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Empty Hours, The

Strand Releasing // Unrated // August 19, 2014
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 9, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The process in which teenagers learn the ropes of adulthood is a bit different for just about everyone: some make choices that alter who they'll become, while others have circumstances thrust upon them that force them to grow up a lot quicker than expected. Mexico's The Empty Hours (Las horas muertas) depicts a rather unique set of circumstances for a young man to experience his coming-of-age period, jamming the eighteen-year-old into an unconventional position of authority at an indecent place of business owned by a family member. Emphasizing nuance and organic human behavior through the simplicity of its location, director Aaron Fernandez Lesur tells a subtle yet versatile tale of responsibility, sexual chemistry, and finding satisfaction when life becomes overbearing, one that avoids the falseness that occasionally crops up in other coming-of-age films.

If given the choice while growing up, would you want to manage a by-the-hour motel? While I'm sure a few clients come along just wanting a decent nap, most of the patrons at Motel Palma Real on the coast of Veracruz aren't interested in sleeping, typically pulling into their parking areas with a companion and expecting both discretion and attentive service from the staff. That's the environment Sebastian (Kristyan Ferrer) -- just a few months shy of eighteen -- will have to maintain while his uncle is off having emergency medical tests, framed as an opportunity to learn a few life lessons while make some money in the process. After his uncle leaves, the keys to the kingdom are left in Sebastian's hands, forcing him to upkeep the charming state of its ten rooms and fill the boring time between arrivals. Unexpectedly, he finds a conversation companion in an attractive woman, Miranda (Adriana Paz), who frequents the hotel as a getaway for her secret lover, whom she's always waiting for.

Captured through cinematographer Javier Moron's candid perspective and doting attention to shadows, The Empty Hours strives to make Sebastian's inherited motel feel like an genuine, cozy environment, one that doesn't aim to glorify the location's purpose or make its patrons more appealing. The film's casual pacing embraces the routine activities of maintaining the two-toned lascivious motel for reserved dramatic effect, notably when Sebastian unavoidably listens to people in pleasure and his search for a new maid ... and what he's required to do, required to clean up, without one. From observing where he tries to get some sleep during the louder evenings to his drifting eyes onto a sultry part-time worker who does some of the laundry, there's a slyly erotic and voyeuristic tone to how Sebastian acclimatizes to his new surroundings, accentuated by his mix of eager and frustrated responses to the place's demands.

Through it all, though, Sebastian remains a charmer, a self-composed guy who credibly rolls with the punches and treats the situation as if it's within his capacity, convincing others that he's at least got the motel-management side of the business down. That's necessary for a film as singular and slight in focus as The Empty Hours: without the charisma and stability of Kristyan Ferrer's performance, much of Sebastian's interactions (and, thus, most of the film) could've rang hollow or inauthentic. Naturally, that genuineness comes even more into play once his burgeoning sexual energy complicates the story, starting with the transient part-time laundry girl and moving to Miranda, a sultry but mistreated woman whom he both sympathizes with and finds himself drawn to. When he's not observing the patrons -- even playing a guessing game with Miranda about their lives -- he also develops a sociable relationship with a sketchy coconut-selling boy across the street that becomes significant, a parallel to his own way of making the most of limited means.

The Empty Hours rarely leaves the grounds of the hour-by-hour motel -- once or twice for scooter rides, but mostly to briefly illustrate Miranda's dates and her unsatisfying job as a condo salesperson -- which both constricts the film's scope and heightens its dramatic intimacy and purpose, almost metaphorically bottling up Sebastian's temperament. While there are lurid tones around each bend in the film, bravely allowing its developing chemistries and obligations to go where they will, director Lesur uses this environment chiefly to communicate messages about adult responsibility and gratification, around transient infatuations and the messes left for others to clean up. That's why the abrupt, yet meaningful and stimulating resolution to The Empty Hours' growing sensuality gets swept up at the end by understated metaphorical images about being trapped in a tough situation, yet persevering anyway. For many young adults whose responsibilities and circumstances trump their desires, that's the way it goes.

The DVD:

Video and Audio:

Despite the limited scenery, there's a lot of truly stunning, quaint images found in the photography for The Empty Hours: the vivid clash of teal and blue on the motel's walls, the stormy clouds of the Mexican coast seen through tropical trees, and the resulting shadows that can't seem to completely oppress Sebastian's mood. Strand Releasing's 2.35:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer does an immaculate job of capturing the subtleties of the film's visual design, from the teals, blues and greens creeping up from the earthy overcast palette to the sensual shadows that caress nude bodies in the dimly-lit motel rooms. Details are incredibly robust for a standard-definition image, precisely revealing strands of hair and weather-worn roughness in the building's structure. Some aliasing and erratic mosquito noise crop up occasionally, yet they're few and far between in this impressive DVD transfer.

Atmosphere is, at times, a surprisingly important element in The Empty Hours, from cars grinding to a stop in their parking spots to the sounds of passion faintly echoing for Sebastian's hearing pleasure. The Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital track handles those demands fairly well: while surround activity is hardly there in moments where you'd expect it to be, clarity and separation across the front channels remains crisp and authentic throughout, where the sounds of driving vehicles and gusts of coastal wind resonate with mid-range vigor. But, naturally, the most noteworthy sound component lies within the dialogue, remaining velvety across the higher and lower-end quadrants and reacting to the close-quartered environment (and, at one point, rainfall) tremendously well. The English subtitles are reputably translated, with only a few hairline issues.

Special Features:

Only a Trailer (1:45, 16x9).

Final Thoughts:

The Empty Hours revolves around a fairly straightforward coming-of-age concept -- experiences in life and love at a transitory job shape a teenage boy into a more world-weary young man -- that's given a good bit of spice through the more lustful environment of a by-the-hour motel, a haven for quickies and deviants that probably isn't the best place for someone not even in their twenties to manage. It's a small drama with discerning emotional intentions, reaching high points through Sebastian's awareness of what goes on there, his exhaustion in hiring help, and the complicated but playful verbal rapport that develops between he and a regular client. Despite its subtlety, the film isn't afraid of pushing boundaries where it needs to, while reaching meek yet meaningful expressions about adapting to responsibility and finding rays of gratification when things get difficult. Mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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