After a year of absence, time to head back to the Miami International Film Festival (with a quick explanation for why I didn’t cover the 34th)
Reviews and analysis by Ismael Santos
Another great festival, one in which I could only yearn to see more.
Indestructible: The Soul of Salsa
I’m always curious about documentaries concerning music, let alone artists working at their craft. how much of it is them really enjoying their craft, and how much is it just an act for publicity’s sake? When it comes to the music of Salsa, it must be a form and practice of love and craft. It’s an art that, even as a Latino surrounded by the music, I’ve always felt resistant to, and stereotyped by: “oh, your Cuban? You must love to dance to Salsa!”
It’s irritating and becomes self-enclosing, which is more to my detriment, because this movie shows an incredible love for the art of Salsa music. From Cuba to Colombia to Puerto Rico (a year before Hurricane Irma and Maria), to Wynwood and New York, there is so much going on in this film, in terms of connections and performances, it’s astounding. The film follows the three month process of Diego “El Cigala” aka Ramon Jimenez, famous Flamenco singer, deciding to make a tribute album to Salsa.
He connects with old legends, and plays with them, learning about the roots of the music, the trials and triumphs of Cubans and Puerto Ricans coming together to make a different kind of music with Salsa in the sixties and seventies, to the staying power of the form to this very day. The Fania All-Stars, the premiere Salsa Band that started everything (along with Celia Cruz), that have a reunion in this film in the studio, playing with Diego, that is a joy to watch.
What is conspiscuous is the lack of female talent or players in this project, even Celia Cruz is not really mentioned. Plenty of female journalists are interviewed throughout about the future of Salsa, and yet, like jazz, it’s too much of a “Boy’s club” endeavor at times. That doesn’t detract from the film, but it is a reality.
My favorite part of the whole film, focused on the Fania All-Stars reunion, is when the guitarist goes off to solo, and it shouldn’t work, this Eric Clapton-style electric guitar solo during a salsa song. And yet, it speaks to the music, and speaks to the audience, at the same time.
I am always curious about foreign films, their styles of editing, performance, and sense of self. I will never forget when I went to catch “The Wailing” at Tower Theater, an excellent Korean horror film. I bring that up because that is my personal benchmark for an affecting film: a style that is both personal and yet deeply developing themes throughout, successfully.
Love Education acquires that same sense of development, and of artistic craft, via the most basic of starting conflicts: a grandmother dies, ostensibly leaving a “final wish” to be buried next to her dead husband, who is resting in the countryside. What the conflict is here is that the grandfather/husband had a wife before settling down with the grandmother: his own first wife now guards her husband’s grave, and will not let him go easily.
This film takes its time, and yet, in 2 hours, explores three generations of women in the Yue family, from mistreated Original Wife to Mother down to Daughter, from Nana to Hueying to Wei Wei. Sylvia Chang, as Hueying, is both the director and co-writer of this film, and she gives a fantastic performance as a Mom just trying to make sure her Mother is with her loved one in death, driven from government office to government office to find a marriage certificate.
It’s always odd, to see family dramas unfold: too often, dramas end up being a mess of storylines and story beats, that lead nowhere. This film, examining so many relationships in so little time, and in such a compact manner, is a wonder. My favorite scene, beyond the ending, takes place between Hueying and her husband: after a long movie of fighting and arguments, something unexpected happens, filmed in a car from the backseat, that is a cathartic moment. The ending alone is must see for great dramatic irony.
Matar A Jesus/Killing Jesus
This is a movie that again I only picked out for its interesting title: immediately, I thought of some religious context, some artistic license taken to its extreme. The movie I bore witness to was so different and unexpected, which just makes me think of blind-picking films the best way to approach a film festival: have an idea of what you might like to see, but always leave room for surprises.
Killing Jesus starts off in Colombia, of a shot of the main character, Lita/Paula, holding a gun in her hand, overlooking the vast expanse of the cramped city, the beauty of it all not gelling with the panting breath of the character. It cuts back to an earlier time, a few weeks before, when Lita is talking with her father, a university professor who always preaches dissidence. She takes pictures with her camera, as they drive back home. An assassin on a motor bike shoots her Father in the head.
The plot really ends there, at least if you’re looking for a straightforward “This plus this plus a little of that gets you to the rising action, then big climax, and heavy finish”: this movie is a meditation, on grief, responsibility for your own, and when you don’t know what the right thing to do is about. It’s gorgeously filmed, the scenes at night, with firecrackers intermingling among dancing bodies. The main conflict, however, is the driving force of this great film: Paula finds her father’s killer in a club, and is conflicted between enacting vengeance and letting him go. The scenes between her and Jesus (the young assassin) are so tension-filled that they offer an off-kilter kind of humor: every time Paula notices a chance to get her revenge, some split moment of indecision or unknown information comes to light, and makes her plans harder to fulfill. A truly recommended watch, and the ending, abrupt as can be, does provide a measure of closure, of defiance against a brutal life of survival in Medellin.
As an added part on here for yesterday’s film, I remember a short film, Broken Hill, playing before “The Foreigner’s Home” that it ended up lodged in my head. The reality of Australian Muslims who shepherded camels to a little town called Broken Hill in New Zealand. That is a reality that never came to my mind, and I’m grateful for having seen something different. What do I hope for is a longer film built on that kind of way of life that is hidden away, and never really talked about. Now, onto the last two films I’ve seen:
The Tesla World Light
I’m always wary about short films before the main screenings: not due to poor quality or uninterested ways, but it seems to usually be so different than to add to the original screening, like an almost discontinuous experience.
I am glad to say I was completely wrong when The Tesla World Light appeared on screen. From David Lynch Eraserhead-style visuals, to a trippy black and white atmosphere with the voice over of “Nikola Tesla,” the idea of Nikola Tesla writing a letter to JP Morgan, pleading for more money to complete his project of lighting up the world.
Done in Stop Motion and Light Painting, with so much happening in 8 minutes, the best relationship/character development throughout is the relationship between “Nikola Tesla” and A Bird. Showing this in a packed Miami theater is ballsy, and Matthew Rankin’s work is one to look out for in the future.
Sergio Y Sergei
Something struck out at this movie when I was buying the ticket: the title itself, something different, connecting Russia and Cuba at one time. Unlike previous year’s festival editions, I tended to shy away from any real information regarding said film.
Based on odd occurrences that prove that Truth is Stranger than Fiction, the story takes place a bit of time after the fall of the USSR in 1991. A university professor, and radio aficionado, with a Master’s in Marxism, happens upon the right frequency channel to make contact with the last Russian/Soviet cosmonaut. They connect, and with the help of an ex-CIA agent/Apollo 11 conspiracy dealer, the cosmonaut is finally noticed, drifting alone through space.
I don’t want to spoil too much, because you could have the story, as fantastical as can be, and yet the performances, the film shots and editing, and the lovely use of French music and old rock can only be seen to be believed: you fall in love with this movie, quickly. Period films can runt the gamut, and this film thankfully avoids becoming a loud spectacle of noise and political forces: it’s subversion is more low-key, and you only notice it if you step back and take a look at the film’s process. It does not support the USA, the Cuban regime, or the USSR: the three characters that symbolize each one only make it out by working together, not keeping apart.
What is interesting to note is that, on opening night at Tower Theater, this film of course had a packed house: a Cuban film in the heart of the Cuban exile community, but one that doesn’t necessarily slam Fidel Castro (the opening lines, from the main character’s daughter, say that, after the USSR’s collapse, the true catastrophe for Cuba was only underway.) It’s an odd line to balance, and yet, due to the hard work of the cast and the film makers, it works.
Ron Pearlman as Peter was a surprise to me, this gruff veteran actor, famous for Sons of Anarchy and Hellboy, showing up as someone who is going through much, noticing how his Cuban friend might get in trouble for new radio pieces and American cash. What gets more complicated is that, while Sergio is well-versed in Marxist theory, Peter’s background keeps him apart. This is one great scene that sticks out and makes Pearlman’s character shine, even with a limited time in the film.
Hecter Noas as Sergei and Tomas Cao as Sergio were fantastic, their relationship and friendship throughout the film is an amazing example of what a great screenplay can do: bridge two entirely different worlds, characters, and conflicts, but still connect and lead towards something different.
The one character, the “villain,” played by Mario Guerra, that had the audience roaring with laughter, was the Regime kiss-ass Ramiro. A paranoid brown-noser who only happens upon the truth after a lot of mistakes, he is still not malevolent, but a welcome nuisance that lights up the screen whenever he tries interrogating someone or tries to record a conversation for the Regime’s ears.
Ernesto Daranas and Marta Daranas wrote a great script, and the film’s strong foundation from that script follows through in its strong visuals. The opening shot, overlaying Fidel’s speech at the time of the USSR’s collapse, from outer space, zooming further and further onto Earth’s surface until landing on the streets of Havana, Cuba.
I can’t recommend this film enough, it’s truly a joy, and a reminder that cinema can be witness to wonderful things.
Quick Editorial Note
It feels odd, popping back on this site, and realizing that I didn’t cover the 34th edition of MIFF. I remember applying for a press badge, being told I had it, stocking up on screenings, getting ready to start the week long festival, when an email by one of the media handlers made its way into my inbox, basically pulling my media credentials for “low viewership.”
Seeing that, after a tumultuous time in my life, left me demoralized. I basically skipped almost the entirety of the film festival last year, except for “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On” (motivated to be there and see the first episode with a Q&A with Rashida Jones after the fact.) I cannot lie, I’ve been lax when it comes to following up on this site, on movie reviews, because I want to sit down and take the time to do justice to films that do deserve more merit, and to excoriate the films that somehow made their way into the world.
This year, I had thankfully forgotten being passed over by MIFF, and just bought a few tickets. I’m looking for quality over quantity, as time is not easy to tangle with lately. Being a grad student has taught me, if nothing else, that to put up with garbage does not mean you can’t enjoy yourself, and even thrive, with the situation at hand. With that said, here is the first film I saw at this year’s festival.
The Foreigner’s Home
I did not know what to expect with this movie, but the title immediately captured my interest: “The Foreigner’s Home.” Born of two immigrant parents, I’m officially a U.S. citizen, and yet, there is no other place like Miami to make you feel both connected and terribly alone. Citizen and Immigrant. Exiled and Naturalized. Home-grown and Foreign.
What turns out, upon seeing this film, is that it’s an exploration of race, immigration, and Othering a people, via a conversation between authors Edwidge Danticat and Toni Morrison. The film makers Geoff Pingree and Rian Brown do an excellent job of editing interesting footage from the exhibit at the Louvre in 2006 with newer Morrison an Danticat footage, along with different reels of the civil rights movement, to animations handrawn by film maker Rian Brown: there is so much going on in this one hour film, I would love to see even more footage, more connections. A whole miniseries in this style, with Morrison’s narration and Danticat’s questioning would be wonderful.
The central exploratory arch the film undertakes is revisiting a 2006 art exhibition curated by Toni Morrison at the Louvre. From slam poets giving out poems in front of famous European paintings, to immigrant teenagers sharing their own words in front of a crowd of people, to interviews and excerpts of director Charles Burnett, down to footage of a talk given by Toni Morrison herself, this exhibition is a focal point for good reason: there is so much to unpack, repeat views are needed to try and get a glimpse of everything going on.
The footage, recorded by Toni Morrison’s son Ford Morrison, is so fascinating, and the film makers did a fantastic job juxtaposing that footage from 2006 with the later-day interview between Danticat and Morrison. Specific instances where the film breaks out and becomes amazing are the sections focused on how, in terms of Othering a people, of making a whole class/race/sex of people “Foreign”, even in their own homes, footage of Hurricane Katrina rolls on as Morrison explains the lack of urgency from the government. The harrowing footage, as cliche as it is to say, is exactly that: people waving cardboard signs that read”Help Me’ to corpses floating in the water, to a man from the National Guard helping a young black woman hold on while they both are helicoptered away from her home, the tiles of the roof falling into the water as the helicopter hovers near. Morrison notes that these people were not strangers in this land, but that they were made into “refugees,” foreigners, Strangers in their own place.
One interesting point, in terms of the power of names, is expertly brought forth to the screen, via Morrison explaining that “Toni Morrison” is the public self, the public name, while “Chloe Wofford” is the private one, the one connected to a past that involves Masters naming Slaves. What makes this point even powerful is the footage of famous Blues musicians like Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf: all these powerful figures became better known by their nicknames, to the point their “old names” and old identities flew away. The power of naming for one’s self becomes important.
I would love to write more about this film, but thanks to some audience members sitting next to me, flashing their bright phone in my face. Then again, perhaps that’s the power of a great film: in spite of distractions, or odd audience tics, footage of Morrison explaining the power of art while Lil’ Buck dances to Yo-Yo Ma’s Violin playing is still beautiful and moving. “Art is functional, it is necessary,” she says from the beginning of the film down to it’s end, and that’s never truer than in scenes like that, or in the animations done by Rian Brown. The animation that continues as a motif throughout the film is the image of people in a raft, all alone in the wide open sea: no home, even while at home, “Foreigners” are not certain of survival, but must continue to live.
This is a great sister piece to Raoul Peck’s film on James Baldwin “I Am Not Your Negro”: both deal with the world of art, race, and the history/reality of the United States (Morrison in the film comments on how characterizing the USA as a “New child” in the history of the world is infantilizing, and just wrong.)
During the last few moments of the Q&A after the film, Edwidge Danticat let slip that Toni Morrison loves Kendrick Lamar, which I can’t help but loving. A section of the film, concentrated on how the young are the only ones to s peak out their poetry via song, ends with a video of Kendrick Lamar reciting “Sing About Me I’m Dying of Thirst”, acapella. Another great connection between the past, the present, and hopefully inspiration for the future.
Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival (33rd Edition)
Reviews by Ismael Santos
I went to seven movies at this year’s Miami International Film Festival. It’s always a joy going out to a festival, especially one in your own backyard, and this year’s festival in Miami was no exception. Any festival needs work or could be improved, and while I feel this festival lacks in certain horror or even experimental features from abroad(abroad not meaning Europe, per say), I’d still highly recommend checking this festival out if you can.
Beyond my Grandfather Allende
What is seemingly a search for the “real” Allende becomes a question of memory, of pain and sorrow, of a rupture never to be healed again-of secrets in plain view for years on end.
Directed by Marcia Tambutti Allende over a period of years, the film is more a look into how a tragic loss and separation from one’s native home can leave scars. Her questing nature and constant questioning infuriate and endear her to both the audience and her own family throughout this film-if it were not for her, none of this would have been retrieved, at all.
Unlike many documentary features on “famous” or even “infamous” individuals, this isn’t a film strictly about on person done with a few interviews and random photos scattered about to paint an “objective” portrait of the namesake figure. This documentary is a film about the search for the truth, for the aching and desire for something that can never return or be again.
I say little on this film because it is both deeply personal and crafted wonderfully-Allende’s wife is a figure of force and energy throughout the film, who was never able to see this film, unfortunately. What started out as “who was Salvador” becomes “Who are we, the Allendes?” Great film.
Eye in the Sky
Not too many films take on the moral, political, and social implications of drone warfare and the conditions for drone pilots-but Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky” is such a film, that challenges both its audience and its subject matter.
One of the stand out films of the entire festival, for a litany of reasons (Dame Helen Mirren in any film is an instant plus) and expertly crafted-Aaron Paul shines in this movie, and deserves more recognition for his performance in this film.
The last film of Alan Rickman is fantastic, to say the least-and to see how far Gavin Hood has come, from the debacle of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to this stellar drama with expert camera work and great performances.
The plot of the film is of a cadre of agencies working to thwart a terrorist organization, and Dame Helen Mirren as Commander Powell tracks said group to one lone house in South Africa, with drones at the ready to attack. Drones are ready to incinerate the terrorist organization’s top lieutenants(armed with enough explosives to blow up a shopping mall), but there’s a hitch: a little girl is out selling bread just outside the perimeter of the intended target. Do you order the attack with the knowledge that the little girl’s chances of survival go drastically down, or do you allow this organization to continue its horrible work/have the girl ostensibly live?
“Ethical drones” sounds like a bad joke, and Gavin Hood continually presses on this point by the various organizations in the film(British military, British Parliament, American government, African military brass) continually arguing amongst themselves as to how to conduct this operation, and whether or not to fire, at all.
In my opinion, the festival’s best, and Gavin Hood’s best. Go watch this film.
This documentary, one that initially started off as being a film about why a doctor from Chicago would go, on his free days, to serve in abortion clinics in Louisiana and Mississippi-from then on, a whole host of people having to work double, even triple shifts to keep their abortion clinics open in the face of heavier and heavier restrictions(Texas being dwindled down to four clinics in the whole state, while Mississippi has only one open.)
Over the period of an hour and thirty minutes, a harrowing picture of the restrictions and regulations that inevitably lead to abortion clinics closing down in the Deep South is painted, along with the people struggling to keep going and to provide services for women in need.
One striking moment I remember is late in the film, where a victim of a gang rape is in desperate need of an abortion-but thanks to the new restrictions on wait times and “lawyers for fetuses” and court dates and such, the girl cannot get the abortion and is turned away. This is the reality captured in this film: a war on women’s reproductive rights, which is even more pronounced by one clip of a Senator admitting that these new laws “will hopefully curb abortions.”
This is not a subtle situation, and this film shows brave men and women working to keep Roe vs. Wade a reality.
Directed with a deft touch by Dawn Porter, highly recommended watch.
This is a visual poem-type of film-the story, the plot, the characters, all move together and eventually end up somewhere, but it’s the way the visuals and the environment itself-as-character-and-story that impress upon me the most in “Sweet Bean.”
This film, by Naomi Kawase, is beautifully shot-I mean “beautiful” as in you want to savor every moment of it being onscreen, where words don’t mean as much as the image itself.
This threw a side ball at me, because while I’m used to films in the category of “Culinary Delights”, said films usually end up being about “food” and focusing on said “food.” Initially, this is where Sweet Bean seems to be headed-it becomes a drama bout isolation and past regrets confining people to one situation or scenario.
Kirin Kiki as Tokue is a special highlight in this film-an elderly woman stuck in a leper sanitarium who just wants to help out a Dorayaki vendor.
The smaller moments, the ones of the camera following behind the cahracters as they move through a wooded area, to the cherry blossom tree and the passing of time, to the making of dorayaki(Japanese pancakes with sweet bean filling) , this is a fine film-good performances all around, but it’s the image and how it carries off and continues throughout the film that matters more, per say.
This is a film about the oppresion of coupling that loses itself, although its ending almost (almost) makes everything work out fine. The English-language film debut of Yorgos Lanthimos.
To be honest here, I heard great things about “The Lobster”-great performances, which I corroborate all-around, and Colin Farrell is easily the MVP in this one, to great camera work and set-ups, an interesting premise and so on-so why must I feel to be the contrarian here, and say that I felt this film a bit hollow and empty for most of it?
Was it the way the story panned out? The editing? The music? The voiceover narration by Rachel Weisz? The deadpan look of Lea Seydoux? The emotionless emoting in this dystopian picture? Or was it just this odd Eurocentric feel to the movie, in spite of its embellishments and such?
In a world where single people cannot be allowed to exist, and couplings are prioritized(and “Loners”, a legitimate subgroup, are hunted in the woods), this is a film that is brutal. If you are single, in this world, you go to The Hotel and
The first half, where most scenes of The Hotel are played out, is stronger and more interesting than the second, “Loner” half.
I’d recommend this film for a one-time watch, but it loses its interesting premise for a dichotomous look at extreme opposites(extreme coupling and extreme singleton)-both not readily as deep nor interesting, in my opinion.
The Apostate and DOBLE 9
DOBLE 9, a short film preceding The Apostate, is a great film about Cubans playing dominoes in Little Havana, at the famous Domino Park. Being a resident of the area of Little Havana since I was born, and raised just a few blocks away from Domino Park, I took a special joy in this kind of film, and wished it were a little longer. How strange it was to see someone named “Tony Santos” aka “El Rey De los Dominos” (King of the Dominoes) and how great-my only wish was that it was longer(and with more shots of cortaditos/Cuban coffee being made.)
The Apostate itself is a fine, humorous satire on one man’s attempt to debaptize himself-and everything for him unravels from there, as his absurd quest grows surreal, sexual, dream-like, and this quest continues throughout.
As a film, editing is great, performances are good, it has something to say(filmed in Madrid, where, in the director’s eyes, a religion like Catholicism infiltrates and stays in everything), which makes the main character’s quest to get away from the Church more interesting than if it were filmed in an American setting.
This is a film that opened to a stellar crowd in The Tower Theater, and with good reason-over six years of work went into making this film, and it shows. Before I get all laudatory
Set in the late 80s in Cuba during the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where afflicted individuals could go to “treatment centers” far away from the city-a sanatorium called Los Cocos, with the military keeping a close watch on every patient.
Performances and the editing work more so to create a period piece that still reaches out, and creates something different. A tale of potential redemption, in many ways, as the main character is a disgraced boxer who has to turn to work being a “Companion” (Acompañante) and is a fine film-a highlight of the Festival and a heart breaker.
Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival
Day Ten, and a Fond Farewell to the 32nd Edition of Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: Beyond the awesome deep focus of the camera in every scene, one giant portrait and painting of performances after another, the one thing that most struck me about this film was THE reaction to it, afterwards, in leaving the movie theater. “They said it was a comedy, what a bomb, I just don’t know anymore”: quite literally the first words I heard from a fairly-young couple leaving the movie theater. Why do I include these words, if I don’t share their sentiment?
Well, it’s because this is a movie that does not care about winning an audience over: the audience wins the movie over, individually and through reactions to it, as such. There is no real story or traditional narrative, as the most story and pathos comes from two characters, Jonathan and Mike roaming around town, trying to sell their novelty items to the nonplussed citizens as they wearily proclaim “We want you to have fun.”
A taste for the surreal is important here, as this movie is meditatively working on and about questions of humanity: “Is it wrong to use people only for pleasure?” Jonathan asks near the end of the film, and he gets no answer. “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”: oft-repeated phrase throughout the film, and more importantly, it juxtaposes fantastically against the deadpan faces of all the characters, almost robotic and marionette-like, with the dead stuffed pigeon at the beginning of the film imbued with more life than these “humans” populating the screen. I say this as a positive of the film, deadpan humor and deadpan horror mixed into one interesting film.
Warsaw 44: The starkest, and most honest, war film I’ve seen in some time, Warsaw 44 is a portrait of the Warsaw uprising against Nazi Germany-occupation, in the summer of 1944. What I loved most about this film, beyond simple camera work or the staging of the battles or what not, is that the concept and idea of WAR isn’t treated like some video game escapade, nor is anyone truly glorified in this film: war takes away everything, and leaves broken and bloody bodies and tattered cities behind you.
Scene after scene of the ruthlessness of war, of kids being shot down, bombs exploding down on hospitals, close-ups of the sick and wounded, their heads split open, babies abandoned in churches, and the small uprising of Warsaw up against the might of Nazi Germany, and being shot down. Now this IS a war film, no bones about that: the young who were idealistic about saving their “Fatherland” become hardened and bitter, and some prone to violence and assault on their own people, and desperately try to reach the “river”, and to have another chance of saving their homeland. But, this is a war film, and things do not go well, for any one character. Recommended, not for the faint of heart, of course.
And that’s a wrap on this edition of Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival: a fun, exhausting ten days of films, films, and more films, and well worth partaking in, of course.
Double-header for this day in the form of “In the Name of My Daughter” and “A Hard Day”
In the Name of My Daughter: Catherine Deneuve is the big star of this film, but not its focal point, as the true-life crime story of Maurice Agnelete and his manipulations of Renee Le Roux’s daughter Agnes, and the greed and corruption and the deep betrayals that “love” and passion strike up, and ultimately end a life. Real credit for keeping the film rolling, and focusing it, is Adele Haenel who plays Agnes, in a heartbreaking performance, as scene after scene unrolls of her deteriorating condition, obsessed with a man who only wants her money.
A Hard Day: The premise is in the title, as Detective Go Geon-soon is having a pretty hard day, what with his wife divorcing him, his mother passing away, his colleagues being investigated for embezzlement, and committing a fatal hit-and-run that leads to everything changing, as someone witnessed it and calls him about it. Just this set-up alone is enough for different stories to be culled and written about, and it’s all found in this impeccably filmed feat of cinema. Well worth a watch, as everything in this main character’s life unravels and continually falls down.
It hasn’t been often that I am able to spend some time at Tower Theater in Little Havana, but today was one of those days, and I’m glad for it: Tower Theater is infinitely underrated. Some of the best, and underrated, gems can be found in this cinema, too, and shouldn’t be ignored or waylaid for no reason. Today was one of those days, a great day at Tower Theater: Theeb and Shrew’s Nest could be considered knockout contenders for the Lexus Audience Award, they are that Damn good.
Theeb: One of the first films I’ve seen from Jordan, of the Bedouin-community, set in 1916 when the English are just crossing into Jordan, going against the Ottomans, and the way of life for pilgrim guides soon became a thing of the past, thanks to the railway line. This is all important to keep in mind, as the main character, a 12 year old Bedouin, is stuck in the gigantic wharf of this conflict, separated from his village and all alone in the desert. What is more amazing to consider, beyond the fantastic cinematography and the camerawork taking in all of the desert landscapes of the area, is the fact that all of these actors, beyond the “Englishman” (Jack Fox), are all first-time actors in front of the camera: this is a film of both exploration, and of characters/actors breathing out intuitive performances. The performance of Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat as Theeb(“Wolf” in Arabic) is mesmerizing, such inner strength shines through and gets recorded to be played on the big screen that it’s doubly amazing to consider it his first film, and at 12 years old, at the time.
Shrew’s Nest: A film set in Spain in the 1950s, it is the perfect midnight movie to take a joy in, and for good reason, too. A spiraling and tumbling down case of agoraphobia, religious guilt, and family secrets come to light in this film, as Montse is an agoraphobic, who only has her sister(who is never named) to keep her company in her “giant coffin” of a house. This is a film that makes me remember why I loved horror films, like “John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness”, Cronenberg’s “Videodrome”, and “In Darkness We Fall” (from last year’s festival):the real horrors that make a good to great horror film are human beings, trapped by their own neuroses or by forces that they can’t hope to escape, their own natures in extreme conditions. This is one of those films. Macarena Gómez as Montse is both the craziest and the nicest neurotic agoraphobic I”ve ever seen porrayed in a film: she rides the line from big-eyed in potential terror to benignly sweet and a regular person the next moment. Just fantastic performances here, and while a slow burn, once it starts cooking, it’s the closest thing to a real grindhouse-like film, as operatic and crazy with beauty and trapped characters, to boot.
Kamikaze, directed by Alex Pina, starring Alex Garcia, is another odd gem to be found in the film festival: by “odd” I mean a film that I usually don’t end up thinking comes to any film festival, let alone a Miami one. It’s neither a comedy nor a straight drama, nor an adventure or action film: this is Kamikaze, and the tale of Slatan and how his terroristic mission to blow up a plane goes awry, in the best of ways. When the beginning of your film has two terrorists squabbling over who gets to go and blow up the plane, and is settled via a coin toss, then you know you’re in for something fun to watch, and that’s exactly what “Kamikaze” is about, and great scenes soon pile up and offer what at first feels like a contrarian stance on terrorists and humanity.
This stance would be something along the line of “everyone suffers, just dance to the rhythm of life”, which is all well and good, but I think that’s a discredit to this film, to quantify and simplify such a message: in reality, it’s a film about the power of redemption in a community of human beings stuck together, for the time being. The plane from Russia to Madrid is delayed, and all of these odd characters are forced to interact, and soon find themselves changed.
Some of the funniest, and yet starkest scenes, are juxtaposed on top of one another in this film: from the terrorist Slatan singing in Russian a song about “death to the Russian enemy” as everyone near him sings and dances, and the Russians in the hotel/lodge are panic-stricken and leave immediately, to Slatan noticing a young woman trying to kill herself with a razor and instead of offering the usual dialogue about “having something to live for”, he offers her instead advice on how to cut effectively(“Vertical, and then zigzag. And then go into a bathtub of hot water, and you’ll die peacefully.”) It’s a film of fun for the whole family, if you’re family can appreciate some dark humor, and rooting for the terrorist as a main character.
Day Six of Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival
The Strongest Man, written and directed by Kenny Riches, starring Robert “Meatball” Lorrie, Paul Chamberlain, and Ashly Burch
Now this is a Miami film, all of the oddness, and the eccentricities, the toiling nature of the city, the frustration and the feelings of being adrift and of being stuck in some odd location, along with the beauty of a changing city that never really changes at all: this is a MIAMI film. It captures the city in a way I’ve never truly seen before. Given the plot, this could be the Miami version of The Big Lebowski, a funnier and existential version of Bicycle Thieves, instead of Italians, swap in an awkward Cuban-Miami-American, and a Korean-Miami-American in their stead.
The plot is secondary, for a good reason, as Miami is the character as City, the character as the plot to be analyzed and explored, and amazed by, in so many words. The main character, Beef, is an awkward Cuban whose main passion is riding his gold-plated BMX around Miami, along with his best friend Conan, who is struggling to be validated and respected by his parents. Illi, played by Ashly Burch, is living with an art collector aunt who has paid her college, let her live in her home, but keeps her isolated, and Illi struggles for freedom and validation, same as the other characters.
This whole plot, and its unfolding, starts up thanks to Beef’s gold-plated BMX being stolen, and finding his inner spirit animal, which is a chicken. If none of this appeals to you, in the written context, it is completely understandable: this is a visual film, an oxymoron of an oxymoron, Miami performing as Miami, and it’s honesty lies in capturing the odd back alleyways and street corners of what we call Miami.
The real standout of this film is Paul Chamberlain as Conan, the (Korean)-“like the barbarian”, longtime best friend of Beef, Robert Lorrie’s character, and just a fantastic actor that really brings the laughs, and what we call pathos, to this film alongside Robert Lorrie’s stoic, awkward, and confused performance of Beef.
Beef and his musings on life and Miami:
“I hate the beach, but I love the water. The beach is too vain, full of too annoying people.”
“Old people never get younger, and young people always get older. You can’t change that. And then you die.”
This movie is a treat to watch, mainly because it treats Miami as MIAMI, not some broad strokes stereotypes or Miami Beach-laden, cocaine cowboys lifestyle-mess. This movie is worth watching just for Conan’s mixed-up metaphor of “chairs” for “women” (“There’s always more chairs in the sea.”) Kudos all-around to the cast and crew for this great film.
Two films to review, and quite possibly the two most interesting so far in the film festival: East Side Sushi and Aurora.
To start off with one of the most interesting, and possibly shortest, of the films to be showcased this year is Aurora, based on a true story. This film, centered on the character of Sofia, is an odd one to write about: odd in the sense that’s it a film about a woman devoted to a singular cause, to wanting to bury the dead body of a little baby whom she names “Aurora”, and the legal hoops she has to go through to be able to give her a “place to rest and to be mourned in the world.” Amparo Noguera, who plays Sofia, and Luis Gnecco, who plays her husband Pedro in the film, are the heavyweights here, as they ground the film in the tiniest of gestures, hands tapping on coffee cups, small smiles fading out to deep silences. This film, based in Santiago, Chile, is a film about the determination, and even obsession, of the past bleeding into the present, and the characters struggling to break through, to complete, at least for Sofia, their goal. One scene, which is more akin to an evolving painting on the screen, is shot from high up on a cliff overlooking the bluest of beach waters, watching Sofia and Pedro in the water, as Pedro’s car lies up to the left of the screen, and they lie off to the right of the lower part of the screen, and it’s such a fantastic scene that is allowed to play out, well worth it for the performances.
East Side Sushi is, from camera work to performances to just a film experience in general, a complete masterwork that should be seen. Not just a great fun romp, not just a look at sushi and at the changing landscape of now-gentrified Oakland, California, it’s a film of minorities, about minorities, of strong female characters, of communicating across cultures(Mexicans and Japanese communities), and it’s a whole world, in and of itself.
Everyone hits it out of the park in this film: every edit keeps the rhythm going, not a second of momentum is wasted, and by film’s end, the love the camera showed to the sushi being prepared in the film made me want to run to the nearest sushi restaurant and eat away the day. Diana Elizabeth Torres, playing the role of Juana, is the standout of this film, as her hardworking attitude in every scene, in her resiliency and determination to be a female sushi chef(which is uncommon in the field of such restaurants and cuisine) and strives to prove herself. This is a film that is best to not know much about from the onset, and to let itself be watched and analyzed by others. Highly recommended, and just fun, to boot.
“Where East Oakland Meets the Far East”
It’s always an interesting day to watch a movie, sometime along in the film festival, and especially a film that is seemingly banned in its own homeland. I’m talking, of course, of “Uncle Victory,” the story of debts needed to be paid, humans watching their land stripped away, and themselves left behind, always searching for something more, something illusory and on the tip of the tongue, but too far gone.
Huang Haibo,the main force of this film, has proven to be a key figure: the film is banned, in part, thanks to his arrest and detention for hiring a prostitute a month before the film’s release. I relate all of this, and it is important to understand this before diving into the film, in part because Huang Haibo is acting true to the character of Uncle Victory: Chan Shenglei, the main character, is a man now free again, after a ten-year jail sentence, and looking for redemption, and finding out the price of it, of sorts.
He also runs a kindergarten, and dresses like a panda, and is called “Papa Principal.” One thing to keep in mind is that his last name, Shenglei, means “Victory” in Chinese. Hold that in mind when watching the film, and the particular emphasis on the tattoo on his back: Guan Gong, for a man who is reserved, shy, introverted, and carries a heavy burden.
In “Uncle Victory,” every character is struggling to, not so much fit into the changing times of China, but to even feel considered enough a PART of it. One character, crippled thanks to Chan Shenglei, Brother Jiao, lives in a decommissioned bus, burning books, quoting the Buddha, and thinking of the changing world, of his own history and others, as “time accumulates.”
Hai, on the other end of the spectrum, was a faithful worker and servant of Chan Shenglei, and his story comes to pass in conjunction with the others, in horrifying ways. Sun Xiaomei, a femme fatale of sorts, wants to win over the “tough guy” in Chan Shenglei, and all’s well that ends not so well.
The best moments of the film, and the most powerful, are the scenes where the suddenness and volatile nature of violence come to a head. Few and far between, they leave the best impression on the viewer: from smashing a beer bottle on a man’s face, to that same smashed bottle cutting open the forearm of the main character, and a particular scene midway through the film, involving the main character’s dog that is just heart-wrenching and one of the saddest/most moving I’ve seen in quite some time.
Where the movie falters, however, is this emphasis on cutting from present day back to the past background/ten years, in dulled-out colors and shaky camera footage, and back again. It seemingly squanders the momentum of the film, which is best when it’s steel-reserved Chan trying to educate and help out the kids in the kindergarten, who bounce around with so much energy, and he remains the stalwart watcher, and the paternal figure of the grounds.
A quick detour from the usual schedule of events for the film festival: I decided to go to the Koubek Center to see a free screening of “Rebel with a Cause”, a documentary on the Cuban classical composer Aurelio De La Vega. Mr. De La Vega was in the audience, and answered questions after the fact. A comment or two, which I must paraphrase to the best of my ability, of his keep rocking about in my head:”How odd it is, that we continually say to separate church and state, and yet art and politics has to be together: I say bullshit to that. Art is individual expression. You remember the general of 1832? No, but you remember Beethoven, and that’s what counts.”
The film is a look at the man, his music, and the way society and history played a part in creating Aurelio De La Vega. It’s interesting to hear classical music, with a twist: one scene, in particular, speaks about the composer’s sense of humor, and immediately shifts to a soprano arguing with the pianist through song, as the pianist keeps up the tempo. Also, one close-up shot is of the composer’s musical notations: a gloriously structured series of paintings on musical notation sheets, with musical notes moving this way and that, so it becomes a literal painting of music.
Now, onto the main course of things, which is “The Project of the Century,” included as a screening, part of the Tribute Party to Cuban filmmakers paving the way this year with brand new works. This one, directed by Carlos Machado Quintela, is a work of cinema that I can’t seem to put my finger on, at least not in an easy to digest matter.
It’s a film worth watching, and it’s worth watching without the least bit of information. From the opening reeling images to dead close-ups of each of the three main characters, three different generations of the same Cuban family (grandfather, father, and son.) Where does the film end, and reality begin? Here are the facts: a nuclear reactor WAS built in Juragua, Cuba, thanks to the Soviets, but the Berlin Wall fell, and support for the project left the nuclear reactor a dead spot, full of radiation and leaving it unfinished and a huge dome-steel structure continues to stand to this very day.
What this film explores, to put it succinctly, is the failure of Castro’s regime leaving this town of Cubans with this nuclear reactor, leaving them radiated messes, and forgotten in the spectrum of the world. The performances are topnotch, the camera work is centrally focused on these characters, and in turn they paint up the city they inhabit, one lone apartment building, reaching into the sky, is what counts as a landscape in this “ghost town.” In black and white, pig pens lie nearby to giant nuclear vessels, and everything is slow, oppressively tired and fatigued, frustrated of the times they live in, to say the least. The pace is slow, interspersed with scenes, in color, of Cuban propaganda for the nuclear reactor.
“End of filmic activity.”
An ominous atmosphere I found on this second day, thanks to the weather and the pitter-patter of constant rain, and a perfect day for films. Specifically, the one I saw, in honor of the man gracing the thirty-second edition of the Miami International Film Festival. That man is Orson Welles, and this film, that played at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, is called “The Stranger.”
I’ve seen the usual cavalcade of Welles’ career: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, and so on. I’ve heard of “The Stranger”, but it’s always been at the background of things, of movies to watch: what a rush to see some more Orson Welles, it’s always a treat to see his work still shining through, sixty years after the fact.
“The Stranger” is a noir film that couldn’t have been made by anyone else other than Orson Welles, honestly. The camera work, the play on shadows, the dialog half-whispered/half-rushed-out, a sense of dread and wonder and terror, anxiety and the horrors of history: all captured in great performances, honest scenes, from the work of a master in Orson Welles.
Before I get into some of the great qualities of this picture, what’s important to note is that, in entering the Bill Cosford Cinema, it felt like I was back in some other time, the curtains drawn and the film projector reeling into life. There’s always a relaxed, laid-back attitude to this cinema that I always appreciate, and it really helps ease back into the seat, and watch the film come alive,again.
Now then, every scene where Orson Welles plays “Charles Rankin”, is a stellar one: the man knows how to play the villain, and his facial reactions are just pure Shakespearean in their expressiveness. This character, thanks to Welles’ performance, screams “hunting for anonymity, and ready to take out anyone who stands in the way of their goal.”
From the beginning, when Rankin, is struggling through the forest, creating a different trail to hide his tracks from his prep school students, Welles is sweating and huffing and moving like an animal, and the mask of civility cannot keep up when in contact with the rest of the characters. Every movement of his being on screen is constantly struggling to keep his lies up, to keep his identity from spilling out and ruining his plans, but his words can’t help himself, and every time a close-up on Rankin is done, Welles pervades the screen with the fear, intensity, and anxiety of a hunted criminal keeping things close to the chest.
Even before his introduction, the camera work of the film is incredible to consider: the camera follows Edward G Robinson’s character Mr. Wilson, who is following a potential suspect/convicted Nazi officer in Harper, Connecticut. This scene is more notable because it’s an overhead shot, above Robinson’s shoulder and yet following him, all the same, and continues this line of editing/camera work for a solid five minutes or so, which is always a great quality to these kinds of films: build up a scene with just a camera and the movement of human beings on screen.
Another scene, where the camera work and mise-en-scene is great, is the scene where Loretta Young’s character Mary is watching footage of concentration camps in a tiny little room. Staring wide-eyed at the projector unrolling the horrific events, the projector screen flashing light, illuminating Loretta Young’s face for a few flickering instants, as she sits in the darkness watching the gas chambers, is just a stunner of a scene.
Although, I have to say, I believe the version I saw tonight was missing some key footage/scenes: sound systems were a bit off, and the flickering screen seemed to skip frames entirely. Thankfully, the film is in the public domain and on YouTube, and should be seen by any fan of cinema.
I will never stop loving opening night films for film festivals: there’s always a leap into something, a crackling ten days of films, films, and more films, and more peliculas, too.
This year’s was no different: Olympia Theater is always a great place to catch up on films, and this year’s peculiarly funny, bitingly raw, if those phrases aren’t too cliche, is Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales”, the anthology film that is soaking up award nominations and wins for months now, and with good reason, too.
This is a great film, to say the least.
In this, these “Relatos Salvajes” is something both easy to understand and yet a whole new experience unfolding on the screen: human beings, in awkward situations, let fully loose and out of control, whether it’s greed or vengeance or violence, of any sort, you’ll find it in this film. What is more amazing to consider is how apt the direction, the editing, the smallest of gestures from the actors helps make this one of the funniest (black) comedies I’ve seen in quite some time. In some respects, I keep flashing back to Monty Python: not twins of any sort, mind you, but the kind of connection that takes you back for a minute, that wild glee of insanity and chaos of the moment, and of messing with the audience, in fun and horrific ways, of course.
This is an Oscar nomination for a reason: any chance to watch it, it is a must-see. I will not spoil much of the film, but my personal favorite tales in this film come out to be the last two: “La Propuesta” or “The Proposal”, and “Hasta que la muerte nos separe”/”Until death do us part”. “The Proposal” might end up being the starkest, and closest to a drama, until the halfway mark, when the joke comes, and the characters in the story flat-out deny the obvious solution, and go to the greedy side, with fantastically dark, comic results. “Until death do us part” hit a note for me that I haven’t found in other films: an energy in a new wedding party, with characters reacting to each other like human beings instead of drunk cardboard cutouts, and the camera shots,as well. The camera shots, in particular one where the camera is tethered to the glass door, and each time the door swings open, the camera swings along with it, watching the characters race away. It’s a wild bit of fun, and a great ending that leaves the audience, especially the one I was watching the film with, applauding before the credits rolled.
Miami International Film Festival coverage by Ismael Santos and Daniel Molina
And that makes it a wrap for the 31st edition of the Miami International Film Festival: this page will most probably be updated, with a few more words on each of the films, but that will come in due time. Hope everyone enjoyed the coverage of the film festival on here. I will be taking a long nap because, as much as I love film festivals, doing this as a hobby is really draining if not given proper rest.
Tenth and Final Day
Those Happy Years: A tale of more than just your typical dysfunctional family unit, but of two adults, and their two children growing up and not being in arrested development. The script, and performances, along with the direction and music, just intertwine to create a fantastic film: look for the actor playing Serena, Micaela Ramazzotti,who is dynamite in this film.
Open Windows: An inverted, insane film, influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Blow Out by Brian De Palma, starring Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey, with one twist after another being thrown at you until you stand up and yell “What is this?” But in a good, enjoyable, entertaining way: Elijah Wood steals the show with his performance, and the whole film is directed in real-time, and captured via webcam and other modes of Internet communication.
Rob the Mob: Executive producer/star Andy Garcia portrays a mob boss hesitant to use force, while a Bonnie-and-Clyde duo in Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda do not feel that hesitation in ripping off mobsters on their home turf/social club areas. Based on a true story, and with sharp comedic timing and a fun performance by Ray Romano, this film is a great journey into the crime world of the Gotti trial era
O Cinema day on Friday, which means that I watched three films in quick succession, each one ten minutes right after the other ended.
The Dog: A documentary long in the process of being released(twelve years) and centered on John Wojtowicz aka The Dog, famous for being portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Meticulously researched, with great footage of the bank robbery so highly publicized and filmed(and done for a sex reassignment surgery for a boyfriend.) John Wojtowicz: 4 wives and 23 girlfriends, and one hell of a life, and just a great documentary to watch, too.
Memphis: A dream-like meditation on what Memphis has become, was, and will always be in the fabric of society, all encapsulated by the fantastic performance by professional musician Willis Earl Beal, and directed by Tim Sutton, who is not preoccupied with telling traditional narratives. Watch this film for the atmosphere, for the non-actors cast from the city of Memphis, and for Willis Earl Beal.
Coherence: Interesting alternate dimension/time-travel story that masquerades itself at the onset as another film starting with the introduction of a group of friends coming together for the first time in what seems like forever. In similar vein/production-wise of science fiction films like Primer: shoestring budgets force the cast and crew to make use of what they have, and this film expertly builds up the atmosphere and tension of a horrific, existential situation.
Robert Deniro Sr. Documentary review by Daniel Molina
And on the seventh day Ismael rested, and I took over.
The Gables Art Cinema was the next venue to showcase films for the Miami International Film Festival, and what a great night it was! First, in Remembering the Artist: Robert de Niro Sr., Robert de Niro jr. provides an intimate look into his father’s personal life and his work as a painter. Family and friends join de Niro jr. in talking about a man who struggled with guilt over his homosexuality and sadness over not being recognized for his work as much as he should have. Through candid interviews, family footage, and de Niro Jr’s readings of his father’s personal journal, we’re described a man that loved what he did and wanted everyone else to love it to. Accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack composed by the great Phillip Glass, De Niro Jr. walks us through his parent’s divorce, his father’s hardships in France with trying to become a successful painter, and his passing due to prostate cancer. In the end, de Niro Jr. recounts that he regrets not going to enough movie screenings or art shows with his father, and reminds us that we can never spend enough time with our parents. I saw the documentary with my mom, and I couldn’t agree more.
Shortly after the documentary concluded, we were shown an Argentinian short film titled Los Posibles with an interpretive dance directed beautifully by Santiago Mitre and Juan Onofri Barbato. In it, the 7 Argentinian dancers are shown to be in the sewers under a beautifully lit opera house. An industrial-like soundtrack, dark lit cinematography, and a mixture of martial arts and street dancing made this the surprising watch of the night. Several people walked out of the film, and those are people that we don’t need in the world. I’m interested in seeing what this collective has to offer, and I hope to see new material from them soon.
The Overnighters by Ismael Santos
This documentary, set against the backdrop of the booming oil/fracking goldmine of Williston, North Dakota around 2012, is powerful.
That’s one word that encapsulates this film. Powerful.
What makes this documentary fantastic, beyond its great prism-like approach to the issues of a small town suddenly coming into wealth from fracking, is the fact that it has no Michael Moore-ish intent to propagandize everything: what so many documentary filmmakers have forgotten is that, first and foremost, a documentary must be focused on the people being filmed. It is their story, not the director’s, for the most part.
The protagonist of this documentary is the pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church, Jay Reinke. He, upon seeing the migrants looking for work and with no place to sleep, decides to open up the doors of his church to the migrants. Hundreds of people sleep inside the Church, or outside in their cars. Mr. Reinke dedicates himself with all of the passion that a pastor can have for helping out his fellow man in the name of God and Jesus Christ.
To see the struggle of not only Reinke, but of the entire community and his own family, along with the migrant workers just wanting another shot at redemption. For many of the scenes, there is a sense of hopelessness, sadness, and the final confession near the end of the film is earth-shattering in the context of the film.
Required viewing, and hats off to the director, Jesse Moss, for staying with this story and filming for over 18 months.
We are Maria Pepa
A story of pure energy, meditations on youth and how time flies by, and how time is temporary and is made more difficult when growing up, “We are Maria Pepa” is a fantastic film.
Directed in Mexico by Samuel Kishi Leopo, this is authentic as can be, in a film concerning teenagers, punk-rock bands, and growing up in difficult situations. Drawing from real-life experiences, failed bands, and long-time friends of the director doubling as the actors in the film, this film breaks down any reservations from the audience.
Once the band of four friends, called Maria (marijuana) Pepa (female genitalia), are playing a song with the chorus that goes “I want to cum on your face, Natasha!” the film initially paints itself as a teenage comedy of four friends goofing around. It’s all a smokescreen, to a certain degree. These four friends, as any teenager growing up these days, are suffering through a myriad of problems. Puberty, life at home, parents control, aspirations, sex, and whatever else you want to call it: teenagers are besieged by their own bodies, their families, and their society that will never be the same again.
The main star of the film, Alejandro Gallardo as Alex, along with Arnold Ramirez as Bolter, Moises Galindo as Moy, and Rafael Andrade as Rafa, all try and deal with problems at home and amongst themselves, and the band they have formed doesn’t last for long. Alex, in particular, goes through some depressing experiences: his ailing grandma/abuela hit my own sensitivities pretty hard, and it helped make this film way more relatable. At the end of the day, a fantastic film, with the look of a punk rock video in some sections, and everything is crystal clear in this picture: growing up is not easy, and it’s definitely not any easier when you’re trying to achieve your dreams and goals.
This review is short and sweet: Mateo, as a film about conflicts in Colombia, taken from real-life stories, using actors from areas populated by the problems and conflicts between the hard-working community and heavily-feared criminal element as seen in the film, and is supremely authentic. Hats off to the director, Maria Gamboa, for her incredible take on a teenager trying to make things right, eventually.
It’s an interesting watch, and shines a spotlight on a situation happening everyday in poor communities, and I saw it at Paragon Theaters in Coconut Grove.
As a whole journey-aside, I had to go straight from Wolfson Campus in Downtown Miami, all the way to Coconut Grove with barely an hour to spare, and was able to get a good seat for the screening. Want to take a guess as to who sat beside yours truly for the screening?
Just spit out a name, and I’ll tell you in a bit. Take your time, folks, this is not gloating here. Just genuine excitement from a guy who’s seen a lot of festival screenings, but has never had this happen before, to some degree.
All right, tension over: the director of the film wandered over in the darkness, Maria Gamboa, and saw the film right next to me. I say this with some happiness, because I had always wondered how directors, in a big festival screening, attempt to watch both their own work on the big screen and respond to the audience around them.
Thanks to her skilled film-making ability, the audience laughed, were worried, and felt a sigh of relief at all of the right points. Not much to say here, but it’s always nice to see someone who made a film, and for her, especially, to see it succeed. She spent seven years on this lone picture. Give it a watch.
It is always a mission to get to Regal South Beach Stadium. However, it’s always worth it, even with the long bus rides and the race against time from Little Havana to Miami Beach. Three floors of nothing but movies, with great advanced screenings whenever available: where else could I have gone to see You’re Next, question the main actress, and get a free Wolf mask? I don’t know why I’m writing this down, it’s just a fun and happy memory I remember having in my first time at the Regal Beach Cinema.
This time was no exception, as the film of the night was Only Lovers Left Alive: Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as vampires, and ones that don’t behave like the modern-day, creatively castrated versions, either. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, famous for Stranger Than Paradise and the always entertaining Coffee and Cigarettes. Jim Jarmusch, stylistically, story-wise, and motif-oriented, is all about the outsiders in society: outsiders who, for whatever odd quirks they might have or viewpoints that differ from the mainstream masses, are ostracized time and time again by society at large.
So, who better to create a vampire film int he 21st century, with two fantastic actors and a great storyline, than Jim Jarmusch?
What I love the most about this film, beyond the performances, cinematography, music, and just the style of what Jarmusch brings to this tale, is the fact that these characters aren’t treated as some cookie-cutter Halloween-trite joke figures: for once, these vampires are as human as any other characters in recent film history, with aches and pains beyond hunger for fresh blood. They lament the state of the world, and how their influence, musically for Hiddleston’s character Adam, and for Swinton’s character in Eve as enjoying life beyond depending on blood-bank donations from a friend in Tangiers. It is incredibly slow, which is what great character studies are after: not action nor romance nor contrived plots, but investigations. Investigations of who are these people in the film, what they want, how far will they go to get what they want, and was it worth it in the end of things? I don’t want to spoil the film, but I’ll say it’s definitely worth a watch.
Fourth day of Film Festival
Quick aside before the full events of the day are rolled out: I, along with a dozen others, had to wake up early, traverse to Miami Beach/around the Venetian Causeway, and set up shop at the Standard/Lido Spa & Hotel for a quick press junket of directors and actors. As noted for the “third day of the festival,” I was able to have an interview with the director of “In Darkness We Fall,” and the review/interview are a post below.
With that said, let’s get on to the fourth day of the film festival.
For the fourth day of this festival, I ventured into long-forgotten land: Coconut Grove, and the recently remodeled movie theater of Paragon Theater.
The only time I had ever gone to that theater was around ten years ago, as a little kid on a field trip to see “Bridge to Terabithia,” and wow, how the times have changed: everything looks so new and so up-scale, that it’s no wonder that normal tickets to Paragon Theater require a reservation and a lot of moolah beforehand.
My process for picking films, for any film festival, generally lie on if they seem interesting in descriptions from the brochure or if I’m just taking a chance to see a movie I have no ulterior knowledge of, of course.
I started chatting up with a man from Canada, who was really digging the whole “Miami festival” and Miami Beach, and I recommended for him to go immediately check out O Cinema in Wynwood: just a great atmosphere, all-around.
The director was in attendance, Matías Lucchesi, and provided a quick Q & A after the film, describing the area where the film took place, and how the school portrayed in the rural area in the film is no set-piece: ti’s an actual school that takes around three hours to get to, by car.
Natural Sciences: A movie about trying to find out who your father is, as the main actor comes in the form of a twelve year old girl, Paula Galinelli Hertzog as Lila, with impressive range and the power to say much by saying little, as it’s evident throughout the film.
The only problem I had with the film, as a whole, was that it introduces understated characters, and understated moments, and yet pushes them aside for the sake of solely continuing on the main character, Lila, and her arc. It’s filmed breathtakingly in the outskirts of Cordoba, and while it has star power and the main actor has a power in her role, it’s almost too short and understated that it becomes a detriment: still enjoyable, but it needed some more exploration, more scenes of why this little girl would be willing, out of the blue, at the age of twelve, to travel over two-hundred kilometers to try and find a father she has never really known about much.
Third day of Film Festival
O Cinema time, again, and what a film I watched: In Darkness We Fall/La Cueva, directed by Alfredo Montero part of the Mayhem category and a bonafide knockout in this year’s festival.
The Mayhem category is one I’ve always been more interested in seeing, partly in regard to its odd, intense topics and films, along with performances and general situated manner at O Cinema.
The director, Alfredo Montero, was in attendance for a Q & A session after the film, and the most striking thing I remember about that Q & A, before I review the film properly and before I post up the extra bonus content, is that Q & A session proved two things: create an intense piece of art and people will be in “shock and awe” mode, and any director willing to enter/memorize the layout of a real cave, and to write most of the script in said cave, is one dedicated artist.
This movie, especially in a movie theater, draws you in and does not let you go: claustrophobia is the name of the game, here, and what an effect this movie gives off, keeping the constant tension of danger, hysteria, insanity, and hopelessness up for an entire feature film length, or roughly an hour and twenty minutes.
The story goes like this: Five friends are vacationing on the island of Formentera, off the coast of Ibiza, located in the Mediterranean, and perfect for debauchery and mindless drinking and drugs. However, the five friends start to explore a remote cave, and end up lost inside with little water and no food. Suffice to say, things go from bad to worse, and the friends mental and physical states start to unravel in horrific terms.
I’m not the biggest proponent of POV(point-of-view) films, although I do like the concept of the Blair Witch Project, but franchises like Paranormal Activity have squandered the concept to a point I considered lost forever. Thankfully, this Spanish film, following the tradition of other Spanish horror films like REC, really revitalized the concept in my eyes, and was tremendous in its execution.
Beautifully filmed, with great performances from all five main actors, and a tension that is so palpable that the last third of the film is a great twist on the concept of “found footage.” More people should see this film, and realize something about horror films: it’s not about blood-and-guts, it’s about a horrible situation and the tension that emanates from that same situation.
As a bonus, and this happened on the official fourth day of the film festival, which will soon be updated with another movie review, I had the chance to speak with the director of the film “In Darkness We Fall/La Cueva”: the interview is in Spanish, but Mr. Montero was happy to share his thoughts on film making and horror. Apologies for my poor Spanish speaking skills, but it got the job done, either way. Enjoy.
Second day of Film Festival
Second day of the festival, and O boy, O Cinema time: I love the place, the atmosphere, the little library full of VHS’s and old books on Cannes to books on movies you should be watching this very instant, this place has got it all. So, of course, I did a marathon session: three films, from 4 until 11, and then another film at the Blue-StarLite Drive-In next door, from 11 to 1 or so.
For that reason, and for the long night of movie-watching, this will be a short read-through of the day’s events
15 years+ 1 day: Spanish film really carried by Maribel Verdú’s performance of the distressed mother trying to deal with her rebellious fourteen year-old son. All-around familial drama, with a twist of a crime near the end of the film that really works in transitions and building up the tension of the characters in the film. One transition, in particular, I loved: recounting the crime that occurred days beforehand, the screen is drenched in red, and transitions to the crime, and vice versa.
The Mountain: Tremendous documentary-style film of two interconnected stories: one group of Dominican adults climb Mount Everest, while a group of adolescent Dominicans climb up the highest mountain in the Dominican Republic, Duarte’s Peak. Fascinatingly shot, with nary a boring moment: a fun, daring adventure that seems to be influenced by the experimental classic Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, in terms of composition and blending in images and the warning title credits screen: “This is not a film. This is not a documentary. This is history.”
American Dreams in China: Supposed true story of the New Dream organization, which helped give education visas to over five-hundred thousand students from China, but mainly through illegal means. The real meat of the story is the trio of main characters: Cheng Dongqing,Meng Xiaojun,Wang Yang. Besides some lip-synching issues, for the most part, an enjoyable picture: only drawback is that the film flashes through so much with voice-over narrations and monologues to set up the rest of the film that most of the genuine character moments are forgotten about. In short, they aren’t allowed enough time to have weight for both the characters and the audience.
After the last screening, I hurried off to experience the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Blue-Starlite Mini-Urban Drive-In: fantastic experience, and it’s always fun to see Tim Curry sing about being a transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.
More to report tomorrow: 2 days down, 8 to go for the Miami International Film Festival.
I am so sad they removed the couches from the screening room of O Cinema. Sadness.
American Dreams in China
First day of Miami International Film Festival by Ismael Santos
One film festival that has stood the test of time, and has continued to serve up some great films, is the Miami International Film Festival: this year marks its 31st anniversary, and it’s still building up quite a reputation for film-making, filmmakers bursting at the seems with talent, and all scattered over ten movie theaters in Miami, Florida.
My first experience with the Festival came in 2012, when I, along with a group of twenty others or so, received a free school field trip from Miami Senior High to one film screening: the only time I’ve ever known that getting good grades in school has made it worthwhile for me, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, In The Name of The Girl was the first real Film Festival experience I even underwent, and I loved it, apart from the noisy as hell people in back of me never shutting up, but they didn’t distract from the film. Before seeing that film, I had always figured attending a film festival as some far-off, almost too-good-to-dream-of type of experience. That, and the excellent short film attached to the event, right before the feature presentation, titled The Dancer , really helped set the tone for what the Festival provided: a difference from the usual action and CGI-laden messes of the day that have wormed their way into the fabric of mainstream cinema.
When 2013 rolled around, I was ready to watch a film or two from the Festival, and ended up spending close to two-hundred dollars and a bunch of time at O, Cinema in Wynwood: the perfect mixture of art, film, horror, thriller, and just a great place to kick back and watch a film. From then on, I was hooked to film, and going out to the movies, in a way that I never felt before: I now feel a visceral rush in going out to the movies, even if it means spending a bunch of money. Cinema is the visual art that burrows its way into your mind, and I’m glad this festival is giving out a smorgasbord of choices.
I signed up for press credentials for the film festival, and surprisingly received the all-clear sign to go ahead and watch films, close to twenty or so, at no cost. This is paradise.
I showed up earlier today in a Hawaiian shirt, standing goofily among the others near the red carpet, snapped a few pictures, and rushed into the Olympia Theater: the place I went to for my first film festival, and it’s still fantastic there.
The film, titled Elsa and Fred, which I’ll discuss in brief form, centers on a remake of an old Argentinian film, except this one is carried on the performances of two star actors: Shirley MacLaine playing Elsa and Christopher Plummer playing Fred. Undeniably a safe, syrupy romantic comedy to start off the festival, the movie soars on the chemistry between MacLaine and Plummer, about two older individuals finding each other, just when they think their road in life is about over.
The movie, as a whole, has a great cast, but places them in the background, so this is to be seen for what it is: MacLaine and Plummer interacting with each other, and having some fun on the big-screen. It’s a middle-of-the-road picture that has some charm to it.
One down, nine to go: nine more days of the Miami International Film Festival, and I can’t wait. Enjoy the photos below that I took of the day’s proceedings, and come to this page for new updates on the film festival as the days go by.
P.S. Anne Hathaway apparently showed up to for the film, and quickly vanished like Catwoman. I will forever kick myself for not sticking around, or slithering around, longer to get a chance to talk to her. C’est la vie. C’est. La. Vie.
Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival
Review by Ismael Santos
I love film festivals.
I love the camaraderie, the atmosphere, the movie theaters and the setups, the programming schedules, the good, the bad, the ugly, the odd, the high-priced, and the esoteric; I love it all.
Big note for all readers here is this: Film festivals aren’t so much about the individual quality of the films. This will not be a review. This will be an analysis of the festival, the 1st Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival, and how I rate it in comparison to other festivals, as a whole.
I really do recommend just showing up to your nearest film festival, especially this March when the Miami Film Festival roars up again, if you love movies. Nothing beats sitting down and watching a spattering of movies, artistic and crazy as hell and just all-around great.
This year, I mostly looked forward to the most well-known film festival that comes to Miami every March, the one that plays River Phoenix movies from time to time, but had never considered any alternative festival. That is, until I started up my History of Film class and my professor started giving out extra credit.
Any professor that recommends O Cinema to his students is pretty cool, in my opinion: O Cinema and horror movies go together like peanut butter and jelly. Hmm.
Anyway, one email about extra credit later, and a name pops up as interesting to me: the 1st Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival. Just a stone throw’s away from my house, and not overly priced: being part of Blue Sky Movie Reviews, and a fifty percent discount later, and all the movies I wanted to watch on a Saturday evening were up for the taking.
Keep in mind, I’m not a smooth operator, so picture a twenty year old in a leather jacket and some pajama pants, with dark bags under his eyes and enough hunger to eat up five Denny’s, waltzing into the Regency Hyatt Hotel in Downtown Miami, and you get the picture.
I’ve always been a sucker for science fiction films. The very concept of films and novels centered on this topic always interest me: whether its about human cloning or the disconnection between human beings and technology, the possibilities of humanity, and on it goes.
2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Dark City, Star Wars, Star Trek: all films that have captured my imagination and made me realize the full-scale potential of the Science Fiction genre.
The films I saw at the 1st Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival, or MiSciFi, were not afraid to shock and to explore the possibilities of cinema in the modern age can be: no shortcuts, no gimmicks, and no half measures when it came to storytelling.
Normally, I’d zip on by into my “best-of” list of the festival’s lineup of films, and be done with the review-writing at this late hour(approximately at four in the morning or so), but there was one thing I found really surprising, and great, about the festival: the festival founders were actually on hand to talk to and couldn’t have been nicer or friendlier during the whole thing.
The most helpful and most dedicated people I’ve seen to be involved in film festivals, and counting this is their first time in coming up with something encompassing over fifty films, in Troy Bernier, Eric Swain, and Edward Figueroa, is amazing, in my opinion. I’ve been to too many festivals where, beyond a speech her or there downtown, you don’t get much interaction beyond awkward glances and shuffling of the feet.
Count me in as a fan of this festival, and count me in for next year, too.
Personal Best of Festival Lineup: (All the films were interesting to watch and a mind-bender at other points, especially the trolltastic Zombie’s Trip, but here’s what I feel accentuates the best of the festival. Enjoy.)
Kill Switch-Unusual but awesome villain origin story, straight out of a comic book and onto the movie screen.
Stalker, The Interview-A POV movie that does what Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity fail to do: create suspense, tension, and just scare the crap out of the audience.
So Dark: A fun, all-around greatly written and acted film that actually respects the vampire genre and gives some pathos back to the scene.
NI-28 Strate-1: Tension-filled, powerful post apocalyptic first installment in a trilogy from the little-known location of New Caledonia, and the next two installments will be even better.
The Vessel: Tightly-written and filmed movie that just drops you straight into the throes of a “rescue” mission.
Promised Land: A distant future scenario of Us vs. “Illegals” from the Future, crossing over to try and find a chance to live: must be seen and experienced, and it is a new classic.
Distance: A story set in the future, where rations are low and travel is limited to how much work you put in acts as the background for a study of how far a father will go for his daughter, even an estranged one. Just a heartbreaker, but an expertly done one, and should be seen by all.
We Will Live Again: Great fifteen minute documentary on cryogenics and an important institution dealing with over 106 cryogenically frozen human beings out in Iowa, known as Cryonics.