using my word processor, I’m gonna go to a Zen monastery and hang out”.

We’ve all had that conversation. We all relate to the conversation. Just like we relate to the scene in Boyhood, where Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) stumbles through the safe-sex conversation with Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). These are moments we’ve lived without cameras on us. When we witness these seemingly mundane moments played out on the screen, we want to keep watching because they make use feel more connected, that we aren’t as misunderstood or alone as we sometimes might feel. Certainly, I find it encouraging when Mason’s father, near the film’s end, tells him that no one has anything figured out, that “we’re all just winging it.” At least we are all winging it together.

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Posted by on Sep 2, 2014

Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker

As a storyteller, it’s easy to overly complicate a script in an effort to craft something original and smart. But it’s usually the simplest and most honest scripts that are the most universal. Few films highlight this concept better than Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker (1953). Set in Baja California, Mexico, and filmed predominately in stark desert highways, and with a minimal cast and a runtime of just 70 minutes, the film succeeds at crafting an endlessly suspenseful tale with the basic ingredients of just three men, a car and gun.

The concept of the film is so ingenious in its simplicity. While traveling to Mexico on a fishing trip, two friends, Roy and Gilbert, pick up a hitchhiker, who, unbeknownst to them, is Emmett Myers (William Talman), a psychopath on the run from national authorities for murdering several motorists. From the moment Myers steps into the vehicle until the film’s climax, he holds the two friends at gunpoint, forcing them to take him to Santa Rosalia, where he plans to escape across the gulf of California and leave them for dead.

What could be more tense than constantly finding yourself at the wrong end of a pistol? The threat of death literally hangs over Roy and Gilbert at every waking moment: in the most isolated of places, like the vast desert highway, and public places, like the gas stations and stores where they stop for food. Actually, “every waking moment” is an understatement; due to Myers’ lame eye that never fully closes, the two friends find themselves under his ever-vigilant stare even in sleep.

The reason the film continues to work so well, and remains suspenseful 60 years after its release, is that it taps into the basic human struggle for survival. The screenplay by Lupino, Collier Young and Robert L. Joseph strips away almost anything that could overly complicate the storyline. We know very little about our protagonists Roy and Gilbert, except their professions and their family situation. But because their situation and problem (the threat of extinction) is so universal, the script doesn’t require much backstory for us to empathize with them. The randomness of their plight reminds us that this “could have happened to you,” as the film’s opening slate reminds us. Roy and Gilbert’s survival will depend on their ability to maintain their friendship and remain rational under that constant threat of extinction.
While it may seem dated in comparison to today’s serial killer yarns, the The Hitchhiker is worth viewing for the way Lupino demonstrates how little you need really need to tell a great story. You can watch it, for free, on YouTube.

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