What to Watch in August

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As the films that will eventually be released during the next six months begin their tour on the fall film festival circuit, a couple of Latin American films from festivals past finally receive their much delayed theatrical release this month.

High on my list is Ema, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s whackadoodle of a film which I saw last year and can’t wait to see again. Larraín has kept busy during the pandemic: this past summer, Apple TV+ released his eight-hour episodic adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey Story (penned by King himself) and his new film Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Lady Di, will receive its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival in September. If it’s anywhere as good as Jackie, his take on the Kennedy assassination and the myth Jackie Kennedy built around it, then we are in for a treat.

Our August roundup also includes 499, Rodrigo Reyes’s intriguing documentary hybrid about the long-lasting impact of the Spanish conquest of Mexico; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first of two animated projects; and Diego Luna’s return to the director’s chair after Mr. Pig (2016), his wonderful (and never-released in this country) road movie about a hog farmer and a huge pig.

COCAINE COWBOYS: THE KINGS OF MIAMI (Netflix, begins streaming on August 4): For 15 years, documentary filmmaker Billy Corben has been chronicling how Miami became the cocaine capital of the world. For this six-part entry to his series, Corben profiles the rise and fall of Cuban exiles Augusto “Willy” Falcon and Salvador “Sal” Magluta, allegedly the chief U.S. distributors for two of Colombia’s biggest cartels. Known as “Los Muchachos,” the two champion powerboat racers built a multi-million dollar empire that turned them into celebrities until they were finally taken down. 

VIVO (Netflix, begins streaming on August 6): The second of several projects Lin-Manuel Miranda completed or was in the process of completing before he and his In the Heights team were roundly criticized for the apparent lack of Afro-Latino representation in the film adaptation of the musical. He promised he would do better in his next projects so, frankly, the ones that are about to see the light of day shouldn’t count. But you know, the tribalist nature of social media will not let any opportunity for outrage go to waste.

Written by In the Heights writer Quiara Alegría Hudes with songs by Miranda and co-produced with Sony Pictures Animation, Vivo tells the story of one happy-go-lucky kinkajou (voiced by Miranda) who earns a living playing and dancing alongside his master Andrés (voiced by the Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All Stars founder and music director Juan de Marcos González). But when Andrés receives a letter from his former music partner Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan) to join her in her farewell tour, it’s up to Vivo to deliver a reply in the form of a song to her.

EMA (in theaters August 13): So where do I start with Ema? Scheduled to be released theatrically last year and briefly available through the MUBI streaming service where I saw it, Pablo Larraín’s film defies any easy categorization. It is so unlike anything Larraín has done so far… and yet, it has that dark edge that defined his early work. Dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal), the demanding choreographer and director of an experimental dance troupe, reverse the adoption of their son Polo when he commits a shockingly violent act. The decision leaves Ema slightly unhinged (and I am being generous in my description). She embarks on a psychologically dangerous journey as she tries to recover her child. Featuring a stellar, uncompromising, screen-burning (in more ways than one) performance from Di Girolamo, Ema requires multiple viewings to unpack it, and I, for one, can’t wait to see it again (and write about it).

499 (in theaters August 20): I am really looking forward to seeing 499, after missing it at this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival. (Sorry, folks. I hate to disappoint you, but regardless of what you think, working behind the scenes at a festival, especially if you are not part of the programming committee, doesn’t always mean that you will be able to watch everything. You still a festival to run.) In anticipation to this year’s commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés and his cronies, filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes concocted this intriguing blend of documentary and fiction to explore the long-lasting impact of this clash. A conquistador arrives at the shores of modern-day Mexico and decides to follow the path taken by Cortés and his army, from the coasts of Veracruz to Mexico City. During his journey this fictional character interacts with real victims of Mexico’s violence, activists, and immigrants on their way to the border.

TODO VA A ESTAR BIEN (EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE) (Netflix, begins streaming on August 20): After writing and producing the seven-episode nonfiction series Pan y Circo for Amazon Prime last year, Diego Luna returns to the director’s chair with this dramatic series, one of many original series and films Netflix is producing in Mexico. Created by Luna and co-produced by La Corriente del Golfo, the new production company Luna founded with Gael García Bernal after they left Canana, and set in Mexico City, Todo va a estar bien, in the words of its creator, was “born from an urgent need to question the idea of ​​the perfect couple, romantic love, the creation of a family and the fusing of expectations that one may have about a relationship in an act as cold, institutional and contradictory as marriage sometimes can be.” Plot details have been kept to a minimum but Luna has, in such films as Mr. Pig and his César Chavez biopic, proven to be a confident, vigorous director with an empathetic touch, so this looks promising.

THE SONG OF THE BUTTERFLIES (POV on PBS, August 30, check local listings for airtime; streams for free on POV’s website for a month after broadcast): Núria Frigola Torrent’s feature documentary debut centers on Rember Yahuarcani, an Indigenous painter from the White Heron clan of the Uitoto Nation in Perú, who left to pursue a successful career in Lima. But when he finds himself in a creative rut, he returns home to his Amazonian community of Pebas, visiting his father, a painter, and his mother, a sculptor, and discovers why the stories of his ancestors cannot be forgotten. 

Featured image: Screenshot from ‘499’

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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