Friday, June 12, 2009

Emilio (Landmark Films, 2008)

Familiar but Moving Immigrant Tale


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Emilio Luna (Walter Perez) is a 19-year-old man living on the outskirts of Guadalajara in central Mexico whose 14-year-old sister Maria (Lauren Torres), a girl with the habit of hanging out in bars and coming off as sexually precocious for her age, has been kidnapped by a middle-aged man named Manuel Ortega (Alexandre DeMesquita) and taken to Los Angeles. So, armed with a thousand pesos, a few belongings in a backpack and a much-folded black-and-white photo of Ortega, he flies to Tijuana, crosses the border, makes it to L.A. and starts looking for his sister and the man who took her away. This central premise of writer-director Kim Jorgensen’s new movie, called simply Emilio and produced by the Landmark Theatres chain (which Jorgensen founded and which is showing it locally even though he no longer owns it), isn’t exactly the freshest idea for a movie, but it’s told with a great deal of warmth that gets and keeps us emotionally involved with its hero and makes it well worth seeing.

A lot of things happen to the central character in Emilio. He gets ripped off early on by a couple of Latino gangstas. He meets a philosophical African-American street person, identified in the cast list only as “Bearded Bum” (Wendell Wright), with a taste for decadent French writers like the Marquis de Sade and Céline. He falls in with a couple of other Latinos, José (Danny Martinez) and Fausto (Alejandro Patino), and ends up sharing their apartment in a grungy old residence hotel and working with them on a job for a bottled-water company called Strasbourg — the grim joke being that the “company” is actually the back room of a garage in which they stick the bottles under a regular tap, fill them and seal new caps on them to pass them off as healthy bottled water.

Emilio, who until the very end of the movie seems to have no romantic or sexual interests of his own — though it’s made clear early on that he’s straight — gets cruised by Zack (Ryan McTavish), aspiring (but not too aspiring) actor and scapegrace son of a rich family that bought him a Porsche. They meet on the Venice Beach pier and Zack takes the unsuspecting Emilio to a hot dance club called Rage (“There don’t seem to be too many women here,” says our cluelessly naïve hero) and then to his place — where there’s a party going on with Gay men of all ages, levels of butchness and drug habits. An exhausted Emilio falls asleep in Zack’s bed and they spend the night together — though, again, we’re clearly told that no physical contact occurred between them other than Zack’s arm across Emilio’s chest — and Emilio makes the mistake of accepting a ride home from Zack. As soon as one of his roommates sees him getting out of a fancy car being driven by a Gay gringo, they toss Emilio’s clothes in a bag and throw him out. The joke in this sequence is on both Emilio and the Gays who think he's available “fresh meat,” and though the sequence doesn’t come off as homophobic the Richard Glatzer/Wash Westmoreland film Quinceañera (2006) did a better job of dramatizing the clash between Latino traditions and the Gay culture.

While nothing in Emilio is exactly fresh storytelling, the film is sensitively written and doesn’t have the damnable detachment that wrecks a lot of attempts at serious drama in modern movies. Kim Jorgensen clearly likes and feels for his character, and wants us to as well. Walter Perez is perfectly cast as Emilio, attractive in an understated way and delivering a matter-of-fact performance that makes the character credible and moving. The kid’s guilelessness does get to be a bit unbelievable after a while, but instead of maintaining the literally demented optimism of the woman at the center of Happy-Go-Lucky, Emilio remains a well-grounded character, capable of understanding evil and learning from the bad things that happen to him. Certainly the film sometimes conveys the impression of a deliberate attempt to do a domestic version of Slumdog Millionaire — though it doesn’t have the fable-like plotting, the fairy-tale coincidences or the triumphal ending of Slumdog; instead Jorgensen dares a bittersweet resolution of his plot and leaves Emilio with one dream dashed but with a good shot at the fulfillment of another.

Jorgensen’s background is unusual, to say the least, for a first-time director. He’s been involved in the movie business, in one capacity or another, for over three decades. He’s credited as “executive producer” — a catch-all title that can mean almost anything (including once having had the rights to a story even if he had nothing to do with the version that got made) — on an acknowledged classic, Out of Africa (1985), and also had credits on three typically dumb comedies of the period: Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Growing Pains (1984) and Mortuary Academy (1988). None of those credits hint at the nervy, deliberately low-tech look he cultivates as the director of Emilio, including some dizzying hand-held pans in the early L.A. scenes that suggest a six-year-old who just got a video camera for his birthday. Fortunately, Jorgensen’s direction later settles into a more conventional groove, giving us plenty to watch and allowing us to watch it.

Emilio is being presented as one of Landmark’s experiments in digital projection. There’ve been several others, including The Architect (2006), a digitally shot film that came across on screen with vivid clarity — too vivid clarity, it seemed in some sequences that could have benefited from the delicate shadings of a filmed image instead of the maddening crispness of high-definition video. Emilio, at least as presented at the June 11 preview screening — presumably the folks at Landmark Hillcrest will have the bugs out of the system before they present it to paying customers — was technically a mess. The projectionist was unable to get the film in the right aspect ratio, thereby cutting off the English subtitles and leaving non-Spanish speakers in the audience at sea during the sequences in which only Latinos appear on screen. Also, much of the sound was distorted — Tree Adams’ simple but evocative musical score suffered in particular — and sometimes the sound effects drowned out the dialogue.

Nonetheless, the quality of Emilio emerged even through a less than optimal presentation — and once the folks at Landmark get the technical glitches taken care of and show this film the way the founder of their company meant it to be seen, it’ll be well worth watching.

Emilio is now playing at the Landmark Cinemas Hillcrest, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.