“Welcome to paradise,” said the bartender at an oceanside lounge, halfway into my trip to the Los Cabos International Film Festival. Not exactly a case of delayed gratification, though it did bolster my overall sense that the pleasures of this Mexican resort town on the Baja Peninsula were best discovered at one’s own pace. Certainly you could stick to the timetable plotted by the festival’s kind and helpful staff, as press conferences, parties, and meals are scheduled to the minute. Screenings of the 41 programmed titles are planned around that, most of them taking place at the Cinemex Puerto Paraíso, a mall multiplex that’s a bus ride away from the Holiday Inn Express, the strip-mall-based hotel where all journalists were housed.
Some attendees grumbled about the digs, which in previous years were swankier and closer to both the action and the shoreline. But the room, which like the food and the roundtrip flight were paid for out of the festival’s pocket, was more than comfortable and did indeed boast, as the lady who checked me in was quick to note, “an ocean view.” It was a sun-dappled vista, for sure, one that also included a trailer park encampment with broken-down RVs, a prominent “no trespassing” sign, and several hens that were often set upon by hot-to-trot roosters. Many film festivals (Cannes and Marrakech come immediately to mind) put on an Elysian mask, trying to keep glamour at a pronounced distance from anything that might be considered unsightly. But Cabo, the event and the locale, allows all the extremes to mesh and mingle.
A giant TV in the hotel commissary was always tuned to the news, so that, in between bites of scrambled eggs and mole poblano, we got the Mexican perspective on the migrant caravan that continues to be demonized by our odious commander-in-chief. The outdoor path to the Puerto Paraíso mall wound through a dirt and debris-strewn construction site—a sharp contrast to the gentrified gaggle of stores, restaurants, and future condos inside. (The prospect of anyone willingly living where they shop called to mind Dawn of the Dead, sans literal zombies.) Even the Cinemex itself was a house divided, with screenings occurring in both the “Convencionales” and the “Platino,” two series of theaters with their own box offices and ambience. “Convencionales” had your usual red felt seats and plastic armrests with cup holders, the “Platino” black leather recliners and gourmet menus in arm’s reach.
When not at the hotel, on the beach, or sampling the delicious local cuisine at Tacos Gardenias (guess their specialty) and Edith’s (where you should definitely order both the tortilla soup and the made-at-table “flaming coffee”), the majority of my time was spent in the Cinemex. Elsewhere, celebrities were being feted (Spike Lee, Adam Driver, and Terry Gilliam were each the subject of tributes) and films like Yorgos Lanthimos’s rancidly homophobic satire The Favourite and Lee’s incendiary (to many at least) BlacKkKlansman were receiving “Gala” premieres. Rather than stargaze, I stayed in the dark, looking at screens. That was my idea of paradise.
Gilliam’s long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which the former Monty Pythoner turned iconoclast filmmaker has been trying to get off the ground for three decades, finally arrives with a thud. Messiness becomes Gilliam, as does tilting at various windmills, which should suit him to the tale of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the mad knight-errant who seeks out chivalric adventures in the company of peasant squire Sancho Panza. This isn’t a straight adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, however, but a meta riff on the story in which a sellout director, Toby (Adam Driver), on assignment near the Spanish village where he once shot a student film adaptation of the book, comes across his former lead actor, a cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), who’s now convinced he’s actually Don Quixote.
Toby becomes Javier’s Sancho Panza, and they embark on a series of exploits that tread past and present. Really, though, everything takes place in Gilliam-land. His best films, like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, adeptly blend bite-the-hand-that-feeds burlesque with a profound sense of regret. Here, Gilliam’s disdain for corporate masters—embodied by Stellan Skarsgård and Jordi Mollà, the latter at one point likened to Donald Trump—and his clownish yet mournful belief that humanity is doomed to repeat its sins ad infinitum feels exhausted and enfeebled, especially at a fatiguing 132 minutes.
Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate is a steroidal male weepie tracing the final months of Vincent van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) life, the period in which he completed 75 paintings in 80 days and cut off a chunk of his ear as an offering to fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). Dafoe plays van Gogh as outwardly sensitive, a walking open sore, though at heart he’s a misunderstood, often punch-drunk genius who fully recognizes that his prodigious talent will go unappreciated in his lifetime. Until then, he’ll wander the windswept fields of Arles in the French countryside like a fanatic gym rat working his hamstrings, forever in search of an ineffable something-or-other to memorialize on canvas. The nausea-inducing handheld camera can only hope to keep up.
Van Gogh’s affectionate, peculiar relationship with his brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), was better explored in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo. And even the best scene, a lengthy dialogue between Van Gogh and a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) perplexed by the artist’s work, concludes by giving Van Gogh the smug upper hand. It’s as if Schnabel is exacting a kind of cinematic vengeance, retaliating in a most unseemly manner against dilettantes and detractors, and not just those of Van Gogh.
I so disliked László Nemes’s Holocaust-set house of horrors Son of Saul that I went with much trepidation into his follow-up, Sunset. It’s a bit more bearable, though not much different beyond the casting of a woman in the lead role and for the fact that it takes the fall of belle époque Budapest, rather than the savagery of the Nazi war machine, as its subject. The camera once again sticks close to the protagonist—Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, the daughter of a disgraced hatmaker trying to reclaim her family name—so that we’re always in her fleetly mobile perspective, which means the meticulously detailed period sets and costumes are often out of focus.
Nemes’s denial of visual pleasure is a purgative, though not in the conscience- and consciousness-expanding ways he intends. Like Son of Saul, Sunset has the feel of a first-person-shooter video game, with the main character bearing witness instead of blowing shit up. The end result is World War I, a punchline delivered after two-and-half frenetic hours with a campy solemnity akin to that moment in Pearl Harbor when Kate Beckinsale waves her hand over the flaming carnage and says “…then all this happened.”
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s occult-underbelly-of-Los-Angeles comedy Under the Silver Lake grooves to its own ecstatically odd beat. It’s like a more confidently made Southland Tales minus that film’s underlying eagerness to please. (And I say that as a fan of the Richard Kelly film.) Mitchell could care less if anyone likes his piggish hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield), who spends the majority of his time wandering through City of Angels neighborhoods in a haze that could be called pot-addled if you ever saw him toking. He’s a millennial son-of-Lebowski whose “high”-mindedness is innate. He’s also a lech who loves leering at tits and ass, most recently those of Sarah (Riley Keough), a comely neighbor who mysteriously vanishes one night, just after their first “date” concludes in coitus interruptus.
Sam’s concern for Sarah is primarily guided by lust, though most of this raging asshole’s journey is a fuck of the mind instead of the body. Among the disparate narrative threads: dogs are being murdered by some shadowy figure. A manic comic book artist (Patrick Fischler, riffing on his paranoiac from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) holds the key to a bizarre elite conspiracy. And Sam’s beloved Kurt Cobain, as revealed in a wackadoo interlude with a grotesque recluse known only as “Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb), never wrote a whit of his generation-defining Nirvana output. (Revolution is a lie, kids!) I myself got fully on board with Mitchell’s madness when the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power, and the Legend of Zelda map therein, became a major plot point. No question the film is indulgent, and most certainly a mess. (Critical of misogyny or just misogynist? Depends on the scene.) But this shameless id-excretion has a vitality to it that’s not easily forgotten.
I saw four Mexican features in Cabo, two of which were duds, the other two quite captivating and distinctive. Marcelino Islas Hernández’s History Lessons is one of those dime-a-dozen “unlikely friendship” dramas that pair dissimilar personalities to the most obvious ends. (They hate each other! Then they love each other! Was there ever any doubt?) Argentine actress Verónica Langer is quite good as a frumpy, cancer-stricken teacher whose at first antagonistic and eventually sympathetic relationship with a rebellious student, Eva (Ranata Vaca), helps her expand her stagnating horizons. The film, however, is ill-equipped to deal with some of the knottier aspects of the duo’s May-December friendship, which takes a turn toward the transcendently romantic but instead comes down hard on the side of cringe and creepiness.
Andrés Kaiser’s found-footage horror movie Feral, meanwhile, is notable only for the fact that a good portion of it is shot on Betamax. It’s constructed as a retrospective documentary with an unseen crew combing through tapes left behind by a priest (Hector Illanes) raising three feral children in a remote forest cabin. The children eventually died in a fire and the whole movie is an inquiry into the how and the why. A slight aura of creepiness, which mainly comes from the grunginess of the outdated shooting format, is quickly supplanted by tedium, though the festival’s jurors awarded the film three prizes (including one from the International Film Critics group FIPRESCI), so take this in a generous spirit of demurral.
Julio Hernández Cordón’s Buy Me a Gun is a brisk, involving fable that takes place in a future in which cartels run the world and women are abducted to serve at their pleasure. A young girl named Huck (Matilde Hernández Guinea), who her father (Rogelio Sosa) dresses as a boy to keep her hidden in plain sight, tries to have a kid’s life despite the dystopian conditions. But the gun-wielding, testosterone-fueled cartel members inevitably screw that up, sending the family on a bleak path to separation and worse.
Cordón doesn’t go for any kind of futurist trappings. From the rusted trailer in which the father and daughter live to the sweaty state of fear in which they often find themselves, the film feels like it could be happening now, which is certainly part of the point. Cordón also earns his allusions to Mark Twain—in addition to Huck, there’s a supporting character named Finn—with a pointed finale that recasts the river-raft journey from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a referendum on an older generation by a younger one. Before they can save the world, the kids have to save themselves.
Finally, Andrea Bussmann’s bewitching Faust, a Canadian-Mexican coproduction, uses the Oaxaca coast as backdrop for a doc-fiction hybrid retelling of the famed deal-with-the-devil legend. But who’s the Prince of Darkness in this scenario? Is he the disembodied male narrator musing on the scenery, the people, and colonialist ideology? Is he any of the on-screen subjects—expats, tourists, long-time residents—who tell evocative personal stories that have the dual feeling of offerings and traps?
Even Faust‘s dreamlike photography, digitally captured and transferred to 16mm film, has something rogue about it. Though faces or nature are often obscured by shadow and grain, the visuals still beckon and tempt, be it toward damnation or enlightenment. The mood is the thing that collectively lingers. The meaning will vary depending on the viewer. All I know is that I was as much in thrall to the recurring image of a moonlit beach as I was to the actual sunlit one not 10 minutes from my theater seat.
The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from Nov 7—11.