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Maya Indie Film Series at Nuart crisscrosses borders

CEO Moctesuma Esparza aims to spark interest in Latin cinema while giving audiences cinematic variety.

July 15, 2009|Reed Johnson

When L.A. audiences show up for the first Maya Indie Film Series starting Friday at the Nuart Theatre, they'll see a cross-section of movies including a comedy, a crime story, a road-trip drama and a romance, some performed in English, others in Spanish.

In other words, they'll sample the same big-screen cinematic variety that Moctesuma Esparza experienced as a boy growing up in East L.A. a half-century ago.

"It was a weekly event and there was a real expectation and desire on the part of the family to see this entertainment," said Esparza, co-chairman and chief executive of Maya Entertainment, ticking off the names of Cantinflas, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Maria Felix and other giants of Mexico's cinematic golden age. At that time, Esparza said, there were dozens of Southern California theaters that showed Spanish-language movies, and about 1,000 across the U.S.

That was before the precipitous decline of Mexico's state-sponsored film industry, and an attendant fall in the number of U.S. movie theaters showing Spanish-language and Latin-centric movies, despite the steady growth of the country's Latino population, today estimated at 44 million.

Now Esparza, also an accomplished film producer ("Selena," "Gettysburg," "The Milagro Beanfield War") and community activist, is hoping that his company-sponsored film series can help boost interest in Latino cinema and re-create the neighborhood movie-going experience. The task, he acknowledged, won't be easy.

"Getting attention for both Spanish-language and American Latino movies in this crowded marketplace is very challenging, very difficult, and it's also very expensive," he said. That's especially true in a season when the new "Harry Potter" film and other blockbuster fare are eyeing the lion's share of audience dollars.

Esparza conceived the film series, which is being presented by Blockbuster and will run in rotation through July 23, as "something that could get its own attention, that would give people a reason to see these movies." After opening in Los Angeles, the series will screen in several other cities including Chicago, Miami, San Diego and New York.

Though the series spotlights a number of emerging and established Latino directors and actors, the performers in at least one of the films, "The Line," already will be familiar to general audiences. The English-language movie, which focuses on a veteran assassin stalking a shadowy Tijuana drug cartel capo, stars Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Armand Assante and Esai Morales.

Mixing the gritty, noir-ish ambience of "Touch of Evil" with the documentary-like feel of "Traffic," "The Line" is both an entertaining yarn and an authoritative take on the various perils -- some well-documented, others more obscure -- surrounding the contemporary U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

"It's an amoral world," Assante said, speaking of the film's social context. "All these characters are living on the edge of oblivion. By the fact of what they're doing their moral compass is pretty much shattered to begin with."

Another film in the series, "Bajo la Sal" ("Under the Salt"), also touches on the timely issue of the violence besetting Mexico, as it unravels a mystery involving a serial killer. Irene Azuela, an up-and-coming England-born Mexican actor who plays one of the lead characters, said she's pleased to see independent Spanish-language movies such as "Bajo la Sal" getting a chance to be shown to U.S. audiences.

"One of the biggest problems we have as a cinema industry is with the distributors," she said. "The distributors aren't disposed to gamble."

Elsewhere on the series' spectrum of offerings is "Mancora," an erotically charged Peruvian road-trip drama; "Once Upon a Time in Rio," a love story matching a poor Brazilian youth and a rich lawyer's daughter; "Vicious Circle," a U.S. Latino love story set in Venice Beach; "Bad Guys," with Kate del Castillo, about novice hoods caught between the cops and the Mafia; and the Mexican "Sultanes del Sur," about a bank heist gone sour.

Maya is distributing all of the films; all but "Mancora," which already has had limited theatrical release, will be having their U.S. premieres.

The film series fits within Maya's larger strategy of catering to Latino audiences. In 2005, Esparza's theater chain, Maya Cinemas, opened a 14-seat theater in Salinas, the first of what Esparza hopes will be a number of similar complexes in such places as Bakersfield and San Bernardino.

Esparza also plans to produce more films touching on the Latino American experience, such as 2006's "Walkout," an HBO movie based on events in 1968 when thousands of East L.A. Chicano students went on strike for better schools. Esparza executive-produced the movie and his daughter, Tonantzin, was in the cast.

Back then, Esparza was a student activist, experiencing first-hand the often virulent discrimination that was practiced against Latinos.

"The conditions today are very different," he said. "Today it's cool to be Latino."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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Maya Indie

Film Series

Where: Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.

When: Friday-July 23.

Price: Individual tickets only, $10.50 general.

Contact: (310) 281-8223; mayaindieseries.com.

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