Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)

An angry mob, gripping torches and machetes, floods the streets to confront the outsiders. Fingers are dismembered before our very eyes. Innocent men are lynched. This is nor a horror movie, but a historical drama recounting the horrifying events that took place almost fifty years ago.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is an absolute juggernaut. It is a 360 snapshot of a particular time and place, muddled by socio-economic, religious, political, and regional tensions of the late 1960s. We observe the events of an awful tragedy like a fly on the wall: a reporter gets a call that a group of university workers has been attacked, and several killed. After glimpses of the aftermath, we are pulled away from the immediate matter at hand, and meet the faces of Mexico, 1968.

A poor farmer who must give away 10% of his crop to corrupt officials. A priest whose influence over his parish extends past religion into politics and beyond. A wealthy bureaucrat, who is grateful for the public goods and thinks the poor should quit complaining. And an omnipresent narrator, arguably the most reliable, who insists we can trust him and provides commentary on all the action.

After this first act, during which director Felipe Cazals provides an admirably rich portrait of the time and place, we dive into the main narrative: a group of young university employees from the city Puebla decide to go mountain climbing at La Malinche. Knowing the tragic fate awaiting them, each decision and delay brings an extra layer of dread for us, the viewers, as we approach what we already know will be a horrifying end.

Canoa is an incredibly troubling film, of a mistaken conflict between a small town and (perceived) radicals from the city, hauntingly ringing true in today’s hostile and occasionally violent political climate. Cazals never turns away, forcing us to witness and grapple with an unstable and untrustworthy society.

This razor-sharp work is punctuated by a fascinating shot at the end: our narrator atop a staircase, facing another camera, walking down stairs, scurrying up and doing the take again, then speaking to us once he’s down. The pseudo-documentary feel breaks its own wall, from cameras capturing life and people in real-time, to rehearsed and scripted action. Is he such a reliable narrator? Can he be trusted as the voice of Canoa, or a more rational citizen, or even Cazals himself? The overlapping and contradicting nature of history is a subtly recurring theme throughout the story, and the double take within a “documentary” adds a sinister layer to an already-disturbing tale.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is certainly not for everyone, but those who can stomach the intense violence will be taken on a culturally insightful, intellectually challenging, and wholly unforgettable journey.

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Personal Shopper (2016)

Somewhere in the grey area between perverse intimacy and crippling isolation lies Maureen (Kristen Stewart in a rich, vulnerable performance), the titular Personal Shopper in Olivier Assayas’s latest masterwork. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis died suddenly, and they agreed that, upon death, the deceased would give the surviving twin some sort of sign. Both are mediums, attuned to the spirit world, but Maureen has trouble interpreting what is a message from beyond at all, least of all from her brother’s ghost and not some other presence.

Personal Shopper is genuinely chilling at times, but it feels less like a horror film and more of an exploration of grief and mourning. Upon her brother’s death in Paris, Maureen moved herself there, and by the time we arrive, it’s been three months and she still hasn’t heard anything. She can’t bear to abandon hope though, so she takes on a job she despises, as a personal shopper for the high-profile Kyra, as she bides time waiting for Lewis to appear.

This American in Paris leads an isolated and challenging life, as a foreigner in a new place, running errands by herself, with the occasional Skype from her friend Gary. When mysterious text messages start popping up on her iPhone, she at first is hesitant and cold in her responses, then gives herself in. She gripes about her boss, reveals her insecurities, and is persuaded to try on Kyra’s bizarro harness lingerie, leading to an intimate solo moment in Kyra’s bed. Maureen even agrees to meet whomever, or whatever, is at the other side of these iMessages.

On the one hand we watch and are appalled, maybe confused, by the actions taken by Maureen. She is steadily pushed out of her comfort zone and lets herself be taken advantage of. But for someone in her situation, desperate for any sign or contact with her departed brother, we sympathize with her – who wouldn’t do anything they could for one more moment with a loved one?

I admit I left the theater in tears, remarkably moved by this haunting, lonely tale of loss. Its fascinating narrative and painfully authentic themes will ring true to anyone who has mourned and desperately waited to see the light.

The Lure (2015)

It opens with two men and a woman, drinking and having fun on a dark, murky beach. Two young mermaids, a strawberry blonde and brunette, appear at the surface. They serenade the men, casting a seductive spell, and are invited to come ashore. The woman lets out a piercing scream. The screen fades to a sublime sea-green as the disco beat of “I Feel Love” throbs in the background. My friend leaned over and whispered to me, “You love this movie already.”

And I did. Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure has everything I could possibly want in a film: mermaids, singing, murder, tragic romance. It is a singular vision and wholly unique experience; you have never seen a movie like this.

The duo, two sisters named Golden and Silver, become part of a Polish family and join a nightclub band, transforming from two-legged bipeds into mermaids, onstage, to an enthralled audience. The songs are hypnotically staged, with pulsating electric lights pacing the stage as the mermaids gently sway in an oversized champagne glass, or rocking out and driving an audience into a frenzy.

The Lure is more than the no-holds-barred pleasure party depicted in its trailer, however. Golden and Silver come to face struggle and even heartbreak as they adjust to life on the land. The neon vibrancy of the club is a powerful contrast to the bleakness of their quiet ballads. Golden immediately finds love, but learns that winning the man in her life comes with sacrifice. Silver is left lonely, and fears her longtime bond with her sister is in jeopardy by Golden’s newfound romance.

Here is where the true gravitas of The Lure comes to the surface. Without feeling open-ended and vague, there are several nuggets to contextualize Silver and Golden’s story, and broaden the universe we find ourselves in. While a somewhat minor character, a former merman Triton, who has cut off his tail and lost his horns, is the only such creature we encounter, and as a horned being, is leagues away from the King Triton-esque image we have of these creatures.

The uncertain background of the mermaids is also alluded to when the duo first gets to the club. The owner asks how they learned such good Polish, and they respond that they learned it at the ports in Bulgaria. We have no other hints of where they are from, how old they are, though they mention that they eventually want to swim to America. The idea of these vagrant, potentially ancient, beings coming ashore and wreaking havoc makes The Lure all the more chilling and deliciously sinister.

While not for everyone, packing a fair share of gore, disco, and nudity, The Lure is a delightful treat if you can open your heart to an otherworldly dark fairy tale. I would gladly once again give in to its seductive siren song.