I suspect many American filmgoers could not name a Mexican film director with a gun pointed to their head (Robert Rodriguez doesn’t count, cabrón). The vast majority of the rest of us can probably name no more than three: Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mama tambien, Children of Men) Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, Babel) and Guillermo del Torro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), and I’ve probably never seen a Mexican movie other than by one of these three directors until now. But Iria Gómez Concheiro is a name to watch, because she just may be able to get herself added to this list if she can live up to the potential shown in her feature directorial debut, The Cinema Hold-Up.
The film comes out swinging with an excellent opening, a long tacking shot of a teenager walking through an area of his Mexico City neighborhood. Walking past colorful graffiti, impromptu hip-hop circles, and tons of skaterats, Negus walks in a way that’s right on the edge of both having a purpose and not, if that makes sense. It’s a vibrant scene, backed with an excellent Mexican hip-hop tune, which comes crashing down when the local cops come to bust things up. From there, the plot of The Cinema Hold-Up, foretold by the title, is quite simple — four teenage friends living in Mexico City decide to rob their local movie theater. That’s it.
In the first hour, we’re introduced to Negus, Chale, Sapo and Chata, who spend a lot of time smoking pot, going to the movies and tagging tunnel walls. This first hour is intentionally paced very slowly and we’re given some, but not a lot, of character development. We learn the most about Sapo, who’s a wannabe gangster and hip-hop artist with bravado that’s all a front when push comes to shove. He’s got a brother who was run out of Mexico by the gangsters he now wants to work for and, contradictory to his gangster-wannabe nature, Sapo is a good practicing Catholic. Negus, meanwhile, is a former deadbeat and recovering drug addict with a prick of a brother who his mother loves more than him, presumably because of his drug-addled past. And Chale is a nervous pretty-boy with a decent homelife living with his mother and sister, though they struggle for money like everyone. Chata, the lone girl in the group, is the least developed — she lives with her mother, who is overbearing, and she eventually falls into a light relationship with Negus.
Mostly, the first hour sets up a few minor conflicts, shows us why these kids want money for themselves or their family, and gives us the hatching of their robbery plan. It drags a little, and the film might have been served buttoning things up, or at least giving us a bit more character development. But I think part of what Concheiro is doing is showing the quiet, slow days these teens experience, and I can appreciate that, particularly when the slower pacing is made up for when the days become less quite in the second hour, which mostly flies by.
There’s the hold-up itself, of course, which is well shot and a quality little caper by a bunch of street kids. We then see how the kids enjoy some of their newfound riches, and some of the earlier conflicts come back to get paid off a bit. And then things slow back down and, though there’s an ending of sorts, things are not much different than where the movie started, because a little bit of pocket cash, it turns out, can’t really buy you the love or respect you’re looking for.
All told, it’s a decently interesting storyline, particularly if you like heist flicks. But despite a few pacing issues, it’s a really well-directed flick. First, it’s a beautifully shot film, as Concheiro takes full advantage of the rich Mexico City locations. Second, Concheiro shows an eye for being able to create a gritty world that has character, but she doesn’t fall into the trap of making that world excessively bleak or morbid. Third, she clearly has a sense of fun and hipness, and an early scene that turns from a rap battle into a pre-heist anthem and a later group scene involving a mariachi band were just a lot of fun to watch. In fact, the film has a great soundtrack throughout, complete with some really cool Mexican hip-hop tunes (and the jam played over the credits provided one of my favorite moments at Sundance — as I was putting my coat on, I turned around and was able to see the sillhoutte of a dreadlocked projectionist fully getting his groove on to the tune). Point is, I’m psyched to see what Concheiro does next.
Lastly, I don’t think, at the time of this writing, that The Cinema Hold-Up has been picked up for distribution. If it does get picked up, and if anyone from that distribution company happens to read this review, please good sir or madam, I implore you to put new subtitles on the film. It’s not that I think the translations were bad (from my smattering of Spanglish, I think they were perfectly serviceable). But from a technical standpoint, they were a complete mess — they’re in a thin white font which causes them to frequently be washed out by the background, they flash by far too quickly, and there are weird moments with no dialog that are subtitled, while other occasional lines get no subtitling whatsoever. So be a peach and fix that up for us, would ya? Gracias.
The Cinema Hold-Up screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the World Dramatic Competition.