What I love about the Riviera Maya Film Festival is its indifference to playing it safe. Like spring break for cinephiles, this exotic festival tucked along the Yucatan Peninsula in Quintana Roo brought a challenging loot of films to Mexico, where the public may never see them again.
That’s because exhibitors in the region are more invested in keeping theaters running by screening fast-food movies for audiences. But under artistic director Paula Chaurand and her hard-working team, Riviera Maya offers more daring international fare, such as Asia Argento’s opening night film “Misunderstood,” a troubling family drama with less-than-sympathetic characters (many of them female) that remains at large on the US distribution market. Even after premiering at Cannes in 2015, no one has taken a bite off this risky film — starring starring Giulia Salerno as the rebellious daughter of a very selfish mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the 1980s — from a risk-taking woman director. Yet we continue to see many of the same vanilla, playing-it-safe relationship pictures directed by women in the US.
It’s in this young and bourgeoning festival’s interest to lasso Hollywood talent, too, which is why Joe Dante got the lavish gala treatment for his meta-horror comedy “Burying the Ex,” starring Anton Yelchin, who joined his director at Riviera Maya. At a press conference at the festival’s headquarters, held together with duct tape and glue inside a shopping mall in fast-growing Playa del Carmen, Dante talked about the future of the “broken” studio system.
“There’s a fear of originality,” said the long-working director of 1980s camp classics “Gremlins” and “The Howling.” “[Studios] are so conservative about what they make because if it’s already made, they’ll make it again. If it’s a sequel, they’ll remake it. They’ve remade pictures people didn’t want to see remade. Did we really need another ‘RoboCop’? There was nothing wrong with the first movie. Why make another one? Because it’s a famous title and because they thought they could squeeze some money out of it.”
Dante is grappling with his own issues over the “Gremlins” property, the 1984 monster comedy Warner Bros. is trying to reboot again — again — after consecutive failed attempts. And this time, Dante isn’t involved with the project, instead preferring to go his own way with indies and TV, including “Hawaii Five-O.”
“More often than not these remakes don’t work. I think you’re going to see a lot of upheaval, and a lot of changes in the next few years to a point where the studio system as we know it, which is completely broken, will have to rediscover itself,” Dante said.
Riviera Maya, like the great film festivals of the world, is committed to going against the mainstream grain, programming the kind of films that inspire walkouts at Cannes and Venice. The best film I saw was German actor-turned-director Sebastian Schipper’s mesmerizing one-take thriller “Victoria” at a full-house screening packed with young people sitting on the floor and stairs and in plastic folding chairs at the foot of the screen. It follows five Berlin twentysomethings on a dangerous all-nighter into the early hours of the morning during which, for all my yeoman’s efforts, I could not detect a single cut. It was picked up by Adopt Films out of Berlin, and it outdoes even “Birdman”‘s dazzling bag of tricks.
Screenings are free for all the public to enjoy, which is a unicorn rarity on the festival circuit. There are no press screenings, though my adventures in Mexico over the weekend did afford me time with fellow LA journos Sasha Stone, Claudia Puig, Ben Lyons and Elvis Mitchell, who were great company as we were shuttled from venue to venue in air-conditioned festival cars.
In between screenings, we were treated royally with nightly fetes, free-flowing tequila and dangerously good mojitos. The press corps even got to mingle with the Mexican government at a special dinner hosted by Quintana Roo governor and RMFF supporter Roberto Borge Angulo, who was flanked by Yelchin and Dante as we gorged on the region’s freshest seafood. I don’t know any one of us, myself included, who wouldn’t return if given the opportunity.