It-Follows-Movie-PosterSometimes you have to strip back the horror to make a horror movie work. It Follows does that to thrilling effect, keep gore to a minimum and the threat of it at a maximum. It plays on the fear of an unknown presence following its victims. There’s no dwelling on rationalizing beyond the idea that the presence is deadly, it takes on the form of a lumbering, catatonic person and it begins haunting victims after intercourse with anyone who already has it following them.

This marks the second feature film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who made an impression in the world of indie teen drama with The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2010. Now taking on the genre of teen horror, Mitchell understands how to write likable young characters and balance confrontational scares with the terror of a presence always on the move. It’s the latter notion that works so well and keeps the suspense buoyed throughout the film. Even when the entity is off-screen, it has a presence. As amiable as his characters are, the background has as much payoff as any action or banter in the foreground.

Mitchell establishes the mystery in a twisted, tense opening sequence featuring a young woman frantically running for her life in short silk pajamas and high heels in a suburban neighborhood, with no pursuer in sight, and a pounding, screeching industrial score enhancing the unease. Whatever is chasing her must be near but remains unseen. Her neighbors outside, doing banal things like washing a car, give her puzzled looks before she gets into a vintage sedan and peels off. Sitting on the shore of a beach, she phones her parents for a final, desperate goodbye and a plea for forgiveness of all her trivial, dumb actions. Her car’s tail lights illuminate the brush and trees behind it in a bright, blood-red glow. Its headlamps shine on her in harsh light, falling far short of lighting the void of the ocean behind her. Darkness and what lies beyond is the film’s star, after all. A smash cut, and we are hit with daylight and the victim’s lifeless wide-eyed face, a cut to a more distant picture, and we see her lifeless body has been unnaturally bent, a heel pointing at her face.

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It’s a great moment of establishing the danger that lies for the film’s protagonist, doe-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe, who looks like a younger version of Greta Gerwig). As with all horror films, the rules that the entity lives and stalks by eventually come to light, but no rationalizing of its presence undoes the terror of its almost random appearances. That it materializes with Jay’s sexual blossoming reeks of all sorts of implications of end of innocence. However, Mitchell never veers into the realm of exploitation, showing respect and genuine endearment for his characters, who all come across as sympathetic.

Mitchell also shows respect to a purist notion of horror that the film mines for its scares. It Follows is ultimately about the dread of the unseen. It’s in the nameless pronoun of the title, after all. And there are no safe places from the unknowable threat, as it remains unrelenting in its task to grab Jay and do who knows what to make her into a human pretzel. It’s the unease of that looming fate and the lack of security anywhere from anyone that feels consistent in the film and taps into our primordial concern about the unknown. It’s a smart play on elements that made the 1980s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing so good.

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Speaking of older horror films, the production design of It Follows has a strange, vaguely familiar quality of era for those familiar with its predecessors. Though a few characters have cell phones and one of them has an e-reader in a compact, Jay and her friends watch campy black and white horror movies on old tube TVs and almost everybody drives sedans from the 1980s or 1990s. This gives the film a surreal quality out of the films of David Cronenberg. The dreamlike atmosphere of this incongruously dated era also recalls Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mitchell plays with viewer’s associations with these greats to infuse the film with a subconscious yet familiar sense of fear.

Its roots in 1970s and 1980s horror cinema is further enhanced by its synth-based soundtrack by Disasterpeace (Berkeley-educated video game music composer Rich Vreeland working on his first film score), which owes a lot to Goblin and John Carpenter. Its hybrid industrial/new age melodies are cheeseball chic. But, like the film’s narrative premise, it works best when it’s stripped to screeching or rumbling drones instead of overdosing on the schlock, which, the music sometimes does.

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Even stronger than the film’s score is its cinematography, both in what the camera shows and what it doesn’t. Beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, who did stellar work last year on creating atmosphere with light in a film few have seen but should called Lake Los Angeles (it made my top 20 of last year), the look recalls the films of Dario Argento. Light and shadow vary constantly, complimenting each other throughout the film. The actors all seem lit from the center and shadows often loom in the distance. Even better is the frequent use of a slow, drifting zoom in many of the movie’s shots that adds a sense of an omniscient gaze between the moviegoers and the characters on-screen. The sense of its presence is always there.

It Follows is one of those conspicuously directed films that never looses momentum and will be hard to forget. But the best thing to note about the film is that it harnesses the potency of mystery to grand effect. There are no subversive twists that upend the film’s logic. The entire concept is a well-maintained variation of the genre that finally will not insult the viewer’s intelligence but tap into their primal sense of fear.

Hans Morgenstern

It Follows runs 100 minutes and is Rated R (for horror with sexuality that all works for the film and veers from exploitation). It opens everywhere today, Friday March 26. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review, which is the only indie cinema in our area showing it. For other locations across the U.S. go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

travelling posterIn all his years making movies, director Jim Jarmusch has never allowed anyone to shoot him at work. That is, until he met Léa Rinaldi, a French filmmaker who brought with her a distinctive eye for capturing the man in his process. Rinaldi’s first study of the indie film legend is available as an
extra on the DVD of 2009’s The Limits of Control. Entitled “Behind Jim Jarmusch,” the film has a natural, fly-on-the-wall feel. From actors waiting on their cues, to fingernails pressing on a camera, Rinaldi focuses as much on the equipment on the set as she does the people. She truly gives the sense of the complex team effort needed to capture a few moments for the editing room. As Jarmusch says, while walking in the tight streets of Seville with Rinaldi, “You really make the film when you edit it.” There are many of these moments between scenes on set, as the director tosses casual insights over his shoulder to Rinaldi’s camera. She is never heard, however.

There has never been a so-called “behind-the-scenes” documentary as a supplement to any of Jarmusch’s movies prior to this, and he liked Rinaldi’s work enough to invite her back for his next movie. Her second and latest documentary on Jarmusch at work will have its American premiere at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa today. “Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch,” captures the nocturnal shoot of Jarmusch’s brilliant vampire movie — and my favorite film of 2014 — Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ presents complex, enthralling portrait of the jaded vampire).

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It was not easy for Rinaldi to get this access. The two struck up a friendship at Cannes, about eight years ago, she says. Speaking via Skype from Paris, the filmmaker recalls, “I met him in the Cannes Film Festival … I started like a local journalist for Canal+, and I was working for MK2, a distribution society, and I was making, every night, for Cannes a reportage about Cannes by night, and one night I met Jarmusch, and it was very fun because I said, ‘Hi, Jarmusch. How are you?’ and I gave my microphone to him, and I directed him. I told him to go to interview Isabelle Huppert, go to interview Iñárritu, and he was like ‘OK, OK!’ And it was a lot of fun and after he called MK2’s boss to get my number, and he called me and said, ‘Hey, Léa, I saw on television what you did, and it’s such a great video, and I like the way you use your camera.’”

They did not bond over making movies, however. “I never studied directing,” offers Rinaldi. “I studied literature, and so when we met next we talked a lot about poetry. Jarmusch loves poetry and loves French poetry and surrealist poetry, and so he talked to me on the phone. He called me two times to talk about poetry,” she adds with a laugh.

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During this second telephone call, he mentioned he was shooting The Limits of Control in Spain. She says that’s when she took an opportunity to ask a bold question. Here’s how that conversation went, according to Rinaldi:

Rinaldi: “OK, you know, Jim, I’m a journalist of cinema, but I’ve never been on a shoot except my own short movie … OK, so you like my work, so can I propose you something? I would like to come to your movie not to make a making-of but a portrait of you working.”

Jarmusch: “Oh, I never let anyone film me while I’m shooting because I hate that. I’m shy. I don’t like to talk about my movie while I’m shooting. So, no.”

Rinaldi: “OK.”

Jarmusch: “What else would you like to do?”

Rinaldi: “OK, I’d like to be your assistant camera because I love to shoot.”

Jarmusch: “Ah, no. It’s not possible because I’m working with Christopher Doyle, and he’s a crazy guy, and it’s not possible. What else do you want to do?”

Rinaldi: “Me? I can make coffee.”

At the end of the conversation, she says Jarmusch told her, “‘OK, but you know, Léa, maybe I can change my mind,’ and he called me on the last day of the shooting, like nine months after, he called,” she pauses for a laugh, “and said, ‘OK, you want to come? Come in three days in Sevilla.

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His assistant then wrote to Rinaldi with details of her trip to Spain, and she asked for a script, as she had no idea what the film he was shooting was about. “But I never received the script,” notes Rinaldi. “I didn’t know the characters. I didn’t know nothing, and it was the greatest present for me. When you do a documentary it’s great to have a problematic character. It is great to adapt to a situation, and we follow the ambiance, and we start like this.”

As seen on the documentary, though Jarmusch shared thoughts on his film-making process, he preferred not to talk about the film itself and whatever the film was about remained a mystery to her (anyone who has seen the completed work might feel the same way). She says when she and Jarmusch spoke on set, they talked about trees, variations of nature, for example, but not the script or the story.

He loved her final work and invited her back to watch him shoot Only Lovers Left Alive. There was one major difference in this second documentary, however. He didn’t want to be seen addressing the camera at all. Says Rinaldi, “I think it was great. It’s hard to make a movie without interviews and without explanation, but I think it was the best contract. It was a challenge, but it was cool.”

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“Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch” ends up being an even stronger work. She says she doesn’t like it when documentary filmmakers explain things for the audience. What you learn while watching this latest film by Rinaldi, for instance, is the collaborative relationship Jarmusch has with actress Tilda Swinton, who also appeared in The Limits of Control. “I think they are very close together,” notes Rinaldi, “and Tilda helped him a lot to make [Only Lovers], in the process of production. I think he was waiting like seven years, and she was encouraging, and now they’re friends. She’s not just an actress. She’s an artist, and she knows every job of the crew. For instance, when she starts the take, she knows that the sound man is here, and she says, ‘OK, it’s good for the sound.'”

Swinton comes across as a confidant collaborator in this documentary, offering suggestions to Jarmusch in how a scene should play out. You wonder if the director could possibly be compromising to the actress at times. “I asked him about it one night,” Rinaldi says. “I said, ‘But Tilda, she never directed a movie. He said, ‘Why are you asking that?’” and she laughs before continuing, “I said, ‘Because she’s like directing.’ He says, ‘Oh, no, no. She knows, but no, no.'” She pauses to laugh some more and adds about Swinton, “But she loves the process of directing.”

Another film festival isolated this scene that will give the viewer a sense of Swinton’s casual collaboration with Jarmusch:

The wonderfully edited scene features, brief close-ups and keeps in mind people’s relationship with the film-making equipment. “I like the choreography and the poetry of the technical crew,” says Rinaldi. “The movie is the crew. I mean, Jarmusch is the director, but the movie is the crew. I like to shoot the choreography of the work because the movie cannot exist without the grip man, and it’s why I think Jarmusch likes my work.”

Her documentary is also very patient, allowing the viewer to watch a shoot unfold to note all the moving parts of the individual people involved, which she aptly calls “choreography.” As if to drive that point home, she ends the film in Tangiers with a beautiful long take of the crew, including the actors and director, marching single file after a long night’s shoot. If the clip above does not give you the sense of how Rinaldi gives equal time to the technology that brings the scenes to life, this clip should:

Asked what she thinks of the final results of Jarmusch’s work on Only Lovers, she says, “I love it. What I saw during the five-day shoot in Tangiers, I saw the sense of the film, so what I see in the film, it’s like I already saw it. Because this movie is very sincere and very personal and so close to Jim, so it wasn’t a surprise. It’s a beautiful gift. That’s what I like about cinema or documentaries. It’s not the technical stuff or the cast. It’s that people are honest and true with the topic. That’s what touches me in cinema, so I think, with this movie, Jarmusch is very sincere.”

She’s not just offering flattery about Jarmusch. Her friendship with him is not based on sycophancy. When reminded about the harsh critical response to The Limits of Control, she does not hold back. Yeah, it’s very weak,” she says and laughs, “but it’s why I love Jarmusch because he doesn’t care. He does what he wants, and Jarmusch is weird, too. He was honest with his art to make a weird movie. He didn’t make a Jarmusch movie that people expect. If he wants to make something, he does it. If he wants to make a vampire movie, he does it. I asked him if I could make a documentary about him, even though I never directed something, he just trusted me, and he lets me do it. He’s a very, very free person, very open-minded, very generous, and I think very courageous to propose his own weird ideas. Even if it’s not popular or people won’t understand. It’s what I love about him. His work says it’s better to just express yourself and do what you want even if people don’t like it.”

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Hans Morgenstern

“Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch” plays at Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, Florida, today, Thursday, March 26, at 9 p.m. Rinaldi will be present to introduce the film and entertain questions after the screening. For Tickets visit this link (that’s a hotlink, jump through). For those who cannot make the screening, the documentary is available as a special feature on the Only Lovers Left Alive blu-ray (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link).

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

wild-tales-posterWild Tales, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is a series of six stories that explores themes of revenge through dark humor. Director Damián Szifrón takes an unflinching look at the “double moral” that pervades in Argentina — and much of Latin America, for that matter. The dark comedy explores human behavior when pushed to its limit and has a critical take of the current version of social relations in Argentina. The film’s characters all seem plagued by a deep sense of injustice, which pushes them to the edge.

The first story, “Pasternak” focuses on injustice at the individual level. A runway model Isabel (María Marull) checks into a flight and strikes a conversation with music critic Salgado (Dario Grandinetti). The conversation quickly reveals they have a common acquaintance that they both have wronged — she cheated on him and he wrote a life-changing negative review. Soon, more people on the plane find they are part of the coincidence. The shocking opening story is short and to the point, awakening the audience to a different kind of world, one with blurred social boundaries and a rather twisted sense of humor.

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“The Rats” is the second story, featuring a couple of female leads — proof that outrage and overheated reactions do not depend on testosterone alone. A waitress at a roadside small restaurant, Moza (Julieta Zylberberg), sees a man (Cesar Bordon) from her past walk into the restaurant. His complete disrespect for the server will have you rooting for her and the cook (Rita Cortese), who suggests a macabre plan of action. The next story is a personal favorite, “Road to Hell” where road rage and class disputes merge into an epic battle between the haves and have nots. The lengthier of these stories is “Bombita” where Simón (Ricardo Darín), a civil engineer who demolishes buildings for a living, takes a moral stand against the transit bureaucracy in Buenos Aires. This story will also have you questioning what is just and what is not and how those spheres overlap with what is legal and socially acceptable.

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The last two stories “The Deal” and “Til Death Do Us Part” present a scathing portrayal of the upper echelon. In both, Szifrón invites the audience to judge the paradoxical circumstances that push characters to the brink and makes them act out in extreme ways. The laughs come from Schadenfreude, but in the despair of these characters you will also find a moment to question whether social inequality serves any social purpose worth preserving — for both ends of the spectrum. For instance, in “The Deal” a rich father (Oscar Martínez) who is willing to do anything to save his son from going to jail, ends up being blackmailed by his lawyer, a long-time employee and even a state prosecutor. The twist in “The Deal” will have you second-guessing who are the winners and losers.

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In the closing story, “Til Death Do Us Part” well-to-do bride Romina (Érica Rivas) finds out that her newly minted husband Ariel (Diego Gentile) was unfaithful with one of the more attractive wedding guests. The discovery sends her on a rampage that blows up the entire wedding and will have you swept up for the complicated ride of love and jealousy. Szifrón’s storytelling is effective, with each piece cutting to the bone. The stories are short enough to keep even those with short attention spans entertained. Szifrón has a knack for spotting interesting stories to tell that deliver a punch, even if verging on the blunt side.

The score, courtesy of Gustavo Santaolalla, is one that heightens both the tension and humor. Take, for instance, the opening story. When the twist is revealed, a slinky number reminiscent of a western soundtrack will get you excited for what’s to come. The film is a co-production that includes El Deseo Production Company, the outfit headed by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, so it should be no surprise these stories are seeming tragedies that could have been plucked from the headlines and imbued with a dark, even playful sense of humor.

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At its core, Wild Tales deals with the infuriating consequences of lived social inequality at all levels. An uncompromising look at the effects of corruption in government, personal and familial relationships, this movie echoes a disgruntled majority that does not stand for abuse of authority, either state-sanctioned through bureaucratic apparatuses or via economic inequality. It will also echo with international audiences because it presents universal situations that most will find themselves relating with.

Wild Tales runs 122 minutes long, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is rated R (some violent revenge throughout and a bit of sexuality). It opens in South Florida on March 20th at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, Regal South Beach, and Regal Shadowood. For screenings around the country click here. Wild Tales was the opening night film at Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener last year for awards consideration.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Risk-taking was the name of the game at the 32nd annual Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Festival goers had to take many risks in choosing their tickets, as the programming staff took many risks on young, little known filmmakers. As with any such risk-taking, the results were mixed, and that made for surprise standouts but also some disappointments.

This writer saw 22 feature films and three shorts in all at the festival (not counting the four excellent Orson Welles films I am familiar with that screened as part of a retrospective that remains ongoing; details here). That I only liked nine out of all those films at the festival (and this number includes two shorts) made this one of the less impressive festivals I’ve attended in a long time. It was a shame considering last year I mostly had to decide what film I liked less than others to find any weaknesses.

Almost half of the films I saw at the fest were as a juror for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award category, which bestows a first-time feature screenwriter with a $5,000 grant. My fellow jurors included Gary Ressler, whose brother the award pays tribute to. Ressler brought his experience with story development at Disney Studios, working on films from Mulan (1998) to The Incredibles (2004). Mitchell Kaplan, knows what makes a good story, as he is the founder of the Miami chain of the independent book stores, Books & Books, also joined us at screenings and in the deliberation room. It was a pleasure judging with them and an honor to have been included on the jury.

Before a few remarks on some of the contenders, which does not reflect the opinions of my fellow jurors, I might as well note the winner of our award, which also stands as a highlight of the film festival: Theeb. Writer/director Naji Abu Nowar and theeb-021co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour took the prize, which was accepted that night by a very gracious Laith Majali, a producer on the film. The director was unable to attend the award ceremony because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the filmmaking. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience.

As for the quality of the film, it resonated on many levels. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, but it insightfully spoke to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed. Beyond that, the film has a timely quality due to the chaos that seems to constantly brew in the post-colonial world of the Middle East, which has caused generations of suffering and injustice. All of this comes across with a patient, delicate hand. Though the film was slowly paced, even drawn out sequences build toward some pay-off, be it an insight on the setting or the character or a shocking twist in the action. As my fellow juror Gary Ressler said, it says so much in so few words. Majali says he hopes the film gets U.S. distribution and sounds positive that a deal is in the works with a notable indie that specializes in world cinema. When the deal is secure, you can expect a more in-depth review for a film that is sure to continue to make waves in the world cinema stage this year.

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There were several awards given that night including two major ones for a film I didn’t like. Here is the full list of winners:

Knight Competition Grand Jury Prize: The Obscure Spring (Mexico)

Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Performance: Cecilia Suarez, Jose Maria Yazpik and the entire cast of The Obscure Spring

Knight Competition Grand Jury Award Best Director: Abner Benaim – Invasion (Panama/Argentina)

Knight Documentary Achievement Award: Tea Time (Chile/USA), directed by

Lexus Audience Award for Favorite Feature Film: Kamikazee (Spain)

Lexus Audience Favorite Short Film: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)

Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition:  In The Grayscale (Chile)

Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award: Theeb (Jordan/Qatar/UAE/UK)

Park Grove Shorts Competition: Young Lions of Gypsy (Italy/France)

Honorable Mentions: A Tree in the Sea (United Arab Emirates) & Alba Baptista for her performance in Miami (Portugal).

Miami Encuentros: The Apostate (Spain/France/Uruguay)

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Grand Prize winner: The First Day
Audience Award winner: The First Day
Best Documentary: Romana
Best Drama: The First Day
Best Actor: Juan Jimenez – The First Day
Best Actress: Valentina Jimenez – The First Day
Best Director:  Rita Pereyra – The First Day
Best Technical Achievement:  Timothy Wilcox – Top Shelf

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Reflecting on the films in the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award, there were a few strong contenders in the group, including A Girl at My Door, a film from Korea by first-time feature director July Jung. The film stands as a smart, progressive example of story-telling in dealing with sexual orientation while both offering social commentary while staying true to strong storytelling. Almost as strong was Tour de Force (Hin und weg), a film from Germany by Christian Zübert. The film pulled more tears from an audience than I ever heard. It dealt with a group of friends taking a cross-country bike trip to Belgium. It all seems like a fun time until the organizer of the trip reveals the reason for the trip: he was recently diagnosed with ALS … and assisted suicide is legal in Belgium. In the end, there’s a big reckoning for all involved, as the specter of death invites everyone to reevaluate their lives. It was just too bad that the delivery of this message arrived in a self-conscious sort of classical storytelling tinged with sentimentality.

Another decent film in the mix was Love at First Fight (Les combattants). A quirky humor dominated most of this French movie, as Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) gradually fell for tough-girl survivalist Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). When he follows her tolove-at-first-fight-f11 basic training, and she caves under pressure, she starts to fall for him. The two characters then tumble into predictable roles, deflating the original dynamic flirtation between these characters that made the film engaging at the start. This sudden shift in Madeleine’s personality also felt disingenuous to her once interesting character.

Many of the other films in this category suffered by unfortunate turns in plotting that unbelievably betrayed characterization, sacrificing any honesty to the story and disrupting the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. That was the problem with Cut Snake, which could not get character dynamics to click with plot. There’s a twist in the drama toward the end of the film that betrays what could have been an interesting love triangle. Meanwhile, the weirdly disjointed horror/family drama Shrew’s Nest was inconsistent about character development throughout. It reached for mystery but stumbled into incredible convoluted revelations. Then there was 3 Beauties. What should have been an insightful satire into the obsession of beauty pageants in Venezuela, tumbled into poorly managed black comedy that grew tiresome fast, as the filmmakers hammered on the same joke over and over again.

Even outside of required viewing, feature film highlights were few in comparison to the disappoints. We also saw Ben’s At Home, a comedy about a young guy who decides to become a shut-in after his girlfriend breaks up with him … until a beautiful delivery girl shows up. It was cute but grew tiresome fast. Everybody Leaves (Todos se van), based on everybody-leaves-021the popular autobiographical book by Cuban writer Wendy Guerra, had some promise. The film’s narrator was a little girl who looked like Mafalda and is at the center of a custody battle in pre-Mariel era Cuba. Colombian director Sergio Cabrera did a great job capturing the atmosphere of the beach life and the complicated dynamics of a family unraveling in communist Cuba. However, the performances were sometimes uneven, and there was something a little too disturbing about the abuse the little girl suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father.

My partner on this blog, Ana Morgenstern, was on her own for Sunstrokes (Las Insoladas), the second film by Argentinian director Gustavo Taretto, which proved to be another disappointment. Here’s what she had to say about it:

Sunstrokes offers a funny look a 1990s Buenos Aires via six girlfriends who sunbathe on the roof of a building. Each of the characters has a quirk, a personality so distinct it almost errs on the side of stereotypical. Flor (Carla Peterson) is the leading lady of the pack. She instigates some of the action and is the stronger character of the group. Kari is a psychology student, she is interested in esoteric themes, like psychoanalysis through colors. Sol (Maricel Álvarez) is relaxed, and early on reveals sunstrokes-51that she likes to make copies of other people’s photos when they are good. Vicky (Violeta Urtizberea) is a hairdresser whose portrayal almost verges on offensive. As the “naive” one of the bunch, she’s the butt of every joke. At one point in the film, she realizes that Ernesto “Che” Guevara is often referred to as “Che” because of his use of Buenos Aires’ slang. Then there’s Vale (Marina Bellati). Afraid of being alone, she goes everywhere with her dog and does not let the other girls speak ill around him. Finally, the newest of the group, Lala (Luisana Lopilato) is the youngest and is also very gullible. She believes in UFOs and does a great manicure.

Throughout the film the sextet of gal-pals talk about life and decide to work together towards a common goal: to travel to Cuba next summer — all while being featured in tiny bikinis. Each of the side conversations is mundane and motivated to expose the world of women as a vacuous and idle world, void of depth and pathos but filled with easy laughs and lots of skin. The film also draws inspiration from its era, so cassette tapes and tape recorders along with giant cellphones are featured prominently, also for superficial comic effect. In all, the film is a one-dimensional cartoon that almost verges in the misogynistic.”

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Ana did like Wild Tales, though, another film from Argentina. It opened the festival to uproarious laughter that filled the Olympia theater for much of the night. That film will be opening at several theaters in Miami this Friday, including the art houses O Cinema and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. A review is coming soon. Another film that premiered at the festival and coming to local screens very soon is Felix and Meira. It impressed the both of us and tells the story of the emotional wandering of a Hasidic Jewish wife for a secular man who can’t help but flirt with her. Canadian directors François Delisle and Maxime Giroux keep their approach low-key to the benefit of what could have been an overly quirky situation comedy. With the help of strong actors including a former Hasidic Jew who left that life to become an actor (Luzer Twersky) who plays the cuckold husband, the film stood as a highlight of MIFF 32.

The most consistent category for exciting, entertaining and thoughtful work came out the documentary portion of the festival. There were some big hype titles like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Wim Wenders’ return to the MIFF with Salt of the Earth, a film he co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado on the photography of his father, Sebastião Salgado. But the most thrilling documentary I saw was The Record Man, the-record-man-061-1024x576a film that looked at the life of Henry K. Stone, founder of Hialeah’s TK Records, which is best known for having produced some of the most popular Disco hits of the ’70s. Now, I never liked disco that much. However, the film swept me off my feet, and I was absolutely delighted by the storytelling behind songs like “Ring My Bell,” “Rock Me Baby” and “Get Down Tonight.” That Stone saw past race and color to support songs he felt had quality spoke to his purist approach to his business, and the film paints an affectionate portrait of the so-called “record man” that will win anyone over to the genre because it so genuinely celebrates music and the passion of those behind it.

Another smaller documentary that celebrated a different kind of artist was Architecture of Color, which focused on Rio de Janeiro artist Beatriz Milhazes. Like Record Man, it featured talking heads and a straight-forward approach. However, like Record Man, the film never loses its focus on emphasizing the art. As Record Man is at its best when it highlights the songs, Architecture of Color is at its most interesting when we are watching Milhazes create. Architecture of Color screened with another notable documentary, the 11-minute short “Papa Machete,” which was made by local filmmakers director Jonathan David Kane and producer/writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. It’s a film I have happily covered extensively for “Miami New Times” only because it is so good (read the articles here).

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I saw only one other locally-made documentary of note, The Holders. It certainly highlighted an important issue: the throw-away treatment of many pets in the Miami-Dade County area. Director Carla Forte provides an array of voices, from those working in public animal shelters to veterinarians to passionate, sometimes zealous animal rights activists. Most interesting, however, are the titular “holders,” who are ambivalent pet-owners prepared to give up their pets to certain euthanasia at animal shelters because the pet has become an inconvenience. The camera almost never identifies them but shoots them vérité style, from the shoulders down, at the shelter, as they nonchalantly give excuses as to why they can no longer “hold” them (too sick, the family’s moving, the dog pisses the carpet, etc.). It’s compelling stuff, which is unfortunately what made the film’s righteous tone, including an overly-sentimental voice-over featuring poetry that spoke of the intelligence and soul of animals, feel so heavy-handed. Still, those who think owning a pet might be “fun” should watch this documentary because, indeed, they are taking in another family member and all the responsibility that comes with such a decision.

There were other films we covered already on Independent Ethos. Check those out, including interviews and reviews, by following the Miami International Film Festival tag. It was a memorable festival, and I really feel humbled by executive director Jaie Laplante’s faith in my opinion to be granted an influence on blessing one of this year’s films with an award. Meeting fellow film lovers, filmmakers and film critics from out-of-town was also a great highlight. Tis an important part of the festival experience, and that stands as a great highlight of this year’s festival too. We attended several parties and had many intelligent conversations and some fun times. I only hope for more movies to love next year.

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Hans Morgenstern

(All images courtesy of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. Text copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Posthumous_Poster_2-724x1024With her feature film debut, Posthumous, which had its North American premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, indie writer/director Lulu Wang says she set out to find a fine balance between drama and comedy. The film follows out-of-work reporter McKenzie Grain (Brit Marling) who investigates her suspicions about a supposed posthumous exhibition for an at-best mediocre artist, Liam Price (Jack Huston). It doesn’t help that the gallery owner, Daniel S. Volpe (Lambert Wilson) is a twitchy bundle of nerves whenever McKenzie asks her nosy questions.

Wang says she wanted to allow the situations to speak for themselves, so she instructed the actors to bring a sort of gravitas to their performances that doesn’t amp up the jokes but, rather, brings them down to earth. “We weren’t going for the jokes, but the humor was in the situation or with the camera work,” says the filmmaker. “I talked to my DP a lot about that, about the framing and how we can use the camera to highlight the lightness of the situation. I wanted the characters to be dramatic because I feel like, in my life, I can be very dramatic. People I know can be very dramatic about their situations, even though from the outside it could look very ridiculous, so I wanted the actors to know that they were not in a comedy.”

P0sthumous Posthumous Film GmbH 20.10.2012,  day 06 scene 3 Kaleb and Daniel chatting. Persona  Daniel Volpe 		(Lambert Wilson) Persona  Kaleb 			(Nikolai Kinski) McKenzie and Erik chatting. Daniel joins them. Persona  McKenzie Grain 	(Brit Marling) Persona  Erik Adler 			(Alexander Fehling) McKenzie in conversation with Ben. Persona  McKenzie Grain 	(Brit Marling) Persona  Ben 				(Tom Schilling) photo: Stefan Erhard

As with many independent movies, there were a few false starts. There were periods Wang thought that the film was greenlit and ready to begin production, and various production designers came and went. What could be disheartening to some allowed the director to get to know her film’s setting better: the city of Berlin. Wang, who lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Miami, says she spent somewhere around two to three years scouting locations in Berlin with different production designers, staying in the city for months at a time. She eventually came to fall in love with the city. The film features a bright color palette, reflecting the lightness of the film’s drama and humor. When asked about the film’s high-contrast, brilliant quality, she says, “Berlin really helps with that … Usually they shoot World War II movies in Berlin. We didn’t feel like there were that many movies in the mainstream that have really captured the artistic nature of Berlin.”

She says the capital city of Germany is much brighter than most would think. “Even in the restaurants they’ll have pools of light,” she notes. “They create spaces using light, and that’s what we tried to do also. My DP and I would talk about orange and blue light or green light for the night scenes and how to create corners and more dimension with lighting.”

Posthumous Posthumous Film GmbH 01.12.2012,  day 31 scene 76 STUDIO / LIAM Liam is hard at work. Persona  Liam Price		(Jack Huston) photo: Stefan Erhard

She also notes Berlin is an amazing city for art, and the film is rich in capturing that. Art not only figures into the movie’s plot, but it appears throughout the film in many settings, not just in Liam’s studio or Daniel’s gallery. “I love the amount of art on the streets,” says the director. “It’s much more diplomatic. There’s a balance of what’s being seen on the street and what’s being shown on the galleries’ white walls, and there’s also a lot of pop up spaces. People are really utilizing abandoned buildings to create a restaurant or gallery.”

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You can read more about Wang’s casting coup for her first feature as well as the old-time films that inspired her after jumping through the logo for Miami New Times art and culture blog “Cultist,” where I wrote much more about my chat with Wang ahead of her film’s Friday premiere at the Miami International film festival:

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Posthumous has on more screening at MIFF, today, Saturday, March 14, at 4 p.m. at the Cinepolis in Coconut Grove. Tickets are $13. Call 844-565-6433 or visit this link for tickets.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster 700x1000 AFIn her most recent role as the lead in They Are All Dead (Todos están muertos), which had its U.S. premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, Spanish actress Elena Anaya plays an agoraphobic mother of a teenage boy (Christian Bernal) who lives with her mother (Angélica Aragón). Lupe, a former pop-rock star from the golden age of Spanish rock (la movida), becomes a shut-in after the death of her brother and former bandmate Diego (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Lupe has been in her house for years and the mere thought of facing the world fills her with anxiety. Anaya, who’s probably most widely recognized for her appearance in films by Pedro Almodóvar, gives a powerful performance, one that earned her the Best Actress award at the Malaga Film Festival.

In a recent conversation with Anaya, during a stop at MIFF with the film, she says of her character, “[Lupe] is a sort of princess that is locked up in her tower, fearful to all the outside ghosts that are nothing but ghosts from the past.”

The moving performance shows a woman who struggles for each word, a perfect fit for a former musician who has been through terrible loss and has since abandoned her craft. Without an outlet, Lupe feels constrained by her own body. “At the beginning of the movie, Lupe’s body is tight and contracted. She cannot relax into her own. It was a feeling that cannot be transmitted with words. I used gestures,” explains Anaya.

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While Lupe is in the midst of her own sorrow, her 14-year-old son is being raised by another strong female presence, Lupe’s mother Paquita, a Mexican woman who is as strong as she is filled with folkloric beliefs. Chief among them is her conviction that for Lupe to move on, she has to settle unfinished business with her dead brother. Día de los Muertos provides the perfect excuse for Paquita to try to get her daughter out of the house.

Paquita also feels the pressure of her own mortality, as her grandson will be needing his mother soon. “One of the main themes behind the script is being able to say goodbye to someone that left without saying goodbye,” says Anaya. For director Beatriz Sanchís the theme is a very personal one, as Anaya reveals. “When Sanchís was very young a close friend of hers died suddenly in an accident, and she had fantasized with what would happen if she could run into him and say goodbye.” Indeed, the film has a personal feel to it, filled with nostalgia. It also intimately examines the lives of these characters. However, it is Lupe who has to carry the story.

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It was a challenging role for Anaya, which the actress took to heart. “This film is being told from a woman’s point of view.” And it is in this role that finds Anaya a complex, multidimensional individual feeling the weight of loss, the pressures of motherhood and the need to connect before being able to find her own way. “It’s a story about family, life, about death, about music, about forgiveness, so many different things,” she says in a sweet tone.

She credits Sanchís in helping her prepare, so she could inhabit this character long before shooting began. “I was very lucky to have Beatriz’s help months before official rehearsals began,” she says. “I was able to get to know this character well, being able to live her fears and feel them in every pore of my body.”

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Anaya certainly throws her whole body into this performance, and her transformation through Lupe jumps off the screen, in particular when she is behind the keyboard in footage shot on video of happier times on stage. Anaya found her inspiration for the rock star portion of the role in Ana Curra, a Spanish keyboardist best known for her role in Alaska Y Los Pegamoides. Her personal story is actually similar to the one depicted in They Are All Dead. “It was pure coincidence,” notes Anaya but explains that her look and photos of her melancholic gaze helped Anaya envision what it would have been like to be part of the booming rock scene in Spain in the 1980s.

“It’s a new film for me that was new from all perspectives,” adds the actress. While the role is a new endeavor for the actress, it was also very personal. “I recently lost my parents,” she mentions, but adds, “Death is part of life, and it is something that we all have to accept. That is why the film was so good for me.” With a combination of the rock scene in Spain in the 1980s — a golden age for that movement — imaginative moments through a narrative of Day of the Dead and some very sweet exchanges among family members, both living and dead, the film takes risks and delivers a touching story that shines through Anaya’s performance.

Ana Morgenstern

They Are All Dead does not have U.S. distribution, but hopefully someone will consider this movie, so others can see it. It premiered in the U.S. at the Miami Dade College Miami International Film Festival this week. The festival concludes on Sunday.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Las Oscuras Primaveras

It’s getting hard to keep track of the films and parties, heck, even the days at Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival. Just Tuesday, I was struck by an empty Regal Cinemas on Miami Beach and wondered if I went to the wrong venue on the wrong day. Thankfully, I have not lost my mind that bad. It just turned out that the jury for the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriter Award, which I am a member of, had a private screening for A Girl at My Door, an East Coast premiere from the Republic of Korea. Later that day we had to see Tour de Force, a U.S. premiere from Germany, and last night we watched They Are All Dead, a U.S. premiere from Spain. Those are films I cannot comment on … yet, but I will note that my partner will soon offer an interview with the lead actress of They Are All DeadElena Anaya. Watch for that tomorrow morning.

The final jury screenings are Friday evening. They include Shrew’s Nest, a co-production from France and Spain that will have its Florida premiere, and Theeb, which comes out of the Arabian Peninsula, also a Florida premiere. Jury deliberation then commences, and the winner will be announced Saturday night, before the screening of Sidetracked at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.

In the meantime, there are still films I am trying to catch as a critic and journalist for the Miami New Times. Jump through the logo for the paper’s “Cultist” art and culture blog below to find my latest review for the film pictured at the top of this post, The Obscure Spring:

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Spoiler alert: I was not very impressed. Out on newsstands now, however, the paper’s film section features an article I wrote trying squeeze in as many recommendations for movies still screening at the festival. You can read some of it online right here:

Miami Film Festival 2015: Five Movies to See in the Final Week

Still ahead, I hope to see more movies and report back on how the festival ended by early next week. There are lots of recommendations, premieres and interesting films to catch (for instance, the remaining features in the “Visions” category), so stay tuned. Tomorrow, the Miami New Times “Cultist” blog will publish an interview I did with first-time feature director Lulu Wang, who spoke to me about her film Posthumous, which stars Brit MarlingJack Huston and Lambert Wilson. It’s a notable indie comedy that will have its North American premiere at the festival.

Finally, tune in to WLRN 91.3 FM at around 5:30 p.m. today, if you are in the Miami area, or wlrn.org to stream my live interview about some more films coming up during the festival. Or just skip the wait and play it here. I was asked to give some advice to aspiring filmmakers and share what films have so far impressed me while I was still previewing some of the movies coming to the film festival. Here’s a trailer for one them:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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