Botched opportunities, bad acting and misguided directorial decisions seem to be recurring themes among the premieres at this year's AFI Fest. Though boasting quite an impressive array of great cinema out of the North American festivals from the last six months, the AFI programmers seem to be struggling to keep it together when it comes to newer material. World premieres like the abrasively haphazard American shocker "Pop Skull," directed by Adam Wingard, have audiences running for the lobby, keeping good on the catalog blurb's promise of being "literally difficult to look at."
The Latin films seem to be having the most trouble. Fresh out of Cannes Critics' Week, Pablo Fendrick's "The Mugger" is a curiously mean-spirited, ultra-realistic slice of life that follows an estranged robber through a series of not-so-telling encounters in the course of one afternoon of misadventures. Though the film's promising opening of a near one-shot robbery gives hope for what could be a great piece of work, the structure takes a nose-dive into mediocrity as every scene change becomes more and more predictable. Carrying an exceptionally inhuman tone, the film plays like a cold homage to The Dardenne Brothers, sans interesting subtexts.
Another misfire is Raul Marchard Sanchez's "Manuela Y Manuel." Taking cues from the oft-too-utilized "La Cage Aux Folles," "Manuela" tells the story of a heartbroken drag queen posing as a straight fiancee for his best friend in order to keep her parents from being outraged about her pregnancy. Sanchez's film has all the right ingredients to be a crowd pleasing comedy save for the most essential: charm. The lack of charisma is the film's ultimate downfall, as it plods through a series of dull comic set pieces highlighted only by their colorful artistic design.
Easily the best of the three big Latin premieres for the festival is Sergio Umansky's "It's Better If Gabriela Doesn't Die." When a telenovela writer who uses the privileged information of a future plot point as bribery for a cop who has pulled him over, everyone seems to walk away happy. But when the direction of the show is changed from the original plan, the police officer begins to stalk the writer, threatening violence as retaliation for making him lose face in front of his friends.
"Gabriela" seems unclear in its vision, bouncing from genre to genre without any logical shifts or coherence. At its best, however, the film is either an atmospheric thriller, seeped in the rainstorm arguments of Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction" and the neon streets of Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," or a dryly satirical comedy, riffing on Sidney Lumet's "Network." Though the puzzle pieces seem interesting on their own, the bigger picture is kind of hazy and all these references don't really add up to a cohesive, original whole.
Speaking of references, the always erratic Alex Cox returns with his latest, "Searchers 2.0," a buddy movie send up of American Westerns that finds two aging former child actors on a quest for revenge against a screenwriter who abused them when they were younger. Beneath a pile of annoying performances and silly scripting there are some good ideas kicking around here, including reflections on masculinity, the nature of the Western and Cox's clear disgust for the current state of Hollywood, but none of this seems to matter when the foreground of tediously rhetorical conversation overshadows everything. And in a year when all the best films seem to be borrowing from the tradition of the Western ("No Country For Old Men," "Silent Light" and "There Will Be Blood," to name a few), Cox seems to have missed his well placed mark of making an intelligent conclusion altogether.
The one shining star of the fest's first weekend was, surprisingly, a documentary on Afghan bodybuilders. Set against the chaotic backdrop of a country in turmoil, Andreas Dalsgaard's "Afghani Muscles" tells the compelling story of two brothers trying to make it big. Dealing with everything from family pressures to monetary constraints that keep them from buying the necessary protein supplements, the film's subjects fight against all odds and Dalsgaard has the audience rooting them on for the full 58 minutes. The film is full of vibrant characters and tiny gems of intrigue around every corner. And with a realistically concise runtime that doesn't stretch the film's content beyond its natural course, "Afghani Muscles" achieves something that is in short supply with many of today's lengthy docs. Here's hoping that "Muscles" is a sign of things to come at the back end of AFI Fest.
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