After taking a few days to catch some amazing films with Andrea (Roller Life, Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, and The Blood is at the Doorstep – all of which she has covered on this site), it was time to get back into the groove of seeing some movies for myself. Also, I had a nice list of online screeners that I hadn’t touched since the start of the fest, so going through those was a top priority for me. However, my first stop would be back at the Downer to see a film featuring a cheetah, a Lamborghini, and some impressive cinematography.
As a staple of civilization, sporting events bring together groups from different backgrounds to experience glorious spectacles of entertainment. Falconry, however, is a 40-century-old sport that has always catered to aristocrats and the upper class. Passed down to modern Arab culture, The Challenge explores this sport through a Middle Eastern aristocracy that values exotic animals, fast cars, and the thrill of competition.
From the start, the viewer is immersed in the culture by the film’s absolutely breathtaking cinematography in one of the most visually appealing naturalist films I’ve ever seen. Expansive landscapes of sand dunes, rocks, and other beautiful examples of nature, meticulous details of majestic falcons and feral cheetahs, and the high-speed racing of men in SUVs chasing the sunset all come together to show a world that is brimming with activity and color. Connecting with this visual beauty is the presentation of a sport that not many people know about, and it is interesting to take a look at the importance of Arab culture through this lens.
The main issue is that there is no plot, point, or problem to be solved. Essentially, it is a visual masterpiece that randomly shows the life of the modern nobility without an aim or much explanation as to why falconry is important to these people. Because of this, some of the film can be a bit confusing to outsiders who aren’t familiar with the culture. And while the movie is visually stunning, many of the shots are lengthy and the jumping between settings can be quite random. One minute the viewer might be in a palace among a discussion about an upcoming competition, and the next there’s a bunch of SUVs racing across the desert. In the end, The Challenge may not win every viewer’s attention, but it will certainly make a stylish attempt in doing so.
Following the end of The Challenge, I left the Downer to return home. Now was the time to start hitting these screeners, and there were two that I was really looking forward to seeing in person at the festival. But why travel when you can see movies from the comfort of your own home? One lighthearted and another gritty, these two films would bring some of the best this fest had to offer, and they were only a click away.
Music is the window to the soul. Oftentimes, it is the one aspect of life that can change our state of emotion or transport us to wonderful (or tragic) memories of our past. But in Esteban, music is an escape from a life of poverty.
The titular protagonist Esteban (Reynaldo Guanche) is a young man who goes to school and helps his mother sell illegal, pre-purchased products (i.e. nail polish remover, shampoo, and tampons) to make a living. One day, as he is selling wares around town, he passes the sweet melody of a piano and is instantly captivated by the sound. Moving towards the dilapidated home of Hugo (Manuel Porto), a retired piano instructor, Esteban is quickly shooed away. But he is persistent and determined, so Esteban bothers the withered old man enough that Hugo is willing to take the boy under his wing and teach him how to play.
To start, the film flows effortlessly. The plot is easy to follow, the characters are lovable, and the movie easily tugs at the heartstrings. The connection between Esteban, his mother Miriam (Yuliet Cruz), and Hugo is especially well-developed. Miriam would prefer that Esteban sell items and make money rather than spending time on a fruitless dream, but Hugo shows Miriam that piano goes further than just being a hobby, especially with Esteban’s talents.
In fact, Hugo has great faith in Esteban and that belief eventually rubs off on her. Plus, Esteban is an adorable and funny kid that keeps viewers engaged as he learns under Hugo and chats with his mother. Now, Miriam’s response to Esteban’s dreams may be a little radical and unrealistic, but her reaction is reminiscent of the mother of Lauryn Hill’s character in 1993’s Sister Act 2, who told Hill that singing didn’t “give her a future.” However, nothing will stop this young man’s ambitions as he touches the viewers’ hearts one key at a time.
“We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.” This phrase from game developer Ken Levine explains that life will always lead us to certain places, no matter what we do. But have you ever wondered what would happen if you successfully landed that job interview, or moved to that new city that promised more opportunity? How would your life change? Following this concept, Quasim Basir’s Destined focuses on the life of Rasheed Smith as two possible outcomes of a botched drug deal send him on two different paths of life. Being caught by the police and serving time in prison, Rasheed gets out, ready to reform himself and becomes an architect of a major building firm. However, by escaping, “Sheed” becomes a drug kingpin whose iron grip on the city catches the attention of police who want to end his operations for good.
This representation of duality brings an amazing depth of complexity and provides a refreshing take on the idea of parallel universes. Seeing the same man thrust onto varying paths and have contrasting personalities shows how our environment can radically shape us to be something (or someone) we never thought we would be. These paths also show people that have been affected by Rasheed’s actions, as one of Rasheed’s teachers is a junkie in one story, but teaching kids in the other. Through this, Basir shows that our actions not only affect us, but those around us, too.
Additionally, the transitions between paths are easy to follow by offering a specific color tone for each pathway (an orange-red tone for Sheed’s scenes and a bluish tone for Rasheed’s scenes). And no one path is easier, as Rasheed has to face racial issues within the company he is working for, while Sheed has to contend with the police and being a responsible man to his ex-girlfriend and son. It is a dark and gritty film that does suffer from some slow periods and pacing back and forth between characters and situations. However, this unique perspective on duality in a film gives Destined massive potential in creating a new form of cinematic storytelling.
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