Well, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks. As you all know by now, movie theaters are closed, and they need our help. Especially local theater chains here in Los Angeles. For years Angelenos have soaked in indie and art house classics playing at Laemmle, while newer locales such as Alamo Drafthouse provided an exciting new theater experience since opened at the Bloc downtown. Both were successfully weathering the storm of boring blockbuster multi-plexes and the streaming age before the pandemic. These venues were more than buildings with lots of seats; they were communities where movie lovers enjoyed cult classics and new releases from revered auteurs.
Film maker Pedro Costa and the directing duo Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho, are a few such directors whose movies were scheduled to be screened at the theaters before they were forced to close, and thankfully, these anticipated titles are available to rent online via the theaters. Costa’s Vita Varela is a masterpiece and Filho and Dornelles’ Bacurau is wicked fun, so renting both via these theaters’ virtual screening rooms makes supporting local movie houses easy and entertaining. Check out our reviews below.
American audiences avoid subtitles and stories about everyday life like the plague. When it comes to entertainment, we like it loud, exciting, and with as little emotion as possible. Yet there’s something universal about the work of Pedro Costa, a Portuguese director whose hypnotic pull makes everyday life exciting. In Vitalina Varela, we venture through the slums of Lisbon, where the locals shower in sewers and the camera bathes in darkness. It’s a world where every ray of light grabs your attention; every frame recalls the mysterious, silhouetted figures of Rembrandt. Many critics over the years have referred to Costa as “an acquired taste.” I think Vita Varela will work for anyone willing to give it a chance.
Starting with a shot of a pitch black alleyway, Costa creates a tension on screen that is wonderful to watch. As men emerge from the darkness, their shadows dance on the walls, even through they are returning from a funeral, sunken and defeated. These men are always defeated, as it turns out. They are immigrants who live in homes without roofs or running water. Which gives Costa and his cinematographer, Leonardo Simoes, plenty of visual space to work with as they frame their artful images like a photo shoot.
None of these stills, however, can top the sight of a plane landing at night. In a close up, we see bare feet walking down the plane’s exit. As the figure moves toward a group of airport workers, a trail of tears follows in its wake. “Vitalina, your husband died days ago. There is nothing for you here,” the workers tell her. She walks into town nonetheless.
Based on a true story, and named after its star actress, Vitalina Varela follows a woman returning to her hometown. Asking about her deceased husband and catching up with old friends, Vitalina spends the run time chatting with locals, usually about how her husband abandoned her on Cape Verde 40 years ago. Shot almost entirely at night, what we take away from this isn’t so much her story, which is cathartic, but her journey through time and space, which is otherworldly. Costa is a master at speaking through images instead of words. He lets light to do the talking here, and when he gives us sunny skies after two hours of foreboding blackness, the result will surely brighten your day.
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The town of Bacurau may seem like a nice place to visit. It’s one of those Latin American villages in the middle of nowhere, bursting with life, smiling locals and wild animals. But after some postcard worthy drone shots, directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho show they have more in mind than escapist entertainment. There’s a reason the sign outside of town has no population number: the population is in flux. When coffins start showing up by the truckload, things take a blood soaked turn.
Like the films of John Carpenter and Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, Bacurau establishes an idyllic town, then upends it in ferocious fashion. As everyone gathers to hear the local DJ, people gossip about cut-off water supplies and corrupt officials. Equally concerning is a TV in the town square that plays trending footage of officials being slaughtered, as if vigilante murders were the new Tik Tok dance videos. What’s impressive about these early scenes isn’t the growing sense of fear, but the growing sense of community. In just 15 minutes, you get a feel for who these people are, and why they want to protect their turf. It’s a turf steeped in history, inhabited by locals who shouldn’t be messed with.
Among those who haven’t gotten the memo: politician Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), who steals his people’s water; and a pack of American baddies led by Udo Kier, who take erotic pleasure in killing “lesser” Brazilians. Bodies pile up. A UFO-like drone makes an entrance. That’s when the townspeople fight back. And that’s when this slow burn thriller morphs into a full blown exploitation flick full of B-movie violence.
For all its sweet, bloody, bone crunching revenge, there’s also a humanity that rises from the dust. This little town filled with smiling people is still full of heart. But when the government fails to provide lower classes their needed resources, and wealthy outsiders try to take over, you can bet on resistance. Inspired by Filho and Dornelles’ own experiences in Brazil, their rage seeps into the filmmaking techniques, seen through an arsenal of zoom ins, fade outs and Carpenter-themed music. Despite turning into a battlefield, Bacurau ends up being a place you want to visit, if only from your living room couch.
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