#LAFF2013 Tapia – The Indomitable Spirit & Legacy of Johnny Tapia

TapiaPoster-thumb-300xauto-33284The brief and tumultuous life of prizefighter Johnny Tapia, who passed away last year at the age of 45, elicits overwhelming empathy and incredible awe.  The documentary directed by Eddie Alcazar, intimately reveals the immense emotional agony and pain he suffered in his life but also shows that for the series of extreme, rock bottom lows of misfortune, Johnny always jumped back up to reach equally extreme heights of success and triumph, like winning five boxing championships, meeting the love of his life, Teresa Tapia, with whom he has a young son, and becoming a beloved hero to his hometown Albuquerque, as well as around the world.  Johnny grew up without a father, and his mother was the world to him.  At the tender age of 8, his mother was viciously murdered – a traumatic catalyst for what became the pang of his tortured existence. The documentary, which is world premiering in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is powerfully narrated through Johnny’s own words.  Alcazar adds a touch of style and a gorgeous cinematic framework.  The film opens with Johnny’s slightly raspy Burqueño slanged voice over young Johnny Jr. punching the air in the New Mexico desert plains and celestial horizon captured in wide panoramic vista at the magic hour, painting a metaphysical element to the legacy he leaves.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 12.08.11 PMEddie was working on a dramatic feature about Johnny but after he passed, Eddie took the research footage and made it into this documentary film.  The dramatic feature, which he is co-writing with Bettina Gilois, (Glory Days, The Hurricane) who co-wrote Johnny’s biography, Mi Vida Loca is readying for a fall shoot in Albuquerque.   50 Cent is an executive producer on the documentary and is also onboard for the dramatic version.

Teresa&Johnny JR
Teresa & Johnny Jr. at the world premiere screening

The documentary is gripping and utterly poignant. Hearing his inner, unwavering fury takes on a dark possession.  His voice and soul feel weary but he is unrelenting against the demons he waged battle with every single day of his life.   Seeing him from his early days rising up through the boxing world first as the “Baby-faced Assassin” to his later years as the lines of anguish take over his face and his body becomes heavily drawn with symbolic tattoos, his killer instinct clashing with his vulnerability. At the world premiere screening, his wife Teresa and son, Johnny Jr. came out to introduce the film but did not return after the screening, as much as everyone wanted to see them.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was too overwhelming for them and Eddie declined to do a Q&A out of respect, feeling that what’s important in the doc is Johnny, and Teresa is the only person who could talk about and for him. He told me that a couple days later when I got the opportunity to interview him.  I learned the ABQ native has some Bolivian lineage and found out more about both Tapia films.  Here’s a redacted transcription of our talk:

How did you know Johnny, how far did you too go back?

I never actually met him until I knew I wanted to do a movie two years ago.  Back then it was about creating the narrative version of his life so I sold him on my idea of doing one year of his life in his youth and he was totally up for it.  Then I got the rights and we basically just started following him around at that point. As I was following him around I was writing the script.  It was all about research and compiling all this archival footage.

Relating to him.

A lot of it is because he embodies the Albuquerque culture, which is a little bit different. Having somebody that stands out from ABQ is always kind of special and he definitely kept it real from his upbringing so I think that’s why everybody in ABQ has that strong connection with him and each other.  It’s distinct.  The community always looked up to Johnny. There is no professional football or baseball team and he was one of the first professional athletes who came out of that area.  More than seven thousand people came out to his funeral.

SamFloresTapia
Kick ass image by Sam Flores.

How did you manage to contrast the darkness of his life with all the other light and positivity he also experienced?

It was tough, which was I never intended to do the documentary. I wanted to concentrate on one year of his life because there is so much to his whole life, and it was a really really hard process confining everything that he’s been through so I was experimenting and discovering it as I went.  Bu there are as many highs as there is lows and his life in particular is filled with many from each side of the spectrum.  As far as my experience with him I never saw too much of the dark side other than when I interviewed him.  I mean personally it was just fun, just me and him playing around.  He was always active, jumping on the trampoline, playing ping pong, when we’d go out to eat he’d shake everybody’s hand. He really couldn’t stay in one place for too long.

Doc vs narrative, what do you intend to do with the dramatic feature you weren’t able to do with the documentary

filmThe documentary was about trying to hone in on what he said and having him say it directly to the audience. I didn’t want to interrupt anything too much.  We did a little bit of stylistic stuff intertwined to show a little bit of the spiritual side, you know like his connection to his son, and his connection to nature. But I wanted to keep it pretty loose on that, only scratching the surface of what I’m going to do in the feature. The feature is going to definitely be a little dreamy and spiritual.  When I say spiritual, there’s this thing that I recognized when I would talk to Johnny, I was always trying to pin point how his mind works – and he feels like his mother is right next to him.  So that plays a large role in the actual film; the presence of his mother, always around and also that connection with his youth.  In the feature as its written now we pop back and forth in his life from Johnny at 27 years old, and when he was 8 years old when he lost his mother. Its always trying to establish the connection of where he finds all this anger but also power, passion and energy that was super important to have. That drives every action in his life, I think, from that point forward, and I’ve had conversations with people who agree he became stunted at that age.  He still felt like an 8 year old when I’d talk to him, he had a child like spirit, insight.  He was not that formally educated, he was street smart, he improvised with whatever was around him.  He had that excitement, wonder and would be happy to see someone looking to give him love, and made people happy.  He was always surprised at any good news.

In a way its hard to imagine him as anything but a boxer, literally pounding and fighting his demons…

He was really hyper, boxing was a natural thing for him, it was a natural release of energy, it was actually perfect, getting into the ring, always training is what kept him alive.  It’s hard to think of him as anything else, maybe some other kind of athlete.

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Curtis Jackson at the second screening; “It was so interesting to see someone, 3 weeks before they actually passed, reflect on their entire life.”

How did 50 Cent come on board?

It all came through Lou DiBella, (executive producer) the boxing promoter and tv/film producer.  When we finished the film we started showing a handful of people to get people’s thoughts on it.  Lou was actually head of the HBO sports division who helped put together the infamous Johnny Tapia/Danny Romero fight back in the day so he had that connection. He showed the movie to 50 cent with who he has a partnership… 50 felt all these similar things and really connected with what Johnny went through (they both suffered the loss of their mother around the same age).  Also he grew up in similar crazy circumstances.  Its weird how you connect the dots….

Tell me about your producer Andrea Monier

Yes, Andrea Monier has been pivotal. We are friends, she’s also an actress but an amazing producer.  We worked on an Everlast spot first and she did an amazing job.  To do a documentary you have to have a super strong producer because there is a lot of work like archiving footage, etc. I couldn’t have done it without her.

AkiraBeard
And this amazing artwork by Akira Beard

Describe the driving creative process in writing the narrative

(Losing his mother)  that’s the biggest thing.  All his issues stem from that; drugs, psychological conditions, we explore a lot of him meeting and falling in love with Teresa.  It’s a big part of the film; the love story, but then that also connects to the mother. There’s a lot of similarities between Teresa and his mother as far as the expectations Johnny had, he almost felt like Teresa was his mother, she replaced her in a way.Feeling like a baby with your mother, a lot of the treatment you get from your mother at that age.  I come from a single parent as well and it helped me a lot to realize how much Johnny valued his mother.  Like, I don’t’ know where I would be without my mother, those thoughts always trickled through my head.   Johnny was super proud to have Teresa next to him as his woman.  I don’t think he ever constricted her in any way.  She was more the person who kept him in place, she was the one who handled the business and dealt with the promoters and he looked up to her in terms of what direction to take. He trusted her opinion above all.

What do you think she saw in him?

She likes to joke that she was young and stupid but I know there’s a lot more to it.  She has all the traits that he may have needed help on, and likewise, he showed her the excitement, spontaneity that she was looking for in life, and that quality of never expecting or knowing where the day is going to go was interesting and that’s what she gravitated to.

It must have been hard to watch him fight all the time

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 10.26.44 AM
Eddie Alcazar

Well, the professional aspect is almost better than the day to day reality in ABQ.  There are worse street fights, guns involved.  Every time I’d go to a party there were gunshots. I wanted to show this world that is not familiar, Breaking Bad does it a little bit but its not as dark or raw as it really is.  (ABQ) is a beautiful place but it’s a weird thing; there’s this subculture, an underbelly. It has a big native American population, Spaniards, Mexicans, I don’t know what leads to so much conflict but maybe the biggest thing I can relate to is there’s not too much to do. So people just …they are bored and act crazy sometimes.

Big thanks to Eddie for the interview. LA folks I urge you to go see Tapia tomorrow night, Saturday at 9:50pm at the Regal at LA Live.  Get tickets here.  Details on the big ABQ screening forthcoming.  Also be sure to queue it up on GoWatchit and like it on Facebook to support it and to get updates on where it lands with its theatrical/television/VOD release.

Don’t miss the PBS Social Screening: REBEL by Maria Agui Carter

392829_10151353491043027_161342741_nPBS is doing a really awesome thing for social activist/educational mobilization and awareness for all the arts.  It’s called OVEE and it’s a new live, interactive social screening platform where you can choose your own content from the eclectic documentary PBS library.  You can invite up to 500 people to join and watch from anywhere, along with the added plus of having a Question & Answer chat  with the filmmaker!  The possibilities for launching and fundraising a spectrum of educational/grassroots organizations are endless.  It doesn’t have to be a social issue.  PBS also programs a lot of great music programming, so you can get together and watch Bonnie Rait at the Austin City Limits concert if that’s what you want to do.  But it also just might be a game changer in that it offers an optimal tool to connect beyond geography.

The beta version of OVEE is available to public media organizations and their community partners. If you are interested contact ovee@itvs.org.  They’ve queued up a range of upcoming public screenings including Ted Talks, culinary arts shows and a number of concerts, listed here.  Which leads me to:

This Thursday, June 20 at 4pm PST you can join to watch this extraordinary historical portrait, REBEL by Maria Agui Carter.  Co-presented by Latino Public Broadcasting and Women and Girls Lead, an innovative public media campaign designed to celebrate, educate, and activate women, girls, and their allies across the globe.

Screening info and how to join here.

Rebel is the forgotten story of a woman civil rights soldier.  What???  Yes.  That’s right.  Loreta Velazquez fought as Harry Buford, a Confederate Soldier, then spied for the Union.  Born in Cuba and raised in New Orleans, Loreta was unconventional to say the least. Her memoir which was published in 1876, revealed the dark side and ills of the war-time society.  She was publicly attacked and discredited over it, and for over a century, critics have dismissed her as a hoax.

The film inhabits an ambitious hybrid form of classic documentary and epic drama, featuring luscious costume and production design, a lively score and a huge cast of actors embodying the reconstruction of Loreta’s infamous practically erased life and times.  It plays like a big scale period piece weaving dramatic sequences of Loretta as a woman in those times, with battle action scenes and fascinating recently uncovered archives.

309895_10150317307748027_394344489_nI recently met María Agui Carter at NALIP where she is the Chair of the Board.  I admire her character and drive for continuing to raise the bar for herself.  Bringing to light this Latina Civil Rights soldier was so important to her that when she realized there was barely any footage she dove in and recreated the feel for the era.  She joked that if she had known how much work it was going to be she would not have gone though with it.  But that just goes to show she went with her gut, doubled down, and the result is a distinctly novel aesthetic.  At one of the keynotes she shared her story of immigrating to the U.S. from Ecuador, growing up as an undocumented “Dreamer” .  A Harvard grad, she is passionate about using media storytelling to inspire social change and specializes in visually arresting and complex storytelling.
306415_10150317315598027_162902961_nREBEL is a co-production of IGUANA FILMS, L.L.C. and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), in association with WPBT/Miami and Latino Public Broadcasting with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

You can also watch Rebel at the Roxie for the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco June 29

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#LAFF2013 – Floored by the vision of Grace Lee Boggs

Watch the amazing Grace at the premiere of her documentary American Revolutionary talking about our responsibility to converse, reflect and self transform so we may continue to evolve as a human race and galvanize the revolution beyond us.

I’ve no doubt that yesterday at the full-house world premiere of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, we were in the presence of arguably the greatest living American sage.   Yet as much of an impact Grace Lee Boggs’ 80 something years of activist endeavors have made to those directly involved or already familiar with the African American civil rights movement, now thanks to director Grace Lee and producer Caroline Libresco, who gloriously bring onscreen her philosophical voice, her legacy will illuminate and inspire the rest of us who had no idea of this woman’s accomplishments.  The documentary serves as a re-introduction to a whole new generation and as such, offers a significant tool of social activism within itself.  Like it did in me, I trust it will spark a call to spiritual arms for everyone towards fulfilling the visionary quest Grace Lee Boggs dares to predict for human kind.

To say Grace Lee Boggs is a highly thought provoking and profound human being would be an understatement.  I was absolutely floored by her wisdom and transcendent way of thinking.  Throughout the screening a low murmur of ‘Mmmhmm’s could be heard.

Grace Lee Boggs received her Ph.D in Philosophy in 1940.  While translating the works of Karl Marx she became attracted to the socialism beliefs which subsequently and naturally drew her to Detroit, where the catapulting industrialization of the automobile industry provided the most fitting stage to adopt into practice the socialist workers’ theories.  She has stayed in Detroit ever since, becoming a beloved and iconic figure in the community.   “This is how giants fall”, Grace says at the beginning of the film as she ambles past the old abandoned factory plants of Detroit with her walking aid.  The director, Grace Lee has been documenting her for 12 years, and in that time span she has not only created a close bond with her but has also accrued some fascinating archival moving picture and sound footage.  The camera fluidly pans through stills and at one point I wasn’t sure if it was animating a still or it was real film, the images are rendered so lively.  There is a playful score and humorous graphic sequences here and there informing us of the scholars and philosophers, Grace Lee Boggs tends to reference quite a bit, i.e. “Hegel in 30 seconds”.  When she married Jimmy Boggs, a through and through man from Alabama whose deep country accent belied his innovative revolutionary expression, the two became a force, writing pamphlets, books, holding community meetings and organizing marches.  In describing one of their very first encounters Grace noticed Jimmy’s ‘unpleasantness’, a trait that you can tell oddly attracted her in some sense.  He asked her to marry her right then and there that same night, crystalizing their soul mate debate dynamic they had throughout their forty years of marriage in which they discussed everything around them in the world except the personal.  Although the two tried to keep a low profile, as described by the FBI reports, they were a dangerous anomaly and the file they kept on Grace Lee Boggs grew thicker and thicker.

The film doesn’t shy away from questioning her identity as a non-African American member of the community and then much later in life when she reawakens her consciousness of  her ethnicity as a Chinese American.  More delicately the question of where she fell between the non-violence approach of Dr. MLK or the extreme aggression Malcolm X preached within the civil rights movement is broached.  Her authenticity is also challenged by none other than the director Grace Lee, who expresses her frustration directly.   How is it that she is so positive, never shares doubt and deflects any personal questions of making mistakes or regrets especially considering acknowledgement of such is necessary for the transformative growth she frequently talks about to take place.  Sure enough, as proof Grace Lee Boggs exercises the beliefs she preaches, she listens to Grace carefully and then tells her that it is something she will reflect on. Adding, “I’m really good at that”.

As much as American Revolutionary is a remarkably engaging U.S. biographical and historical portrait, this is also as big picture of a point of view on the human race and where it is going, I’ve ever seen in a documentary.  Somehow, Grace Lee Boggs has become more lucid with age.  Time is a funny thing we hear her say, and its almost as if she’s figured out how to contract time itself.  Conversation is how she is an activist these days and as you can see above she continues to articulate the questions we should be asking of ourselves and challenging us to expand our imagination. Looking ahead, she reminds us that the question of what a revolution means today is critical to think about and address.  The conversation could not be more timely.

The film has a second screening at the LA Film Festival tonight at 7:20.   East coast, it will screen at AFI Docs June 21 and 23 in D.C..    For all you Motor City peeps, in celebration of Grace Lee Boggs 98th birthday (!) there will be a screening on June 29 in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The film will be broadcast on POV next year.  Follow the film and Grace on Twitter and Facebook.

FILM REVIEW: THE CRUMBLES – viva punk rock soul – GO

Yo!  San Francisco, Chicago and NYC!  Trucking through their nationwide DIY theatrical release, the LA Echo Park set indie rock film, The Crumbles is heading to your cities! This Saturday at the Roxie in San Francisco, May 24 & 27 in Chicago as part of the Asian American Showcase at the Gene Siskel Theater, and June 8 at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.  I got a real soft spot for this multi-culti, genuinely captured milieu of working-class artist life in LA, and recommend it heartily.

398051_341154429228834_1543740511_nDarla is a 20something guitarist and songwriter who works at a local bookstore while trying to make moves to fulfill her rocker career aspirations.  Caught in a stagnant funk, as she starts getting melancholy, her wild child bestie, Elisa, who plays the keytar, storms back into town following a breakup of her band and boyfriend. Elisa’s effusive spirit is the yin to Darla’s cool chill vibe yang.  Both of them share the love of punk rock and in no time the two decide to form a band.  Once they audition a cute drummer friend, Dante, they start to jam and find their signature sound under their new name The Crumbles.  A couple successful gigs and the band is riding high on the recognition and excitement of being out there doing it.  But just as they start getting traction, Elisa’s unpredictability, a competing local band rising faster than them, and other life curveballs, stand in the way of The Crumbles ruling the world, unraveling the loosely held seams of their band’s future.

132968_187535281257417_180306_oSkipping the condescension or pretension that’s been typically associated with the Echo Park/Silver Lake hipster scene of late, The Crumbles is instead a damned earnest and sympathetic portrayal of the unwavering creative impulse of the modern struggling artist phenomenon on the eclectic East Side of LA.  It’s also like a timeless love letter to the rebellious come hell or high water punk ‘tude and its devotees.  It reminds me of Alice Bag’s autobiography, Violence Girl, in which she nostalgically reminisces of the late 70s, when everyone started bands, regardless if they were good or not, and everybody played in each others groups, sometimes changing instruments, and always reveling in the scrappy gigs they could find and promoting them with radical fliers.  That spirit echoes through UCLA grad filmmaker Akira Boch’s first feature film.

rockWhat it lacks in budget, because indeed this is was a friend-favors-and everyone-pooling-resources production, the film makes up in natural, irresistible youthful charm.  The roles are all comfortably inhabited.  Katie Hipol who plays Darla is a core member of the famous Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista and Elisa is played by Theresa Michelle Lee is a Second City Improv alumnus.  The entire cast is a beautiful spectrum of multicultural shades of brown reflecting the diversity more accurately than most films seen in this type of genre. The filmmaker’s genuine grip on the scene is drawn from his real life experience of being in and around a bunch of garage bands.  He grew up listening to girl rockers so it was a natural fit to make his lead a female he says in the Directors Notes of the press kit. Add to it a score and soundtrack composed and performed by Grammy winning Quetzal Flores and the film is unbearably original.

elisaThe Crumbles evokes a youthful spirit, never-quit energy and casualness to both the dream and harsh realities one navigates day to day in a city like Los Angeles.   It’s inspiring and empathetic to the highs and lows of that struggle.  With many films romanticizing the struggle of say the folk 60s,70s scene in the hills of Laurel Canyon (usually anglo), this is similarly felt like a unique artistic movement, but a far richer, diverse and uniquely up to the times record.  The film reminds me why I love living here.  Most of us pursuing creative endeavors don’t do it for the money but for the love.  It’s always a challenge to make moves towards achieving the dream though when you got to keep a day job to make rent, like Elisa caving in and getting a minimum wage job (sell my self for $8 hour!, she cries) or Darla’s friends shooting a film at night time guerilla style on a rooftop. Plus if you are entrenched with your artist peers who you most likely tend to gravitate towards in the eclectic, sprawling city of LA, there is always a friend to go support and celebrate with a few beers for doing  their  film/theater/art performance or production.  That support network is vital and if you are lucky reciprocal.   The Crumbles offers a glimpse into this way of life and the tribulations that go with it without getting overly tragic.  Surviving and flowering at the same time, Akira makes the struggling musician and filmmaker noble and elicits respect.  In the film Darla writes a song titled, “I’m an Everyday Girl”.   I like to think this introduces a shift from artists who get to develop their voice because they are privileged individuals with the luxury of indulging in creative expression, to the blue collar working class heroine who literally labors for the opportunity to express and share their creativity and hence makes it more relatable and raw.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 3.17.01 PMIn true bold punk style, the filmmakers are releasing their film on their own literally taking it on tour across the states.  Coming next to San Francisco, Chicago and New York.  Check the website for future screenings.  Be sure to like the Face and follow on twitter so we can help push a VOD/online release soon.  Watch trailer below:

The Latino in LA Film Festival

Looking at yesterday’s announcement of Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival reveals a healthy Latino presence among the 62 features and 48 short films in the program.  Here’s how I break down the Latino/Ibero/US Latino of the program.

Drought, Cuates De Australia by Everardo Gonzalez

Chile continues to give Argentina a run for its cache of exciting and growing cinematic output from South America with the inclusion of Thursday Til Sunday written and directed by Dominga Sotomayor, in Narrative Competition.  Although the traveling Mexican film festival Ambulante is no longer a a program spotlight, Mexican films continue to be a mainstay of the festival; There are four feature-length films and three short films from/about Mexico.  In Narrative Competition, The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man written and directed by Arturo Pons, and in Documentary Competition, The Drought by Everado González (recently awarded Best Documentary at FICG27) .  Out of competition is the gorgeously shot documentary, Canícula, and although the funding is mainly stateside, Bernardo Ruiz paints a fascinating portrait of the risky journalistic practice and history of the seminal Tijuana weekly, Zeta in Reportero.  Also of note in the program is that four short films list Cuba as a co-production/origin of country.

sexy cholo, EJ Bonilla

But what of the US Latino filmmakers and stories? Last year Los Angeles Film Festival was a great launchpad for Mamitas, an authentic chicano portrayal of young love set in Echo Parque written and directed by Nicolas Ozeki (a non-Latino), co-starring fast rising hot talents Veronica Diaz-Carranzo and EJ Bonilla.  The film is currently in theaters now.  (Big recommend,theater listings here-go support it!)

Fireworks by Victor Hugo Duran

The closest we have to representing US Latino in the features section is Four, the feature debut of Joshua Sanchez who hails from Houston, Texas.  Based on a Christopher Shinn play, the July 4th eve set story is a snapshot of two disparate relationships tensely intertwined and their at-odd dynamics of desire.  Coincidentally, EJ Bonilla also stars (this guy is blowing up!).   I would also include as US Latino, Searching for Sugarman, the documentary by Malik Bendjelloul about singer songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s fascinating rise and fall into obscurity as a US Latino story.  As a matter of fact, the film seems to suggest that perhaps Sixto’s Mexican-American identity might have been a reason he was not embraced by the 60s and 70s mainstream.

As for US Latino shorts, Fireworks written and directed by Victor Hugo Duran, which is also incidentally centered around 4th of July, is an LA set story about boys trying to rap on girls.

My favorite Miami based hooligans, Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva keep representing with their fresh and experimental short film, Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke.  They are part of a collective of  go-there filmmakers, Borscht Corp who had four crazy shorts screen at SXSW (and they were a riot to bootie shake dance with at SXSW Film’s Closing Night Party).   You must carve out an hour and look at their work on the site (NSFW!)

And lastly, in front of camera there’s some America Ferrera in Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster, and rising boriqua actress April Hernandez Castillo, of  hit webseries East Willy B, Dexter and other TV, is in The History of Future Folk by J. Anderson Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker, described as a “sweet sci-fi musical comedy”.  Below is the rest of the Latino and IBERO-AMERICAN (includes Spain and Portugal).  Descriptions provided by LA Film Festival, and bold cap commentary by me.

NARRATIVE COMPETITION: 

  • All Is Well – Portugal (DIRECTOR Pocas Pascoal PRODUCER Luis Correia CAST Cheila Lima, Ciomara Morais) – Strangers in a strange land, two beautiful Angolan sisters fleeing a civil war in their homeland struggle to survive in Lisbon. Pocas Pascoal’s deeply personal saga shows us the face of exile with quietly stunning power. North American Premiere
  • The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man Mexico (DIRECTOR/WRITER Arturo Pons PRODUCER Ozcar Ramírez González CAST Gael Sanchez Valle, Pedro Gamez, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Eligio Melendez, Luis Bayardo, Marco Perez) – A young man and a dead man journey north through a subtly surreal desert landscape, picking up a wagonful of odd characters as they go in this darkly humorous satire of contemporary Mexico. North American Premiere
  • Four – (DIRECTOR/WRITER Joshua Sanchez PRODUCER Christine Giorgio CAST Wendell Pierce, Emory Cohen, Aja Naomi King, EJ Bonilla) – Over the course of a steamy 4th of July night, a father and daughter, each trapped in loneliness, reach out for sexual connection — he with a self-hating teenage boy, she with a smooth-talking wannabe homeboy — in this psychologically complex, beautifully acted drama. World Premiere
  • Thursday till Sunday – Chile (DIRECTOR/WRITER Dominga Sotomayor PRODUCERS Gregorio González, Benjamin Domenech CAST Santi Ahumada, Emiliano Freifeld, Francisco Pérez-Bannen, Paola Giannini) – With uncommon beauty and style, this Chilean road movie finds a family at a crossroads, as the daughter slowly realizes the divide between the adults in the front seat and the kids in back. North American Premiere

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION:

  • Drought – Mexico (DIRECTOR Everado González PRODUCER Martha Orozco) – Contrasting the lives of a cattle-ranching community with the arid northeastern Mexican landscape that surrounds them, this cinema vertité documentary paints a poetic portrait of a community on the verge of extinction. US Premiere
  • Sun Kissed – (DIRECTORS Maya Stark, Adi Lavy PRODUCERS Jocelyn Glatzer, Maya Stark, Adi Lavy) – With remarkable strength of spirit, a husband and wife examine their lives and why their children and others have been struck with a rare genetic disorder in this powerful portrait of a small Navajo community. World Premiere ~ OKAY NOT LATINO BUT ITS NATIVE AMERICAN SO I’M GIVING IT A SHOUT SINCE THERE IS NOT ENOUGH NATIVE AMERICAN STORIES

INTERNATIONAL SHOWCASE:

  • Canícula Mexico (DIRECTOR José Álvarez WRITERS Sebastián Hoffman, José Álvarez PRODUCER Mauricio Fabre CAST Hermelinda Santes, Esteban González, Mario García) – This is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of the rituals and crafts of contemporary Indians in remote Veracruz, who teach their boys to fly. ~ SEE MY INTERVIEW WITH JOSE HERE
  • The Last Elvis – Argentina (DIRECTOR Armando Bo WRITERS Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone PRODUCERS Steve Golin, Hugo Sigman, Patricio Alvarez Casado, Victor Bo, Armando Bo CAST John McInerny, Griselda Siciliani, Margarita Lopez) – John McInerny gives a staggering performance in this poignant tale of a Buenos Aires Elvis impersonator who only comes alive when he dons the King’s clothes to perform. How can he reconcile his dreams of glory with his dead end factory job and an estranged wife and daughter who can’t live inside his fantasies?
  • Neighboring Sounds Brazil (DIRECTOR/WRITER Kleber Mendonça Filho PRODUCER Emilie Lesclaux CAST Irandhir Santos, Gustavo Jahn, Maeve Jinkings, W.J. Solha) – Kleber Mendonca Filho’s astonishing, suspenseful debut film focuses on one upscale street in the seaside town of Recife, where a private security team is enlisted to protect the residents from crime. By its startling conclusion, you feel you’ve seen all of Brazilian society exposed.
  • The Strawberry Tree Canada/Cuba/Italy (DIRECTOR/PRODUCER Simone Rapisarda Casanova) – Filmed in a small Cuban fishing village mere weeks before a hurricane decimated the entire region, this stunning documentary unknowingly captures the town’s final days even as it reframes the usual filmmaker-film subject relationship.

SUMMER SHOWCASE:

  • La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus – USA/Guatemala (DIRECTOR Mark Kendall PRODUCERS Mark Kendall, Rafael González, Bernardo Ruiz) – The journey and transformation of a yellow American school bus into a vibrant Central American camioneta sensitively reveals both the beauty and violence of everyday life in Guatemala.
  • Reportero – (DIRECTOR Bernardo Ruiz PRODUCERS Bernardo Ruiz, Patricia Benabe, Anne Hubbell FEATURING Sergio Haro Cordero, Adela Navarro Bello) – A look at the incredible danger facing journalists in Mexico through the eyes of investigative reporter Sergio Haro and other staff at Zeta, the defiant Tijuana-based newsweekly.~ SEE MY INTERVIEW WITH BERNARDO HERE
  • Searching for Sugar Man – (DIRECTOR/WRITER Malik Bendjelloul PRODUCERS Simon Chinn, Nicole Stott, George Chignell) – Years after fading into obscurity at home, the music of ’70s U.S. singer/songwriter Rodriguez became an underground sensation in South Africa. Decades after his disappearance, two fans uncover the startling truth behind the legend.

BEYOND:

  • Juan of the Dead Cuba (DIRECTOR/WRITER Alejandro Brugués PRODUCERS Gervasio Iglesias, Inti Herrera CAST Alexis Días de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría, Jazz Vila, Eliecer Ramírez) – The streets of Havana are alive with the undead in Cuba’s first zombie comedy, a wild and bloody romp that sinks its sharp satirical teeth into the Cuban body politic. Castro may not be amused, but you will be.

SHORT FILM COMPETITION:

Against the Sea (Contra el mar) – Mexico, USA (DIRECTOR) Richard Parkin

Black Doll (Prita Noire) – Mexico (DIRECTOR) Sofia Carrillo

Kendo Monogatari – Cuba, Guatemala (DIRECTOR) Fabián Suárez

Scanning (Ecografía) – Cuba (DIRECTOR) Aleksandra Maciuszek Mukoid

Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke – (DIRECTORS) Jillian Mayer, Lucas Leyva ~CRAZY TALENTED!  MIAMI REPRESENT!

Fireworks – (DIRECTOR) Victor Hugo Duran –

Kendo Monogatari – Cuba, Guatemala (DIRECTOR) Fabián Suárez

Paraíso – (DIRECTOR) Nadav Kurtz   ~DOC SUBJECT IS ABOUT 3 MEXICANS

Scanning (Ecografía) – Cuba (DIRECTOR) Aleksandra Maciuszek Mukoid

Voice Over – Spain (DIRECTOR) Martín Rosete

For full lineup and more info go to LA Film Festival

FILM REVIEW: GIRL IN PROGRESS is sweet and just a tad spicy

From Latino studio, Pantelion Films, Girl in Progress stars Eva Mendes as Grace, an immature and impetuous single working mother who faces off with her equally impetuous but way more mature, scholarly teenaged daughter named Ansiedad.  Like a Freaky Friday where adult and child roles are reversed to comedic and lesson-learning effect, but without the body switch, Girl In Progress is an ebullient, if a bit twee, meta-fable set to capitalize on its May 11th, Mother’s Day weekend release.

nada de chemistry between these two
Introducing Cierra Ramirez from Houston!

When not scrapping for tips waiting tables at a busy Crab shack to pay the bills, Grace wastes her time hooking up with a bored and married doctor (Matthew Modine) much to the loud disappointment of Ansiedad. Ansiedad (a real Dominican name that means anxiety), a doll face who wears Clueless inspired outfits, does all the chores around the house and despises having to be the responsible one in the house while her mother goes out and flip flops on going to night school.  Grace is preoccupied with paying the bills, but also oblivious to her daughter’s needs. Determined to leave her mom behind and start her adult life, Anna, as she anglicizes her name, is inspired in lit class by Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette who phones it in) to fast forward her coming of age.  With the help of her best friend Tavita, Anna methodically plots out key pit stops on the way to adulthood taking a page from various coming of age classics like The Catcher In the Rye, and ever thorough, reviews a chrysalis diagram showing the process of cocoon into butterfly transformation. With self imposed urgency, Anna sets up and tackles her own passage of rites, including stealing money for a gothic bad girl makeover, making friends with the Mean Girls, dumping her loyal friend, up to scheduling the de-blossoming of her virginity with Mr. Popularity at an upcoming party to mark the final stage into womanhood.  Distracted by her job, her breakup with Mr. Doctor and the fact she’s short money for bills, Grace remains unaware of what her daughter’s antics are trying to tell her.

Girl In Progress is directed by Patricia Riggen, director of the 2007 Sundance breakout film, La Misma Luna.  Her short film Lindo y Querido which was in the Revolucion anthology strongly captures the first generation Mexican American experience for me.  Riggen imbues emotion and light quirky humor to the script written by Hiram Martinez, a Dominican New Yorker who made the 2005 micro-budget indie comedy, Four Dead Batteries. The dynamic of the reverse mother daughter roles reveals itself in very deliberate dialogue between Grace and Anna, both who struggle to act their age. Anchored in its PG-13 safe level of funny zingers and slight sexual undertones the film is nicely embedded in popcorn movie-land.  After all, nuclear families are not any better than single parent families and affairs with married men are no longer taboo.  The crux of the story lies in its empathetic rendering of the tenuous and complicated relationships of mothers and daughters.  Eva Mendes does what she does best and drips sensuality with her short hemmed waitress uniform and demonstrates more comic than dramatic chops.  Oddly enough, there is zero chemistry with Modine, which rejects any credibility to their affair. Nobody can blame a girl for having poor taste in men, but it does show Grace has some juvenile and irresponsible streaks to shed herself.

Played with relish by young newcomer Cierra Ramirez, Anna’s naive insistence that she can induce her transformation seems to belie her intellect, but at the same time reveals her internal desire to be the little girl to her mom. It’s part of the film’s concept that she follows the coming of age formula, a Meta conceit, the proceedings manage to keep an energetic pace.  Still, the over-familiarity of each prerequisite High School- nerd-goes-bad sequence begs for something fresh and authentic in this canon.

In thinking about the current Latino identity culture change that says “Hispanics are the Mainstream”, I feel like we are saying that the stories will remain the same (universal) but the characters might look, smell and sound Latino. In Girl In Progress for instance, we have the unique Spanish language Dominican names, Grace’s sideways cursing and swearing to the holy saints (swearing in Spanish is more expressive and fun than in English) and of course the music.  As Grace gets ready for her date, she dances to Sabor A Mi by Edie Gorme y los Panchos in her negligee looking super sultry.

Perhaps the only time the film portrays an unequivocal Latino identity is when Grace escapes from the suburban mainstream and accompanies her co-worker played by Eugenio Derbez in a secondary role that is more plot vehicle than anything, to his aunt’s cramped and colorful apartment fiesta.  There, Grace lets loose and dances to Mexican band singer Espinoza Paz.  The Latino experience is driven home by the reference to the vastly different and crude existence of his immigrant working lifestyle when he points to a couch he calls home.

I can’t help compare Girl in Progress with BABYGIRL, a film by Irish filmmaker Macdallaly Varela that just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Babygirl has the same dynamic except in this raw, Puerto Rican Bronx set world, the teen daughter competes with her mother for the attention of a smooth talking papi chulo.  The budding lust and romantic triangle combined with boriqua street vernacular give it much more of a base in reality and credibility.  Both films deal with young mamas who have more of a friendship than a traditional mother-daughter relationship.  Babygirl really goes there and unravels.  Girl In Progress neatly contrives its denouement.

The reason I bring it up is to make the point that the problem with practicing this hispanics are the mainstream trend.   I believe there’s more value in creating more distinctly personal Latino stories that are informed by the Latino experience instead of stories with characters that just happen to be Latinos.  This goes against the desire and moneymaking business of appealing to the widest scale possible. You can still taste the hint of spice in the mainstream of hispanic culture, but its so carefully measured to ensure that middle america can tolerate it.

All that aside, Girl In Progress is a tender, warm and pleasingly accessible Hollywood film that works on the surface and sufficiently carries out its cute tagline, “A Tale of Acting Up, Acting Out and Acting your Age.”

Watch trailer here

 

MEXICAN DOCUMENTARY FOR SOCIAL CHANGE – SPOTLIGHT: DE PANZAZO!

De Panzazo! is a high profile social activist documentary that sounds the alarm on the failing public education system in Mexico and therein demands an urgent call to action from its viewers. Directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo (En El Hoyo, Los Que Se Quedan), co-directed by prominent journalist Carlos Loret De Mola, and produced by Daniela Alatorre (El General) the film is opening in theatres in Mexico on February 24.   With a distribution release strategy in collaboration with social education initiative group, Mexicanos Primero and the biggest theatre chain in Mexico,Cinépolis, the film is hotly anticipated and bound to move and affect change from the most fundamental level – improving national education.
De Panzanzo! follows a determined but genteel Loret De Mola on a mission to find and clarify missing, startling inaccessible, public school statistics like the number of certified teachers in the country.  Along with his very direct interviews with several top officials including the controversial head of the nation’s teacher’s union, Elba Esther Gordillo, who in one of the more tickling moments in the film promises in a scout’s honor type handshake to evaluate the performance of teachers, the film reveals gaping cracks in the system, chief among them, the staggering percentage of unqualified teachers, the challenge of operating decentralized schools in outward rural communities, and a flagrant mismanagement of school funding and resources. 
A multi-pronged overview and a pressing sense of advocacy dominates the film as it does not shy away from taking to task school and government administrators, as well as parents and students.  As imploring as the film’s hard stance is however, it would not be as successful in eliciting the sentiment it does, required to mobilize hearts into action, if it weren’t for Rulfo’s singular cinematic brand of being able to visually imbue and capture the soul of Mexico through the bright-eyed spirit of young school children who dream against heavy odds of becoming doctors and engineers.
I don’t think there is an applicable translation, but the term De Panzazo might otherwise be understood by another phrase in English; “Barely hanging on by a thin thread” which in the film, refers to the critical precipice the country dangles from, and which is vividly rendered by the numerous and entertaining graphs showing Mexico standing near the bottom, if not the very bottom of every international education standing list.
Whether the film will affect change is up to the public.  The film and the interactive website offers numerous and viable opportunities to engage.  But the big test is how well it plays in theaters.  Considering the unprecedented box office success this past year of Presunto Culpable, a Mexican documentary that exposed the grossly unjust judicial system via the case of a wrongfully incarcerated young man, it hopefully indicates there is not only a need but a desire of Mexican society to embrace social issue documentaries, and a population who is ready to engage in what the organization Mexicanos Primeros have positively coined; Urgent Mission, Historic Opportunity.
Like it on Facebook to keep track of future U.S. screenings
Check out the interactive website and trailer here
Follow it on Twitter here
#DePanzazo