Capsule movie reviews

Back to Life, Gesher, Life, Above All and A Stone’s Throw Away

VUELVE A LA VIDA (BACK TO LIFE) (unrated) ★ ★ ★ 

An oral biography of a most unusual man, Vuelve a la vida (Back to Life) uses interviews with friends and relatives to recount the extraordinary adventures of Hilario Martinez Valdivia, an Acapulco native everyone called “Long Dog:” Long because he was so tall and dog because he once bit a man’s finger off in a fight.

Long Dog, who died in 2002, could hold his breath underwater for four and a half minutes. He taught Johnny Weissmuller and Edward, John and Bobby Kennedy how to scuba dive. He drank and partied harder than anyone in town. He had two girlfriends with four children each. He was such a skilled fisherman than whenever he jumped into the ocean, he would surface with his fists filled with oysters. When a shark started preying on tourists in Acapulco in 1975, he vowed to capture the man-eater — and did, after pounding back 13 beers.

He was such a magnetic man that when a tall, red-haired American fashion model came to Acapulco from New York for a vacation to clear her head, she fell so hard for him that she divorced her husband and never left Mexico. Back to Life, which has been directed in a straightforward and engaging manner by Carlos Hagerman, uses recollections by Long Dog’s wife, children and stepsons to present a new and altogether fresh perspective of U.S.-Mexican relations. Here, for a change, are white, freckled Anglos who grew up south of the border. Hearing Long Dog’s kids talk about the displacement they felt growing up in a Hispanic culture, along with the towering admiration they had for their legendary father, offers an inside-out view on the immigrant experience.

Director: Carlos Hagerman. Screenwriters: John Grillo, Carlos Hagerman. Running time: 73 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Brief vulgar language. Plays at: 3:15 p.m. Saturday at Regal South Beach and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Tower.

GESHER (unrated) ★ ★ 1/2

The minimalist Iranian drama Gesher uses long shots and static, sustained takes as it follows the lives of three migrant workers toiling away at their low-paying, sometimes dehumanizing jobs. The men don’t make enough to pay for homes, so they live in huge, discarded refinery pipes. In their spare time, they entertain each other, send money home to their wives and take photos of themselves in dressing rooms wearing clothes they could never afford.

Writer-director Vahid Vakilifar uses an intentionally slow (some will say boring) pace to convey the rote emptiness of the lives of these men, who must suffer the indignities of others, carry out unpleasant tasks no one else wants to do (like cleaning a clogged toilet in a public restroom, shown in nauseating close-up) and, in a convoluted sequence, apparently vent their ugliest impulses on people beneath them in the societal pecking order. I say apparently because I’m not completely certain what transpires in that sequence. Gesher at times feels a bit too indulgent and evasive for its own good: Vakilifar, who is only 29, is still learning how to keep his audience engaged. But the movie succeeds at providing an inner life for its protagonists who are frequently glimpsed as small figures juxtaposed against giant backdrops, primed to be forgotten and ignored by a world that gleefully exploits them.

Cast: Abdolrassoul Daryapeyma, Ghobad Rahmaninassab,Hossein Farzizadeh. Writer-director: Vahid Vakilifar. Running time: 84 minutes. In Persian, Azeri and Kurdish with English subtitles. Strong adult themes. Plays at: 3:30 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Monday at Regal South Beach.

LIFE, ABOVE ALL (PG-13) ★ ★ 

A well-meaning but ploddingly earnest after-school special, Life, Above All centers on 12-year-old Chanda (newcomer Khomotso Manyaka), an African girl living in a small village near Johannesburg. Chanda has already lost her newborn sister to influenza, her father to AIDS, and now her mother has fallen ill. While her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) resorts to prostitution out of economic desperation, stoking the community’s hyperactive rumor mill, Chanda tries to help her fading mom, who seems more worried about what the neighbors think than about her health.

South African director Olive Schmitz based Life, Above All on Allan Stratton’s novel Chandra’s Secrets and has drawn strong performances from his cast, particularly the young best friends whose bond is tested over the course of the film. But the movie tends to lapse into soapy melodrama and heavy-handed preaching whenever possible, and the feel-good ending that appears out of nowhere essentially negates a lot of what has preceded it, adding one more moral to a movie already weighed down by life lessons.

Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Manamela, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana. Director: Oliver Schmitz. Screenwriters: Dennis Foon, Oliver Schmitz. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 100 minutes. Adult themes.In English and Pedi with English subtitles. Plays at: 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Cosford and 9:15 p.m. March 13 at Regal South Beach.


In the dreamily captivating drama A tiro de piedra (A Stone’s Throw Away), a young goat shepherd named Jacinto (Gabino Rodriguez, who also wrote the screenplay alongside director Sebastian Hiriart) finds a keychain engraved with an idyllic drawing of a barn facing a mountain range and an Oregon address. Jacinto, who was already feeling unsure about his life in rural, remote Mexico, is compelled to make the dangerous trek north, in search of — well, who knows? Rodriguez, who starred in last year’s festival selection Perpetuum Mobile, deftly conveys his character’s youthful restlessness and curiosity: We understand why he would make such a radical decision and upend everything he knows in hopes of something more. Ably directed by Hiriart in the neorealist style that is becoming prevalent in independent Mexican cinema, A Stone’s Throw Away portrays wanderlust and a young man’s coming of age with dashes of surrealism and a relaxed, invigorating vibe.

Cast: Gabino Rodriguez, Monserrat Angeles, Randy Watkins. Director: Sebastian Hiriart. Screenwriters: Gabino Rodriguez, Sebastian Hiriart. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Plays at 9:30 p.m. Sunday at the Tower; 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and 7 p.m. Wednesday at Regal South Beach.


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