Category Archives: Mexican Cinema

Casa de los babys (US-Mexico 2003)

The opening sequence of a nursery in an unnamed Latin American country

John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.

MGM’s poster for the film ignores the local characters

The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.

Eileen (Susan Lynch) offers a book to one of the boys on the street

The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.

Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaa) and Skipper (Darryl Hannah) with Rufino (David Baez), a local man who wants to emigrate to Philadelphia

The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.

Asunción (Vanessa Martínez) is one of the most important characters who says little but reveals a great deal. Here she listens to Eileen’s story, although neither can understand the other’s language

I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) here with Eileen is the least likeable American character but she has a story as well

Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.

It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.

The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro, Mexico-Spain 2013)

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

This terrific film comes to us with a glowing recommendation from Ken Loach. Its writer-director Diego Quemada-Díez began as a camera assistant on Loach’s Spanish-set Land and Freedom (1995). His work in different roles in the camera department has featured in two further Loach productions plus films by Spike Lee, Alejandro Inarittu and Fernando Mireilles among others. What he has learned from close contact with these leading directors is evident in this his first feature-length film.

‘The Golden Dream’ is about America, though the direct translation of the film’s title is the Golden – or ‘Gilded’ – Cage and it may refer back to a well-known Mexican song and later film about migration to the US. The current film has been described as a ‘poetic road movie’, though it is for much of the time a (freight) train movie. It takes three teenagers on a journey from Guatemala into Mexico where they attract a fourth traveller a young ‘Indian’ in Chiapas. The group includes a confident young man who makes himself leader and a similarly confident young woman who binds her breasts and cuts her hair to pass as a boy. After a setback, one of the original trio heads home but the others continue ‘jumping’ freight trains that they hope will take them all the way north to the American border and eventually to Los Angeles. Inevitably they will have adventures, suffer great losses and learn things about themselves. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll simply say that not all of them get to America and the other adjective to go with ‘poetic’ used in the synopsis is ‘severe’.

The poetry is in the images. This is a photographer’s film in the sense that meaning is carried more by the images than the dialogue. It’s not that I remember many specific images as such (even though many are striking), just that the story seems to flow so smoothly. The credited cinematographer is María Secco.

The three teenage leads are very good indeed (none have film experience as such, but all are ‘performers’ in some form of community arts) and the story is not romantic or sentimental. The travellers experience both the warmth and solidarity of the rails – and the violence and duplicity of those who prey on them as migrants. I enjoyed the musical performances in the film as well – these add to the quasi-documentary feel and the chief lesson learned from Loach is the strategy of filming the story ‘in sequence’ and briefing the cast only about the events of the day’s shoot in advance so that the actions/re-actions feel natural rather than ‘performed’.

Peccadillo Pictures distributes the film in the UK. It’s certainly worth seeing on a big screen if you can find it:

This film would make a very good companion piece to Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001), a rather different form of ‘road movie’ discussed in some detail in Chapter 3 of The Global Film Book.

LFF 2012 #5: Aquí y allá (Here and There, Mexico-Spain-US 2012)

‘Here’ is the mountain region of Guerrero in Southern Mexico (inland from the Pacific Coast around Acapulco).

This Mexican feature, like the earlier LFF film Memories Look at Me, is placed somewhere between fiction and documentary. It’s a deceptive neo-realist story that forgoes a strong central narrative in order to present events in the life of a Mexican family in separate episodes over a few years. In the section titled ‘The Return’ at the beginning of the film, Pedro, a would-be dance band musician returns from his latest trip ‘over there’ (i.e. to New York) bringing with him an electric piano he’s bought in the hope of starting a new band. He’s welcomed back by his wife and two young daughters, the older one, Lorena already a rather moody adolescent. In the next few months Pedro finds that earning money from the band will not be easy. He works in the fields picking corn cobs and later on building sites, but it is hard to make progress.

The film’s setting is the province of Guerrero, specifically Copanatoyac, a small town in the mountains. The presentation is calm and slow-paced. Individual shots are often held in beautiful long shot compositions for 30 seconds or more. On the other hand, there is plenty of diegetic music (all written and performed by the musician Pedro De los Santos, playing himself) with rehearsals and impromptu performances. There is a strong sense of place and we get to know the characters well. There are moments when it looks as if the film might move into realist melodrama – especially when Teresa, Pedro’s wife, has a problem pregnancy and Pedro must find money for drugs and for blood transfusions in the hospital of the nearest major town. At this point, I was concerned that Pedro, in desperation, would turn to stealing the money as the hospital offered to accept money instead of blood. But seemingly deliberately, the director withdraws from the possibility of dramatic scenes and this particular crisis is averted. By underplaying these scenes, writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza allows the overall narrative effect to perhaps be stronger.  He was brought up in Madrid and trained in New York, having also lived in Mexico according to his bio in the beautifully-produced Press Pack on the official website. It has taken him five years to realise this project in which Pedro and Teresa play versions of themselves. The whole cast is non-professional but the film is very well put together.

Pedro listens to the old woman’s request that her funeral procession should go straight to the cemetery

It’s a hard life in the hills and there are many problems to be overcome with stoicism and the occasional dance. One scene typifies the philosophical position of an elderly woman who announces that when she dies she doesn’t want to be carried in her coffin in a procession to church. She doesn’t want a fuss – she has already been to Mass and she wants to go straight to her grave.

The family together

Here and There received support from the Sundance Festival and it screened at Cannes in the Critics’ Week strand. It has been highly praised by critics but I have seen some reviews which clearly don’t appreciate the power of quiet, contemplative cinema. I agree with the consensus which recognises that the unique approach of the film in tackling the other side of the migration issue – what happens to the people and communities left behind? They suffer in different ways – children who don’t see their fathers, young women who lose their boyfriends, wives their husbands, friends their social contacts. I was disturbed to read that Guerrero is now the Mexican province with the highest murder rate (presumably around Acapulco) but just as tragic is the slow death of communities from loss of migrants to ‘over there’. Aquí y Allá deserves to be distributed widely.

Here’s a trailer indicative of ‘feel’ and pacing:

MexFest, London, 17-19 August 2012

The inaugural MexFest runs in London in August. A celebration of Mexican film and culture, taking place at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, it spans three full days, starting on August 17th with the world première of Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico) by Duncan Bridgeman, followed by a concert from Amandititita the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia. We are happy to promote new festivals of global cinema so here are highlights from the website and the following sources:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LondonMexFest

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/LondonMexFest

General Info: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/festival/london-mexfest/

Festival Highlights include:

  • World première Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico), a kaleidoscopic portrait of the music of Mexico, its people and their way of life, by UK filmmaker Duncan Bridgeman (dir. One Giant Leap), followed by a live concert from Amandititita, the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia, an urban blend of rock, reggae, rap, and traditional Mexican cumbia.
  • The festival closes with a screening of Daniel and Ana (Daniel y Ana), which follows the kidnapping of a brother and sister and is the first feature from acclaimed director Michel Franco (his second feature, After Lucia, won this year’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes).
  • Documentary film highlights include award-winning The tiniest place (El lugar más pequeño), by Tatiana Huezo, which follows the struggle of five families to rebuild their lives in the middle of war and Draught (Cuates de Australia) by acclaimed director Everardo González.
  • Short film highlights include Carlos Cuarón’s The Second Bakery Attack starring Kirsten Dunst and Elisa Miller’s Watching it rain, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes and two programmes of vibrant, short animations including the Best Animated Short at Morelia International Film Festival, Black Doll (Prita Noire).
  • Rare opportunity to view sci-fi classics from Mexico hardly screened before in the UK.
  • A series of talks with Mexican filmmakers.
  • A Sensory Pop Up Studio by Sight of Emotion charity.
  • The first ever UK exhibition of Lucha Libre photographs by Lourdes Grobet and the first ever projection onto the Rich Mix facade by renowned artist Tupac Martir, titled ‘The Gentleman, The Mermaid, Mexican Cinema, Lottery!’

LondonMexFest is part of the Shoreditch Fringe Festival www.shoreditchfringe.org


!Viva¡ #3: El árbol (Spain/Mexico 2009)

Santiago who roams Madrid in El árbol

My third 70 mins feature during !Viva¡ turned out to be the least interesting, despite featuring a producer’s credit from Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas and being promoted in some quarters as similar to the Dardenne Brothers or even Tsai Ming-Liang (see this quite positive review that appeared after a Leeds Film Festival screening with director Carlos Serrano Azcona in tow in 2009). This time round the film featured in the Instituto Cervantes’ ‘Cine en construcción’ strand. Santiago wanders fitfully around Madrid. He appears to be separated from his wife and is prevented by legal constraints from seeing his children (but he does try). This information is revealed to us over the course of the film and Azcona expects us to ‘work out’ what is happening. Santiago is fired from a bar job originally given to him by an old friend. He plays football with some youths, buys dope from a dealer, is propositioned by a prostitute and takes home a young woman who is being abused by a British tourist/student. At least it might be his home, but I’m not sure – twice he sleeps rough on a bench in a city street. That’s about as much plot as there is – apart from the ending which I won’t ‘spoil’. I think I might have dozed off and missed the ‘tree’ of the title. In an interview, Azcona makes some interesting comments about the Dardenne Brothers’ work, but what he says he was attempting didn’t work for me.

The strategy is to follow the character closely with the camera – showing the back of his neck as the weakest point. But although I have found this illuminating in the Dardenne Brothers’ work, it usually requires a character who is interesting in a situation with some dramatic interest, neither of which I found here. All the actors here are non-professionals, which could have worked well if they had been given a bit more to do. Santiago is played by the Mexican painter Bosco Sodi who is quite believable but doesn’t command the screen. All in all, a disappointment after El asaltante last week with a similar aesthetic, but (much) more dramatic content.

BIFF 3: Perpetuum Mobile (Mexico/Canada 2009)

Francisco and Gabino (in the yellow hat)

Perpetuum Mobile was introduced as being the best film that programmer Neil Young had seen at the San Sebastian Festival in 2009. It has its moments but overall it lacked the intensity and the riveting cinematography of Fish Eyes (see the previous post) which it in some ways resembles. Set in Mexico City, but largely shot indoors or inside the central protagonist’s van, this is another observational and slight drama about a few days in the life of a family – son Gabino (in his twenties), mother and grandmother (who lives separately from the mother-son duo). There is also an older son Miguel who doesn’t live with his mother and brother. Gabino and his mate Francisco run a removals service but spend a fair amount of time playing basketball in the back of the removals van. Their work brings them into contact with couples possibly splitting up and singles being evicted. Gabino is duped at one point and dupes someone himself. That’s about as much as I can remember. The narrative ends with a different kind of tragedy than Fish Eyes.

This is director Nicolás Pereda’s second or possibly third feature. He’s 27 and based in Canada, getting funding from Canadian public funds. The 86 minute feature was shot on a low definition video format. Festivals being what they are, this film ended up on the big screen while Fish Eyes on high def was on the small screen. Perpetuum Mobile didn’t look too bad and in a couple of scenes – such as a driving sequence with considerable lens flare across the windscreen – it even felt like an aesthetic choice. The performances were OK and Young is justified in seeing the promise offered by a director who can create interest in seemingly mundane events. Again, there is little on the soundtrack other than dialogue. This passes the time and it’s certainly about real lives, but I think most audiences are going to want something more. The film is distributed by Ondamax Films – Latin American Cinema distributors. I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal.

Sin nombre (Mexico/US 2009)

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy (Édgar Flores) on the train.

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy (Édgar Flores) on the train.

Here is a dilemma for European cinephiles. Is Sin nombre, a Sundance awards winner, an example of a new kind of committed auteurist film from the Americas or just another slickly-packaged City of God look-alike? Both of those extreme options have been taken up by reviewers.

This is a film written and directed by a young (31) American filmmaker of mixed Japanese and Swedish descent, Cary Fukunaga. It’s a US/Mexico co-production with the involvement of Focus Features as distributors and the ‘dos amigos’, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as executive producers. So, it has muscle behind it. On the other hand, it’s the product of extensive primary research in Central America by Fukunaga and it’s presented in Spanish with subtitles.

The narrative involves two separate strands which come together. ‘Casper’ is a member of the MS 13 gang (see the IMDB bulletin board for explanations of this infamous gang which now operates across Central America and the US). He recruits a 12 year-old, ‘Smiley’, into the gang, but also foolishly consorts with a girlfriend without telling his local gangleader. Meanwhile Sayra, a young woman in Honduras, is persuaded to join her estranged father, who has been deported from the US, and her young uncle in an attempt to get back into the US via a long train ride through Mexico. She hits the border between Guatemala and Mexico, just as Casper and Smiley are ordered to rob the train. We aren’t surprised that Casper (under his other name of ‘Willy’) and Sayra get together on the train – what will happen next?

This is a very professionally-mounted film. The ‘Scope cinematography looks great (on a good transfer from a 35 neg to a digital print) and I also enjoyed the music soundtrack (which probably means a lot more to those who know the tracks/artistes). The performances are very good and overall it is a solid genre film – a mixing of the social commentary migration film and the youth/gang picture. There is an obvious authenticity about many of the migration scenes and there is also pleasure on offer in a look at Mexico from the top of a freight car. Whether this is as exciting or as innovative a film as the hype suggests is more open to doubt. All I can say is that I was gripped for 96 minutes and never bored. On that basis it’s good to see American-based directors reaching out to embrace Central American stories.