Three chances to catch El Gran Noche

That and more at the Latino Film Festival

Marta Castellote and Marta Guerras keep the party going in My Big Night, one of the more amusing selections at the 23rd San Diego Latino Film Festival.
  • Marta Castellote and Marta Guerras keep the party going in My Big Night, one of the more amusing selections at the 23rd San Diego Latino Film Festival.

The 23rd Annual San Diego Latino Film Festival runs March 10–20, and with it comes one of the biggest names in international cinema: Mexico’s incontrovertible auteur, Arturo Ripstein (Deep Crimson, La Tia Alejandra). Mr. Ripstein (and his star, Patricia Reyes Spíndola) will be at Fashion Valley, Saturday, March 12, for the 7:15 p.m. presentation of his latest, La Calle de la Amargura. The city should be honored by his presence, and a big vote of thanks goes out to all those who made it possible for a director of Mr. Ripstein’s stature to favor America’s Finest Sleepy Little Beach Town.

As much as I would love to have reviewed the picture, I couldn’t bring myself to watch a branded screener on a TV set. So I’ll see you (and Mr. Ripstein) at the Fest! La Calle is just one of the 170 shorts and features set to screen at SDLFF 2016. For more information, visit sdlatinofilmfestival.com.

San Diego Latino Film Festival 2015

Here’s one title that’s earned a hearty endorsement. The third month of the year means it’s time for another round of this critic’s favorite alternative to March Madness: “Spot the SDLFF’s Director’s Picks.” Half the fun of perusing the schedule stems from the innate ease with which I’m able to spot one of festival papa Ethan Van Thillo’s picks out of the lineup.

It’s Ethan’s desire — as well it should be — to pepper the program with diversity. That means satisfying those among his core constituency who — not unlike Americans dependent on TV as a feed-through to movies — have taken a shine to telenovelas, the kind most often associated with Galavision. Each year finds at least one of these sparkly soap operas on the docket, and invariably, it has Ethan’s fingerprints all over it.

The program notes describe El Gran Noche (My Big Night) as, “a madcap comedic look at the wacky world of TV specials.” I guessed it had to be one of Ethan’s alternatives. If my assumption was correct, a firm and hearty handclasp awaits him when next we meet, for this pitch black comedy is one of the funniest laugh-getters in the festival’s history.

It’s October, and one week into the never-ending taping of a fatuous, disaster-plagued New Year’s Eve song-and-dance extravaganza, the type even Dick Clark would have frowned upon, an extra seated at table 21 gets flattened by a runaway crane shot. One man’s tragedy is another man’s big break. Professional seat-filler Jose (Pepón Nieto) has been perched next to the phone for three months waiting for a call from the temp agency that would bring work. The middle-aged, unemployed mama’s boy picks up on the first ring, and within minutes, he is strapped into a tuxedo and out the door.

Outside the studio walls, a violent protest rages against the pending dismissal of 500 employees, while inside, boredom reigns supreme, the only drama coming in the form of pop-culture titans butting heads. Adanne (Mario Casas) is a youthful Adonis whose glorified Chippendale’s calisthenics routine is a hit with free-thinking hipsters. Alphonso (celebrated Spanish songster, Raphael), a 70-something cross between L. Ron Hubbard and Mr. Spock (with a little Julio Iglesias thrown in for good measure), has the type of sand-blasted good looks that only money can buy and a phosphorescent, thetan-white jumpsuit that speaks volumes to the golden-agers — afraid to leave their homes after dark — that make up 80 percent of the audience.

Not everyone loves Alphonso, starting with his son, Yuri (Carlos Areces), a rosacea-cheeked pudge blinded by the type of paternal jealousy and neglect that only an assassin’s bullet could satisfy. Yuri enlists the services of Regidor (Luis Callejo), a Pupkin whose fawning obsession with the singing star makes him the only man for the job. It helps that he holds the distinction of being one of the few (only?) characters ever to have a film’s title daringly inked across his back.

One of the film’s bolder gags involves Sofia (Marta Guerras), a footsoldier in Adanne’s army of groupies (and hucking for the rewards a palimony suit would bring), who instead of swallowing the DNA spits it in a vial for future parenting use. In an instant, my theory was shattered. Ethan would never steer his core constituents in the direction of dubious material such as this. He clearly approved of the film, but a call to SDLFF confirmed that it was programming manager Moises Esparza who really deserves the handshake.

The success of a multi-character comedy such as this hinges on its handling of secondary characters and background action. No surprise, the glitzy dress TV ball soon takes a back seat to the tawdry, behind-the-scenes goings on of a group of bored-to-tears dress extras. Jose’s mother may show up still clutching the crucifix she years ago ripped from her husband’s coffin, but don’t expect the type of single-trait stick figuresses often associated with this type of production. El Gran Noche borrows more from the atmospheric appointment work of Peter Bogdanovich or Jonathan Demme than it does from Telemundo.

Many of the film’s in-jokes are bound to fly over the heads of American viewers. Unfamiliar as I am with the Raphael songbook, a visit to IMDb brought me up to speed. All of the music Alphonso performs — including the title song — is stuff that Raphael made famous. Further reading of the trivia section reveals Adanne was “based on the Puerto Rican singer, Chayanne.”

Director and co-writer Álex de la Iglesia keeps the action and laughter flowing at a breakneck pace, brilliantly choreographing the rapid-fire dialogue while putting cinematographer Ángel Amorós’s camera through its rigorous paces. (Love that set, too!) If there’s one hiccup, it’s Carolina Bang and Antonio Velázquez as a pair of warring husband and wife divas. Both actors are perfect fits for their roles, but the characterizations are too close to their small screen inspirations to resonate much satire.

Nothing better sums up the spirit of a film in which every background player is a star than this nugget of conciliatory bolstering that Jose’s mom (Terele Pávez) offers her son: “Sometimes it’s better to be a little crazy than to be an extra in your own life.” It’s moments like this that elevate this Noche from soapdish to silver platter.

You have three chances to catch El Gran Noche: twice at AMC Fashion Valley (Sunday, March 13, at 6:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 16, at 9:55 p.m.), or when it shows at the Digital Gym on Sunday, March 20, at 8:05 p.m.

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