Año uña (2007)

Año uña uses photographs to tell the story of a sweet but ultimately impractical friendship between a US college student and a Mexican teenager in Mexico City.

Año uña, Year of the NailMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriter:
Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Jonás Cuarón

Running time: 80 minutes

Alternate title: The Year of the Nail

In Jonás Cuarón’s simple but attentive fiction film début, Año uña (The Year of the Nail), we find ourselves rooting for a 14-year-old boy in his quest to be intimate with a female college student. Perhaps it’s because of the genuine likability of this naïve young boy, a horny Mexican teenager named Diego (played by Cuarón’s real-life half-brother, Diego Cataño), or because of the leisurely conversations between him and his crush or because both are in on the game.

Made up entirely of still photographs (around half of them in black-and-white), the film’s form is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. But although the two works are visually similar, at least initially, they have little in common beyond telling their stories at a much more sputtering pace than we’re used to. The reason why Cuarón decided on this approach was not because of any particularly artistic sensibility but because of necessity. Over the course of a year, he had taken thousands of photographs of his then-girlfriend, Eireann Harper, and Cataño interacting with each other. He subsequently reordered the pictures and added new sounds – voiceovers and diegetic dialogue – to shape a different story from the real images.

The resulting sequence of pictures is an array of fleeting moments captured and emphasised for however the filmmaker desires. It moves from greyscale through desatured colour to colour photographs that very obviously originated on film. Some of the images are out of focus, others are very sharp. These are all fleeting moments tied together by sounds, thoughts and bits of dialogue to create a mosaic of an experience that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Occasionally, there is the slightest of movements across a picture to simulate a pan that somewhat changes the composition or plays with the forms inside the frame. Because the film is based on photographs taken of people who were often not aware that they would end up in a motion picture, some of the faces have been blurred, presumably out of respect for their privacy.

The film opens with this explanation:

From 2004 to 2005 I photographed my surroundings.
At the end of the year, I ordered the images in such a way that they suggested the following narrative.
These are documentary images. The moments and characters are real.

Only the story is fictional.

There is some initial setup in which we see Molly (Harper), a US student on an exchange programme in Mexico City who is constantly embarrassed by her loud-mouth Yankee friend, Katie, yearning for a more personal relationship with the country and its people. The first image we get of Diego is accompanied by a voice-over informing us that he jerked off three times the previous evening. And he is obsessed with the idea of seeing his fast-maturing cousin’s breasts.

Traces of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón’s father, Alfonso, had directed just a few years earlier, are easily discernible (oversexed boy lusts after older woman), but it is to the young Cuarón’s credit that he skillfully keeps us wondering about the outcome without ever frustrating our hopes or expectations.

The story plays out over a year during which we see Molly the gringa move from having trouble getting her mouth around words with indiginous origins, like Quetzalcoatl, Tlalnepantla, Chicoloapan and Tlacuitlapa, to fluently saying the Spanish tongue twister that Diego taught her. Meanwhile, Diego develops from a horny 14-year-old to a horny 15-year-old who is infatuated with whichever girl is closest to him, and the most consequential development is that his ingrown toenail (whence the English title) is finally treated. The significance of the nail – slightly uncomfortable when it is there but immediately forgotten after it is removed – is self-evident.

Some of the best moments in the film are those, obviously also drawing from the narrative well of Y Tu Mamá También, in which voice-overs are juxtaposed with each other to create dramatic irony and insight into the characters that would have been difficult in a live-action film. Another point of reference here is the slightly socially awkward interaction between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters on the balcony in Annie Hall (Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs).

The spontaneity of shooting with actors is lost here, as the conversations recorded after the fact come across as stilted and unconvincing, although the insistence and the breathy, moaning inflection of Cataño’s voice precisely convey his character’s annoyance at not being able to get what he craves. For some reason, almost all of Molly’s voice-over is produced as a loud whisper, which becomes increasingly bothersome as the film progresses.

In addition, the focus is scattered all over the place: Not only Diego and Molly, but also Diego’s mother, his cousin and a few others get their own scenes and voice-overs that are tangentially related but never an integral part of the central storyline.

The ease and skill with which Cuarón creates comical yet recognisable trains of thought in the teenage Diego’s head is simply remarkable. Año uña is a very funny film because the viewer can identify (with) the often silly notions of romance and intimacy that Diego is dealing with, such as when he considers the possibility of drowning in order for Molly to give him mouth to mouth. But the perspective is always gentle and understanding, and while it misses the hammer blow of a Y Tu Mamá También, it is nonetheless a beautifully conceived and strikingly executed work of story telling.

Desierto (2015)

Set on the United States–Mexico border, Desierto tracks a group of illegal immigrants fighting for their lives against the harsh environment and an even more brutal vigilante and his German Shepherd.

desiertoMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriters:
Jonás Cuarón

Mateo Garcia
Director of Photography:
Damián Garcia

Running time: 90 minutes

In Desierto, Jonás Cuarón’s evocative depiction of an illegal crossing at the United States–Mexico border, it is difficult to interpret the countless cacti scattered across the barren Arizona landscape as anything other than menacing middle fingers greeting the new arrivals to the country. Not only is this exhausting trek over a period of 36 hours grim, as is to be expected, but it has an aspect of horror thanks to the brutal vigilantism of an white-stubbled, wifebeater-wearing, Confederate flag–sporting gun-toter who has appointed himself and his German Shepherd the true anti-immigration task force.

Opening and closing on similar landscapes on either side of the infamous border, the film takes place entirely in the titular desert that connects the two countries. In so doing, it cuts out the backstories and integration that border-crossing films, from El Norte to Sin nombre, with many others in between, usually include for the sake of completeness. The always dependable Gael García Bernal takes the lead here as one of a dozen immigrants trying to cross into the United States and ultimately becomes the reluctant leader by virtue of determination, survival and luck.

After the small truck that was supposed to transport them breaks down, the group and their handlers walk across the border on foot but soon stare down the barrel of a gun when Sam (an ice-cold Jeffrey Dean Morgan despite the scorching heat) and his trusty dog, Tracker, find them and pick them off one by one. Moises (Bernal), who is lugging a teddy bear with and hopes to reconnect with his son in Oakland, accompanies the slowest at the back of the pack and thus ends up surviving the shoot-out, along with four others.

Cuarón uses his camera with great effect. While some may balk at two or three moments of extravagance (most notably, a fast backward tracking shot when someone is shot in the chest and the beautiful movement of the camera crossing a barb-wire border fence as it shows others doing the same), they never draw too much attention to themselves. Instead, they suggest a vibrant dynamism beneath the mostly desaturated landscape, and in the second example, there is an inherent identification with the immigrants’ journey and plight.

For the entire first half of the film, the focus is relentlessly on the forward movement of the immigrants. Unlike most other films in the genre, there is no small talk between the characters that would flesh out their stories and their reasons for making this perilous journey. Besides, it is a fair assumption to make that none of them would have risked their lives if they didn’t have good reason to do so. This approach towards the characters frees the director up to create significant tension by pitting life against death in almost every single scene.

In this way, we never feel like we are being fed information by a filmmaker but are instead witness to verisimilitudinous events. Unfortunately, the other half of the story, which concerns the half-drunk Sam, is handled with a little less care. Save an early altercation with a border protection officer, Sam never speaks to anyone, except his trusty canine companion (and/or himself). His one-sided conversations can feel a little contrived and ultimately serve little purpose beyond providing a mere outline of a character with a myopic vision of nationalism that is hostile to outsiders (“It’s my home!”), no matter who they are.

Another point on which Desierto scores less than full marks is a scene in the final act when a young woman comes face to face with a rattlesnake. This being Arizona, the encounter is not at all unexpected, but it is a surprise that the film waits so long before showing us a single snake – and then tries to make up for lost time by showing us an entire rhumba all at once.

Bernal is absolutely mesmerising as a young father taking a risk going on this journey but doing so in order to rejoin his family. His character, Moises, is thrust into a game of survival, and while he has to rely on instinct to stay alive, his kindness towards those around him – particularly those who need a helping hand – is evident throughout. Moises’s gentle humanity, coupled with the image and the meaning of the teddy bear, which introduces us to him in the opening scene, makes it easy for the viewer to root for him.

Over the decades, the hot-button issue of border crossings between the United States and Mexico has never really cooled down, and thus Desierto is as timely as ever, particularly given the rumblings from the Oval Office of the recently inaugurated 45th president of the United States. Cuarón, who has to be one of Mexico’s most accomplished young filmmakers, keeps his eye on the ball and seems to relish the challenge of working with a small cast and a single location, not unlike the experience of his director father, Alfonso, on Gravity. As was already apparent in the companion piece to the latter, the short film Aningaaq, Cuarón here again proves himself to be a talented storyteller dedicated to conveying very human stories in the most desolate environments.

Lake Tahoe (2008)

lake-tahoeMexico

4*
Director:
Fernando Eimbcke

Screenwriters:
Fernando Eimbcke

Paula Markovitch
Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabé

Running time: 86 minutes

Lake Tahoe is an acquired taste. This small film by director Fernando Eimbcke consists mostly of static shots and has very little dialogue. It is set in a town so sleepy that the main character’s first act, inexplicably crashing his family’s red Nissan Tsuru on a wide road devoid of any turns, is the most action we’ll hear (we don’t even see the accident) the entire film. The boy’s name is Juan Cardozo, and through seemingly random incidents in which very little happens, we learn something about him in a way that is ultimately very satisfying for those who can stand the wait.

Eimbcke already showed in his début film, the narratively cosy and visually exciting Duck Season (Temporada de patos), that he is interested in characters rather than events. Both films also take place in a very short time frame: Duck Season over a Sunday afternoon, Lake Tahoe presumably on a Saturday morning and into Sunday morning. Both films star Diego Cataño as a taciturn, kind-hearted teenager who has some stuff to deal with. His presence is a big reason why these two films work so well. We can see him thinking behind his big eyes, even though we only have the faintest idea what might be going on in his head, and this mystery, which is never entirely opaque, is effective at keeping the viewer’s attention.

During two-thirds of the film, we get multiple shots of Juan walking around, often in frames that repeat again and again, trying to find someone who can help him fix the car. On his way around the town in which he often seems to be the only one who is (barely) awake, he meets an assortment of oddball characters, from a young mechanic who is a kung fu fanatic to an elderly mechanic who shares breakfast with his boxer dog, Sica, in a scene that becomes ever more touching as the film wears on.

Countless black screens interrupt what little action there is, although the soundtrack is ever-present, making us focus on the small details in the wind that are here one second and have disappeared the next. Most of the shots suggest the same idea, as the frame is empty for significant stretches of time at the beginning at the end of the take, with Juan traversing the screen in the middle. It is like a deadly quiet lake with a ripple of movement that breaks the stasis before it returns to tranquillity once more. 

The theme of loss becomes central to the film towards the third act, as we realise what is gnawing at Juan. But there is a long wait before Eimbcke gives us the information we need, and even his presentation of Juan is an exercise in patience, as we never get a close-up of his face and have to wait a very long time just to see him from closer than in a long shot. Eimbcke’s director of photography, Alexis Zabé, who has worked with Carlos Reygadas and also lensed Eimbcke’s Duck Season, departs from the static shots on at least two occasions. The first time, it works, as Juan escapes from an uncomfortable situation and we suddenly get two short dolly shots. But the second time, when Juan sees his mother crying in the bathroom, there is a slight push-in that is out of sync with the rest of the film.

While the latter shot attempts to elicit some feeling from us, there are a few scenes that are surprisingly effective at addressing our emotions. One involves the old mechanic making an important, albeit spur-of-the-moment, decision that ties in Juan’s own situation, a second is another unexpected scene late at night between Juan and the receptionist from an auto shop, and a third comes in the final scenes between Juan and his brother. Eimbcke, who had already worked so beautifully with children in Duck Season, continues his impressive understanding of their emotions here and gets another impressive performance from the young Cataño whose combination of white and black clothing suggests some inner struggle in the character. 

Lake Tahoe trips up only once, and that is by having a cutaway too soon, during one of the most powerful emotional moments for Juan. But in most other respects, this is a beautiful experience of spending time with a character that very slowly lets his guard down, accepts the gaping hole a loss has left in his life and assumes his new role with as much courage as he can muster. The film is absolutely beautiful, and thanks to Eimbcke and Cataño also eminently watchable.

Duck Season (2004)

Mexico
4*

Director:
Fernando Eimbcke

Screenwriters: 
Fernando Eimbcke
Paula Markovitch

Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabe

Running time: 85 minutes

Original Title: Temporada de patos

When we, the viewers, spend an hour and a half in the company of a very small group of characters (four, to be precise) in one location, then they better be likeable. Fortunately, Duck Season does not disappoint.

One Sunday, two young teenage boys, Juan Pablo (“Moko”) and Mario (“Flama”), both 13 or 14 years old, spend the day at Flama’s mother’s flat, while she is out doing her chores. They drink Coke, eat chips and play video games. Then, 16-year-old Rita from next-door arrives to use their oven. They don’t pay much attention to her. Even when the power goes out, they prefer to sit in silence in front of the TV, rather than strike up a conversation. They order pizza, which leads to an oddly thrilling sequence in which the pizza delivery guy tries to outrun the clock. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t (although the soundtrack is clear on this point), and this uncertainty leads to a showdown between him and the boys.

By this stage, we’re only 30 minutes into the film, but you’ll have noticed that quite a lot actually happens, in spite of the many, many moments of silence, at least initially, in which the characters are visibly bored and just waiting for time to pass, for things to become less awkward.

Director Fernando Eimbcke demonstrates real skill in finding many different positions to place his camera: inside cupboards, inside the refrigerator, inside the oven – at one point, the camera even takes the place of an important painting in the living room. The film, shot entirely in black and white, on what must have been a shoestring budget, shows what can be accomplished when the characters are interesting and the story is well-developed.

The only deviation from the apartment setting (apart from the quirky sequence, mentioned above, in which Ulises, the pizza delivery man, races to deliver the pizza on time) is a flashback to a dog pound, which feels completely out of place. Also, the film tends to cheat from time to time by using the cuts, occurring between the scenes that mostly take place in the living room and the kitchen, as bridges across time, and these ellipses actually obscure important events that occur offscreen.

The self-confident Rita provides plenty of material to work with, but it is the young Moko, played by actor Diego Cataño, who impresses the most with his splendid performance, hinting at awkwardness and secrecy in his outer appearance of mere shyness, and yet these traces are never overstated or overplayed.