(Start with my Sundance Report for some context.)
Victoria Para Chino
A bunch of Mexican immigrants try to cross the border in the back of a truck, which turns into a deadly sweatbox in the stifling heat. They tear holes in the back trying to breathe, but they can’t cry out for help for fear they’ll be discovered and deported, making their sacrifices a waste. At last the truck driver discovers the holes in the trailer and opens the truck. A few flee, but many are dead or unconscious, so he shuts the trailer and abandons it. A sad, but well-told story, based on a true incident.
A fat African-American teen lumbers through his day, dreading his impending swim test, a graduation requirement. The cruel Gym T.A. assumes he won’t take off his shirt because he’s fat, but when he finally relents, get this—it’s actually because his alcoholic dad beats him and his back is covered with scars. One of those boring movies where the trite twist is supposed to make it meaningful.
West Bank Story
A play off West Side Story, set on the Israeli-Palestinian border. An Israeli border patrol soldier and a Palestinian girl fall in love against their families wishes in this musical comedy. Naturally, it opens with finger-snapping. The musical numbers are impressive—there’s strong production value throughout, from the singing, orchestration, and dancing to the production design. The cast is also energetic and appealing.
However, while it’s always fun to watch, the premise gets muddled in the execution. The brilliant title sums it up, the genius combination of West Side Story with the ultimate in feuding sides. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further reduced to the microcosm of the lover’s families and their feuding falafel stands near the border. There’s the Jew restaurant and the Arab restaurant, and they fight over things like the placement of the fence in the alley between them, until the Jews decide to build a wall.
The cute Palestinian girl works in the Arab restaurant, wearing one of those humiliating hats-that-look-like-food that seem to only exist at fast-food places in movies. In this case it’s a headband designed like one of those fake arrows-through-the-head that makes her head look like part of a kabob, which would be a funny visual if these food-hats had any basis in reality, or if it weren’t used until all the humor drained out of it. Speaking of headgear, though, she is conveniently free of any kind of Muslim head covering, which is fortunate because otherwise we wouldn’t see her adorable pigtails.
Over at the Jew restaurant, there’s a guy dressed up as a menorah, whom we had actually met in the ticket line that morning. There are plenty of corny jokes in this vein—exaggerated Jew stereotypes and such, softball jokes designed not to overly offend either side. Mostly they fall flat and drag the movie down.
The biggest problem is, when you have such a brilliant premise—the West Bank meets West Side Story—why water it down by adding the dueling restaurants? If you want to do it in metaphor, you could set that story anywhere. A Jew restaurant and an Arab restaurant in LA, fighting over their back fence. That would be a pretty good joke, too. But when you go ahead and actually set it in the West Bank, and then plop a metaphor on top of the real thing, you spoil both. Now the world of the story is surreal and made up, a West Bank where the biggest conflict is between restaurants, a place where everything loses its relevance. I suspect it’s a cop-out—that the story was conceived for the West Bank, but it seemed too dark to create what’s a very light musical comedy, so they dropped in the restaurants to dodge the real issues of violence, terror and death.
But they should have made up their minds. A light comedy about restaurants or a potentially very dark comedy that’s actually set in the West Bank. Either one would be preferable to the muddle we have here. As it is, when a slightly darker joke does pop up, like the scene where the young Israeli soldier waves a threatening masked fellow past the border because he’s distracted by the girl, it’s jarring and ugly because it doesn’t fit the movie.
The film is still watchable thanks to the cast and production value, but it had the potential to be so much better.
The Youth in Us
A guy and a blond girl ride a bike and frolic. Then they’re in bed, and she asks him about his “first time.” He tells a story, which we see in flashback, staged in an intentionally surreal, artificial style.
He’s twelve, and walking through a snowy forest with some girl. They come across some deer, represented by stuffed taxidermy, which is supposed to fit into the “artificial” style but is still kind of laughable, especially when the movie tries to justify it by having the guy talk about how still they were. Turns out there’s a dead deer being eaten alive by insects (which we don’t see). He’s sure the deer want him to help put it out of its misery. So the girl leaves and the kid lifts a big stone over his head and smashes the dying deer’s skull in.
Back to the present, where we pull back and the couple’s bed is surrounded by hospital equipment. Her legs have all these bruises, and she’s apparently very sick. She wasn’t talking about the first time he had sex, we realize, but—get this—the first time he assisted a suicide. So they say their goodbyes and he smashes her head in with a stone. No, not really, but I was kind of hoping for it. Instead he hooks up her IV to the suicide potion and she dies. (Credits list Jack Kevorkian as a consultant.)
So it’s another short where the twist is supposed to make it meaningful. It’s a bit less trite than Swim Test, but still not actually moving. If anything, I think shorts that work like this end up distancing you emotionally by showing off their cleverness.
Pura Lengua (all tongue)
Every stereotype of the awful I’m-a-victimized-lesbian-minority film-festival short you can imagine. A Chicana—sorry, Xicana—lesbian goes to see her girlfriend and learns that the girlfriend has decided to go straight and marry some rich guy. The main lesbian’s friends tell her to forget it, she deserves better. Instead she goes into a store selling the same necklace her girlfriend once gave her, and rails against the white woman behind the counter for selling beads for ten times their worth while raping Xicana culture, or something to the effect that white people shouldn’t sell beads. The white woman tells her to get out and phones the police.
So the main lesbian starts to leave, but unfortunately for her, the police have set a new world record for response time and have arrived in two seconds flat. Rather than pull her back into the store for questioning, or trying to get to the bottom of what was essentially a very minor verbal skirmish, they immediately cuff her and throw her into the car. Apparently they think her necklace was stolen from the store or something, even though they weren’t in the store long enough to make that connection.
Somehow it comes up that she’s a lesbian, so the cops goad her about liking pussy, then take her to the train tracks and beat her. Because that’s what cops do, you see, because life as a Xicana lesbian is so tough, so unfair, with the girlfriends wanting to marry men and the white women selling beads and the senseless police beatings.
Add to this that the acting is terrible, on the level of a 519 short before anyone’s learned how to direct actors from Nina Foch. There’s not a convincing line or line delivery in the whole of the piece. Add to this that the sloppy editing and shot placement repeatedly breaks the 180 rule for no reason other than poor staging. Add to this that the story is bookended by the main character, beaten but resilient, reciting poetry at an open-mic, and you have an idea of what a pointless piece of victimhood filmmaking you have with Pura Lengua. The credits end with an exhortation for oppressed sisters to keep up the fight, or something like that. Yes, girls, keep going to those poetry readings and bead store protests. Don’t let the man get you down.
On the upside, the traitorous girlfriend is attractive, in a geek-glasses purple hair kind of way, and there’s a bathtub scene where you see her boobs.
Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?
A weird but funny little 4-minute short which somehow snagged some name actors. John C. Reilly is a guy in a suit, holding a clipboard full of binder paper as he accosts passersby and asks them if they are the favorite person of anybody.
The first woman (played by the writer of the piece) says yes, her ex-girlfriend. He asks how sure she is, on a five-point scale ranging from Not Sure to Very Sure.
“Very Sure,” she says.
“That’s the highest,” he warns.
She asks to hear them again, then picks the middle level, Think So.
Next, Mike White walks by. He quickly answers that he is not the favorite person of anybody. John C. Reilly recites the scale of certainty, and White quickly answers that he is Very Sure. Reilly offers him some oranges, explaining that he has too many from the tree in his backyard and his wife wants him to get rid of them. White asks if he can take two because his girlfriend will want one.
A third guy refuses to take the survey.
And that’s the end.
A New Zealand film about World War II soldiers waiting for gunfire to die down while they hide in a wrecked building. They’re Maori soldiers from New Zealand, but that hardly matters. The whole movie, 18 minutes, is about how they entertain themselves and amuse each other without speaking. It’s funny and human, even as they do childish things like play with a found toy soldier, react to a fart, or pour water on a sleeping soldier’s crotch. Simple, well-done, and heartwarming.
There is one slightly cloying moment when their lookout hesitates to shoot a German soldier because he’s petting a cat.