Judging from the third annual New York Latino Film Festival (through August 4; check nylatinofilm.com for venues), the flava of the moment is everything north of 145th Street. With three full-length features set in Washington Heights, plus the opening filmthe John Leguizamo vehicle Empire, about narcotrafficking in the South Bronxthe NYLFF is possibly more urban than its counterpart, "Urbanworld." Welcome to the Latino gaze: For every Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez's lucrative kid-fantasy franchise) there are many more Big Pun: Still Not a Players (Marcos Miranda's doc on the late rapper) where that came from.
The winner of the Washington Heights competition is Eric Eason's Manito, which took awards at both the Tribeca Film Festival and Sundance. Despite its sudden and somewhat unsatisfying ending, the film is electric and brashly innovative, and lead actor Franky G. is a revelation. While they capture the idiosyncratic Dominican feel of the neighborhood, Felix Olivier's All Night Bodega and Alfredo de Villa's Washington Heights both struggle with uneven performances and clichéd, violent climaxes in bodegas, but the underlooked Jaime Tirelli (the trainer in Girlfight) is a calming presence in both films, and All Night's Tammi Trull is subtly provocative.
Directed by Betty Kaplan, Esmeralda Santiago's memoir Almost a Woman plays like an extended urban-tropical dream sequence. It may have that PBS feel, but it's one of the best films ever about the '60s New York Puerto Rican experience, filled with period detail that elicits a profound nostalgia. Historical minutiae also figure in Jim Mendiola's Come and Take It Day, which meditates on hybridity, assimilation, and the cruel joke the Alamo can be for heavy-metal-bred Chicanos. Boasting acting talent like Jessie Borrego and Jacob Vargas, the film doesn't always click, but its script and conceptual ambition are impressive.
Of the international films available for review, Beto Gómez's El Sueño del Caimán is an unexpected delight. Filmed in black-and-white, seemingly to evoke the golden age of '50s Mexican film, El Sueño is a darkly comic farce about a Spanish immigrant caught in a web of lies. The film has a kind of Buñuel-meets-Cantinflas charisma, particularly when it veers into magical realism. Bicho de Sete Cabeças won several awards in Brazil, but its graphic account (based on a true story) of a teenager sent to a mental hospital because he dabbled in marijuana is overwrought and claustrophobic. In the documentary field, the urban focus returns with Jon Osman's Justifiable Homicide, a painstakingly effective exposé of Bronx police brutality. Erstwhile TV actor Randy Vasquez contributes The Maria Guardado Story, a faithfully leftist portrait of the Salvadoran activist and her horrific tales of torture.
None of the shorts grabbed me as much as last year's Five Feet High and Rising, a Loisaida sexual-awakening story so astonishingly real that it was remade as the feature-length Long Way Home, which showed at Cannes this spring. That film's uncanny actor, Victor Rasuk, reappears in this NYLFF in a suburban re-telling of the same story, Joe Blink's The Soft Parade. Playing a well-read character named Shakespeare but still holding onto a hint of a ghetto accent, Rasuk seduces a fellow mall employee in that same heartbreakingly innocent yet sassy manner. Maybe this signals a possible theme for next year: Out of the Barrio, the Suburban Latino Experience.
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