A re-cap of a hectic half-attended, still impressive Miami International Film Festival 31

March 18, 2014

31 PlainThe Miami International Film Festival has just wrapped up another year of quality film premieres. Film for film, it may have featured the highest-quality programming I have seen at the festival ever. Unlike last year (Final weekend at MIFF: Trueba tribute, awards and aquatic-themed films), I hardly found a film to complain about at the 31st MIFF, but also I did not find the time to blog a daily diary of film-going experiences. Most of my time this year was spent providing content for the “Miami New Times” and its art and culture blog “Cultist.”

It began with a few preview pieces (Miami International Film Festival Announces Full 2014 Lineup). MIFF Executive Director Jaie Laplante has always made himself easily accessible, so it wasn’t hard to get him to admit to some favorites ahead of ticket sales (Catch MIFF Director Jaie Laplante’s Favorite Picks). We also talked about this year’s Florida Focus element, which featured more local filmmakers at MIFF than I can recall. I provided an exclusive report on that to “Pure Honey” (read it here).

Ectotherms - Still

One local filmmaker I was particularly impressed by was Monica Peña, whose short feature Ectotherms had its world premiere at MIFF. She was the only filmmaker I had a chance to interview at the festival besides actor/director John Turturro (more on his film, Fading Gigolo, which stars Woody Allen, in May). I was struck by the film’s patient, languorous quality, the warm, improvised performances of the actors and the associative narrative that turned death and arson into an incidental subplot. It’s a strange, compelling film that offers an appropriately surreal glimpse of a Miami few outside of the city know (read the interview here).

I had a chance to preview a handful of films before the festival began, which resulted in several reviews. None of these films were weak, but if there was one that was the weakest, it was Web. It’s strength lay in its subject: the One Laptop Per Child Program that began a few years ago. The program was designed to provide laptop computers to children in developing countries. Director Michael Kleiman went to two villages in Peru without running water and negligible electricity, much less Internet connectivity, to see how this program affected these small communities. He came away with an interesting picture about the ongoing effect of globalization. The question was not whether these tools could provide opportunities for people to advance with technology, but whether it would speed them along to irrelevance and ultimately a loss of culture. There were times when the director inserted himself too much into the piece, but when one villager begs Kleiman to not forget his family when he returns to life in the big city, it feels like a moving plea to conserve their culture.

Another startling documentary involving the web featured a more distant perspective, if a bit affected by a morose soundtrack: Web Junkie. Filmmakers Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam were somehow able to get a camera crew into a rehab camp in China for teenage Internet addicts. Web_JunkieCut off from the only thing that provided these male youths pleasure, the kids come across as pathetically desperate. When an off-camera voice asks one child why he is in the camp, he breaks down crying and replies, “because I used the Internet.” What may seem humorous at first gradually reveals a rather sad picture of a country that has taken it upon itself to raise children for families who have grown frustrated with their only kids.

From the extreme of these serious documentaries, there were a couple of truly humorous films from Latin America that added some delight to the mix. Club Sandwich by Fernando Eimbcke, the director of Duck Season, offered a rather shameless look at a young teenager’s sexual awakening while on summer vacation with his mother. What at first felt like an awkward film exploring a Oedipal complex takes a refreshing turn when the boy meets a girl at the resort he and his mom have escaped to. It’s still very awkward, as hormones remain the main motivator and not romance.

Another oddly humorous film in this mix was a U.S. Premiere: All About the Feathers. It came from Costa Rica and stood out as a quality work from a country you might have never thought of as having a film industry. It indulged in a deadpan sense of humor and focused on people often relegated to the periphery of life. All_About_the_FeathersThe film followed Chalo (Allan Cascante) a security guard and his quest to become a cock fighter. Rounding out this vibrant cast that miraculously never went over-the-top and silly, is a house maid who pushes Chalo to try selling Avon products, a young fruit vendor with a talent for the trumpet and a reformed delinquent who now works with Chalo. Featuring brilliantly composed, patient and distant shots, the film reveals just how important sincerity is to humor.

The most impressive film of this group of reviews had to be The Summer of Flying Fish, from Chilean director Marcela Said. A beautifully made, exquisitely patient film. Said, who has only directed documentaries until this film, shows an impressive eye and ear for building atmosphere. The land is often shrouded in fog, and a surreal ambient music permeates the many quiet interludes between the verbose fights between a privileged daughter and her wealthy land owner father, as the indigenous Mapuche people grow more and more restless. It all builds toward a potent finale that reveals a rather dreadful perspective on class divisions.

To read longer reviews in “Cultist” of these interesting films, jump through the titles below:

Web

Club Sandwich

All About the Feathers

Web Junkie

The Summer of Flying Fish

Summer_of_Flying_Fish

Then it was on to the festival itself. I skipped the opulent opening night party and film, Elsa & Fred, on Friday night, and made The Immigrant the first film I saw, on Saturday. The James Gray film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, was one of five films I dared to suggest as must-sees for “Cultist” (read that article here). For me, it did not live up to such hype. Though the film was beautifully staged, the characters felt a bit inconsistent. While Cotilliard’s Polish immigrant character at first felt rather heart-breaking (maybe it was the little voice she used pleading for her sister?), she later turned a tad too feisty to feel believable. Phoenix has returned to acting in fine form, a renaissance which began with the last Gray film he did: Two Lovers. However, whatever dynamism he was granted here did not suit him as well. Sometimes it all just boiled over into too much melodrama.

Another film I also recommended in the article but felt a bit disappointed by was The Sacrament, the latest film by Ti West. I was expecting him to give us something more than a simple take on the Jonestown massacre, but he did not. West was present at the screening and took questions from film critic David Edelstein and some of the audience members. The SacramentI also spoke with him for a bit afterward. He really seemed genuine about his attempt to come to terms with the horror of Jonestown. There were some seeming plot gaps, which he even admitted to leaving open due to budget and time constraints. Who’s to say if it would have ultimately mattered? It’s not like this story needs a gimmick to make it more terrible than it was. As West said, the true horror is what men are capable of doing with followers who have given up everything else.

In between those two films, I squeezed in a documentary: The Notorious Mr. Bout. It was a somewhat humorous film about a rather infamous figure involved with the black market gun trade. He happened to be the man who inspired the Nicholas Cage character in The Lord of War. The film successfully establishes Bout as a resourceful man from post-communist Russia starting an import-export company. He happened to ship guns on the side, but he became a typical easy target when the media began to be intrigued by his persona. Though his morals were loose, there is nothing incriminating Bout as wanting to support terrorists who wanted to kill Americans, but that’s still why he was jailed. By focusing on a person, the film actually presents what’s wrong with a justice system that wants to find blame in a persona when what really maybe wrong is a system that thrives on war.

The following day, a Sunday, began early with an afternoon master class by Chilean filmmaker/critic/author Alberto Fuguet. He’s the director behind one of my favorite movies at MIFF 31: Locations: Looking For Rusty James. Held at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, the hour-plus talk and slide show was entitled “A Very Bright Future: The End of Movies as We Know Them.” Alberto_FuguetIt was an enthusiastic talk by Fuguet that embraced the continuing digital revolution of cinema. It’s something I have been coming to terms with for a while now (To accept the death of celluloid), and Fuguet’s talk just provided another positive argument of not just coming to terms with digital as the replacement to 35mm but celebrating it for its possibilities of making more personal cinema and allowing for a larger range of voices beyond those with a lot of money who are more concerned with profit over art. You can read my full report here.

After his talk, I caught up with Fuguet to let him know how much I appreciated his documentary/film essay dedicated to Rumble Fish, as it too stands as my all-time favorite film (My personal favorite film: ‘Rumble Fish;’ read my ode to Coppola’s underrated masterpiece in AFI). He was thrilled to meet another devotee and shared that he was next headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Francis Ford Coppola shot Rumble Fish, and he, in turn, shot Locations. He was going to receive the key to the city on March 19, a day when his film will screen alongside Rumble Fish during a double feature at Circle Cinema in Tulsa. That day will then be officially declared Rumble Fish Day in that city (read more).

The class and conversation proved an invigorating day to begin day two of MIFF. I would only catch two other films that day, La La Jaula de Oro by Mexican director Diego Quemada-Díez and Fading Gigolo. La Jaula de Oro, which translates to “The Golden Cage,” but is ironically titled “The Golden Dream” for U.S. release, seemed similar to 2009’s Sin Nombre, but felt a tad more harrowing with younger protagonists who seemed to have even less of a fighting chance to make it. Indeed,  La Jaula de Oro was quite merciless in its take on their situation. The film follows four young teens leaving Guatemala in hopes of a better life in the United States. The trip is filled with peril, and only one of them makes it to the U.S. in the end. The way the children dropped out of the action, as if they were metaphorically ground up the inevitable dangers of crossing borders illegally, made for a powerful film.

The director was present for questions and answers after the film. He said the events in the film were inspired by true stories, as he worked closely with many immigrants during his research. la_jaula_de_oroMost of the extras were actual immigrants, and he said he hardly had to direct them. He even hired non-actors for the main parts. His approach is clearly neo-realism, as he worked under Ken Loach before directing this film. It was also beautifully shot and less earthy than you might expect for such a film.

Making it to the next screening proved to be an example of just how difficult it is to attend MIFF screenings at different venues. Miami is a sprawling city and with screenings in Miami Beach, Downtown Miami, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove and Wynwood, it can feel even more difficult to make it on time to screenings in different locations. I dared to have a sit-down dinner in between these two screenings, but ended up rushing to Downtown Miami for the Turturro film and career tribute, which was screened at a sold out Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center. I found a seat during the middle of Laplante’s opening speech, high up near the rafters,  as the lights dimmed for a montage of his film career. My full report on the rest of the evening can be read here.

I enjoyed the film. It maintained its tone throughout as laughs came consistently from the audience. Woody Allen co-starred with Turturro, who played the titular character. It’s a rich film that embraces the complexities of romance for more experienced individuals (read: older) while still maintaining a sense of humor:  Allen, after all, plays pimp to Turturro’s florist-turned-gigolo.

John Turturro at MIFF career tribute. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The next day, I had a one-on-one chat with Turturro outdoors in Miami Beach that went twice as long as it should have, as it would turn out we would have a great rapport. Details of that interview will have to wait until May, when the film sees release in the Miami area and the “Miami New Times” will publish the resulting story.

The rest of that Monday was spent writing, so I could not attend any screenings. The following Tuesday, however, would turn out to be my closing night for this year’s festival, as a previously scheduled vacation loomed for the following day. It would turn out to be a dynamic day, even though it would only include two films, a documentary and a feature.

Supermensch – The Legend of Shep Gordon may stand as the most delightful film I caught at the festival. It was a surreal viewing experience, as I sat right behind the film’s subject at the screening. Gordon, a manager to such celebrities as Alice Cooper and Michael Douglas, seemed genuinely modest about being the subject of a film by actor/comedian-turned-director Mike Myers. The admiration so many celebrities have for Gordon stands as testament as how down-to-earth this man is. It seems to be how he has maintained such trusting relationships with clients over the years. His accessibility seems quite inspirational to Myers who kept the appreciation light and brisk, even with moments of serious exploration that showed that even a lovable character like Gordon can be lonely, too. The editing, also by Myers, featured masterfully interwoven vintage footage synched to voice overs of so many great stories, it never felt as though the film lagged. Gordon received a rousing round of applause ahead of a Q&A with more compelling stories from his past that kept much of the audience in their seats.

The second film of that night was Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive. It made for a great closer for this mini-MIFF. Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving vampires with brilliant respect. Beyond the cute jokes like the names Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) for the leads, Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures who still have a touch of soulful humanity in them. It’s fitting that the youngest of them, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed, is the most troublesome. By the same token, it’s also apt that Adam would tend to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics, “spooky action at a distance.” The sumptuously absorbing score by Jozef van Wissem is an inspired choice for a composer. I was glad I recommended it in my last must-see listicle for “Cultist.”

I was also able to catch Heli in that last list of must-see MIFF films. It may have been the most powerful of all the MIFF films encountered at the festival. Ana Morgenstern will provide a review ahead of its theatrical release in South Florida in the next few months.

Awards for the closing night of the festival were handed out on Saturday night. The winners included many films I did not get around to seeing (I did only attend about half the festival, after all). Some of these will probably appear at other festivals while others will actually see theatrical release. I’ll leave you with the full list of winners, beginning with the audience award winners:

 # # #

Lexus Audience Award:

Best Feature: Fading Gigolo directed by John Turturro (USA).

Best Documentary: The Mountain (La montaña) directed by Tabaré Blanchard (Dominican Republic).

The other awards were announced Sunday:

Knight Competition:

Knight Grand Jury Prize: A Wolf at the Door (O lobo atrás da porta) (Brazil, directed by Fernando Coimbra).

Grand Jury Best Performance: Nora Navas of We All Want What’s Best For Her (Tots volem el millor per a ella) directed by Mar Coll (Spain).

Grand Jury Best Director: Fernando Coimbra of A Wolf at the Door (O lobo atrás da porta) (Brazil).

Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award:

Winner: Mateo written by Maria Gamboa (Colombia/France).

Knight Documentary Competition:

The jury selected two films to tie as winners in this category for the Knight Grand Jury Prize:

Finding Vivian Maier, directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof (USA).

The Overnighters, directed by Jesse Moss (USA).

Lexus Ibero-American Opera Prima Competition:

The jury selected a winner and an honorable mention in this category:

Mateo directed by Maria Gamboa (Colombia/France)

Honorable Mention: The jury would also like to give special recognition to We are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) directed by Samuel Kishi Leopo (Mexico).

Papi Shorts Competition Presnted By Macy’s:

Papi Shorts Grand Jury Award for Best Short Film: A Big Deal (特殊交易) directed by Yoyo Yao China of China will receive $1,000. The film made it’s US premiere at the festival this year.

Honorable Mention: The jury would also like to give special recognition to Skin directed by Cédric Prévost (France). The film made its North American premiere at the festival this year.

The above award winning films joined completion winners in other categories, announced earlier in the week at the Festival including:

Miami Encuentros presented by Moviecity

WINNER: Aurora (Chile, produced by Florencia Larrea, directed by Rodrigo Sepulveda) will receive a pre-sale contract offer worth $35,000.

Miami Future Cinema Critics Award

Winner: To Kill A Man (Matar un hombre) (Chile / France, directed by Alejandro Fernández Almendras).

Reel Music Video Art Competition Presented By MTV Latin America and TR3s

Winner: “Around the Lake” (“Autour Du Lac”) directed by Noémie Marsily & Carl Roosens of Belgium. The music video was performed by Carl et les hommes-boîtes. The winner will receive an opportunity to be placed on MTV Latin America and Tr3s websites.

SIGNIS Award

The International Jury of SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, formed by: Gustavo Andújar, president, and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki and Juan José Rodríguez, members, give their SIGNIS Award to Belle directed by Amma Asante for its multi-layered depiction of the challenges to the value of human life and dignity wherever a profit-driven system makes commodification of persons acceptable. Masterly crafted, the film lifts up a variety of issues of conscience which still confront us today.

 # # #

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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