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The 33rd edition of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival featured some strong movies, including at least a couple of films that this writer will remember by this year’s end as some of the best cinema had to offer in 2016. It might seem to early to recognize this, but when a movie makes you feel this way, it’s a rare and undeniable sensation. You just know when you see a masterstroke of cinema. That said, films that were not so inspiring were also easy to spot. Though, I can’t say I saw any all out stinkers this year.

Probably the most brilliant film of the final days of the festival was a documentary (to read about earlier films we’ve seen, check our previous article: The 33rd Miami International Film Festival – so far). Weiner follows disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, who was done in by his apparent compulsion to flirt and sext with young supporters. He resigned from his long-held seat in Congress in 2011, went into consulting work, but then made a bid for mayor of New York City, in 2013. The documentary looks back on this campaign, as it imploded due to the same kind of scandal that forced him out of Congress.

Weiner is a tragi-comic account on various levels. Filmmaker Josh Kriegman and his co-director, Elyse Steinberg, hold nothing back, while documenting the politician’s failed return to politics. It’s sad for the good intentions that inform his policy and for what he puts Huma Abedin, his wife and mother of their 2-year-old son, through, as the cameras relentlessly document every detail of the campaign falling apart, as yet another sexting scandal emerges. Yet Kriegman and Steinberg find the humor throughout. Every scene is brilliantly edited to heighten comic timing. In a Q&A after the screening, I asked Kriegman why he would use such a jokey tone to cut the film. He noted that he has known Weiner since before he married Abedin, a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton. Kriegman then went on to say the film’s tone was a reflection of his subject, noting Weiner actually has a sense of humor about it all. Although, Kriegman admitted, neither Abedin nor Weiner have seen the final film.

Josh Kriegman and Thom Powers

Thom Powers, the festival’s documentary programmer (pictured to Kriegman’s left on stage in the image above) said we were only the third audience to have seen Weiner, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It blew away critics and audiences at that festival, coming away with the Grand Jury Prize. Sundance Selects has since picked it up, and it will hit theaters in May.

Less likely to hit commercial theaters is The King of Havana, a rather grim story that unfolds in Havana (but was shot in the Dominican Republic) during the early ‘90s. It was known as a period of especially harsh destitution for the population of Cuba, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Agusti Villaronga’s adaptation of Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s novel follows Rey (Maykol David Tortoló), a young man who is sent to a juvenile prison after being falsely accused in the deaths of some family members. After he escapes, he embraces a hard scramble life on the streets of Havana and takes to his name (it means “king” in Spanish) despite it all, thanks to his only natural rich endowment: a large cock.

The gritty and episodic nature of the film recalls Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981). There’s humor to be found, and the life and energy the lead actors bring to the film is incredibly charming, especially in the triangle of affection between Rey, his “wife” Magda (Yordanka Ariosa) and his transgender friend Yunisleidi (Héctor Medina). Some of the supporting performances, especially at the beginning, don’t measure up, however, setting up the film for an uphill battle to win over the audience’s suspension of disbelief. But it’s still a strong film, as it builds toward an inevitably tragic finale, punctuated by a disturbingly bleak end note for our hero.

Speaking of grim finales, the final film that I caught at the festival was Chronic by Mexican director Michel Franco, whose filmmaking style I fell in love with two festivals ago with After Lucia (Film Review: ‘After Lucia’ holds unflinching lens to bullying). With his first English language film, he stays true to his style, even opening the film from the view of a car dashboard. Though, here, the resonance of the shot is a bit diminished, considering the plot hardly involves a car, unlike After Lucia. The static, stationary shots focus on the complex personality of a nurse (Tim Roth) who assists patients in need of daily at home care. He seems to find great fulfillment in caring for these people, and the long shots capture that marvelously. However, there’s a profound loss of persona away from the patients, which oozes out of him in creepy ways. It’s a testament to both Roth’s performance and Franco’s style.

Franco was present at the screening, who spoke about getting to know the woman who took care of his grandmother in her final years. He said she inspired him to write the script. He said he met Roth at Cannes, when the actor was the president of the 2012 Certain Regard jury, which awarded its prize to After Lucia. He said Roth told him if he could make the nurse a man, he would be happy to play the role for free. And the rest was history.

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There were two more films I caught at the end of the festival that were less interesting though I would not exactly call them bombs. The closing night movie, The Steps by Canadian director Andrew Currie, featuring James Brolin, Jason Ritter and Christine Lahti was as predictable as it could be for a family drama that begs for its characters to connect and come to terms with their differences at the end. That doesn’t mean the journey to the film’s conclusion wasn’t sometimes fun. There were some hilarious moments that kept the film engaging to its warm and fuzzy ending. But it’s still just one of those minor movies that one will forget having seen, come next year.

Then there was the Spanish “comedy about life,” Truman, featuring a pair of Spanish language cinema’s most well-known actors, Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara. It’s an over-long, meandering film, featuring a pair of friends who argue with a modest, even tone. It speaks to a friendship between guys that hardly scratches their emotional surface, even when faced with the fact that one of them is dying. It’s an admirable premise, but it begs for a more distinctive touch in writing and directing by Cesc Gay. It never seems to rise to what is supposed to be a climactic touch that speaks to the film’s title, which refers to one of the friends’ dog. It’s a sweet film, at times, but like The Steps, not quite as memorable a movie.

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The awards were handed out on Saturday night. It concluded with a party in the posh Brickell area of Downtown Miami, where the audience award winners were tallied after the closing night film. The short film winner was “Tracks” and the feature film winner ended up being a tie between the Spanish comedy Spy Time and the Cuban drama The Companion. We’ll leave you with the breakdown of the other winners, from the festival’s penultimate press release, summing up one of the most exciting festivals I have seen or been a part of since I’ve been attending in the mid-1990s.

KNIGHT COMPETITION, presented by The John S. & James L. Knight Foundation

Jury members Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Selton Mello and Trey Edward Shults selected the winners.

  • Knight Grand Jury Prize: Dheepan (France), produced by Pascal Caucheteux and Jacques Audiard
  • Grand Jury Award Best Performance: Zhao Tao in Mountains May Depart (China)
  • Grand Jury Award Best Director: Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster (Ireland/Greece)

KNIGHT DOCUMENTARY ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, presented by The John S. & James L. Knight Foundation

The Award winner was selected by the Festival audience.

  • Queen of Thursdays (USA), produced by Jorge Alvarez, Orlando Rojas and Dennis Scholl

LEXUS IBERO-AMERICAN FEATURE FILM COMPETITION

Jury members Carlos Lechuga,Leticia Tonos Paniagua and Kenny Riches selected the winning film.

  • Paulina (La patota) (Argentina), directed by Santiago Mitre

JORDAN ALEXANDER RESSLER SCREENWRITING AWARD

Jury members Rosa Bosch,Jorge Guerricaechevarria and Diego Lerman selected the winner. This special award recognizes and supports first-time produced screenwriters. Screenwriters from all feature films in the Festival that have a first-produced feature screenwriter credited, compete for a jury-selected cash prize of $5,000, courtesy of the family of the late Jordan Alexander Ressler.

  • Lorenzo Vigas for From Afar (Venezuela/Mexico)

Earlier in the week, four other major Festival awards were presented:

Shorts Competition

The latest in films 30 minutes or less from around the globe, the jury-selected winner received a $2,500 cash prize.

  • “The Man of My Life” (France) directed by Melanie Delloye

MIAMI ENCUENTROS presented by Knight Foundation

The winning project in post-production received the Achievement Award, which includes a $10,000 cash prize.

  • The Candidate (Uruguay), produced by Micaela Sole and Daniel Hendler

Miami Film 2016 presented by The Related Group

Three prizes were awarded to Argentine films in development.

  • Diego Lerman for A Sort of Family
  • Gonzalo Tobal for Dolores
  • Camilla Toker for The Death of Marga Maier

CINEMASLAM

Jury members Carla Forte, Giancarlo Loffredo and Alouishous San Gomma selected the winner in the Miami student film competition.

  • “I Want To Beat Up Clark Peters” by Joseph Picozzi (University of Miami’s School of Communications)

Hans Morgenstern

Except for the photos of Weiner director Josh Kriegman in conversation with Thom Powers, all images were provided by the Miami International Film Festival. The festival also provided tickets to all screenings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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It was NOT a complete reveal of what’s in store for 2016, but in a press release that came out yesterday, Miami Dade College’s 33rd Miami International Film Festival announced 15 titles that it will premiere in Miami at next year’s festival (March 4 – 13). The announcement kicks off with the unveiling of the festival’s opening night film, My Big Night (Mi Gran Noche), by Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia. The comedy should make for anther grandiose opening for the festival at the ornate, 1,710-seat Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. The 32nd annual festival opened with another raucous Spanish-language film, the Argentine film Wild Tales (Wild Tales doesn’t turn the other cheek — A Film Review).

My Big Night features Spanish pop singer Raphael (pictured above) playing a fictionalized version of himself. He will attend the screening as the festival’s opening night special guest. The movie’s story is set at a television studio, during a 2016 New Year’s Eve program where Murphy’s Law seems in full effect. I recommend checking out Jonathan Holland’s review of the film in The Hollywood Reporter for a balanced take. Regardless of his view, you will know whether this is your kind of movie or not. He calls it “madcap” in the traditional sense.

The film’s director has appeared at the Miami International Film Festival with three other films in the past, including Witching and Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi) in 2014, The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta), which screened at MIFF 2011 and Perfect Crime (Crimen ferpecto) which screened at the 2005 festival. But, for this writer, he will always be the guy that gave Spanish cinema the most insane performance ever by Javier Bardem in Perdita Durango (1997), which didn’t play the festival but has become a cult classic.

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Spain seems to be a major focus for next year’s MIFF, considering the other titles announced in the press release. Below my signature you will find the full release with all the films announced thus far plus details for tickets and a few other notable events, including the opening night party and a seminar on animation.

Hans Morgenstern

Álex de la Iglesia’s My Big Night (Mi Gran Noche) Opens an Outstanding Spanish Selection at Miami Dade College’s 33rd Miami International Film Festival

Star-studded comedy heralds an incredible line-up

 of Spanish films debuting in Miami in 2016

Miami, FL — Álex de la Iglesia, one of Spain’s most charismatic and dynamic filmmakers, will open Miami Dade College’s 33rd Miami International Film Festival on March 4, 2016, with his new film My Big Night (Mi Gran Noche), starring Spanish pop icon Raphael and an ensemble cast of many of the biggest stars in the Spanish film industryThe Festival is the only major film festival produced worldwide by a college or university.

In a sly performance of self-referencing parody, Raphael plays “Alphonso”, a legendary pop singer with over 50 years of chart-topping success who is headlining a New Year’s Eve 2016 TV special.  The taping of the show and the backstage shenanigans surrounding it drive the comic engine of My Big NightIn a special treat for Miami audiences, Raphael will appear in person at the screening to officially inaugurate this year’s Festival.

The film also stars Mario Casas, Santiago Segura, Carlos Areces, Blanca Suarez, Hugo Silva, Carmen Machi, Carolina Bang and many other talented Spanish stars. The title of the film is a reference to one of Raphael’s most famous songs, the 1967 hit “Mi Gran Noche.”

“Álex de la Iglesia has made a perfect pop movie with My Big Night,” declared the Festival’s executive director & director of programming Jaie Laplante.  “This riotously funny film is much more than one of the very best films by de la Iglesia, it is a party!”

The “party on screen” at the Olympia Theater at Gusman Center will continue after the film with an outstanding Opening Night party as the Festival returns to its traditional venue, the Historic Alfred I. Dupont Building.  The party promises to ring in the new Festival with glitz and cheer, boasting rocking music, cuisine, cocktails, and dancing, similar to a glittering NYE bash.  The events kick off the Festival’s CINEDWNTWN series, sponsored by Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.  Tickets for My Big Night + Opening Night Party are already on sale at www.miamifilmfestival.com

My Big Night is just the beginning of an outstanding selection of many of the biggest and most important films from Spain that will be featured at the 33rd edition of the Festival.  Festival organizers released a large portion of that slate today, continuing with three major US premieres that are all slated for the CINEDWNTWN GALAS PRESENTED BY MIAMI DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY program:

javier-camara-ricardo-darin-truman by Maku Lopez

  • Cesc Gay’s Truman, starring Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara, already heralded as a front-runner for the 2016 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards).
  • Emilio Martínez Lázaro’s Spanish Affair 2 (Ocho apellidos catalanes), the record-breaking sequel to Ocho apellidos vascos, the highest-grossing Spanish film of all-time at the Spanish box office.
  • Fernando González Molina’s Palm Trees in the Snow (Palmeras en la nieve), the epic, big budget adaptation of Luz Gabás’s sweeping romantic novel of Spanish Guinea in Central Africa. The highly anticipated film, also starring Mario Casas, is set to open in Spain on Christmas Day.

Six other Spanish feature films will also receive their US premiere at the Festival. They are:

  • Agusti Villaronga’s The King of Havana (El rey de La Habana), a scandalous adaptation of Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s scabrous 1999 novel, filmed in and co-produced with the Dominican Republic.
  • Federico Veiroj’s The Apostate (El apostata), winner of Miami’s 2015 post-production Encuentros prize sponsored by Knight Foundation, an eccentric comedy about a young Spaniard seeking to remove the official Catholic status from his birth records.
  • Paula Ortiz’s The Bride (La Novia), an earthy, sensual new adaption of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, starring Inma Cuesta and Álex Garcia. Both actors are familiar to Miami audiences from their 2015 Festival visits with their most recent films, Sidetracked and Kamikaze.
  • Daniel Guzmán’s Nothing in Exchange (A cambio de nada), the big winner at the 2015 Málaga Film Festival, the feature film directorial debut of the popular actor;
  • Juana Macías’ We Are Pregnant (Embarazados), a delightful romantic comedy with a swoon-inducing lead performance by Spanish heartthrob Paco León;
  • Gustavo Ron’s My Bakery in Brooklyn, featured as part of Lee Brian Schrager’s Culinary Cinema series

Additional majority Spanish production titles confirmed for the 2016 Festival include:

Still from Julio Medem’s Ma Ma

  • Julio Medem’s Ma Ma, starring Penélope Cruz
  • Gracia Querejeta’s Happy 140 (Felices 140), starring Maribel Verdú
  • Javier Ruiz Caldera’s Spy Time (Anacleto: Agente secreto), a big-budget adaptation of the popular Spanish comic strip character
  • The documentary Snacks, Bites of a Revolution, a look at the New Basque cuisine movement which so greatly influenced world culinary styles, part of the Lee Brian Schrager’s Culinary Cinema program
  • The world premiere of the short “The Lift” by Javier Polo, who previously presented his documentary Europe in 8 Bits to Miami audiences at the 2014 Festival

A seminar has also been confirmed:

  • “From Doodles to Pixels” presentation and screening with animators, in partnership with Centro Cultural Espanol (CCE), Accion Cultural Española (AC/E), and Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex (MAGIC) at MDC.

Several additional titles from Spain are expected to be confirmed for the Festival in time for the full program unveiling in January, once again affirming Miami International Film Festival’s status as the key portal in the United States for Spanish art and popular cinema.  Spanish programming at the Festival receives significant support from AC/E (Acción Cultural Española) of Madrid.

The 33rd annual Miami International Film Festival will take place March 4-13, 2016.  Advance ticket packages, plus tickets for the Opening Night Film and Party, are already on sale at www.miamifilmfestival.com or by calling 1-844-565-6433 (MIFF). For membership opportunities or more information, please email membership@miamifilmfestival.com or call 305-237-FILM (3456).

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

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At the end of June Spanish filmmaker David Trueba was in Miami to present his new film Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. I spoke to him via phone to discuss all the prestigious awards the film has won and how both John Lennon and the little known Spanish school teacher who met him inspired the film. The younger brother of Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), David seems incredibly grounded, and he brings that humility to his film craft.

Though it won six Goyas (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) in major categories, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, which Trueba wrote, the filmmaker maintains a healthy perspective on his film beyond the awards. “I try to do the film the way it needs to be done,” he declares, “so the awards for me are always a surprise and encouragement to keep doing what you have to do than compromising to whatever is the current fashion of film.”

He says his main source for inspiration comes from people, an apt detail considering the humanity at the heart of this film, which never feels overshadowed by both the celebrity of Lennon, who is never depicted on screen, nor the ominous shadow of Franco that feels ironic during the heyday of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Trueba says when he learned of Lennon’s presence in the narrative of his country it came as a surprise, and it sparked a curiosity that led to this film. “I’m usually attracted to characters more than plots or histories or anecdotes,” explains the filmmaker, “so in this case, I remember I was on holiday in the South of Spain, in Almeria. It was 2006, and they were presenting a monument to John Lennon, explaining he was there shooting a movie in 1966 [How I Won the War].”

Trueba notes Lennon was at an interesting place creatively, a bit exhausted with the fame of the Beatles and turning to acting to try something different. “He was very isolated at the time,” says the director. “He just finished a long, long tour with the Beatles.” However, the filmmaker never wanted to explore Lennon’s specific experiences in Almeria. He was more interested in presenting it as a backdrop to the adventures of a trio of characters who road trip to meet Lennon.

The travelers are composed of 18-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), who ran away from home after his father threatened cut his mop top; a young, pregnant woman (Natalia de Molina, who won Best New Actress Goya) looking for safe passage to her mother’s house; and the film’s lead: a bald, slightly chubby, bespectacled teacher named on Antonio (Javier Cámara, who won the Best Actor Goya). Antonio is based on a man some img1hardcore Beatles fans may know as a footnote in Beatles history: Juan Carrion. Trueba explains Carrion’s significance:  “He was teaching English with the lyrics of the Beatles, and he just made the trip to get to know John Lennon and ask about some lyrics he couldn’t understand, to translate, and at the same time forced John Lennon to put the lyrics on the albums because he was explaining to him that that was very important to him to motivate young students to learn.”

Trueba’s decision to create a fictional version of Carrion, who he notes only recently turned 90, and has become a friend, comes from the idea that the director did not to feel restrained by a slavish commitment to history, which might undermine his film’s message. “That was just a decision I made from the beginning because I didn’t know the guy,” says Trueba. “I was more interested in the story as a metaphor, and I didn’t want to make a story about this guy and investigate his personal life … and I didn’t want to make a film about John Lennon. I only wanted to use Lennon’s presence to illuminate the characters, the Spanish characters. I’m not trying to make a documentary of him or a biopic of him.”

Real life, however, still informs the movie on other levels. Fitting to Trueba’s interest in the more abstract elements inspiring his movie, the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” has an important presence in the film. It’s as witty as a shop keeper offering Antonio a giant crate of surplus strawberries for his road trip, but also as resonant as the film’s title, which alludes to a lyric in the song. The revelation that Lennon composed the song while shooting How I Won the War with director Richard Lester is a little-known fact. “At the time, [Carrion] didn’t know that Lennon was composing or had composed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Almeria,” notes Trueba, “and even Richard Lester, the director of the original movie they were shooting there. He got in touch with me after seeing the movie. He didn’t know that Lennon composed ‘Strawberry Fields’ during the shooting. That was something Lennon explained before he died in some interviews, so I use all these coincidences to make a stronger and more real film.”

You can read much more of my chat with Trueba on this film and see it’s trailer, by jumping through the Cultist logo below, where I first covered Trueba’s visit to Miami:

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Hans Morgenstern

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema through July 17. Visit gablescinema.com for details and tickets.

Update: The movie expands to O Cinema Miami Shores Thursday, July 17. Visit o-cinema.org for details and tickets.

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

Poster-art-for-Im-so-Excited_event_mainOnce again, work for “Miami New Times” is taking up my free writing time, but just as the band I interviewed last fits the Independent Ethos (The brothers of Inc. talk music with me in ‘Crossfade’/’Miami New Times’), so does this next subject: Pedro Almodóvar. I found his new film, I’m So Excited, to be his lightest in many years. I don’t think I’ve missed one of his movies since 1993’s KikaNot all of his films are perfect, and this new one falls more into his imperfect side. I prefer when he goes deep into the traumas that form our personas, like the recent Broken Embraces (2009) and Volver (2006). But then, that’s me. However, I’m So Excited is still better silly fun to be had in a movie theater than most dumb Hollywood comedies.

Speaking of Hollywood, when I interviewed two main actors in I’m So Excited, Javier Cámara and Blanca Suárez, I could not help but ask them what they thought of the difference in the treatment of sexuality in Hollywood versus a filmmaker like Almodóvar. You can read about their insightful reaction— from Cámara recalling his first experience watching an Almodóvar film to Suárez espousing on the director’s transgressive nature— in the resulting piece for the art and culture blog “Cultist” in the “Miami New Times” by jumping through the logo to the blog post below:

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Almodóvar also has a reputation for being very controlling, so I asked the actors about that. Here, at least, is a little exclusive outtake from the interview, which took place last month at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, off Brickell Key in Miami:

Hans Morgenstern: I was wondering, how much character Pedro gives you, and how much character you’re expected to bring for him, because he’s kind of controlling about that, isn’t he?

i-m-so-excited-image07Javier Cámara: Yeah, yeah, he’s really controlling. He knows more than you in four lives [about] a character. He’s wandering around these characters for years. I remember that he told us once, “Oh, I’ve written another script in two weeks,” and he begins to tell us the story, and [I said], “Pedro, how could you do that?” because we were shooting every single day, 12 hours, and [he replied], “Yeah, I need to write.” He’s writing the whole time.

Blanca Suárez:  He needs to [be doing something] all the time, and he does it, writing, and he doesn’t ever stop.

Cámara:  Normally, he offers you a lot of ideas, [like taking] some courses in Latin or pilot courses or choreographies or whatever. He gives you all the information. “What do you need?” and then [he says] ‘Surprise me,’ and all these flamboyant and queeny characters … you need to put all these emotions into this. And, yes, it’s in the lines, but you have to dig a little bit because it’s a light film, and he’s a very flamboyant and queeny and, “Oh, we are going to die; let’s drink.” It reminds me of some George Cukor film, for example,im-so-excited-blanca-suarez [The] Women, and I remember that Pedro, offered to us, to Carlos [Areces who plays another cabin steward] and I, a scene about … yeah, Mujeres, Mujeres de Cukor, and I remember that we were improvising a little scene from Women, and at the end he cut the scene, because it’s like, ‘OK. I can’t improvise more.’ But he’s always doing improvisation about films from this moment in the 40s and the 50s. For example, Anne Bancroft. He told me, ‘Don’t turn yourself into Anne Bancroft.’ His life is always in the 40s and the 50s with the comedy. He loves Lubitsch and Wilder and Cukor. He was talking constantly about film, and this kind of lightness, like, “Anything is important.”

You both enjoy going back to working with him?

Suárez:  Of course.

Cámara:  Always!

Hans Morgenstern

I’m So Excited is in Spanish with English subtitles, runs 90 min. and is rated R (for being too darn sexual for American kids). It plays in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. Sony Pictures Classics invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of these interviews

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)