Review: ‘Azor,’ starring Fabrizio Rongione, Juan Pablo Geretto, Stéphanie Cléau and Ignacio Vila

December 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Juan Pablo Geretto and Fabrizio Rongione in “Azor” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“Azor”

Directed by Andreas Fontana

Spanish and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Argentina in 1980, the dramatic film “Azor” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A Swiss banker encounters mystery and controversy when he arrives in a politically chaotic Argentina after a banker colleague disappears.

Culture Audience: “Azor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching “slow burn” movies about international politics and financial dealings.

Fabrizio Rongione in “Azor” (Photo courtesy of MUBI)

“Azor” requires patience in getting to the bottom of the mystery presented in the film. It’s a dialogue-heavy drama about a Swiss banker who travels to Argentina when one of his business partners has disappeared. The story unfolds at a pace that might be too slow for some viewers, but it should hold the interest of viewers who are intrigued by how the worlds of politics and finance are intertwined.

Swiss filmmaker Andreas Fontana makes an assured feature-film directorial debut with “Azor,” which he co-wrote with Argentinian filmmaker/actor Mariano Llinás. This international collaboration on the screenplay serves the movie well, which shows how a Swiss banker navigates his visit to Argentina in 1980, during a politically volatile period in Argentina’s history. In 1980, Argentina was under a military dictatorship.

Under these circumstances, Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (played by Fabrizio Rongione) has traveled from Geneva, Switzerland, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his wife, Inès de Wiel (played by Stéphanie Cléau), because of an urgent matter: Yvan’s business partner René Keys (played by Alain Gegenschatz) has disappeared. René also happens to be Inès’ cousin, but she tells Yvan that she doesn’t know where René is or when he’ll be coming back.

Yvan and René are among the owners of a private financial institution called Keys Lamar De Wiel Bank. Yvan inherited his share of the bank from his grandfather. There are part of “Azor” that show how Yvan has some insecurities about being perceived as an unqualified heir—someone who’s in this privileged banking position not because he earned it but because he happened to be born into the right family.

Much of “Azor” is about Yvan finding out that René left behind a mess of disgruntled customers and alienation among business colleagues. Yvan has to give apologies on behalf of René. Yvan even tells a client that René’s “attitude is deplorable.” Mr. Decôme (played by Gilles Privat), a former partner of the bank and a good friend of Yvan’s father, describes René as “brilliant” but “toxic” and someone who “lost his mind.”

Did René voluntarily disappear or did he run into foul play? Yvan starts to find some clues in René’s appointment book. He also gets some clues a collegaue named Dekerman (played by Juan Pablo Geretto), who gives Yvan some gossipy inside information about which clients might or might not be the most upset with René.

And he discovers that even though René wasn’t very well-liked by some business colleagues in Argentina, René had his share of fans. One of them is an elderly woman named Viuda Lacrosteguy (played by Carmen Iriondo), who tells Yvan that she and René had such a friendly rapport with each other, they’d play a game: She would start to a sing a song, and René would finish it.

Another admirer of René’s is a horse enthusiast named Anibal Farrell (played by Ignacio Vila), whom Yvan thinks is a difficult client. Anibal is such a fan of René’s, Dekerman describes Anibal’s attitude about René as being “like the drug addict who sucks the dealer’s cock.” This crude language in a world of elite bankers, ambassadors and society people is the first indication that things in this world might not be so genteel at first glance.

Yvan gets deeper and deeper into the a web of intrigue that eventually leads him to a clergyman named Monseigneur Tatoski (played by Pablo Torre Nilson), who is heavily involved in international politics. Although some scenes in “Azor” take place in an Argentinian jungle, much of the movie consists of conversations in lavish homes or corporate offices.

None of the acting is particularly outstanding, but Rongione does a capable job of keeping viewers guessing about the character of Yvan and how far he’s willing to go in his quest. The word “azor” is Spanish for “goshawk,” a bird that is defined by its keen ability to observe before attacking its prey. At one point in the movie, it’s mentioned that “azor” means “Be quiet and be careful what you say.” The film will keep people guessing up until a certain point about who’s the observant predator and who’s the unwitting prey.

Because “Azor” is a very talkative film, it might bore viewers who are expecting more physical action in this story. “Azor” is also not an appealing movie for people who don’t care about behind-the-scenes machinations of bankers and politicians. If viewers decide to stick with the movie and watch it to the very end, they’ll find some surprises proving that initial impressions aren’t always the correct impressions.

MUBI released “Azor” in select U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021. The movie premiered on the MUBI streaming service on December 3, 2021.

Review: ‘The Alpinist,’ starring Marc-André Leclerc

November 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Marc-André Leclerc in “The Alpinist” (Photo by Jonathan Griffith/Red Bull Media House/Roadside Attractions)

“The Alpinist”

Directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen

Culture Representation: Filmed from 2016 to 2018 in various parts of North America and South America, the documentary “The Alpinist” features an all-white group of people talking about Canadian alpinist Marc-André Leclerc.

Culture Clash: Leclerc was a daredevil mountain climber/adventurer who ignored warnings about his dangerous mountain climbing.

Culture Audience: “The Alpinist” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction movies about people who are compelled to engage in extreme, life-threatening physical activities.

Marc-André Leclerc in “The Alpinist” (Photo courtesy of Red Bull Media House/Roadside Attractions)

“The Alpinist” can get inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” because each movie is a profile of a daredevil mountain climber who doesn’t use wires, ropes or other safety equipment when climbing. (This practice is known as “free soloing.”) Marc-André Leclerc is the subject of “The Alpinist” (directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen), while Alex Honnold is the subject of “Free Solo,” directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. “The Alpinist” is more of an underdog film than “Free Solo” is, because “The Alpinist” is about a mountain climber known for not seeking out any media attention, even though he engaged in stunts that blew away even the boldest of risk-taking mountain climbers.

Leclerc had such a daredevil reputation that many of the well-known mountain climbers (including Honnold) who are interviewed in “The Alpinist” marvel, as well as show alarm, at all of Leclerc’s hazardous mountain-climbing accomplishments that he achieved, often in record-breaking times. And he did so in a few years (from 2015 to 2018), all by the age of 25. However, unlike most of his peers, Leclerc did not like to call attention to himself by putting his exploits on social media. He also rarely did interviews. Most people (including “The Alpinist” directors) who found out about Leclerc heard about him through word of mouth.

Leclerc (who was born in 1992 in Nanaimo, British Columbia) had occasional sponsors to help pay for his excurisions, but he never got rich off of these sponsorships or other deals that he could have made. In fact, “The Alpinist” shows that Leclerc’s life as a mountain climber was one in which he lived near poverty level, and he was frequently homeless. He often camped outdoors or lived in hostels as a way of life.

Because he wasn’t a media star, many people watching “The Alpinist” might not have heard about Leclerc before seeing this movie and won’t know what happens at the end of the documentary. Therefore, that information won’t be revealed in this review. However, it’s enough to say that the massive summits that Leclerc is shown climbing in “The Alpinist” include Torre Egger in Patagonia and the Mendenhall Towers near Juneau, Alaska.

Needless to say, the documentary’s mountain-climbing cinematography (by Jonathan Griffith, Brett Lowell and Austin Siadak) is absolutely stunning. This movie should be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the best sense of how breathtaking (and dangerous) these alpinist activities are. However, this isn’t just a movie about mountain climbing, because “The Alpinist” also presents an emotionally moving portrait of a young man with an unquenchable thirst for extreme mountain-climbing adventures.

In the production notes for “The Alpinist,” co-director Mortimer says that Leclerc’s appeal was precisely because Leclerc didn’t want to call attention to himself: “Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to punk rock and I’ve always been fascinated by people who stay true to an ideal and refuse to sell out. But as soon as I heard about him, I really wanted to get to know him.”

In order to get this documentary made, the filmmakers had to gain Leclerc’s trust. You can see that over time (“The Alpinist” was filmed from 2016 to 2018), Leclerc felt more comfortable in front of the camera. In his initial interviews for the movie, he seems shy and uneasy when talking on camera.

Through his own words and through interviews with his loved ones—including Leclerc’s mother Michelle Kuipers and Leclerc’s girlfriend/fellow mountain climber Brette Harrington—a picture emerges of a once-troubled kid who dedicated his life to his greatest passion, even if it came a life-threatening cost. Leclerc’s parents split up when he was young; he was raised primarily by his mother, who worked as a restaurant server. His father Serge Leclerc worked in construction.

Kuipers says that her son (her only child) was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He liked kindergarten, but he hated first grade, so he was homeschooled for a while.” As a child, Leclerc was “a voracious reader,” especially in reading adventure books. At the age of 8, he was introduced to rock climbing to by his maternal grandfather.

Kuipers said that when her son went from being homeschooled to going to a regular high school, he had a difficult time adjusting: “It [high school] was like a form of incarceration for him.” Leclerc describes his childhood as being a resteless rebel, including his teenage years when he began using drugs. After graduating from high school, he moved to Squamish, British Columbia, and had an aimless life. During his early 20s, Leclerc said he was still heavily into the drug scene (frequently taking hallucinogenics such LSD) because he liked the idea of going on mind-altering trips.

Harrington says of Leclerc’s drug-fueled lifestyle: “I could see where Marc could’ve easily slid down that life.” However, Lerclerc says he decided to stop abusing psychedelics and instead get his highs from something that required a certain amount of athleticism and enormous amounts of bravery: extreme, free solo mountain climbing. That doesn’t mean Leclerc completely gave up drugs, since a few scenes in “The Alpinist” shows that he and his mountain-climbing pals indulged in marijuana and hashish when they partied.

Leclerc says taking psychedelics had some mind-expanding effects on him that he implies might have had something to do with his lack of fear in climbing mountains and cliffs, literally without any safety nets. He describes not feeling any anxiety during his climbs—only incredible peace, calmness and the intense focus to get to the next level of the climb. Leclerc often wouldn’t wear gloves during his climbs, since gloves can interfere with a hand’s natural grip. To climb ice-covered terrain, Leclerc would use ice axes.

In the documentary, Harrington describes Leclerc as a “brash” and “broke” (as in financially broke) mountain climber. However, Leclerc’s brashness in this documentary only comes out in his fearlnessness when he climbs. Off of the mountain, he’s mild-mannered and unassuming.

Harrington and Leclerc met in 2012, and they bonded over ther love of free solo mountain climbing and other extreme sports. Harrington says of Leclerc: “He was different from anyone I ever met. He’s socially awkward, but that’s what I like about him.”

And this was no fairy-tale romance: Harrington says that she knew from the start that being with Leclerc would mean not living in regular dwellings. She describes how early on in their relationship, they lived in a tent and were often starving for food. But more than having a food-deprived, nomadic lifestyle, the bigger threat to their existence was knowing that their mountain climbing could result in death.

Several well-known alpinists interviewed in the documentary essentially say the same thing: To be a free solo mountain climber, you have to be a little bit crazy and you have to prepare for the likelihood that you could die while climbing. Among the climbers interviewed are Honnold, Will Stanhope, Jason Kruk, Alan “Hevy Duty” Stevenson, Will Gadd, Bernadette McDonald, Raphael Slawinski, Barry Blanchard, Ryan Johnson, Hugo Acosta, Jon Walsh, Jim Elzinga and Reinhold Messner. “If death is not a possibility,” says Messner, “then the adventure would be nothing.”

Honnold remarks that Leclerc is one of the alpinists he admires the most because Leclerc wasn’t motivated by getting accolades: “He cares about the experience in the mountains and the journey. I really respect that.” Hevy Duty comments on Leclerc’s extraordinary boldness in mountain climbing: “He belongs in the ’70s and the ’80s [decades], when it was wild. He’s a breath of fresh air.”

Although Leclerc allowed this documentary to be made about him, the movie shows that he still had mixed feelings about it. During the documentary’s production, Leclerc broke a record by doing a first-ever solo climb of the Infinite Patience route on the Emperor Face of Canada’s 13,000-foot Mount Robson. However, this achievement was never filmed because Leclerc kept this climb a secret from the filmmakers until after the fact.

To make up for this exclusion, Leclerc let the filmmakers document his journey to Argentina, to climb Patagonia’s Torre Egger during a brutal winter. Only one camera operator was allowed: Leclerc’s friend Siadak. And the trip wasn’t easy, since snowstorms caused some problems. In the lead-up before the climb and after the climb, Leclerc shows how friendly he is in his interactions with hostel owner Hugo Acosta and Acosta’s young son, who seems to look up to Leclerc as a hero.

The final climb in the documentary is when Leclerc, accompanied by experienced climber Ryan Johnson, went to the Main Tower of the Mendenhall Towers in Juneau, Alaska. This trip also took place during snowy weather. It was one of the few times that Leclerc uploaded videos of his progress on the Internet, since he generally shied away from social media.

The takeway from watching Leclerc in this documentary is how determined and focused (some would say obsessed) he is on his mountain-climbing goals. He’s also very humble and self-aware that his obsession with mountain climbing comes at a heavy cost to his personal life. Harrington and Leclerc share the same passion for mountain climbing, but they admit that trips away from each other, as well the very real possibility of death while mountain climbing, can put a strain on even the strongest of relationships.

Viewers will immediately notice that every time Leclerc conquers one of his mountain goals, he doesn’t rest on his laurels and is eager to go on to the next goal. It’s like he’s in a race against time and against himself to accomplish as many of these goals as possible and try to surpass himself and others with these goals. After all, mountain climbing this extreme is not an elderly person’s game. If there’s anything to be learned from “The Alpinist,” it’s that Leclerc’s choice to dedicate his life to free solo mountain climbing came not from having a death wish but from being motivated to live his life to the fullest and in the most authentic way possible.

Universal Pictures Content Group and Roadside Attractions released “The Alpinist” for one night only for a sneak preview (via Fathom Events) in select U.S. cinemas on September 7, 2021, followed by a limited release in select U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD was November 2, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Initials SG’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Initials S.G.
Diego Peretti in “Initials S.G.” (Photo by Roman Kasseroller)

“Initials SG” (“Iniciales SG”)

Directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia

Spanish with subtitles

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The trials and tribulations of a struggling actor have been the subject of classic Oscar-winning movies, ranging from the 1937 drama “A Star Is Born” to the 1982 comedy “Tootsie” to the 2016 musical “La La Land.” The dark comedy “Initials SG” (“Iniciales SG”) is not going to be an Oscar-winning classic, but it’s a compelling movie about the seedy underbelly of the acting profession far outside of the United States—in this case: Buenos Aires, Argentina. In “Initials SG,” Diego Peretti plays Sergio Garces, a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged actor who still holds on to the dream of achieving major stardom. Years before, Sergio recorded a long-forgotten album of Serge Gainsbourg cover songs in a misguided bid for fame. The title of the movie is a nod to Sergio Garces and Serge Gainsbourg having the same initials.

Sergio—who is single and lives alone—is the type of actor whose career was once promising, but has in recent years been reduced to mostly bit parts as an extra or voiceover roles, and he’s not above making adult films to help pay the bills. After being sentenced to anger management and probation for a fight where he pushed someone out of a window, he gets into a bike accident that injures his nose. The injury negatively affects his health and immediate job prospects.

In the midst of this personal crisis, Sergio meets a visiting American sales agent named Jane (played by Julianne Nicholson) by chance at a bar. She’s more attracted to him than he is attracted to her, and they eventually become lovers after Sergio misses a chance to hook up with a younger woman he’s been lusting after for a while. Sergio’s ego also gets a temporary boost when he finds out that he’s going to honored at a film festival.

“Initials SG” at first gives an appearance of being an absurdist comedy with a protagonist who keeps running into bad luck. This movie is not for the faint of heart. In one of the movie’s scenes, Sergio’s nose injury causes him to have a nose bleed while filming a sex scene in a porn movie. In another scene, we find out the nose injury is more serious than it first appears to be. (Hint: If you’re disgusted by the idea of a slithery animal being stuck in a human body, you might want to skip this film.)

When Sergio goes out on the street outside his apartment, he keeps seeing a weird young man, who’s apparently in a drug-induced haze, because the young man stares up at the sky and points at something that isn’t there. That sidewalk character will play a pivotal role in the last third of the movie, which takes a very sinister turn, as secrets are revealed and covered up. But the movie’s final act is one that might leave audiences the most divided. It’s a bold twist to the story that will linger long after the credits roll.

UPDATE: “Initials SG” is available on HBO and HBO Max.

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