Tag Archives: B

CASSANDRO

Producers: Gerardo Gatica, Todd Black, David Bloomenfield, Ted Hope and Julie Goldman  Director: Roger Ross Williams   Screenplay: David Teague and Roger Ross Williams   Cast: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio and Robert Salas   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B

A major change in the ultra-macho world of Mexican lucha libre is the subject of Roger Ross Williams’ film based on the life of Saúl Armendáriz, the luchador who revolutionized the attitude toward the grapplers called exóticos not only by becoming a crowd favorite but by winning matches.  For Williams, a veteran documentarian, perhaps best known for “Life, Animated” (2016), who previously made “The Man Without a Mask,” a short profile of the wrestler for The New Yorker Presents (it can be found as one of the segments in episode four of the series, available on Prime Video)—other documentaries on Armendáriz have been made by Michael Ramos Araizaga and Marie Losier—“Cassandro” marks a fiction feature debut.

Traditionally the exóticos were flamboyantly dressed and effeminate figures who served as a focus of macho bigotry and were jeered and ridiculed by the crowds as they were inevitably disposed of by their virile opponents.   Armendáriz gained notice from his first appearance as the exótico called Cassandro by reason of costumes that were even more extravagant than the norm, but especially because of his unapologetically positive personality as an uncloseted gay man and his ability to take on much larger opponents with skill, if not always triumphantly.

Gael García Bernal gives a bravura performance as Armendáriz, displaying a wide smile even in the face of boos from the crowd in outfits that grow ever more elaborate as his celebrity escalates, and handling the ring action with surprising agility.  It’s obvious that he’s having a tremendous time conveying the young Saúl’s obsession with lucha libre when the El Paso native travels to Juárez to perform in small venues as an undersized masked jobber called El Topo, “The Mole” or “The Mouse,” and is regularly thrashed. 

But after he’s trained by expert coach Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), under whose guidance he, reluctantly at first, goes the exótico route as Cassandro (a figure he bases on one of the telenovelas he loves) and finds success in the role, becoming a superstar with help from aggressive promoter Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosío) and Lorenzo’s febrile associate, the drug-dealing Felipe (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny).        

But the film deals with Armendáriz’s life outside the ring as well as in it, and Bernal is equally fine here.  It focuses on two relationships.  The earlier is with his mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a laundress, seamstress and prostitute, who raised him alone after his religion-obsessed father Eduardo (Robert Salas) abandoned them in revulsion at the boy’s effeminacy.  They’re extraordinarily close, and he adopts her fashion sense in developing his Cassandro persona; and when she suddenly dies, he’s crushed.  The other is with fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), with whom he enjoys a steamy affair; it has to remain secret, however, since Gerardo, who wrestles as El Comandante, is married, and refuses to injure his family by coming out as Saúl has done.  But that doesn’t stop him from being jealous when Saúl and Felipe appear to hit it off.

Inevitably, the film, which has employed actual lucha libre performers like El Gigante, in the periodic fight scenes, ends splashily, with the ostentatiously frocked Cassandro facing off against an icon, the seemingly invincible El Hijo del Santo (playing himself).  An arguably bathetic coda finds Armendáriz appearing on the star luchador’s television program, where he’s presented with evidence of the cultural impact he’s had in attitudes about homosexuality in contrast to Eduardo’s intractability.  (In reality, Armendáriz enjoyed a halting rapprochement with his father—as shown in the New Yorker episode; its omission here seems a bit curious.)   

Though Bernal dominates the proceedings, the supporting cast is very strong, with De La Rosa, Colindrez and Castillo drawing particularly sharp portraits of their characters, even if they’re necessarily less developed than Armendáriz.  J.C. Molina’s production design doesn’t prettify the surroundings, and Matías Penachino’s cinematography keeps the colors muted except when Maristela Fernández’s entrance costumes for Cassandro take center stage.  The film is spiffily edited by Affonso Gonçalves, Sabine Hoffman, Yibrán Asuad, but they make a point of not turning the ring action into a blinding cacophony even has they capture its innate theatricality.  Marcelo Zarvos’ score reflects the differing emotional tones of the wrestling sequences and the intimate ones, and incorporates some rousing pop numbers for Cassandro’s entrances.

It’s inevitable that the film, which emphasizes the triumph of the underdog against all odds, tends to skim over the darker undertones of Armendáriz’s career (his injuries, for example; even his teeth don’t seem to suffer), as well as of the social context of the 1980s and 1990s, when he found unexpected fame and popularity but the general attitude toward gay men when the AIDS epidemic, minimized here, was so virulent.  Its emphasis on the positive side, like Armendáriz’s own as shown in his interviews, is pervasive.

But while one can criticize the film for not tackling the edgier aspects of Armendáriz’s life and times, as a pure underdog (or undermole) story it’s a winner.

NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU

Producers: Tim White, Trevor White, Allan Mandelbaum and Brian Duffield  Director: Brian Duffield   Screenplay: Brian Duffield   Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Elizabeth Kaluev, Zack Duhame, Lauren Murray, Geraldine Singer, Dane Rhodes, Dari Lynn Griffin and Evangeline Rose   Distributor: Hulu

Grade: B

Brian Duffield’s follow-up to “Spontaneous,” his 2020 debut as writer-director, is another twisty take on genre formula.  At first “No One Will Save You” seems like a simple updating of the old “Twilight Zone” episode “The Invaders,” in which Agnes Moorehead played a solitary woman forced to defend herself against an visitor from space that attacked her house.  Duffield even makes his much younger protagonist Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever), awakened by the intruder, speechless, as Moorehead was, taking a cue from “A Quiet Place” by having her suppress her gasps and try to control her steps as the creature, here a traditional extraterrestrial out of the “Close Encounters” playbook, scutters about the house looking for her.  But she quickly becomes as determined and physical as Moorehead was in fighting it off, eventually killing it.

Brynn does not remain in her house for long, venturing out into the nearby town the next morning to ask for help.  But she’s a local pariah, for reasons only gradually revealed—and then ambiguously; though she tries to connect with her neighbors, they shun her, and when she goes to the police station to report what’s happened, the chief (Dane Rhodes) and his wife (Geraldine Singer) treat her with a mixture of astonishment and contempt.  They’re suffering with some unexplained grief for which they clearly hold Brynn responsible, and so she’s left to her own devices.

Brynn is grief-laden too, over the absence of her friend Maude (played as a youngster in flashbacks by Evangeline Rose and as a young woman by Dari Lynn Griffin, while Elizabeth Kaluev is young Brynn) and the recent death of her mother (Lauren Murray), with whom she was very close.  To add to the oddity, Brynn lives a childlike life, decorating the home in which she now lives alone with doll houses and bright lights, as if the living space were an adolescent’s bedroom. 

Now, though, she feels she must escape, and tries to take a bus out of town.  But the passengers, including the strange local mailman (Zack Duhame), attack her, emitting frightening shrieks.  It appears all have been possessed by the extraterrestrials, who that night return, reclaiming the corpse of their dead comrade and targeting Brynn. That leads to a further encounter that mixes her increasingly ferocious struggle to evade or kill them with the prospect that she, too, will become the victim of one of the crawling parasites the creatures exude to take over human hosts.  And yet when the film closes, it’s with a weird celebration of local harmony in which Brynn joyfully participates, freed of her trauma, though under the watchful eyes of the invaders in their spaceships.  Viewers must be left to decide for themselves what it all means, and whether it’s a happy ending or a ghastly one.  “Spontaneous” also wound up in an emotional middle-ground, and some will find Duffield’s choice here even more frustratingly opaque and unsatisfying.

Yet despite its repetitiveness—the effort to add variety to the means Brynn employs against her pursuers gradually pales—and a last act that overindulges Duffield’s penchant for quirkiness—the movie remains fascinating as an imaginative take on a genre staple.  It’s helped enormously by the virtuoso performance of Dever, who manages to make Brynn both peculiar and sympathetic, and dives into the action with complete abandon.  Everyone else in the human cast is truly secondary—this comes almost as close to a one-person effort as Moorehead’s TZ turn was—but they do what’s demanded of them. 

The really important co-stars are the aliens, and here the effects artists (a long list of whom is provided in the closing credits) have done an exceptional job.  Though the design of the critters is hardly innovative, the realization is quite impressive, from the first glimpse of the creature’s feet to the employment of their full bodies in battle with Brynn.  The other special effects—tractor beams and the like—are pretty conventional, but effective enough. 

The rest of the behind-the-camera contributions are solid too, with Ramsey Avery’s fashioning of the house’s interior evocative, especially as shot in darkness and shadow by cinematographer Aaron Morton.  Editor Gabriel Fleming keeps the action choreography fairly clear, and Joseph Trapanese’s score adds the requisite sense of foreboding, even if the foghorn rumbles have come to be a commonplace in such films.

“No One Will Save You” doesn’t possess the weird sauciness of “Spontaneous,” but that was based on a novel that already reveled in taking oddball narrative chances.  Here Duffield has elected to follow a pretty well-established template, but despite that he’s fashioned a genre movie that, happily, isn’t simply generic.  Whether all its divergences from the usual pattern work is another matter; but the riskiness is a virtue in itself.