A year or two ago, my friend and I submitted a screenplay to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. We didn't get in, but scanning the list of competitors, it was clear that the story of immigrants coming to America looking for the land of opportunity and finding various struggles, both personal and otherwise, was a popular topic to say the least. In the past, I haven't had much personal interest in seeing these stories, and it's this willful ignorance that puts me in a strange position to talk about Paraiso Travel. The film, by Simon Brand, is definitely a good movie, featuring fine direction and even a few breakout performances, but having not seen any movies with similar stories, I have no idea how well it stacks up against other movies about the same subjects.
Aldemar Correa plays Marlon, a young Colombian man finishing up high school. Marlon is on his way to college, thanks to the efforts of his parents, who want to provide him with more opportunities than they were given, but Marlon is reluctantly talked into making the harrowing journey to the United States by his sexy girlfriend Reina (Angelica Blandon), specifically to New York City. She steals the money from an uncle of Marlon's who is getting married and entices Marlon further by promising sex when they reach their destination. Paraiso Travel cuts back and forth between Marlon, in the present, separated from Reina and desperately searching the vast city of New York to find her, and the couple's experience traveling up a Columbian river into Mexico and across the border into the US.
First things first: Angelica Blandon seems destined for superstardom. Her characterization of Reina is perfect, starting with the carefree days before their group leaves Columbia, through the infighting and bickering during the trip, and right up until the moment that she and Marlon become separated. Sadly, the movie necessitates that she essentially vanish for 75% of the film's runtime, but her natural charisma really makes an immediate impact. I would not be surprised to see her career follow a path similar to Marion Cotillard, and the two even bear a mild physical resemblance (although Blandon probably looks more like "The Office" star Rashida Jones). Correa is also very good, deftly carrying the movie on his shoulders without any signs of strain. He's mostly low-key and simply bounces off of those around him, but sometimes it's good to be a team player.
The film also features John Leguizamo in a supporting role. Leguizamo was a producer on the movie, clearly lending his name to help raise the profile of this tiny indie. I've never thought that Leguizamo showed enough range in the roles he tends to pick, but he gives a pretty good turn here. The role is fairly irrelevant in terms of the plot (Leguizamo plays a squatter who lets Marlon sleep in one of his beds), and it's not a particularly showy or interesting character (despite being an S&M photographer -- Leguizamo's dog is potentially more startling), but the actor doesn't rely on many of the tricks that I've found tiring in other movies.
Paraiso Travel is not perfect, however. Marlon eventually gets a job at a restaurant, and parked right in front of the establishment is a CD booth run by Milagros (Ana de la Reguera), a salsa singer who shows Marlon around the city. The two form a bond that is hampered by Marlon's obsession with tracking down Reina, with Marlon refusing to let go despite almost a year passing by. The film ultimately builds to a second-to-last scene that is strained both in its predictability and inevitability, telling us all the things we already know thanks to the actions and performances behind all of the characters. The only exception to this is the motivation for a key character's actions, which, while hinted at throughout the film, still seem startlingly off-base. Perhaps a film like Paraiso Travel is destined to have a similar ending, but it doesn't change the fact that even with my limited knowledge of these kinds of films, I still felt like I'd seen it before. The film has an okay final scene, given what occurs before it, but it probably won't be enough to wash the bad taste out of the viewer's mouth.
Director Simon Brand previously directed Unknown, one of those films that looks interesting but isn't quite compelling enough to avoid getting pushed aside in favor of other movies and eventually forgotten. Like Der Baader-Meinhof Complex, the film's script problems are almost -- but not quite -- rendered irrelevant by some striking direction. Paraiso Travel feels more alive than many of the movies I've seen this year, thanks to the gritty, kinetic feel Brand brings to most of his shots. I have lived in the United States my whole life so far, and I'm not a big traveler, but Brand makes the streets of NYC feel cold, dirty and unforgiving, clearly conveying the sense of alienation and intimidation that lots of newcomers probably experience. He also captures the increasing seediness of each new person Reina and Marlon meet while trying to cross the border with inreasing, gnawing worry, and ultimately pays it off in a stomach-turning scene near the end of the movie. There is also a wonderful opening title sequence and a strong score by composer Angelo Milli, with contrbutions from Icelandic band Sigur Rós.
Paraiso Travel belongs to that oh-so-exclusive club of movies with an actual design on the front cover, rather than glossy publicity stills of the film's stars poorly Photoshopped into an artificial setting. That said, the "photo collage" design isn't exactly innovative, but at least the color scheme is nice and the back cover is nicely done, too. There is no insert in the Infiniti case, and the disc has a capture from the film as artwork.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Paraiso Travel looks fairly good. It's a little fuzzy, but for the most part colors are rendered very well, strong fine detail is present from time to time and the black levels are pretty good, although I spotted a few artifacts here and there. It's not a top-notch transfer, but it appears to be faithful to the source material and didn't sport any noticeable technological errors.
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 sounded fine, with some ambient "city" directional effects scattered throughout the movie and even one or two more action-packed or music-based sequences really getting the surrounds working. There is also an English dub on the DVD in 5.1 which I chose not to listen to, and the menu gives you an option between English subtitles or Spanish subtitles.
The extras for Paraiso Travel present a disappointing conundrum. There is a documentary, titled The Making of Paraiso Travel" (50:06) included on this DVD, but it is only in Spanish with no English subtitles, so unless the viewer is fluent in Spanish, all there is to look through is a photo gallery and the movie's original theatrical trailer, which tries to paint the film as a thriller.
Whether or not Paraiso Travel breaks ground in its busy genre is one thing, but the movie is worth a look nonetheless. I wish the DVD documentary had been subtitled in English so that I would be able to watch it too, but the movie itself (and especially the performance by Angelica Blandon) is enough all by itself to warrant a recommendation.
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