FilmWatch Weekly: Latin American Film Fest, Horror by Women, ‘Azor,’ and ‘The Card Counter’

A charming "Los Lobos" at the Latin fest; an Argentine apocalypse; CineMagic scares; Schrader's new deal.

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Maximiliano and Leonardo Najar Marquez in “Los Lobos,” at the Portland Latin American Film Festival.

September 15 marked the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, so there’s no better time for the return of the Portland Latin American Film Festival, which will be holding its first in-person screenings since the start of the pandemic. The festival kicks off on Wednesday, Sept. 22, with a 20th anniversary showing of Y Tu Mama Tambien, the sexy, heartfelt Mexican road movie that introduced the world to the talents of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and set director Alfonso Cuaron on the path that would eventually make him a four-time Oscar winner.

After recognizing that crowd-pleasing landmark of Latin America cinema, PDXLAFF will resume doing what it does best: presenting, in a series of occasional, monthly-ish screenings of new films from Mexico, Central America, and South America that otherwise could easily go unnoticed. First up, on Sunday, Sept. 26, is Los Lobos, which first of all has nothing to do with the Tex-Mex-influenced rock band that hit #1 in 1987 with its cover of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba.”

Rather, it’s a heart-wrenching drama about a single mother and her two young sons, who have arrived in Albuquerque after immigrating from Mexico. Stuck in the ratty, one-bedroom apartment that is all their mother can afford, the boys entertain themselves by making crayon drawings of a pair of superhero wolves, which are then charmingly animated. They also continually pester their mom about her promise to take them to Disneyland, a promise she uses to induce them to stay in the apartment and practice their English. Eventually, their seclusion is tempered by encounters with a group of neighbor kids and with their crusty but kind Asian-American landlords. The performances are uniformly fine, especially those of the juvenile leads, real-life brothers Maximiliano and Leonardo Najar Marquez; and director Samuel Kishi Leopo, inspired by his own childhood, imbues the story with a quiet, lyrical realism and a deep, well-earned humanism.

The festival will continue in October with My Name Is Bagdad, about a female Brazilian skateboarder (Oct. 6), and Charlotte (Oct. 20), a comedy about an aging diva who heads to Paraguay in an RV to pursue the role she was meant for. (Screenings are at the Hollywood Theatre.)

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FURTHER EVIDENCE OF THE QUALITY AND VITALITY of Latin American cinema comes in the form of the Argentine drama Azor. I want to call it a thriller, but it’s more interested in conjuring a vague sense of unease than in raising your blood pressure. I also want to describe it as Apocalypse Now, but with international finance instead of Vietnam. But that’s not quite right either, although the film does follow a morally ambiguous protagonist on a journey into the heart of darkness as he tries to discover the fate of a mysterious colleague.

A scene from “Azor.”

Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) is a Swiss private banker who has arrived in Argentina, during the period when that country was ruled by a military dictatorship, to replace his suddenly vanished predecessor, a man named Keys. Accompanied by his glamorous wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau), Yvan tentatively works his way toward an important client, who apparently had an intense relationship of some sort with Keys, and who is now vaguely threatening to move his money to another bank.

Azor (you’ll learn the meaning of the title towards the end) is less about the machinations of the ultra-wealthy in general than the moral erosion that occurs when living in a nation where the government has embarked on a purge of its enemies and created an atmosphere of subdued paranoia. Many of the particulars discussed go unexplained, which can make for a frustrating experience if you’re trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. It gradually becomes clear that Yvan’s clients are engaged in moving vast amounts of cash, much of it presumably acquired through forceful appropriation, out of the country. As he works his way up the ladder, Yvan seems to feel the occasional twinge of conscience, but Ines is there to reassure him that he’s just doing his job, a job that has allowed them to live in a world of luxury and privilege. This is the banality of evil in full flower.

Andreas Fontana makes a very impressive feature directing debut, demanding patience and attention from viewers, lulling us along until we almost feel as complicit as Yvan and his fellow profiteers. This is a grown-up film, impeccably paced, subtly performed, and quietly devastating. (Opens Friday, Sept. 24, at Cinema 21).

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RECENTLY, THE CINEMAGIC THEATER on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard underwent a change in ownership, and the new management seems to have some programming changes in store as well. This past week they’ve shown the intriguing indie Small Engine Repair, and next week’s marquee promises something called the Provoke Film Festival. Provoked, I checked out the theater’s website, and was pleased to discover this meant a week full of female-directed horror film.

The lineup includes such recent successes as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as well as subversive 1980s slasher flicks Slumber Party Massacre II and Blood Diner. The festival kicks off with director Julia Ducournau’s feature debut, the cannibalistic Raw, and concludes on Thursday, Sept. 30 with her follow-up, Titane, which won this year’s top prize at Cannes and looks, if anything, even more disturbing than Raw.

On a personal note, Cinemagic—back when it mostly served as a repertory house—was where your humble critic first saw stuff like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wild Bunch on the big screen. (It’s also the closest theater to my house.) So it does my heart good to see another Portland venue willing to experiment and add to the city’s impressive array of options for movie lovers.

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THE POWERS THAT BE DICTATED that the new film from director Paul Schrader, The Card Counter, was not available to local critics prior to its Portland opening last week. Having heard glowing reports from a variety of reliable sources, I ventured out and caught a showing this past weekend at Cinema 21. (It’s playing at other area theaters, too, but I’m partial to the venues that require ticket buyers to provide proof of vaccination.)

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in “The Card Counter.” Image courtesy of Focus Features.

Schrader, the veteran writer of Taxi Driver and director of Mishima, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, and other, specializes in portraits of disaffected male loners wrestling with morality and temptation. His previous movie, First Reformed, with Ethan Hawke as a tormented minister, was his best in ages, and The Card Counter continues his renaissance, even if it doesn’t match the transcendent angst of that film.

Oscar Isaac plays an itinerant gambler named William Tell, who taught himself the art of card counting while serving time for crimes he committed while working as a prison guard at Abu Ghraib. Into his hermetically sealed life come two change agents: a woman (Tiffany Hadish) offering to finance his poker career, and a young man (Tye Sheridan) whose father also worked in the infamous torture factory and who seeks vengeance on the military contractor (Willem Dafoe) under whose command those war crimes occurred, and who naturally got off scot-free.

Schrader directs with a cool menace and creates a feeling of foreboding in the back of your skull, which makes the nightmarish flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, filmed in a mind-bending binocular fisheye process, all the more evocative of that particular Hell on Earth. One of William’s primary competitors on the World Series of Poker tour is a jingoistic (though, we are told, Ukrainian-born) annoyance whose posse chants “USA! USA!” every time he wins a hand. As guilty as Defoe’s character is, I kept wishing that our dour protagonist would explode into violence in that twerp’s general direction.

Isaac is good but not great in the taciturn lead role, his natural charm buried under a shellacked coif and a clenched jaw. A similar issue plagues Haddish, the predominantly comic actor whose boisterous energy doesn’t channel into a straight role—when she delivers heartfelt dialogue, you get the sense that she’s pulling your leg. With more perfectly cast leads, this could have been another career apex for Schrader; as is, it remains another solid late-career effort from a legitimate auteur. (Currently playing at Cinema 21 and other area theaters.)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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